Who Really Won the Cold War?

jesus jones didn’t have this to sing about: rethinking the historiography of the end of the cold war.

East German border guards look through a fallen section of the Berlin Wall, 11 November 1989. Photo: AP/Lionel Cironneau.

For the first few decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it seemed undeniable to argue that the United States won the Cold War. The demise of the Soviet Union and its satellite states, even the post-Tiananmen Square Chinese turn toward capitalism suggested we were witnessing the “end of history,” as Francis Fukuyama infamously argued. All the future would hold would be the stable establishment of liberal market-based global society in perpetuity. Or maybe the opposite was true and we were “watching the world wake up from history,” as the British band Jesus Jones sang at the time. Either way, the United States and its system looked to be triumphant.

Yet looking back from the vantage point of 2022, maybe we had it all wrong. Maybe what happened was not the spread of Western-style corporate-liberal democracy, but rather the seepage out into the rest of the world of what had previously been contained in the degenerated and deformed workers’ states of the Eastern Bloc. When the wall came down and the Iron Curtain parted, it wasn’t liberal democracy flooding in, but rather faux-socialist oligarchy leaking out.

To be sure, one could easily ask “what liberal democracy?” when thinking about in the West during the Cold War, and not be entirely wrong, but that’s a another topic for another time. For now, the focus might be placed on what we have seen in the United States and around the world since the 1990s. Has it really been the expansion of democracy? Maybe more accurately, we have witnessed thirty-plus years of extraordinary challenges to it. Let us review. Right away in the early 1990s the Balkan conflict erupted, with its ghosts surfacing of sectarian and ethnic conflict dating back to World War II if not centuries before that. Genocides in African countries took place and wars fought for the most part over control of raw resources for export to Western capitalist industries. The abysmal failure of the peace accords between Israel and Palestine occurred. The continued worldwide inability to confront the human causes of climate change are a constant theme since 1989, as are the privileging of profits over human rights by and large.

Even the George W. Bush administration’s post-9/11 calls for war in the very name of freedom and democracy rang false and right from the start seemed sometimes to be nothing more than shrill cries to cover up corrupt business deals, the expansion of the military-industrial complex, and control of oil reserves. Eventually, it gave rise not to democracy, but rather to torture and war crimes committed by representatives of the US. In Afghanistan, the US eventually lost the war itself and the very forces of authoritarian rule that it invaded the country to overthrow returned to power.

In the aftermath of Bush’s War on Terror (or was it but the continuation by the Obama administration?), various color revolutions and an Arab Spring seemed to be upswells of democratic longings. Yet none lasted beyond temporary blossomings of upheaval. And some, as in Syria, merely saw enormous destruction and even more extreme consolidations of power once again by the very forces of authoritarianism being fought in the first place (crucially, one should note, thanks to intensive Russian support).

Who really won the Cold War then? It starts to look like a far more open question than we generally assume.

Meanwhile, in the US itself there has been the steady infiltration of Russian influence in US politics, particularly in what can only be called the takeover of the Republican Party through strategic lobbying and fundraising during the last decade or so. From John McCain’s 2008 campaign to Donald Trump’s election in 2016 right up to the very present, it is as if not one, but many Manchurian Candidates are now in play within domestic American politics.

Meanwhile, momentary outbursts of protest such as Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter or the Me Too movement were by and large coopted and quelled by centrist Democrats and corporations keen to bail out banks and keep the existing economic and political system in place rather than support bottom-up pushes for expanded democracy. Efforts to transform health care into a public good such as Obamacare, while significant and important, were largely structured around maintaining private profits (recall that the individual mandate approach of the Affordable Healthcare Act began as a proposal from the conservative Heritage Foundation to counter calls for single-payer health insurance).

Since the 2010 midterm election and even more so since the 2016 election of Donald Trump, the anti-democratic strategies of the right have greatly intensified and accelerated, from refusals to seat judges in Republican-controlled Congresses to efforts to gerrymander local voting districts in anti-democratic ways to propaganda campaigns that heighten fear to rulings issued by the courts, right up to the Supreme Court, that undercut the expansion of democracy or, more crucially, redefine democracy as a facade for authoritarianism. At this point, ideas once considered beyond the pale when it comes to American democracy, the protection of voting and civil rights, and the unacceptable scapegoating of those deemed to have different or vulnerable identities or positions in society—these have all become commonplace.

At what point does the three-decade gathering storm of these anti-democratic forces require us to rethink assumptions about 1989 and the American victory in the Cold War? The lurking presence of Russia around the world in locations such as Syria or now Ukraine as well as the deep penetration of Russian interests in domestic politics of the United States makes one wonder: at what point do we pay more attention to the fallout rather than the fall of the Berlin Wall, the repercussions rather than the original supposed strike for freedom? The US seemed to win the Cold War, but perhaps as time passes, it starts to look more clearly like a Pyrrhic victory. Citizens of formerly communist states got blue jeans and Scorpions’ “Wind of Change,” but more than that they got what in the end was the consolidation of power by the very oligarchic forces that had ruled prior to the end of communism. Americans and their allies in the Cold War find themselves tilting ever more intensely toward authoritarian movements with expressly anti-democratic goals, often with connections back to Russia.

That’s more and more what the world looks like today, isn’t it? So maybe the West did not win the Cold War, after all. Maybe after the meltdown of the Soviet Union and its satellite countries, what was left was not a fresh beginning but the putrid remains, the rot of festering wounds. Defeat was not defeat at all, but rather a different kind of victory: not history’s end or history waking up, but its steady plodding failure to live up to the promise of democracy. Maybe that it what now be confronted both historiographically and in the present moment of ever-growing crisis.

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