DUMMERSTON, Vt. — The miraculous autumn of 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down and Eastern Europe threw off its chains, marked a turning point for the United States.
With the collapse of the Iron Curtain in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union two years later, the superpower standoff that had defined the four decades since the end of World War II was over.
Our nation had a choice. We could have laid down the burden of being a superpower, and worked to create a new world free of runaway militarism and nuclear threats.
Instead, this nation decided to head down a different path. There would be one superpower, the United States, and treaties or international law would not stand in the way of achieving the goals of global hegemony. Our former enemies, Russia and China, were supposed to sit idly by, cowed by our awesome military might.
As a result of the road not taken, the Cold War we thought had ended could easily resume. The conflict that defined the postwar world from 1945 to 1991, a conflict that is rapidly receding into memory, may be heating up once more.
While the Bush administration keeps its focus on turning a disaster in Iraq into victory, it seems that Russia is not buying into the rhetoric that the United States is the only superpower.
Last week, the Russians tried out a new ballistic missile capable of carrying multiple warheads and a new cruise missile. Russian President Vladimir Putin said the tests were a response to plans by the United States to build missile defense sites in Europe. He said he puts no stock in assurances from the United States that the missile defense sites are meant to counter threats from Iran, not Russia.
Once the Cold War ended and the former Soviet Bloc states declared their independence from Moscow, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expanded its influence into Eastern Europe, as much to gain new markets for U.S.-made weapons as to be a check on any revival of Russian power.
Judging from Putin's remarks last week, he's not happy. Putin has wanted the United States and other NATO members to ratify a revised version of the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, which limits the deployment of heavy non-nuclear weapons — something that has not happened.
"We have signed and ratified the CFE treaty and are fully implementing it," Putin said. "We pulled out all our heavy weapons from the European part of Russia to [locations] behind the Ural Mountains and cut our military by 300,000 men. And what about our partners? They are filling Eastern Europe with new weapons. A new base in Bulgaria, another one in Romania, a [missile defense] site in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic. What are we supposed to do? We can't just sit back and look at that."
Putin has said Russia will opt out of the CFE altogether if NATO nations don't ratify the revised version of the treaty. In remarks that can only be interpreted as a slap against the Bush administration's style of diplomacy, Putin attacked those "who want to dictate their will to all others regardless of international norms and law. It's dangerous and harmful. Norms of the international law have been replaced with political expediency. We view it as diktat and imperialism."
These words come from a man who President Bush still believes is his friend. In remarks last week, Bush brushed off Putin's criticism.
"The Cold War is over," Bush said. "We're now in the 21st century, where we need to deal with the true threats, which are threats of radical extremists who kill to advance an ideology, and the threats of proliferation."
The president, as usual, is wrong. Russia is still the world's No. 2 nuclear power. Both nations still have hundreds of nuclear warheads pointed at each other. And China, the No. 3 nuclear power, recently tested space weapons and holds nearly $1 trillion in U.S. bonds and securities. Both Russia and China have the potential to do far more harm to the United States than al-Qaida could ever dream of doing.
The miraculous events of the autumn of 1989, when a host of new possibilities were presented to the United States, seem to have been forgotten. As our broken military struggles for survival in Iraq and Afghanistan, don't think that Russia and China haven't noticed our vulnerability. And the arrogance of President Bush, the arrogance that gave us the disaster in Iraq, could lead us into a disaster that could be even worse.