Did the United States Really Win the Cold War?

A scuttled M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tank. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Marine Corps

The Cold War's conclusion should be viewed with less triumphalism.

Beyond being home to roughly 60 percent of humanity, the Asia-Pacific contains five countries—Australia, China, India, Japan, and South Korea—that are among the world’s top fifteen as measured by economic output and defense spending. If anything, the rationale for prioritizing the region is more compelling than when the Obama administration formally introduced the rebalance in January 2012; in the intervening five years, its centrality to the world economy has grown significantly, as has its importance in countering nuclear proliferation, maintaining macroeconomic stability and combating climate change. That the world’s future will increasingly be determined by what happens in the Asia-Pacific is one of the few propositions that commands widespread support across the political spectrum.

A Convergence of Stresses on the Liberal World Order

If the United States lacks a pressing threat to discipline its foreign policy, faces growing pressure from social media to address short-term crises instead of long-term imperatives and is unable to sustain the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific because developments in the Middle East and Europe continue distracting it, it would seem poised for growing, indefinite strategic disorientation.

What to do, then? Foreign-policy luminaries contend that the United States should undertake to renew the liberal world order. Henry Kissinger calls that task the “ultimate challenge to statesmanship in our time”; shortly before the election, Robert Zoellick explained that the new president’s first task would be to decide “if the U.S. should perpetuate the 70-year-old order.”  Most recently, Michael Mazarr argued that the Trump administration “will confront the most profound foreign policy task that any new administration has faced in 70 years: rethinking the role that the international order should play in U.S. grand strategy.”

The good news for the United States is that the quest to renew world order is not yet an exigent one, as there is no successor in the offing. Ironically, though, one of the greatest obstacles to that undertaking may well be the extraordinary success the current system has registered: having achieved its two foundational goals—preventing another war between great powers and another macroeconomic downturn on the scale of the Great Depression—it lacks imperatives of comparable gravity to impel its modernization. The present order was borne of cataclysmic carnage: World War II left some 60 million dead and laid waste to vast swathes of Europe and Asia. In an era of nuclear weapons, policymakers are far more likely to push for incremental improvements to an inadequate system than to risk a worse catastrophe in the quest for a more resilient architecture.

As a result, various forces have room to chip away at today’s order, rendering it vulnerable to gradual erosion. While there are few beneficiaries of the Middle East’s present degeneration, that phenomenon contributes to the impression of U.S. impotence in world affairs. While Russia cannot offer an overarching vision of world affairs, it can frustrate U.S. foreign policy in Ukraine and Syria and weaken transatlantic cooperation. While a Sinocentric conception is far from being distilled, let alone realized, China is steadily advancing ideas that could anchor one: antiseptic, economics-based diplomacy and infrastructure investment as an instrument of Eurasian economic integration, for example. While globalization is accelerating in a dizzying array of dimensions, the collapse of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the dimming prospects for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the resurgence of populist movements across the Western world suggest that it faces important challenges. And one cannot ignore that, for the first time in the postwar era, the United States has a president who explicitly questions the importance of America’s commitment to a liberal world order. Joseph Nye argues that that system “is facing its greatest challenges in generations,” largely because “the openness that enables the United States to build networks, maintain institutions, and sustain alliances is itself under siege.”

None of the preceding is intended to suggest some nostalgia for the Cold War. For nearly fifty years, the United States confronted an economic, military and ideological adversary that sought global preeminence; while there was, mercifully, no World War III during that period, tens of millions died in conflicts that fell below the threshold of a global conflagration; and the world lived under a nuclear sword of Damocles that could have killed hundreds of millions had it dropped. But with the United States struggling to apportion its strategic equities, and with the liberal world order facing a growing range of stresses, observers might consider viewing the Cold War’s conclusion with less triumphalism.

Ali Wyne is a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security and a security fellow with the Truman National Security Project.

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