February 17, 2008

Cold War Redux

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I remember (or at least remember being told) that when the Soviet Union and Communist bloc fell, it was the end of history. The time afterwards was supposed to signal the end of human ideological evolution, with the world being defined by liberal democracy and market economies. The optimism was only matched by the belief that with the growing democratic “consensus” there would be the end of human conflict. Given the state of the world now, it’s hard to imagine that anyone believed it at the time. From Bosnia, to Rwanda, to the rise of Islamic terrorism around the world, it has been anything but a peaceful time. But one of the Cold War fault-lines, Eastern Europe, had remained calm–that is, until now.
The European Union and NATO expanded hand in hand into Eastern Europe during the 1990s while Russia, in the midst of economic and political crisis, was in no position to protest the shrinking of its sphere of influence. With the collapse of the Russian economy, among other factors, nascent Russian democracy fell victim to a virulent and aggressive strain of Russian nationalism. American policies in Central and Eastern Europe, in heart of the former Soviet bloc, have only added fuel to the fire and threaten to spark a new arms race. In fact, Russian President Vladimir Putin has already called the situation a “new arms race.” What led the Russian President to make such an inflammatory declaration so recently, in the year 2008? Well, the U.S. is planning to use Central and Eastern Europe as bases for the missile defense system, or Star Wars, another Cold War holdover. When tested, this missile defense system hasn’t shown any consistent ability to actually deflect attack, and one can only speculate that the amazing resilience of the program is tied to political concerns, including concerns over defense jobs in important states. But that’s another issue entirely. The one substantial effect of the program has been the aggravation of the Russians and increasingly aggressive policies from Moscow.
It seems that as we wrap up the first decade of the 21st century, we’re in fact back in the middle of the 20th, with increasing tension between the West and Russia. And we still have the same comfortable accessories, including NATO, an alliance that has lacked purpose since the fall of the Soviet Union. The rise of a new Russian nationalism also does nothing constructive for the future and only serves to divide Europe yet again. It seems as if we are trapped by our history; let’s just hope that we aren’t consumed by it.