A lot of people see the Cold War as distant history. There was even one political scientist/economist who wrote a book in 1992 claiming that the end of the Cold War was “The End of History.”
Obviously, that thesis didn’t age well.
But even leaving aside the nonsense that with the collapse of the Soviet Union, a new age of democracy and peace had dawned, a lot of us still see a rupture between the Cold War and the present strategic situation. There is no such rupture, though. History doesn’t work in “eras” except in high school textbooks.
Yes, this is in reference to my last post. An expansion, if you will. If you want to understand why we seem to be trapped in “endless war,” then you need to understand what happened since World War II, and how that has contributed to where we are now.
The Cold War has been described as the multi-decade tensions between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, marked by espionage, massive conventional forces staring at each other across the Iron Curtain, and the Mutually Assured Destruction of thousands of nuclear weapons pointed in both directions. And those were part of it. But the Cold War wasn’t really all that “cold.”
Proxy wars are nothing new. The Persians were practicing it against the Greeks for the 27 years of the Peloponnesian War. But the Cold War saw it elevated to new heights due to the aforementioned Mutually Assured Destruction. Open warfare between the major powers became too risky, largely due to the massive nuclear arsenals aimed at major population centers as well as military targets. So, the war happened on the peripheries, with revolutions, civil wars, and foreign interventions.
Because of the irregular nature of most of these “shadow campaigns,” which were simultaneously local wars and battles in the larger, global war between the West and the Communist bloc, it’s hard to say just how many casualties resulted from the Cold War. Some have estimated up to 25 million dead in the Cold War, making it the 9th deadliest war in history.
But where we really start to get into the weeds is the nature of the actual combat in the Cold War.
Proxy war, guerrilla war, and terrorism became the norm. And they still are, for a couple of reasons.
One, while Mutually Assured Destruction is no longer quite the threat it used to be, high-tech direct warfare is expensive. Very expensive. And with the US outclassing just about everyone for sheer high-tech conventional combat power, it’s usually a losing proposition, as the Iraqis found out the hard way. Twice.
So, proxy wars using irregular forces, separatist groups, and “volunteers”/mercenaries are less expensive monetarily, as well as in terms of political capital. Lots of friendly casualties cost a government. Keep casualties low through sleight of hand, using proxies and SOF acting under the aegis of “volunteers” or mercenaries (Looking at you, Wagner.) keeps your own population from getting restive as quickly.
The other reason lies in the nature of the thing. By creating a proxy force, you’re effectively creating a fire-and-forget weapon, and one that you really don’t have a lot of control over. Particularly not if you’ve convinced yourself that it’s really all about “liberation” and that the proxy force are your little brothers and sisters, so you haven’t put enough leverage in place to act as a “kill switch.” (Which, really, nobody’s ever done effectively, anyway.) Not really understanding the proxy force’s culture and motivations only makes matters worse. The most glaring example would be the jihadis, many of whom got training and equipment from the US through Pakistani ISI during the Soviet-Afghan War, and then have used it in the wave of jihad that followed. To them, once the Lesser Satan was defeated, it was time for the Great Satan to go down.
It doesn’t just go against the West, either. The Soviets used jihadist terror organizations as well, and the Russians have similarly found themselves embroiled in jihadi insurgencies in Chechnya and Dagestan (though partially of their own making). The PLA provided a great deal of assistance to the Viet Minh and North Vietnam, only to become long-standing enemies of the Vietnamese after the war.
The thing here is, the Cold War developed tactics and strategy just like any other war before it. Particularly strategy. Irregular warfare worked; it took longer, dragging out the misery, but at less cost to the sponsors and to the irregulars. And therefore, it has become the norm. The genie is out of the bottle, and there’s no putting it back. Especially as war has become the realm of non-state actors as well as nations. Anyone with enough money and organization can start a war (which, really, is the way it always has been; war being solely the business of nation states was always a fantasy), and if they don’t have enough money, they can probably find somebody who does.
Add in the ease of travel and communication, and the scope of the problem should become obvious.
This is the true legacy of the Cold War. It’s not the New World Order of globalist democracy that was touted in the early ’90s. It’s instability and irregular war, war that can be exported anywhere on a shoestring. And it is being exported everywhere.
There are still those who think that we can just refuse to play the game. These people are still operating on the same flawed premises that many of the interventionists are. They don’t understand the fluid nature of war as it exists now. (Granted, as I said above, none of this is exactly new; some of the applications are, but the principles are the same as they have been for centuries. We just aren’t used to viewing the world this way, in the West.) There’s no avoiding it by rolling up the carpet and locking the doors, any more than there is by trying (and failing) to force stability by democracy in places that have no tradition of it, or interest in it.
To quote an old saying, “You may not be interested in War, but War is interested in you.” And there are a lot more ways that War can look you up halfway around the world than there were a century ago.