The Cold War Was A Sobering Influence For A Silly People
As scary as the Cold War was, it did reduce the silliness in American politics.
From The New York Times:
WASHINGTON — American intelligence officials have concluded that a Russian military intelligence unit secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing coalition forces in Afghanistan — including targeting American troops — amid the peace talks to end the long-running war there, according to officials briefed on the matter.
The United States concluded months ago that the Russian unit, which has been linked to assassination attempts and other covert operations in Europe intended to destabilize the West or take revenge on turncoats, had covertly offered rewards for successful attacks last year.
Clearly, this is a serious national security issue. Just as clearly, there’s a very high probability that we’ll discover that the current regime is handling it far less seriously than earlier ones would have. We know the likely reasons why: Trump’s disturbing bromance for Putin, his gutting of the foreign service, chaos within the White House, attacks on the intelligence community, the elevation of unqualified people like Jared Kushner to handle challenging questions like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, his denatured staff’s fear of telling him anything he doesn’t want to hear, etc. etc., ad nauseum.
The real problem, however, is that we are not a serious people, in the aggregate. In the 1950s, C. Wright Mills wrote, in The Power Elite, that an increasing number of people were treating national politics with the seriousness of cocktail party conversation. That trend has not ended, and certainly the echo chambers of Balkanized official and social media have accelerated the trend to silliness — even when the topic of discussion is national security, which we used to think was the very last place where we could afford silliness to intrude.
That view was a product of the Cold War, when silliness could lead to the most apocalyptic consequences imaginable. We had to be minimally sober, particularly when selecting leaders who would have to make decisions that could lead to the survival or destruction of the world. Some of those decisions could happen within the span of a few minutes, when the US was facing an imminent Soviet nuclear attack. Some of those decisions happened on longer time frames, such as the funding of the nuclear triad that would deter the possibility of the nightmare scenario ever occurring. The Johnson campaign’s famous 1964 commercial attacking Goldwater’s trustworthiness to handle these dangerous threats was effective, only because there were enough sober-minded voters willing to question whether having an ideological purist was better than a pragmatist in the White House.
Even without terrifying events like the Cuban Missile Crisis, no one forgot that there were thousands of nuclear weapons pointed at the United States and its allies. After the Cold War ended, it was a long time before another crisis occurred — long enough for Americans to get very silly about national security, and by extension, the leaders who were responsible for maintaining national security.
The stakes since 1989, even taking the 9/11 attacks into account, have not been high enough to slow or contain the silliness. The 9/11 attacks were horrific, but they were the last time in 19 years that there were any threats of that scale, or greater, on American soil. The fight to prevent further terrorist attacks has been waged in distant lands, involving people and issues that most Americans do not understand, or care to understand. If asked why we are still involved in Afghanistan, most Americans are likely to give a simplistic answer about fighting terrorists. They might also fall back on a fear of losing. How far we’ve come in 19 years, from saying that Afghanistan was the nexus of all our national security concerns, to now, when we don’t even know why we’re there. Only a silly people believe it’s permissible to act in this fashion.
Way back in 1990, John Mearsheimer wrote in The Atlantic that we would soon miss the Cold War.:
We may, however, wake up one day lamenting the loss of the order that the Cold War gave to the anarchy of international relations. For untamed anarchy is what Europe knew in the forty-five years of this century before the Cold War, and untamed anarchy–Hobbes’s war of all against all–is a prime cause of armed conflict. Those who think that armed conflicts among the European states are now out of the question, that the two world wars burned all the war out of Europe, are projecting unwarranted optimism onto the future. The theories of peace that implicitly undergird this optimism are notably shallow constructs. They stand up to neither logical nor historical analysis. You would not want to bet the farm on their prophetic accuracy.
Mearsheimer was right and wrong on many points. He was writing before the Soviet Union collapsed, so many of his concerns were invalid only a year later. However, beyond his concerns about the messiness of multipolarism, the other interesting part of his essay was its intended audience. Certainly he was directing his comments at the national security officials who read that magazine. He was also addressing a portion of the general public informed and interested enough to entertain how, even with the danger of nuclear annihilation always scratching at the door, there were aspects of the bipolar Cold War that were preferable to the world of, say, the 1930s.
In other words, he was writing for an elite in the United States. He was providing an interesting perspective, and some advice, to the people making and executing national security policy, and a portion of the electorate who most closely monitored what these elected and unelected officials were doing.
Thirty years later, the national security elite is under siege from a willfully uninformed, conspiracy theory-spreading president elected by people who believe that taking seriously weighty issues, including national security, isn’t strictly required. Whatever you think of any particular Cold War president, none of them attacked the national security apparatus the way Trump is doing now. A president might try to restructure the national security bureaucracy to make it more effective. None of them tried to ignore, cripple or kill these parts of the executive branch.
The people supporting this effort are not themselves serious. They include deep state conspiracy theorists, people who think that the US and Russia should be part of the same “war of civilizations,” and nostalgists for 17th century mercantilism. It also includes a larger cohort who is less loony, but who are happy to sit on the sidelines because national security, like other federal matters, isn’t consequential enough to take seriously.
Perhaps that will change. The COVID-19 pandemic may be the crisis that scours the United States of some of its silliness. It’s neither momentary, like the latest school shooting, nor distant, like the very long war with the Taliban. At the elite level, it demands less silliness from our leaders, who need to define a collective strategy and then ensure its implementation. It demands less silliness from us, since our actions have effects on people we see, and the orders of magnitude more whom we don’t see.
We’ve always had some degree of silliness, as we did during the Cold War when a few Americans mouthed their ridiculous opinions from the end of the bar about the Rooskies, the Masons, and flouridated water. Books like None Dare Call It Treason found their audience, long before QAnon and Infowars. We cannot eradicate those opinions completely, but we can make them stay at the fringes.
If the current crisis doesn’t become a talisman against dangerous silliness, then we have truly descended into a kind of national infirmity from which societies don’t normally recover, at least intact.