African politicians storm in fury out of international conferences. Latin American dictators stage anti-Western rallies – complete with concerts and artistic performances – in the capitals of Europe. Global busybodies convene to panic in unison, certain that the cataclysmic demise of Planet Earth is on the horizon due to (check all that apply) wealthy nations, nations aspiring to be wealthy, the emission of natural gases, the emission of unnatural gases, warm temperatures, cold temperatures, population pressures, coal heat, incandescent light bulbs, plastic bags, and motor vehicles. Pariah regimes seek nuclear weapons. The “non-aligned” clamor for recognition. Pirates menace the seas. Islamist assassins and revolutionaries blame all the world’s ills on Israel and the U.S. In a running sideshow, America and Russia are negotiating a disputed follow-on to the START arms control treaty, which expired on December 5.
Are we back in the 70s? The question is not really a sarcastic one. Too many old patterns are reemerging. There was never really a “holiday from history” after the end of the Cold War, nor was the Cold War itself an interruption of history. Americans tend to think in terms of watershed years, like 1945 and 1991. But in truth, no major geopolitical trends of the last century either stopped or started in those years. The brutal collectivism, complacent progressivism, post-colonial nationalism, eco-apocalypticism, even America’s global ascendancy – all predated the “years of decision” and continued after them.
So it is discouraging to see exchanges like this one from the December 10 press briefing at the State Department:
QUESTION: On the START negotiations, do you expect them to move forward more quickly now that the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony is out of the way? There’ve been some people who’ve suggested that the Russians didn’t want to give the U.S. a victory ahead of that. And do you think that – or is this —
MR. CROWLEY: That’s kind of a Cold War kind of a question. (Laughter.)
Well, OK. The question is frivolous, and would have been equally so during the Cold War. But in evoking the sense of an underlying strategic competition between Russia and the U.S., it’s actually quite acute. The competition itself can’t be dismissed as an outdated concept.
There’s better evidence of that competition, of course: Dmitry Medvedev’s proposal for a new, overarching security framework for the whole Euro-Atlantic region, for example, along with dynamics like Russia’s determination to control the natural gas going to Europe, its cultivation of Latin American clients, and its relentless campaign to deter the U.S. missile-defense program. Russia’s competitive posture, like the restiveness of our radicalized Latin American neighbors or the discontent of the G-77, is very real.
Barack Obama has stepped forth to preside over a post-Cold War status quo that is already slipping away, and cannot be summoned back with his speech-and-ceremony political style. As Jennifer argues, he will have to prove himself on the commitments implied in his Nobel address this week – and the conditions he faces now are no longer the ones he campaigned on being anxious to transcend. Today, invoking the Cold War as an era we have to get beyond has the aroma of mothballs about it, like invoking Woodstock and the Nuclear Freeze movement. Most of us have moved on. It is not the Russia, Iran, or Islamist guerrillas of 30 years ago that we are concerned about, but rather the ones of today.