Since September 11, we have deployed dozens of analogies—Pearl Harbor, the war on drugs, the battle against mosquitoes—to help make sense of these new times in international politics. Paradoxically, however, lessons from the Cold War and its end may provide the best clues for how to frame the new era.
Above all else, we must remember that the battle against communism, like our new struggle against extreme strains of Islamic fundamentalism, was a war of ideas. By framing our new battle as a "war on terrorism," we set out to do battle with a "means," not the people, ideologies, and causes that deploy this weapon. A war against terrorism is like a war against violence, which cannot be won. A war against a new "ism" will be long and difficult but can be won.
Communism, like extreme versions of Islamic fundamentalism, provided a set of beliefs that explained everything in the world. Communism framed world politics as a Manichean struggle between the forces of good and evil. Radical Communists did not seek a resolution of grievances with the West, be it Namibian independence or higher wages for Italian workers. Rather, the mission was total destruction of the United States, its allies, and its way of life.
We must battle not just terrorism, but the people, ideologies, and causes that deploy this weapon.
The battle against communism therefore was a worldwide, multifaceted campaign that included military action and deterrence against communist states and nonstate actors, economic support for countries threatened by communist takeover, and an ideological counteroffensive. The century-long campaign ended only when the war of ideas, not a battle of tanks, was won.
In spearheading this struggle against communism, the United States made mistakes that must be avoided in the new campaign. Oftentimes we confused means and ends, so that all users of violence against noncommunist states and actors were considered part of the world communist movement. Not long ago, Nelson Mandela was labeled a "communist terrorist," as were many anticolonial movements whose real aim was sovereignty, not world revolution.
Distinguishing between those focused on territorial or ethnic disputes and those dedicated to a global messianic mission is critical in the next war. During the battle against communism, we initially treated the entire communist world as monolithic, a mistake we cannot repeat with the Islamic world. We must learn the differences between Sunni and Shi’ite, Wahabbis and Durranis, moderate and radical. Our overzealous search for enemies from within in the 1950s and its tragic consequences must be remembered and not repeated.
Yet the United States also pursued some successful innovations during the Cold War that are relevant to the new campaign. Especially after the fall of Czechoslovakia in 1948, the United States learned the importance of international allies. Complementing our military strategy against communism were new weapons against the last "ism," including the Marshall Plan, the World Bank, USAID, the Peace Corps, Radio Free Europe, and the National Endowment for Democracy. Over time, the Western alliance developed a more sophisticated understanding of the threat, making distinctions among different strands of communism, recognizing the difference between dangerous communist cells and legitimate mass-based movements, and differentiating between communist leaders and the captive nations they subjugated.
Democracy and economic growth may be the enemies of Osama bin Laden, but they are not the enemies of Islam.
At crucial moments, American leaders even learned the importance of letting old anticommunist allies fall and new democratic forces prevail. Democratic ideas proved to be one of our best countercommunist weapons.
These are valuable lessons for today’s campaign. To fight a sustained battle against communism, the United States also invested billions in education and intelligence about the enemy. The U.S. government sponsored centers for Soviet studies, provided foreign-language scholarships, and offered dual competency grants to compel graduate students to gain expertise in both security issues and Russian culture.
Such programs, aimed at combating the new "ism," exist today but are underdeveloped. We lack "human intelligence"—covert agents, spies, and informants—in the Middle East. But we also suffer from shortages of National Security Agency linguists, academic scholars, and senior policymakers trained in the languages, cultures, politics, and economics of the Middle East.
The endgame of the Cold War also must be remembered. It did not terminate on the battlefield or result from a successful counterintelligence sting. Rather, it ended after people, even in Russia, stopped believing in communism and then mobilized to overthrow the Soviet communist regime. The Cold War victory will be secured only when democracy consolidates within Russia.
Obviously, promoting regime change in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia is dangerous, difficult, and cannot happen in the near future. Promoting new forms of governance in a country such as Afghanistan, where only 30 percent of the men and 15 percent of the women are literate, seems futile. Yet a long-term strategy for combating radical Islamic fundamentalism must include policies that promote new governments and new development in the region and end a decade of neglect. Democracy and economic growth may be the enemies of Osama bin Laden, but they are not the enemies of Islam.
The battle against communism took more than a century. This new battle against a new "ism" could take longer. Yet the West eventually did win the war against communism, an outcome few predicted just a few decades ago. The strong support for democracy among Russians today—more than two-thirds of the population in most polls—suggests that no culture, regime, or "ism" is immune from change.