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The second cold war: who is to blame?

There is a story (which I believe to be true) about a wandering West Coast surfer, board bag over his shoulder, who accidentally landed in Berlin, back in the 1980s. Disappointed by the lack of a decent beach, he took an excursion to the Wall, gazed up at a well-armed border guard in one of the towers, festooned with barbed wire, and yelled out to him – in a mixture of abuse, protest and lament – “Man, you are bummed, because you will never know what true surfing really is.”

A reasonable remark at the time, of course, but history has proved the oracle wrong. “Charlie don’t surf!” said Lt Col Kilgore in Apocalypse Now. But Charlie – and specifically ex-East German ex-soldiers who used to man the ramparts – do surf (their exploits are documented in Michael Scott Moore’s Sweetness and Blood). Trabants out, Woodies in; and shorts on. Apocalypse was duly postponed. But not for long.

The Fall of the Berlin Wall, on the night of 9 November 1989, is probably a defining moment for all of us who were alive at the time. Probably for those too who weren't alive yet. You didn’t need to be there, singing along with David Hasselhoff, to feel the almost dream-like sense of optimism. More than mere optimism: the real and empirically justifiable conviction that progress, in a very real and – no metaphor – concrete way could be and had been achieved. Anything, henceforth, was possible.

For a lot of us the wall had stood for much of our lifetime (since 1961) and now it was down. Deconstruction in action. The spy didn’t need to come in from the cold any more. John Le Carré was (so we fondly imagined) out of a job. The long Cold War was over and old-style spooks and moles, Smiley and his Moriarty-like KGB counterpart, Karla, could all go home and put their slippers on. The Iron Curtain had been drawn back for good.

Such was the gist of the brilliant yet flawed thesis put forward in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the First Man, published in 1992 (based on a paper first written in the summer of 1989). Some of us cherish little chunks of actual rubble or bricks taken from the Wall (some of it no doubt genuine); I still have the Fukuyama sitting on my shelf. A symbol of an all too evanescent utopianism. Fukuyama was the voice of a generation. Now, perhaps, singing only in bare ruin’d choirs.

Fukuyama boldly – perhaps with a sense of humour – used Hegel’s nineteenth-century theory of history to articulate and validate (up to a point) his liberal-democratic vision of the future. The irony was that Hegel had previously been extensively mined by none other than Karl Marx to buttress his own notion of the historical dialectic. Hegel had watched Napoleon (“the world-spirit on horseback”) storm across the land that was not then Germany, on his way to the Battle of Jena, and saluted the French emperor for, in effect, triggering nationalism and thus inadvertently giving birth to German nationhood. That was good enough for Hegel; the rise of the German state. This was the world-historical ideal. The real had become rational. Mission accomplished.

Rubbish, said Marx. He got it all wrong, or as he neatly put it, Hegel had been standing on his head and it was Marx's job to turn him upside-down and put him back on his feet again, making him less of an “idealist” and more of a “materialist”.

The essential structure that Marx extracted from Hegel’s history was the tripartite one of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. It was a neat idea. Maybe too neat. French school kids are still taught to write their essays in just this way. But, applied to history, the Hegelian logic said that one force would conjure up an opposite force and that out of some kind of miraculous, explosive fusion a superior force would emerge, combining the best of the two previous phases. Marx took over this narrative structure but converted it into his triadic history, feudalism followed by capitalism followed, definitively, by communism. The French Revolution would be echoed by a global revolution that would usher in the dictatorship of the proletariat.

But Marx got it all back-to-front, said Fukuyama, who also sought to use Hegel to prove his point. Fukuyama had just witnessed the Fall of the Wall. In the brief interregnum in which we freely used words like glasnost and perestroika (just as, conversely, the droogs of Clockwork Orange have “horrorshow”, from the Russian for “good”, xorosho), it was perhaps natural that he should think in these terms. He was not alone. I can remember, in a speech at my own wedding, comparing my bride to Gorbachev (I regret that, but it was supposed to be a metaphor for a better world to come).

In the pages of The End of History, Hegel was this time around invoked to demonstrate that the final synthesis, and the end-point of history, was not some monstrous totalitarian regime; but rather, easy-going, surfer-friendly, liberal democracy taking over the entire planet. What we were seeing was “not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

It was a West Coast view of the world, seen through turquoise-tinted sunglasses. Hedonism was henceforth OK. There would be no further need for the old puritan work ethic (heralded by the sociologist Max Weber), because we were now post-industrial. By the same token the heavy-handed State of the past would (as Marx predicted) fade away and leave in its place a free-thinking parliamentary paradise. The idea that East is East and West is West had been wrong: the twain had met when the Wall fell. Perhaps there was a hint of Margaret Thatcher’s, “There is no alternative”. The only problem, Fukuyama maintained, was “boredom”.

Somehow 9/11 didn’t quite square with this basic assumption. The old East-West conflict was back with a vengeance, only in a new form. The rise of Al-Qaeda and Islamism shook Fukuyama’s thesis to its core. He responded heroically and tried to save his argument from the flames and maintained that this was a temporary misunderstanding. In the long-run (although it could be very, very long), his prediction would surely come true. As Popper argued of Hegel, Fukuyama’s thesis was essentially “unfalsifiable”, irrefutable only because it lacked empirical substance.

However, his feel-good, warm-hearted prophecy was soon enough supplanted by Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations (1996). According to Huntington, at least half-a-dozen quite distinct cultural entities would always remain locked into their ancient conflicts with one another. Huntington, not Fukuyama, was the essential playbook of the era of Osama bin Laden. Here was Fukuyama’s antithesis.

But there was one more writer of the post-Berlin Wall episode who not only derided Fukuyama but provides us with the script to our current malaise. He was not surprised by 9/11. And – had he still been alive – he might have been equally at home with “Novichok”. Oddly enough, he was also the guiding light of the Matrix movies and the “desert of the real”. Jean Baudrillard is perhaps better known as the architect or high priest of postmodernism. But when I met him in the 1990s in Oxford, he was speaking about “the Illusion of the End” (which would become a book with that title).

Baudrillard heaped scorn on the gospel according to Fukuyama and Hegel and Marx and anyone else espousing a linear narrative with a happy ending. Instead, he signalled the end of the end of history. “History,” he wrote, “has become interminable.”

In an arresting image of recycling, Baudrillard reckoned that when the Wall came down all the bricks were taken away and used to build new walls in other places. That was, in effect, the Huntington argument.

But Baudrillard went further and made a specific prophesy. History, he said, as the old millennium approached a close, was not marching inexorably forward to some rosy conclusion. On the contrary, according to Baudrillard’s rather poetic idea, history was more of a palindrome than a straightforward narrative. Just as you get to the end, or what you think and fervently pray could be the end, it starts to rewind, to go into reverse, and repeat itself all over again in a “catastrophic process of recurrence and turbulence”.

More recently Fukuyama has been quoted as saying, “twenty-five years ago, I didn’t have a sense or a theory about how democracies can go backward. And I think they clearly can.” 

So a new Cold War is exactly what Baudrillard would have expected and predicted. We are back to the droogs and their horrorshow, except they are now in Moscow, and Salisbury. And that is without mentioning Beijing. Presumably World War is next on the horizon. “Nothing that one thought superseded by history has really disappeared,” as Baudrillard says. “All the archaic and anachronistic forms are there ready to re-emerge, intact and timeless, like viruses deep in the body.” ​

But could it have been any different? To most of us who were in situ the first time around, the new showdown between Western democracy and Russian infamy will seem not just familiar but almost reassuring. At least you know where you are with the Russian bear. Max Boot’s new book The Road Not Taken, suggests that Vietnam in particular could have been very different. Back in the 1960s in Asia, Edward Lansdale – the model for Graham Greene’s “Quiet American” – was beavering away to convert “hearts and minds” at the same time as the American military-industrial machine was gearing up to try to bomb the living daylights out of Vietnam and Cambodia. Guess who won. But it could, Boot maintains, have been different.

And perhaps in some parallel universe even now we are at peace with Moscow and there are regular Anglo-Russian pow-wows and exchanges and Putin is really up against some serious opposition in the forthcoming election rather than shoving most of them in prison, or worse.

There is a case for saying that in the all too brief honeymoon after the fall of the Wall we – and especially the USA – needed to be actively seeking partnerships and reconciliation, rather than rubbing the ex-Soviet nose in its own downfall. And above all offering financial incentives: a post-Cold War Marshall Plan.

Alas, we didn’t. The fact is – as per Putin’s current electoral strategy – there are always more votes to be garnered by playing the clash-of-states card. Sadly, the Cold War sells. Many Russians love the idea of the “strong” leader, even if that strength is only a “show of strength” against a background of increasing weakness. It’s not so much a personality cult as the celebration of the droog mentality.

To return to Hegel, the synthesis (and thus the end of history) is always receding, because we can never overcome our addiction to mere antithesis. We define ourselves by opposition. Is the EU, after all, not just another way of defining, by opposition, the UK?

Fukuyama was right about one thing though: our current crisis is, as he would say, “post-ideological”. All the old Marxist-Leninist facade has been taken down. Now it’s all about the exercise of pure naked power. Salisbury is not collateral damage. Killing people is the ultimate calling card.

Andy Martin