The Cold War from the Standpoints of Its Victims

by Eqbal Ahmad (1991)
Eqbal Ahmad (1933/34 - 1999) joined the National Liberation Front and worked with Frantz Fanon, was indicted with the anti-war Catholic priests, Daniel and Phillip Berrigan, along with four other Catholic pacifists, on charges of conspiracy to kidnap Henry Kissinger (it was a mistrial), and wrote prolifically as a journalist and political theorist. This talk was delivered in 1991

Allen Hunter's call to this conference and his accompanying letter render it difficult for me to write this essay as I might otherwise have done—without reference to the current academic debate on the Cold War. Allen recalls specially Professor John Lewis Gaddis's 1986 essay "The Long Peace: Elements of Stability in the Postwar International System." I am persuaded to use this influential work as a starting point for this essay on the Cold War from the standpoint of its victims.

I should refrain from detailing the extent and costs of victimhood and also the varieties of wars to which nonmembers have been subjected by members of the "bipolar" club. My colleagues on this panel—Professors Walter LaFeber and Charles W. Kegley Jr.—have already noted the salients. An estimated 21 million people died, uncounted millions were wounded, and more than a hundred million were rendered refugees by what have been variously described as the limited, invisible, forgotten, and covert wars of the 1945-1990 period.

Professor Gaddis, too, is sensitive to the anomaly of describing a time so fraught with war and violence as a period of "long peace." "To be sure." he writes, "the term peace is not the first that comes to mind when one recalls the history of the Cold War. That period, after all, has seen the greatest accumulation of armaments the world has ever known, a whole series of protracted and devastating limited wars, an abundance of revolutionary, ethnic, religious and civil violence, as well as some of the deepest and most intractable ideological rivalries in human experience. . . Is it not stretching things a bit, one might well ask, to take the moral and spiritual desert in which the nations of the world conduct their affairs, and call it 'peace'?"1 "lt is of course," he answers, "but that is just the point. Given all the conceivable reasons for having had a major war in the past four decades . . . it is worthy of comment that there has not in fact been one." Professor Gaddis's essay is an attempt to "comprehend how this great power peace has managed to survive for so long in face of so much provocation, and for thinking about what might be done to perpetuate that situation.

Professor Gaddis does not formally define peace; its meaning is subsumed. In the subtitle of his essay, peace is identified with the "stability" of the "postwar international system." In the text itself. he perceives peace variously as "great power peace"; the absence of "great power conflict," "major war," or "World War Ill"; and "survival" of the post-World War ll system of international relations. He cites two mainstream political scientists, Karl Deutsch and David Singer, to support his central argument that during the four decades following World War ll the international system remained stable and yielded a peace that has "approximately equaled in longevity the great 19th century international systems of Metternich and Bismarck."2 This parallel between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries' periods of "long peace" is, we shall later see, noteworthy, for it underlines the continuity of a dominant tradition in diplomatic historiography.

After noting that a disproportionate amount of scholarly attention has been given to the causes of war, Professor Gaddis devotes the rest of his erudite essay to an investigation of the causes of the "long peace."3 For the sake of clarity in the proceeding discussion, a summary of his six-point finding follows: (I) Elements of stability were present in the bipolar structure of the post-World War II international system. Specifically, (a) it "realistically reflected" the loci of military power; (b) as a "simple system," the bipolar did not require sophisticated leaders to maintain it; (c) simple structure rendered alliances more stable: and (d) stability of alliances rendered defections more tolerable and hence less disruptive. (2) The USA and USSR were independent of and remote from each other, hence too much familiarity did not breed contempt. (3) The domestic structure of neither superpower impeded the maintenance of a stable international system. (4) Nuclear deterrence provided the mechanism for avoiding war. (5) The "reconnaissance revolution" enabled both sides to evaluate each other's capabilities, reducing the risks of miscalculation and surprise attack. And (6) both Moscow and Washington had developed an overriding interest in "preserving the existing international system."4

Those who accept the notions of peace as synonymous with international stability, of international stability as the absence of "great power conflict," and this latter alone as constituting "major war" will find Professor Gaddis's essay erudite, persuasive, and, above all, reassuring. But no one who recognizes the existence and structures of modern imperialism as a defining force in world history can be persuaded of the usefulness of these and ancillary concepts in comprehending the realities of international relations in the past four or, for that matter, forty decades.

My aims in this brief and, I regret to admit, unfinished essay are threefold: to raise some questions about the language and concepts that dominate the literature on international relations; to place in a historical perspective the savage wars of the "long peace"; and to inquire into the fixture of the United States' policies toward the Third World—that majority of international community that lived, by and large, beyond "bipolarity"—after the formal end of the Cold War.

The issue at hand is the nature of the Cold War, the era that began after World War II and may be presumed to have terminated at the decade's end. For, if it ever existed,"bipolarity" may be construed to have ended somewhere between 1989, when the wall that divided Berlin was dismantled, and the fall of 1990, when the United States led a multilateral military expedition to the Middle East, the first such campaign to be waged by Washington without Moscow's protestations.

Central to this debate are differing notions of war, peace, and the contemporary international system.There are two simple ways of approaching a definition of peace—the positive and the negative. A positive view of peace presupposes an international system based on cooperation between major powers, their operative commitment to resolving international disputes collectively and by peaceful means, and their respect for the sovereignty and independence of weaker countries. The concomitants of these assumptions, which are embedded in the charter of the United Nations, are that peacetime activities and expenditures shall take precedence over preparations for war, fear of war shall recede as a global anxiety, the use of force shall be an exception rather than the rule in relations among nations, and international laws, rather than coercive capabilities, shall govern the behavior of the powerful no less than the weak.

Hardly anyone who holds this view of peace would regard the last forty-five years as a period of peace. The arms race that was unleashed upon us had no parallel in history. One superpower became so concentrated on inventing and producing weapons that it lost to junior partners, like Japan and Germany, the art of peacetime production. Another superpower—or so it was designated—literally went broke trying to play catch-up. Miraculous Arabian Nights fantasies materialized, nevertheless, as killing machines.

Addiction to armaments spread beyond the great powers to poverty-stricken Third World countries and to the indulgently rich petroleum producers of the Middle East. The habit spawned, as habit often does, violence, civil strife, dependency on suppliers, indebtedness, crime, and delusions of grandeur. Furthermore, the proliferation of sophisticated armaments raised the costs of the Third World's multiple—ethnic, religious, revolutionary, and counterrevolutionary—strif'es to astronomical proportions. Iraq was the latest casualty of the post-World War II addiction to arms.

The sovereignty of weak nations was frequently violated. Resistance to these violations caused one superpower to brandish the Bomb, according to one estimate, on twelve occasions between 1946 and 1986.5 As if to underline America's debt to its imperial predecessors, Professor Henry Kissinger described these nuke rattlings as the "twentieth century equivalent of showing the flag"6 Fear stalked our lives, and "End Time" attained the status of an ideology, especially in America, where high politics was reduced to the art of selling the latest "family" of weapons.

The negative definition of peace is less demanding and more congenial to "realists" of both the scholarly and "crackpot" variety. It views peace merely as an absence of war and in the interest of realism focuses on "major wars." Even from this narrower perspective, the Cold War did not yield a "long peace." It is true that there was no nuclear war, and humanity was spared global holocaust.This may be a cause for thanksgiving but does not justify the analytical elevation of scoundrel times to peacetime. For, if peace is to be construed as avoidance of the ultimate catastrophe, then war has been peace for centuries, at least for every one except the Mayas, Incas, Aztecs, American Indians, gypsies, Jews of Europe, inhabitants of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and possibly the Palestinians.

It may be argued that in the complex, ideologically charged, and nuclearized international environment, it is unhelpful to view the problems of war and peace in a reductionist, positive-negative perspective. One ought to focus on the dominant characteristics of the international system, not on its disturbances, deviations, and injustices. This is not an unfair demand. In evaluating the many wars that came in from the cold, the central question to ask is whether they were incidental or integral to the postwar international system. If they can be shown to be incidental, then it is obviously correct to treat them as having been generated outside the dominant system of great-power politics. On the other hand, if these wars were integral to international relations, then the international system that spawned such widespread and continuous warfare ought to be viewed as a war system, that is, one that relied on militarism and warfare in order to sustain itself. The relationship of the so-called limited wars to the international system may be examined in terms of three criteria: (1) whether the conflict began in the context of international relations involving one or more of the great powers; (2) whether a superpower directly engaged in warfare, deployed its advanced weaponry, and caused large-scale casualties; and (3) whether the war had a global significance in that it significantly affected international relations and a superpowers international standing and future policies. Judged by these very conservative criteria, at least the Korean War [1950-1953], Indochina War [1945-1975], Afghan War [1979-1988], and the Gulf War [1991] would qualify, not at all as limited wars but as major wars of historical importance.

A more liberal and, I believe more accurate way of drawing up the balance sheet would be to include the complete repertoire of the wars of intervention—full-scale invasions, covert wars, proxy wars, and surgical strikes—in which one or the other of the superpowers and their surrogates engaged in the Cold War era. Taken together, the scope, intensity, and frequency of these wars suggest that they were systemic in nature and not merely a series of provocations that the superpowers could not evade but kept limited. That is to say, they were integral to the international system, were deemed necessary to system maintenance, and were tolerated by its other members irrespective of their differences with the warring power or coalition of powers. We begin, seemingly, to describe a war system.

The arms race was not merely a wasteful enterprise. All the high-tech weapons, except the big one, were tested on human beings in the real-life battle fields of Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Lebanon, Afghanistan,and Iraq. Wars in these unfortunate countries alone took the toll of an estimated twelve million lives. During the "long peace," the great powers gave us no less than one "limited," or "invisible," war every sixteen months. It is a tribute to the power of ideology and tradition that in the last quarter of the twentieth century reputable historians can dismiss as "limited" or as mere "provocations" wars like those in Korea, Vietnam, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and the Middle East. After all, each of these was destructive beyond imagination, and to each a superpower was organically linked. They also shaped the diplomatic, military, and economic posture of one or both superpowers and in many ways guided the course of contemporary world politics. I can appreciate the perception of stability on the part of those who identify with the Western metropole. But it hurts one's sense of history, no less than fair play, to find this era of intermittent and multi-pronged war of the strong upon the weak described as a period of "long peace."

There is a more painful recognition to be made: the roots of this debate do not lie in either differences over facts or the degree of moral sensitivity. We, Professor Gaddis and I, to cite two immediate names, are unlikely to differ over what actually happened in the last four decades, and we are most probably equally committed to a peaceable environment of international relations. The defining factors in this debate are methods not intentions. Those among us who suppose, as William Appleman Williams did, that imperialism constitutes the modern world system and empire is also an American way of life view international politics as being shaped by hegemonic relations in their triangular aspects of competition, collaboration, and resistance. Peace is not construed in terms of stability of a real or imagined international system. War is categorized less in terms of power equations and more with respect to the intensity and scope of its impact, internationally, on peoples and their histories. Notions of balance of power and international equilibrium have but a tertiary value for this school of thought, and "bipolarity" appears to describe, at best, an aspect of international relations—a subsystem within the system—not the defining feature of it.

Then there is the school of thought, albeit dominant, that has viewed world politics in terms primarily of relations among great powers; bipolarity, I shall later argue, was merely a piece of this tradition. Because the West has dominated the world for several centuries, its focus of analysis has been on Western powers. The international system was allotted to them as a permanent holding. World politics was viewed and interpreted from their vantage point, in terms of their ententes and their wars. Methodologically—and habitually, as the tradition took toots—scholars perceived the world and its history in terms, to borrow a phrase from Edward Said, of "a higher mission and a humble reality."7 The latter, of course, were the realities of people destroyed in their entirety and of continents subjugated.

As Edward Said has argued, devaluation of non-Western cultures and history has been integral to the epistemology of imperialism.The language no less than the methods of history, especially diplomatic and military history, offers ample support for his argument.What have been labeled by scholars variously since the sixteenth century as "expeditionary," "colonial," "interventionary," and—the latest euphemism—"limited" wars suppress reality and obscure history.They were named for their meaning to the dominant powers or, rather, to imperialism, which may be accurately described as a war system. The history of the past four centuries is a history of barely recorded holocausts. For the peoples and nations under assault, those belittled wars were always "systemic" and often total wars that had profound historical consequences.They transformed, in every sense of the word, the American,Asian, African, and even the European environment.

Great civilizations—the Mayas, Incas, Aztecs, and the so-called civilized nations of the Americas—mere impediments to the process of pioneering and exploration—were wiped out by "expeditionary" warfare. "Colonial" and "interventionary" wars yielded slavery as a modern institution and also the conquest and/or subordination of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Yet historians rarely interpreted these universal, world-transforming wars as anything more than a series of milestones on the road to progress. Recordings and remembrances were reserved for the occasions when the humble inflicted injury on the high—when a Custer was killed or a Gordon besieged.

The international system that gave these wars a continuous, unrelieved reality was seldom described, or understood, as a war system.The dominant school of historians continued to interpret world history largely in terms such as "balance of power" and "international equilibrium." These concepts, much like "bipolarity" during the "long peace," addressed the Western experience as the hegemon wished it.The method and the body of knowledge that flowed from the dominant historiography had two primary consequences: they excluded, as the central concern of world politics, the rest of humanity, and they protected key civilizations of the West from confronting the intellectual and moral consequences of their own history.

Yet in the twentieth century something changed.The wars of greed and expansion came seriously home to roost.The colonial have-nots of the Western world took on the haves. World War I was the last truly popular war in the West.The innocent populace in Paris and London, no less than in Berlin and Rome, toasted and danced at its start; young men sang their way to battlefields. But it was a devastating war in which air and chemical warfare made their debut. Europeans, who were so unaccustomed to total wars, called them world wars and gave them numbers—I, II.

When the first World War was over, a new time began, a time of yearning for peace. Perhaps for the first time in the Western world, war lost its appeal as a great game—so Winston Churchill. then a young subaltern on a military campaign in India, had described it less than twenty years earlier—to be played out in exotic, alien lands in the service of a "civilizing mission." A significant opinion—mostly of socialist and anti-imperialist provenance— emerged in the Western world that evinced revulsion from war and considered peace a necessity. It was a time in which peace associations proliferated and peace became a best seller in Europe. It was this environment that gave birth to the League of Nations and Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points.

I should not dwell here on the causes of the failures of the postwar peace settlement or the dynamics of fascism's successes in Germany. Italy, and Spain. even though both subjects are underanalyzed by dissenting scholarship and deserve attention. However, two points merit passing mention because they suggest the intellectual and practical costs of ignoring both the contradictions of imperialism and its capacity to undermine international mechanisms for peace.

Few scholars have investigated the correlation between the ascendance of fascism and the absence of large colonial safety valves. After all, both Germany and Italy were the only colonial have-nots among the major countries of Europe, and in the age of industrialization Spain had become a receding colonial power. Adolf Hitler himself made quite a stink and won quite a few followers in the German aristocracy and business class who would otherwise have recoiled from him.

Similarly, I have seen but little analysis, or narrative, of the ways in which the great powers undermined the League of Nations and betrayed promises to the subordinated majority of the world. The league lost its legitimacy, as the United Nations is losing its now, because it became a blatant instrument of power, not of peacemaking. In the Middle East, for example, the mandate of the league was twisted beyond imagining; the West's Arab allies were divided up as spoils; and Palestine was promised to jewish militants whose mission was to create a biblical Eretz Israel where a native people had dwelled and built civilizations for millennia.We are reaping still the harvests of those betrayals.

The limited wars of the long peace occurred in a postcolonial international environment that differed significantly from what Winston Churchill had called "the great game" of the previous centuries. Conquests and colonization ceased to be the objectives of warfare. In the post-World War II period, ensuring control over actual or desired clients became the primary objective of interventions. The only exception to this rule may be the Israelis, whose pioneering zeal has survived the nuclear age.Yet the continuities in imperialism's outlook and style are more noteworthy than the changes in its structure. Like the more recent American wars in the Third World, these wars were "limited" only in their consequences for the intervening power."covert" only for the citizens of Western democracies, and "forgotten" by the ensurers of democratic accountability: the press and parliaments. A survey of this centuries-long history of systemic, occasionally genocidal, wars reveals a pattern: they have been waged on a large scale, with greater frequency, and at enormous costs to defenseless and weak peoples precisely during periods of international stability, that is, of relative peace between the great Western powers. [1991]

  1. John Lewis Gaddis "The Long Peace: Elements of Stability in the Postwar International System," in The Long Peace. p. 216
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid. pp. 232, 237
  5. Daniel Ellsberg, introduction to E.P. Thompson and Dan Smith, eds "Protest and Survive"
  6. Henry Kissinger, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, p. 391
  7. Edward Said, The Question of Palestine

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