The Cold War’s Moral Nihilism Is the Last Thing We Should Be Copying Today

US support for dictatorships and death squads during the Cold War was a moral catastrophe. Some liberal pundits would now like us to repeat that bloody track record, all in the name of the loftiest principles.

Human remains are seen as a team of international forensics work on their exhumation at the Yancolo hamlet, in Cacaopera, El Salvador, on November 6, 2019. According to authorities, the human remains were from victims of the 1981 El Mozote massacre, carried out by forces of the US-backed Salvadoran government. (Marvin Recinos / AFP via Getty Images)

There was an immediate backlash when the British prime minister Boris Johnson tried to compare Britain’s vote for Brexit in 2016 to the Ukrainian struggle against Vladimir Putin’s invasion. Johnson’s domestic opponents described the comparison as “shameless,” “crass and distasteful,” and “an insult to every Ukrainian.”

Yet Johnson’s self-serving appropriation of the war in Ukraine was almost seemly when set against an article by the Financial Times commentator Janan Ganesh. Ganesh calls for a return to the moral nihilism of US foreign policy during the Cold War as an essential tool with which to confront Putin or China’s leader Xi Jinping.

It’s an especially clear and brazen example of an argument we can expect to hear much more of in the coming months. Instead of taking a clear stand against dictatorships and aggressive wars in general, it uses one set of atrocities to justify support for the perpetrators of equally grisly crimes.

Nobility and Nihilism

There is a long tradition of British politicians and opinion-formers presenting themselves as wise Greeks who have to instruct the callow Romans on the other side of the Atlantic about the ways of the world. Ganesh places himself squarely in that lineage.

His immediate advice for Joe Biden is that he should warmly embrace the Saudi tyrant Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), in full knowledge of his responsibility for “the slaughter of journalist and US resident Jamal Khashoggi in 2018,” as Ganesh describes it, in order to keep the House of Saud onside against Russia and China. However, offering a bear hug to MBS would not just be a question of short-term expediency. According to Ganesh, it should supply the template for an entire historical period: “If the US has to be cynical in the coming months, it should regard this as so much practice for the coming decades.”

He justifies this argument by dismissing a sanitized view of Washington’s record during the Cold War:

The reality is that America had to be pragmatic to the point of amorality between 1945 and 1989–91. Pretending otherwise now is understandable enough as a piece of rhetoric. The danger is that a generation of policymakers actually comes to believe the wholesome cant that America saw off the Soviets by “standing up for its values,” or some such, and tries to repeat the trick today.

Warming to his theme, Ganesh goes on to call for unbridled amorality by suggesting that a noble end can justify the most sordid means:

The Cold War was not a clash between freedom and its opposite. The enemy was a specific empire, and the forces that America assembled against it encompassed at various times secular dictators, theocrats, military juntas, partial democracies, absolute monarchs, and Red China itself. The strategic aim could not have been more noble. The tactics were almost nihilist in their flexibility. The West is going to have to make the same distinction between ends and means for decades to come.

As we find so often with these appeals to tough-minded realism, Ganesh prefers not to look too closely at the bloodstained consequences of the policies he retrospectively condones. There is no mention here of the millions upon millions of corpses that piled up on the killing fields of US-backed regimes, from Indonesia to El Salvador.

Ganesh can only bring himself to say that Washington “connived in autocratic rule in South Korea and Latin America,” as if it was merely a case of turning a blind eye to some regrettable practices. In reality, the United States played a central role in constructing the military dictatorships of its southern neighbors. One might as well say that Joseph Stalin “connived” in the labor camps and show trials of his East European satellite states.

The View From Mount Olympus

The family resemblance to arguments made by Stalin’s apologists does not end there. The whole idea of a necessary trade-off between a “strategic aim” that “could not have been more noble” and “tactics” that were “almost nihilist in their flexibility” relies on an unsupported assumption that one depended on the other. Stalinist apparatchiks made a very similar case after World War II, claiming that the bloody purges of the 1930s had made the Soviet victory over Nazism possible.

The reality was very different, of course. Not only were the Stalinist purges a monumental crime that claimed the lives of countless innocent people — they also gravely weakened the defenses of the Soviet Union on the eve of a life-and-death struggle against Nazi aggression, not least by decimating the officer corps of the Red Army.

Ganesh makes no attempt to show why atrocities like the El Mozote massacre or the genocidal occupation of East Timor were necessary to preserve liberal democracy against the Soviet threat. One could far more plausibly turn the argument on its head. US backing for the most reactionary elements in Latin American politics drove Cuba into the Soviet camp after its revolution, despite the well-documented suspicion of its leaders about Moscow’s intentions. US support for the white-settler regimes of southern Africa prompted the region’s liberation movements to look for Soviet aid.

Once you rhetorically sever the link between means and ends, you can justify more or less any crime. It’s easy to imagine a Russian counterpart of Janan Ganesh from the country’s tame, pro-government media loudly insisting that the invasion of Ukraine is absolutely necessary because Putin has branded it as an exercise in “de-Nazification.” The argument hangs together on its own terms, so long as you don’t ask the person making it to explain what the bombing of maternity hospitals has to do with fighting Nazis.

What underpins all these arguments, East or West, is a mentality based on cynical, state-centered realpolitik that reduces human beings to an abstraction. Armed with this lofty, Olympian view of geopolitics, you can ignore the victims of war and repression. Ganesh may refer to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi — Khashoggi was a Washington Post columnist, after all, so he’s harder to overlook — but he doesn’t even glance at the deaths caused by the Saudi invasion of Yemen.

Humanizing the Dots

The best satirical presentation of this worldview came in Carol Reed’s 1949 film, The Third Man. Playing the character of Harry Lime, an unscrupulous black marketeer whose defective penicillin has caused children to be born with hideous deformities, Orson Welles rebukes an old friend for referring to his “victims”:

Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you £20,000 for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? . . . Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t. Why should we? They talk about the people and the proletariat; I talk about the suckers and the mugs — it’s the same thing.

The same arguments Ganesh uses to legitimize a bloc with MBS against Vladimir Putin could be deployed tomorrow or the day after to legitimize a bloc with Putin (or his successor) against Xi. With a different roll of the geopolitical dice, the United States and its allies might now be supporting the Russian “special military operation” in Ukraine and looking forward to the “liberation” of Kiev. That is precisely what Bill Clinton and Tony Blair did when Putin presided over the invasion of Chechnya soon after taking office.

Western media outlets have been reporting on the invasion of Ukraine from the perspective of its victims, which is the way that all wars should be covered. Everyone should remember the horrifying images from cities like Mariupol the next time they hear a general in another war zone talk about “surgical strikes” or accuse their opponent of using the civilian population as “human shields.”

Nothing could be tawdrier than to use those scenes as a rhetorical prop with which to justify support for murderous violence against civilians elsewhere. Yet that is precisely what Ganesh and those who share his outlook would have us do.