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Anyone Miss the Cold War?

August 28, 2012

Michael Arnone ’15

Having lived my entire life in the two decades following the fall of the Iron Curtain, I find it difficult to fully grasp the disturbing realities of the Cold War.  But I, along with those in my generation, need not enroll in a history class to see how the collapse of the Soviet Union fundamentally altered the domestic politics and foreign policy of the United States.  America transitioned fairly well to the unipolar world that emerged in the 1990s—though being King of the Hill isn’t always a cake walk.  For the first time in half a century, American foreign policy decisions were no longer judged by how they would impact Soviet relations and the United States was without any major rivals on the world stage.  That of course has begun to change—specifically with the rise of China—but I posit that the loss of a relatively equal player in the Soviet Union has left an indelible mark on American politics whose long-term impacts are still uncertain.

In the immediate wake of the Second World War, it was clear that America could no longer afford to be a bystander in world affairs.  That simple reality was not universally accepted by our political leaders at the time—most notably in the isolationist wing of the Republican Party, whose opposition to American internationalism was blunted by a more moderate Eisenhower.  But in time both parties, regardless of their disagreements, could agree that the Soviet Union posed an existential threat to the United States.  One should note, however, that this transformation occurred during a far more moderate era of American politics when party ideologues were in the minority.  For the better part of half a century, both parties presented a unified front against the Soviet Union.  The specifics of the Cold War evolved over time, but the general theme remained the same—more or less—despite several changes of power between Republicans and Democrats.

That theme, however, changed during the Reagan administration from the more moderate policy of détente—in a word coexistence—to a policy rooted in the belief that the Soviet Union should be destroyed.  This development also coincided with a sharp ideological tack to the right by a Republican Party inspired by conservative Reagan rhetoric.  The inflamed ideology of the Reagan Revolution did not alone cause the implosion of the USSR, though it certainly hastened its demise.  But that same rhetoric that helped to end the Cold War may have damaged our politics in the process.

The Cold War provided a common issue on which both parties saw eye to eye.  And because nearly every decision of national scope was influenced by the Cold War, even domestic issues benefited from a certain amount of agreement from both sides.  The Eisenhower Interstate system was a product of this—created as a network of “defensive highways” by a Democratic Congress and a Republican President.  The Civil Rights Movement was feared by some as much for its potential for cultural change as it was for its potential to expose the US to Soviet subversion.  Those fears were never overt, but helped urge the passage of Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s.  In a nutshell, the common enemy of the Soviet Union encouraged political cooperation at home in light of an existential threat abroad.

Now that America lacks the external pressure provided by the Soviet Union to engender cooperation, our political parties have turned to fighting one another.  That did not happen the moment the Berlin Wall was torn down, rather it has been a gradual process.  The conservative ideology of the Reagan administration was met with a similar—though perhaps less severe—reaction from the Democratic Party.  That initial catalyst has propelled our parties further away from the center and further away from the majority of the American electorate—to the point of endangering our national interests.  Our elected leaders seem more interested in bickering with one another than leading America—and much of the world—in this relatively new unipolar international system.  There is more than one way of fixing this, most apparently by appealing to the majority of the American people who are disgusted by partisanship.  But it may be possible that the emergence of another world power could shock our parties into working together, though that is far from an ideal scenario.

Perhaps the rise of China isn’t such a bad thing after all?

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