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The Signal
‘We Are Going to Deprive You of an Enemy’
What did winning the Cold War do to American life?
—By Dominic Tierney
(Originally published 2021 | 01.10)
There’s a feeling of disintegration in the United States. Partisanship has reached extraordinary levels. Since the early 1990s, the number of Democrats and Republicans who have a “very unfavorable” view of the other party has more than doubled to well above 50 percent. Americans routinely see each other—not Russia, or China—as their country’s gravest enemy. In 2018, a plurality of Democrats said that the world leader who posed “the greatest threat to peace and security” to the U.S. was Donald Trump. In January 2021, Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in a bid to overturn the 2020 presidential election—or as they apparently saw it, to restore the election after its “theft.” Even in mainstream media, there’s recurring talk of cataclysmic unrest or civil war. Why are U.S. national bonds so frayed, even possibly broken?
There are many popular answers to this question—from the post-industrial decay and fast-changing cultural demographics that provoked disaffected whites and others to support Trump to the emergence of ideological news channels and social-media platforms that have effectively herded Americans into partisan tribes, to toxic political leadership that manipulates people into considering demonstrable facts as “fake news.” There’s another explanation, however, which has gone almost entirely ignored. It was predicted a generation ago—long before Trump’s election or Facebook—by a Soviet diplomat named Georgi Arbatov.
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Arbatov was born in Kherson in the Soviet Union in 1923. His father was a Jewish metalworker and Communist true believer, who traveled abroad as a Soviet trade representative. Arbatov had an unusually cosmopolitan upbringing in Berlin and Paris, a world away from the famine and terror of Stalin’s U.S.S.R. In 1938, his father was accused of sabotage and jailed, revealing to Arbatov both the savagery of Stalinism and the cost of bucking its system. “Even by the age of fourteen or fifteen,” Arbatov wrote, “I understood perfectly well that the authorities arrested and destroyed completely innocent people.”
He worked his way up through the Soviet bureaucracy, becoming the country’s top “Amerikanist,” or preeminent expert on the United States. Urbane and fluent in English, Arbatov was the face of the Soviet Union on American television, appearing on shows like NBC’s Today to attack U.S. foreign policy, label Americans as “cowboys,” and belittle Ronald Reagan as a B-movie actor and right-wing extremist. (Reagan shot back: “They weren’t all B-movies.”) Behind the scenes, however, Arbatov was a reformer who nudged Moscow toward détente with the United States and became part of Mikhail Gorbachev’s brain trust, cultivating, as he put it, “oases of open thinking.”
Arbatov stood on a bridge between the Cold War superpowers. A Soviet Amerikanist. A Communist TV pundit. A friend of both Brezhnev and Billy Graham. From this uncommon position, Arbatov was able to look both east and west. He could see how the United States and the Soviet Union had grown strangely interdependent. Each superpower needed the other’s enmity to rally their nation together, or even to know who they really were. As Don DeLillo wrote in Underworld, set during the Cold War: “It’s not enough to hate your enemy. You have to understand how the two of you bring each other to deep completion.”
When the Cold War ended, the United States was the clear victor. In 1989, the composer Leonard Bernstein celebrated the opening of the Berlin Wall with a stirring rendition of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, its themes of universal amity resonating around the globe. Arbatov, however, gave a stark warning to an American audience: “We are going to do a terrible thing to you.”
What did that mean? Did Moscow have a horrifying new weapon?
“We are going to deprive you of an enemy.”
Arbatov explained: “It’s historical, it’s human, you have to have an enemy. So much was built out of this role of the enemy. Your foreign policy, quite a bit of your economy, even your feelings about your country. To have a really good empire, you have to have a really evil empire.” But now the Soviet foe was gone.
“I cannot imagine that we will play this game again,” Arbatov said, “and without us you cannot play it either.”
As Arbatov predicted, when the Soviet Union left the stage in the 1990s, the United States began to fracture. American identity started to weaken. Republicans and Democrats coalesced into Red America and Blue America. The United States began to feel more like a defeated country than a victor. Trump would eventually borrow words from Stalin to describe his domestic rivals: Enemies of the People.
The Soviets had discovered a strategy that would allow them to sow discord among Americans and turn Washington against its closest allies. All Moscow had to do was lose the Cold War and disappear.
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This Week
What drives recurring U.S. cultural conflicts like the “War on Christmas”? Dan Cassino on the logic of identity politics in everyday life.
Why are America’s white evangelical Christians so resistant to getting vaccinated against the coronavirus? Curtis Chang on the public-health challenges of political polarization and institutional distrust.
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