It must have been in the summer of 1992, as a young man I was in the back of a pickup truck, driving down the highway of Cape Cod. The sun was bright, the air streaming by me cool, and I was carefree. Still in college, I was impressed by the fact that the Cold War was finally over. The Soviet Union was no more, and the ideological pillars on which it had been built had crumbled. Though many of us believed the conflict that had defined the latter 20th Century was over, today Putin’s war in Ukraine dispelled that notion. His invasion is based on the phantasm of redeeming the power lost in the breakup of a Soviet Empire; an illusion he is vigorously pursuing at enormous cost in blood and treasure.
We certainly had good reason to believe that the Cold War was over. Yet in reality, it was put on the back burner; the heat turned to low. The ideological part of the war may have concluded, with Marxism having failed in Russia and China slowly coming to seek out alternatives too. But the fact of the matter is that the Cold War was not just about the defeat of a Marxist ideology. The belief that a State-run economy is best for all consumers and their prosperity is an illusion, something revealed by the lack of ardent Communists in Russia and China today. Even so, the zealous pursuit of a socialist utopia had left its indelible impact, for the Cold War was not only about economics, but also about democracy, and whether a genuine religious faith could support rule by the people. In pursuit of Marxism, Russia and China had thoroughly repudiated both democracy and religion, championing an authoritarian state against the will of the people while denying the necessity of religious guidance and illumination for its people and leaders. Decades after the demise of the old Soviet Union in December of 1991, the governments of Russia and China still do not believe in democracy. Until those latter two factors are changed, diplomacy and solving the world’s pressing problems will be more difficult.
We must remember that full-fledged democracy and the need of its people to believe in and value something (religious or not) is essential to a nation’s legitimacy. Capitalism on its own becomes corrupted without reference to transcendent principles and when people do not see their will reflected in government and fair business. Marxist-Socialist interest in this country waxes whenever the capitalist’s dedication to fairness and justice wanes. I believe firmly in a free market, but it must also be fair. What precise economic arrangement is the most “fair” is a philosophical question, but a fair economy must avoid extreme inequality where the abuse of power is more likely, but also not fall into an egalitarian Marxist deception where political tyranny becomes inevitable. Meanwhile, the Russian and Chinese people are deprived of participatory democracy, the free flow of information necessary for democracy, and must capitulate to this: the authoritarian specter left by the Marxist vacuum, a ghost that believes in its right to power but has no lasting foundation in legitimate human beliefs, religious or otherwise.
China’s annexation of Tibet in 1951, its suppression of Buddhism there, and its vigilant monitoring of suspect religions is a clear rejection of traditional religious values. Looking towards Russia, a truly Christian man, or a good man of any religion, dedicated to the ideals of love and justice, would not launch an offensive war on Ukraine. He might defend against such a war, but not start it. Neither would such a man, while trying to win such a war, brazenly threaten to use nuclear weapons. Putin’s values are based on a residual Cold War calculus to restore Russia to its power in Soviet times when he rose to be a senior member of the KGB. His whole vision is shaped by restoring the communist empire’s might. Russia is the world’s largest country, it does not need more land, but only the value of a buffer protecting that small part: Crimea as a warm-water military port, with affluent trade value, and geostrategic interest. Putin may never have cared about Marx, but he does care about power.
Many years ago, Francis Fukuyama suggested in The End of History and the Last Man that the model of the democratic free state was the end of history. I hope this progressive trend exists, yet it’s hard to ignore the evidence to the contrary. The world’s largest country and its most populous seem to give no recognition of his thesis. They do not advocate Marx anymore, yet Marxism paralyzed belief in freedom in both countries. Isolationists who pretend this problem does not exist have found it comes back to haunt us in Ukraine and Taiwan. For years our foreign policy aimed to prevent a Russian-Chinese alignment. If we do not convince either country of the need for freedom and legitimacy, we will continue that juggling match.
The truly tragic thing is that there are urgent problems facing this world which necessitate cooperation between America, China, and Russia. Climate change, preserving Earth’s biodiversity and food-resource base and other threats to the marginalized are all examples. At a time when we desperately need cooperation among great powers, we see the true spirit of consensus a long way off. It is important that the Ukrainian war end, but a just resolution seems nowhere near. When countries do not align on the three essentials of basic beliefs, practices, and principles, real diplomacy and goodwill will be in short supply to solve the world’s most pressing problems. Shooting down spy balloons and the rattling of military sabers is an inevitable but minor offshoot of such misalignment, a reminder that, ironically, the embers of the Cold War still burn.
When these three essentials are aligned in Russia, China, and the United States, perhaps we will be able to at last put the Cold War to rest. It was founded on at least three pillars: the belief in Marxism, which has been defeated, but also the belief in authoritarianism and the repudiation of religious values to inform society and government. These last two factors are still very much in place in China and Russia. Perhaps, in the future, another pickup truck ride awaits me, when I can say the embers of the Cold War at last and finally dead.