The passing of Mikhail Gorbachev on Tuesday at age ninety-one brought home to me how much has changed since the end of the Cold War. Today, the United States and its allies are beginning to copy Soviet behaviors, while Russia has pivoted to a role not unlike that of America in earlier decades. I certainly hope Ukrainians can stymie Russian aggression, preserve their sovereignty, and negotiate a decent peace. But I worry that in the larger scheme of things, America and other Western nations are becoming the ideological crusaders.
The Berlin Wall was erected in 1961 to prevent residents of the Soviet Empire from leaving. Until the 1980s, when restrictions were somewhat loosened, it was nearly impossible for the vast majority of Soviet citizens to travel to the West. Ironically, Western countries are now taking the initiative in erecting a similar kind of curtain.
Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, it has become difficult for Russian businesses to operate in the West. Wealthy Russians with no connection to government affairs are deemed “Putin’s allies” because they have profited from his regime. It’s an attitude weirdly similar to the communist view that all capitalists are guilty simply by virtue of their participation in the system.
During the Cold War, it was hard for Soviet citizens to secure permission from their own government to travel to the West. In effect, this created two insular worlds, one in the East, the other in the West. Something similar is happening today. Since the Russian invasion, many European countries have suspended or slow-walked the issuance of visas to Russian citizens. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky calls for all Western countries to ban travel by all Russian citizens. Brussels has so far resisted, but pressure continues to mount.
The larger framework of the war in Ukraine indicates a similar pattern of reversal.
During the Cold War, American elites consolidated around the policy of containment. The consensus held that Moscow's ideological ambitions knew no limits. The popular image was one of dominoes. We had to meet communist expansion with firm resolve; otherwise, non-communist countries would fall, and threats to America’s national security would draw closer and closer.
It seems that Moscow now thinks in a similar way. Putin and his advisers believe that America and her allies seek global domination. It’s not an entirely irrational conclusion to draw. One need only read George W. Bush’s Second Inaugural. Moreover, the actions of the United States strongly suggest an aggressive policy of pressing NATO to Russia’s borders. Loose talk of “regime change” in Moscow by American officials last spring adds to the impression that the United States knows no limits.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is unquestionably brutal and unjust. But viewed through a Russian lens, America’s involvement in Vietnam might not look so different. Many American commentators say as much, predicting that Russia will fail in Ukraine just as we failed in Vietnam. True, perhaps, yet we must keep in mind that our involvement in Vietnam, for all its disasters, may have had a crucial and positive effect on the overall trajectory of the Cold War. Demonstrations of resolve can be effective in long-term geo-political power struggles, even if they go poorly.
The West has adopted aspects of the old Kremlin mentality. Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower certainly believed in the superiority of the American way of life. But it was only after the end of the Cold War that Western thinkers—and, increasingly, political leaders—began to speak of liberal democracy as the world’s inevitable future.
This sunny conviction sounds uncomfortably familiar. Lenin and Stalin were convinced that Marxism provided a “science of history.” Therefore, for them, the demise of capitalism and triumph of communism was assured. Convictions of this sort are intoxicating. They allowed communists to fuse their narrow self-interest with the ideal of serving the future of mankind. Stalin promoted Moscow’s power. After World War II, he dramatically enlarged the Russian empire. He justified this power-grab as a great service to humanity that would prepare the ground for revolution and inaugurate the utopia of worldwide communism.
One can (and should) note that liberal democracy and communist totalitarianism are two sharply different regimes. To say the least, the former is greatly to be preferred. The stakes are lower today, thankfully. Nevertheless, NATO countries continue to offer a much better setting for human flourishing than does an authoritarian Russia, and we should have no doubts about which side we’re on. But the disturbing fact remains: Since the end of the Cold War, the West has become intoxicated with the conviction that economic globalization, liberal democratic governance, and an expansive system of human rights will (and must) become normative for the entire world. This sort of thinking borders on ideological fantasy, which is not just unwise, but dangerous.
In his memoir, Present at the Creation, Dean Acheson identifies National Security Council Document 68 (NSC-68) as a watershed. On a practical level, NSC-68 advised significant increases in defense expenditures in order to meet the Soviet threat. But the document also framed the conflict in an influential way—as a contest between “slavery under the grim oligarchy of the Kremlin” and “the free society that values the individual as an end in himself.”
NSC-68 envisions the triumph of the American way of life: “The idea of freedom is the most contagious idea in history, more contagious than the idea of submission to authority.” But the document counsels a pragmatic approach: Whereas the Kremlin requires all nations under its control to submit to its ideological dogmas, the United States does not impose ideological requirements on its allies, other than a commitment to ensure freedom from communist domination.
Again, the ironies of history are rich. Today, the United States and the European Union sustain an energetic network of diplomacy, international bodies, and NGO activism that seeks to make all nations adopt a liberal-progressive regime. The Rainbow Reich has become obligatory. Meanwhile Moscow, Beijing, and a growing number of countries anxious about the increasingly arrogant and ideologically-driven demands of the American-led alliance are coming together in hopes of escaping the “end of history.”
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.
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Photo by Vladimir Vyatkin via Creative Commons. Image cropped.