Morality and Law
The Berlin Wall and the Ethics of the Cold War

There are many nuances that blur the whole, blissful picture of the “good old” Cold War and the semantics of chivalry that attempt to convey an idealised perception of it to us today, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.

August 13, 2021, marks the 60th anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall — perhaps the most famous symbol of the Cold War. This anniversary, in addition to its undoubted historical significance, also provides an opportunity for us to re-focus on the legacy of the Cold War era today. And also on how historical memory and possible historical myths about it affect modern world politics.

In fact, the Berlin Wall, and the Cuban missile crisis that followed shortly after, marked a milestone in the evolution of the Cold War. Before that, it had been developing, so to speak, “on the rise” (despite the short periods of Khrushchev’s detente in the 1950s). And at that time, the possibility of a direct military clash between the USSR and the United States was by no means excluded — and thus the Cold War could have grown into a “hot” one. In all subsequent stages of the Cold War, they tried to avoid this direct clash, since the strategic nuclear parity achieved by the mid-1960s ensured a guaranteed mutual assured destruction (MAD) in a major nuclear war. Naturally, neither side wanted it. The new situation led to the emergence of the first treaties in the field of nuclear weapons limitation, gave rise to the term “strategic stability” and later to Kissinger’s detente. As a result, in historiography you can sometimes find the term “mature” used in relation to this period of the Cold War.

Our key ideas today about the Cold War, about its rules, ethics and red lines, is a kind of set of nostalgic archetypes about that era — they are associated exclusively with the “mature” Cold War. Before the Berlin Wall, things were often quite different.

The modern political meaning of this intensification of the rhetoric around the “chivalrous” character of the “mature” Cold War, which today sometimes seems almost like a series of noble fights at the tournament in the times of the knights of the round table at the court of the legendary King Arthur, is quite understandable.

Placing this archetype of noble fights of the past Cold War opposite today’s “fighting without rules” in a geopolitical clash has its own logic. This juxtaposition is intended, if not to shame the opposing side (which is unattainable and meaningless amid total mutual trolling), then at least rhetorically to emphasise our own disposition that we’d prefer to return to such rules (we want to be chivalrous) and influence public opinion accordingly.

A separate and controversial question is: how much do these archetypes and nostalgia about the “chivalry” of the Cold War correspond to historical reality? Is it just another example of myth-making, similar to what we have so often seen in the policy of constructing historical memory in different countries? Are Bolton’s memoirs qualitatively different from those of Kissinger? Is Kissinger’s policy on Chile different from Bolton’s on Venezuela? Or are there qualitative differences between the American opposition to the construction of Soviet gas pipelines to Europe during the “mature” Cold War and the campaign to counter Nord Stream 2 now? Or were the CoCom sanctions more chivalrous than the sectoral sanctions today? And even if it comes to that, are there any qualitative differences between Reagan’s Evil Empire and Biden’s Putin-killer agenda, other than being especially personal? Thus, if we go deeper into the details, then there are many nuances that blur the whole, blissful picture of the “good old” Cold War and the semantics of chivalry that attempt to convey an idealised perception of it to us today.

The time of the Berlin Wall coincided with another powerful process in world history — the decolonisation of African countries and other regions. This opened another “theatre of war” in the Cold War strategy: the struggle between the USSR and the United States for influence over the newly independent states outside Europe. As a result, a feature of the “mature” Cold War was, to a significant extent, its shift to the countries of the developing world. This, first, made it possible to reduce the danger from the escalation of local clashes into a major nuclear war, which was unacceptable in the context of strategic parity. Second, it made the “mature” Cold War much more multifaceted, with more subtle strategies. It was from this struggle for influence in many different local situations and conflicts that the global “chessboard” was formed, as conceptualised by Brzezinski, which, in a changed form, still operates under the auspices of a multipolar world.

This shift in the focus of the Cold War from preparing for a direct military clash between the two superpowers to playing chess outside Europe led to a rather sharp escalation of local conflicts in other regions from the second half of the 60s through the first half of the 80s. There were Vietnam and Afghanistan. There were Angola and Mozambique, Chile and Grenada, Nicaragua and El Salvador, the Arab-Israeli wars and much more. The severity of many of these conflicts was extremely high. Was there room for chivalry, ethics, and rules? Or were the knightly semantics of Cold War nostalgia limited to strategic stability and endless negotiations somewhere in Geneva or Dartmouth College by a narrow group of high-ranking experts who were satisfied with themselves and each other?

And if we are to address the matter of the third world (using the term in its proper, original meaning), well, what could be taken from it? There, chivalry was redundant.

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Finally, the Berlin Wall, both symbolically and physically, fenced off the two systems from each other. Accordingly, the struggle to undermine their integrity from the inside, although it had existed before, received an additional impetus amid the “mature” Cold War, which could no longer be won by a direct military clash, and the “chessboards” of the Third World most often gave only tactical victories. This logic led to increased attention on the part of Western countries to the issues of democratisation and the observance of human rights in socialist countries. It was one of the most key elements of Kissinger’s system of detente, which was then embodied in the “third basket” of the humanitarian dimension of the CSCE — which at first did not pay serious attention to experts and decision makers in the Soviet Union, who were keen primarily on strategic stability. In the end, it was the internal movement for democratisation and human rights in the socialist countries and in the USSR itself and their moral support from the West that led to the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the socialist camp. It makes no sense to argue about whether the Americans won a victory in the Cold War or not. But the fact remains that one of the two fighters in the ring simply died. The Berlin Wall collapsed, and without it the socialist camp crumbled.

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In conclusion, in the context of discussions about whether the current geopolitical confrontation meets the ethics of the Cold War, and whether it is possible to return to its rules, in our opinion, the following answer can be given. Of course, today’s conflicts do not correspond to that idealised and even romantic image of a “chivalrous” Cold War. Is it necessary to use this nostalgic image of the Cold War in rhetoric? According to the laws of political PR, it is undoubtedly necessary. Does this image correspond to the real geopolitical struggle in the 1960s and 1980s? In our opinion, it does not. Is it possible to repeat it now? Like any ideal, it is also unlikely. And if we draw analogies with “that” Cold War, where the Berlin Wall became a key element, and where after its destruction the USSR ceased to exist, then by the same logic a direct and partly cynical question arises. Is a geopolitical confrontation even possible without the Berlin Wall, if everything collapses without the wall? In the 21st century, there can be a “cyber wall”, an Internet firewall or the wall of an information monopoly, or a vaccine wall, or a doping wall (against the background of the past Olympics), or a visa wall, or something else. The global chessboard differs from ordinary chess in that you can build walls between the cells. Regarding whether the Berlin Wall is destined to be reborn (or is already being reborn) in a new form in the modern world, and what are the reasons for this, each reader can think of his own answer.

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Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.