For News Editors, It’s Still 1983

Friday, May 7, 2010

By Ed Hancox

Now, I’m not talking about the seeming inability of print and broadcast news outlets to successfully adapt to newfangled inventions like the Internets and Electronic Mail, but rather their slavish dedication to a peculiar worldview where the Cold War never ended.

What got me onto this topic was a Reuters article about a May Day protest in Moscow led by chess Grand Master turned political gadfly Garry Kasparov and his organization “Solidarity.” Reuters refers to Solidarity as being “pro-Western”, a bit of rhetorical shorthand commonly used back in the days of the Soviet Union to refer to any person, movement or country that stood in opposition to the Soviet government. While contemporary Russia may have its flaws – lack of freedom in the political and economic spaces chief among them – one thing it certainly is not is the Soviet Union: Russians today can travel the world, surf the web, and watch foreign television programs via satellite – in fact during the recent Moscow subway bombing, many Russians turned to foreign broadcasters for breaking news coverage as Russian domestic networks remained silent as they debated how to cover the event. It’s also worth noting that before the Great Recession hit, Moscow was home to more billionaires than any other city on Earth, a decidedly un-Soviet distinction.

One needs to remember that Cold War was not merely decades of saber-rattling between two mighty militaries; it was nothing short of the competition between two distinct political/economic systems to shape the future of mankind. Soviet leaders, particularly Nikita Khrushchev and Mikhail Gorbachev, the two most ideologically-committed of all Soviet heads of state, believed that Communism would eventually emerge as the victor in a ongoing competition to forge the world of tomorrow, the massive Red Army and Soviet nuclear arsenal were merely tools in the great revolutionary struggle. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, global Communism lost its great champion and the struggle for ideological dominance effectively ended. 

Red Dawn remake propaganda postersIt’s not like this development passed unnoticed – in the early 1990s Francis Fukuyama famously proclaimed that we had reached “the end of history,” then-President Bill Clinton touted the benefits America would reap from the "peace dividend" as we would no longer need to engage in an arms race with the Soviets (sadly the Pentagon found other reasons to keep on spending), and Neo-Conservatives were quick to anoint their ideological icon, Ronald Reagan, as the “victor” of the Cold War.  Even Hollywood has taken note of the passing of the Soviets  – the contemporary remake of the late-Cold War flick Red Dawn has re-cast the antagonists from an invading Soviet/Cuban army to a Chinese mission sent here to “assist” America in recovering after an economic collapse. Today the United States and Russia are partners on a host of issues from stemming nuclear proliferation to space exploration to efforts at fighting global terrorism, including the ongoing campaign in Afghanistan.

So why then are news editors seemingly still locked into this Cold War mindset? Perhaps because it is far simpler than trying to describe the world as it exists today. Us versus them, the United States vs. the Soviet Union, Rocky Balboa vs. Ivan Drago are easy to understand; the multipolar world of several competing powers with fungible, ever-shifting alliances is not. 

“Multipolar” is a term that crops up a lot in writings about international relations; it’s used to describe the power structure of world politics today. Rather than the US/Soviet duopoly that dominated the Cold War-era, influence in the world today is split among several top tier powers: the United States, China, Russia and (arguably) the European Union, or at least the “Big Three” of Europe – Great Britain, France and Germany. Factor in a group of important regional powers: India, Israel, Iran, Brazil and South Africa, and you’ve got a very dynamic world. 

Rocky vs Ivan DragoTo add another level of complexity, unlike the world of the Cold War, where countries tended to be either in the U.S. or Soviet camps and thus followed their lead on global issues; alliances today in the multipolar world are far more flexible. It is common for two, or more, powers to work together on one issue, yet be on opposite sides on another. The best example of this is the current situation in Central Asia, particularly among the five nations that once were part of the Soviet Union (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan). Russia and China have a common interest in blunting American attempts to establish a sphere of influence in the region (one very visible sign of American presence is Manas Airbase outside Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan). One vehicle that they have used to try to supplant American power is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), ostensibly a forum for regional security discussions in Central Asia, which some have been trying build into a challenger to NATO.  Russia and China have been united in their efforts to strengthen and expand the power and influence of SCO, for example the creation of a multi-national military force to fight against terrorism, which just happens to be NATO’s justification for their involvement in Afghanistan. But common ground only extends so far. Ultimately, China and Russia each see themselves as the logical leader of the SCO, just as the United States is the dominant power in NATO; Sino-Russo cooperation, therefore, has its limits…

Reporting on a multipolar world is challenging. It means keeping track of a host of issues, the interests of a number of global powers and monitoring the internal politics of each in an attempt to divine what their relative positions will be tomorrow. Sticking with the old narrative may be simpler, and perhaps even more comforting – we all knew through heart, grit and determination Rocky would defeat the cold, calculating Drago. It may be simpler for the reporters and news editors, but in the process they do a disservice to their readers by not describing the world as it truly exists today.

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When not writing about international affairs, Ed Hancox works in nonprofit development. He holds a M.A. degree in International Affairs from The New School where he worked as a research associate on a project examining Russia's transition from Communism.