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How Obama Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Cold War

It was difficult to escape the too-perfect photo making the rounds yesterday of the G-8 country leaders smiling as a mammoth storm cloud ominously approached. The metaphor was obvious, but it was an appropriate lead-in to the press coverage greeting President Obama this morning on his growing isolation on the world stage. The Europeans are disappointed, it seems, in anything Obama does. The Germans say his NSA snooping is too much a projection of American meddling and militarism abroad, and the French say his lack of resolve on Syria is evidence of not enough American meddling and militarism abroad.

And don’t even get them started on his inability to lower the ocean tides. But it’s not just “friends.” While Obama has spent his time in office deriding Cold War parallels, the New York Times has an extensive story today that touches on why that conflict is suddenly relevant. The Times reports on Obama’s recent time spent “tangling with the leaders of two cold war antagonists,” the presidents of China and Russia, and their newfound refusal to feign warmth. And what’s more, though the president has always been unable to get much cooperation from Russia or China, it seems to be dawning on the White House that there was a subtle shift in attitudes and suspicions somewhere along the way, undetected at the time but undeniable now.

That, too, makes the Times’s historical echoes apt. As John Lewis Gaddis has written about the post-World War II security dilemmas and the expanding mutual distrust:

Because the Anglo-American relationship with the Soviet Union had fallen into this pattern well before World War II ended, it is difficult to say precisely when the Cold War began. There were no surprise attacks, no declarations of war, no severing even of diplomatic ties. There was, however, a growing sense of insecurity at the highest levels in Washington, London, and Moscow, generated by the efforts the wartime allies were making to ensure their own postwar security.

Just an ominous cloud that kept advancing until it was right overhead. And now, it seems, Obama is embracing reality and pushing back. Today he spoke at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, but with a slight adjustment: he spoke from the eastern side of the gate, to revel in the absence of despotism and division. He was joined at the speech by 92-year-old Gail Halvorsen, the former Air Force pilot known as the “original Candy Bomber” during the heroic Berlin Airlift exactly 65 years ago next week. And he paid tribute specifically to the crucial symbolic role played by the West’s willingness to establish in West Berlin the free world’s superior answer to the subjugation of East Berlin:

During that time, a Marshall Plan seeded a miracle, and a North Atlantic Alliance protected our people.  And those in the neighborhoods and nations to the East drew strength from the knowledge that freedom was possible here, in Berlin — that the waves of crackdowns and suppressions might therefore someday be overcome. 

No moral relativism there. What we had was better than what the proponents of dreary and brutal socialism had to offer. Our system was just and theirs dishonorable. Our side was the future, theirs the past. Where once Obama’s rhetoric smacked of “peace dividend” complacency, he told Berlin that “complacency is not the character of great nations.  Today’s threats are not as stark as they were half a century ago, but the struggle for freedom and security and human dignity — that struggle goes on.  And I’ve come here, to this city of hope, because the tests of our time demand the same fighting spirit that defined Berlin a half-century ago.”

The president would like to reduce nuclear stockpiles in a negotiated agreement with Russia, but the prospects for such cooperation aren’t great. And of course he wants to harness this new anti-complacency, in part, to stave off global warming and promote political activism. But he also defended the anti-terror programs currently in the news and when he spoke of Osama bin Laden’s death, he added that “Our efforts against al Qaeda are evolving”–a less triumphal but more realistic approach to understanding and waging the war on terror.

The onset of the Cold War was both disappointing and understated because the world seemed to have been at war for half a century, and many had no desire to accept the reality that war would continue. If you think Americans are war-weary after Iraq and Afghanistan, just imagine how they felt after two world wars. And they got off easy–World War II arguably didn’t really end in Poland when it ended for the West, tyranny having continued seamlessly there.

But reality always intervenes. And it has once again. Obama may not have been interested in the history and lessons of the Cold War, but to paraphrase Trotsky, the Cold War was interested in him. Gone seems to be his dismissive attitude toward the conflict, replaced with a disdain for those who still look east for strength or salvation. It remains to be seen whether this will have any significant implications for the president’s foreign policy, but if it doesn’t, it will be due to stubbornness, not cluelessness.


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