“Those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it.”
A Prelude To A New Cold War?
An Ominous Warning From The Not So Distant Past.
Amid a dark cloud of instability that is once again hovering over Eastern Europe, the world paid homage to one of the most momentous events in human history. November 9th 2014 marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Over a million people gathered in the German capitol of Berlin to celebrate the occasion. It is hard to believe that it’s been quarter of a century since that symbolic relic of the Cold War between the world’s two major nuclear superpowers crumbled. The fall of this cultural icon, representing subjugation and isolation for many in the East and West alike, shook up the world in a manner that is on equal footing with the September 11 attacks on America.
A quarter century ago a new paradigm in the sphere of geopolitics was born. The old world, defined for twenty five years, by fear, force, misery and isolation was finally introduced to the new world – defined by rock, freedom, McDonalds and economic opportunity. Amid the televised celebrations and frenzied media coverage of this past week’s event, I noticed a familiar face, though shrouded with age he was unmistakable, due to a noticeable skin defect on his forehead. It was none other than Mikhail Gorbachev, the former president of the USSR who, contrary to our current popular belief was the reformer responsible for bringing the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union to an end. Many people mistakenly believe that former President Ronald Reagan was the catalyst for change, and not to take anything away from President Reagan, but it was Gorbachev who played the larger part. Both men presided over a fascinating series of events in human history and have since become cultural icons. Both are worthy of such a title. Together they took the world from the brink of madness and made meaningful change in a time defined by fear and uncertainty.
At one of the celebratory events of this past week, Gorbachev gave a speech, in which he delivered a sobering and ominous warning, saying he “feared that a new Cold War was brewing.”
Many people living in America today have no recollection of the Cold War and how terrifying it was to live through. But for those who heard the former Soviet President warn of a new Cold War, this was a haunting premonition.
I’m in my late 30’s, which makes me old enough to remember what it was like to live in fear of potential nuclear holocaust on any given day. Barely a teenager at the time, I can remember in vivid detail, the day that the people of East and West Germany took sledgehammers and began tearing down the wall, which represented an old and divided world. This was far more than a symbolic event in world affairs and world history. The physical barrier that divided Eastern Europe from the West was dismantled peacefully, by those who lived there; onlookers soon joining in to help, once they realized no one was going to stop them. Not a shot was fired and this was best possible tribute to all who died trying to escape East Berlin. The individual most responsible for this unification was Mikhail Gorbachev; to see him standing there warning us that our current geopolitical trajectory has us on a path to a new Cold War was nothing less than chilling.
The baby boomer generation can clearly remember what it was like to go to school every day and have to take part in “nuclear bomb” drills where they would have to crouch down under their desks as an exercise to prepare themselves for a nuclear attack. I heard the stories growing up and they terrified me. I remember seeing signs for nuclear fallout shelters in churches and schools and other buildings around town. Most people who are in college today have parents and grandparents who experienced this first hand. It would be difficult for most schoolchildren today to even comprehend such a fear inducing exercise, but for the two generations preceding them, this was a part of their daily life.
The greatest and most immediate threat to our national security is not radical Islamic fundamentalism or even terrorism. Instead it is our indifference to geopolitical affairs. I’ll never forget when I walked into my first college class, History 101. On the chalkboard (yes, chalkboard) was the phrase “Those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it.” At the time I recognized that it was a profound statement, but I didn’t understand just how profound a statement it was. And it seems that now in our modern world of relative comfort and security that we have forgotten our past and as a result we are doomed to repeat it.
While there are tensions brewing between the East and West, once again we must remember that there is no argument, whether it be social, political, economic or geopolitical that is worth reliving the Cold War, that threatened to wipe away civilized world and all of humanity and the with it.
As a species, we must not let cultural hubris or the arrogance of nationalism bring us to the brink of extinction on a world scale. Patriotism is nothing more than cultural vanity. We all feel a direct and strong affinity for our cultural ties. But we cannot let the ignorance of political indifference steal our humanity.
There was a reason why the people of the Europe, United States and the world rejoiced and celebrated the fall of the Berlin wall and the dissolution of the former Soviet Empire. The reason was simple: the terrifying threat of nuclear war was over. This may not resonate strongly with our current generation but just a few decades ago, people around the globe were living in fear of a real threat.
We cannot afford to summon that demon from its seemingly comfortable sleep…conjuring the spirit of conflict serves none of us.