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Where Have All the Cold Warriors Gone?

It was 24 years ago, in June 1987, that Ronald Reagan gave his famous speech calling on Mikhail Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall.” In 1990, a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the foundations that had undergirded world politics for decades were likewise crumbling, John Mearsheimer penned his celebrated article: “Why We Will Soon Miss the Cold War.” In the years since, the article has come to embody a specific, nostalgic lament. Yet, viewing Mearsheimer through the prism of today’s circumstances, one must ask: is it really the Cold War that we miss?

It’s important to clarify that Mearsheimer’s piece is not exactly what many caricaturize it to be. Notably, the article is focused, to the exclusion of all else, on the dynamics of security and stability in Europe after the collapse of the Soviet empire. What the Cold War had given Europe, Mearsheimer argued, was a cure for the “untamed anarchy” that had plagued the continent for so many centuries. With that ballast eroding away, you’d likely see the resurrection of old interstate rivalries and quite possibly nuclear proliferation in the region. In the end, whether we got the old Europe of constant warring or a nuclearized Europe with a problematic multi-polar deterrence, we would almost certainly “miss the Cold War.”

Looking back on it, the utter Euro-centrism in Dr. Mearsheimer’s most famous (or infamous) piece of writing seems positively quaint. That’s a point that has been made often. Critics have been unrelenting.

What’s even more striking, though, is how Mearsheimer could have been so right for such wrong reasons.

We do certainly miss the Cold War, but not because Europe, in the intervening years, has reverted to its 18th-century self. It obviously hasn’t. No, the reasons are very different from those anticipated by Mearsheimer.

The comparison of today’s circumstances to those of the Cold War has taken on an unexpected tone. This is because much that has occurred in the last couple decades has superficially confirmed a liberal myth which has mollified liberal sensibilities.

The myth is that the world in which we live today is—by orders of magnitude—more vexing and dynamic than at any time during the Cold War. Today, it is said, the actors and issues are far more complex than those of the past. So, the clarity of purpose and the unanimity of cause enjoyed during the Cold War are but faint memories in today’s world of twitter-fed revolutions, small-group led geopolitical transformations, crisscrossing political identities, and so many shades of moral gray all around. In short, Cold War politics were relatively straightforward compared to the confusing, inchoate mess that our leaders have to deal with today.

In truth, both sides of this characterization are straw men. The Cold War certainly did dominate world politics from the late 1940s through the early 1990s. This certainly did have the effect of focusing a great deal of the world’s attention on geopolitical struggles of the largest scale. But there were also many vagaries, conflicting values, confounding issues, differing identities, rising non-state actors, and complex domestic political issues aplenty. In other words, there was some intellectual room for U.S. presidents to decide not to fight the Cold War, or to at least hem and haw and equivocate. But only one—Jimmy Carter—really did.

Fast forward to today. Let’s concede that the world in 2011 is complex and dynamic. Let’s concede that we lack the simplicity of superpower bipolarity. But is it really all that unclear today what America’s existential struggle is all about? Is it really so difficult to determine who and what seeks our destruction and the obliteration of the very Western way of life? Do we really not have enough clarity to allow us to call the Fort Hood shooter an Islamic extremist and terrorist? Is there so much gray that we can’t reasonably call for congressional hearings focused on understanding the roots of homegrown Islamic extremism? Are we really so unsure of the threat facing us and the moral standing to confront it that we can’t even call the problem what it is?

One of my favorite quotes in Mearsheimer’s article is also its most ironic passage. While reviewing a litany of things that we will not miss about the Cold War, Mearsheimer predicted, “we will not wake up one day to discover fresh wisdom in the collected fulminations of John Foster Dulles.” Perhaps not. But remember this: Dulles advocated for the aggressive containment of communism at a time which also saw the rise of far left constituencies in America that sought to minimize the Soviet threat and undermine our very Cold War posture.

Alas, that gets to the crux of the issue.

Yes, we miss the Cold War. But what we miss far more are leaders who unabashedly trumpet American exceptionalism and who are willing to recognize a fundamental distinction between good and evil. The Cold War didn’t produce a nebulous, multi-cultural, politically correct, morally relativistic foreign policy, though it could have. Neither should the problems that face the country today. There’s no doubt about what America’s core threats are. We just need leaders who have the sense to eschew moral equivalency and face them. 

So, in reality, it’s not the Cold War that we miss; just the Cold Warriors. We could use a little John Foster Dulles right now.


Dr. R.B.A. Di Muccio is a guest commentator for The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. A former assistant professor and chair of the international relations program in the political science department at the University of Florida, he is now vice president of research and advisory services for a global business advisory firm. He received his Ph.D. in international relations from the University of Southern California.


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  • “Yes, we miss the Cold War. But what we miss far more are leaders who unabashedly trumpet American exceptionalism”

    Do we ever! May be the Cold War was simply a fluke brought about by the fear of mutual destruction. The adversaries go a long way back but I think it was after the French Revolution that it became clear who “the other” was. I’m afraid I am not being clear. I shall explain.

    Two visions of the world are proposed to mankind. One is the traditional expressed by Russell Kirk as “order is made for man, and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent.”

    The other is the “make rules as you go” system that we call sometimes Progressive Liberalism. The first system sees natural law and order as a constant that serves our fallen nature well by keeping us grounded and giving us a reference point. The other believes that everything is a construct, that even morals and some natural properties of man are simply made up and therefore they can be changed or “de-constructed” to learn how they came to be. Then they can be re-constructed to serve the needs of the time.

    The old Confucian proverb seems to have been fulfilled here: “He who fights the dragon becomes the dragon.” America is exceptional because a)it is the product of ideas and not of the mere confluence of geography and military force, and b) her citizens submit to an agreement that recognizes that order that is superior and permanent.

    When JFK said “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” He subtly presents us with the option to pick a paternalistic concept of government or a servile concept of citizenship. Liberals often offer us a false option: either to eat the insect or drink the insecticide. They call that “choice.”

    But the real choice is different. Are we going to acknowledge the eternal order mentioned by Russell Kirk or are we going to make our laws and mores “as we go” leaving behind the concept of a nation under God to become a nation under a god-like central government.

    The fight is no longer out there in the war game halls of the strategists. The Cold War ended and now the real war has come home. Our adversary has captivated the imagination of our youth and now they cannot see clearly why we are different, why we are a nation of laws, and how that made us great. Our own leaders repeat like parrots the same nonsense that made us roll our eyes when we used to hear it from Moscow and Havana. That same stupid stuff is taught as science in our universities now…

    The war has come to our door. To our very soul. It seems to me that this is the most clear sign of the times. It may even be a sign that a decisive battle is about to be fought and our country may have a very relevant role in it.

  • State-sponsored atheism is the essential evil of Communism, and that is what we were fighting in the Cold War. Now, the fight is against states and groups that sponsor another gravely erroneous notion of God: that He is not a God of peace but a God of war. Islam does not believe that God sacrificed Himself for His children, rather, it believes that He is a dictator who seeks to impose His will by force.

    Two wrong ideas about God – that He doesn’t exist, and that He is a dictator – led to the struggles of the past century. I think the difference between today and the Cold War is, that during the Cold War we had a consensus in this country and within the West that God exists and atheism is evil. Hence Communism was something to be fought.

    Today, though, moral confusion has overtaken the West, and, because the error of Islam is more subtle, we can no longer see clearly enough to take up arms. What I’m afraid of, is that our enemies will have to make the threat so obvious before we do anything that they’ll end up owning half the Eastern seaboard, and by then it will be too late.

  • goral

    The Cold War was a convenient and workable resolution of the mayhem that WW2 created. The victor at Yalta was Stalin while the invalid FDR capitulated and ushered in a socialist agenda here at home.
    Communism was an easy enemy as it’s atheistic, centralized and wholly inefficient system was counter rational.
    We build a military-industrial complex in opposition to it and in the process prospered by the work of all who left its oppressive systems in search of the freedom that we offered, defined, controlled.
    We made our war enemies our best trading partners while our financial system found it profitable to prolong the Cold War.

    It was all very sustainable except to those who were condemned to live under the system that they and their family members opposed with their blood and lives. The terror, the injustice and the oppression was relegated to a region with clearly, albeit artificially defined geographical borders.

    The war that required so little of us has been won.
    Now comes the war that will require so much more.
    Now the mayhem is here at home. How do we oppose those who threaten us if we can no longer define who we are?