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AND SO THE COLD WAR ENDED, much more abruptly than it began. As Gorbachev had told Bush at Malta, it was “ordinary people” who made that happen: the Hungarians who declared their barbed wire obsolete and then flocked to a funeral for a man who had been dead thirty-one years; the Poles who surprised Solidarity by sweeping it into office; the East Germans who vacationed in Hungary, climbed embassy fences in Prague, humiliated Honecker at his own parade, persuaded the police not to fire in Leipzig, and ultimately opened a gate that took down a wall and reunited a country. Leaders—astonished, horrified, exhilarated, emboldened, at a loss, without a clue—struggled to regain the initiative, but found that they could do so only by acknowledging that what once would have seemed incredible was now inevitable. Those who could not wound up deposed, like Honecker, or reviled, like Deng, or dead, like the Ceauşescus. Gorbachev, repudiated at home but revered abroad, consoled himself by founding a think tank.1 One of the questions the Gorbachev Foundation wrestled with, but never resolved, was: what did it all mean? The failure to find an answer was hardly surprising, for people who live through great events are rarely the best judges of their lasting significance. Consider Christopher Columbus, who might well have looked forward at some point during his life to the 500th anniversary of his great voyages, envisaging it as a celebration of himself, his men, and the ships they sailed, as well as the monarchs who sent them on their way. Columbus could hardly have anticipated that what historians would choose to remember, when the anniversary finally did roll around in 1992, was the near genocide he had set in motion by unleashing the forces of imperialism, capitalism, technology, religion, and especially disease upon civilizations that had few defenses against them.

Columbus’s reputation, in turn, would hardly have been what it was had it not been for the decision of the Hongxi emperor, in 1424, to suspend China’s far more costly and ambitious program of maritime exploration, thus leaving the great discoveries to the Europeans.2 A strange decision, one might think, until one recalls the costly and ambitious American effort to outdo the Soviet Union by placing a man on the moon, completed triumphantly on July 20, 1969. It had been, President Nixon extravagantly boasted, “the greatest week in the history of the world since the Creation.”3 But then, after only five more moon landings over the next three and a half years, Nixon suspended the manned exploration of space altogether, leaving future discoveries to be postponed indefinitely. Which emperor’s behavior will seem stranger 500 years hence? It is difficult to say.

Humility is in order, therefore, when trying to assess the Cold War’s significance: the recent past is bound to look different when viewed through the binoculars of a distant future. What seemed to contemporaries to be momentous issues may come to seem as trivial—and as incomprehensible—as Antarctic tourists might regard squabbles among indistinguishable penguins on drifting ice-floes. But the currents that cause historical drift will carry a certain meaning, since they will partly shape what is to come. So will drifters who hoist sails, rig rudders, and thereby devise the means of getting themselves from where they are to where they hope to go.

Karl Marx knew little about penguins, but he did acknowledge, in the sexist terminology of 1852, that “Men make their own history.” Ever the determinist, he hastily qualified the claim by adding that “they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past.”4 That was as far as the greatest theorist of inevitability was willing to allow departures from it: it could never be said of Marx that he relished spontaneity. His argument suggests a method, however, for distinguishing what is likely to be remembered about the Cold War from what future generations will dismiss as the incomprehensible squabbling of indistinguishable states, ideologies, and individuals. For events involving escapes from determinism—the hoisting of sails, the rigging of rudders, and the steering of courses never before set—depart from the “normal” in ways the future will not forget, even five centuries hence.

The most important departure from determinism during the Cold War had to do, obviously, with hot wars. Prior to 1945, great powers fought great wars so frequently that they seemed to be permanent features of the international landscape: Lenin even relied on them to provide the mechanism by which capitalism would self-destruct. After 1945, however, wars were limited to those between superpowers and smaller powers, as in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan, or to wars among smaller powers like the four Israel and its Arab neighbors fought between 1948 and 1973, or the three India-Pakistan wars of 1947–48, 1965, and 1971, or the long, bloody, and indecisive struggle that consumed Iran and Iraq throughout the 1980s. What never happened, despite universal fears that it might, was a full-scale war involving the United States, the Soviet Union, and their respective allies. The leaders of these countries were probably no less belligerent than those who had resorted to war in the past, but their bellicosity lacked optimism: for the first time in history no one could be sure of winning, or even surviving, a great war. Like the barbed wire along the Hungarian border, war itself—at least major wars fought between major states—had become a health hazard, and therefore an anachronism.5 The historical currents that produced this outcome are not difficult to discern. They included memories of casualties and costs in World War II, but these alone would not have ruled out future wars: comparable memories of World War I had failed to do so. J. Robert Oppenheimer hinted at a better explanation when he predicted in 1946 that “if there is another major war, atomic weapons will be used.”6 The man who ran the program that built the bomb had the logic right, but the Cold War inverted it: what happened instead was that because nuclear weapons could be used in any new great power war, no such war took place.7 By the mid-1950s these lethal devices, together with the means of delivering them almost instantly anywhere, had placed all states at risk. As a consequence, one of the principal reasons for engaging in war in the past—the protection of one’s own territory—no longer made sense. At the same time competition for territory, another traditional cause of war, was becoming less profitable than it once had been. What good did it do, in an age of total vulnerability, to acquire spheres of influence, fortified defense lines, and strategic choke-points? It says a lot about the diminishing value of such assets that the Soviet Union, even before it broke up, peacefully relinquished so many of them.

Satellite reconnaissance and other intelligence breakthroughs also contributed to the obsolescence of major wars by diminishing the possibility of surprise in starting them, and by eliminating opportunities for concealment in waging them. Surprises could still happen, like Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August, 1990, but only because the interpretation of intelligence failed, not its collection. Once the liberation of that country began early in 1991, Saddam Hussein found his military deployments so visible, and therefore so exposed to attack, that he had no choice but to withdraw. Transparency—a by-product of the Cold War strategic arms race—created a wholly new environment that rewarded those who sought to prevent wars and discouraged those who tried to begin them.

The Cold War may well be remembered, then, as the point at which military strength, a defining characteristic of “power” itself for the past five centuries, ceased to be that.8 The Soviet Union collapsed, after all, with its military forces, even its nuclear capabilities, fully intact. The advance of technology, together with a culture of caution that transcended ideology, caused the nature of power itself to shift between 1945 and 1991: by the time the Cold War ended, the capacity to fight wars no longer guaranteed the influence of states, or even their continued existence, within the international system.

A second escape from determinism involved the discrediting of dictatorships. Tyrants had been around for thousands of years; but George Orwell’s great fear, while writing 1984 on his lonely island in 1948, was that the progress made in restraining them in the 18th and 19th centuries had been reversed. Despite the defeats of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, it would have been hard to explain the first half of the 20th century without concluding that the currents of history had come to favor authoritarian politics and collectivist economics. Like Irish monks at the edge of their medieval world, Orwell at the edge of his was seeking to preserve what little was left of civilization by showing what a victory of the barbarians would mean.9 Big Brothers controlled the Soviet Union, China, and half of Europe by the time 1984 came out. It would have been utopian to expect that they would stop there.

But they did: the historical currents during the second half of the 20th century turned decisively against communism. Orwell himself had something to do with this: his anguished writings, together with the later and increasingly self-confident ones of Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov, Havel, and the future pope Karol Wojtyła, advanced a moral and spiritual critique of Marxism-Leninism for which it had no answer. It took time for these sails to catch wind and for these rudders to take hold, but by the late 1970s they had begun to do so. John Paul II and the other actor-leaders of the 1980s then set the course. The most inspirational alternatives the Soviet Union could muster were Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko, a clear sign that dictatorships were not what they once had been.

Meanwhile, communism had promised a better life but failed to deliver. Marx insisted that the shifts in the means of production would increase inequality, provoke anger, and thereby fuel revolutionary consciousness within the “working class.” He failed, though, to anticipate the kinds of shifts that would take place, for as post-industrial economies evolved they began to reward lateral over hierarchical forms of organization. Complexity made planning less feasible than under the earlier, simpler stages of industrialization: only decentralized, largely spontaneous markets could make the millions of decisions that had to be made each day in a modern economy if supplies of goods and services were to match demands for them. As a result, dissatisfaction with capitalism never reached the point at which “proletarians of all countries” felt it necessary to unite to throw off their “chains.” That became clear during the Cold War, and it did so largely because western leaders disproved Marx’s indictment of capitalism as elevating greed above all else. When set against the perversions of Marxism inflicted by Lenin and Stalin on the Soviet Union and by Mao on China—placing a ruling party and an authoritarian state in control of what was supposed to have been an automatic process of historical evolution—the effect was to discredit communism not just on economic grounds, but also because of its failure to bring about political and social justice. Just as a new world war did not come, so the anticipated world revolution did not arrive. The Cold War had produced yet another historical anachronism.

A third innovation followed: the globalization of democratization. By one count, the number of democracies quintupled during the last half of the 20th century, something that would not have been expected at the end of the first half.10 The circumstances that made the Cold War a democratic age remain difficult to sort out, even now. The absence of great depressions and great wars had something to do with it: the 1930s and early 1940s showed how fragile democracies could be when they were present. Policy choices also helped: promoting democracy became the most visible way that the Americans and their Western European allies could differentiate themselves from their Marxist-Leninist rivals. Education too played a role: levels of literacy and years spent in school increased almost everywhere during the Cold War, and although educated societies are not always democratic societies—Hitler’s Germany revealed that—it does appear that as people become more knowledgeable about themselves and the world around them, they also become less willing to have others tell them how to run their lives.

The information revolution reinforced the spread of democracy because it permitted people to inform themselves and react to what they learned more quickly than in the past. It became more difficult during the Cold War to withhold news about what was going on in the rest of the world, as well as to conceal what was happening within one’s own country. This kind of “transparency” provided new kinds of leverage against authoritarian regimes, as the Helsinki process dramatically illustrated. It also brought assurance, where dictatorships had been overthrown, that they would not return.

But democracies also took root because they generally outperformed autocracies in raising living standards. Markets do not always require democracy in order to function: South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and China all developed successful economies under less than democratic conditions. The Cold War experience showed, though, that it is not easy to keep markets open and ideas constrained at the same time. And since markets proved more efficient than command economies in allocating resources and enhancing productivity, the resulting improvement in people’s lives, in turn, strengthened democracies.

For all of these reasons, then, the world came closer than ever before to reaching a consensus, during the Cold War, that only democracy confers legitimacy. That too was a break from the determinisms of empires, imposed ideologies, and the arbitrary use of force to sustain authoritarian rule.

There was, to be sure, a great deal to regret about the Cold War: the running of risks with everyone’s future; the resources expended for useless armaments; the environmental and health consequences of massive military-industrial complexes; the repression that blighted the lives of entire generations; the loss of life that all too often accompanied it. No tyrant anywhere had ever executed a fifth of his own people, and yet the Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot did precisely this in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. The future will surely remember that atrocity when it has forgotten much else about the Cold War, and yet hardly anyone outside of Cambodia noticed at the time. There was no trial for crimes against humanity: Pol Pot died in a simple shack along the Thai border in 1998, and was unceremoniously cremated on a heap of junk and old tires.11 At least there was no mausoleum.

Still, for all of this and a great deal more, the Cold War could have been worse—much worse. It began with a return of fear and ended in a triumph of hope, an unusual trajectory for great historical upheavals. It could easily have been otherwise: the world spent the last half of the 20th century having its deepest anxieties not confirmed. The binoculars of a distant future will confirm this, for had the Cold War taken a different course there might have been no one left to look back through them. That is something. To echo the Abbé Sieyès when asked what he did during the French Revolution, most of us survived.

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