The forgotten impact of a war that didn't happen

Nuclear weapons were at the heart of the Cold War. Yet the broader impact of the arms race on politics and society has been forgotten. This is unfortunate, argues Holger Nehring, as the impact of the shared fear of total war that the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union created lies at the core of the problems in the transatlantic relationship. President Obama’s attempts to create a nuclear weapons free world and his willingness to sign a new agreement on the reduction of intercontinental nuclear weapons with his Russian counterpart President Medvedev only hides this uncomfortable reality.
Holger Nehring
30 March 2010

In his great novel Rabbit at Rest, John Updike’s protagonist Harry 'Rabbit' Angstrom, a retired car salesman, bemoans the end of the Cold War: 'The cold war. It gave you a reason to get up in the morning. … Without the cold war, what’s the point of being an American ?' If anything, the nostalgia for the Cold War has been even more pronounced in Europe. The shape of contemporary East and West European societies was forged during the Cold War. And the fundamental norms that underpin the ways in which politics should be conducted still contain traces of the conflict.

 The Cold War's precise legacy is far from clear, however. Unlike the First and Second World Wars, the Cold War does not appear to have left any memorials, although there are plans to build a Cold War museum in Berlin. Yet in contrast to the First World War, there is no real Cold War battlefield tourism, there are no Cold War commemorations, no Cold War fallen soldiers. Perhaps the closest one gets to specifically Cold War sites of memory are the bunkers and disused military installations scattered around the US, Britain (often maintained by the National Trust) and Europe. But while some of these installations may exude an eery silence and while they remind us of how the Cold War was quite literally dug into the landscape and the environment, their main impression is of an abstract threat that could be tamed through rational behaviour and modern equipment such as telephones, switchboards and, later, computers. Looking at these installations now, one cannot help but feel that this was a war waged from protected command stands, without the cruel face-to-face warfare that had characterised the previous world wars. There is a certain nostalgia for the Cold War in both Eastern and Western Europe, and this nostalgia prevents us from seeing the various ways in which the Cold War has framed today’s international relations. As the key feature of the Cold War was that it stayed cold it is now seen fondly as a ‘long peace’. What dominates many assessments of this period is that it was, despite the drama during the crises, a period without history, without movement: crises happened and were resolved, only to result in the establishment of the status quo. Against the backdrop of the present crises in international affairs, the Cold War appears as one undifferentiated epoch, a chunk of four decades in international affairs that left its imprints across the globe. From such a perspective, the Cold War is as a series of summits and treaties, of an ideological confrontation with occasional crises, solved by courageous statesmanship and brave and clever military men. Defence and foreign policy commentators and many politicians think back fondly to the alleged rational and predictable behaviour of their Soviet enemy, especially when comparing the Soviet Union to the West’s current adversaries, such as an often unpredictable Russia and China and Al Qaeda terrorists.


Original artwork for openDemocracy by Hannah Abbo

But the nature of the Cold War looks quite different if we go back to the origins of the terms and investigate the ways in which people experienced it. George Orwell first coined the term in English, discussing the meaning of the atomic bombs. Writing in 1945, Orwell wondered whether the invention of nuclear weapons might lead to, in a combination of internal repression and institutionalised conflict between a few great powers, to a universal totalitarianism in which some powers used the threat of nuclear war against people unable to retaliate and thus to ‘a permanent state of cold war with its neighbours’. In the United States, first uses of the term – by the journalists Walter Lippman and Herbert Bayard Swope – were more narrowly defined, referring to the breakdown of discussions between the United States and the Soviet Union over the establishment for a global control of nuclear weapons in 1946/7. Both Lippman and Swope drew on uses of the term common in the 1930s: that of a cold war by Hitler’s Germany against France and other European countries. They did not see it as a fundamentally novel phenomenon. Rather, to them the cold war was a new example of a phenomenon they already new. It was a short period that would be overcome, rather than the label for an entire epoch. As a consequence of the forty-odd years of superpower conflict in Europe, the story of the genealogy of the term in the epoch of the two world wars and its character as a label for a period of transition have now been lost.

Even less certain is what the impact of the Cold War was after Orwell, Lippmann and Swope had come up with their definitions. After all, the label refers to a war that never happened. Unlike previous wars, an all-out nuclear war has never been waged. It has only existed where it was talked about, by policy makers or by anti-nuclear weapons protesters. As an all-out nuclear war never occurred, it could only be imagined, through the military’s combat exercises and government officials’ calculations of the destructive power of nuclear weapons on the one hand; and, through the fears of anti-nuclear-weapons protesters on the other. These simulations and images of nuclear war, and the fears they created, formed the essence of the Cold War. The Cold War was an imaginary war. Its battles were, therefore, by and large symbolic.

Cultural symbols might easily be dismissed as marginal for real power-political conflicts. Yet the character of the Cold War as a war lay precisely in its reliance on symbols and images, transmitted and magnified through the mass media. The Cold War was primarily waged by trying to make them believe in the logic and ‘rationality’ of nuclear deterrence and in the bipolar ideological opposition between capitalism and communism. And many of the images are with us: the current images of terrorists and terrorism are not accidentally related to images of communists and communism in the West, as governments tried to counter ‘terrorism’ with the same type of propaganda and the similar state-private networks that were used to counter communism. This, then, is a form of warfare that, like the Cold War, is highly mobilised, results in levels of unprecedented surveillance through CCTV cameras, the scanning of e-mails and telephone messages and imminent fears of an another attack. And yet, the heightened security at airports, train stations and many public buildings notwithstanding, one would be hard pushed to define this state as war. War has become something that flickers over TV screens in the evening news, but it is nothing that directly affects us.

From this angle, the picture of a ‘long peace’ loses much of its plausibility. In Europe and the US, its central component was not stability or peace, but an ebb and flow of constant fears that another total war – following the first and second world wars – would break out, this time fought with nuclear weapons, leaving total destruction in its wake. The Cold War was experienced as a state of constant pre-war. The destroyed cityscapes of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both destroyed with nuclear weapons in August 1945, became the symbols of the dangers of the nuclear age. With the advent of nuclear missiles in the late 1950s that were able to cross continents and oceans Hiroshima and Nagasaki could now take place everywhere. The ‘clock of doom’, shown on each issue of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, brought this danger home graphically, in terms of minutes the world was away from high noon or doomsday.

This disjuncture between the lack of combat operations and constant war preparations in Europe has had an enormous impact on the meaning of military strategy and civil-military relations. It has enabled Europeans to cast themselves as uniquely peaceful in the shadow of the confrontation between the two superpowers. This process started in Western Europe after 1945, as Europeans started to forget the violence of the Second World War. But it had an enormous influence in Easter Europe as well, as dissidents there from the 1970s loaded ‘Europe’ with particular meanings of peace and prosperity. Thus, societies across Europe saw a move towards cultures of peace that moved away from the soldier as the embodiment of citizenship and masculinity towards an idea that centred around individual and private affluence and well being; military security was provided by the hegemonic superpowers, so that they could offload the military costs of the Cold War to others. In Europe, only two countries – France and the UK – built up their own stockpiles of nuclear weapons. Here, the processes of change in political culture have been less pronounced if we consider governmental policy making and public commemorations. Yet, the British population is not keen on fighting wars further afield. And the shocking lack of preparation of the British military for the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns as well as the glaring lack of proper equipment that has become more and more obvious are manifestations not so much of a particular government’s failure. They are due to the fundamental assumptions there and elsewhere that strategy is no longer about waging wars, but preventing them.

The development of such a self-interpretation of European societies as especially peaceful that developed in response to the Cold War has also had an impact on the ways in which policymakers and the military across Europe conceive of their work. They focus their efforts on war prevention, rather than the waging of war. This shift was given persuasive power by the switch from the waging of warfare to preventing war through deterrence during the Cold War. War has become identified with peace-keeping and peace enforcement. As a result, the business of fighting is no longer driven by political strategy makers, but was moved, quite literally, underground. The operational level of warfare has become a virtually politics-free zone characterised by a high degree of self-referentiality. Even in those countries where conscription still exists, armies draw recruits from a very narrow section of society. The Army has become the domain of the working class with lower than average levels of education; the affluent and better-educated middle class chooses to refuse military service. With the exception of the small so-called intervention forces, European armies are, therefore, for the most part extremely ill-equipped and under-funded to engage in warfare. This has led to a disjuncture and often complete misunderstanding between civil and military actors – the anti-militarist slogans and commentaries that accompanied the large-scale demonstrations against the Iraq War in Europe, even in those countries such as Germany where the government had taken the same position, are evidence for this. Given the challenges, this breakdown of the civil-military relationship is highly problematic, not only for reasons of expediency, but also for reasons of political legitimacy.

Despite occasional voices for burden sharing, these self-interpretations were encouraged by Democratic Party foreign policy during the election campaign in 2008 that appealed precisely to the stereotype of Europeans had developed of themselves. This may be a good example of the exercise of “soft power”. But there is likely to be a blowback. Vice-President Biden’s call for burden sharing at the Munich security conference early in 2009 was met with much scepticism across Europe. And although Germany, for example, recently increased its army contingent in Afghanistan, European societies’ self-definition as especially peaceful and European governments’ almost complete withdrawal from the dirty business of fighting wars will present serious structural and cultural obstacles to a new transatlantic honeymoon. Robert Gates, the US Secretary of Defence, identified this challenge clearly when, in a recent speech, he diagnosed a ‘demilitarisation of Europe – where large swaths of the general public and political class are averse to military force and the risks that go with it.’

While the nuclear arms race was at the heart of the Cold War, the metaphor of a cold war has always been Eurocentric. It exaggerates the importance of the superpower confrontation in international relations in the forty years from the end of the Second World War to 1989/90, when the Eastern bloc collapsed. ‘Cold War’ is itself a hegemonic concept, as it entirely ignores the experiences of societies in Africa, Latin America and Asia for whom the Cold War was anything but cold. There, several hot wars took place, many millions perished violently, people and places were unmade by violence. These conflicts, often civil wars aided by outside powers, accounted for 85% of all wars since the middle of the twentieth century. Death squads roamed villages and churches, leaving destruction in their wake. As European countries dismantled their empires in Africa and Asia and began to drive back their indirect influence on Latin American politics, economies and societies, the United States and the Soviet Union were vying for influence there, equipping competing nationalist movements with money and weapons. All this happened with more or less direct involvement by European governments, often in the form of development aid that was tied to specific political directives and social and cultural norms. Although especially the Vietnam War brought these connections home to Europeans, the overlap between Cold War politics and colonialism are by now by and large forgotten, although the lie at the centre of the current problems in international relations, especially in Afghanistan, in Iran, and in Iraq. As a corollary, discussions about the threats stemming from nuclear weapons that focus almost exclusively on non-European countries, especially on Pakistan and Iran, do so in a language that is directly reminiscent of colonialism, as the governments there cannot be trusted as ‘rational’ and ‘responsible’ actors in world affairs.

These wars are, therefore, anything but ‘new’. They are merely perceived as ‘new’, as they appear to rebel against the neat picture of Cold War nostalgia and conjure up a longer history of extra-European domination. Before 1945, European governments labelled such expeditions as legitimate intrusions into foreign lands: violence there could be justified, as the wars were waged against enemies who were, according to the common perception at the time, less civilised. As cruel as this sounds, the violence meted out therefore hardly registered as anything remarkable in the European metropolises. The Cold War exacerbated this blindness: wars could now be interpreted as tools against the communist or capitalist enemy. And, very often, European involvement remained hidden from the general population. It was with the large-scale protests against the Vietnam Wars and the emergence of cultures of peace in European societies as a response to the nuclear arms race that this attitude began to change. Thus, when mass media reporting brought foreign interventions home to Europeans in the 1990s and early 2000s, they did not recognise the genealogy of these wars, and their governments chose to ignore it. The wars appeared as ‘new wars’, fought not by governments against each other, but taking the form of civil wars fought by mercenaries. As fighting war has come to be seen as illegitimate across European societies, the more differentiated heritage of the Cold War interventions has been forgotten.

Thus, the real impact of the Cold War lies in the ways in that it operates as a site for nostalgia in the current climate of insecurity. While many Europeans and East Coast intellectuals heralded the arrival of Barack Obama in office as the beginning of the end of the transatlantic rift that had emerged around the debates about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, European societies hold deeply ingrained and highly skeptical views of war and the role of the military that emerged as a direct by-product of the Cold War in Europe. Hence, President Obama’s commitment to a nuclear-weapons free world at a speech in Prague last year is of mere rhetorical importance and is unlikely to close the gap between European and US security perceptions. The signing of a new treaty between the US and Russia, reducing strategic (that is long-range) nuclear weapons arsenals in Prague on 8 April 2010, is unlikely to tackle any of the underlying issues of a real strategic rift between Europe and the US. It will almost certainly be heralded as another proof of Obama’s statesmanship.

But such nostalgia prevents us from understanding the historical roots of the key elements of world affairs today and, therefore, from tackling the policy issues. With the end of the Cold War, it is even more obvious than the key site of history has moved away from Europe towards Asia. Here, in India and Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, in Angola, Zimbabwe and Nigeria, in Israel and Palestine as well as with regard to China, the longer history of colonialism and nationalism - and not the Cold War - is key for understanding current conflicts. Especially for British foreign policy, the myth of the Cold War has made it easy to avoid asking tough questions about the genealogies of these current conflicts: presenting its troops as the better and nicer warriors on the ground with better expertise at military diplomacy than the Americans and better rapport to the locals, British policy makers have ignored that they are still seen in many of these sites as the colonial forces, with a heritage of violence rather than diplomacy. For Britain – but also for France, the Netherlands and Belgium –, these ‘new wars’ are not so new after all. The phrase is itself evidence of how far Europeans have blocked off the military interventions and the creation of warfare states that they have been engaged in during the Cold War. European governments have failed to explain this to their societies. Thus, they may very well claim that their troops defend vital security interests when fighting on missions far afield. But many Europeans do not believe it. In this situation, the nostalgic memory of the Cold War as a long peace may perhaps offer a quantum of solace. But it offers poor guidance on policy making.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData