For people not old enough to remember what the world was like before the Berlin Wall fell, there was a time when the United States faced an existential threat the world over. The Soviet Union, who we were told had more or less enslaved its people in an uber-socialist/Marxist experiment called Communism, was bristling with nuclear weapons and ground, sea and air forces spanning the globe, bumping up against US hegemonic designs at every turn. For the vast majority of Americans, the Soviet Union was the embodiment of all that was evil and dangerous in the world; as much had been drilled into their hearts and minds relentlessly, practically since birth. The Soviet Union’s Communism was the antithesis of freedom, that most cherished of American ideals, and represented freedom’s greatest threat. Its nuclear arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear submarines and long-range bombers sent schoolchildren scurrying under their desks, practicing for the day when the threat to freedom was actualized through nuclear mayhem visited from abroad. The fear was real, even if scurrying under a desk to protect from a nuclear attack held only the pretense of preparation.
It was almost inevitable that nuclear weapons would arise to threaten the greatest of man’s civilized creations, the modern city. The power to create and the power to destroy are two sides of the same coin. With nuclear weapons came the power to destroy in seconds what it took centuries to build. Destruction is always easier than creation.
But the bombs never fell. After a great scare over Cuba in 1962, which may or may not have been a bit overwrought in hindsight, except that nobody quite knew back then whether anyone would really push the button to start World War Three to end civilization, the world settled down and lived in MAD-ness for a few decades (Mutually Assured Destruction, like two bears who meet in the woods but don’t fight because either or both of them would surely be killed in the process, which they both know), until the Soviet Empire got itself overstretched after the high price of oil proved the perfect cure for high oil prices, and basically fell completely apart in the early nineties (the Soviet Union then, and Russia now, are heavily dependent on oil export revenues). The Cold War was over and the US won! President Reagan had taunted Soviet Premier Gorbachev, telling him to “tear down this wall” in 1985, and before the end of the decade, the Berlin Wall fell, by God, if by the hands of the German people and not on Mr. Gorbachev’s instructions. Gorbachev could only stand idly by while his last stab at saving the Soviet Union, perestroika, which effectively represented an abandonment of Communism as a socio economic system, instead propelled its disintegration.
So what did the US do with its bounty of spoils after winning the Cold War? It promptly set about imitating its vanquished foe in its socio-economic organization. It saved the world from the liberty-threatening scourge of Communism only to adopt, in gradual turns, the same cradle-to-grave government caretaking of individual lives that Communism most radically represented. It relentlessly expanded the social welfare state, until its fullest expression was realized in the passage of Obamacare. It encouraged an unelected cabal of Politburo-type political economists to set prices and determine winners and losers in the marketplace (the US Federal Reserve). It turned the mechanisms of the federal government into a grievance factory, encouraging a victimization ethos (Affirmative Action, gay marriage, etc). It turned the armed forces into a social laboratory, eschewing the purpose of protecting and defending the Constitution of the United States for which they were charged and designed, for the purpose of proving the fantasy that gender-normed standards made females the equivalent of males in combat roles. The greatest sacrifice it asked of its citizens during the prosecution of war was to shop, all the while cajoling them into trading constitutionally protected liberties for the illusion of security (the Patriot Act and its progeny).
And so now, the Russian Bear, arouses from its slumber, and senses weakness all around. It sees an America grown fat and lazy and soft, concerned more with trivialities like the self-obsessed tweetings of Hollywood celebrities and the expansion of the marital institution (constitutionally decreed, no less) to any and all who wish to consecrate a private sexual relationship with the blessings of the state. America is silly and the Russian Bear is serious. It forages around the Middle East and Eastern Europe, gobbling up swaths of its former empire, while America warns of “red lines” and “consequences” it has neither the will nor the means to impose.
There is nothing stopping Russia from reconstituting its empire, a fact its leader, Vladimir Putin, well understands. His provocations and insults grow bolder each passing day. He knows there are no consequences; he knows there are no red lines he can’t cross with impunity. Because he knows that Americans willingly traded their greatest treasure—freedom—for a pocket full of hollow promises from their government, and that any people who would so imprudently bargain away their legacy are hardly the type of people who would sacrifice their sedate comfort for the inconveniences of war. In the cold logic of diplomacy, he knows America has nothing with which to bargain. He sees it for what it is, a paper tiger the Russian Bear needn’t much consider on its path to resurgence. Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula wasn’t Russia’s first reacquisition of territory lost in the Soviet’s disintegration, and it won’t be the last.