Ira Chernus  


How do cold wars begin? The question is becoming more than academic, as the Bush administration gropes its way toward a policy on China. Some voices within the administration advocate a Clintonian policy of economic engagement. Others counsel a harder line, which could lead to a new cold war. The hard-liners may be looking back to the origins of previous cold wars, hoping to repeat the past . But a careful look back shows that the advantages they hope to win are outweighed by the risks they are taking.

In the years immediately following World War II, the Truman administration slipped gradually into confrontation with the Soviet Union. From month to month, new situations arose that called for policy decisions. No one of them was big enough, in itself, to cast the die for or against prolonged cold war. But each one required Truman to choose between a more and a less compromising stance. The president followed no grand design. He just followed his political instincts. Most of the time, that meant rejecting compromise.

As an untested leader in an unsettled postwar world, Truman was not about to take chances. As an unelected Democratic president, with Republicans influence rowing, he could not risk appearing indecisive. Political wisdom dictated a tough stance. So step by step, Truman led the nation into cold war.

Of course Truman had little to gain economically by compromising with the Soviets, and that makes today's situation with China quite different. But if the anti-China mood builds in this country, Bush and his advisors may find the political pressures for confrontation outweighing the economic pressures for conciliation. Like Truman, he may follow no overall game plan, but slip step by step into a situation whose outcome no one can predict, much less control.

However cold wars do not always start in such haphazard ways. The resurgence of cold war attitudes in the late 1970s was quite intentional. By the mid-'70s, many thought the cold war was over. A covey of influential conservatives, with Ronald Reagan at their head, set out to revive tensions and lead the U.S. into what historians have called the "second cold war."

Some of these cold warriors feared that the U.S. was falling behind its rival in geopolitical power. But many were responding to a moral issue. They were convinced that the Vietnam debacle had sapped the nation of its will to fight for American values. People were no longer willing to sacrifice for the things that mattered, they complained. Instead, Americans were indulging in individualistic personal gratification. These conservatives feared that the culture of "If it feels good, do it" would undermine self-control and respect for authority, leading to social chaos.

How to restore traditional values? Their answer was to call the nation to war once again. Even a cold war, they reasoned, could instill the martial virtues that would fend off moral decay.

George W. Bush has filled his administration with veterans of the Reaganite crusade. Though they claim to have won the second cold war, they still decry the same lack of values they saw 25 years ago. It would hardly be surprising if the moral crusaders who whipped up the "second cold war" are now pushing the president toward a third cold war.

If so, President Bush may be sympathetic. His "compassionate conservatism" reflects a strong commitment to the social views of the Reaganites. He knows that his crucial margin of victory came from voters who agreed with Gore on the issues, but cast their vote against a '60s-style culture of Clintonian self-gratification. And he knows that a U.S. president is unlikely to suffer politically by looking tough.

Yet Mr. Bush should also remember his father, who looked so tough he was supposedly unbeatable after the Persian Gulf War. A popular battle against a foreign foe does not guarantee political success. Nor does it guarantee moral renewal. The continuing lament from the right about moral decay shows that Reaganite military buildup and decade of renewed tension failed to achieve its goal.

Today, we can see the possibility of cold war ahead; we can not slip into it unaware. And to choose it consciously, in hopes of moral renewal, would be foolhardy. The old reasons for getting into a cold war no longer hold up , especially when weighed against the consequences. We know from past experience what a cold war can bring: a renewed arms race (this time it would be in space), diversion of valuable resources to military uses, a rising federal debt that weakens the economy, the endless tension of living "on the brink," the risk of another Vietnam.

History never repeats itself. The next cold war may turn out differently, one way—or the other. Still, recollection of the past warns us not to head into another cold war without carefully considering our choices.