We live in a world of unprecedented complexity, says one of the more common tropes in foreign-policy discourse. Commentators and government officials who subscribe to this view often use the Cold War as their point of comparison. From both sides of the aisle, they assert that the Cold War era, with its bipolar division between Washington and Moscow, was far simpler than our time, with its greater diffusion of power and broad range of “new” challenges.
An example of this tendency came recently, at incoming secretary of state John Kerry’s confirmation hearing at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In prepared remarks, Kerry looked back on the Cold War years:
Nearly 42 years ago Chairman Fulbright first gave me the opportunity to testify before this Committee during a difficult and divided time for our country. Today I can’t help but recognize that the world itself then was in many ways simpler, divided as it was among bi-polar, Cold War antagonisms. Today’s world is more complicated than anything we have experienced.
This conventional wisdom is not wholly wrong, but it is in need of a corrective on two counts. First, the world itself between 1945 and 1991 wasn’t really that simple; rather, Americans often imposed a simplistic framework on it. That is, American leaders and analysts looked at situations around the globe and evaluated them with reference to the long U.S.-Soviet standoff. In many cases, they were right to do so. But in others, this attitude led them to oversimplify or misread the situation at hand, with negative consequences for the United States.
Indeed, the best example of this kind of thinking backfiring was the very subject that John Kerry testified about forty-two years ago: the Vietnam War. As many others have observed, the principal mistake that American strategists made with regard to Vietnam was their failure to recognize that Ho Chi Minh and his North Vietnamese fighters were principally Vietnamese nationalists, rather than Communists whose real allegiance was to international Communism. As Kerry put it in his 1971 testimony:
We found that not only was it a civil war, an effort by a people who had for years been seeking their liberation from any colonial influence whatsoever. . . . We found most people didn’t even know the difference between communism and democracy. They only wanted to work in rice paddies without helicopters strafing them and bombs with napalm burning their villages and tearing their country apart.
But because U.S. leaders saw the unfolding Vietnam conflict in terms of the broader global struggle between Washington and Moscow, they expended much blood and treasure there, seeking to win a war that was in fact more or less irrelevant to the broader course of the Cold War.
Conversely, one of the major successes that the United States achieved during the Cold War came in a situation where Washington abandoned the idea that Communism was a monolith. This was the opening to China orchestrated by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in 1971–1972. In this case, these leaders saw that the PRC’s status as a Communist regime need not mean that it would inevitably be an implacably hostile enemy. The China rapprochement marked a significant shift in the global balance of power, helping Washington to put Moscow on the defensive in the Cold War even as it implicitly denied one of the basic tenets of the Cold War framework for looking at the world: that Communism had to be countered everywhere.
In short, the Cold War view offered a convenient and often a useful way for Americans to make sense of international affairs. But in some instances, most notably in Vietnam, it missed more than it clarified.
The second flaw in this narrative becomes clear when we examine the other argument that is typically made for why the world is more complicated today. Namely, proponents point to the range of security, economic and societal problems that leaders in the United States and elsewhere now have to take into account. As Kerry said last week:
Today’s world is more complicated than anything we have experienced – from the emergence of China, to the Arab Awakening; inextricably linked economic, health, environmental and demographic issues, proliferation, poverty, pandemic disease, refugees, conflict ongoing in Afghanistan, entire populations and faiths struggling with the demands of modernity, and the accelerating pace of technological innovation invading all of that, shifting power from nation-states to individuals.
However, a closer analysis reveals that many of these challenges are not new at all, and some were even worse problems during the Cold War era. Consider a few examples:
Nuclear proliferation . The question of how to stop other countries, especially those we saw as unfriendly or irrational, from obtaining nuclear weapons was a constant preoccupation during the Cold War. It was during this period that most of the countries in the world that currently possess nuclear weapons acquired them. And in particular, China in the 1960s was considered somewhat akin to North Korea and Iran today—a “rogue state” that many worried could not be contained or be responsive to rational calculations if it went nuclear. Indeed, the United States seriously considered the possibility of carrying out military strikes against China’s nuclear facilities to prevent it from doing so, in much the same way that some have advocated bombing Tehran’s facilities today.
Refugees. According to consolidated reports from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the number of refugees worldwide soared dramatically over the course of the Cold War, from about 1.65 million in 1960 to 17.8 million in 1992. It has since dropped to roughly 10.5 million today.
Conflict in Afghanistan . As is well known, Afghanistan has been through a wrenching series of wars since the 1970s, and it served as a Cold War battleground for a decade following the Soviet invasion in 1979. It may have been simpler then for American leaders because their goal—to bog down and bleed the Soviets—was more modest than today’s objective of leaving behind a functioning Afghan state that can take care of its own security. But the politics and warfare themselves in Afghanistan at the national, local and tribal levels were hardly straightforward in the 1980s.
Poverty. According to one estimate, in the early 1980s “more than half of all people in developing countries lived in extreme poverty. By 2005, this was down to a quarter.” Of course, global poverty remains a huge problem, but by any objective measure it was a greater one during the Cold War years.
To be sure, some factors have emerged in the past twenty years that are adding new levels of complexity. Probably the most significant one is the accelerating rate of technological change in a wide variety of areas (a subject Marc Goodman and Parag Khanna explored in the most recent issue of TNI), which is allowing individuals and nonstate actors to have a greater influence on international affairs than in previous times.
Yet, the dichotomy set up by Kerry and others between a “simple” Cold War and a “complicated” present is ultimately exaggerated. Many of the supposedly new complicating factors that according to this narrative make today’s world distinct were present throughout the Cold War years. In this telling of the story, those factors either disappear or are only treated with reference to how they affected the global struggle between the superpowers. It may be easier to devise a grand strategy in a situation with one overarching enemy and a series of lesser concerns than it is afterward, once you defeat the enemy and have to prioritize the second-tier challenges. But that doesn’t mean the world itself gets more complicated in that enemy’s absence.
Robert Golan-Vilella is an assistant editor at The National Interest.