Obama’s True History Of The Cold War

obama-moscowEarlier today, President Obama delivered a speech to Moscow’s New Economic School, in which he outlined his vision for the future U.S.-Russia relationship.

While there was much in the speech that was notable, I think this was a key passage:

Like President Medvedev and myself, you’re not old enough to have witnessed the darkest hours of the Cold War, when hydrogen bombs were tested in the atmosphere, and children drilled in fallout shelters, and we reached the brink of nuclear catastrophe. But you are the last generation born when the world was divided. At that time, the American and Soviet armies were still massed in Europe, trained and ready to fight. The ideological trenches of the last century were roughly in place. Competition in everything from astrophysics to athletics was treated as a zero-sum game. If one person won, then the other person had to lose.

And then, within a few short years, the world as it was ceased to be. Now, make no mistake: This change did not come from any one nation. The Cold War reached a conclusion because of the actions of many nations over many years, and because the people of Russia and Eastern Europe stood up and decided that its end would be peaceful.

I think this is evidence not only of a generational shift in the perception of the Cold War, but also of a clear ideological shift in regard to the way that the Cold War ended, and the ways that momentous political change occurs.

As a university student in the early 1980’s, Obama was steeped in Cold War politics, and specifically concerned with strategic questions regarding the possibility of weapons reductions. As a young writer he grappled with the “twisted logic” of the US-USSR nuclear standoff, and wrote about the growing international nuclear freeze movement in 1983 for a Columbia University magazine. Having been engaged with this movement as both writer and student, Obama is acutely aware of the role that it played, both in the U.S. and internationally, in raising awareness and shifting perceptions of the insane nuclear gamesmanship.

As I wrote in the American Prospect last month, conservatives have for years been peddling a potted history of the Cold War — in which the Soviet Union basically collapsed out of fear of Ronald Reagan — in order to cast international politics as a zero-sum contest between good and evil, and to cow progressives into a more aggressive rhetorical posture toward America’s adversary of the moment. We saw this most recently in John McCain and Company’s sanctimonious grandstanding over the Iranian demonstrations.

In reality, the Cold War came to an end when and in the way it did because of a number of different factors. A major one was the organizing work of political dissidents in Eastern Europe, and the space created for that work by international agreements like the Helsinki accords — which conservatives at the time condemned as “appeasement”. Conservatives have consistently attempted to write the international peace movement out of any role in ending the Cold War, but there is a solid and growing scholarly consensus that its role was significant, not only in building ties between activists on either side of the Iron Curtain, but also in changing Reagan administration’s own perception of the nuclear standoff and the need for nuclear arms reductions.

President Obama’s recognition of the central role played by Eastern European dissidents in ending the Cold War — and more generally of the complex way that history unfolds — is also in keeping with his measured approach toward the Iranian protests. Rather than imagining that he can change outcomes on the ground by taking a more belligerent stance toward the Iranian regime (there’s more to foreign policy than simply asking “What would Reagan do?”), Obama understands that the best way to facilitate the reformist critique of the system is to give it space to work on its own. This doesn’t mean being “neutral,” and of course the president has not been neutral on the issues of human rights and democracy. It just means recognizing that the place of the U.S. in Iran’s reform movement is not at the head of the parade.