4 Lasting Lessons of the Cold War

“Whether it is clashes with Islamic terrorists or long-term challenges from autocratic communist China or Russia’s aggressive attempts to expand its sphere of influence, a prudent foreign policy guided by our founding principles of liberty and justice and based on our capabilities offers the best path for the United States.”

Berlin’s wall in 1986. (Photo: Michael Magercord/Ropi/ZUMA Wire)

4 Lasting Lessons of the Cold War

Lee Edwards / November 06, 2014

Today’s world would be a far different place if the United States had not waged and won—at the cost of thousands of lives and many billions of dollars—the Cold War. That conflict established America as the leader of the free world and a global superpower and shaped U.S. military strategy, economic policy and domestic politics from the time of President Harry Truman to the present.

All great historical periods and events are instructive, and the Cold War is no exception. It offers lasting lessons that can help us deal with the challenges of the present and the future. The world has changed considerably since 1945 when the Cold War began and since 1991 when it ended. But as my co-author, Elizabeth Spalding, and I pointed out in our book, “A Brief History of the Cold War,” certain things remain true.

Ideas matter. Contrary to Machiavelli and his modern-day realpolitik disciples, power is not everything. The philosophical ideas undergirding a regime matter because they guide governments and help us to understand their conduct.

The United States was shaped by ideas drawn from our founding principles. By contrast, the Soviet regime was shaped by Marxism-Leninism. Russia’s Vladimir Putin is no latter-day Stalin, but his desire for empire and his willingness to use force to achieve political goals reflect his training as a KGB agent during the Soviet era.

In Iran, the mullahs who govern are guided by a commitment to Islam that shapes their worldview and influences their conduct on the world stage. In China, the communist government struggles to rationalize the contrary demands of economic liberalization and political control. As China’s economy inevitably slows, there will be increased pressure for political liberalization.

Friends and allies matter. During the Cold War, the United States called upon and led a grand alliance against the Soviet Union, employing economic and strategic instruments such as the Marshall Plan, NATO, the “police action” in Korea, the special relationship with Great Britain and the Reagan Doctrine.

In contrast, the Soviet Union never was able to command allegiance from the members of the Warsaw Pact or the nationalities and peoples within the Soviet empire. The Soviet Union was not a true nation but a conglomeration of captive peoples and nationalities “united” by the Red Army.

Once Western governments began to encourage the people within the “evil empire” to stand up, they did so with increasing confidence and success. The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was crushed by Soviet tanks, but in 1980, the communist government of Poland could only “ban” the Solidarity trade union for fear of alienating the West.

Leadership matters. The history of the Cold War is the biography of leaders on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The conflict began under Truman and Stalin and was ended by leaders that included Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, Czech dissident Vaclav Havel and even Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev.

Gorbachev helped end the Cold War by reluctantly abandoning the Brezhnev Doctrine that had propped up the communist regimes of Eastern Europe for decades. By the mid-1980s, a cash-strapped Soviet Union no longer could afford it.

The United States enjoyed successes in the Cold War when led by visionaries such as Truman and Reagan. When American leaders sought to deal with the communist threat through containment and détente, they were far less successful.

Statecraft matters. Victory over a determined adversary requires not only strength and resolve but a strategy relevant to the times and the nations involved. Containment was an appropriate strategy in the beginning of the Cold War when the United States was sorting out its domestic and foreign responsibilities and the Soviet Union was in place and in power in Eastern Europe.

Forty years later, the United States could take the offensive against an economically weakened Soviet Union whose Marxist ideology was disintegrating.

A successful U.S. foreign policy depends on the exercise of prudence, the virtue extolled by strategists since Sun Tzu. Cold War policies such as the Marshall Plan were prudent. Its economic aid helped our World War II allies to get back on their feet and created markets for our goods.

Less prudent policies, including President Carter’s human rights fixation that resulted in a Marxist Nicaragua and President Nixon’s detente that allowed the Soviets to surpass us in strategic weapons, were failures.

A grand strategy for U.S. foreign policy should begin with the thesis that the United States should step in only when its vital interests are at stake and it has the capability to act. Those interests, as set forth by my Heritage colleague Kim Holmes and others, are:

  • Protecting American territory, sea lanes and airspace.
  • Preventing a major power from controlling Europe, East Asia or the Persian Gulf.
  • Ensuring U.S. access to world resources.
  • Expanding free trade throughout the world.
  • Protecting Americans against threats to their lives and well-being.

Whether it is clashes with Islamic terrorists or long-term challenges from autocratic communist China or Russia’s aggressive attempts to expand its sphere of influence, a prudent foreign policy guided by our founding principles of liberty and justice and based on our capabilities offers the best path for the United States.

That is a strategy for the ages.

On Friday, Nov. 7, Lee Edwards will host an event at The Heritage Foundation on the fall of the Berlin Wall featuring Ed Meese, George Weigel, and Alan Charles Kors. RSVP or watch online here.

Commentary By

Lee Edwards

Lee Edwards is the distinguished fellow in conservative thought at The Heritage Foundation’s B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics. A leading historian of American conservatism, Edwards is the author or editor of 20 books, including biographies of Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater and Edwin Meese III as well as histories of The Heritage Foundation and the movement as a whole.