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Ditchley Foundation Annual Lecture XXX

July 1993
Cold War, Chill Peace

Delivered by:
Professor Sir Michael Howard CBE MC FBA.
Lovett Professor of Military and Naval History at Yale University (1989-93), Professor of War Studies, King’s College, University of London (1963-68) and thereafter, at the University of Oxford, a Fellow of All Souls College, Chichele Professor of the History of War (1977-80) and Regius Professor of Modern History (1980-89). A Governor of the Ditchley Foundation.
Four years ago, as the Berlin Wall crumbled and the Cold War came so miraculously to an end, I was rash enough to conclude an essay with the words: “As one whose conscious political experience now extends over fifty years I can say that I would rather be living in 1989 than in 1939 - or indeed any date between the two”.
Should I now regret or retract that statement? Do I still feel so confident about the world today as I, and I think most of us, did then?

Well, at the moment, and speaking purely personally, I am not inclined either to regret or to retract them. It was a view that would probably have been shared at the time by the overwhelming majority of Europeans, East and West. During the previous half century we had, most of us, been under dire physical threat. For much of the time during the Second World War it seemed that a lot of very clever and highly-motivated people were trying very hard to kill me, and I did not relish the experience. Then, after a very brief interval, came the long era of ‘nuclear deterrence’, when it was impossible for any reasonably well-informed observer to contemplate the risks inherent in the situation without a spasm of visceral terror. These were years in which we worked out our salvation almost literally ‘in fear and trembling’. Nobody in their right mind could wish to live through them again.

It would be legitimate, indeed, to extend that troubled period backward for a generation, to 1914, for the two world wars had a basic continuity; so far as Europe was concerned, they can be regarded almost as a single Thirty Years’ War. So in broader historical perspective the years between 1914 and 1989 may come to be seen as ones of continuous armed confrontation and conflict, broken by periods of uneasy truce, not unlike the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleonic conquest between 1793 and 1815; except that in our own time we had to endure not one but two prolonged conflicts with two different major adversaries; and those conflicts shaped the minds, not of one generation, but of three.

Now, like the statesmen gathered at Vienna at the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, we have to adjust ourselves to an entirely new situation. An era dominated by major military confrontations has ended. The huge armed forces made necessary by that confrontation are being disbanded, with all the consequent economic disruption and social stress. The political attitudes and social structures shaped by nearly a century of warfare no longer appear to be relevant. The problems we now face arise not from the threat of foreign conquest or hegemony, but from social dislocation on a vast, indeed a global scale; dislocation arising in part from the social and economic results of the wars themselves, but mainly from long-term secular trends that we cannot control and to which we can only adjust as best we can.
If we take the Napoleonic analogy seriously, the good news is that after 1815 nearly half a century was to pass before Europe saw another international war, and a century before there was a conflict on anything like so considerable a scale. The bad news is that during those years developments were under way that made the European system increasingly unstable: unstable internally, as industrialisation transformed the economies of Western Europe, bringing in its wake growing class- conflict and fear of revolution; externally, as the growth of railways (in particular) created a new major political and economic power in the centre of Europe which was to shatter the international system with a new series of wars - wars that began with the Prussian challenge to the Austrian Empire in 1866 and did not really conclude until the defeat and destruction of Nazi Germany in 1945. It would be an extraordinarily rash person who asserted today that similar economic and technological changes will not sooner or later transform the underlying power-structure of the world in a way that may have to be tested - as it has always been tested in the past - by military conflict. This is, alas, a long-term possibility that cannot be lost to sight. But there are shorter term probabilities that must quite rightly receive our prior attention.

* * * *

Before looking at those shorter term problems, let me consider for a moment the huge conflicts, fought or unfought, that have wracked the world for most of our troubled century. What were they really about? What were the causes for which millions of young men were required to die and even more civilians had to suffer? The simple answer might be that given to Alice by Humpty-Dumpty:
“Who’s to be Master; that’s all”. For some - perhaps for most - of the belligerents, the two World Wars were fought simply to prevent Germany achieving a hegemony over Europe, as earlier wars had been fought for the same purpose against France and Spain. Similarly the Cold War was ‘fought’ to contain Soviet power; not just in Europe but throughout the world. For many of those who fought, or were prepared to fight, that was probably reason enough, especially during the First World War: soldiers fought loyally for their countries, and civilians unquestioningly supported them. For that perhaps rather naive generation, ‘King and Country’ was in itself a quite sufficient cause for which to fight and if need be die.

We may now look back and condemn, or pity, the frenetic nationalism of the First World War, which saw in the enemy the embodiment of absolute evil and claimed for its own side a monopoly of virtue; but even then the national cause was equated, rightly or wrongly, with a higher morality and could command the loyalty of rational as well as honourable men and women. The young men who then fought and died ‘for England’ did so because they believed that ‘England’ embodied certain ideals of liberty and justice and individual freedom; ideals threatened, so they thought, by the jackboot of ‘Prussian militarism’.
For the Americans of course, the war was ideological from the very beginning: the United States entered the war, after long hesitation, to make the world ‘safe for democracy’, believing that only if there was universal democracy could there be universal peace. The Germans for their part believed that a combination of Western materialism and Eastern barbarism threatened their unique culture; a culture rooted in deep historic instincts and finding expression in a State whose leadership demanded from its people complete individual subordination and heroic self-sacrifice: ‘heroes’ were fighting ‘tradesmen’. It was only after defeat and humiliation in a war that most of them regarded as entirely defensive and ‘just’, that the Germans came to acquiesce in a regime whose philosophy was an evil caricature of their traditional patriotism; one which denied all individual rights against a State that claimed to embody the general will, whose power was its own justification, and which claimed a mandate to cleanse its own society of those groups it regarded as alien, and to subordinate others it stigmatised as inferior.

It is worth taking a moment to consider the creed of National-Socialism, or as it is more generically known, Fascism, for it is beginning to have uncomfortable resonances for our own times. It was a philosophy that quite consciously rejected the whole tradition of the liberal Enlightenment that had been developing in the West over the past two centuries and for which the liberal democracies of the West continued, however inadequately, to stand. For the rights of the individual, fascism substituted the authority of the group, and of the Leader who embodied it. For the brotherhood of man it substituted the right of the strong to enslave the weak. For the rule of reason it substituted the primacy of visceral prejudice; and for the vision of peace among nations, it substituted that of perpetual war.
This was not a purely German phenomenon; it was a creed that, appealing as it did to primitive emotions of the nastiest kind, struck a chord in all societies, developed or undeveloped. Unfortunately it still does. There are, and I am afraid always will be, those who are born Fascists. Perhaps most of us are, and have to be, educated out of it. But there are those - and the Germans were an example - who have had Fascism thrust upon them through the catastrophic failure of liberal political and economic ideals derived from the Enlightenment to solve the basic social problems which they brought in their train. Reason might decree that all men should be free to work out their own political and economic salvation, emancipated from traditional religious or hierarchical authority. But what happens when such freedom results, as it did in post-war Germany, in six million unemployed? Communism might, as we shall see, appeal to the proletariat for whom it was designed, but society consists of many more groups than the proletariat. For self-employed business men; petty- bourgeois employees; small farmers; dispossessed or threatened members of the old ruling classes; for all these people a creed that seemed to defend traditional values in an age of chaotic change; that provided employment and restored their self-respect; that promised the young a life of adventure and excitement, and that clearly identified alien groups, internal or external, as the cause of all their miseries; such a creed had much to recommend it. The price was abdication of independent judgement to an authority that would take all decisions for them; but it was an authority that understood their prejudices and skilfully played on them to maintain itself in power. That was Fascism, and it still is. It is a creed that always appeals to misfits; and when a large proportion of society feels itself to be misfits it becomes really dangerous.

But there was another and parallel reaction against the philosophy of freedom. Representative democracy was only one child of the Enlightenment. It had a sibling which, appearing first in the latter days of the French Revolution, was to grow to maturity, after a hefty dose of Hegelian dialectic, as Marxism, and ultimately to achieve power in the Soviet Union and elsewhere as Marxist-Leninism. If Reason enabled man to understand and ultimately to control the processes of Nature, so the argument went, it should no less enable him to understand and control the development of his own society. A combination of historical understanding and scientific analysis showed that the capitalistic system was only a harsh if necessary stage on mankind’s road to a communist resolution of all social and political conflicts, and one to be traversed as quickly as possible. Those truly enlightened spirits whose superior insight enabled them to understand the inward meaning of History had not only the right but the duty to take charge of society, and to transform it in accordance with the intrinsic laws of social development which they alone understood. For those who suffered most from the misery and alienation brought about by the early years of industrialisation - not just the unemployed but the far larger number of those employed on starvation wages - the promise of communism looked seductive; not so much because it promised Utopia, but because it offered to industrial workers a measure of security that they could never enjoy in a world ruled by market forces. Further - and perhaps even more important - it offered to intellectuals the promise of a world that they believed that they would be able to control.

Thus the Second World War was a war, not simply of nations, but of ideologies, and the victor would shape the world in his own image. The two branches of the Enlightenment family temporarily sank their differences and united to destroy a creed that threatened them both. Then, as Hitler had always hoped, they turned against one another, and the Cold War began. Because both creeds were international, or rather supranational, each had its adherents in the other’s camp. If the Soviets had played their cards more skilfully, they might have had many more. In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War communism offered to many in the West an attractive alternative to the failures of pre-war capitalism - and to many in the rest of the world an even more attractive alternative to pre-war colonialism. As it was, confronted by a regime that had more in common with the worst kind of Czarist oppression than with the Brave New World depicted in Marxist propaganda, the Old Believers in the West (those hopeful but hapless professors at the Sorbonne and Oxbridge dons of the 1930s) died out and, thank God, were not replaced. The new countries of the Third World eventually came to recognise that the Soviet Union was a great power like any other, to be exploited for what it was worth, but unable to provide help on a scale even remotely approaching that of the West. And eventually the Old Believers in the Soviet Union itself lost confidence in a regime so patently incapable of living up to the promises of its founders and justifying the terrible sacrifices it had imposed on its peoples by effective results.
So Fascism had failed: it had appealed to the sword and had perished by the sword. Marxist-Leninism had equally failed: it had appealed to historical processes that History, in due course, had discredited. Western democracy emerged apparently triumphant, and at least one American publicist claimed that history had now come to an end.

* * * *

Fortunately perhaps for historians, but unfortunately for everyone else, this obituary was premature. The Gibbonian chronicle of the crimes, follies and wickednesses of mankind is continuing uninterrupted, and those who believed that with the defeat of communism these would disappear and that we would see the dawn of yet another New World Order are sadly disillusioned. The failure of rival creeds does not mean that our own is bound to succeed; only that it has been given another chance. Both Fascism and communism emerged in Europe because liberal democracy failed to live up to its expectations. If we fail again, we may expect new and similar challenges, both in our own continent and throughout the world.

Such challenges will recur, if only because the process of change that brought our own western societies into existence will continue, unendingly, to operate, creating new problems to which we may prove fatally slow to adapt. The fundamental cause, both of the triumphs and the failures of liberal democracy, has been the continuing impact of the Enlightenment itself. It was this that set on foot the whole process of modernisation and industrialisation two centuries ago, which continues with unslackening momentum. The Enlightenment taught us that we are free agents, endowed by reason with the capacity to understand the world around us and with the right to shape it in accordance with that understanding. Over the past two centuries, political and ecclesiastical authorities, social structures, and economic practices that had endured for a thousand years have been called in question, and, as often as not, overthrown; sometimes by violence, more often through a gradual erosion of their credibility. Their place has been taken by free societies that have transformed the world; beginning in Europe and North America in the nineteenth century, spreading throughout the globe in the twentieth. They have spanned it with railways and steamships and, ultimately, aircraft. They have created world systems of instant aural and visual communication which have created a single global economy. They have conquered most of the diseases that since the beginning of recorded history have ravaged mankind, and vastly increased the world population as a result. They have created huge cities, providing markets whose demand transformed traditional methods of agriculture, destroying entire rural communities in the process and sending their inhabitants further to swell the populations of the cities. Mankind has struck his tents, in Jan Christian Smuts’s wonderful phrase, and is on the march. We have not yet found a resting place.

It is true that in the twentieth century western societies have overcome many of the problems we had created for ourselves in the nineteenth, and the dire prophecies of Karl Marx and his followers have not come true. Indeed it may well be that, in spite of all that I said at the beginning of this lecture, posterity will look back on the half-century between 1939 and 1989 as the golden age of capitalism. The Second World War solved the problem of unemployment, and the need to maintain social solidarity during that war nurtured a welfare system that underwrote security from the cradle to the grave. Called into being in order to defeat Fascism, the same solidarity had to be maintained to repel Communism. Underwritten by the huge wealth and defended by the military power of the United States, the pluralistic democracies of Western Europe and the Pacific rim were able to provide their entire populations with a standard of living beyond the wildest imaginings of the most optimistic prophets of the nineteenth century; a model with which the Soviet Union could not begin to compete, and which was the envy - and, increasingly, the despair - of the rest of the world. Apart from the ever-present danger of nuclear war - and not very many people thought about this for very much of the time - it was easy to believe that we had ‘got it made’. Politics was simply concerned with the creation and distribution of an unending abundance of goods, both internally within our own societies and globally between North and South. All that seemed necessary for the achievement of global peace and prosperity was the maintenance of full production, and the elimination of a communist threat which as time went on seemed increasingly threadbare. When that happened, surely history was bound to come to an end as the benefits of liberal democracy extended themselves throughout the world?
But it was possible to believe this only for those who lacked any sense of historical perspective. The Enlightenment has from the very beginning brought not peace, but a whole armoury of swords. It has always been western capitalist societies that have been the motors of revolutionary change. Communist regimes, whatever their revolutionary professions, have in fact always tried to restrain the process of change, excluding disruptive western influence, destroying entrepreneurial talent within their own borders and imposing an artificial stability through totalitarian nile. The process of ‘modernisation’ unleashed and encouraged by the West, on the other hand, is unending and ineluctable. We have seen how in continental Europe it destroyed traditional structures - the dominance of an authoritarian Roman Catholic Church, the rule of imperial dynasties and a privileged feudal aristocracy - beyond hope of recall, and brought into being a new mass, egalitarian society which is still far from stable. Now the process is continuing elsewhere. Throughout the rest of the world, traditional societies are being destroyed. Modernisation is certainly improving living standards for many; but this is often being achieved at much the same cost in disruption, misery and alienation that characterised our own experiences in Europe a century and a half ago.

These problems are complicated, in what one must still call for lack of any better term the ‘Third World’, by the difficulty of applying Western-generated political and economic models to non-Western societies. The fact that the communist model has failed is no guarantee that that of the West will necessarily succeed any better; that free- market economies can produce full employment, or that ‘human rights’ as defined by Western jurists will be compatible with the cohesion developed in other cultures through generations of tribal or familial loyalties. In Asia and Africa today, as in Europe a century ago, improvements in science, medicine and hygiene have produced an increase in population far larger than modern methods of agricultural production can absorb, or the land itself can sustain. The surplus flock to cities whose industries do not need them, and emigrate to wealthier countries who do not want them. But whereas their European counterparts of a hundred years ago could find in the United States an effective safety valve, these new unfortunate ‘huddled masses’ cannot. Like their European counterparts they are vulnerable to dreams of revolutionary Utopian,but they are even more vulnerable to the kind of xenophobic nationalism or religious fundamentalism whose leaders identify - and not without reason - the source of their discontents in the secular Western ideas that destroyed the old order, and who in consequence assert traditional values in novel and extreme forms.

Nor do our own societies show any greater degree of stability. I am not an economist or a sociologist, but a very naive historian, one neither deconstructed nor reconstructed, but it seems tome that we face, in Europe and the United States, a two-fold problem. First, there are the technological advances that enable us to produce an ever greater quantity of goods with an ever less input of manpower, with such manpower as is needed requiring pretty high technical qualifications. The Marxist prophecy has been almost reversed: so far from development in means of production enabling the proletariat to eliminate the bourgeoisie, they have enabled the bourgeoisie very effectively to eliminate the proletariat. As a result we see, in most western societies, a large measure of systemic and apparently irreducible unemployment; and this unemployment is exacerbated by a global mobility of capital and expertise that can leave whole regions desolate almost overnight. This can cause social dislocation and misery almost as drastic as that which resulted from the transition from agrarian to industrial production in the early nineteenth century. Today, thanks to the acceptance by the State of an ethic of social responsibility then confined to the private sector, unemployment longer means the kind of penury and desperation that it did in the 1 840s, but its social and psychological consequences hardly need to be spelled out. The resulting situation still bears a disquieting resemblance to the Two Nations then depicted by Disraeli. One of those nations is well represented here this afternoon. The other is an increasingly alienated underclass, unemployed and perhaps increasingly unemployable, uninterested in contributing and indeed unable to contribute to the society that supports it, and kept quiet only by a diet of mass-produced sport and entertainment; if not indeed by very much more dangerous drugs.

To the second set of problems I have already briefly referred. They are those resulting from the erosion of traditional values and social norms; values that may have been developed under different and now anachronistic social conditions, but which did provide a measure of social cohesion, and show no sign of being replaced by new ones more appropriate to the conditions of our own times. This sense of anomie may be more intense in Britain than elsewhere, because traditional values and standards have survived for longer in this country than elsewhere, and we are now having to make adjustments that the Germans made fifty, the French and the Americans two hundred years ago. But the impact of the sexual revolution consequent on the development of reliable means of birth- control is universal and is one of the most fundamental changes that has occurred in the history of mankind. The entire relationship between men and women has to be rethought. New generations are left to work out their own sexual morality, with little if any guidance from the past. The result may be liberating, but it is also bewildering, and can occasionally be disastrous. It is not surprising if visitors from the Third World , however enamoured they may be of our technology, see in the society which it has produced not a model to be imitated but one to be shunned.

These problems, the domestic and international, are interconnected. The impact of Western science and technology has loosened the cohesion of non-Western societies where it has not destroyed it altogether, and the same technology has made it possible for their peoples to come in large numbers to our own shores. Their presence is seen as an additional threat by those in our own societies who already feel insecure. The introduction of their cultures has sometimes had a salutary effect, inducing in our own people a spirit of wider comprehension and tolerance; but often, as all of us know, it has had the opposite effect, producing intolerance and reactive dogmatism of the nastiest kind. If the social dislocation created by modernisation has led to a fundamentalist backlash in developing societies, it has also evoked in Western societies the kind of xenophobic racism that Hitler and his imitators found it so easy to exploit a couple of generations ago.

As if that were not enough, we face a third category of problems; those caused by the disintegration of former communist societies. We can now see how effectively the communist regime destroyed the basis of civil society in the regions that it dominated, and how shallow and artificial was the social order it imposed in its place. Our instinct, that we should do all that we can to draw our neighbours in the East into our own political and economic system, must be right. But we can do no more than provide the facilities to enable them to solve those problems themselves, whether those facilities are technical, economic or political.

As for the anarchy in the Balkans, a region on the fringes of Europe (not in ‘the heart of Europe’, as suggested by certain distinguished public figures whose compassion is stronger than their geography) this perplexes us as much as it did our great-grandfathers. Television brings it closer to us, but provides us with no new means to resolve it. A ‘new order’ in that region can only emerge from within, however long it may take. As in all cases of civil conflict, outsiders, however powerful and well-intentioned, can only limit the damage and do what they can to bind up the wounds. But the region provides a terrible example of the fragility of civil society; of its continuing vulnerability to ethnic prejudice, irrational hatreds, and not least the attraction of violence for its own sake; again, always one of the basic appeals of Fascism.

* * * *

What then is to be done? Out of this unpromising material, what hope is there of a new world order? My survey has been pretty depressing, but after all, we have been here before. After every great war, whether hot or cold, there has been a chill peace. There was a decade of disruption and social misery after 1815, when Europe was kept in order only by the police powers of the Habsburg and the Russian Empires, and the spectre of communism was stalking the continent a good twenty years after that. There was a similar period of wretchedness and confusion in Europe after 1918, interrupted only by the false dawn of the Locarno era. As for the aftermath of the Second World War, many of us here will remember the sense almost of despair with which we contemplated the ruins of Europe and wondered how, if ever, the continent could be restored to anything like a peaceful and democratic order. War, even Cold War, concentrates the mind wonderfully: too wonderfully. Too many problems have to put on the back burner; too many debts are incurred that eventually have to be paid. Enjoy the war, we used to say to one another in the 1940s, the peace will be terrible. For many, it was; but somehow we survived both the war and the peace.

We shall survive this peace, if we do not set our sights too high and try to do too much too fast. We cannot solve the problems of the world, even if CNN brings them every night into our sitting rooms. Nor, I believe, should we try to impose our own standards on the world; different cultures have to solve the problems of modernisation in their own way. For the foreseeable future a global order must be inevitably multicultural, and its enforcement minimalist. We should therefore approach world problems not with the universalism of the lawyer, but with the pragmatic triage of the surgeon on the battlefield; who divides his patients into those who do not need help, those he cannot help, and those he can and must help. But the limits of our capacity to help anyone will be set by our ability to solve, or at least to control, the problems of our own no longer very rich, and no longer uniformly white world.

If I may end as I began, by quoting myself, I concluded my final lecture at Oxford four years ago with a reference to Kant, who observed that “Nature does not seem to have been concerned with seeing that man should live agreeably, but that he should work his way onward to make himself by his own conduct worthy of life and well-being”. The way that Nature seems to have chosen to do this is to ensure that the solution of every problem she has set us poses new and ever more complex difficulties for us to solve, and to this process there is no end whatever. The road does indeed wind upwards to the very end. And on that comforting note let me leave you.