Joe Biden said at the United Nations: “We are not looking for a new Cold War.” He who excuses himself accuses himself. Now it has been known that a year ago, the chief of the Board of General Staff had the automatic suspicion that if Trump lost the election he would launch a surprise nuclear attack against China that would allow him to annul the results of the vote and continue in power. , so he took the precautions available to avoid it.
In recent weeks, the United States has decided to install nuclear-powered submarines in Australia; it has reactivated an intelligence network with its allies in the Pacific, and Biden has chaired the first summit meeting of the Quad (or Quadrangle) military accord with the chief executives of Australia, India and Japan.
Nostalgia for the Cold War is always hovering in the famous military-industrial complex and in Washington’s bubble of foreign policy experts. Bill Clinton said he envied Kennedy because he had an enemy. George W. Bush denounced the “axis of evil” formed by Iran, Iraq and North Korea in analogy to the “axis” of Germany, Italy and Japan in World War II. More explicitly, he argued that al Qaeda terrorists “were following the path of fascism, Nazism and totalitarianism.”
The Cold War had given the rulers of the West many advantages. The first thing was to scare people. In the 1950s, the US government built bomb and radiation shelters and encouraged civilians to build family shelters in basements or backyards. Radio and television propaganda was widely used for that mission. In schools, children practiced the exercise of “duck and cover” under desks to the sound of a simulated alarm siren of the inevitable nuclear attack. Government messages warned: “Do nothing but wait for orders from the authorities and relax.” It was quite a program.
Many citizens followed the advice and adopted a submissive attitude, a feeling of unity, love of patriotic values, and pride in the American way of life. Most trusted the rulers, who appeared primarily as protectors and providers of security. Challenging the government in the middle of a war would have been a betrayal. In parallel, the rulers could keep state secrets, the results of their public policies were not seriously evaluated, they enjoyed discreet privacy by the media, and they received reverence and devotion.
The second Cold War of the 1980s repeated the strategy. The elderly may remember how the American film was broadcast on television in 1983 in Spain The day after, which showed the horrific effects of the expected nuclear war. At the end, the voice-over said: “The catastrophic events that you have just seen are, in all probability, less severe than the destruction that would actually occur in the event of a nuclear attack on the United States.” The so-called Star Wars and the deployment of anti-Soviet missiles in Western Europe extended the reach of the message.
For most of the post-World War II period there was domestic economic prosperity in the United States and most of Western Europe and fear of an external enemy. But since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, everything has turned upside down. Once the permanent alert and the panic of a nuclear war had disappeared, people lost their fear. The political atmosphere of the last thirty years has been the opposite of the previous period: general distrust of rulers, scrutiny of corrupt practices, leaks of plans and confidential messages, frequent scandals over business or private affairs of politicians, and loud appeals to more transparency and accountability.
How can one not long for the Cold War, if one is a poor politician increasingly powerless to satisfy the expectations of the citizens? The agendas of public opinion have been expanded, like an accordion, with an enormous amount of economic, social, cultural, rights issues of all kinds that had previously been relegated by priority to foreign policy. In the United States, the disappointment of citizens is compounded by the inefficiency of the political and institutional system. The separation of powers, the so-called checks and balances between the Presidency, the House of Representatives and the Senate, the limits of a system with only two viable parties, prevent many issues from being addressed at once. The effective political agenda folds and most of the decisions and legislative projects remain paralyzed.
The Joe Biden Administration is now faced with this challenge: how to respond to so many expectations created or at least comb the general dislocation. The intuition of the Chief of the General Staff was not wrong. There is nostalgia for the Cold War. And China is there.
Josep M. Colomer is Professor of Political Science at Georgetown University in Washington and co-author of Democracy and globalization (Anagram).