The Cold War Was Bad


Married Man Ross Douthat questions the relevance of Jonah Goldberg’s view that we should emphasize that the Cold War was bad even though there was no real alternative to containment. Well, I can conceive of one possible use to which to put this insight, though I think not one Jonah would approve of, namely that insofar as possible we ought to try really hard to avoid getting into a New Cold War dynamic with China.

Oftentimes, I see people look at China’s poor human rights record and its even worse record of diplomatic support for regimes with appalling human rights records. Then they look at China’s veto on the UN Security Council. And then they conclude that it’s an imperative — in humanitarian terms — not to bind ourselves to follow the UN.

One thing missing from this is how it’s going to look from the perspective of Beijing if the US decides that it has the right to invade any country, anywhere, at any time because we’ve decided we don’t approve of its government’s internal policies. The answer is: not good. Expanding the ambit of decision-makers to something like a “Global NATO” or a “League of Democracies” — groups that would exclude China — doesn’t change the basic dynamic. What you’d have is a situation where the United States was proposing a set of rules to govern the international road that the primary rising power couldn’t possibly agree to. In short: Sino-American conflict and tensions. Even if that didn’t erupt into something disastrous like an actual Sino-American war, it very well could mean a return to Cold War-style proxy wars and constant paralysis of global institutions and people need to understand that that would be an utter humanitarian catastrophe.

As horrible as Rwanda or Bosnia were or Darfur may be, one ought to recognize that on the whole the post-Cold War world has been much more peaceful than were comparable-duration periods of the Cold War (see the Human Security Report for a bunch of data on this) thanks to the existence of fewer proxy conflicts and the tendency for conflicts to be conducted with less money and weapons. Basically, one of the very most important things we can do in humanitarian terms in try to preserve a generally peaceful big-picture international environment, even though this may, indeed, mean exercising restraint vis-à-vis some specific humanitarian emergencies. This becomes even more true when we start to think about issues like climate change where there’s obviously no hope of a solution unless the US, India, China, Europe, Russia, Japan, Brazil, and Indonesia can all work together.