Editor’s Reflection: A Grand Historic Loop? Reading the Cold War as the Present
Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr’s epigram that the ‘more things change, the more they stay the same,’ has underscored the logic of international political life throughout the ages. That people have been duped by their leaders and each other, that the promise of international progress is eclipsed by the realities of runaway nationalisms and exclusion and that petty differences are exaggerated to insurmountable levels has formed a main artery in the metanarrative of civilisation despite long periods of wound-licking and reflection. Each passing decade and ebbing century bears witness to humanity and its barbarity doppelganger.
Unfortunately, records are meant to be broken. The 20th century – the most destructive in history – had promised so much. International cooperation, economic productivity, technological advances and dialogue were meant to have replaced violence and armed force. And yet each innovation that brought people closer together were first used to assail one another: trains shifted armies in one direction and the vanquished in another, factories turned out the means of warfare while medical experimentation was deployed in horrific ways as a means of genocide, democide and gendercide.
As the century’s early wars of nation gave way its later wars of ideology, the globalising technologies of international transportation and trade ensured that no state or people would be spared as the great- and superpowers engaged in proxy war while pitting nation against nation in a series of conflicts and crises collectively referred to as the Cold War. This was an age of innocence lost; democratic and demagogic dictatorships stood shoulder to shoulder as socialism was hijacked and used as a tool of repression. There was no “right” side to that war.
But there were victims. There were victims of circumstance and victims of trust—those that had their roles laid-out for them and those that believed the rhapsody of their partners. There were those that played bloc-politics because they were obliged and those that wittingly joined the fray because of the orientation of their national moral compasses. In either case, the great powers bear responsibility for the turbulence of the 20th century; a century whose wounds remain deep and open.
For this reason, it is essential not to relegate the Cold War to historical renditions but to treat those times as the pillars of the contemporary international environment. The European map that packaged the nation neatly into the state is a testament of those dark times. In Africa, the right angles of national frontiers bespeak a colonialism that severed nations and ensured a century of turmoil to rectify historical wrongs. Latin America and Asia – on the periphery of 20th century convolutions – are prone to dictatorship and internal combustion. And the small states? These have been deeply instumentalised by the raw ambitions of the powerful.
From the vantage of the post-Cold War order, which prioritises human and not national security, it is easy to forget the nuances of political intrigue from a short history ago. But that was not another world, just a different version. So far, Karr has been correct. Every generation promises peace and every other generation delivers mortal combat. But Karr was no prophet; he was a satirist poking fun at the incredulity of a progressing humanity that lacked the wherewithal to progress. His was a lesson that has not yet been learned; there is no such thing as political or human determinism. History is neither a loop nor elastic, it is only human.