These days, you can get the feeling the Cold War never ended. Le Carré-style intrigue has, it turns out, barely skipped a beat. The 9/11 attacks injected the U.S. spymaster apparatus with steroids.
But 23 years ago this week, the Cold War did end.
I don’t remember exactly where I was on November 9, 1989, when I saw people on TV climbing up on the Berlin Wall swilling champagne. Yet I remember how it felt: the feeling of the impossible suddenly possible. Two superpowers, standing up against a wall, on 40-year hair-trigger alert to blow each other up and take the rest of us with them, one day letting people start hacking down the wall with hammers. And opening up a path to the end of the nuclear nightmare.
My kids, five and seven, were certainly bewildered by their mother’s euphoria over something so abstract, taking place an ocean away. They were still pretty bewildered a couple of hours later when we all stood and took pictures of ourselves in front of an ugly, decrepit, crumbling wall, covered in graffiti.
Despite the Cold War residue we feel on our skin right now, from the disturbing revelations of what our spy agencies have been doing in our name, this moment brings back some of the feelings of November 1989 to me.
Two months ago we had:
- Hopes of the Arab Spring coming apart.
- The president of the United States boxing himself into a military strike on Syria to preserve “credibility,” despite the opposition of a clear majority his constituents.
- Weapons of mass destruction in use, and the United Nations’ capacity to respond blocked by its stalemated Security Council.
Suddenly, an opening that seemed impossible appeared. Russia turned its protection of the Syrian regime into a declared commitment that Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles will be turned over to international control. Syria itself — its brutal government, at least — agreed. President Barack Obama tabled his strike plan, and Congress tabled its votes to propel one, in favor of giving this diplomatic plan a chance.
A chance is all it is. As soon as the opening appeared, the media found chemical weapons experts ready to lay out the difficulties of locking down the stockpiles in the midst of a war, the costs, and the long timelines involved in actually destroying them.
So far, the plan is working better than almost anyone expected. The inspectors are on track to complete the job by their deadline. This achievement has been pushed out of the headlines, but it is remarkable.
We have decades — or really centuries — of experience teaching us that arming is easier than disarming. The end of the Cold War diminished the nuclear threat but hardly extinguished it. Friends and colleagues of mine have been doing painstaking and frustrating steps-back-steps-forward work for many years to secure and dismantle stockpiles of chemical weapons in the U.S. and former Soviet Union, and the work is not close to done.
But in the middle of the last century, before the war that killed 60 million was quite finished, the world’s nations came together to try, as the UN Charter preamble put it, to save “succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind.” They began constructing international institutions and laws to, among other things, prevent conflict by bringing the world’s weapons under international control.
This project has, as I say, been fraught with setbacks ever since. But this very idea of international control of weapons of mass destruction has, for the moment, been a key ingredient in stopping a military strike. It has become the catalyst to break logjams in the Security Council and open peace talks to end the Syrian war. The project has a platform and an opening it hasn’t had in years.
Should we break out the champagne? Maybe not yet. Maybe, we shouldn’t even chill it. But perhaps we’re seeing the beginning of the end of our nation’s endless state of war.