In a New Kind of War, the Old Wars of Ideas Are Back

COMMENTARY Global Politics

In a New Kind of War, the Old Wars of Ideas Are Back

Mar 23, 2022 6 min read
James Jay Carafano

Senior Counselor to the President and E.W. Richardson Fellow

James Jay Carafano is a leading expert in national security and foreign policy challenges.
USSR propaganda poster, 1935. Found in the Collection of Russian State Library, Moscow. Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

What most defined 20th century geopolitics were two competing global projects: imperialism and anti-colonialism.

There is no question that Russia, China and Iran have imperial designs, visions that are far more dangerous than winsome musings of past glories.

To prevail in this fight will require a common moral and ethical compass. That won’t come from compromising in the center.

Outside two world wars and the protracted Cold War, what most defined 20th century geopolitics were two competing global projects: imperialism and anti-colonialism. Totalitarian rulers embraced both banners, launching wars of aggression that crushed the ambitions of free peoples and those yearning to be free.

Today, those malignant projects are back, once again setting the world aflame. Extinguishing the fires will take both might and moral clarity. It will also require the radical left to admit it’s been radically wrong. The free world will have to tack right to win.  

End of the Beginning

In The End of History and the Last Man (1992), Francis Fukuyama confidently declared that threats to a liberal world order were waning, never to rise again. That fanciful notion is now dead: trampled by Russian tanks, flattened by Iranian missiles, and paved over by Chinese belts and roads. China, Russia, and Iran—collectively and individually—represent grave threats to the liberties, security. Underpinning these physical dangers are a dangerous set of ideas that held sway throughout much of the 20th Century.

The worst impulses of imperialism are nothing new. The last century started with the struggles of competing imperialist powers. Though Europe was ground zero for the Great War, the impact stretched globally as the fate of the Great Power combatants rippled across their vast empires. (See Michael Howard, The First World War, 2003.)

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Then came fascism, a new imperialism on steroids from Italy, Germany and Japan. Those powers instigated World War II. If there are any doubts where these monsters were headed read Gerhard Weinberg’s 2005 book, Visions of Victory: The Hopes of Eight World War II Leaders. Their conquests would have left the world looking like a horror show.

After World War II, formal empires declined, leading to a new force to be reckoned with: decolonization. The U.S. championed this movement. So, too, did the Soviet Union and China, but for very different reasons. American foreign policy viewed the dismantling of empires into nation-states self-governed by their peoples, as a natural evolution toward a more stable world order.

The Soviet Union used decolonization’s language of liberation to mask its imperialist designs, ultimately enslaving half of Europe in an iron grip. Mao implemented his communist ideology by slaughtering 20 million of his countrymen during the Cultural Revolution, all the while dismissing opposition from the free world as effort of colonialists to shore-up the “old world” order. By the iron laws of Marxist history, opposition to the Communist system was, by definition, a feudal and futile attempt to suppress the masses that Stalin and Mao purported to “liberate.”  

This was a new war: a war of ideas. And the U.S. position was challenging. Unlike in World War II, the world wasn’t simply black and white, where siding with new or old powers would axiomatically further the cause of freedom.

The best exemplar of this dilemma was President Eisenhower’s struggle to find a sure path through the Suez Crisis in 1956, juggling independent nations (backed by the Kremlin) against former regional powerbrokers Britain and France. This dilemma is described well in Mike Doran’s book, Ike’s Gamble: America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East (2016). The crisis demonstrated that the U.S. had a real fight on its hands to keep the free world free and that figuring out how to do that—let alone explain it to Americans and the rest of the world—was very hard indeed.

For one thing, the U.S. had to fight off Soviet efforts to weaponize decolonization as a propaganda tool to undercut American promotion of democratic governance. Some critics in the West and the non-aligned world (a movement that claimed independence from either sides in the Cold War, but was heavily supported and influenced by Moscow and Beijing) simply parroted Communist propaganda.

Other leftist scholars derived the same conclusions from Marx and Engels, their passions and intellect fueled in part by the Vietnam anti-war movement and later the radical environmental and anti-nuclear campaigns. The most extreme examples included the likes of the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground, as described in Days of Rage: America's Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence by Bryan Burrough (2015).

Marxist ideology was the basis of an interpretation of history championed William Appelman Williams and the “Wisconsin School.” (See, for example, his Empire as a Way of Life, 1980). They accused Washington of everything from cultural imperialism (jazz music and Coca Cola) to running an informal empire.

Thus, the U.S. found itself continually fighting two fronts in the Cold War of ideas: one against the physical expansion of Soviet imperialism (clothed as Communism), the other against the canard that democracies were themselves the “real” imperialists battling decolonization every step of the way.  

These debates became largely academic when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, giving Fukuyama free range to run with his geopolitical imagination.

Prologue is Past

Today, we are back in a dangerous place.

There is no question that Russia, China and Iran have imperial designs, visions that are far more dangerous than winsome musings of past glories. Putin has launched a campaign of brutal conquests to reclaim lands in the West.  Xi’s goal is to reestablish the Middle Kingdom, not by isolating it from the outside world, but by using every tool available—from military threats and cyberspace to debt diplomacy—to seize near dictatorial control over markets, information, territory, and supply chains. Iran seeks the destruction of Israel, in large part because Tehran views the country as the only real obstacle to the expansion of its power and influence throughout the Middle East.

Anti-colonialism has also returned. The ideals of popular sovereignty are under assault again at home and abroad, denounced as artificial constructs imposed on others. In America, everything woke from ANTIFA and BLM to the most radical of the radical left, condemns our constitutional order as fascist. If that seems like history repeating itself—well, it is. Many radical left leaders propound ideas are entrenched in Marxist-Leninist ideology and the legacies of Stalin and Mao. The radical roots of Black Lives Matter, for example, are exposed in Mike Gonzalez’s BLM: The Making of a New Marxist Revolution (2021).

Wokeness has also been weaponized against American allies, attacking our friends for not being “liberal” enough because that don’t share far left ideology on topics from gender identity and abortion to climate action. Many of these critiques are steeped in the same impulses of Marxist critiques from the Cold War attacking religion, economic liberalism, history, traditions, culture, and democratic practices as institutions of Western oppression and racism.  

A New, New Beginning?

Once again, the West is in a two-front ideological war from within and without. One is a physical struggle, a new kind of war against the likes of Russia, China and Iran. We must defend not just our territory, but our economies, supply chains, and infrastructure from their malicious and malevolent designs. That starts with rebuilding our military, striving for energy independence, freeing the free world from economic exploitation by Communist China, and checkmating China’s efforts to overtake and corrupt international organizations. In short, we can’t win without being proactive and securing our freedom, safety, and prosperity.

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The second war is one of ideas. To prevail in this fight will require a common moral and ethical compass. That won’t come from compromising in the center. The right and left sides of the political spectrum are not equipoised. The modern left has been sucked far toward its extreme Marxist flank, like a planet swallowed by a black hole.

The left must wake up. They are on the wrong side of history—again. When it comes to the threat they pose to freedom, Communists and fascists are a distinction without a difference. The only difference between Antifa and Putin is that Putin has tanks.

In the 1950s, the U.S. achieved bipartisanship in foreign policy not by splitting the difference between right and left. Democrats returned to national power only by becoming more anti-communist than the anti-communists. JFK, for instance, could only follow Ike in office by showing as much determination to take on Moscow as did Richard Nixon (who took second place to no one as an anti-communist). The left will not be relevant in today’s new kind of war unless they tack right, embracing peace through strength, empowering economies by freeing them from unnecessary regulation and excessive government spending, and respecting the popular sovereignty of states.

Unhappy with this administration’s progressive agenda, the American people already are moving in that direction. It the left doesn’t tack right, their party might not survive. If the West doesn’t tack right, it might not survive.

This piece originally appeared in RealClearPolicy