Columns | Locomotif
Limits of the Free World
Who’s winning the new Cold War?
17 Mar, 2023
IT’S GEOGRAPHY THAT began the original Cold War. Russia was the most wounded of the partners that won World War II—and the victory would make America, in the course of the next four decades, the leader of the free world, the ironies of which were set aside by the shared idealism of the ultimate winners. George F Kennan, the American diplomat-scholar who had watched Stalinism at work from his Moscow posting, and sent the longest telegram to Washington about a patient strategy of defeating the dictatorship that, by its ideological nature, would constantly challenge American values, wrote in his historic article under the byline ‘X’ for Foreign Affairs: “ Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the western world is something that can be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and manoeuvres of Soviet policy, but which cannot be charmed or talked out of existence.” ‘Containment’, the strategy of the free world against the closed world, just got its theoretical foundation.
Kennan’s own evolution, as geopolitical guru and life-long Russia-obsessed, may have progressed into disillusionment, but it was minds such as his, and leaders who could rise above instant exigencies to formulate a vision that blended national interest with international morality, that enabled the West to win the Cold War—and made freedom a centrepiece of the struggle between two visions for human progress. In the end, what triggered the implosion of the Soviet system, and its satellites in Eastern Europe, was the redundancy of lies that legitimised terror as an ideological necessity, but all along, the alternative to unfreedom was an intellectual as well as diplomatic campaign. Set against the unravelling in the so-called Eastern Bloc was the consolidation of faith in democracy on the other side.
History is not a repetition of set pieces featuring familiar types; its originality is what tests the morality of nations and the arguments of scholars. So it’s futile to seek a Kennan-style exposition of the looming threat and a blueprint for action, or even to expect a Truman-like call to the world to choose between the two ways of life, formally launching the Cold War: “One way of life is based upon the will of the majority, and is distinguished by free institutions, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from political oppression. The second way of life is based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority. It relies upon terror and oppression…” His America was certain about whose side it should stand by.
The new Cold War is real, and it’s not a copy of the previous one; it has no ideological clarity, and it’s not a standoff between two clearly definable blocs. What Truman highlighted as features of the totalitarian system are very much in play though. The counterargument, the defence of freedom and the price the defender is prepared to pay, is dissonant, and naturally less effective when compared to the focus and determination of the other side. Two men, so sure of their destiny as sole arbiters of their countries controlled by nothing but their paranoia, lead the “war of values” against what they see as a culturally exhausted West. For both, the past is a permanent reminder of the inherent immoralism of the enemy’s power. Sanctifying lies and institutionalising fear is to tyrannise the minds at home and destabilise the borders. Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin are fighting, not necessarily together, a hostile value system, decaying but still dangerous in their book. They are being allowed full play.
Xi is a classic maximum leader, constructing his own cult as the eternal leader of a superior system in which Leninist party apparatus, Marxist indoctrination, ultra-nationalist pride, technological terror and capitalism minus democratic impulses merge seamlessly. The existence of an enemy is a prerequisite for such a system. He has already informed the West, particularly America, that Taiwan will eventually belong to the mainland, and when it does, with Asia as the battlefield of the next big war, it won’t be merely Ukraine. And on Ukraine itself, Putin, another paranoid nationalist guided by ancient ghosts, can afford to wage the longest war with the soothing knowledge that the West is at its weakest. Russia will only be fighting an unequal opponent, Ukraine; it will be spared the direct wrath of the West. And he never misses a moment to philosophise, in the arcana of cultural exceptionalism, on the nobility of his savagery.
In the new Cold War, Western dissonance is amplified by the hard realism of a globalised world: the marketplace and technology make high-pitched idealism of Truman vintage impossible. Russia’s oil and China’s consumer class have the power to upend the humanitarianism of the West. Nothing diverts Beijing and Moscow from the path, which is so clear in the nervous conviction of the warmongers.
About The Author
S Prasannarajan is the Editor of Open magazine
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