Reading about Margaret Thatcher conveying security assurances to Mikhail Gorbachev two months before the Berlin Wall fell, I couldn’t help but think that the Cold War, from start to finish, was a mindboggling achievement of Western statesmanship. On the fly and with the survival of humankind hanging in the balance, a generation of political leadership crafted a stable security architecture largely from scratch. Thatcher and George H.W. Bush’s instinctive management of the Soviet Union’s death throes in what Andrew Sullivan calls “brutally realist fashion” was the culmination of that remarkable effort.
But it’s important to remember, too, that there were blunders, slips and stumbles along the way, to say nothing of flat-out failures and defeats. Much blood and treasure was wasted in efforts that, in retrospect, were not nearly so urgent as they were perceived — or mischaracterized — at the time. And our commitment to our ideals was at times compromised at various points along the way.
That we, as a nation and a species, emerged from it all intact owes as much to luck and chance as skillful diplomacy and steely resolve. But we did emerge, intact and not lessened for the effort.
I think of that today, because in many ways it seems like we have yet to fully take our bearings in the world we discovered on Sept. 11, 2001. We have stumbled from one approach to another in a trial-and-error fashion, accumulating more errors than successes without yet finding a durable strategy. We have sought certainty in technological advances in weaponry and newly developed military doctrines, but we’ve yet to crack the code, if one exists, that will reveal the way forward to a more certain future.
And yet, for all the great damage we have done to ourselves in the past eight years, we have begun the long process of righting our course. More importantly, though weakened in many ways and disabused of our aura of invulnerability, we remain far stronger than our enemies.
So I remain optimistic and hopeful, both for America and the world. Because even if we’re stumbling through the post-9/11 era, as a nation, we tend to stumble well.