Will We End the Cold War? the Next President's Historic Opportunity

By Cohen, Stephen F. | The Nation, October 10, 1988 | Go to article overview

Will We End the Cold War? the Next President's Historic Opportunity


Cohen, Stephen F., The Nation


The next American President will have both a historic opportunity and an obligation to end the decades-long cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union. The opportunity already awaits him in Moscow-in the anti-cold war thinking and foreign policy reforms adopted by Mikhail Gorbachev since he was chosen Soviet leader in 1985. If the President lacks the vision and courage to seize the opportunity, he will be neglecting the best interests of the United States.

That is because the cold war, with the U. S.-Soviet arms race as its most characteristic expression, has become the greatest threat to America's national interests in two profound ways. Above all, it threatens our national survival. As Carl Sagan has aptly said, since 1945 "the United States and the Soviet Union have booby-trapped the planet with almost 60,000 nuclear weapons," far more than enough to destroy the city on earth and "probably enough to destroy the global civilization." The United States exists today only because no one in Moscow, and no accident anywhere, has sprung the trap. Nor is there any infallible system, computerized or otherwise, to protect us against such a mishap. That is the lesson of Korean Air Lines Flight 007, Challenger, Chernobyl and Iran Air Flight 655, disasters resulting from human and "high-tech" fallibility and auguring much worse.

The cold war is also sapping America's economic health, which is as important for real national security as are weapons. In present- day dollars, according to Sagan's calculations, the United States has spent roughly $10 trillion on the cold war during the past four decades. Imagine all the economic, educational, medical, cultural and scientific sacrifices that has meant. Today, as U.S. defense spending approaches $300 billion a year, most of it directed against a perceived Soviet threat, the problem has become starkly evident in the decline of many of our nonmilitary industries, the largest budget and trade deficits in our history and the number of our fellow citizens who five in poverty.

Nor is the cold war over, contrary to euphoric reports in the media inspired by four Reagan-Gorbachev summit meetings since 1985. The nuclear and conventional arms race goes on, its fast-paced technology speeding far ahead of the political half-measures taken to constrain it. The ratified intermediate-range nuclear forces (I.N.F.) treaty, which promises to remove and destroy American and Soviet medium-range missiles in Europe, is important as a first symbolic act of nuclear abolitionism. But the two sides have given themselves three full years to abolish missiles capable of carrying, at most, only 4 percent of their stockpiled nuclear warheads. Discussions now focus on a so-called START agreement that would eliminate 30 to 50 percent of the strategic arsenals. By the time it is negotiated, ratified, verified and fully implemented, technological geniuses on both sides are likely to have invented new nuclear weapons that formally comply with the treaty but are even more deadly than those to be abolished. Meanwhile, both sides contemplate "modernization" of conventional weapons, and a full range of underlying cold war conflicts -ideological, political and regional -continue to rage around the world.

In reality, three years of mostly inconclusive negotiations and media atmospherics could not possibly end a historical phenomenon of the magnitude of the cold war, whose ideological origins date back seventy years to the Bolshevik Revolution; whose modern- day embodiment in the arms race has been under way since 1945; and whose dynamics are sustained on both sides by a powerful array of institutions, elites and popular attitudes formed over those decades. Despite episodes of detente going back to the 1930s, and even a U.S. -Soviet military alliance during World War II, virtually aB of us - American and Soviet citizens alike - are children of the twentieth century's cold war.

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