Collapsing Cold War Certainties Fuel Global Migrant Crisis
There is nothing new about the fact that large numbers of people travel the globe to escape danger or despair. The history of humanity is a history of the migration of peoples. Seemingly impregnable empires have crumbled under the weight of such a mass movement. What we are seeing now is not a new thing but a very old one.
So why is it such a shock to the world order that governments are threatened and the normal rules of diplomacy (if we are to believe briefings from Paris and Westminster) distorted?
Perhaps because we expected this to be an era in which prosperity and freedom would take precedence: that the need to flee persecution and life-threatening poverty would largely disappear. The collapse of the terrifying nuclear standoff between relentless superpowers would surely lead to peace and the expansion of opportunity to all parts of the globe in a rush for happy liberation. Open democracy and free enterprise were the rational answers to the question of how societies should be organized, and this lesson was to be adopted by virtually all nation states.
It didn’t work that way. Or at least, not universally, as naive optimists might have predicted – even though a huge proportion of what was known during the Cold War as the Third World (states that were neither part of the Western Bloc nor the Eastern Bloc) adopted the system of government and market economy which together proved to be the antidote to absolute poverty and backwardness.
But in many places, a new generation of corrupt dictatorships, fanatics and kleptocrats brought civil disorder and tribal warfare to areas that had been, paradoxically, bribed and somehow maintained by competing superpowers.
These waves of desperate migration mainly from what are now euphemistically described as “developing countries” seem to have come as a total surprise to the West – which seemed to think that all it had to do was offer. its successful formula for wealth and freedom with some useful trade deals, and there would be an end to severe global hardship. Turns out, perhaps it was precisely the competition between ideologies – with its power struggle for world domination – that held in check some of the worst influences possible.
You may be old enough to remember a time when the Western (i.e. American) political message actively competed for “the hearts and minds” of non-aligned populations against an aggressive Communist recruiting campaign. orchestrated (not necessarily openly) by the Soviet Union. . Even when the Kremlin-led operation behind the doctrine of state socialism was disguised or denied, it was still clear that the USSR would benefit from any adoption of its creed by Third World countries.
Not only would their allegiance reinforce the idea that the Soviet solution won the battle of ideas and thus strengthen its grip against dissidents within the Warsaw Pact countries, but it would give Moscow weight in the international power game, often of quite literal way. meaning when Russia used the natural resources of these territories.
The world was therefore divided into spheres of influence in which the two great actors counted each victory of their ideology as a moral marker. The relative success of each US administration was measured against the number of countries or regions that had been “lost” to communism.
But to view these countries as helpless pawns in a grand game that fought off the threat of a cataclysmic world war was misleading. Decried at the time as dangerous and degrading to the peoples whose fate was part of the agreement, it was actually a more cynical arrangement in which the territory was established largely through roundabouts.
Within these agreed spheres, unstable regions have been monitored and unreliable rulers have been displaced – often with the tacit approval of “enemy” power. Risks to either bloc hegemony in any given region have been addressed through ruthless repression, targeted assassinations, and the carefully controlled placement of political leaders who could be kept to their promises.
Tyranny was acceptable as long as it didn’t rock the boat of the unwritten pact between the great powers. The West was not innocent: the most important attribute of a national leader was that he was on our side, not theirs. (Hence the quote attributed to Lyndon Johnson about Ngo Dinh Diem from South Vietnam, that “he may be a son of a bitch, but he is our son of a bitch”.)
One aspect of this manipulation was corruption: favored tyrants were rewarded militarily and with personal protection and comfort, but their populations (at least a significant portion of them) often benefited as well because both power blocks knew the people had to be kept aside. More importantly, potential uprisings and competing factions were treated ruthlessly and without excuses or explanations, as the need to keep checkmate was accepted by both sides.
Sometimes someone would go overboard and the consequences were terrifying. When the USSR decided to establish a missile base in Cuba – 90 miles off the coast of Florida – the world order truly seemed on the verge of collapse. What happened next ? The Soviets backed down – and never tried again. But the United States has never repeated its invasion of the Bay of Pigs. The rules were well and truly established.
It’s over now. There is no one who has a vested interest in keeping dictators in order or offering favors to their people to adopt an approved way of life. The Soviets left and with their departure America – after some calamitous misadventures – lost interest. Chaos and tribal warfare fill the void with a selfish tyranny unleashed so that people who would really like to live like us believe they have no choice but to come here.
Will the West (led by America) ever regain its interest in these places and people now that the competition for their favor is gone? We wait and see. In the meantime, they will come.