or why I want the Russkies back

The year was 1989, and the world was in euphoria: the Berlin Wall just crumbled. Romania's ruthless dictator, Ceaucescu, was dead. Democratic parties were forming in Prague and Budapest. The next year, even the once mighty Soviet Union itself collapsed, vanished without a trace. In the absence of an enemy, the Cold War was effectively over, won by America and her allies.

At the time, few doubted on either side of the once impenetrable Iron Curtain that the world just became a better place. Those few who expressed doubts were called fools or worse, even by their friends.

Now, ten years later, the world is not so sure. Do we really live in a better world compared to the one half a generation ago?

The end of the Cold War was supposed to bring about three very tangible benefits:

  1. The end of the threat of the planet's annihilation in all-out nuclear war
  2. Improvement to the quality of life for residents of the former East Bloc
  3. Prosperity as a consequence of the freeing up of resources previously used by the military-industrial complex.

I submit that neither of these tangible benefits have actually materialized.

The threat of all-out nuclear war is as great as ever, if not greater. For one thing, the end of the Soviet Union did not mean an end to her nuclear arsenal: tens of thousands of nuclear warheads are still possessed and maintained by the government of Russia. Russia's nuclear forces are still on hair-trigger alert (just as their American counterparts.) World War III can still break out on a moment's notice, even as a result of a computer glitch. Worse yet, the partial collapse of Russian society means that controls over the country's nuclear arsenal were greatly relaxed; it is widely believed that an unknown number of nuclear weapons are already in, or are in danger of falling into, the hands of third parties. The "new world order" also increased the danger of nuclear proliferation, as the recent examples of India and Pakistan have so aptly demonstrated. The disappearance of the bipolar security system of the Cold War world also means that regional conflicts grow unchecked, resulting in armed conflict, such as the Gulf War, that would have been unthinkable previously.

Residents of many East Bloc countries enjoy a far greater degree of political freedom than ever before. Most of these countries never had a democratic government in the past; others did, but only for brief periods in their history. Yet even this improvement is not universally the case throughout the East Bloc; some former Soviet republics have turned into dictatorships, corruption is rampant everywhere, and in many hot spots, civil wars have broken out. On the economic front, apart from the lucky minority of the nouveau rich, most residents are worse off than before; they no longer enjoy the security provided by the communist system, but the much-awaited prosperity of the Western world never arrived. Indeed, the dissatisfaction with the present state of affairs is a reason why in many East Bloc countries, left-wing governments were elected, former communist officials were voted back into power.

But perhaps the least surprising of all is that the end of the Cold War did not result in an economic "peace dividend" in Western countries. When I first heard of this concept, I shook my head in disbelief: it does not take to be an economist to realize that this peace dividend is a mirage that owed its existence to a complete lack of understanding of how our modern world works. Even before 1989, I often heard the argument that life would be better if the military-industrial complex did not draw away precious resources that could otherwise be used to feed the poor, house the homeless, or provide aid to countries most desperately in need of foreign assistance. This argument, however appealing, is based on an altogether false premise: that it is due to a lack of resources that suffering exists in our world.

To begin with: money isn't a resource. Money, in the overall scheme of things, is just a convenient tool to facilitate the efficient redistribution of wealth; a convenient but oft misunderstood unit that measures the relative value of goods and services. But it's never a lack of money that makes the situation of a social program difficult: it is a lack of will.

Consider: in North America today, only a tiny fraction of the population is directly involved in the production of goods and services that are considered life's essentials, such as food, shelter, or medical care. Even if we include those who indirectly contribute (e.g., transportation workers) that clearly leaves a majority who are producing non-essential goods and services, be it toys for your children, meals in an exotic restaurant, sport utility vehicles, mega-budget movies, or, yes, even ridiculously expensive weapons systems. The resources required to feed the poor are clearly there; indeed, if governmental social programs and privately run charities are any indication, the will is also there to make these available to the needy.

So it follows that when the need for weapons systems disappeared at the end of the Cold War, it did not mean that resources were suddenly available for a nobler purpose. The disappearing demand for military goods and services simply meant that a good number of highly qualified men and women found themselves without a job; the effects would have been rather similar if it had been another industry, say, the auto industry that went nearly extinct.

In view of this I think it's no accident that the greatest period of prosperity in the world coincided with the worst days of the arms race. In the 1950s and 1960s, not only did America prosper beyond anybody's dreams; even the thoroughly corrupt and inefficient Soviet regime was capable of economic near-miracles under the relentless pressure of Cold War competition. Nor were these successes restricted to the economic arena; progress in the sciences was also phenomenal, culminating in man's landing on the Moon with tools that 30 years later would be considered relics from the Stone Age.

Which is why I am now a Cold Warrior. The nuclear genie cannot be put back in the bottle; but it is safer when it is closely guarded, it is safer when it is in fewer hands. Freedom in Eastern Europe does not mean much when your children go to school hungry, when you are unemployed. What good is the right to travel when not only can you no longer buy fuel for your derelict wreck of a car, you cannot even afford the fee for a new passport? Lastly, a new Cold War would create new demand for high technology; the threat represented by a ruthless nuclear opponent would make the risk associated with endeavors such as risky space ventures more acceptable. Perhaps it would be uniformed men and women on the Moon and the planets; but I still think that that is a lot better outcome than no humans there at all within our lifetime.