So one of the primary reasons I originally started this blog was to make point of addressing the misuse of history by pundits, opinion writers, politicians, and other individuals who should know better. So when a gem like this shows up in my feed, the current opinion piece by Thomas J. Friedman titled Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There I get rather excited. Mr. Friedman is an expert in the Middle East and a correspondent from that region of long standing, and I will be the first to admit he has considerable skill in matters of foreign diplomacy and international relations, but this quote is what got a raised eyebrow:
“The Cold War was a unique event that pitted two global ideologies, two global superpowers, each with globe-spanning nuclear arsenals and broad alliances behind them. Indeed, the world was divided into a chessboard of red and black, and who controlled each square mattered to each side’s sense of security, well-being and power. It was also a zero-sum game, in which every gain for the Soviet Union and its allies was a loss for the West and NATO, and vice versa.”
Now if you include the presence of nuclear weapons as the sole criteria for making this struggle unique, then yes, Mr. Friedman is correct, nuclear weapons are a 20th century only item added to the arsenals of world power. However as the Cold War was mostly dominated by the nuclear tipped struggle between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A. I’d still have to argue a technical point, the Soviets and the Americans were wrestling for position from 1945 – 1948, a period in which the Soviets lacked shiny atomic weapons. China also tossed its hand in the 1950s into the struggle before it had nukes. But, I digress, because if you disregard the nuclear tipped spears and go for what I think Mr. Friedman’s broader point was in that statement, and from the rest of the editorial, that the Cold War was unique as a period of new technologies, new ideologies, bi-polar global struggle, and alliance gains and losses, then he would be incorrect.
I put before you the continual struggle between France and Great Britain that dominated the landscape of the later half of the 18th century globe.
These two powers engaged in a series of nasty wars during this period – specifically the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748), the Seven Years War (1756-1763), and the American Revolution (1776-1783), wars which were basically the two powers jockeying with each other to dominate the economic hotspots of the century, holdings in Indian and North America. However these wars were the flash-points in a broader struggle that kept the two powers competing in brush wars and alliance building throughout the 18th century. Let’s compare and contrast for a moment and see how things stack up:
Competing Ideologies: During these wars France was dominated by a Catholic religious orientation, the idea of an absolute monarchy, and one could argue a far more state-centered, higher tax based economic model. Great Britain was dominated by a Protestant religious orientation, a Constitutional monarchy, and one could argue a more market-based, decentralized mercantile outlook on economics. These issues were all tied up in the nature of the wars they fought and also in the type of imprint that the two powers were attempting to stamp into the broader world.
Broad Alliances: During this century the secondary European powers – the Netherlands, the Austrian Empire, Spain, Prussia, Bavaria, and to a far lesser extent the Ottomans, and even the Russians all would take part in these struggles. Alliances were built back and forth between our two key hitters and these other powers to shift the balance of power in favor one way and then another. Furthermore these alliances were built by both France and Great Britain in a mental context of dividing up competing sources of power and economic position to fuel their own struggles.
World as a Chessboard: The entire world in the 18th century, certainly not, but the chunks of the world that were seen to matter and were the economic prizes of the world, yes. Central and South America were owned by Spain, the Middle East was owned by the Ottoman Empire, North Africa was…a mess but not considered vital at the time, central and south Africa were a mystery, and China was a sealed power unto itself as was Japan. But the zones of struggle and change, the dynamic areas, India and North America, those were areas of constant shifting back and forth. In fact the wars of the period were extremely similar to a game of chess, with edge territories shifting back and forth between the main players constantly. Wars fought and lands yielded by treaty, working to create proxy states supported by weaponry and aid to fight with the enemy, even proxy wars were all tools in this struggle between Great Britain and France.
Precisely like the struggles between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. in the 20th century.
The 18th century even had its “Cold War China”: During most of the Cold War China sat between the two powers, not really intervening often outside its borders in the struggles between the two, but engaging in its own wars and interventions and shifting which of the two it favored, the U.S. or the U.S.S.R. as its needs and the situation dictated. Now its wars were brutal but were, except for Korea, fought with non-aligned areas or were not central to the struggle between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. That role in the 18th century was filled by Spain, a powerful but economically underdeveloped empire that regularly jumped into the French/British struggles of the 18th century but as a junior partner in every case. Spain was focused on holding onto its own territories, trying to figure out the economic muddle it was in, and trying to snatch up goodies by backing the winning side in the 18th century French/British struggles.
The 18th century EVEN had an existential threat: So the key uniqueness about nuclear weapons is the chance they offer to devastate an opposing state if used in combat. The 18th century did not have that threat, but what it did have was the threat of massive invasion by both nations. Great Britain and France share a very close border, separated by a razor thin body of water, and both nations feared the other getting enough of an edge to launch a successful seaborne invasion of the other. To do so, if successful, would have lead to the collapse of the invaded power and the utter global domination of its holdings potentially by its rival. (Certainly a loss of position that would end the struggle.)
There was even an on-going naval arms race between the two, which Great Britain usually pulled out ahead, and regular sneaky planning by the French to get around this disadvantage.
So, although just my opinion, I would argue that no, the 20th century Cold War is not unique in human history or even European history, it’s grand adventures have been played out at least once before in scale, scope, and even savagery.