The Soviet Union and the United States were involved in an ideological, political, and military fight almost as soon as World War II came to an end. The United States took the leadership of the fight for freedom against the forces of totalitarianism, then under the control of Joseph Stalin. The situation has some similarities with the one existing today, especially with the emerging differences over Ukraine and Putin’s attempt to revive the Soviet empire in a new form.
With the new deal between Russia and China, Putin has managed to gain the funds he needs to feed his ambition, just when the economy of Russia was beginning to tank. During the Cold War, the Nixon administration managed to play Mao’s China against the Soviet Union, thereby weakening Russia’s grip on the world and its desire for hegemony. That option does not exist today.
There are, however, other major similarities that are pointed out today in a very important speech by Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic. Together with Yale historian Timothy Snyder, who has been writing some of the most insightful articles about Ukraine (such as this one, and this blog in the New York Review of Books), they put together a major conference of Western and Ukrainian intellectuals in Kiev, which was held a few days ago.
Wieseltier, in his introductory remarks, makes a telling analogy. He argues that the events in Russia bring to mind the historic Congress for Cultural Freedom, held in Berlin in the early days of the Cold War, in which anti-Communist liberals and conservatives put aside their differences. They sought to work together to let those in the West understand why it was imperative that the Soviet Union — then still run by Joseph Stalin — not be allowed to succeed in its goals of building a Communist world. The Congress, as Peter Coleman subtitled his book, was a “struggle for the mind of postwar Europe.” Wieseltier writes:
All historical analogies are imperfect, but they are not for that reason false. The analogy between 2014 and 1950 is in some ways imprecise and hyperbolic: Putin is not Stalin, for example. But Putin is bad enough. Putin is very bad. It is not only evil in its worst form that we must resist. The discontinuities of recent histories must not blind us to the continuities. It is also the case — here is another discontinuity — that the United States and its European allies are not inclined now toward a geopolitical struggle that would in any way resemble the Cold War, which many Westerners regard as a dark and cautionary tale. I am not one of those Westerners: Unlike many American liberals, among whom I otherwise count myself, I regard the Cold War as a mottled tale of glory, because it ended in the defeat and the disappearance of the Soviet Union, which was indeed (for American liberals this is a heretical prooftext) what Ronald Reagan said it was — an evil empire.
Wieseltier considers the condition of Ukraine as one of “the proving grounds of principle in our time,” and it is a “modern struggle for democracy” akin to that which took place in the 1950s against Stalinism. So he and Snyder sought, in creating this event, to show the solidarity of Western European and American intellectuals with their Ukrainian counterparts. He argues that the Ukrainians were fighting for principles Americans endorse: liberty, truth, and pluralism. He marvels at the arrogance of Putin, whose propaganda proclaims the Ukrainian activists fascist, when it is a case of the pot calling the kettle black — “a fascist regime [which] has the temerity to call you fascist.”
Wieseltier, one must stress, is indeed a man whose position is similar to that of a once-large group, but now a dying breed: the so-called “Cold War liberals.” This was a favorite term of hatred used by the Left to describe those who fought the Popular Front initiated by the Communists in the days of World War II and the U.S.- Soviet alliance, and which they sought to maintain in the early days of the Cold War.
Nevertheless, today’s liberals — really those who take the positions of the far Left — have already sought to attack Wieseltier’s speech. The first culprit, and I am sure more will follow, is well-known liberal writer Jim Sleeper, whose response appears at the Huffington Post. He titles his article “Ukraine’s Neo-con Champions Champion Mainly Themselves,” a title meant to show his leftist readers that he has nothing but disdain for their efforts at solidarity. In so doing, he ironically shows that his position is analogous to that of the fellow-travelers and Communists who attacked the Congress of Cultural Freedom in similar terms in the 1950s.