Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday, 22 February 2022

 How the US and Europe lost the post-Cold War


In the 1970s, not much more than a quarter-century after the conflict in which Japan and Germany had been comprehensively vanquished, their economic performance — the growth in their productivity, output and living standards — eclipsed that of the principal victors in that war.


As the US and British economies slogged through a decade of stagflation, Americans and Brits rushed to buy Japanese and German cars, televisions, washing machines, semiconductors and billions of yen and marks of exports that were far superior to our own notoriously inefficient and malfunctioning machines, heightening the sense that global power had shifted decisively toward these emerging economic engines.


Chinese President Xi Jinping. Picture: Getty Images

Chinese President Xi Jinping. Picture: Getty Images

One activity in which the Anglo-Saxons will always prevail is self-deprecation, and a joke at the time typically captured the mood: “World War II is over, and Japan and Germany have won it.”


A half-century later, and not much more than a quarter-century after the Western powers comprehensively triumphed over another totalitarian ideology, it’s deja vu all over again. Today, an updated version of the joke might go: “The Cold War is over and Russia and China won it.”


As victory over the Axis powers was followed in short order by a renewed sense of crisis in the West, so it is now. Post-communist Russia and still-communist China seem to be inheriting the mantle of global leadership. Now as then, the apparent success of recently vanquished foes is fuelling grave doubts about the viability and value of our own system, and leading to a crackup in Western politics.


But this time around the case for unease in the West is surely much greater. West Germany and Japan in the 70s had established their success bathed in the warm light of liberal democratic and capitalist values that could be said to be an affirmation of the superiority of our ideas (if not our cars). But today’s duo of would-be hegemons is emerging to greatness in the dark shadows of authoritarian ideology and practice that seem as politically effective as they are destructive of the human spirit.


Ukrainians at a training session organised for civilians by war veterans and volunteers who teach the basic of weapons handling and first aid in Kyiv. Picture: AFP

Ukrainians at a training session organised for civilians by war veterans and volunteers who teach the basic of weapons handling and first aid in Kyiv. Picture: AFP

This is what makes the crisis over Ukraine such a pivot in history. It marks the definitive end of the post-Cold War era, the short period in which the West could, with steadily diminishing conviction over a generation, reasonably claim to have achieved the triumph of its values.


Now that Vladimir Putin has chosen aggression by recognising the pro-Moscow separatist states in eastern Ukraine and ordering troops to enforce his decision, any last vestige of belief in the idea that the age of ideological conflict is over is gone. We lost the post-Cold War.


I’ll willingly concede that this may prove too bleak an assessment. We don’t yet know the outcome of Putin’s gambit in Eastern Europe. It’s possible he’s miscalculated. Russia’s economic challenges — blighted demographics, an over-dependence on energy, endemic kleptocratic corruption — are masked by the nation’s renewed sense of strategic self-worth. Just as the Soviet Union turned out to be, in the words of a British observer, Ivory Coast with nuclear weapons, so Putin’s Russia might ultimately prove a Potemkin superpower. Perhaps a Ukrainian campaign will be Putin’s Afghanistan.


Ukrainian soldiers in a trench on the front line with Russia-backed separatists, near Novognativka village in the Donetsk region. Picture: AFP

Ukrainian soldiers in a trench on the front line with Russia-backed separatists, near Novognativka village in the Donetsk region. Picture: AFP

China’s apparent faith in its own historic destiny may also be misplaced. Xi Jinping’s authoritarian writ may prove to be a sign not of confidence but of insecurity. Its officially accounted economic performance masks deep flaws — demographic trends similar to Russia’s, an economy struggling to adjust from development-stage growth to consumer-led growth, vast financial imbalances, and a dawning awareness in the rest of the world, from its increasingly nervous neighbours in Asia to its dependent business partners in the West, that this is a power whose ambitions have grown too large for their safety and prosperity.


But we can’t let these hopeful speculations any longer inform our own beliefs and actions.


The larger problem is that we in the West, in the US especially, have been losing the war from within.


Victory in the Cold War bred complacency, a loss of a defining sense of purpose. We failed to meet the most basic needs of many citizens for economic security, opportunity and belonging and in the process stoked resentment and political backlash.


We failed to remember, respect and preserve the civilisational virtues that had driven our victory in the first place. We failed repeatedly in expeditions overseas.


Waking up to the challenge from the emerging hegemons, recommitting to a national-security policy that resists them as we did their predecessors in World War II and the Cold War, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for reversing this cycle of failure. The damage at home must be repaired.


As voters survey the collapsed landscape of post-Cold War America, there’s rising hope for domestic political renewal.


But we should remember above all that China and Russia didn’t win the post-Cold War. We lost it.


The Wall Street Journal

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