Thursday, September 23, 2010

Being a Super Power Is Not Easy.

Imagine a clash of titans over 40 years. Suddenly one titan falls down and is exposed as a pygmy walking on stilts hiding behind a shield the real titan would be tempted to trample the vanquished. Unless the real titan is USA and pygmy-as-titan was Soviet Russia.

I just completed reading "Dead Hand" by David Hofman on the cold war arms race. Both US and Russia were involved in an arms race stockpiling nuclear weapons that could destroy the earth many times over. When Soviet Russia crumbled like a cookie from within Americans were exuberant over the demise of their nemesis. Ideologically, politically, militarily and economically Soviet Russia lay prostrate. In fact there remained no Soviet Russia. Just Russia and splinter states that Stalin had gobbled up. Could America afford to gloat and stand by to see its existential nemesis disintegrate? Of course there was gloating. Of course there was triumphalism. BUT there was concern amongst the knowledgeable in the various arms of US government.

Soviet Russia's nuclear stockpile, the biological weapons program (pursued in blatant violation of treaties that USSR had signed) etc were scattered amongst various splinter states that were all breaking up. The command and control structure was vaporizing. USSR scientists now staring at abysmal poverty, some were 'down to the last sack of potatoes', were on the lookout for any buyer. Iranians showed up in Russian colleges under the  pretext of studying chemistry. Outright poaching of dangerous scientific talent was afoot.

America could ill afford to sit out as spectator. Recession was raging at home. Two senators, Sam Nunn (D-Georgia) and Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) came together in a bi-partisan effort to craft the Nunn Lugar bill (1992) to help fund Russia to destroy its stockpile of nuclear weapons. America being an open society and that such congressional bills have to be shepherded through the Congress with utmost political skill brings to relief what a moment it was. One of the bills opponents drily remarked "we have spent more than trillion dollars over decades trying to destroy USSR why spend our tax payer money to save them now". Nunn and Lugar faced political uncertainty and had to explain to the American taxpayer why American money must be sent to USSR in the larger interest.

Just to cite one example. Things were so deplorably bad in USSR that American experts who went to assist dismantling weapons were simply shocked at the dilapidated conditions of trains used to transport nuclear weapons. One such train was then shipped to US, retrofit with safety devices and sent back, all on US taxpayer dollar.

In fact reflecting on this angle I see how America reconstructed western Europe under the Marshall plan ploughing in billions of dollars to stave of the communist threat. Mindful of how the victorious countries punished Germany in 1918 America took the leadership in reconstructing Europe in such way that Western Europe would stand as an equal ally in the fight against communism and the nations that were held in thrall behind the Iron Curtain.Whether its Germany or Japan they are what they are today thanks to American power that was exercised arbitrarily and unilaterally. But for Marshall plan western Europe would have crumbled and got lost. Yes America had its selfish aims. In fact it was naked self interest that propelled America to take those decisions. But it was not self interest at the cost of another. At least not always.

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