Legacies of Cold War Liberalism

Legacies of Cold War Liberalism

To promote democratic and egalitarian ideals today, we need to break with the anxieties that drove U.S. politics during the Cold War.

President-elect John F. Kennedy with Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. on January 9, 1960 (Bettmann via Getty Images)

If war is a force that gives us meaning, as Chris Hedges famously wrote, what purpose remains when the ultimate battle has been won? This question plagued many American intellectuals after the end of the Cold War, when the United States assumed an unrivaled geopolitical position.

For some who had been in the ideological trenches far too long, it was impossible to let go. They were skeptical of the notion that challenges to the United States could be resolved through technocratic adjustments, and found it hard to believe that all would now be safe and well. For three decades, these figures have remained ready to sound the tocsin against new enemies on the horizon. That bellicose posture is one significant legacy of Cold War liberalism—a politics whose definition remains contested, even if the historical conditions that gave rise to it are clear.

Before the First World War, to be a liberal typically meant defending universal values and rationalism. Liberals had an optimistic view of human nature and believed in historical progress. But the rise of fascist regimes, and the mobilization of global military forces required to stamp out Nazism, dealt a blow to this view. In the aftermath of the Second World War, new threats emerged in Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China, and later Castro’s Cuba. If liberalism had any chance of surviving, it would need to become more aggressive in its defense of freedom against the specter of communist totalitarianism. To Cold War intellectuals, both inside and outside of the academy, liberal democracy was not predestined to succeed. It was fragile and in need of vigilant protection.

Intellectuals and policymakers such as W.W. Rostow, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Isaiah Berlin believed that the security of all peoples rested on the willingness of the American state to project democratic ideals—and flex its military power—abroad. Historian and John F. Kennedy acolyte Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. wrote in 1950 that Americans must embrace “the necessity of protracted and indefinite responsibilities and involvements abroad” as the result of the “new historic position of the U.S. as the leading power in the free world.”

Cold War liberals put their faith in the military, and depended on spending related to it to deliver social benefits—employment, economic growth, civic purpose—in the absence of a broader welfare state. The fight against communism abroad also led to recognition of the problem posed by racial inequality at home. As Secretary of State Dean Acheson argued in 1947, “discrimination against minority groups in this country has an adverse effect upon our relations with other countries.” Political realism led liberals to embrace efforts to redress racism through the recognition of civil rights for Black Americans, push to strengthen trade unions, and advocate for full employment through the mechanisms of the national security state.

To compete with the Soviets, Cold War liberals envisioned a project of mass funding for higher education, with federal support for working- and middle-class Americans to attend college and universities to enlarge the skilled workforce. They also supported mandatory military service for all male citizens. A well-trained, well-educated public committed to defending God and country was the only means to preserve the American republic.

Three decades after the demise of the Soviet Union, many of the intellectual tenets of Cold War liberalism remain with us. Public figures and intellectuals, from Francis Fukuyama and Steven Pinker to George Packer and Mark Lilla, continue to write about the psychological fortitude necessary to confront democracy’s enemies. This ideology has found new life in the Trump era, shifting to accommodate public anxieties over the future of democracy. While not objecting to social democracy or the welfare state outright, however, the new Cold War liberals don’t embrace social and economic rights with the same zeal as their predecessors, instead focusing on developments that pose a threat to their worldview.

These figures first saw a resurgence after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but they have congealed as a more coherent ideological bloc following the 2016 election. They are united by a common opposition to “identity politics”; fear that liberal democracies are on the defensive, facing onslaught from authoritarians, especially in Russia and China; and concern over an apathetic or misinformed public that relies on the unregulated circulation of misinformation on social media.

For all their moral toughness, the academics, public intellectuals, and policy experts in these circles have proven ill-equipped to respond to the challenges of a global pandemic exacerbated by neoliberal austerity, anti-Black racism, and extreme inequality. Cold War liberalism is now a zombie ideology. It offers preparedness as politics: a desire to inculcate a wartime urgency in the body politic, demanding sacrifice without solidarity and individual introspection as a path to freedom. Meanwhile, it sees projects such as universal healthcare, a Green New Deal, and free college tuition as an unnecessary distraction from democracy promotion at home and abroad.

If the left has any hope of realizing its goals, it must challenge the intellectual legacy of Cold War liberalism, and create a new liberal framework based on genuinely democratic and egalitarian ideals.

The Cold War University

The national security state provided a material basis and an intellectual context for the vigilant mood of Cold War liberalism. The military and American universities grew closer during the Second World War, but it was the U.S. entry into the Korean War in 1950 that precipitated a semi-permanent institutional relationship. Funds from the Department of Defense flowed into universities like MIT and Stanford to develop high-tech military products. Pentagon spending financed the growth of higher education, including better salaries for the professorial class. In addition, the 1958 National Defense Education Act provided low-interest student loans to expand “manpower of sufficient quality and quantity to meet the national defense needs of the United States” well into the 1970s.

The Cold War university helped spawn, in Galbraith’s phrase, an “affluent society” dependent on the link between intellectual production and national security. It brought higher education to the masses, most famously through the 1944 GI Bill. It also established intellectual connections that still echo today. The development of “area studies” programs, which focused on specific geographic regions, for instance, created a clear pathway for American academics into policymaking circles in the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency, while enshrining orientalist views on race and foreign policy. More broadly, many of the most prominent and influential academic humanists of the era—historians such Schlesinger and Richard Hofstadter, or philosophers like Reinhold Niebuhr, Sidney Hook, and Hannah Arendt—were committed to a liberal consensus that emphasized the commonalties shared by all democratic citizens, especially in the United States. Combined with the Red Scare, which purged hundreds of leftist professors in the 1950s, the Cold War university produced a conformist intellectual milieu.

This consensus came under attack in the 1960s and ’70s. The New Left challenged both the university’s institutional connections to the security state and the culture of conformity it reflected. Frankfurt School thinkers such as Herbert Marcuse and Theodor Adorno, along with their American counterparts such as C. Wright Mills, offered a newly resonant critique of the militarization of the university and its place in what Mills called the “power elite.” The backlash to the New Left created a counterrevolution in thought; many Cold War liberals remade themselves into neoconservative intellectuals who feared that student radicalism signified a new moral relativism—a disdain for religion, liberal individualism, and society premised on a discernible order. As Irving Kristol put it in a 1973 essay, “The enemy of liberal capitalism today is not so much socialism as nihilism.”

The end of the Cold War did little to reassure defenders of the liberal order. They now warned that postmodernism was spreading like an epidemic across the nation’s campuses, leaving impressionable young minds confused and reckless. As the historian Tony Judt put it in his 1992 book Past Imperfect: “Deconstruction, postmodernity, poststructuralism, and their progeny thrive, however implausibility, from London to Los Angeles.” Judt was also bothered by the American academy’s lingering fascination with French Marxism. The French intellectual he most admired was the liberal Raymond Aron: the chief opponent of the French Marxist scene and a well-known critic of the May 1968 student protest movement and workers’ strike.

Fukuyama echoed these claims, calling “total bullshit” on academics who espoused “a kind of Nietzschean relativism that said there is no truth . . . yet were committed to basically a Marxist agenda.” Mark Lilla wrote essays warning of the reckless postmodern minds of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Martin Heidegger. Neoconservative Roger Kimball blamed postmodernism for corrupting higher education in his 1990 polemic Tenured Radicals.

These critiques carried over the Cold War belief that elite institutions of higher education had an intellectual responsibility to impart the virtues of American citizenship and consensus values.

Battling Evil After 9/11

Anxieties over postmodernism were quickly eclipsed by the attacks on September 11, 2001. Scholars and pundits appealed to the wisdom of Cold War liberalism to defeat the enemy of radical Islam. Disappointed that some figures on the liberal left had adopted an antiwar posture, notable books, including Peter Beinart’s The Good Fight: Why Liberals—and Only Liberals—Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again (2006), called for the rehabilitation of twentieth-century ideals. For Beinart, Cold Warriors like Galbraith, Schlesinger, and George F. Kennan showed how liberals could combine strident anti-communism with a commitment to economic opportunity.

In response to critics who argued his project was no different from the Bush administration’s neoconservatism, Beinart wrote that liberals, unlike conservatives, knew the United States could be corrupted by power. Liberals “seek the constraints that empires refuse,” know “that democracy is something we pursue rather than something we embody,” and “advance it not merely by exhorting others but by battling the evil in ourselves.” Here, Beinart had in mind the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, also a favorite of Barack Obama.

In 2007 Obama told David Brooks that he was inspired by Niebuhr’s “compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction.” “Pragmatism over Ideology” is how Obama’s national security advisers described his foreign policy. In practice, that often meant a foreign policy with more continuities than breaks with Bush’s War on Terror.

Trump the Subversive Agent

The Obama era—with its appeals to moral consensus, somewhat restrained projection of American power, and limited embrace of social policy reformism—was a time of relative contentment for the latter-day Cold War liberals. The election of Donald Trump, by contrast, brought renewed calls for the urgent defense of liberal democracy. Liberal intellectuals called for a nonpartisan position of resistance to the Trump administration’s actions in both the domestic and international arena. The blatant nativism and xenophobia that Trump both represented and harnessed were analogized to the rise of fascism; comparisons between Trump and Hitler abounded among the political commentariat. And Trump’s connections to Russia, along with Russian meddling in the 2016 election on behalf of Trump’s campaign, aroused concerns that the president was a subversive agent doing Vladimir Putin’s bidding, willing to jeopardize democracy either due to blackmail or financial self-interest.

The post-election narrative that Trump was both a fascist threat and a bumbling Manchurian candidate reflected the cultural legacy of Cold War liberalism. Trump became associated with both forms of totalitarianism—Soviet communism and Nazism—making him a somewhat contradictory menace. Removing Trump from office was imperative to national security interests; his presidency was an overarching danger to American democracy in global terms.

A number of academics portrayed Trump as a threat to national security. In his pamphlet-sized book On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder offered aphoristic lessons from twentieth-century history—“defend institutions”; “make eye contact and small talk”—designed to steel Americans against a looming effort to establish the conditions for authoritarian control. Political scientists like Yascha Mounk and Larry Diamond placed individual vigilance at the center of our politics, while deprioritizing mass politics and social justice. Mounk decried the threat of populism to liberal democracy—on the right, but also on the left. Left populists “don’t bill themselves as authoritarian,” but Mounk was concerned that leftists would find it “very tempting to abolish independent institutions like the courts, to suppress critical voices in the press, and to concentrate more and more power in your own hands.”

For many liberals, opposition to Trump became a civic duty that required putting country over party. They eschewed division in favor of unity, no matter one’s pre-2016 political background. It was in this context that a renewed critique of identity politics emerged. In his book The Once and Future Liberal, Lilla lampooned liberals and the left for embracing the “movement politics of identity, losing a sense of what we share as citizens and what binds us as a nation.” Fukuyama followed on his heels, arguing that identity politics reflects a “demand for recognition” that fails to account for, and work toward, “universal understandings of human dignity.” Scholars like Lilla and Fukuyama redeployed longstanding criticisms of postmodernism and directed them at a politics of gender, racial, and sexual equality in the Trump era. “Deconstructionism” and “cultural pluralism,” to use Lilla’s terms, surpassed civic virtue and common notions of liberty. Identity politics had driven white voters to Trump in the first place, and it would preclude the possibility for a movement that could restore the democracy that Trump corrupted. Rather than providing a politics of resistance, however, their critiques gave fodder to the proponents of Trumpism, blaming his opposition on the left for his rise.

China and the “New Cold War”

Fears of left populism and Russian-sponsored Trumpism coincided with concerns over renewed conflict with China. Many warned of a “Second” or “New” Cold War, citing China’s economic growth in the past two decades, its naval foothold in the South China Sea, and its Belt and Road economic development initiative in the Global South as evidence of great power competition. New Cold Warriors also expressed concern about the governing regime under Xi Jinping and its ability to export an “authoritarian model” that would rival and eventually overshadow the U.S. promotion of global capitalism premised on rights-based notions of liberalism and democracy.

Whereas conservatives see a potential China threat in predominantly geopolitical terms, the Cold War liberals appeal to human rights to advocate an aggressive posture. China’s well-documented history of human rights abuses, specifically its treatment of Uyghur Muslims—including torture, forced sterilization, and internment in Xinjiang province—demands intervention, they argue. In the Guardian last year, the British historian Timothy Garton Ash made the case for national security projected through rights promotion at home and abroad. Garton Ash argued that “the Chinese communist party leadership under Xi Jinping” portended “a long haul” of conflict ahead.

Like the Cold Warriors of old, the China hawks feel the United States must not just revamp its foreign policy but retool its domestic politics and political economy to meet the threat. The entire country needs to be on a wartime footing. To beat China, argues Garton Ash, will require “all the expertise we can get on Chinese history, culture and politics, and on Asia as a whole.” Just as during the Cold War, national security provides the rationale for a project of expanding affordable higher education to more Americans. But at a time when academia has been hollowed out by budget cuts, we shouldn’t expect the New Cold War university to broaden the educational horizons for the U.S. working class. A battle with China over who will supply the knowledge to further hegemony in fields of science and technology is sure to deepen the educational inequality that has grown with the rise of the “meritocratic elite” in the neoliberal era.

If there is a buildup to compete with China, we can expect the national security elites to cross-fertilize with the critics of identity politics, many of whose practitioners work in departments seen as extraneous to national interests.

The End of an Era

Cold War liberalism, argues the historian Samuel Moyn, places the fear of the collapse of freedom at the center of political thought. Hostile forces overseas—Islam, Russia, China—and internal domestic enemies—postmodernism, identity politics, populists—seek to undermine liberal democratic values. To ward off these dangers, today’s liberals prefer the security state over any commitment to institutions of economic redistribution, and the effective training of future elites at the nation’s most prestigious schools over a program of expansive public education. They reject the left case for ameliorating underlying sources of inequality and insecurity that produce destabilizing political conditions. Instead of an economic plan, the new Cold War liberalism offers empty slogans, like “trust experts.” But if Trump’s victory has proven anything, it is how far the Cold War vision of technocratic expertise has fallen; many are no longer willing to trust an educated elite.

Cold War liberals, in turn, distrust the masses. They see not just Trump voters but massive demonstrations and movements against white supremacy and economic inequality as further signs of populism overtaking democracy. Apoplexy over the “illiberalism” of Black Lives Matter protests, against activists’ unwillingness to participate in the social currency of elite bargaining and jockeying for position, form the basis of an effort to keep a neoliberal status quo thriving.

The time is ripe for a reckoning. To think innovatively today about education, economics, and politics demands a break with the anxieties that drove Cold War liberalism. Younger generations with no living memory of the Cold War have inherited the country’s perpetual wars, and its consistent tendency to prioritize capitalism over genuine democracy. There are hopeful signs that they are ready to move beyond the politics of fear and anxiety—to restructure American institutions to prioritize social protection over the security state, reject endless wars, and further an egalitarian project that brings greater economic equality and political inclusion. There is no reason to remain bound to the logic of an era that has passed.

Michael Brenes teaches history at Yale University. He is the author of For Might and Right: Cold War Defense Spending and the Remaking of American Democracy.

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins is the managing editor of Modern Intellectual History and a postdoctoral fellow in the history department at Dartmouth College.