Submitted by Dan Quigley, Greenwich
Growing up in the 1980’s, my early impression of international affairs was formed through the lens of the Cold War. Films like “The Day After” “Aftermath” and “War Games” portended the potential for a cataclysmic end to the struggle between Western Democracy and Soviet Communism. The specter of nuclear war was real and the implausibility of MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) was a powerful incentive to avoid conflict. The Cold War also had an important corollary effect acting as a ballast for our national political parties. It provided a common ground on which Republicans and Democrats could both stand together, no matter their other political differences.
From Harry Truman to George H.W. Bush, whatever differences Republicans and Democrats had (and there were many), they were united when it came to prosecuting the strategy of “containment” and fighting the Cold War. The existence of a powerful and dangerous adversary, prevented both political parties from drifting too far apart, because each had a shared stake in ensuring we prevailed in this epic struggle. For forty five years the Cold War was a common thread of red and blue, woven through the fabric of our democracy. The vacuum created by the absence of this shared sense of purpose is a contributing factor to the divisiveness we see in our national government today. Perhaps with the actions of Russia in Ukraine, that may now change for the better.
Russia’s brazen assault on Ukraine has captured the focus of the world. For perspective, the last time Ukraine was invaded was by Germany in 1941. How did we get here? One can make a cogent argument that since the end of the Cold War, American foreign policy has suffered from a lack of focus, which has led it adrift. Following the Cold War, the absence of an common adversary led to a sense of complacency that the western, democratic model that had prevailed would continue to do so.
In the 90’s, the West invested heavily in the former Soviet satellite states, hoping to provide assistance to the fledgling democracies. However, in the first decade of the 2000’s, our foreign policy became driven by the events of 9/11, with mostly questionable long term results. Since then, we have seen a feckless foreign policy during the Obama years followed by the chaotic impulsiveness of the Trump administration. Now, on the heels of a mismanaged withdrawal from Afghanistan, our potential adversaries feel emboldened and view Western democracies (led by America) as being in precipitous decline. From a US perspective, what makes the current state of the world so daunting is that while we deal with an emboldened Russia, lurching to expand and recapture its former empire, China, looms in the distance.
Alas, all hope is not lost. The silver lining to all of this is that perhaps this realization will provide Republicans and Democrats with a reason around which to coalesce and find sustainable common ground. Party politics certainly continued throughout the Cold War, but the bipartisan consensus with regard to its prosecution was something that both sides could agree on. In its absence, our political discourse broke down.
In 1940, when Winston Churchill was named Prime Minister, as Great Britain stood on the precipice of facing Hitler’s war machine alone, he saw the wisdom in forming a coalition government. Churchill, a Conservative Tory, brought liberal leaders from the Labour Party like Clement Attlee into his government, and also included members of his own party who had supported appeasement with Germany (Chamberlain & Lord Halifax). These were men with whom Churchill had had great political disagreements, but, when faced with an implacable foe they worked together with the best interests of their country, not their political party at heart.
Although the threat to America is not as acute as what Churchill and his coalition government faced in 1940, we can hope that the events in Ukraine, and the growing geopolitical uncertainty of the moment will act as a wake up call to both of our national political parties.
Now is the time for our leaders to make their best effort to put national interests above party politics.
Let us hope that if anything good is to come from the present autocratic threats to Western democracy it serves as a unifying moment for Republicans and Democrats. Our own history teaches us there is no better motivation for finding common ground than that of a shared existential threat to our and our allies’ way of life.