Effingham Daily News, Effingham, IL

April 5, 2014

Opinion: Russia and 'The Day After'

Joshua Robison
For the Daily News

ST. ELMO — In 1983, the most highly watched television movie of all time found its way into my family’s living room.

I was about 7 at the time and do not remember if we watched the movie in its entirety or just bits and pieces of it. What I do know, however, is that this program gave me nightmares. This movie and the threat it conveyed were launched quite soundly into my childhood brain, right next to Star Wars, Indiana Jones and vanilla wafer banana pudding. Some of you probably remember this controversial 1980s classic, “The Day After.”

This movie portrayed what millions of Americans and perhaps billions of people around the world at the time feared most: atomic war. The film depicted a nuclear exchange between NATO and the Warsaw Pact nations before focusing on what life was like for the survivors, hence the name.

The way many modern children fear school shootings and terrorist attacks, plenty of children in my generation feared nuclear Armageddon between the United States and the Soviet Union. Although the 1980s was not the height of the Cold War, by that decade both sides had accumulated so many weapons that the fallout from a conflict between the two of them was almost unimaginable. As the late Carl Sagan once commented, “Imagine a room awash in gasoline, and there are two implacable enemies in that room. One of them has 9,000 matches, the other 7,000 matches. Each of them is concerned about who’s ahead, who’s stronger.”

The destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the Soviet collapse two years later proved cathartic for Americans in more ways than one. After all, we won! The bad guys had not just lost, they had given up. Communism was on its way out; democratic marketplace capitalism would replace it quite nicely, and we would all live happily ever after.

The optimism was so vivid, in fact, that 1992 saw the publication of a book entitled, “The End of History and the Last Man” by American political theorist Frances Fukuyama. “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold war,” Fukuyama wrote, “but the end of history as such: that is, … the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

Now, that is some pretty cocky stuff, because in a nutshell the book argued that ever since the American and French revolutions at the end of the 18th century, democracy had proven to be the superior form of government and represented the apex of human political development. “Events” would obviously still occur, Fukuyama suggested, such as earthquakes, diseases and new McDonald’s sandwich ideas, but “history” as a struggle between competing ideologies was apparently on its way out.

Yeah! And despite many, many critics of the theory, the 1990s kind of played that scene out to a certain extent. We had our Pax Americana with, ironically enough, angry Seattle grunge music as the soundtrack. Despite 9/11 and its bloody, far-flung aftermath, proponents of Fukuyama’s theory suggested that even these events did not really contradict the idea that western style democracy would eventually envelope the planet, which was the main thesis behind the book.

A book, clearly, that someone needs to send to Moscow.

Post-Soviet Russia, according to the script, is supposed to be our ally, a burgeoning democracy relieved of its territorial ambitions and political wiles. It is supposed to be our trading partner, an eager go-between for the United States, the last true super power, and China, the emerging influence in the East. Russia should be anxious, even, to join the European Union, and should probably defer to us while making crucial decisions on the UN Security Council.

Somebody, however, is not sticking to this modern script. Sometimes it almost seems like somebody is reading a script from the Cold War or even the dark days leading up to World War II. Despite Putin’s bad behavior, however, and despite some alarmist reaction drawing a straight line from Russia’s recent misadventure to 1930s Germany, I personally do not think television executives need to start production on “Another Day After.”

To begin with, Vladimir Putin is not Adolf Hitler. Hitler was an ideologue willing to wage massive war and commit genocide to achieve his ultimate ambition: the establishment of the Third Reich. Hitler sought power to achieve his goals. Putin’s goal seems to be power in and of itself. Granted, annexing small but strategically valuable satellite states is a viable way to snatch power in the short term, but only to a certain extent, and only for so long.

Secondly, the U.S. and its western allies in 2014 are not the same as the U.S. and its allies in 1939. One reason Hitler waged war was because he thought he could realistically win. He thought this even after the U.S. became involved. Granted, NATO is not the force it once was, but it’s still a force. Yes, the Pentagon is suffering budget cuts, but the United States still outspends every other country on defense — combined. The point is this: pertaining to military clout in relation to his potential adversaries, Putin is more akin to Mussolini than Hitler, although please don’t tell him I said that.

To conclude, I generally don’t do a great deal of cheerleading when it comes to either our federal or state government, but on this one I think the White House is right. Russia is not really a threat to U.S. security. The real threat, unfortunately, are all those matches Carl Sagan was talking about, because many of them are missing.