AT THE heart of the original Cold War was nuclear confrontation. In his 1945 essay “ You and the Atomic Bomb ,” which he wrote two months after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, George Orwell coined the term “cold war” to describe the new epoch that he saw emerging after the fall of Nazi Germany and the rise of the Soviet Union and the United States. He predicted that the bomb would “put an end to large-scale wars at the cost of prolonging indefinitely a ‘peace that is no peace.’” It was this very scenario that he depicted in his dystopian novel 1984, which drew on James Burnham’s Managerial Revolution and features Eurasia, Oceania and Eastasia in a permanent standoff several decades after an atomic war. Any actual conflicts or skirmishes take place in borderlands that are located well away from the three main empires.
This cold peace was pretty much what obtained after 1945 in international affairs. The two superpowers, the Soviet Union and United States, avoided direct conflict. Instead, they used proxy powers and national liberation movements, mostly located in the Third World, to try and shift the correlation of forces, as the Kremlin used to call it, in their favor, whenever and wherever they could. The territory under their direct control was off limits—the United States did not intervene during uprisings in the eastern bloc in East Germany, Hungary or Poland. The Kremlin confined itself to helping to fund communist parties in France and Italy, and to supporting the peace movement clandestinely. The peril of an atomic exchange was so immense that neither the Soviet Union nor the United States went to war over flashpoints such as Cuba and Berlin.
What Orwell did not anticipate was that one side, the Soviet Union, would collapse completely, leaving the other as Mr. Big. After 1989, a euphoric belief in a kind of Whig interpretation of history took hold in the West, in which the progress of liberal democracy was seen as inevitable—a credo that was encapsulated in Francis Fukuyama’s essay in the National Interest , asking, “The End of History?” At the time Fukuyama’s essay provoked furious ripostes, but this triumphalist doctrine was embraced by many neocons and reached its apogee in the 2003 Iraq War, when the George W. Bush administration proclaimed that regime change would lead to a democratic wave washing through the Middle East. In his second inaugural address in 2005, Bush drew an explicit link between America’s prosperity and security at home and the spread of democracy abroad. He said, in essence, that it was America’s duty and obligation to go in search of monsters to destroy:
“We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world. America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.”
When asked whether he had asked his father about going to war with Iraq, Bush responded, “He is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength. There is a higher power I appeal to.”
SINCE THEN, however, America’s promotion of democracy and wars of choice in the Middle East have boomeranged. The war in Iraq was a fiasco. Afghanistan is a quagmire. In America, terms such as “regime change” have fallen into disrepute. The West has lost its confidence. Populists are looking for a way to escape the iron cage of modernity. The era of Reagan and Thatcher proclaiming the verity of the free market and the expansion of freedom seems almost as remote as the scientific laws of history that Marxists once propounded.
Alas, it is authoritarianism, not democracy, that seems to be on the upswing. “Perhaps it is a universal truth,” wrote James Madison, “that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to provisions against danger, real or pretended from abroad.” It is a precept that a number of leaders are following as they point to foreign threats, above all those allegedly emanating from the United States. In China, President Xi Jinping has altered the constitution to transform himself into a “leader for life.” In Russia, Putin has been elected to a new six-year term, and will be in power until he is seventy-one, and perhaps well beyond.
In March, Putin made a point of declaring that Russia had developed new nuclear weapons that could evade any American defenses. He complained that Washington had been acting for years as though it could unilaterally dictate the terms of engagement between the two countries. “No one listened to us,” he said. “Listen to us now.” His grandiose mixture of threats and complaints, complete with a reference to a doomsday device that could shower radioactivity over the West Coast, inevitably brought to mind the prospect of a new Cold War, as well as memories of the older U.S.-Soviet confrontation, when films like Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe depicted the dire and unintended consequences that could result from an unrestrained arms race. In the latter film, the cold warrior and statistician Professor Groeteschele, played by Walter Matthau, asks,