The Soviet Union ceased to exist 30 years ago, and with its disappearance the United States embraced a triumphalist interpretation of the end of the Cold War that has served to fuel its militarism for another generation. The loss of its major rival could have freed the US from the costly militarized foreign policy that it had pursued since the end of WWII, but instead it freed the US to act however it liked in the world without regard for the consequences for itself or other countries. Desperate to find new causes to champion and new monsters to slay, the US appointed itself as the world’s armed enforcer and then professed bewilderment when the countries that it threatened resisted its "benevolent" leadership. US militarism should have died with the Soviet Union, but instead its supporters just went looking for new enemies.
Rather than recognizing that it was the peoples of eastern Europe and the Soviet Union that were responsible for the epochal political changes that brought down their communist governments, US leaders and policymakers congratulated themselves for having "won" the standoff. Some went further and credited the Reagan administration itself for having supposedly delivered the fatal blow. This was a dangerous error. It was just as wrong as the self-centered belief that the US had been responsible for "losing" China in 1949. While the panic over "losing" China had caused Americans to become excessively afraid of communist power, the excitement over "winning" the Cold War caused far too many to become excessively confident in American power.
George Kennan spoke out against the American-centric self-congratulation to remind us that the intense militarization of US policy in the Cold War strengthen Soviet hardliners and delayed the political changes that eventually took place in the 1980s. He wrote in The New York Times in 1992:
"The extreme militarization of American discussion and policy, as promoted by hard-line circles over the ensuing 25 years, consistently strengthened comparable hard-liners in the Soviet Union.
The more America’s political leaders were seen in Moscow as committed to an ultimate military rather than political resolution of Soviet-American tensions, the greater was the tendency in Moscow to tighten the controls by both party and police, and the greater the braking effect on all liberalizing tendencies in the regime. Thus the general effect of cold war extremism was to delay rather than hasten the great change that overtook the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980’s."
The role of hardline US policies in generating similar responses from targeted states is a familiar one, and it is one that keeps plaguing our policies concerning Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and others today. Militarism did not hasten the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR, but just as it has done in the decades since it gave the targeted government a new lease on life. Wrongly concluding that it was policies of confrontation and military buildup that led to the demise of the USSR, many hawks then assumed that this "victory" could serve as a model for solving other problems with rival states. They also assumed that the relatively peaceful demise of the Soviet state could be repeated in other parts of the world through the sufficient application of pressure and force.
The false belief that the Soviet Union collapsed because of things that the US did continues to warp US foreign policy even now. Prior to the invasion of Iraq, supporters of the war claimed that the fall of the Iraqi government would be like the collapse of communist states across Europe. They could not imagine that there would be any resistance because they mistakenly expected recent history to repeat itself under very different conditions. Iran hawks like to imagine that they are playing the roles of Cold Warriors, and they think that with enough coercion and threats that the US can cause the Iranian government to fall. Advocates of "maximum pressure" against Iran and Venezuela today wrongly believe that something similar caused the end of the Soviet Union, but it is clear from the evidence that these policies of collective punishment and isolation only entrench existing governments and cause more hardship for the people.
We are also seeing its harmful effects in US policies toward Russia and China, as hardliners dust off their Soviet playbooks to engage in so-called "great power competition" with both major powers at the same time. Instead of acknowledging how post-Cold War US triumphalism and overreach have fueled the insecurity of other states, including and especially Russia, the new Cold Warriors deny that these states have any legitimate security concerns and insist on further militarization along their frontiers to "deter" them. Just as their predecessors did during the Cold War, US hardliners today are feeding the fears and resentments of these governments, and they are making conflict with one or both major powers more likely because they refuse to understand what brought down the Soviet Union.
As Kennan said almost thirty years ago, "Nobody – no country, no party, no person – “won” the cold war." Unfortunately, the US has spent most of the last thirty years operating on the false belief that it "won" and that it did so because of militarism and confrontational policies. We have been living with the costs of that delusion ever since, and our government runs the risk of repeating and compounding these errors by pursuing more Cold War-like rivalries in the future.
Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.