Why must so many wars be refought? Will the Cold War be one of them? From Sparta routing Athens to Rome defeating Carthage, from France and Britain in the 18th century to Germany and the West in the 20th, a decisive victory is often squandered and a defeated foe must be revanquished.
In 1991 America appeared completely victorious in the Cold War and in the Middle East. The Soviet Union had collapsed, China was poor and rattled, and Saddam Hussein had been trounced. Yet, when one surveys the world today, the West sees itself outmanoeuvred in Ukraine by a revanchist Russia, challenged in the Pacific by Communist China, and embarrassed by chaos in the Middle East after a second squandered victory in Iraq. One might wonder whether history repeats itself — and why.
Part of the answer is that victories can look more decisive than they really are. A devastated nation may regrow its economy or population in a generation. A victorious one may be saddled with debts that take decades to pay down. The main reason, though, is complacency. Victorious powers convince themselves that their prevailing values were the foundation of their economic or military success. In reality it is often the other way round: economic and military superiority produce cultural dominance. They must be maintained if that dominance is to endure. But victors find it easier to luxuriate in the apparent success of their values than to maintain the strategic foundations that support them, or to do the hard work necessary to entrench those values in a defeated enemy. The notable exception was the Allies’ reconstruction of Japan and Germany after 1945.
But there was no successful “de-Leninisation” to match the de-Nazification of Germany. In contrast, allowing the experience of capitalist democracy to be so disastrous in Nineties Russia was as big an error as it was allowing it to be so disastrous in Twenties Germany. As so often in the past, the victors allowed humiliation then reassertion, rather than combining generosity with firmness.
So could the Cold War victory over Communism yet be squandered? Not if the West stays united and willing to pay the price of enforcing its values, by making co-operation more profitable than hostility. History has shown us that victors must be robust as well as magnanimous if they are to deter old opponents and avoid having to refight conflicts they thought had been won.