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Cold War Theories, War on Terror Practices

24 6 19
18.10.2018

This article has been shortlisted for the 2018 Article Award

Confronting new threats requires new thinking. Anachronistic understandings of security primarily arise from ideological suppositions that not only continue to frustrate prudent policy but also create increased insecurity. State failures, and the geopolitical disorder that followed, were born out of policies generated by reified thinking as to what constitutes material threats in a world order transfigured by the end of the Cold War. Yet Cold War thinking remains the guiding principle when approaching contemporary threats to state and international security alike (Jacob, 2017, xviii). Interrogating ideology—a category that begs attention in international relations—helps account for counterproductive security practices. An examination of Cold War theories, global “war on terror” practices, and the passé interplay between the two illuminates the ideological and structural checks that vex geopolitical order in this new century.

Realist Roots and Contemporary Confusion

Realist understandings of security reflected America’s geopolitical position during the Cold War and continue to serve as an untrustworthy guide towards contemporary security matters. As surely as World War I produced the conditions for a discipline to take shape, World War II culminated in a new understanding of a centuries-old view of human nature, under the banner of political realism, when extrapolated to international actors and the structural configurations of power that constrain them from acting with license. This state-centric approach to international affairs sees a Hobbesian “state of nature” underlying the anarchical structure of the global system. For Hobbes, this pre-political state is marked by a lack of constraint. Without a sovereign in place to command collective awe, humanity remains trapped in a war “all against all” (Hobbes 1983, 34). Lacking an arbitrating force to mediate warring parties, the only way to ensure state survival is through the maximization of power—the ability to coerce states into making decisions they would not otherwise make—at the expense of other states in a zero-sum universe. The last shots of World War II, the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, can thus be interpreted as the opening salvos of the Cold War: a warning to the US’s then-allied Soviet Union that America was in a new global power position and, more importantly, had the will to impose itself on the world stage.

Nation states are the principal domain of international relations broadly and security studies principally. But not all states carry the same weight. In theory, as well as in practice, it is the most powerful states within the international system that are scrutinized. Traditional paradigmatic approaches to these studies, in both realism and liberalism, view the survival of the nation state as the driving force behind what Morgenthau appropriately called a “politics among nations” in 1948. State centrism of this variety, as opposed to mid-range analyses of domestic structures and the like as they relate to international relations, made sense insofar as the “state” Morgenthau and his contemporaries were examining encapsulated the primary concern humanity faced for the better part of the twentieth-century: annihilation of the planet through a mutually assured destruction brought about by the West and/or Soviet Union. Transnational threats to security, as a consequence, took a back seat to this primary (international) concern.

Realists of all stripes have recognized the accumulation and maximization of interests—always defined in terms of “power”—as the central aim of the state to preserve its very survival since modern realism’s inception. Hans Morgenthau, the German exile who developed the modern variant of realism in America, put this matter well when he suggested that the “main signpost that helps political realism to find its way through the landscape of international politics is the concept of interest defined in terms of power” (Morgenthau 1973, 5). The theory and practice of politics in general and international relations in particular—or, a “sphere of action and understanding,” as Morgenthau conceived it—are thus separate from other such spheres, like economics (Morgenthau 1973, 5). Yet the political power exercised by the US after the Cold War manifested itself not in terms of a means to an end so much as a motivating factor, or, more precisely, an end in itself.

Despite its transnational character, terrorism was immediately linked with state referents—namely, Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, or, collectively, Bush’s “Axis of Evil”—in prefabricated imperial agendas that had been in the works when America’s Cold War foil was crumbling. Throughout the nineties, for example, neo-conservative thinkers out of the halls of political power were hard at work developing stratagems to justify an increased military budget while accelerating an American presence throughout multiple spheres of influence in a new “unipolar” world (Krauthammer 1990). The specter of terrorism, a transnational ideology, thus allowed for a newly emboldened foreign policy agenda to take shape. Old imperial aims, which manifested most severely in Iraq, were sold in terms of preserving American security interests at home and abroad, yet they translated into further insecurity. But such counter-productive security measures did not start on Bush’s watch, nor would they end there. American foreign policy in the Middle East, the most fragile geopolitical flashpoint of the day, dates back to the Cold War.

From Cold War to Hot Mess

Cold War thinking has carried over and clouded America’s contemporary global “war on terror” practices. Brands of realism, the oldest paradigmatic approach to international relations, drove American foreign policy debates during its fifty-year-long Cold War with the Soviets. Its theoretical elegance spoke well to a global order where power was incarnated between two relatively equal poles. But translating realism’s theoretical tenets into political practice revealed an increasingly expedient character as the Cold War raged, thus providing conditions for a historically unmoored form of realism—a “hyper-realism” (or, more accurately, a pseudo-realism) adopted primarily by neo-conservative and liberal hawks—to develop ever more after war’s end.

Amoral attitudes towards power, and its distribution among other states, manifested in a litany of US incursions into the “third world” during the Cold War. Active military campaigns in Vietnam and Latin America were matched by clandestine interferences in sovereign elections in Guatemala and Iran in order to hedge power against a (sometimes) over-exaggerated Soviet threat. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, the US had 159 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and 2,500 strategic bombers at her disposal as against the USSR’s two dozen ICBMs even as Kennedy projected the supposed “missile gap” the US needed to close with the Soviets (Preble 2003, 826). Seeds were, as a consequence, planted for various regional disorders that befell these parts of the globe after bipolarity was shattered without a direct shot having been fired between America and the Soviet menace. Without a check in the USSR following its........

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