The Cold War as a Metaphor

EDITORIAL, 21 Sep 2009

#80 | Johan Galtung

The Cold War is worth remembering.  There is much to learn about conflict and meta-conflict.  For West vs. Islam.

That self-inflicted threat to humanity lasted officially 40 years 1949-89. But it started with the Bolshevik revolution October 1917, and ended with the combined collapse of Communism and the Soviet Union. 1917-1991.  Almost a century.

I remember during the Cold War on countless occasions asking what it was about.  The answer from the war movements West and East, armed to the brim with nukes, was “the threat of an attack from the Soviet authoritarian-totalitarian regime/from the US-NATO fascist-imperialist regime”.  And from the peace movement in the West: “the threat of an all-out nuclear war putting humanity at risk”.  And from the dissident movement in the East: “Stalinist repression forever”.

If violence and the threat thereof are symptoms of deep unresolved conflict, then the dissidents came closest to a diagnosis of the conflict.  The others were stuck in the meta-conflict, the manifestations, the metastases: nuclear war and the threat to security, of the West, of the East, of humanity. And no doubt the nuclear arms race and the displaced warm war in East Asia, etc., offered good reason for deep concern.

But what was the conflict about?  Deep and manifold:

Culturally:  Two competing Western worldviews, let us call them liberalism and Marxism; both claiming universal validity and with profound implications at all levels.

Capital-Market vs. State-Planning economies.

Politically: Evolutionary change by the democratically expressed will of the majority vs. revolutionary change by the proletariat taking over the State.

Militarily:  Interventions all over to enact these programs or prevent the other side from enacting them–like in Eastern Europe and Latin America, with terrible wars in East Asia, and a horrible arms race with devastating, and absurd, consequences.

Could this multiple conflict be solved or transformed?  Let us explore the implications, many of which were tried but heavily resisted, particularly by the West: NATO and the USA.

Culturally: more space for mutually exploring strengths and weaknesses of the worldviews.  At that time–more secular than today with heavily Judeo-Christian USA, Russia back to orthodox Christianity, and Islam growing everywhere–these worldviews were religious substitutes not to be challenged.  They both have strong and weak points, opening for both-and, neither-nor, compromises and above all mutual learning.  But that did not happen, like today between the West and Islam; they dialogue for inside knowledge, not for mutual learning.

Economically both extremes have devastating consequences, abject misery for one, repression and command for the other.   There are compromises known theoretically and in practice: social democracy, negotiating mixed economies with private and public sectors.  There was talk of convergence toward a less exploitative private and less repressive public sector.  The hard cores in both camps did not budge, but debate there was, like today in the USA.  The social democracies in Europe did not step forward, however.  Some were in NATO, some neutral-nonaligned leaning to the West, also afraid of offending USA.

Politically, democracy and human rights prevailed, as they should.  But they fail at a basic point now as then: there is abject suffering, but the victims are unable to muster a democratic majority.  If they are repressed there is space today for humanitarian intervention.  But if exploited to the point of starving, dying from curable diseases?  Unresolved, then as now, but basic to the conflict.  How can democracies learn to speed up change in emergencies, without violence?

 Militarily the Red Army occupied Eastern Europe, backing badly needed basic change, but with the usual Marxist mistakes: controlling small farmers’ land; small businesses; and religion with aspiritual “scientific atheism”– creating majorities against.  Eastern Europe-Cuba could have learnt from the social democracies.  And West Germany, like Austria, could have bought unification with neutrality, as offered by the Soviet Union, not yielding to US pressure.

In 1972 a social democracy, Finland, put conflict ahead of meta-conflict in a Helsinki process leading to the 1975 Final Act: borders after the war against Nazism remain (they still do); socialist countries will open to investment and mixed economies; a process toward human rights in the East in general and the Soviet Union in particular will be started. They did not sit in judgment over liberalism and Marxism.

With this the Cold War was actually over if it had not been for the US stepping up the arms race, deploying cruise and Pershing II missiles in Western Europe; prolonging the Cold War for at least ten years.  They may do so again.

Morale: address the conflict itself; beware of spoilers who prefer meta-conflict to solutions.  How about West-Islam?

Culturally: step up dialogues but move them from mutual curiosity to mutual learning.  They both harbor truths.

Economically: Islamic economies handle the crisis better than Western economies tied to USA financially. Much to learn.

Politically: democracies and human rights offer formulas compatible with a non-secular Islam.  Much to learn.

conflict solution instead of mutual killing. Iraq and Afghanistan self-determination province by province. And a massive reconciliation for the crimes of the past.

Finland, where are you when we need you?  Answer: your spirit is in Turkey.  In a badly needed Istanbul process, not sitting in judgment over the West vs. Islam as religions.

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 21 Sep 2009.

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