Cold War, Unlearned

Op-Ed Carnegie
The Bush administration, the U.S. security establishment and America as a whole, were profoundly affected by the Cold War. It was inevitable, then, that the U.S. approach to the war against terrorism would be shaped by its legacy. Unfortunately, the hawks in the administration have chosen to rely on a few disputed lessons from the Cold War while turning their backs on its more valuable examples.
Related Media and Tools

The Bush administration, the U.S. security establishment and, indeed, America as a whole were all profoundly affected by the four decades of the Cold War. It was inevitable, then, that the U.S. approach to the war against terrorism would also be shaped by the legacy of that war.

Unfortunately, the hawks in the administration have chosen to rely on a few narrow and disputed lessons from the Cold War while deliberately turning their backs on its more valuable examples. In particular, they are at risk of a truly catastrophic act of deliberate amnesia when it comes to the lessons of Vietnam.

The war against terrorism resembles the Cold War, rather than World War I or II, in a whole set of ways. Rather than an open and relatively quick military struggle against a group of enemy states, this will be a decades-long campaign in which ideological struggle, political manipulation, financial tools and - yes - "nation-building" will be at least as important as outright war.

American hawks are obsessed with the notion that former President Ronald Reagan's tough anti-Soviet stance of the early 1980s, and his increased military spending, were what really brought down the Soviet Union. But they forget two things. First, Reagan's strategy was a bloodless arms race, not a military campaign. And second, because the United States did not attack the Soviet Union, space was left for an anti-Soviet Russian democratic populism under former President Boris Yeltsin. This also played a central part in the Soviet Union's collapse.

If, by contrast, the United States had been seen by ordinary Russians to threaten Russia itself, there would have been a strong tendency for nationalists to rally behind the Soviet state, with disastrous consequences. Today, we are told that the United States wishes to bring democracy to the Arab world, which is a worthy goal. But does anyone really think that a successful democracy can be imposed on the Arabs by armed force, especially when most Arabs see U.S. strategy as guided by Israel, a state whose policies they regard with loathing?

Above all, the "war against terrorism" is a terribly misleading phrase to describe what the United States is now involved in. Terrorism is not a movement or ideology, but just a vicious strategy that has been used by many different movements over the years: Irish nationalists, Zionists, Communists, anarchists and others, including Muslims. The hideous tactic of suicide bombing was pioneered by the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, though it is true that Muslim radicals have taken it to a new level of horror and fanaticism.

Of course, members of al-Qaida are terrorists, but they and their allies, like the Communists, are also a multi-pronged revolutionary movement. This movement wishes to replicate its success in Afghanistan (and, to some extent, Chechnya) by seizing control of various states and using them as bases for further campaigns against the "enemies of Islam."


It should therefore be self-evident that, as in the Cold War, socioeconomic factors are of key importance. Defeating communism in South Korea and elsewhere was universally recognized to be not just about defeating armies, but turning countries into successful and prosperous anti-Communist states. This should be absolutely obvious in the context of the struggle against Islamist revolution and terrorism. In the same way, we need to strengthen pro-Western Muslim societies so that they can resist subversion. The visceral hostility of elements of the Bush administration to "nation-building" therefore looks thoroughly bizarre, the product of a knee-jerk reaction against former President Bill Clinton's policies rather than any serious study of U.S. history.

Reference is often made to the Marshall Plan. But anti-Communist aid policies were also vitally important elsewhere - for example, in the successful strengthening of South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand and in supporting pro-U.S. regimes in Central America. Even when much of this money was stolen by the regimes in question, it still played a critically important part in keeping them out of the Communist camp. Today, this vital lesson of the Cold War appears to have been largely forgotten, replaced by a narrow and extremely dangerous reliance on pure military power.

In fact, during the whole of the Cold War, there was only one military campaign that the United States really had to fight with its own armies: the Korean War. In all the other cases, the United States did better by using local surrogates, or by not actually fighting at all. This was, above all, true of Vietnam. As that conflict so tragically illustrates, America's enemies in the Cold War shifted over time.

The tendency of U.S. Cold warriors to see all the Communist states as one monolithic bloc was a terrible error. It led directly to the failure to recognize the role of nationalism and the consequent inability in the early 1960s to notice the growing split between the Soviet Union and China. If this had been understood, it would have become immediately apparent that the correct U.S. geopolitical course was to play off a Soviet-backed, Communist-nationalist Vietnam against China, thus paralyzing from within any wider Communist threat to Southeast Asia. Instead of 59,000 American soldiers, not one American life needed to be lost in Indo-China.

Just because a cause is moral does not mean that it has to be waged under a banner of moral absolutism, along the lines of Bush's "you're either with us or against us." The strong (and absolutely correct) U.S. resistance to the evil of communism did not prevent Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger from eventually developing an alignment with Communist China against the Soviet Union - although when this occurred, China was still under the rule of the monstrous Mao Zedong.


Today, we do not have to like or admire the Iranian regime to see that Iranian nationalism could be a very useful tool against our other enemies. Indeed, Iran already has played a very valuable role, by giving vitally important support to the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan against the Taliban.

This is the truly crazy aspect of Bush administration policy. The three forces targeted as enemies have all fought ferocious conflicts with each other. The Sunni fundamentalism represented by Osama bin Laden, the Shia religious nationalism of the Iranians and the radical secular Arab nationalism of Saddam Hussein are not allies but natural enemies. To bring them together requires something approaching suicidal genius on the part of the U.S. administration. Members of al-Qaida must be laughing their heads off.

Anatol Lieven is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C.

Originally published in Newsday, September 8, 2002

End of document

About the Russia and Eurasia Program

The Carnegie Russia and Eurasia Program has, since the end of the Cold War, led the field of Eurasian security, including strategic nuclear weapons and nonproliferation, development, economic and social issues, governance, and the rule of law.


In Fact



of the Chinese general public

believe their country should share a global leadership role.


of Indian parliamentarians

have criminal cases pending against them.


charter schools in the United States

are linked to Turkey’s Gülen movement.


thousand tons of chemical weapons

are in North Korea’s possession.


of import tariffs

among Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru have been eliminated.


trillion a year

is unaccounted for in official Chinese income statistics.


of GDP in oil-exporting Arab countries

comes from the mining sector.


of Europeans and Turks

are opposed to intervention in Syria.


of Russian exports to China

are hydrocarbons; machinery accounts for less than 1%.


of undiscovered oil

is in the Arctic.


U.S. government shutdowns

occurred between 1976 and 1996.


of Ukrainians

want an “international economic union” with the EU.


million electric bicycles

are used in Chinese cities.


of the world’s energy supply

is consumed by cities.


of today’s oils

require unconventional extraction techniques.


of the world's population

will reside in cities by 2050.


of Syria’s population

is expected to be displaced by the end of 2013.


of the U.S. economy

is consumed by healthcare.


of Brazilian protesters

learned about a massive rally via Facebook or Twitter.


million cases pending

in India’s judicial system.

1 in 3


now needs urgent assistance.


political parties

contested India’s last national elections.


of Egypt's labor force

works in the private sector.


of oil consumed in the United States

is for the transportation sector.


of Chechnya’s pre-1994 population

has fled to different parts of the world.


of oil consumed in China

was from foreign sources in 2012.


billion in goods and services

traded between the United States and China in 2012.


billion in foreign investment and oil revenue

have been lost by Iran because of its nuclear program.


increase in China’s GDP per capita

between 1972 and today.


billion have been spent

to complete the Bushehr nuclear reactor in Iran.


of Iran’s electricity needs

is all the Bushehr nuclear reactor provides.



were imprisoned in Turkey as of August 2012 according to the OSCE.

Stay in the Know

Enter your email address to receive the latest Carnegie analysis in your inbox!

Personal Information
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
1779 Massachusetts Avenue NW Washington, DC 20036-2103 Phone: 202 483 7600 Fax: 202 483 1840
Please note...

You are leaving the website for the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy and entering a website for another of Carnegie's global centers.