Speaking at last week’s Munich Security Conference, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo waxed nostalgic about his tour of duty patrolling what he called “freedom’s frontier” during the waning days of the Cold War. Of course, by the time Lieutenant Pompeo arrived on the border between East and West Germany in the late 1980s, a Warsaw Pact attack on NATO was about as likely as a Mexican incursion later this year to retake the American Southwest. The Cold War was ending. A new era in international politics was at hand.
I too served on freedom’s frontier at roughly the same time and found comfort in that very phrase. It provided a ready excuse not to think too deeply about the implications of the dramatic geopolitical changes that were obviously afoot. Yet to revive that phrase today necessarily implies not merely nostalgia but conscious deception.
The annual gathering at Munich is itself an artifact of the Cold War. Yet Pompeo chose this venue to resurrect another Cold War relic, namely the concept of “the West.” It is, he said, alive and well. Much more than a geographic expression, it has matured into an identifiable set of precepts or principles, chief among them “individual freedom, free enterprise, [and] national sovereignty.”
But even at the height of the anti-Communist crusade, the West, much like its first cousin the “Free World,” was at best an imperfect expression of reality. It was, indeed, in considerable part a myth.
So even when the Cold War was at its coldest, a host of developments contradicted the image of a unified West. The Suez Crisis of 1956 Suez Crisis of 1956, where dissembling British, French, and Israeli leaders pulled a fast one on the Eisenhower administration and were duly punished, offers one example. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when President Kennedy took it upon himself to trade away part of NATO’s nuclear deterrent, offers a second. In short, when the chips were down, the unity of the West turned out to be highly contingent.
Still, while the Cold War lasted, the myth had this saving grace: It was useful. It imparted a modicum of strategic cohesion to the security policies of the United States and its allies. Indeed, scripted events like the Munich Security Conference lent credence to the image of a coequal partnership of freedom-loving and peace-loving nations standing arm in arm against godless Communists. So, in its day, the myth of a unified West served a purpose.
Yet that myth did not survive the end of the Cold War, in no small measure because successive US administrations found it more of an impediment than an asset. Indeed, after 9/11, the United States effectively dismantled whatever remnants of the West had managed to survive the first decade of the post-Cold War era. It did so by arrogating to itself the prerogative of waging preventive war and then exercising that prerogative by invading Iraq. It did so by embarking on a series of misguided military campaigns that destabilized large parts of the Greater Middle East and by making common cause with regimes such as the Saudis that stand opposed to every value that the West purportedly represents.
In the Trump era, the West has all but ceased to exist. Pompeo would have us believe otherwise. Indeed, “the West is winning,” he insisted at Munich, touting his equivalent of God, country, and apple pie to make his case. Yes, and global warming is self-correcting.
The truth, which Pompeo will not admit, is this: His boss doesn’t care a fig about the West. President Trump holds a low opinion of traditional US allies, classifying them as freeloaders or pickpockets. The president is all about America First. Based on the evidence since he took office, he means what he says.
Yet the problem with Pompeo’s appeal to nostalgia goes beyond Trump’s own preference for unilateralism. Indeed, the entire Trump-loathing foreign policy establishment will not own up to this essential fact: Reviving the West — if indeed, that is either possible or desirable — will require a radical redefinition of its collective purpose and of America’s own role. There’s no going back to the days when Lieutenant Pompeo stood his ground against the Red Threat.
The West we need is one that will prioritize a common approach to common problems. Climate, environmental degradation, nuclear proliferation, and inequality will necessarily top the agenda. When the American secretary of state appears at Munich calling for the West to take on these challenges, that will be a speech worth hearing.
Andrew Bacevich is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His new book is “The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory.”