The State of the World/The Year That Was

Some mistakes were made in the printing of the article "The Year That Was" by Anatol Rapoport in the January 1991 issue; the corrected version, which appeared in the March 1991 issue, is reprinted below.

By Anatol Rapoport | 1991-01-01 12:00:00

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, was the season of light, it was the season of darkness. It was the spring of hope it was the winter of despair, we had ever thing before us, we had nothing before us."

In this way Charles Dickens started his Tale of Two Cities. Now, two hundred years after that revolution, many of us see our present in the same superlative terms.

We thought we would devote this first issue of the year to a sort of State of the World overview, a sort of report card. In what ways, if any, was the cause of world peace advanced in 1990? In what ways, if any, did it suffer a setback? History does not observe our calendar and does not divide the events neatly by the years or decades or centuries of our time reckoning. The "year" that just passed, which will be scanned, jumped even by a couple of months. It began November, 1989. In fact, November 1989 marked the beginning of the end of the "eighties."

I remember when World War II was drawing to a close, we of the American Armed Forces gave names to the decades to come. After the Dirty Thirties and the Foul Forties would come the Filthy Fifties, the Stinking Sixties, the Severe Seventies, the Aching Eighties. How will the nineties be remembered? Will they be recalled as "gay" like the Nineties of the nineteenth century or as "numbing?"

In November 1989, as jubilant crowds surged to the streets and squares of Prague and Berlin, and the terrorist regime of Romania fell a part, many of us in the peace movement hailed the end of the Cold War as the dawn of a new era. Was it? Is it? It seemed at the time that the props were knocked out from under the American War Establishment. Mikhail Gorbachev deprived the U.S. of its title as Enemy Number One of the Soviet Union, and refused to name a successor. He simply opted out of the confrontation and started to explain and demonstrate lust what the "change in the way of thinking" (that Einstein insisted was the only way to forestall an irreversible catastrophe) involved. The nourishment if the C old War was cut off. It seemed for a while that Trudeau's program of "strangulation" of the arms race would actually be started.

The United States, however, quickly found a successor to its Enemy Number One. Was champagne uncorked in the Pentagon? Did the mood change from gloom to joy because the threat of crippling budget cuts receded? I don't know. I wasn't there. But just a week after Saddam Hussein obligingly stepped into the void left by the Soviet Union, Caspar Weinberger's article appeared in the Toronto Globe and Mail. When he was Secretary of Defence, wrote Weinberger, he specified five conditions that should be fulfilled to make unilateral military action by the U.S. justifiable and desirable: U.S. vital interests must be at stake; there must be a good prospect of victory; there must be popular support, etc. All the conditions, he went on to say, were now fulfilled. The embargo was all very well, he wrote, but it wouldn't mean a thing if American muscle didn't stand behind it.

As the Cold War becomes defunct, are we about to see the emergence of a unipolar world with the U.S., the only superpower, assuming the burden of keeping global peace? Or is it the job of recurrent pacification (which is something quite different)?

As the Communist regimes toppled, there was general rejoicing in the West, but for different reasons. Some celebrated a "victory for our side." Others celebrated a victory for humanity. The former saw the Eastern European revolutions as blows to Soviet expansionism. The latter saw them as successes of the Soviet peace offensive. The revolutions came about not with just the acquiescence of the Soviet Union but with its tacit support. The de-Sovietization of Eastern Europe was part of the "change in the way of thinking" of Gorbachev and his advisors, the abandonment of the unassailable confrontational posture imbedded in the Marxist-Leninist ideology. This was what glasnost was all about. Here are some excerpts from an editorial in a Soviet weekly paper Za Rubezhom (September 7-13; 1990).

"Recently I met with a delegation of Azerbaijani women to the Soviet Committee for the Preservation of Peace. They asked me, 'When will all this end?' Some time ago I talked with some Armenian women. They put the same question forward. Why did perestroika designed to improve human life, to make people free in the first instance from fear - lead to outbursts of hatred of everyone by everyone? What's the matter? Is it because we interpret glasnost as an opportunity to seek revenge against each other and against our history?

"We have often resorted to revenge. We took revenge on the Tsarist regime for poverty in Russia, for illiteracy, for backwardness. Then we took revenge on the efficient hard working peasants because they became richer than others. The opportunity to appropriate their wealth served the "sacred class struggle." But the plundering did not bring general prosperity. For this we blamed the accursed past and the ceaseless activities of the enemies of the people.

"Enemies were everywhere in industry, in the army, among the Soviet writers. They built their nests among linguists, cyberneticians, engineers, composers, geneticists, film actors and physicians. Whole nationalities were enemies.

"And the people believed. Here we are, now let us expose the abstract painters, who somehow got to exhibit at the Manezh [an exhibition hall in the centre of Moscow], and the way to Communism will be cleared."

We can see a source of hope in this confession: evidence that a giant nation in the grips of an awful disease for seven decades can recover, can disavow the shibboleths that nurtured its terrible self-destructive illness. Here we can see what the Germans call Vergangenheits-bewältigung (overcoming the past). The difference between the Soviet and the German versions of soul-searching is that in the Soviet Union the change in thinking was not a consequence of total defeat the destruction of the system by outsiders but a consequence of an insight, something we ordinarily expect (as a rare occurrence) in individuals, but in nations never, certainly not in "Great Powers."

So maybe something new happens in history, which is not all bad, on occasions, however rare. If so, there is room for hope. Can we dare hope that something of this sort may happen to the other superpower suddenly deprived of an enemy who could be relied upon to remain faithful to his assigned role?

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1991

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1991, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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