The slow death of the Cold War

In 1999, just one year shy of the Millennium, I lived in Paris. Like many of my age, I waited for the release of the movie Matrix. The Wachowski brothers built up the suspense of what it was all about to the maximum. There I was, watching it and while I asked myself where it all led while the movie played, I had a couple of moments that stuck with me.

One of them was the famous scene when Agent Smith interrogated Morpheus. Let me just lay part of Smith’s monologue on you: 

Have you ever stood and stared at it, marveled at it’s beauty, it’s genius? Billions of people just living out their lives, oblivious. Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world. Where none suffered. Where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops were lost. Some believed that we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that as a species, human beings define their reality through misery and suffering. The perfect world would dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Which is why the Matrix was redesigned to this, the peak of your civilization. 

Let those words sink in for a moment because while this was just a movie, the words hold a much deeper truth that defines our real world. And you don’t need to believe that you are a bio-battery in a vat living in a dream world to play with this human condition.

Just about 10 years before those words were spoken, before the movie was even made, an Earth-shattering event changed the globe. The Soviet bloc shook its foundations and started to disintegrate. Country by country peeled off the bloc until only the Soviet Union remained. And even the Red Empire fell apart into its constituent parts. 

Francis Fukuyama called it the end of history. Never mind he wrote his book years before the event itself. 

The world celebrated the fall of what Ronald Reagan still called the Evil Empire and united in universal bliss. We would all be friends from now on. War and pestilence would be over. The entire planet would be free from tyranny and milk and honey could flow everywhere. 

Yes, we were truly naive. Looking at the world in the early Nineties from today’s vantage point, that’s clear to anyone. It was not at the time while living through it. Or only to a very few of us and we were never really sure of our feelings about it all. 

But while we got used to a changed world, one thing remained the same.

The Cold War caused an American-designed global superstructure to come into being. The deal was simple. The US built up the mightiest Navy that has ever plowed the seas and also the mightiest military that has ever roamed the planet and offered safe seas and free trade to all and everyone. All anyone had to do in exchange was to participate in some form of an American-led alliance to contain the Red menace in the east. 

In other words, the US subsidized global trade (limited to the alliance partners of course) through the investment in a Navy and expeditionary forces that could ensure that everyone played by the rules and the seas were safe to travel for everyone.

That was a first. No country ever had the global reach the US armed forces had during the Cold War and no country, not even the British Empire at its height, had the strength and the global reach to project overwhelming force at any point of the globe at a moment’s notice before.

Such might does not come cheap. American taxpayers paid for it and the alliance partners chipped in. Fair deal.

It was all held together by the fear from the Big Bear and the certainty that if the combined West did not do what they did, Soviet tanks would soon roll into Lisbon. Today we know that this was almost certainly overblown even at the height of Soviet power but at the time we considered it to be an unshakeable truth. It’s easy to judge history with 35 years of hindsight. 

And then, in 1989 and 1992 the world changed forever. The Eastern Bloc disintegrated faster than anyone could imagine and there we were. We lost the very thing that necessitated this global structure in the first place. Did we dump it then as it became unnecessary? 

Hell no. We had gotten used to it and elevated globalism to the new mantra ensuring that the new members in the club of civilized nations would abstain from conflict as they were busy trading. This never worked for real but the subterfuge was good enough for us – for some time. It could not hold up forever though.

The big hammer and the sickle-wielding empire in the East had disappeared, and so military budgets could now be reduced and the money be used for something else. But besides the vast amounts of cash, there had also been an administrative structure that was not needed anymore. 

And all this money came from the citizens of the free world countries. Did their governments give it back or reduce taxation radically? One thing that was clear very quickly is that a money source a government has secured for itself won’t be relinquished ever.

And what happens when there is a lot of money that does not have a target against which it must be applied? Exactly, politicians become reckless as there is no more consequence for being an idiot. 

And that’s how it all started to fray at the edges. It took time until the fraying accumulated enough to do serious damage to the still-existing global order. Looking at the US, every single President since Bush senior has been a bit more protectionist than his predecessor. Naturally so – why would the US pay for policing the world forever?

The rest of the world did not like US protectionism for sure but can one blame the country? The global order was expensive and pretty soon the US was alone in maintaining it. The others just piggybacked on it. They became freeloaders and they felt righteous doing so. Does anyone remember the faces when President Trump announced to European leaders that he expected them to chip in again?

But it got worse. Nations that were never supposed to join the global order during the Cold War eventually did become beneficiaries. Chief of all of them China was able to have its meteoric rise only because it could buy what it needed and sell what it produced safely. Yes, American taxpayers enabled the rise of China and any other nation with the same business model. 

Can we blame Americans for being sick of it? On one side they pay the bill and on the other, they get outcompeted by countries like China through dumping and other unfair practices. It’s a horrible deal.

The Soviet threat also enabled the rise of unprecedented levels of democratization. Countries with no democratic traditions like South Korea or Japan among others suddenly were stalwart democrats. And bitter enemies like Germany and France became allies and true friends. Thats what a threat from the outside does.

Without the threat, people just like nations revert to their natural urges. And those urges are egoistical – have always been.

We like to think that people naturally like to cooperate on a fair and even basis and when that is not the case, some evil outside force prevents them from doing so. Normally, governments are blamed. But our fundamental urges are way more primal and much less sophisticated.

As soon as we can, we forget the deeper reason for something that gives us an apparent advantage and take it as a God-given right. As if there was a fundamental human right to trade and travel freely and securely. When historically it has been an oddity. My Grandparents had grown up and made their lives in a world that was separated into spheres of influence. Travel and trade were privileges that needed to be paid for.

But the post-1989 human became an instant freeloader. The one nation paying for it all naturally lost interest but momentum carried the system for some more decades until it finally started to give way very perceptibly some years ago.  

People define themselves by the odds they overcome. So do countries and societies. Take those fearful odds away and people as well as societies and countries go soft, mush, and unfocused. Procrastination takes over as the good life amplifies all the worst reflexes in us and as nature abhors a vacuum, it fills this vacuum with drivel. Wishful thinking does the rest.

We see one potent and very sad example of this playing out today over the war in Gaza. Israel had slowly morphed from the hard nation it was when it gained independence and fought for its freedom into a soft nation where political correctness and virtue signaling were more important than hard facts and results. The old system had lurched on and was taken to today by its momentum but it was not as sharp as it used to be or could be. That’s why October 7th became a possibility.

Today, Israel is redeveloping its hardness, its toughness and the hope and illusion that accommodation with their adversaries is possible has gone out of the window. The same is true for countries in the vicinity of Russia. Or for most European countries that thought a life without Russian gas would not be possible. Europe is far from where it needs to be in terms of realism but the journey has started. The complete breakdown of their national economies will push them further down this path. No illusions – only reality and national self-interest. Openly so.

Let’s be real, globalism has been on the ropes for way longer than 10 years. An international elite, a nomenclature, did its best to maintain it and praise its advantages. But they never talked about the price as they knew very well that paying for it would not be very popular. Businesses wanted it because the production of anything could be shifted into countries that paid the lowest wages and presented the most easygoing regulation when it came to safety and the environment. 

But COVID showed us that this system not only had problems but that it could also be very dangerous. Countries suddenly realized that they could not even ensure the most basic requirements when global supply chains failed. And the actions of renegade groups in some parts of the world also made transport and travel hazardous which means trade became a lot more difficult. 

This together with a slow US retreat from world affairs changes the world we live in far more than the fall of the Soviet Union did at the time. 

Globalization is in its final gasps. What does this mean for the different regions or countries of the world?

Let’s look at that next week. 

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