The False Manichean Dichotomy of the “New” Cold War
By sheer undeserved luck, our species has frequently avoided nuclear annihilation during what I would like to consider the Cold War, rather than the old or the last. Estimates are available, such as lists of nuclear near calls. Often it is low-level personalities who have decided, on their own, not to push the button. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK himself was ready to incinerate, although at least he wasn’t thrilled about it. Then he was bailed out by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
The Cold War, which ended around 1990, was based on a Manichean division of reality: good versus evil on an almost cosmic scale. I don’t think reality ever justified the proclaimed sinkhole, but there was at least enough ideology and rhetoric to make a slogan like “Better dead than red,” and its converse, seem moot.
But in the Ukrainian context, the neo-Manicheanism of, says Andrew Coyne, irritates me: that “a defensive alliance of democracies” cannot be “equated with a predatory dictatorship with a history of encroaching on its neighbours”, and “To resist until dictators…only increases the price of doing it later.” Is this late FOMO regarding the real Cold War, or even before that, Munich?
Sorry, but the glove doesn’t fit. It’s a ridiculous time to make the United States an example of democracy. Most Americans think their last election was stolen, the right to vote is taken away, unelected Supreme Court justices are legislating. Its NATO “allies” include autocratic Hungary, and it subsidizes military rule in Egypt and the feudal monarchy in Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, Russia, in economic decline, has no ideology of any kind to justify its expansion.
As for the intrusive neighbors, hmm. The Dominican Republic, Cuba, Haiti, Panama, Grenada — definitely. Plus support for coups in Chile, Venezuela…
My point here is not whataboutism (although I’m not allergic to it). It is that a Manichean dichotomy at this time is not convincing. It’s more like Cold War nostalgia. Moral claims on all sides have become blurred. What cosmic moral abyss?
I know that the United States is our neighbor and that you have to get along with your neighbours. Otherwise life is hell. You have to work on the relationship, but not because they are automatically right or inherently worthy, but rather because they are your neighbors and, in the case of the United States, monstrously powerful. If our relationship with the United States were as bad as Ukraine’s is with Russia, we’d be upset too, and the support of distant allies like the United States wouldn’t do us much good. But this is far from signing their values, their policies, their speeches and their invasions. At least it should be.
Are there alternatives? Glad you asked. During the Cold War, there was an admirable group (IMO) with over 100 member countries, called the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). It included esteemed personalities like India, led by Jawaharlal Nehru; Ghana, led by Kwame Nkrumah; Yugoslavia, led by Josip Broz Tito; and Indonesia, led by Sukarno – before the CIA helped stage the bloodiest coup of the modern era, with a million people murdered. They were an implicit refutation of the Cold Warriors’ blatantly false dichotomies. Canada has never been a member. It would have been suicidal.
But one could say that the elder Trudeau’s kindness to anti-imperialists – like Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Jamaica’s Michael Manley, or his 1970 recognition of “Red China”, which seemed bold when Taiwan was still sitting as “China” in the UN – amounted to a sort of indirect alignment with the non-aligned. Of course, even Pierre Trudeau would never have gone so far as to leave NATO.
Trudeau the younger has sometimes been criticized for sitting on the fence in foreign policy, most recently for his level of support for Ukraine. But you might see this as a step towards non-alignment. It’s fanciful to think that we could go all the way in this direction, although NAM still exists. We may well end up like the United States’ other close neighbor, Cuba: invaded, blockaded and reprimanded. But it’s a good model to keep in mind, because we’re taking a step forward, a step back in foreign policy.