The Cold War as a system of states ended on a cold and gray December day in Moscow in 1991, when Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Soviet Union out of existence. Communism itself, in its Marxist-Leninist form, had ceased to exist as a practical ideal for how to organize society.
“If I had to do it over again, I would not even be a Communist,” Bulgaria’s deposed Communist leader, Todor Zhivkov, had said the year before. “And if Lenin were alive today, he would say the same thing. I must now admit that we started from the wrong basis, from the wrong premise. The foundation of socialism was wrong. I believe that at its very conception the idea of socialism was stillborn.”
But the Cold War as an ideological struggle disappeared only in part, despite Communism’s implosion. On the American side, not so much changed on that day. The Cold War was over, and the United States had won it. But most Americans still believed that they could only be safe if the world looked more like their own country and if the world’s governments abided by the will of the United States.
Ideas and assumptions that had built up over generations persisted, despite the disappearance of the Soviet threat. Instead of a more limited and achievable American foreign policy, most policy makers from both parties believed that the United States could then, at minimal cost or risk, act on its own imperatives.
America’s post-Cold War triumphalism came in two versions. First was the Clinton version, which promoted a prosperity agenda of market values on a global scale. Its lack of purpose in international affairs was striking, but its domestic political instincts were probably right: Americans were tired of foreign entanglements and wanted to enjoy “the peace dividend.”
As a result, the 1990s was a lost opportunity for international cooperation, particularly to combat disease, poverty and inequality. The most glaring examples of these omissions were former Cold War battlefields like Afghanistan, Congo and Nicaragua, where the United States could not have cared less about what happened — once the Cold War was over.
The second was the Bush version. Where President Bill Clinton emphasized prosperity, President George W. Bush emphasized predominance. In between, of course, stood Sept. 11. It is possible that the Bush version would never have come into being had it not been for the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington carried out by Islamist fanatics (a renegade faction, in fact, of an American Cold War alliance).
The Cold War experience clearly conditioned the United States response to these atrocities. Instead of targeted military strikes and global police cooperation, which would have been the most sensible reaction, the Bush administration chose this moment of unchallenged global hegemony to lash out and occupy Afghanistan and Iraq. These actions had no meaning in a strategic sense, creating 21st-century colonies under the rule of a Great Power with no appetite for colonial rule.
But the United States did not act out of strategic purpose. It acted because its people were understandably angry and fearful. And it acted because it could. The Bush version was directed by foreign policy advisers who thought of the world predominantly in Cold War terms; they stressed power projection, territorial control and regime change.
The post-Cold War era was therefore not an aberration but a continuity and confirmation of an absolute historical purpose for the United States. Gradually, however, over the course of the generation that has passed since the Cold War, the United States has become less and less able to afford global predominance.
As America entered a new century, its main aim should have been to bring other nations into the fold of international norms and the rule of law, especially as its own power diminishes. Instead, the United States did what declining superpowers often do: engage in futile, needless wars far from its borders, in which short-term security is mistaken for long-term strategic goals. The consequence is an America less prepared than it could have been to deal with the big challenges of the future: the rise of China and India, the transfer of economic power from West to East, and systemic challenges like climate change and disease epidemics.
If the United States won the Cold War but failed to capitalize on it, then the Soviet Union, or rather Russia, lost it, and lost it big. The collapse left Russians feeling déclassé and usurped. One day they had been the elite nation in a superpower union of republics. The next, they had neither purpose nor position. Materially, things were bad, too. Old people did not get their pensions. Some starved to death. Malnutrition and alcoholism shortened the average life span for a Russian man from nearly 65 in 1987 to less than 58 in 1994.
If many Russians felt robbed of a future, they were not wrong. Russia’s future was indeed stolen — by the privatization of Russian industry and of its natural resources. As the socialist state with its moribund economy was dismantled, a new oligarchy emerged from party institutions, planning bureaus and centers of science and technology and assumed ownership of Russia’s riches. Often, the new owners stripped these assets and closed down production. In a state in which unemployment had, officially at least, been nonexistent, the rate of joblessness rose through the 1990s to peak at 13 percent. All this happened while the West applauded Boris Yeltsin’s economic reforms.
In retrospect, the economic transition to capitalism was a catastrophe for most Russians. It is also clear that the West should have dealt with post-Cold War Russia better than it did. Both the West and Russia would have been considerably more secure today if the chance for Russia to join the European Union, and possibly even NATO, had at least been kept open in the 1990s.
Instead, their exclusion has given Russians the sense of being outcasts and victims — which, in turn, has given credence to embittered jingoists like President Vladimir Putin, who see all the disasters that have befallen the country over the past generation as an American plot to reduce and isolate it. Mr. Putin’s authoritarianism and bellicosity have been sustained by genuine popular support.
The shocks of the 1990s have given way to an uninhibited cynicism among Russians, which not only encompasses a deep distrust of their fellow citizens but also sees conspiracies against themselves everywhere, often contrary to fact and reason. Over half of all Russians now believe Leonid Brezhnev was their best leader in the 20th century, followed by Lenin and Stalin. Gorbachev is at the bottom of the list.
For others around the world, the end of the Cold War undoubtedly came as a relief. China is often seen as a major beneficiary of the Cold War. This is not entirely true, of course. For decades, the country was under a Marxist-Leninist dictatorship that was out of tune with its needs. A result, during the Maoist era, was some of the most terrible crimes of the Cold War, in which millions died. But during the 1970s and ’80s, Deng Xiaoping’s China benefited hugely from its de facto alliance with the United States, both in security and development.
In the multipolar world now establishing itself, the United States and China have emerged as the strongest powers. Their competition for influence in Asia will define the outlook for the world. China, like Russia, is well integrated into the capitalist world system, and many of the interests of these two countries’ leaders are linked to further integration.
Russia and China, unlike the Soviet Union, are not likely to seek isolation or global confrontation. They will attempt to nibble away at American interests and dominate their regions. But neither China nor Russia is willing or able to mount a global ideological challenge backed by military power. Rivalries may lead to conflicts, or even local wars, but not of the systemic Cold War kind.
The ease with which many former Marxists have adapted themselves to post-Cold War market economics raises the question of whether this had been an avoidable conflict in the first place. With hindsight, the outcome was not worth the sacrifice — not in Angola, not in Vietnam, Nicaragua or Russia, for that matter. But was it avoidable back in the 1940s, when the Cold War went from an ideological conflict to a permanent military confrontation?
While post-World War II clashes and rivalries were certainly unavoidable — Stalin’s policies alone were enough to produce those — it is hard to argue that a global Cold War that was to last for almost 50 years and threaten the obliteration of the world could not have been avoided. There were points along the way when leaders could have held back, especially on military rivalry and the arms race. But the ideological conflict at the root of the tension made such sensible thinking very difficult to achieve.
People of good will on both sides believed that they were representing an idea whose very existence was threatened. It led them to take otherwise avoidable risks with their own lives and the lives of others.
The Cold War affected everyone in the world because of the threat of nuclear destruction it implied. In this sense, nobody was safe from the Cold War. The greatest victory of Gorbachev’s generation was that nuclear war was avoided. Historically, most Great Power rivalries end in a cataclysm. The Cold War did not, but on a couple of occasions, we were much closer to nuclear devastation than any but a few realized.
Why were leaders willing to take such unconscionable risks with the fate of the earth? Why did so many people believe in ideologies that they, at other times, would have realized could not possibly hold all the solutions they were looking for? My answer is that the Cold War world, like the world today, had a lot of obvious ills. As injustice and oppression became more visible in the 20th century through mass communications, people — especially young people — felt the need to remedy these ills. Cold War ideologies offered immediate solutions to complex problems.
What did not change with the end of the Cold War were the conflicts between the haves and the have-nots in international affairs. In some parts of the world today, such conflicts have become more intense because of the upsurge of religious and ethnic movements, which threaten to destroy whole communities. Unrestrained by Cold War universalisms, which at least pretended that all people could enter their promised paradise, these groups are manifestly exclusionist or racist, their supporters convinced that great injustices have been done to them in the past, which somehow justify their present outrages.
Often people, especially young people, need to be part of something bigger than themselves or even their families, some immense idea to devote one’s life to. The Cold War shows what can happen when such notions get perverted for the sake of power, influence and control.
That does not mean that these very human urges are in themselves worthless. But it is a warning that we should consider carefully the risks we are willing to take to achieve our ideals, in order not to replicate the terrible toll that the 20th century took in its quest for perfection.
Odd Arne Westad, a professor of United States-Asia relations at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, is the author, most recently, of The Cold War: A World History, from which this essay is adapted.