Cold War Success Cost America Its Place in the Global Order


Cold War Success Cost America Its Place in the Global Order

After the Cold War, we thought that liberal democracy’s dominance was assured—no more work required, no more messy involvement in global affairs. We were wrong.

“What will we do, now that we’re losing our best enemy?” As the collapse of the Soviet Union became clear, the Pentagon rumor mill alleged that the chairman, Gen. Colin Powell, posed this question to trusted staff members. Perhaps it was apocryphal, but it did indicate reality through a concise question. The Soviet threat provided the organizing framework not only for our military planning, but also our foreign policy and a good bit of our domestic policies throughout the Cold War. Given the current disarray in our foreign policy, the global decline of democracy, the confusion among our various trade policies, questions about our alliances, and domestic polarization, it looks like we have not answered the question. What can bring us together?

Past success provides one answer. Once upon a time we forcefully birthed an unprecedented international system that created momentum for the spread of democracy, established positive incentives for nations to work with the United States, and discomfited autocrats by championing the virtues and values of freedom and representative government. Our “shining city on a hill” imagery spoke eloquently to oppressed people. The result was an economic boom, a wave of democratization, and victory in an existential struggle against Communism without yet another great-power global war. 

In the closing days of World War II, before we were assured that we’d win, a “second set of founding fathers” set up a global system that reflected our values, promoted international cooperation, ensured our security and provided a better alternative than the colonialism, imperialism, authoritarianism, Nazism, fascism, and predatory trade practices that twice brought global devastation.

A hastily organized July 1944 conference of more than seven hundred delegates from forty-four countries was held at the Washington Hotel in the New Hampshire town that gave its name to an agreement. The United States used its considerable leverage to drive to the Bretton Woods Economic Agreement of 1944.

Among its achievements:

  • International Monetary Fund
  • International Bank for Reconstruction and Development
  • The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which led to the World Trade Organization
  • Open markets, free trade, stable currencies and collective defense
  • End of economic nationalism and protectionism
  • Promotion of anti-colonialism and self-determination
  • Democracy promotion

The Bretton Woods Agreement did not meet with universal approval. The end of colonialism and imperial preference were bitterly opposed by our allies Great Britain and France. The old order did not die quietly, but it did die in India, Egypt, Africa, Asia and elsewhere.

In the wake of World War II we briefly enjoyed a “unipolar moment,” by virtue of our position as the only undamaged major power. It lasted a brief five years, as our major assumptions proved wrong. The Soviet Union and “Uncle Joe” Stalin did not prove cooperative. The Soviets blockaded West Berlin to force us out. We airlifted supplies to the population and stayed. The Soviets subjugated much of Eastern Europe and exploded their own atomic weapon. We assumed China would anchor stability in Asia, but the Communist rebellion defeated our wartime ally Chiang Kai-shek. USSR-backed forces in North Korea invaded South Korea, and U.S. military forces returned to Asia and Europe. 

But what did survive was the Bretton Woods agreements. 

In support of this new order we provided significant resources to Europe through the Marshall Plan to help her war-torn countries rebuild and resist Soviet Communist coercion. If Lend-Lease during the war was “the most un-sordid act in history” according to Winston Churchill, then the postwar Marshall Plan had to be a close second. 

Japan’s postwar constitution emerged in support of and in the spirit of the “Bretton Woods System.” This system allowed Japanese industry, talent, and devotion to the nation to achieve Asia’s first economic miracle.

This system is what allowed the United States and what was called “The Free World” to endure throughout the Cold War and its many hot campaigns and to prevail in the existential struggle with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics without yet another great power war. We succeeded by helping others to succeed. 

The collapse of the Soviet Union put “paid,” at least temporarily, to Karl Marx’s vision of Communism as global government. It also led us to believe—just as we did at the end of World War I and World War II—that there was nobody left to fight, no longer any challenge to the liberal democratic order.

One great scholar, Francis Fukuyama, declared:

“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

That was then. More recently, to his credit, he said:

“Twenty-five years ago, I didn't have a sense or a theory about how democracies can go backward. And I think they clearly can.”

In the heady post–Cold War atmosphere we once again felt the world was safe for democracy. We assumed that China’s reintegration into the global economic system would liberalize China as it became prosperous. We read positive motives in Deng Xiaoping’s personal diplomacy and cryptic statements: “to get rich is glorious” and “hide and bide.” But we were—until relatively recently—slow to notice that China, under Deng’s successors, was not fulfilling our hopes of the triumph of Western liberal democracy.

President Xi Jinping believes the state must have the strongest role, and that increasing economic power should drive political and military power. State control of economic power is China’s model. Xi wants to drive the United States away from Asian defense and trade. The “China model” of economic growth without political liberty is believed to be superior to the global order that we and our allies created.

As China rises, we’re losing what we gained. Freedom House declares that political rights and civil liberties have declined around the world over the past thirteen years. One-third of the Association of South East Asian Nations, ASEAN, the center of the world’s fastest-growing middle class, is dominated by Beijing.

Why did we lose our way? Because we thought that liberal democracy’s dominance was assured—no more work required, no more messy involvement in global affairs. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire, we, the United States, lost the object, the central organizing principle, that compelled, shaped and coordinated our policies and strategies. We have yet to replace it.

Our struggle against Communism inspired us to support human rights, democracy, and capitalism. We backed our principles with foreign aid and investment that developed both capabilities and capacity. We promoted unity and helped the world adopt a better way. Germany and Japan, recent enemies, became economic miracles. We spoke eloquently, through rhetoric and actions, to captive populations. South Korea moved from a military dictatorship to robust, vigorous democratic government. Taiwan ended martial law and military dictatorship to become another Asian democratic and economic success story.

Some who survived political captivity speak eloquently to us now. Natan Sharansky, a political prisoner of the Soviet Union for nine years, speaks about free societies, fear societies, and dictators:

“When we are unwilling to draw clear moral lines between free societies and fear societies, when we are unwilling to call the former good and the latter evil, we will not be able to advance the cause of peace, because peace cannot be disconnected from freedom.”

“The only peace that can be made with a dictator is one that must be based on deterrence. For today, the dictator may be your friend, but tomorrow he will need you as an enemy.”

We must recognize that we, and our democratic allies and partners, are in an existential contest with those who seek lifetime tenure, expanding territory, total authority, state-controlled economies, and obedient subjects. We need to realize that peace, freedom, and a lawful world order will not exist without U.S. leadership and support.

Fortunately, we have recent guidance that speaks to this.

Our most recent National Security Strategy published in 2018 is one such recent document. It speaks to the universal values and principles that are the foundation of our power and leadership. It bears a striking similarity to the spirit of Bretton Woods that got us, and the Free World, through the Cold War without another global war.

It’s a quick read by government document standards, at less than sixty pages. It says, in part:

“Around the world, nations and individuals admire what America stands for. We treat people equally and value and uphold the rule of law. We have a democratic system that allows the best ideas to flourish. We know how to grow economies so that individuals can achieve prosperity. These qualities have made America the richest country on earth—rich in culture, talent, opportunities, and material wealth.”

“We will continue to champion American values and offer encouragement to those struggling for human dignity in their societies. There can be no moral equivalency between nations that uphold the rule of law, empower women, and respect individual rights and those that brutalize and suppress their people. Through our words and deeds, America demonstrates a positive alternative to political and religious despotism.”