From Cold War to Cold Walls

2 april 2018

Former and future assumptions behind the nuclear threat

Spy swaps and new nuclear threats bring the idea of a new Cold War back in the headlines. Though it is not the right analogy for our times, it is time to rethink the nature of the Cold War and see what it may tell us for what is coming.

Here 5 historical periods are described, leading from the ‘classic’ cold war to what is called the ‘hot walls’ period. In each period four elements come into focus: 1) the attitude towards nuclear weapons, 2) migration and our wish to build walls, 3) the atmosphere of a time in terms of ideology and religion, and 4) the ascent of the digital domain. Libraries can be filled with all this, and though I try to be brief and hit the essentials, this is one of my longer blogs to date. The reason for that is to show a pattern and to convince the reader that the flow of history can in some ways be predicted, as action begets reaction. I write this, knowing as they say, that history repeats itself, but never in the same way. There will be no Cold War. In fact, it looks likely that there will never be a classic war again, hot or cold. This text more about the opening up and closing of societies and the risks that both entail. It seems that we are in a phase of closing now, with wall being raised. As these walls will be challenged and hotly debated, I venture to call the period in which we now start to live in, the period of the ‘Hot Walls’.

Here we go.

Classic Cold War: 1945-1962

The end of the Second World War brought peace and freedom in much of the world, but also the coming together of two completely new developments. The first was the presence of Russia far into middle Europe, a geographic position it wanted to hold on to. The second was the first use of nuclear weapons against Japan by the USA. It beat both the Germans and the Russians in the race to develop the bomb, but it did invite the latter into a rocket building competition that would lead straight into space. It was a matter of time before they put bombs instead of monkeys on top of them. This development scared many, including many of the post-war leaders. Already in (1947) it led to the theory of ‘containment’ (after George Kennan’s ‘Theory X’). Even so, it must be remembered that in these first years the use of nuclear force was not a taboo to many generals and politicians. It was only after the death of Stalin and the stalemate in Korea, that something of a stand-off on the nuclear front arose, with in the background many of the classic Cold War espionage antics we see return in our time.

Then there is a second development to consider. The post-WWII years were also years of heavy migration, not only in Europe, but also in Asia. Millions of people were on the move, far more than now. Most of it was a kind of backwards migration, bringing people back to into the fold of their nation (even decolonization and the birth of the state of Israel can be seen as such). In the end the political goal was simply to end this migration. In the East they were very crude about it, and the wall in Berlin and the one dividing the Koreas became the true symbols of this stand-still.

And finally, there is a third element to consider. Nations and continents were run from the top downwards. The Cold War was in many ways a real but distant threat; managed by the elite, imagined by fearful people with few facts at their disposal. They lived in an age of ideological and religious orthodoxies, supported by strict social control. It was a time of standing up for your nation, religion and ideology.

Those three developments of stand-off, stand-still and stand-up turned into two dominant coalitions of nation states and a cold war that was as logical to the people as the real war had been.

Nuclear Cold War: 1962-1989

The Cuba crisis literally led to a standstill of ships just before the island of Fidel Castro. It made both the West and East feel the madness of ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ by nuclear arms. The development of nuclear weapons did not stop, but the proliferation of the weapons did, more or less. Actions of war limited themselves to relatively compact theatres far from the West, as the so-called ‘domino-theory’ also created a sort of stand-still for conventional arms. Even so there were a number of theatres of war that never seemed to stop festering: in the Middle East and in some Far Eastern countries.

Nothing lasts. In hindsight, the days of the Cuban crisis not only represented the height of the classic Cold War, but also the beginning of the end of it. President Kennedy committed the USA to action in Vietnam, starting a war it could never win, and also creating a cultural call to action for the new baby boom generation. Poor president Johnson, poor president Nixon.

Underneath lies a very peculiar question: how to deal with a nuclear balance of power? There are two ways to go about it, and both are at heart non-ideological: either you try to maintain that balance in the shape of some real political formula, or you try to mitigate that balance by creating more trust between the antagonists. In both cases it is hard work – and the reward is not visible. The greatest victory of the post-war generation lies in the way they averted a nuclear war by accepting there was no way to ‘win’ it. Their victory: nothing happened. The problem with a victory in which nothing happens, is that there is no prove that your balance of power approach worked in the first place, and meanwhile you have these bombs hanging over everybody’s head.

Two things happened to further undermine the credibility of the elite in both West and East. The first is geographic in nature. Conflicts in the Middle East and Northern Ireland escalated and got a terrorist dimension, unbalancing Europe. For the US, the Vietnam War became a lost cause, symbolizing loss, also on the economic front. Russia could not trust its satellite states. Mao started a cultural revolution to hold on to power. The first stirrings of globalization should have led to a movement of people, but it hardly happened. All developments that were asking for a reaction later on.

The second thing that happened was the cultural ‘thing’. Deep divisions opened between generations. Both the surge to the left by the younger generation and the reaction to it by the ‘silent majority’ broke the cosy ideological and religious post-war consensus. The times were a-changing indeed and the nuclear balance had to change with it.

The real change to that balance came from the right. Ronald Reagan unbalanced the balance of power both with new weapons and the announcement of a ‘shield’. And the response? The balance of power crumbled. Was it just Russian weakness, or a vindication of those who never believed in the rationale behind that balance in the first place? Who can tell, but the first is more logical. Anyhow, the Wall in Berlin came down. We all saw it real-time on TV and wrote our stories and feelings about it on this new machine: the computer.

Years of Prosperity: 1989 - 2001

We can remember from these recent years or prosperity roughly twelve years of freedom, bringing the rewards of the digital age, distributed broadly through the benefits of globalisation. Russia shrank and stopped being a partner in the balance of power. China shook and started to adapt. In ideological and religious terms, you might call this a decade of liberal and secular victory, but really it was most of all a belief in quality and effectiveness and other non-ideological and secular concepts. New wealth brought migration waves, but they were mostly experienced as the benevolent version of the post-war migration waves. It brought more cultures together than ever before, in the fold of on the whole tolerant societies.

The nuclear threat was actually still there, with hardly any nuclear warheads dismantled, but it disappeared from the political agenda, a drifting standstill in one, more or less connected block of (would be) NATO countries.

In this atmosphere of private wealth and public peace – always relative of course; it did not touch everyone - new institutions and businesses were being built and started to thrive, including the businesses of the ‘New Digital Economy’. Institutions speed up their development, including the collection of nation states that started to call itself the European Union, breaking down both financial (Euro) and geographic walls (expansion of that same EU).

Meanwhile everything gets connected through the internet. It feels like we can now know everything about everybody, so why not rearrange ourselves into one big yuppie community? Each of us can also know as much about our nuclear capacity as only government leaders could know in the cold war days, but hey, who wants to know about all that old stuff?

The populist period: 2001-2016

9-11 changed much. When the two towers came tumbling down, it was not another movie. It was unreal real. It also served to make visible a larger trend that was already shaping events everywhere and led to a ‘return of ideology’ far removed from the liberal non-ideology. No nuclear balance of power applies to a situation where hijacked planes crash into skyscrapers (though be sure there were tense moments between the US and Russia immediately after the event), so a conventional was fought first against Al Qaida in Afghanistan and soon against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. In hindsight we can say that the conventional war was won, but in most other respects it was a disastrous repeat of earlier American classical warfare. Even though weapons may have become ever better, both in the sense of accuracy and raw power (with some bombs in tonnage stronger than the first Atom bomb), their impact rekindled an anti-Americanism not felt since the height of Cold War days.

One of the negative side effects was that for their facilities the Americans were ever more bound to Saudi Arabia and other Arabic states, in the very same period that these very closed countries were increasing their funding to those who were vulnerable to fundamentalist. One result was fear, brought home in the West through terrorism, creating absolutism in the East. The Arab Spring of 2011 did not stand a chance against it (though we should not forget the very real longing for freedom and democracy that is there still).

Another side effect that would have severe impact on the West was an increase in migration, caused by both war, oppression and simple economic motivations. Adding these numbers to earlier increase in the number of non-western migrants. Add to this – at least as impactful – the influx of cheap low skilled workers from the new member states in the EU, and the whole political system of Western countries started to bend and sometimes break. It may not have happened with such force if this new and very visible wave of migrants had not come at a time when the economy took an enormous and long dive downwards. It changed the perception of too many people who a little earlier felt fine within their bubble, perhaps in communities with no migrants at least as much as where there were many. And this time the feelings of loss and fear could be freely shared unchecked with everybody on social media.

But maybe perceptions would have changed anyhow, as the end of the Cold War left an ideological vacuum that religion or traditional party lines could no longer fill. A man like Kissinger wrote and writes a lot about the tension between realism and idealism, but probably he mistook how much the thinking about the nuclear balance of power dominated the ideological debate. When that fell away, there was for a time no true ideology to take its place, not even liberalism. But inevitably, that would change, and this was the time it would change – into the mirror image of the cultural wars of the sixties and seventies.

In my own country, Bolkestein, the leader of the main liberal party, the VVD, and someone who had spent most of his years outside the Netherlands, introduced an outlook that was more conservative than liberal. Conservatism was a stream of thinking (especially the Ayn Rand version) that until then had hardly any adherents during the Cold War, not even through the cultural wars of the sixties and seventies. Now it took hold, especially after two other developments came about. One was that – with again Bolkestein as the first to do so – the link of conservatism with the rejection of migration was made, especially that from Muslim countries. The second was that Bolkestein led the way for a string of populists that left the fold of traditional parties. From Fortuyn to Wilders, to now Baudet; by going against convention these populists could claim a following of 15-20% of the electorate. Even more important may be their influence on the main stream parties: they felt obliged to tack either more to the right and to the left, leaving the middle as no more than the political space where the compromises had to be made.

What goes for the Netherlands, also holds more or less for other countries. In a country like Austria, conservatism has always been strong, but checked by Christian-democratic forces. Now these forces were weakening, together with their religious base.

Traditional socialism took a beating too, though from time to time, like in France, it still could shine as a sort of counter movement. But in most countries, too many low earning people changed adherence from traditional to populist parties to keep socialism alive as a political force. All-in-all, the strength of the conservative-populist movements is a sign of the lack of a real connecting stories or ideologies, or simply of the lack of a common enemy. Good administration and an effective execution of government policy are just not enough. Yet, how to do so, when in daily life there is much to deal with – and much of it is beyond the capabilities of a single nation state, especially when it comes to migration? Like it or not, we now live in an age of continents, not of nations. And this ‘balance of continents’ will determine how we deal with the ‘balance of ballistics’ and so much more. America, Asia and Europe are now the dominant forces. Russia is behaving like a separate continent too, but it is doubtful whether post-Putin this can be maintained any longer than this post-Brezhnev could. For now, and the coming years however, we do live in a time of block-restoration on a continental base, with two in Europe, of which its main symbol is this: walls.

The years of Cold Walls: 2016-2020?

There is a wall-race going on. Already physical walls have gone up in Israel, Hungary and Turkey. High fences can be already be found in more than 70 places (by May 2017, compared to about 12 when the Berlin Wall fell*) and can be found from Gibraltar to Calais, not to mention the fences surrounding G20 conferences and other. But the real increase of walls can be found on the internet. Of course, we want to deter the vast quantity of viruses, malware and hoaxes that have come our way since the nineties, leading us to adapt passwords and install all kind of warning- and back-up programs. But we are getting to a different, more qualitative and strategic level now, creating ‘Cold Walls’ that are means and end in a struggle for ‘sovereignty in our own circle’, to borrow a phrase from old Mr. Kuyper, founder of the 'Anti-Revolutionary Party' in the late 19th century.

The American election of 2016 will probably be the historical fault line here. It is highly unlikely that Russian interference was truly decisive in deciding the election in favour of Trump, but the fact that they even considered trying it is way beyond what any nation should do. On top of that we now have a presidency that is destabilising in its unpredictability and choice of force above diplomacy. Meanwhile China seems to follow the opposite course, for instance by trying to lay a new Silk route to Europe, but look at what happens to all in China or dealing with China: all have to adapt to its big walls of censorship and scrutiny. One of the things that is noteworthy about China, is how strict the government is dealing with the oligarchs that own the internet or energy activities. We have not seen the same in America or Russia yet – to the contrary. A happy coincidence is that the EU (not Britain) seems to be relatively free of these oligarchs, making it possible to come with strict privacy regulations. The problem with this is that it is in essence a defensive strategy: Europe is raising the digital walls by its GDPR regulations and others. Perhaps this can be turned into a competitive advantage later on, together with a smart 5G strategy, yet it is hard to see in this a way to cross (trade) barriers and wars. Both Brexit and Trump’s America First strategy point towards higher walls. The Chinese approach is, as stated, basically a one-way street. What does this then mean for the old relic called ‘nuclear balance’?

Not much good. Nuclear weapons are becoming instead the ultimate means to cross them or tear walls down. Their nature becomes in that sense more offensive; it is weapon against wall, starting in North Korea and perhaps going further in the direction of Iran, India and Israel. Yet, before that - and ‘preferably’ instead of that -there will be cyberwar. Certainly with Bolton as the new Secretary of State in the USA, cyber warfare will be the instrument of choice. As before, Europe and Britain will be the main arena for cyber battles, for the moment keeping the nuclear option at bay. That is, if Europe takes this lying down. Interesting about the response to the incident was that it was hard to distinguish between the NATO and the EU-response, with the impression that the EU was in the lead. No, Europe is already strong enough to counter. More worrisome is the fact that not all countries joined the move to expel diplomats, perhaps a prediction of the future difficulties in shaping Europe as a union in political and defensive terms.

Ending these reflections on the next phase of the move from Cold War to Cold Walls, there should also be this consideration of how we behave in terms of ideals and religion. To start with the latter; secularism is here to stay, but the search is one for secular convictions that are less based on individual convictions and more on collectively shared virtues. This coincides with increased carefulness in the public and digital domain. We learn not to show everything, we hope to control our impulses and hold everyone else accountable for their actions. This holds as much for the younger generation – that of #MeToo and the protest against an NRA that allows no restraint in freedom, even if that freedoms costs other peoples live – and it will hold more and more for an ageing baby boom generation as it knows it cannot return to power. So, for a few years we might have a convergence of conservative beliefs from the older generation and conservative behaviour of the younger on. But soon they might diverge again, as the younger generation no longer accepts the walls that have been built around their countries and digital domains. Whether through blockchain, edge adaptations, publicly regulated free spaces or simple physical meetings, they will break through – that is, if in the meantime no fool has thought it is a good idea to break through walls by nuclear means. Then we are all in the cold, and no walls can help us.

Peter Noordhoek

There is no single source for this article, except for the data on the number of walls ( I started reading and assessing Kissinger when I was 15 and I have never stopped, but alongside him there have been many, many more great writers and thinkers on every part and aspect of the age we live in. I have read and used many, and still claim only the judgement of an interested layman. We each have to interpret our own time line. As mine is growing longer, there is more to say.

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