There are many ominous signs that dark clouds are gathering over international relations, from the South China Sea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Japan and South Korea to the Middle East, and to Ukraine and the Baltics. We are entering a new and perhaps a more ominous Cold War.
This is something that will affect all our lives and will plunge us into a new era of East-West confrontation that none of us wants and that all of us should try hard to prevent.
Many young people were born after the end of the Cold War or were too young to remember its horrors, and how the world was on a knife’s edge about a possible global confrontation between the two superpowers with thousands of nuclear weapons whose use could have ended human civilization. We, who remember those days, should make sure that we do not see a repetition of that dark period in human history.
Yet, sadly, a Cold War mentality is once again creeping back into political discourse.
The Second World War that killed more than 60 million people and devastated many countries had hardly ended when new hostilities emerged. The dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not so much the final act in the Second World War as the opening shot in the Cold War. Contrary to the stated justifications for the dropping of the bombs as a means of forcing Japan to surrender, it is now clear that Japan was ready to surrender before the use of those awful weapons.
Many historians believe that the real reason for the use of nuclear weapons was to prevent Japan falling into the hands of the Soviet Union, as the Red Army was poised to take on Japan’s remaining army in Manchuria, thus forcing Japan to surrender to Russia. Furthermore, it was a clear signal of the West’s possession of the new devastating weapons.
For instance, the scientist Leo Szilard who met with US Secretary of State James F. Byrnes in May 1945, reported later: “Byrnes did not argue that it was necessary to use the bomb against the cities of Japan in order to win the war … Mr. Byrnes’ view was that our possessing and demonstrating the bomb would make Russia more manageable.” (1)
Therefore, far from wanting to save lives, the use of nuclear weapons was to demonstrate America’s overwhelming military might, and to issue a warning to Russia.
The war had hardly ended when in a speech in the British House of Commons on 16 August 1945 Winston Churchill referred to “the iron curtain which at the moment divides Europe in twain.”
It was in view of those ominous events that mankind decided to create international organizations that would “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind.” The Charter of the United Nations aimed “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small” and “to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security”.
Yet, despite those lofty sentiments, the world has witnessed non-stop conflict and proxy wars ever since.
Far from establishing permanent peace, the West formed the mighty North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), followed by the Eastern bloc’s Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation, and Mutual Assistance (the Warsaw Pact) in reaction to the integration of West Germany into NATO.
Although the Warsaw Pact was dismantled after the end of the Cold War, NATO has gone from strength to strength. In addition to all the warlike talk about the need to confront Russia, the confrontation has moved beyond words into action.
Recently, the United States switched on the $800 million missile shield, ironically at a Soviet-era base in Romania.
Rightly or wrongly, many Russians believe that Russia is vulnerable to a pre-emptive Western attack that could destroy most of Russian nuclear sites. If the West also builds a missile defence shield against Russian retaliation, the nuclear deterrence, or the concept of MAD (mutual assured destruction), would lose its value and Russia would have no option but to surrender to Western demands.
This may be a mistaken perception, but in politics perception plays a major role.
In response, speaking to his top military officers, President Putin said: “This is not a defence system. This is part of U.S. nuclear strategic potential brought onto a periphery. In this case, Eastern Europe is such periphery.” He went on to say: “Until now, those taking such decisions have lived in calm, fairly well-off and in safety. Now, as these elements of ballistic missile defence are deployed, we are forced to think how to neutralize emerging threats to the Russian Federation.”
All this sounds very ominous.
There are clear signs of a return to a new Cold War based on false premises. In fact, the dangers of the new Cold War are much greater than was the case with the old Cold War, because at that time there was some form of parity between the two sides, and neither side pushed openly for confrontation, while at the moment, the Warsaw Pact is gone and Russia’s military spending is only 8% of NATO’s spending.
This imbalance creates excessive self-confidence in the West and great apprehension in Russia.
During the Cold War, each side knew the rules of the game and did not transgress them. Each side knew how far it could push before igniting a serious confrontation. Such constraints do not exist at the moment. The proliferation of tactical nuclear weapons is another factor that makes their use more likely, which then would inadvertently result in a full-blown confrontation.
Perhaps the most important factor was the post-World War generation was still aware of the horrors of the war, while at the moment the younger generations fortunately do not have such memories and may not be as sensitive to the use of force.
Recently, former U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel warned that both sides would find themselves “very quickly in another Cold War build-up here that makes sense for neither side.”
As President Obama eloquently said in his speech in Hiroshima: “Seventy-one years ago, on a bright cloudless morning, death fell from the sky and the world was changed. A flash of light and a wall of fire destroyed a city and demonstrated that mankind possessed the means to destroy itself.”
He reminded us: “The world war that reached its brutal end in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was fought among the wealthiest and most powerful of nations. Their civilizations had given the world great cities and magnificent art. Their thinkers had advanced ideas of justice and harmony and truth. And yet the war grew out of the same base instinct for domination or conquest that had caused conflicts among the simplest tribes, an old pattern amplified by new capabilities and without new constraints.”
He went on to say: “Science allows us to communicate across the seas and fly above the clouds, to cure disease and understand the cosmos, but those same discoveries can be turned into ever more efficient killing machines. The wars of the modern age teach us this truth. Hiroshima teaches this truth. Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well.”
We must bring about a moral revolution if we do not wish to repeat our past mistakes.
1- See: “The Zinn Reader: Writings on Disobedience and Democracy”, p 367