There are many reasons for me to be glad that the West won the Cold War. After all, like most Westerners, I too prefer living in a Western-style democracy rather than in a country such as Russia or China. Yet still, there are some disadvantages towinning that war, which have become especially clear in recent years, and which almost make me wish that we hadn’t won after all. Better still, however, would be if we recognised those problems and tried to improve upon them, as I doubt it would make me any happier if the West lost the next Cold War.
Last week, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev spoke at an event in Berlin commemorating the fall of the Wall. During his speech, he made two statements that came as a surprise in Western countries: first, that we are on the brink of a Third Cold War (which, personally, sounds like a gross understatement as East-West tensions have long ago reached Cold War levels), and second, that the West has succumbed to “triumphalism.” It is the second that I’d like to focus on today.
Triumphalism, according to thefreedictionary, has two definitions that might apply: “The attitude or belief that a particular doctrine is superior to all others”, and secondly, “excessive celebration of the defeat of one’s enemies or opponents.” Both sound awfully familiar, particularly the first one.
Soon after the collapse of the USSR, wars were undertaken in the Middle East and Africa, subjecting our will on the people who lived there. Then, when things didn’t go as we wanted, we blamed the indigenous people, and we still do. We blame(d) Islam for destabilising the Middle East and we blame(d) the “authoritarian culture” for not getting democracies established in Africa. After all, it’s their fault that they have unstable political regimes. The West has proven that its own democracy is superior, so if only other countries do as they say, everyone would be fine.
What we forgot, now that we won the war, was that we committed some terrible crimes in that period. Much like popular opinion would blame Germany for World War I, despite the fact that they were no more at fault than its opponents, popular opinion also turned against Russia. Being the losers, they had no choice but to accept blame, and in their triumph, the West didn’t hesitate to push that blame further in Russia’s direction.
Because of that, we forgot all about our near-imperialistic tendencies in our efforts to win the war. We forgot about how we overthrew many democratic regimes in the Middle East just because they favoured Russia, and we forgot about how we complete ignored, and often even supported, dictatorial regimes as long as they were on our side. We simply forgot, and all we remembered were the terrible things Russia did, regardless of the fact that its actions were identical to ours.
Now, in 2014, this still applies. We are still triumphant about our victory, and we look down on Russia as having a failed political doctrine. Moreover, due to its victory, Western countries dominate the international political arena, and that makes it much easier to look down on Russia’s actions while praising our own. We are the majority, after all, and nothing spurs people on more than having others agree with them.
The problem is that the same motivation excused slavery for hundreds of years, excused Apartheid in South Africa until the 1990s, and excuses a bully against his victim on the playground. The West has become that bully. We are arrogant and proud, completely convinced that our doctrine is the right one and that our “popularity” proves it, not noticing that we aren’t so popular after all. It’s just not always wise to speak up against the strongest bully on the playground. Again and again, therefore, we look down on Russia’s actions and forget that we’re doing the same things, that we are making the same mistakes. But we don’t notice, because Russia is alone. It lost the war, and therefore it is wrong.
All this means that when Putin goes to a G20 summit, he ends up looking like the bullied kid on the playground. He is received at the airport by some insignificant assistant of a minister, he eats his lunch in solitude and he is stared down by 19 other faces. His allies, in the meantime, are back home in their own countries, not being important enough to be in the G20. After all, they too lost the war, so they aren’t even allowed to attend. All of that makes it so easy for us to believe that there is consensus, that everyone agrees that we’re right, while in reality, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Russia was and is wrong about many of its actions, but so is the West. The only difference is that the West can be much more cruel, can destroy many more lives, before it is held accountable, while Putin can hardly eat a sandwich without receiving disapproval.
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