Coping With Victory

Now that the United States and its allies have prevailed in the Cold War, the West must think seriously—and quickly—about how to avoid squandering the opportunities at hand


ONE DAY IN SEPTEMBER OF 1946 AN AS yet little-known George F. Kennan found himself trying to explain to State Department colleagues what it was going to be like to deal with the Soviet Union as the other great power in the postwar world. Traditional diplomacy would not impress Stalin and his subordinates, Kennan insisted: “I don’t think we can influence them by reasoning with them, by arguing with them, by going to them and saying, ‘Look here, this is the way things are.’” They weren’t the sort to turn around and say, “By George, I never thought of that before. We will go right back and change our policies.”

But by last year leaders of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were saying something very much like that. Once confident of having mastered the “science” of politics and history, the successors to Lenin and Stalin have had to acknowledge that the system those “founding fathers” imposed on Russia after the First World War and on its neighbors after the Second World War simply has not worked. They have now in effect turned to the West and said, “Tell us what to do. We will go right back and change our policies.”

We have witnessed one of the most abrupt losses of ideological self-confidence in modern history. The once impressive facade of world communism no longer impresses anyone: those who lived for so long under that system have at last, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Qz, looked behind the curtain; they have found there, frantically pulling the levers, pumping the bellows, and pontificating into the speaking tubes, a few diminutive and frightened humbugs. As a result. Eastern Europe has come to resemble the stage set for Les Misérabtes, but with the revolutionaries this time winning. And most remarkably of all, it is the leader of the Soviet Union itself—the current chief wizard, if you will—who seems to be playing simultaneously the roles of Dorothy and Jean Valjean.

The resulting situation leaves the United States and its allies—preoccupied so recently with visions of American decline—in a position of great and unexpected influence. For not only have we prevailed, by peaceful means, over our old Cold War adversaries; it is also the case that for the first time in more than a century there is no clear challenger to the tradition of liberal democratic capitalism according to which this country and much of the rest of the West organizes itself. We are at one of those rare points of leverage in history when familiar constraints have dropped away; what we do now could establish the framework within which events will play themselves out for decades to come.

Unfortunately we are almost certainly not up to this task. There exists in the West something we might call the dog-and-car syndrome; the name refers to the fact that dogs spend a great deal of time chasing cars but very little time thinking about what they would actually do with a car if they were ever to catch one. Our leaders are not all that different: they pour their energy vigorously into the pursuit of victory, whether in politics or in war, but when victory actually arrives, they treat it as if it were an astonishing and wholly unforeseen development. They behave like the senator-elect in Robert Redford’s movie The Candidate when he takes an aide aside at the victory celebration and asks incredulously, “What do we do now?”

If history is any guide, what we will probably do is fritter away the fruits of victory by failing to think through what it is we want victory to accomplish. The Athenians defeated the Persians in the fifth century B.C. only to defeat themselves through their own subsequent ambition and arrogance. The Turks spent centuries trying to take Constantinople for Islam only to see world power passing at the moment of their triumph, in 1453, to secular European states for whom the question of which faith ruled the “Eastern Rome" meant very little. The British drove the French from North America in 1763 but then alienated their own colonists, who in turn drove them out of their most valuable possessions on that continent. Victory in the First World War brought only dissension and disillusionment among the victors, and a purposeful urge for revenge among the vanquished. An even more decisive victory in the Second World War produced a long, costly, and nerve-wracking Cold War for those who won, and the mutually reinforcing benefits of peace and unprecedented prosperity for those who lost.

This depressing pattern of victories gone awry is almost enough to make one wish we were commemorating Cold War defeat. It certainly ought to make us think seriously, and rather quickly, about how not to squander the opportunities that now lie before us.

WE SHOULD BEGIN BY RECALLING THAT THE COLD War was a new kind of great-power rivalry, one in which the possibility of going to war always existed, but in which the necessity for doing so—at least in a form that would pit the Soviet Union and the United States directly against each other—never arose. As a result, that conflict took on the paradoxical character we associate with the name history has given it: the Cold War contained most of the anxieties, animosities, and apocalyptic exhortations that one tends to find in “hot" wars, but without the rubble or the body count. In time people became so used to this situation that some, myself included, began using the equally paradoxical term “long peace" to characterize it. Whatever the merits of the label, the importance of what it describes ought not to be minimized: a great-power competition carried on without great-power war is a distinct improvement over the way most such rivalries have been handled in the past.

But we also need to remember that the long peace grew out of a relationship between two superpower adversaries. If they are no longer to be adversaries—or if one of them is no longer to be a superpower—then the conditions that gave us the long peace will change. We need to make sure as we put the Cold War behind us that we do not also jettison those principles and procedures that allowed it to evolve into the longest period of greatpower rivalry without war in the modern era. If a long peace was in fact the offspring of the Cold War, then the last thing we should want to do, in tossing the parent onto the ash heap of history, is to toss the child as well.

We will need a strategy that does not waste time and energy trying to turn back irreversible changes, but also one that is imaginative enough to find ways, within the limits of what is possible, to preserve the stability the Cold War has given us. The very concepts we employ in thinking about international affairs grew out of the now antiquated circumstances of superpower rivalry: if all we do is to apply old categories of thought to the new realities we confront—if we limit ourselves to trying to teach new dogs old tricks—we could find our approach to world politics to be as outdated as was the approach that certain now-defunct Marxist regimes took toward their own internal affairs prior to 1989.

The following are some new issues we will face as we seek to extend the long peace beyond a Cold War the West has now won. Old answers will not suffice in dealing with them.


THE MOST ASTONISHING FACT FACING US AS THE 1990s begin is that we can no longer take for granted the continued existence of the USSR as the superpower we have known throughout the Cold War. Its economy is in ruins; its government is unsure of its own authority; its leaders confront nationalist pressures far more deeply rooted than the “socialist” values the Soviet state has been trying to implant for more than seven decades. There are those in the West who welcome these developments as the consummation of a wish long and devoutly held. Second thoughts, one hopes, will produce more-mature reflections.

Among them should be the realization that it takes two to tango, and that the United States has no particular reason to want to conclude the bipolar superpower dance that has been going on since 1945. For by comparison with the multipolar international systems that preceded it, Cold War bipolarity has served the cause of peace remarkably well: the First and Second World Wars arose from failures of communication, cooperation, and common sense among several states of roughly equal strength, not from situations in which two clear antagonists confronted each other. The relative simplicity of postwar great-power relations may well have made possible their relative stability, and a situation in which the Soviet Union is no longer such a power would mean an end to that arrangement. War might not result, but instability, volatility, and unpredictability almost certainly would.

It is also worth noting that military hardware does not simply vanish into thin air as a nation’s position in the world declines, or as its internal authority crumbles. The means by which a new war could start—and indeed, with nuclear weapons, the means by which we ourselves could be destroyed—will remain in the hands of whoever rules the Soviet Union. If that country should break apart, these lethal instruments might well come under the control of competing factions whose caution with respect to their use might not exceed the intensity of the rivalries that exist among them.

We confront, then, an apparent paradox: now that we have won the Cold War, our chief interest may lie in the survival and successful rehabilitation of the nation that was our principal adversary throughout that conflict. But a historian would see nothing odd in this: Napoleon’s conquerors moved quickly to reintegrate France into the international community after 1815; Germany and Japan received similar treatment after their defeat in 1945. It was the failure to arrange for Germany’s reintegration after the First World War, some scholars have argued, that led to the Second World War. Power vacuums are dangerous things. Solicitude fora defeated adversary, therefore, is not just a matter of charity or magnanimity; it also reflects the wise victor’s calculated self-interest, as confirmed by repeated historical experience.

But to say that the United States should seek the survival and rehabilitation of the Soviet Union is not to say that we should do so in its present form. That country’s future is in question today not because anyone has attacked it but because its own internal structure has proved unworkable. If the USSR is to recover, it will have to change that structure; the only question is how. And although the Soviet people themselves will, in the end, decide that question, we in the West are not without influence in the matter: consider the regularity with which Soviet officials now solicit our advice.

Americans have long questioned the wisdom of trying to maintain multinational empires against the will of their inhabitants. The collapse of the Russian, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian empires during the First World War vindicated that skepticism, as did the dismantling of the British, French, Dutch, and Portuguese empires after the Second World War. Soviet officials have argued, of course, that the analogy is imperfect, that their non-Russian republics are not colonies at all but rather constituent parts of the USSR, linked to it by their own free will. But the French used to insist, with equal lack of credibility, that Algeria was part of France itself and content to remain so. A mother country’s claims of filial devotion do not establish its existence.

The French experience also shows how close a state can come to destroying itself by trying to hang on to an empire for too long. It would hardly strengthen the Soviet Union to have several simultaneous insurgencies going on within its borders; just one, in Algeria, was enough to persuade that most imperious of modern statesmen, Charles de Gaulle, that imperial devolution had its advantages. France’s position in the world has hardly declined since then, and many of its former colonies have chosen to maintain economic, linguistic, and cultural ties with their former ruler—as have many of Great Britain’s—even as they have broken political ties. Denying autonomy ensures the absence of allegiance; allowing it at least leaves possibilities open.

A Russia that embraced a De Gaulle solution would remain a great power: even if the Russian federal republic alone were all that survived under Moscow’s rule, it would still control 76 percent of the land area and 52 percent of the population of the present USSR. Bloated boundaries have never provided very much security in a nuclear age in any event, but with nationalism rampant and with the means of suppressing it no longer effective, they are certain in the future to provide even less.

It would appear to make sense, therefore, for the United States to favor as much of a breakup of the Soviet Union as would be necessary to leave it with a reasonably contented as opposed to a disaffected population, precisely because we should want to see that state survive as a great power. And who knows: in a post-Cold War world Kremlin leaders might actually acknowledge the sincerity of our motives in taking such a position (although we should probably not count on that).


AS AREAS OF AGREEMENT IN SOVIET-AMERICAN relations have expanded, the occasions on which either side has felt the need to deter the other have become rare, and that trend has in turn raised the possibility of getting by with far fewer nuclear weapons and delivery systems than each side has now. Reductions have already begun, and there is every reason to think that they will continue.

We and the Russians would do well, though, to resist the temptation to abolish nuclear weapons altogether, or even to reduce our stockpiles to a level approximating that of the next largest nuclear power. The reason for this is simple: nuclear weapons have played a major role in bringing about the evolution from Cold War to long peace. They have made each side think twice before taking action that might risk war; they have served as a kind of crystal ball into which statesmen can look to see what the consequences of a future conflict will be, and that vision has induced caution.

Nuclear weapons also sustained Soviet-American bipolarity beyond the time that it might otherwise have been expected to last. Given the Soviet Union’s chronic economic difficulties, its claim to superpower status would have lost credibility long ago had that country not possessed a tremendous nuclear arsenal. But because of the stability that bipolarity brings, it is not at all clear that the world would have been a more peaceful place had the USSR become an “ordinary” power.

The relationship between nuclear weapons and superpower status is, to be sure, poorly understood. No one has ever been quite certain how to define just what a superpower is, apart from this characteristic of having a large number of nuclear weapons. But no one has ever been quite certain either just how nuclear weapons made the United States and the Soviet Union superpowers in the first place. What we do know is that the caution nuclear capabilities encourage and the bipolarity they sustain have created the framework for a reasonably stable international order. It might be best not to inquire too deeply into how.

Witch doctors, after all, produce their cures largely by psychological effect: their powers evaporate if examined too closely. The psychological effects that nuclear weapons have provided may well have cured the great powers of a very dangerous illness indeed, which was their propensity to rush blindly into wars without considering the consequences. We would do well to accept this result gratefully, and without challenging too directly the means by which it has been brought about.

It would be to the advantage of the United States and the Soviet Union, therefore, to retain their nuclear superiority over the rest of the world, albeit at much reduced levels, and with maximum cooperation to avoid surprises and accidents. But we might well rethink targeting doctrines, for as the physicist Freeman Dyson has wisely observed, just because a nation has nuclear weapons does not mean that it has to point them at anyone in particular. Their purpose, rather, should be to maintain a healthy fear of incautious action on the part of everyone, and a healthy respect for a major method by which we have achieved a long peace. If that fear and that respect come from the contemporary technological equivalent of rattling bones and chanting incantations around a campfire, then so be it.


IF THE SOVIET UNION AND THE UNITED STATES ARE no longer to confront each other as adversaries, then the original purpose of NATO and the Warsaw Pact—deterring military attack—will have passed away. It is worth recalling, though, that these alliances had secondary purposes as well: both were intended to overcome old nationalist rivalries in Europe; both were instruments by which the superpowers sought to integrate those portions of Germany that they controlled into those parts of Europe that fell within their influence. The two alliances served as stabilizers in that they brought a certain order and predictability to Europe; and although that stability was not always based on justice— witness Soviet behavior in Eastern Europe—it did secure peace for almost half a century on a previously warprone continent.

But with self-determination triumphant among former Soviet satellites and with German reunification imminent, we wilt soon confront a task quite unfamiliar to our generation (although not to those of our parents and grandparents), which is cartographic revision: the map of post-Cold War Europe is not going to be the one to which we have become accustomed since the end of the Second World War. Soviet-American rivalry, it is now apparent, simply suppressed nationalism in Europe; it did not end it, and it will not take long for the effects of resurgent nationalism, both in reality and on maps, to manifest themselves. Europeans are entering uncharted territory, and in such circumstances it may be wise to hold on to what is familiar, even if it is a bit out of date.

We should therefore seek to preserve the secondary stabilizing functions of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, even as their original deterrent purposes disappear. It is always easier to modify existing institutions than to create new ones; preserving the Cold War alliances but shifting their roles could ensure that resurgent European nationalism does not, in these new and volatile circumstances, once again get out of control.

One way to accomplish this might be for a reunified Germany to link itself to both alliances at the same time. Such a solution would have seemed ludicrous when NATO and the Warsaw Pact confronted each other as Cold War adversaries, but is it so implausible in a post—Cold War era? People have learned to live with stranger things: consider what happened to Germany itself, and to its former capital, in the years that followed the Second World War. If one keeps in mind that we are talking about a world in which once-competitive alliances have taken on the common task of preserving the stability Europe achieved during the Cold War—and if we remember that stability will be the prerequisite for any Europe-wide economic integration—then it might well be possible to persuade both East and West Germans that reunification would best proceed under the sponsorship of both alliances, and perhaps even with the continued stationing of at least a token number of Russian and American troops on German soil.

Cooperation between NATO and the Warsaw Pact to bring about the orderly reunification of Germany would have additional advantages as well. It would provide a new basis for legitimizing the Pact in the eyes of Eastern Europeans, who have tended to see that organization until now—with good reason—only as an instrument of Soviet oppression. With that legitimacy, the Warsaw Pact could then take on another useful function, which would be that of mediating potentially dangerous disputes in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, in much the way that NATO has successfully managed the long-standing antagonism between Greece and Turkey: the bitter conflict between Hungarians and Romanians over Transylvania is only one of several unresolved issues in that part of the world which ought to remind us of how easily self-determination can lead to conflict. A reinvigorated Warsaw Pact could also help sustain at least a semblance of superpower bipolarity in Europe: NATO will probably survive whatever happens, but it is not clear what the effect on European stability will be if that alliance lacks a viable counterpart.

The old meaning of sovereignty will not suffice in dealing with the resurgence of nationalism in Europe: too many Europeans—and non-Europeans as well—have suffered from its excesses to be denied an interest in seeing to it that old evils do not return. The Gold War experience, for all its danger, illogic, and injustice, provided a valuable opportunity for Europeans to mature, to put away those irresponsible practices that dragged their continent into war twice during the first half of this century. Keeping NATO and the Warsaw Pact around for a while — even if their role resembles that of nursemaids more than that of warriors—might be the best way to reassure all concerned that this process of becoming wise will continue.


ECONOMIC DISTRESS OBVIOUSLY ENCOURAGES political instability: as Paul Kennedy, the Yale historian, has pointed out, uneven rates of economic and technological development are what cause great powers to rise and fall. If one accepts the argument that the United States and its allies should want Russia to remain a great power, then it would hardly make sense to welcome an economic collapse there or in Eastern Europe, however misguided the policies were that produced that prospect.

But the West has an ideological as well as a material interest in wanting to see perestroika succeed: the cause of democracy throughout the world can only prosper if that ideology—and not Marxist authoritarianism—provides the means by which the USSR and its neighbors at last achieve economies capable of satisfying the needs of their peoples. And if the emergence of even partly democratic institutions inside the Soviet Union makes the prospect of war less likely—there is strong historical evidence that democracies tend not to fight each other— then that would be an important reinforcement for the role nuclear deterrence has already played in discouraging the incautious use of military force.

Few people today remember that a similar combination of geopolitical and ideological motives impelled Secretary of State George C. Marshall in 1947—at Kennan’s suggestion—to offer to include the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the plan for economic assistance that came to bear Marshall’s name. Stalin, with characteristicshortsightedness, rejected the idea, and the Marshall Plan went on to become a program for the rehabilitation of Western Europe—one that was so successful that editorial pages ever since have resounded with calls for its revival, however dissimilar the circumstances might be to those that existed at the time of its creation.

Now, though, the way is open to implement Marshall’s original vision. For although it lies beyond the power of anyone in the West to ensure the success of economic reforms in either the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe, those countries are already asking the United States to provide much of the training and technology without which failure will be certain. We will need to think carefully about just what we can do, and how we should do it.

One thing is apparent at the outset: any new aid program for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe will have to be multinational in character. The United States is well beyond the point at which it can take on a burden of this magnitude by itself, as it did in 1947. Fortunately, though, it can now enlist the very considerable resources and skills of former recipients of Marshall Plan aid in Europe, notably West Germany, and also those of Japan, another past beneficiary of American assistance. All these states have cause to welcome an integration of Soviet and Eastern European economies with those of the rest of the world; none of them has any good reason to want to see perestroika fail.

A multinational aid program would have several advantages over older, unilateral forms of aid. It would maximize the resources available while minimizing the burden on an already overstretched American economy. It would be less susceptible than past foreign-aid programs to the charge that it serves the political interests of a particular state; it would also be less vulnerable to the volatility of domestic politics in any one state. It would soak up surplus products and capital from two large-scale exporters of these commodities—Germany and Japan— whose success in exporting has periodically strained their relationship with the United States. And such a program might also help to heal political differences that still exist between Japan and the Soviet Union and that might well exist between a reunified Germany and the Soviet Union.

We might also consider encouraging corporate rather than government sponsorship for at least a major portion of this assistance, where profitability and propriety make it feasible. Corporate management could provide faster action and greater efficiency than would otherwise occur; it might also be more sensitive than official initiatives to those market forces in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe whose emergence we want to encourage. Some such activity is already under way, most conspicuously with a project that surely marks a turning point of some kind in the history of our times: I refer to the recent and longawaited opening of McDonald’s in Moscow, a project that will be particularly interesting to watch because of the corporation’s decision to develop its own network of farms, processing plants, and training centers inside the USSR. The resulting contest is sure to be a titanic one, and whether Russia will overwhelm McDonald’s or McDonald’s will overwhelm Russia is far from clear. But the fact that it is taking place at all can only warm the heart of anyone who has ever been to the Soviet Union and felt the urge to shout, out of sheer exasperation: “What this country needs is a good service economy!”


NO ONE, NOT EVEN THE CURRENT LEADER OF the Soviet Union, is indispensable (although he comes about as close as any person in recent memory). The frailties that flesh—or a political career—is heir to can only increase with the passage of time; we in the West must be prepared for the moment when the most imaginative Soviet leader since Lenin is no longer on the scene. To fail to do this—to assume that everything that is happening hinges on Gorbachev alone—would in itself be to fall into an outmoded way of thinking.

There is at least one reason to think that the post-Cold War era will continue into the post-Gorbachev era: it is the fact that the roots of the long peace were in place well before Gorbachev came to power. Whatever their dissimilarities, neither Stalin nor Khrushchev nor Brezhnev wanted a war with the United States; the likelihood of such a conflict has declined steadily over the years, regardless of whether tyrants, reformers, or stagnationists ruled in the Kremlin. It is true that Soviet domestic and foreign policies are harder to separate today than they once were: an abandonment of perestroika or a crackdown on dissent would obviously undermine Moscow’s improved relations with the West, just as the Tiananmen Square massacre undermined Beijing’s. But a return to all-out Cold War seems unlikely, if for no other reason than that today’s Soviet Union would have to compete in it from a severely weakened geopolitical, ideological, and economic position.

The West’s strategy, therefore, ought to be to do nothing to undermine Gorbachev’s authority, but not to be wholly dependent upon it either. Because the forces that have ended the Cold War are deeply rooted—and because the problems that beset the Soviet Union will remain after Gorbachev leaves the scene—we have some basis for confidence that the initiatives he has taken to deal with both domestic and foreign-policy issues are not going to disappear after he does.

THE NAMES THAT WE ATTACH TO THINGS—WHICH in turn determine the categories we use in thinking about them—are only representations of reality’; they are not reality itself. Reality can shift, sometimes more rapidly than the names we have devised to characterize it. Concepts like “communism,” “capitalism,” “deterrence,” “credibility,” and “security" only approximate the conditions we confront; but words like these tend to take on a life of their own, thereby constraining imagination. One sees the argument made even today that Communist parties running command economies will never give up power, despite overwhelming evidence that this is exactly what is happening. We need to avoid letting the categories that exist in our minds blind us to what our eyes are seeing.

At the same time, though, there is at least one thing to be said in favor of retaining old names, even as one accommodates to new realities. Cloaking change in the appearance of continuity is a time-honored technique of political leadership, for it allows those at the top to alter their thinking and shift their policies without seeming to be inconsistent. Cloaking change in the garb of continuity eases transitions; it can be a way of making revolution look like evolution, which is sometimes a useful thing to do. We should not, therefore, do away entirely with the terminology of the Cold War, or even with all the institutions that reflect that terminology; but we should welcome the opportunity slowly but steadily to shift the meanings we attach to them.

WHO IS IT THAT WE HAVE DEFEATED IN THE COLD War? It is not the Russian people, whom we never saw as enemies, and toward whom we bear no ill will. It is not the Soviet Union, for we should want to see that state survive as a great power. It is not communism, because that doctrine has proved so malleable over the years that it has long since lost any precise meaning. It is certainly not Gorbachev and the current Soviet government, who have had the wisdom to recognize reality and the courage to adjust to it. It is not even the Cold War, because that experience brought us the long peace. Indeed, it is odd that there should be so much talk of victory and so little specificity as to at whose expense it actually came.

It might help clarify things if we recall what appears to be a recurring competition in human affairs between coercive authority and individual autonomy, between what the sociologist John A. Hall has referred to as the forces of power and those of liberty. The tension is as old as recorded history, and it will no doubt be with us as long as history continues. But power and liberty are rarely precisely balanced: one or the other predominates most of the time, with only occasional shifts back and forth.

The century has not, on the whole, been kind to liberty. The forces of authoritarianism overcame those of autonomy in most parts of the world most of the time during this period: witness the respective triumphs of fascism, communism, and all the varieties of dictatorship that lay between. It appeared until quite recently to be the fate of most people to have most of their lives managed for them, to lack the means of controlling their own affairs.

What happened in the revolutionary year 1989 was that liberty suddenly found itself pushing against an open door. The balance swung away from power with breath-taking speed; the authoritarian alternatives that have dominated so much of twentieth-century history were revealed to be, for the most part, hollow shells. We have good reason to hope that liberty will flourish in the next few years as it has not in our lifetime; and it is in that context that the real nature of the West’s “victory” in the Cold War becomes clear. For it was authoritarianism that suffered the real defeat, and in that sense all of us—including our old Cold War adversaries—have won.

But history will not stop with us, any more than it did with all the others—Marx and Lenin among them—who thought they had mastered its secrets. The triumph of liberty will almost certainly be transitory; new forces will eventually arise that will swing the balance back to power once again. It is not clear at the moment, though, where they will come from, or when they will arrive. It would be prudent to be on the lookout for them; it would be wise to be prepared for their effects. But the fact that the forces of resurgent power are not yet in sight—that we have the luxury of at least some time to savor the liberties that all of us, Russians included, have won—ought to be an occasion for ecumenical, if wary, celebration. □