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After the Cold War

“You can always rely on America to do the right thing. Once it has exhausted the alternatives.” Winston Churchill

At the time, I was mostly too young to comprehend the events of the late 1980’s and the end of the Cold War. There are a lot things about the era that I still remember however. I remember buzz words like perestroika and glasnost. I remember Reagan’s Berlin Wall address (video) and how he quieted the crowd with a softly spoken “Mr. Gorbachev,” paused and then raised his voice as he pleaded “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” I remember the cautious optimism of fall 1989 as the countries of Eastern Europe began to open up, culminating in seeing people standing on top of the Berlin Wall (video) hacking at it with a pick-axe. I remember the uncertainty surrounding the August Putsch and Yeltsin’s opposition (video). I remember how Scorpion captured the hope of the moment (video). Of course, some would say that Jesus Jones captured it better.

There is little doubt that, at the time, the end of the Cold War seemed to be a true historical turning point. For seventy some odd years, the world had endured what can only be described as one crisis after another. World War I. The Great Depression. World War II. The Cold War. The brink of nuclear annihilation. The societal upheaval of the Sixties.

The end of the Cold War brought renewed hope for the institution of the peaceful world order that failed to appear at the end of the second World War. Global security and prosperity would no longer need to be defined by the us versus them alliances which had defined the century.

And, just as the end of the Cold War began to inspire hope of some new better future, the Gulf War occurred, manifesting those lofty ideals in concrete action. For the first time, maybe ever, the entire world was united behind a common cause. The ousting of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait was tangible evidence that things had changed.

As President Bush opined, “What is at stake is more than one small country, it is a big idea — a new world order, where diverse nations are drawn together in common cause to achieve the universal aspirations of mankind: peace and security, freedom, and the rule of law.”

The world unity surrounding the Gulf War would not last however. More accurately, it couldn’t last. It was a unity based on the euphoria resulting from the fall of communism and the false impression of a “new world order.” The Gulf War was not the start of a great new era or historical turning point. It was merely the epilogue to the Cold War. It was not unlike the cliched last few minutes of a movie where everything is wrapped up in a nice little bow.

The adrenaline flowing from the end of the Cold War allowed the world to unite behind the Gulf War. It also disguised how tired the world really was. How tired the United States was. The twentieth century was an incredible time for the United States. At the beginning of the century the United States was a potential world power with strong isolationist tendencies. During a century upheaval, war and globalism, it had grown, sometimes reluctantly, into the sole superpower.

The United States had spent the last century fighting for economic and political freedom for many reasons. The belief in the universality of American ideals was one. Economic self-interest was another. Once the threats to the United States were gone, America’s will to solve the world’s problems waned.

This is not to say that the United States retreated entirely into its shell. Leading the world for the last half-century has, I think, ingrained in the American people the idea that we must take an active role in the world. The depth and breadth of support for that active engagement wanes and waxes over time however.

After the Cold War, reasons for engagement changed. The monolithic communist threat was gone. Military threats to the United States were minimal. The United States economic pre-eminence was unchallenged. During the 1990’s it would primarily but not exclusively be humanitarian concerns which would draw the United States to intervene militarily and politically in the world.

Even when the United States did engage the world however, there was a marked lack of resolve to its actions. The United States foreign policy in the 1990’s is littered with the remains of half-hearted engagement efforts.

That is not necessarily a criticism mind you. The United States found the will to do what it could. Even if we didn’t recognize it at the time, the United States was understandably weary following the Cold War. This weariness was coupled with a general lack of purpose to its engagement.

So, as the United States engaged the world in the 1990’s, it did so in a limited way. More conscious than it should have been of world (particularly European) opinion and a desire to avoid at all cost the loss of American lives.

It was clear that North Korea was a rogue state capable of almost anything. During the 1990’s we didn’t have the will or means to fully address the issue however. Consequently we ended up with the imperfect Agreed Framework.

We did what we could with the Israel situation, but that resolution would also be imperfect.

Mustering what will we could, augmented by shame and world prodding we did what we could in the Balkans. And in Somalia. And Haiti as well. But whenever possible, throughout the decade succeeding the Cold War, the United States and the other countries responsible for the existing world order retreated within their borders to regroup. We had help to create these problems and we hoped that they would go away without our intervention.

Simply put, at the end of the Cold War, the sole remaining super power had a unique opportunity to wield more power than any nation since the height of the British Empire. It found however that it was too weary to use that power except in situations where it had no other choice.

An era that at first appeared to be a historical turning point ended being just like most eras: a prisoner of the past.

Of course, we wouldn’t be addressing this issue if the United States’ limited engagement strategy had worked. And during that decade it did seem to be working. More and more nations were installing democratic governments. Freedom seemed to be spreading throughout the world.

Limited engagement would ultimately fail however. There were and are still too many problem spots in the world. Too many problem spots for which we bear some blame. Too many problem spots where the United States is blamed for no reason.

If 9/11 has had any positive effect on this country at all, it might be that the United States woke up to these realities. The hangover from the Cold War is gone. The lack of a sense of purpose is gone. A willingness to suffer some level of casualties has returned. After 9/11, the United States recognized the necessity of being fully engaged with the world.

Engagement can take many forms however. I spent that last few articles explaining why I thought that, in the initial aftermath of 9/11, that engagement required taking military action in Afghanistan and Iraq. What does it mean for the future however? How much has the Bush Administration damaged the United States’ standing in the world? How much has the problems experienced in Iraq diminished the American peoples’ willingness to be fully engaged with the world politically?

These are the choices that we, as a nation, will be allowed to make in the 2008 presidential election. In this election, we will choose not just our leadership, but we will also choose the ground upon which the debate about future international engagement is made. We will choose how engaged we are willing to be.

American Exceptionalism

In order to understand the choices we face and their potential outcomes, we must look at the American psyche. At the history of the United States and what America stands for.

Since its inception the United States has believed that it is unique. That it has a special purpose in the world. Americans have always assumed that their values and institutions are universally applicable. If the people of the world could just throw off the oppressive yolks of their governments, they would all want to be just like Americans.

Alexis de Tocqueville coined the phrase “American Exceptionalism” after touring the country in the early 1800’s. Its a phrase that has both positive and negative connotations. It is difficult to define because, like statistics, it can selectively be used to prove just about anything. The United States is the first and longest lasting democratic republic. It was the last industrialized country to abolish slavery. Its conquering of a continent was Manifest Destiny. It is religiosity combined with freedom of religion. It is individualism so ingrained that we get not only the American Dream, but relatively more crime and poverty than any other industrialized society. It is patriotism and a nation of immigrants. Its Hollywood. Its Wall Street. Its Silicon Valley.

The United States is a nation. America is a concept. An idea. A perception.

Brooks & Dunn Only in America

Marvin Gaye sings the Star Spangled Banner

Throughout the early years of its history, “America” was an internally focussed concept. As it existed in the rest of the world it mostly involved the idea of immigrating to the United States in search of a better life. It did not really contemplate the expansion of American life into other parts of the world.

Fortunately or unfortunately depending on your view, this changed during World War II. First during the war and then continuing afterwards, it became necessary for the United States to step fully onto the world stage and take a lead role. For the last seventy years the United States has led the world politically and economically. As this occurred, the idea of America evolved and became more outward looking. The United States looked to export the economic, political and cultural policies that constituted the concept of America.

There were bad aspects of this to be sure. Even when the self-serving nature of this export is taken into account however, I think that the world generally believes that the core concepts of the American ideal are more beneficial than harmful. More benign than malignant. Often self-serving and condescending to be sure. Mutually beneficial probably. Mistake ridden in the details. Largely correct in the abstract.

I think that it is a mistake however to place too much emphasis on the American people’s natural desire to be too heavily involved in the world. The people that are alive today, both in this country and abroad, have really only known a United States that is actively engaged with the world. A United States that actively leads the world.

This has not always been the United States’ way however. Up through the early parts of the last century, the United States was a fairly strongly isolationist country. Why was that? Because the United States thought that it was in its own best interest to be isolationist.

Why did the United States change its isolationist ways? Because the U.S. thought that it would be in its own best interest to be actively engaged in the world. Defeating Nazi Germany? In the United States best interest. Containing the Communist Bloc? In the United States best interest.

It would be foolish then to assume that the decisions that we make going forward are not going to be, at heart, in our own self-interest. Self-interest will play a significant role in determining the extent to which we continue to engage the world.

If you believe as I do, in the essential goodness of the ideas underpinning the American ideal, then this need not be a bad thing.

After Iraq

The upside of being the United States is that, because you are “America” and your ideals are “universal” you are given a pretty wide lattitude in the gray areas between right and wrong. That’s not to say that the nations of the world will continually look the other way as we bumble along. It does mean, I think, that we are allowed a do-over every now and then.

The Bush Administration’s inadequate attempts at foreign policy and our mostly unilateral action in invading Iraq has badly damaged the international standing of the United States. I understand and acknowledge this.

I do believe however that the idea of “America” and the things that it stands for still flickers in the hearts and minds of the people throughout the world. Even as the Iraq invasion has damaged the United States’ stature, “America” lives on. Damaged to be sure, but not to the extent that the United States has been. The United States is the Bush Administration. America is the people. Even if the nation and the concept cannot truly be extricated from each other, they often are in the minds of the world. Even here in this country, there is a perception that we can reclaim our mantle of world leadership via the 2008 presidential election.

Reclaiming that mantle is something the world needs us to do. We’ll talk next time about how the world needs the United States. What I’m saying here is that the world needs America. Not the country. The idea.

We’ve made our mistakes in Iraq. We’ve been chastened.

That doesn’t mean that we can back off from the responsibilities we face. America must stand at the forefront of world politics. A national debate about the how the United States engages the world is warranted and welcome given the mistakes of the last few years. The extent of that engagement should be clear however.

America has fallen off its horse. Now, we must do that most American of things: we must get back on.


Articles In This Series:
Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: The Wrong Reasons to Support the Iraq Invasion
Part 3: Invading Iraq Was the Correct Choice
Part 4: America Must Remain Motivated to Engage the World
Part 5: The United States Has the Means to Lead the World
Part 6: The 2008 Election is a Historical Inflection Point: Will the U.S. Change Direction?