Then and now

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(HOST) Commentator Olin Robison says that – compared to the chaos and confusion of today’s world – the cold war years don’t look so bad.

(ROBISON) I grew up in a world frequently described as “bi-polar,” by which was meant that it was dominated by two nations about as different as could be imagined: The United States and the Soviet Union.

In retrospect, there were advantages. It was absolutely clear – to me at least – who were the good guys and who were the bad guys; the white hats and the black hats; the good and the bad; the forces of light and the forces of darkness.

I assumed, as did practically everyone everywhere, that this arrangement was permanent. Both nations were armed to the teeth; each feared the other; and a doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction in a strange way kept the peace.

And then their side imploded. There are all sorts of people, mostly academics and politicians, who now say that they foresaw the collapse of the Soviet Union, but I don’t believe them. And no, Ronald Reagan did not bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union. That could, of course, be a long discussion. But the short version of my view is that they brought it on themselves.

Then came a sustained period during which so called “public intellectuals” tried to define a “new world order.” There was of course no new world order but neither was it “the end of history,” as one prominent writer put it. A Harvard professor stirred the waters with a provocative article and then a book entitled “The Clash of Civilizations.” We are still arguing about that one.

What has become absolutely clear now is that the new world order does not exist and that in many ways – because no new order exists – things are more messy than before. Things certainly are not as clear.

That is partly due to the rise of so-called “non-state actors” – groups that do not represent a particular country but organize themselves around a cause or an ideology and frequently transcend national boundaries. That would, of course, include Al Queda but many, many others as well; some benign, some terribly dangerous.

As mentioned earlier: in the Old World Order there was absolute clarity about the identity of the good guys and the bad guys. It is less so today. We also do not know if such clarity will ever exist again. We just don’t know.

Americans generally do not deal easily with such ambiguity. We like clarity. We are especially devoted to the idea that in any conflict there should be clear winners and losers.

This current lack of clarity in the international order plays well with those who want to be in leadership positions by playing on public fear. This is all too often done by politicians who somehow manage to convince the public that they KNOW what needs to be done. They profess clarity where others see shades of gray. It works.

Part of this grows from the same source that produces the wonderful optimism that has long made America the envy of much of the world. It is the deeply held belief by most Americans that there are no insoluble problems. We just have to work at it. There is bound to be a solution.

Well, dear friends, sometimes there is, but sometimes there isn’t. But don’t expect anyone in Washington to confess that, anytime soon.

Olin Robison is past president of both the Salzburg Seminar and Middlebury College. He now lives in Shelburne.

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