If they don’t know you won, did you?

The wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and elsewhere challenge the traditional conception of “victory.” What is victory when capturing the capital does not cause the population to succumb to your wishes, assuming of course there’s a central government to topple? This isn’t an issue in “traditional” conflicts, like World War I and II and even, to many, the Cold War. Or is it?

Nick Cull just returned from a trip to Russia to discuss public diplomacy at a Russian international relations university that “graduates 80% of Russian diplomats.” Not surprisingly, they talked about the end of the Cold War:

It became obvious that these students had not spent much time thinking about external determinants for the political changes of the late 1980s and early 1990s. For them the Soviet Union collapsed for its own internal reasons, unconnected to its foreign policy, defense, and rearmament decisions. When I pushed the case – mentioned that Americans believe they won the Cold War and merely debate which of their policy decisions provided the “winning blow” – they were surprised. They simply do not see the story in terms of America’s victory or Russia’s defeat. The model adopted by these students was more that the Soviet Union attempted to create an ideal system, entered into competition with the United States, the system failed, and the Soviet Union stepped back from the competition – rather like a tennis player bowing out with a stomach cramp. Their model clearly left the path open for Russia to return to the competition and resume play, but this was not their intent. They seemed genuinely worried by talk of a return to a Cold War and asked with some anxiety about the likely foreign policy of America’s next president. This mutual gap in perception is significant. Americans might do well to ask how victorious they really were if the defeated party does not acknowledge the loss.

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4 Replies to “If they don’t know you won, did you?”

  1. For what it’s worth, many political scientists, including former Sovietologists, would agree with the assessment that at least the balance of the fall was indeed due to their system failure. It is somewhat of a lingering popular myth that Reagan, for instance, contributed all that much more than hastening the internal collapse. “Won” by default, perhaps, but I’m sure you would agree that the truth lies somewhere in between the “U.S. victory” and the (Russian diplomats-in-training’s incomplete) “internal collapse” paradigms, no?Hope all’s well in LA!

  2. And wouldn’t a certain political scientist named Rob English agree with that assessment? (You may know him) I think he wrote a book about it.

  3. Terry, researching the Vietnam War in college (Kennedy’s role in particular) I went to the Great Soviet Encyclopedia for another perspective. That perspective was pretty clear once I found the entry, which took a while. The war wasn’t under V… but under “A” for, wait for it, “American Aggression in Vietnam”.Things are good except for the fires but we’re not affected besides the ash and smoke.
    How’s Ohio?
    Jeff, funny. I think you’re talking about Rob’s Russia and the Idea of the West.

  4. Their failure to recognize that we “won” the Cold War doesn’t contradict the fact that we in fact did. Their system collapsed, ours didn’t, and there was no global nuclear war. Their failure to analyze the conflict does call into mind the challenges of whether they will recognize Putin/Medvedev’s current nationalist actions, such as the voyage of Peter the Great to Venezuela and the bomber overflights going on today, as throwbacks to that era.

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