The world has changed much since 1945 when the Cold War began and since 1991 when it ended, but as my co-author Elizabeth Spaulding and I pointed out in our book, A Brief History of the Cold War, certain things remain true. First of all, ideas matter. Contrary to Machiavelli and his modern-day realpolitik disciples, power is not everything. The philosophical ideas undergirding a regime matter because they guide governments and help us to understand their conduct.
The United States, shaped by ideas drawn from our founding principles; by contrast, the Soviet regime was shaped by Marxism-Leninism. Russian president Vladimir Putin is not a latter-day Stalin, we can say that, but his desire for empire and his willingness to use force to achieve political goals reflect his training as a KGB agent during the Soviet era. In Iran, the mullahs who govern are guided by a commitment to Islam that shapes their worldview and influences their conduct on the world stage. In China, the communist government – and it is a communist government – struggles to rationalize the contrary demands of economic liberalization and political control, and as China’s economy inevitably slows – there are already signs of that this year – there will be increased pressure for political liberalization.
What else matters? Friends and allies matter. During the Cold War, the United States called upon and led a grand alliance against the Soviet Union, employing economic and strategic instruments such as the Marshall Plan, NATO, the police action in Korea, the special relationship with Great Britain, and the Reagan Doctrine. In contrast, the Soviet Union was never able to command allegiance – true allegiance – from the members of the Warsaw Pact or the nationalities and peoples within the Soviet empire. In fact, the Soviet Union was not a true nation, but a conglomeration of captive peoples and nationalities united by the Red Army.
Once Western governments began to encourage the people within the evil empire to stand up, they did so with increasing confidence and success. The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was crushed by Soviet tanks, but in 1980 the communist government of Poland could only ban the Solidarity trade union for fear of alienating the West.
What else matters? Leadership matters. The history of the Cold War, one can say, is the biography of leaders on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The conflict began under Truman and Stalin and was ended by leaders that included Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, Czech dissident Vaclav Havel, and even one must give him credit, Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. How so? Gorbachev helped end the Cold War by reluctantly abandoning the Brezhnev doctrine that had propped up the communist regimes of Eastern Europe for decades. By the mid-1980s, a cash-strapped Soviet Union could no longer afford such a policy. Now, one must add quickly that Gorbachev abandoned that doctrine – why? Not to bring about a more liberal and democratic Soviet Union, but to bring about a more socialist and successful, he hoped, Soviet Union. And he failed.
The United States enjoyed successes in the Cold War when led by visionaries such as Truman and Reagan, but when American leaders sought to deal with the communist threat through detainment and détente, they were far less successful.
What else matters? Statecraft matters. Victory over a determined adversary requires not only strength and resolve, but a strategy relevant to the times and the nations involved. Containment was an appropriate strategy at the beginning of the Cold War when the United States was sorting out its domestic and foreign responsibilities, and the Soviet Union was in place and in power in Eastern Europe. Forty years later, the United States could take the offensive against an economically weakened Soviet Union whose Marxist ideology was disintegrating. A successful U.S. foreign policy depends on the exercise of prudence, the virtue extolled by strategists since Sun Tzu. Cold War policies such as the Marshall Plan were prudent; its economic aid helped our World War II allies to get back on their feet, and at the same time created markets for our goods. Less prudent policies, including President Carter’s human rights fixation that resulted in a Marxist Nicaragua, and President Nixon’s détente that allowed the Soviets to surpass us in strategic weapons, were failures.
A grand strategy for U.S. foreign policy should begin with the thesis that the United States should step in only when its vital interests are at stake and it has the capability to act. Those interests as set forth by my Heritage colleague Kim Holmes and others are: protecting American territory, sea lanes and air supports; preventing a major power from controlling Europe, East Asia, or the Persian Gulf; ensuring U.S. access to world resources; expanding free trade throughout the world; protecting Americans against threats to their lives and well-being.
Whether it is clashes with Islamic terrorists or long-term challenges from autocratic communist China or Russia’s aggressive attempts to expand its sphere of influence, a prudent foreign policy, guided by our founding principles of liberty and justice, and based on our capabilities, offers the best path for the United States. That is a strategy for the ages.
* This post is excerpted from an address delivered on November 7, 2014, commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall. The event was co-hosted by the Heritage Foundation and the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. See the whole event here.