As Trump dramatically pulls out of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, while sending John Bolton to Moscow to negotiate a new agreement regarding the production of nuclear weapons, it appears that false narratives about the Cold War’s conclusion could be influencing White House foreign policy.
It is clear that Trump seeks to present himself as a new Reagan to the elderly, red state, FOX news audience. Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” was intentionally lifted from Reagan’s war-chest of campaign slogans, presented as “Let’s Make America Great Again” in 1980. Now, it looks as if Trump is “escalating the arms race” in order “defeat the Russians,” further fulfilling his image as the new “gipper.”
On FOX News, Right-Wing Talk Radio, and other Republican-aligned sections of US media, Ronald Reagan is treated as an immortal hero and icon. The religious and military obsessed neoconservative right-wing has canonized him to the point that one almost expects to see graphics of Reagan adjusted to include halos, or to see FOX news anchors cross themselves after uttering his name. Endless radio and TV segments in the right-wing media sphere have been dedicated to memorializing the man who held the US Presidency from 1981 to 1989.
The mythology perpetuated about the Reagan Presidency is that, while cowardly democrats had negotiated with the Soviet leaders and called for de-escalating the arms race, Reagan escalated the drive to build nuclear weapons. Reagan’s escalation of the arms race is said to have forced the Soviets to increase military spending, causing economic problems in the USSR. The heroic POTUS is said to have beat his chest with thunderous “tear down that wall” speeches, blasted the USSR as an “evil empire,” and eventually forced the Communists to surrender through his sheer strength, boldness, and refusal to compromise.
The problem is that the Republican narrative regarding the Cold War is largely inaccurate. While pressure to increase military spending certainly played a role in placing economic pressure on the Soviet Union, the USSR was destroyed by a political, not fiscal crisis. The political crisis that destroyed the USSR was mainly influenced by liberal soft-power policies from the US government not militarism and threats.
Manipulating Discontent & Alienation
After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Soviet Union had three legal political parties. The Bolsheviks were joined by the Left Mensheviks and the Left Socialist Revolutionaries in a coalition government dedicated to building socialism. However, those who were truly loyal to the new government joined the party of Lenin, and the two opposition parties became a collection of naysayers and conspirators. After a member of the Left Socialist Revolutionary Party shot Vladimir Lenin, and the Left Mensheviks participated in a series of armed actions against the Bolsheviks, the two opposition parties were outlawed.
In 1921, Lenin passed the famous “Resolution on Party Unity” that banned factions within the Communist Party, in the hopes of creating the iron-clad discipline needed by a government facing economic blockade and military encirclement.
The Stalin era was known for vast improvements in living conditions and industrialization of the country. The program of “Socialism in one country” carried out with Five Year Economic Plans, resulted in making the USSR a world industrial superpower, while creating the military strength needed to eventually defeat the Nazi invasion and liberate Eastern Europe. However, the Stalin-era was also known for the “great terror” in which many people were sent to gulags or executed, and panic about foreign subversion was widespread. At the famous “Moscow Trials” from 1936 to 1938, a number of top Soviet officials were convicted of conspiracy against the government.
The Soviet public was sent the message that being outspoken or involved in political affairs was dangerous business. In the field of economic development, Stalin tended to favor a kind of technocratic pragmatism, bringing in foreign capitalists to help set up state industries, and generously rewarding those who labored most productively with his “Stakhonovism” movement.
Decades later in the 1980s, Soviet leadership was at a generational turning point. The founders of the Soviet Union were dying off. Leonid Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov were both small children when the Bolsheviks had taken power in 1917, and they represented the last of the old guard of political figures who rose to power during the Stalin era. The Soviet government was now made of people who had grown up in a depoliticized, pragmatic atmosphere in which political debate was stifled. With Perestroika and Glasnost, the Soviet Communist Party was visibly watering down its ideology and liberalizing its economy, with a significant portion of the leadership no longer believing in Marxism.
Brzezinski’s Soft Power Schemes
In this atmosphere of de-politicization within the USSR, the Democratic Party and the US Central Intelligence Agency increasingly attempted to present the Soviet public with a friendlier image of the USA. Liberal cities established “sister city” relations with Soviet cities. A joint Soviet-American TV children’s special “Free to be…a Family” aired in 1988 on ABC and Soviet State television. The program featured “The Muppets” and sought to send a message that Soviet children and American children had similar hopes and fears. These “good will” efforts intended to present the USA as a benevolent, liberal country. As Soviet Communist rhetoric was being watered down, this soft power strategy did far more in setting the stage for the fall of the USSR than Reagan’s aggressive moves. A large sector of the Soviet public was mistakenly convinced that US leaders were trustworthy and somehow wanted to help them.
The Ford Foundation and various Rockefeller-linked outfits funded an army of liberal, Hollywood-admiring, counterculture “activists”, who studied texts like Marilyn Ferguson’s “The Aquarian Conspiracy” and held pacifist anti-nuclear rallies. These groups sent friendly delegations to the USSR and established ties with dissident intellectuals.
This fit in with the overall strategy developed by US intelligence during the Cold War. In the decades following World War II, the US Central Intelligence Agency was involved in fomenting and escalating a series of episodes of unrest across Eastern Europe. In Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968,the CIA worked to enflame dissent and tension, pushing anti-Russian factions within these governments and forcing the Soviet Union to intervene.
Zbeignew Brzezinski, a Polish-American who eventually rose to the rank of National Security Advisor under US President Jimmy Carter, perfected the art of fomenting episodes of chaos. Brzezinski knew specifically how to target intellectuals and young people. A strata of educated young people, often the children of Communist Party bureaucrats, felt stifled by the Eastern bloc governments. These young dissidents tended to be turned off by doctrinaire anti-communism. While they denounced the Marxist-Leninist governments of Eastern Europe, they often spoke of “Democratic Socialism,” “Participatory Democracy” and idealistically clung to a vision of a less authoritarian anti-capitalism while subtly receiving CIA support. George Soros, now hated by conservatives for his Democratic Party ties, helped to bank roll various liberal, anti-communist movements across Eastern Europe.
To these young people, the USA was the homeland of Beatles music, blue jeans, and other luxuries forbidden by the Soviet-aligned governments. In the delusional narrative covertly spoon-fed to young Eastern European intellectuals, overthrowing the Marxist-Leninist parties would mean maintaining the guaranteed jobs, healthcare and education, while adding the ability to “express yourself” in art and music and to purchase the shiny consumer products abundantly available in western countries.
Hardline rhetoric from conservatives like Ronald Reagan tended to strengthen the Soviet government. In order for the young intellectuals in awe of western liberal culture to be effectively manipulated, they had to believe they were not fighting to restore capitalism or aligning with the Pentagon. The illusion was that this was a movement of “free thinkers” from both the USA and the Eastern Bloc who were “coming together” to remove the barracks-like conditions branded as “Stalinism” as part some universal, pacifist, spiritual awakening.
In the referendum of 1991, the majority voted overwhelmingly to keep the Soviet Union. After the fall of governments in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and many other countries, the populations voted for the Communist Parties. In 1993, Russia had a constitutional crisis as the US-aligned President, Boris Yeltsin, suppressed the elected parliament made of Communists, who overwhelmingly had public support.
Among factory workers and farmers, the socialist system and the Communist Parties associated with it had support. The support for Communism had been lost among college professors, artists, teachers, and within the ruling parties themselves. The ideology and will to continue standing up to pressure among the Communist Parties leadership was also eroded by an atmosphere of pragmatism and liberalism.
The fall of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc was not a military defeat or even an economic defeat, but an ideological one. When military coups and efforts from the top dismantled the Marxist-Leninist governments, a significant sector of intellectuals and young people supported it, and the though the majority of the population wanted to maintain socialism, after years of being depoliticized they did not have the will to fight for it.
The result of the fall of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc was utter catastrophe. Mass unemployment and malnutrition accompanied the rise of sex trafficking, heroin addiction, and organized crime. The term “economic genocide” was used by different analysts to describe how state industries were sold off and millions were cast in desperate poverty. The fantasy that these societies would all become disneyland playgrounds dotted with consumer goods never materialized. Capitalism brought mass poverty and suffering, and many countries in Eastern Europe have never recovered from the downfall of socialism.
Trade Wars and Sanctions Will Not Hurt Xi and Putin
Unlike Eurasia’s leaders from the 20th Century, Vladimir Putin in Russia and Xi Jinping in China are not espousing a desire to spread Communist revolution across the planet. Putin speaks a language of Russian nationalism and populism, and simply wants to strengthen his country economically. Xi Jinping emphasizes the need for “win-win cooperation” and has repeatedly made clear that the Chinese Communist Party is not interested in exporting its political system or ideology.
Both Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping maintain their popular support due to actual achievements in terms of improving people’s lives. From 1999 to 2006, Putin’s economic reforms restored the Russian economy, drastically increased living standards, and ended the crisis that followed the fall of the USSR. Xi Jinping is seen as carrying on the legacy of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping and the ironclad leadership that transformed China into the second largest economy on earth, lifting 800 million people from poverty.
The huge amount of sanctions and pressure placed on Russia in 2014 following the Ukraine crisis did not weaken Putin. In fact, it made Putin’s public support stronger. Russians felt that the USA and NATO were threatening them, and saw Putin as defending them from hostile moves. Meanwhile, Xi Jinping is not becoming less popular due to the confrontational economic moves of the White House. Contrarily, Xi Jinping’s reputation as “the big boss” who will not be pushed around is being solidified.
The fact is that Cold War escalations did not really weaken or destroy the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was defeated by soft power manipulations and internal political decay, aided by a “Mr. Nice Guy” image of the United States as the land of material plenty and intellectual freedom. Trump’s announcements regarding the INF Treaty and his continued tariff escalations with China are most likely not going to, in any way, weaken the governments of Russia and China. If anything, Putin and Xi are likely to become more popular in the face of a prolonged “New Cold War” scenario. Their image as strong leaders protecting the country from a hostile and aggressive west will increase.
Like much of the Trump White House’s maneuverings, one wonders if the intent is really to win on the global stage. Does Trump really believe the FOX news narrative about Ronald Reagan’s victory?
Or are Trump’s international moves simply performance art, appealing to a constituency of people who actually buy in to the bombastic propaganda narrative of Cold War history?
Caleb Maupin is a political analyst and activist based in New York. He studied political science at Baldwin-Wallace College and was inspired and involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.