War cancelled due to lack of interest

The Fifty Years War:
February 17, 1995

The end is nigh, the doomsters once proclaimed. Now, it seems, their time has come. Over the past five years we have been invited to contemplate the end of the Cold War, the end of the 20th century, and even the end of Hegelian history itself. What it all means, however, is marvellously unclear. Are these developments coincidental, coterminous, or causally related? Are they good ends, or appropriate ones? Do they correspond to any lived experience? For countless millions in Africa, in Asia, in central and eastern Europe, in the Middle East, the world has been turned upside down. Walls have tumbled, empires have dissolved, states have fractured, tyrannies have collapsed, tyrants have bled, wars have been waged, people have been shot, starved, tortured, gassed, ransomed, uprooted, disappeared, and ethnically cleansed.

As for the rest of us, in the more temperate (or less febrile) zones of the North and West, especially in the comfortable offshore islands of Orwell's Oceania, we have experienced it all vicariously, on TV, by turns sated and elated, passive and pugilistic, ghoulish spectators at the gargantuan fin-de-si cle feast.

The Cold War, then, is dead. Long live the Cold War. Sketching the post-historical future in 1989, Francis Fukuyama was already waxing elegiac. "The end of history,'' he wrote, "will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one's life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.''

Here was implanted a heroic conception of the Cold War (and the Cold Warrior), seen from the right side - the western side, according to Fukuyama, of course - the winning side. Nor is Fukuyama alone in his characterization of the outcome. "Let us be clear,'' Michael Howard has admonished, "the West won the Cold War. I have little respect for those who maintain that nobody won.'' And in a magisterial new work on the endgame by Raymond Garthoff, The Great Transition (1994), Garthoff concludes that "the West did not, as is widely believed, win the Cold War through geopolitical containment and military deterrence. Still less was the Cold War won by the Reagan military build-up and the Reagan Doctrine, as some have suggested. Instead, 'victory' came when a new generation of Soviet leaders realised how badly their system at home and their policies abroad had failed. What containment did do was to preclude successfully any temptations by Moscow to advance Soviet hegemony by military means.'' Such formulations beg a further question, to which Howard and Garthoff return the same measured answer. In Garthoff's words: "It is doubtful that any postwar Soviet leadership would have deliberately resorted to war. That was not, however, so clear to many at the time.''

Richard Crockatt's cleverly but implausibly titled work, The Fifty Years War, well-described by its author as "a history of US-Soviet relations between 1941 and 1991, viewed in a global perspective'', belongs with such moderate, liberal, but essentially orthodox interpretations; in particular, those of his acknowledged masters, Garthoff and John Lewis Gaddis. The book is both capacious and judicious, sensibly organised and clearly written. Crockatt, moreover, has an interesting point of view on both the end and the beginning.

There is a fine passage on the latter: "The overriding problem was the tendency of each power to push its policy goals farthest and fastest in those areas in which it possessed greatest leverage and which the other could not effectively meet. In the case of the Soviet Union this meant its military and political hold over eastern Europe; in the case of the United States, this meant its economic power and capacity to project it on a global scale. In striving to compensate for their weaknesses and to match the other's strength, each power pursued policies which made for the global institutionalisation of their differences. The outcome was cold war."

As to the end, Crockatt argues that "what was at issue in US-Soviet relations was not one system but two overlapping but distinct systems'' - Crockatt is a devotee of systems - "(1) a cold war system defined by the geopolitical division of Europe and its extension to parts of the Third World, the existence of nuclear weapons, and ideological conflict, and (2) a world capitalist system which was defined by the expansion of production and trade, growing economic interdependence, and the establishment of international 'regimes' for the management of various transnational processes.'' Viewed in this light, he continues, "the cold war system was subject to a dynamic - the growth of the capitalist system - which was tangential to the cold war itself. The cold war did not so much collapse as it was bypassed.'' The Cold War was cancelled, one might say, due to lack of interest.

The Fifty Years War is a work of high professionalism. It is a far better international history than Martin Walker's early competitor, The Cold War (1993), a readable gallop already in paperback. It is unfortunate that Crockatt was unable to take account of Richard Ned Lebow and Janice Gross Stein's We All Lost the Cold War (1994), a thorough-going revisionist thesis of considerable force and profound implications. Lebow and Stein contend that "the strategies of deterrence and compellence were generally more provocative than restraining and that they prolonged rather than ended the Cold War''.

These contentions, founded on brilliantly sustained analyses of two paradigmatic Cold War crises (Cuba in 1962 and the Middle East in 1973), should disturb the equilibrium of international historians everywhere. No future Crockatt will be able to ignore them.

If there is an emerging consensus on this particular historical end, it is premature. The Cold War is history. We have yet to decide what kind.

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Keele University.

The Fifty Years War:: The United States and the Soviet Union in World Politics, 1941-1991

Author - Richard Crockatt
ISBN - 0 425 10471 8
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £25.00
Pages - 417pp

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