What is this Generational Cold War

The Cold War and its world

The conflict between capitalism and socialism affected the whole world. Yes, the Cold War continues to shape the way we humans live and think. - An excerpt from the new edition of "NZZ history"

The Cold War as a state system ended on a cold, gray day in December 1991 when Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow declared the existence of the Soviet Union to be over. Communism, or more precisely Marxism-Leninism, had served its purpose as a social ideal. But the ideological Cold War, which began almost two generations before this state system, only partially disappeared. Not much changed for the Americans on that December day in 1991. Washington's foreign policy continued without any significant adjustments in its strategic visions or political goals. The Cold War was over; the United States had won it. But the elites in America still believed that there could only be security for them if the world followed the American example and all other states followed the will of the US government.

It's easy to forget nowadays how much the Cold War shaped our modern world. In my childhood, in peaceful Norway in the 1960s, even my world was defined by the Cold War. It divided families, cities, regions and countries, caused fear and unrest. Could you be sure that the nuclear disaster wouldn't happen tomorrow? What could the trigger be? Communists - a tiny group in my hometown - aroused suspicion because they held dissenting points of view, and probably also because, as has been claimed, they were not loyal to our country but to the Soviet Union. In a country that had been under occupation during World War II, that was no small matter. The people in this area were very sensitive to treason. Norway bordered the Soviet Union in the far north, and the slightest rise in temperature in international politics also increased tension on the mostly frozen border river. Even in peaceful Norway, the world was divided, and now hardly anyone remembers how intense these conflicts were.

The Cold War can best be described as a confrontation between capitalism and socialism that peaked between 1945 and 1989, but whose origins go back much further and whose effects can still be felt today. The Cold War was an international system in the sense that the world's leading powers related their foreign policy to this conflict. The Cold War dominated domestic debates practically everywhere. But even at its height, the Cold War wasn't the only thing that moved the world. There were many important historical developments unrelated to the Cold War in the late twentieth century. The Cold War didn't decide everything, but it had a major, mostly negative, impact. He cemented the world dominated by the superpowers, in which power and violence (or the threat of them) were the basic elements of international relations and one's own point of view was defended with absolute absolute. Only one's own system was good, that of the other side was fundamentally bad.

Such claims to absoluteness are part of the legacy of the Cold War. The worst examples were the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: moral certainties, a lack of willingness to enter into dialogue, the belief in purely military solutions. But they also show up in the doctrinal advocacy of the free market economy or the topdownapproachwhen it comes to social conflicts or generation problems. Some regimes still cling to authoritarian structures that date back to the Cold War. China is the most impressive example and North Korea the worst, but dozens of countries, from Vietnam and Cuba to Morocco and Malaysia, have significant Cold War elements in their state systems. Even today, environmental damage, social conflicts and ethnic tensions can be traced back to the Cold War in many parts of the world. Some critics call the goal of permanent economic growth, which in the long term threatens the well-being, even the continued existence of humanity, as the result of the rivalries of the Cold War.

In fairness it has to be said that the Cold War - at least the way it ended - also had fewer negative aspects. Few Western Europeans or Southeast Asians would have preferred to live in one of the communist states that had been established in the eastern regions of their continent. And although US interventions in Asia were condemned almost everywhere, most Europeans were and still are convinced that the presence of the US military in their respective countries ensured peace and contributed to democratic conditions. It was of enormous importance that the confrontation between the superpowers ended peacefully. Given the arsenal of nuclear weapons that could destroy the world multiple times, a nuclear Armageddon could only be avoided through restraint and shrewdness. The Cold War may not have been the long peace that some historians have considered it to be. But at the center of international politics, war was avoided for so long that change was possible. Our survival depended on this long delay.

Read on in the new edition, p. 36

This text is an excerpt from the article “The Cold War and its World”, which will appear on February 8, 2018 in the new edition of “NZZ Geschichte”.

Further topics of the edition:

1848 - year of birth of modern Switzerland
The third part of our series “Key Moments in Swiss History” by Thomas Maissen.

Witch madness
The executions of women in the 16th century on Lake Biel.

Hermann Luebbe
The great philosopher in conversation about historical awareness and his life.

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