The false Manichaean dichotomy of the «new» Cold War

By sheer unmerited luck, our species frequently avoided nuclear wipeout during what I’d like to think of as the Cold War, rather than the old or last one. Estimates are available, such as lists of nuclear close calls. Often, it was low-level figures who decided, on their own, not to hit the button. In the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK himself was ready to incinerate, though at least he wasn’t enthused about it. Then he got bailed out by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.

The Cold War, which ended around 1990, was based on a Manichaean division of reality: good versus evil on a near-cosmic scale. I don’t think reality ever justified the proclaimed gulf, but there was at least enough ideology and rhetoric to make a slogan like “Better Dead than Red,” and its reverse, sound arguable.

But in the Ukraine context, the neo-Manichaeanism of, say Andrew Coyne, irritates me: that “a defensive alliance of democracies” can’t be “equated with a predatory dictatorship with a history of invading its neighbours,” and “to stand up to the dictators … only raises the price of doing so later.” Is this belated FOMO regarding the actual Cold War, or even before that, Munich?

Sorry, but the glove doesn’t fit. This is a ridiculous moment to make the U.S. an exemplar of democracy. Most Americans think their last election was stolen, voting rights are being enacted away, unelected Supreme Court judges basically legislate. Its NATO “allies” include autocratic Hungary, and it subsidizes military rule in Egypt and feudal monarchy in Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile Russia, in economic decline, has no ideology of any sort to justify its expansion.

As for invading neighbours, hmm. The Dominican Republic, Cuba, Haiti, Panama, Grenada — outright. Plus support for coups in Chile, Venezuela…

My point here isn’t whataboutism (though I’m not allergic to it). It’s that a Manichaean dichotomy at this time isn’t persuasive. It’s more like Cold War nostalgia. The moral claims on all sides have gone blurry. What cosmic moral chasm?

I am aware that the U.S. is our neighbour, and you have to get along with your neighbours. Otherwise life is hell. You have to work on the relationship, but not because they’re automatically right or inherently worthy — rather, because they’re your neighbours and, in the U.S. case, monstrously powerful. If our relations with the U.S. were as bad as Ukraine’s with Russia, we’d be edgy too, and support from distant allies like the U.S. wouldn’t settle us much. But this is far from signing on to their values, policies, rhetoric and invasions. At least it should be.

Are there alternatives? Glad you asked. During the Cold War, there was an admirable (IMO) group with over 100 member countries, called the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). It included estimable figures like India, led by Jawaharlal Nehru; Ghana, led by Kwame Nkrumah; Yugoslavia, led by Josip Broz Tito; and Indonesia, led by Sukarno — before the CIA helped engineer the bloodiest coup of the modern era, with one million murdered. They were an implicit rebuttal to the even then blatantly false dichotomies of the Cold Warriors. Canada was never a member. It would’ve been suicidal.

But you could say the elder Trudeau’s friendliness to anti-imperialists — like Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Jamaica’s Michael Manley, or his 1970 recognition of “Red China,” which seemed daring while Taiwan was still seated as “China” at the UN — amounted to a kind of indirect alignment with the non-aligned. Of course, even Pierre Trudeau would never have gone as far as leaving NATO.

Trudeau the younger has sometimes been reproached for fence-sitting in foreign policy, most recently over his degree of support for Ukraine. But you could see this as a half-assed step toward being non-aligned. It’s fantasy to think we could go full-assed in that direction, although the NAM still exists. We could well end up like the U.S.’s other close neighbour, Cuba: invaded, blockaded and upbraided. But it’s a nice model to keep back of mind, as we do the one-step forward, one-step back foreign policy hustle.

is a Canadian novelist, playwright, journalist, and critic and has been writing for more than forty years. Until October 1, 2010, he wrote a regular column in The Globe and Mail; on February 11, 2011, he began a weekly column in the Toronto Star. He currently teaches a half course on Canadian media and culture in University College (CDN221) at the University of Toronto. He is a contributing editor of This Magazine. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Near Eastern and Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and got his Master of Arts degree in religion at Columbia University. He also studied philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York City. He was once a trade union organizer in Toronto and participated in the Artistic Woodwork strike.[