We’re hearing more and more pundits suggest that the war of words (and some actions) that Putin has launched against Obama is a leading indicator of a new Cold War. That led me to wonder: so what? And then I started to think that maybe a new Cold War wouldn’t be a bad thing at all for the U.S. Here’s my thinking:
The Cold War neither started nor ended with any specific event on any specific date. Generally it started a couple years after World War II and ended about 1990 as the USSR began to dissolve. The consequences to the USSR upon the loss of the Cold War are pretty clear: among other dire events, their empire imploded, they lost their status as one of the world’s two superpowers, and Russia fell into an economic catastrophe worse than the U.S. Depression. But what were the consequences to the winner – the U.S.?
WINNING THE COLD WAR MADE US LOSE OUR DEFINITION OF OUR OWN NATION. The U.S. self-image during the Cold War was pretty clear: “we’re not them.” The U.S. was defined not so much on the basis of what we stood for, but on the basis of what we stood against. We stood against communism. We stood against belligerent behavior to our own people and to other nations. We stood for NATO because NATO stood militarily against the USSR. Because we stood against our Cold War enemy, we were driven to beat them: we were dismayed when they beat us to space but then triumphed by being first to the moon. We beat them at our standard of living. We beat them in innovation, medical research, the development of new technology. But, when the Cold War was over we could no longer define ourselves as “we’re not them.” When we could no longer define ourselves by virtue of what we are against we had to define ourselves by virtue of what we are for.
That meant that we had to define ourselves. But we didn’t do that. We no longer were driven by certain principles and ethics. We became driven not by “we hold these truths to be self-evident” types of statements, but by raw human motivations including an unfettered pursuit of money, power and wealth, which has now become manifested in the creation of “The One Percent” and the erosion of the hopes and status of the middle class. We ignored addressing policies that we were for and never re-defined and modernized our core beliefs. Just consider how we have failed to come to grips with the basic question of whether we are philosophically for all our citizens to have access to medical care – and how long we have allowed that to remain an unanswered question. During the Cold War, we waged a domestic war on our own poverty, but now we hardly address whether or not we are for eliminating poverty in our nation. Without the challenge of the Cold War, we no longer had any motivation to be for our space program; so we allowed it to wither, creating a long goodbye not only to great moments of national pride but an amazing array of spin-off benefits. Without the Cold War’s need to be for a brilliantly educated nation to compete against the USSR, we never defined just what the goals and standards of our educational system should be. Rather, we allowed one shallow idea to meet topical political needs to be replaced by yet another shallow idea to meet new topical political needs.
At the same time, we “solved” problems without even thinking of what our “solutions” meant to our national sense of standards. For example, we built more and more prisons and jails as a knee-jerk reaction to crime but we never really stopped to consider whether we wanted the U.S. to become the world’s most imprisoned developed nation. We became expert at “kicking the can down the road” because we haven’t been for anything strong enough so that action would overcome apathy. So, for example, we’ve never been for improving our infrastructure enough to halt the ongoing deterioration of our roads, bridges, airports, etc. to third world status even as the cost to fix the situation escalates. Now, we are left with no real sense of what our nation is all about and where it is going. Our aspirational slogans (e.g., “Ask not what your country can do for you …” or “the shining city on the hill …”) have been replaced with new “aspirational” statements with no real meaning such as “hope and change” (really?). We have simplistic answers to complex problems (just consider the issue of immigration). And we still have no real direction on basic issues such as how we deal with environmental challenges. Mostly, we no longer have an “American Dream” – can you define one that most people relate to? We have no American Dream because we have no American sense of self because we have failed to define ourselves in any terms other than “we’re not them.”
WE HAVE BECOME THE WORLD’S ONLY SUPERPOWER AT THE SAME TIME THAT WE HAVE ABDICATED OUR LEADERSHIP ROLE/RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE WORLD. Could you imagine any president during the Cold War suggesting that “leading from behind” is an actual policy? Well, when you don’t have a set of standards and collective goals – a definition of who we are and what we are for – how can you lead any other way? After all, if you can’t say, “We believe in this and we will act accordingly and without compromise,” you’re left with “We see this happening and we will decide how we may or may not respond based on how the situation evolves and what we might be able to do about it given our resources and the direction of polls.”
SO: HOW CAN THOSE ISSUES BE OVERCOME? A NEW COLD WAR MAY BE JUST THE THING WE NEED.