The Cold War was an endless war until, to the surprise of most political scientists, intelligence analysts and astrologers, it abruptly ended.
Was the Cold War necessary? After World War II, it seemed preferable to the alternatives: A new hot war to drive the Soviets out of Central and Eastern Europe, or leaving the Western European countries we had liberated from Nazi totalitarianism to the tender mercies of Communist totalitarianism.
America’s grand strategy in the Cold War, embraced by centrist Democrats and centrist Republicans alike, aimed at frustrating Soviet empire-building in the hope, if not conviction, that Communism’s internal contradictions would cause it to collapse sooner or later. To that end, the United States supported allies and proxies, waged robust espionage and information campaigns, ran an expensive arms race and competed economically.
At a meeting in January 1943 in Casablanca, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed that World War II would not end until the Axis powers surrendered unconditionally — diplomatic compromises in pursuit of peace were not to be entertained. The two leaders also vowed to bring about “the destruction of the philosophies in those countries which are based on conquest and the subjugation of other people,” Roosevelt said.
By contrast, when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, after Mikhail Gorbachev failed to revivify the decrepit Soviet system, President George H.W. Bush chose not to highlight the obvious failures of Communism.
Why? For one, because he didn’t want to insult Russians with whom he hoped Americans would have cordial relations. For another, he probably thought it unnecessary. Conventional wisdom then held that the People’s Republic of China was moving away from orthodox Marxism/Leninism/Maoism, and would eventually become an upstanding member of the “international community.” Without Soviet support, other Communist regimes, those in Cuba and North Korea, for example, seemed headed for the ash heap of history.
The Islamic Republic of Iran also was totalitarian and implacably hostile to the United States, but from 1980-88 it had been mired in a devastating conflict with Iraq. Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the revolutionary regime died in 1989. His successor, Ali Khamenei, lacked his charisma. It seemed reasonable to regard Tehran as more irritant than threat.
Indeed, over the years that followed, many analysts concluded that we had no serious enemies. This was, as Charles Krauthammer famously phrased it, America’s “unipolar moment.”
That moment ended on Sept. 11, 2001, when Islamist terrorists hijacked passenger jets, and slammed them into the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon. (A fourth plane, intended to strike the White House or the Capitol, crashed into a field in Pennsylvania thanks to the heroism of the passengers.)
Since then, one administration after another has struggled to devise a coherent and effective approach to national security, an approach that would enjoy bipartisan support.
Meanwhile, China’s rulers have been aggressing. Cuba remains hostile, despite President Obama’s gestures of conciliation. Iran’s rulers received billions of dollars from Mr. Obama in exchange for their half-hearted promises to slow, not end, their nuclear weapons program. North Korea has developed nuclear weapons and increasingly sophisticated missiles, diplomatic agreements going back to the Clinton administration notwithstanding. More recently, dynastic dictator Kim Jong-un has managed to resist President Trump’s discreet charms.
In this period of deep division within America, I don’t see even centrist Democrats and centrist Republicans agreeing on a grand strategy aimed at building the world of our dreams. But might we at least agree on the collective purpose of preventing our adversaries from building the world of our nightmares?
The primary requirement for achieving that goal: maintaining and enhancing America’s deterrent capabilities.
Such capabilities don’t come cheap, but a conflict deterred is always less expensive, in blood and treasure, than a conflict fought and won, not to mention a conflict fought and lost.
If our enemies believe we have both the means and the will to cause them serious pain in response to injuries they inflict, those who are rational will be cautious, and perhaps choose to deal with us diplomatically. As for those who are irrational, only force can keep them at bay.
Despite these ground truths, we have been allowing America’s military superiority to erode, as the bipartisan National Defense Strategy Commission has documented.
Continuing that erosion is the policy advocated by a bipartisan coalition, including the far left, most progressives, and the self-proclaimed “woke”; isolationists, retrenchers and self-proclaimed “restrainers”; those chanting for an “end to endless wars”; and those unable or unwilling to grasp the logic of “peace through strength,” the paradoxical wisdom expressed millennia ago by the Roman proverb: si vis pacem, para bellum (if you want peace, prepare war).
Harry Truman understood that the Cold War, like World War II, was necessary to stop those who “sought to impose their will, and their way of life, upon other nations.”
Ronald Reagan recognized that weakness is provocative, that it emboldens our enemies, tempting them to take their best shot, while appeasement “gives no choice between peace and war, only between fight or surrender.”
In the struggle against totalitarians and tyrants, there are no permanent victories, only permanent battles — though not all the battles need be kinetic.
Does that imply an endless war? It would be more precise to say we don’t yet have the means to end war. It’s dangerous to pretend we do.
We prevailed in the global conflict of the 1940s, and the one that followed. What we should be debating now is not whether to continue defending America, but how best to sustain the mission, learning lessons from the wars America has successfully fought in the past.
• Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for The Washington Times.