Hal Brands on a 'Lesson' of the Cold War
Hal Brands, a senior fellow for the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), has published an article on "American Grand Strategy: Lessons from the Cold War" (E-Notes, August 2015). Brands finds eight lessons, but his second lesson interests me:
Lesson 2: American engagement is the bedrock of international stabilityPerhaps the lesson from the history of the Cold War applies solely to the Cold War's history. Here's the support for stability:
A second key debating point regarding U.S. grand strategy today involves the question of what this defense spending and global engagement actually buy in terms of securing the international order. Does U.S. engagement foster stability and peace, as American officials have long claimed? Or does it primarily invite blowback and other undesirable behavior, as critics allege? The history of the Cold War lends some support to both arguments, but the balance lies overwhelmingly with the former perspective.
U.S. global engagement during the Cold War was a response to the fact that the absence of such engagement had helped cause the catastrophic instability of the interwar era. And during the Cold War, it was precisely the U.S. decision to embrace the responsibility of organizing and protecting the non-communist world that allowed key regions like Europe and East Asia - particularly the former - to break free of their tragic pasts and achieve remarkable levels of stability. U.S. policy helped deter Soviet aggression and dissuade other disruptive behavior; it helped mute historical frictions between countries like Germany and Japan, on the one hand, and their former enemies, on the other; it helped foster the climate of security in which unprecedented economic growth and multilateral cooperation could occur. U.S. policy was not the only factor in these achievements, but it was the common thread that connected them.This is a fact about the past. American engagement in the world during the Cold War is properly seen to have been a force for international stability. But does this fact about the past permit us to apply the same reasoning today? Brands himself asks this question:
What relevance does this history have for grand strategic debates in a period that seems so different from the Cold War? The relevance is simply to remind us that stability - and all of the blessings that stability makes possible - is not an organic condition of the international environment. Rather, it must be provided by powerful actors who are willing to confront those forces - national rivalry, aggression by the strong against the weak - that have, historically, so often pushed international relations toward instability and conflict. At a time when many of those forces again seem to be rearing their heads from East Asia to Eastern Europe - and when there is still no compelling candidate to replace Washington as primary provider of international stability - this lesson is especially important to bear in mind.Brands's answer seems to be that since nobody else can provide stability, only the US can. That is not a very compelling argument. In a sense, the Cold War itself provided stability, a framework that pushed the two sides to find mutual benefit in agreements. Our opponents at that time were not suicidal. Today, however, we face enemies who are not rational in the sense that the Soviet Union was. The Islamic jihadists say that they love death, which makes them irrational from a secular perspective. American intervention against jihadists in Afghanistan and Iraq have not stabilized the forces of order but have strengthened those of disorder. Maybe the rule of tyrants like Saddam Hussein kept order in their world comparable to how the rule of Communist dictators like Stalin kept order in theirs. Perhaps the order sought would have to have been kept by a certain distance of disengagement.
But it's too late for that now, so we face the dilemma of engaging and bringing more chaos or of disengaging and leaving more chaos. So . . . which is the lesser chaos?