World War One, the "War to End All Wars" didn't. Instead it begat World War Two which, in turn, begat the Cold War (that remained "cold" in large measure due to pure luck). Now we discover that decisions taken in the wake of Cold War One, just like bad decisions taken in the aftermath of World War One and World War Two, has begat Cold War Two.
This is brilliantly analyzed by economist Jeffry Sachs who played an instrumental role in events that led to the undoing of the Soviet Union and watched as the West stupidly overplayed its hand, paving the way for inevitable conflict we're experiencing today. In his view, "today's global problems are hangovers from bad, ungenous decisions at the end of previous conflicts."
Sachs recounts the heady days 30-years ago when he assisted Poland's transition from communism to democracy and a western economy.
As a newly minted economist some 30 years ago, I suddenly found myself
charged with helping a small and largely forgotten country, Bolivia, to find a
way out of its own unmitigated economic disaster. Keynes's writings helped me to
understand that Bolivia's financial crisis should be viewed in social and
political terms, and that Bolivia's creditor, the US, had a shared
responsibility of resolving Bolivia's financial anguish.
My experience in Bolivia in 1985-86 soon brought me to Poland in the spring
of 1989, at a dual invitation of Poland's final communist government and the
Solidarity trade union movement that strongly opposed it. Poland, like Bolivia,
was financially bankrupt. And Europe in 1989, like Europe in 1919, was at a
great hinge-moment of history.
...These were heady days for me as an economic adviser. My wish, it seemed on
some days, was the White House's command. One morning, in September 1989, I
appealed to the US Government for $1bn for Poland's currency stabilisation. By
evening, the White House confirmed the money. No kidding, an eight-hour
turnaround time from request to result. Convincing the White House to support a
sharp cancellation of Poland's debts took a bit longer, with high-level
negotiations stretching out for about a year, but those too proved to be
The rest, as they say, is history. Poland undertook very strong reform
measures, based in part on recommendations that I had helped to design. The US
and Europe supported those measures with timely and generous aid. Poland's
economy began to restructure and grow, and 15 years later it became a
full-fledged member of the European Union.
I wish that I could stop my reminiscing here, with this happy story. But
alas, the story of the end of the Cold War is not only one of Western successes,
as in Poland, but also one of great Western failure vis-a-vis Russia. While
American and European generosity and the long view prevailed in Poland, American
and European actions vis-a-vis post-Soviet Russia looks were much more like the
horrendous blunders of Versailles. And we are paying the consequences to this
In 1990 and 1991, Gorbachev's government, seeing the emerging positive
results in Poland, asked me to help advise it on economic reforms. Russia at the
time was facing the same kind of financial calamity that had engulfed Bolivia in
the mid-1980s and Poland by 1989.
In the spring of 1991, I worked with colleagues at Harvard and MIT to assist
Gorbachev to obtain financial support from the West as part of his efforts at
political reform and economic overhaul. Yet our efforts fell flat - indeed they
Gorbachev left the G7 summit that summer of 1991 and returned to Moscow
empty-handed. When he returned to Moscow with no results, a conspiracy attempted
to oust him in the notorious August Putsch, from which he never recovered
politically. With Boris Yeltsin ascendant, and the dissolution of the Soviet
Union now on the table, Yeltsin's economic team again asked me for assistance,
both in the technical challenges of stabilisation, and in the quest to obtain
vital financial assistance from the US and Europe.
I predicted to President Yeltsin and his team that help would soon be on the
way. After all, emergency help for Poland was arranged in hours or weeks. Surely
the same would happen for the newly independent and democratic Russia. Yet I
watched in puzzlement and growing horror that the needed aid was not on the way.
Where Poland had been granted debt relief, Russia instead faced harsh demands
by the US and Europe to keep paying its debts in full. Where Poland had been
granted rapid and generous financial aid, Russia received study groups from the
IMF but no money. I begged and beseeched the US to do more. I pleaded the
lessons of Poland, but all to no avail. The US government would not budge.
In the end, Russia's malignant financial crisis overwhelmed the efforts at
reform and normality. The reform government of Yegor Gaidar fell from grace and
from power. I resigned after two hard years of trying to help, and of
accomplishing very little indeed. A few years later, Vladimir Putin replaced
Yeltsin at the helm.
Throughout this debacle, the US pundits blamed the reformers rather than the
cruel neglect by the US and Europe. Victors write the history, as they say, and
the US felt very much the victor of the Cold War. The US would therefore remain
blameless in any accounts of Russia's mishaps after 1991, and that remains true
It took me 20 years to gain a proper understanding of what had happened after
1991. Why had the US, which had behaved with such wisdom and foresight in
Poland, acted with such cruel neglect in the case of Russia? Step by step, and
memoir by memoir, the true story came to light. The West had helped Poland
financially and diplomatically because Poland would become the Eastern ramparts
of an expanding Nato. Poland was the West, and was therefore worthy of help.
Russia, by contrast, was viewed by US leaders roughly the same way that Lloyd
George and Clemenceau had viewed Germany at Versailles - as a defeated enemy
worthy to be crushed, not helped.
A recent book by a former Nato commander, General Wesley Clark, recounts a
1991 conversation he had with Paul Wolfowitz, who was then the Pentagon's policy
director. Wolfowitz told Clark that the US had learned that it could now act
with impunity in the Middle East, and ostensibly in other regions as well,
without any threat of Russian interference.
In short, the US would behave like a victor and a bully, claiming the fruits
of Cold War victory through wars of choice if necessary. The US would be on top,
and Russia would be unable to stop it.
...The shadow of 1989 looms large. And Nato's continued desire, expressed again
just recently, to add Ukraine to its membership, thereby putting Nato right up
on the Russian border, must be regarded as profoundly unwise and provocative.
1914, 1989, 2014. We live in history. In Ukraine, we face a Russia embittered
over the spread of Nato and by US bullying since 1991. In the Middle East, we
face the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, destroyed by WW1, and replaced by the
cynicism of European colonial rule and US imperial pretentions.
We face, most importantly, choices for our time. Will we use power cynically
and to dominate, believing that territory, Nato's long reach, oil reserves, and
other booty are the rewards of power? Or will we exercise power responsibly,
knowing that generosity and beneficence builds trust, prosperity, and the
groundwork for peace? In each generation, the choice must be made anew.
Sachs captures the cynicism of our age, the darkness that may propel us, even if unwittingly, back into war. The bony finger of triumphalism still taps the cadence of conflict in Washington, London and Ottawa. We somehow think that punishing Russia is worth the risk of destabilizing the great Bear and it's this warped thinking that refuses to recognize our duplicity and bullying of Russia, layer upon layer since 1991. It's a story of hubris and death and mass suffering, again and again and again.