For decades a nuclear sword of Damocles hung over the head of the world. This was the essence of the Cold War.
During those decades there were periods of relative peace and times when a Third World War seemed unavoidable. In the 1980s things heated up considerably. Ronald Reagan became the President and promised a larger defense budget and more aggressive posture toward the Soviet Union.
In 1983 confronting the Soviet Union took on new dimensions. President Reagan launched a war in Grenada to defeat Cuban troops backed by the Soviet Union. The U.S. moved 108 new nuclear weapons into Western Europe. The movies War Games included a rouge computer preparing to launch American nuclear missiles at the USSR. That same year the Soviet Union shot down a South Korean civilian jet killing 269. One hundred million American viewers tuned into a television movie about the fallout from a nuclear war called, The Day After.
In September an early-warning alarm warned the Soviets they were under a nuclear attack from the U.S. A cool-headed Soviet colonel narrowly avoided tripping the world into a nuclear holocaust. The future of the world hung in the balance but it was not the first crisis. The younger population sensed this weary ambiguity which was reflected in the song lyrics, “Let us die young or let us live forever,” and asked, “are you gonna the bomb or not?”
The world was divided in two. Endless amounts of blood was spilled and treasure was wasted around the globe in proxy wars where Soviet backed paramilitaries and U.S. back contra-revolutionaries battled for supremacy. The conflicts included Korea, Vietnam, Angola, Guatemala, Chile and Nicaragua. The overwhelming political and financial resources committed to this ideological struggle made peace impossible and prosperity a distant illusion.
In 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the USSR. He knew that if the USSR was to survive it had to change radically. Gorbachev had the courage to step away from the brink. It may have been the courage of necessity, but it gave the U.S. a chance to consider a more peaceful course as well. Eventually, both sides were able to build confidence and work together to eliminate a class of nuclear weapons.
The Cold War subsided. Countries that lived behind the iron curtain were integrated politically and economically with the rest of the world. Standards of living began to improve in Europe and around the world.
A period of relative peace and prosperity emerged. In many parts of the world a new middle class was born. According to the Brookings Institution the global middle class reached a total of 3.7 billion in 2017, more than half of the world’s population.
This period is over now. International trade has declined since 2008 and cross-border investment has shrunk since 2015. The spread of the corona virus (Covid-19) caused supply disruptions as infected workers had to stay home.
While there were trade pressures between certain countries the global landscape officially ruptured when Russia invaded Ukraine in February. The world split into at least three spheres. Random and sporadic disruptions to trade and supply chains became global fractures with lasting consequences. Shortages of food, fuel and fertilizer caused panic and encouraged countries to hoard resources and ban exports of rice, coal and wheat. These events have torn up economic relationships and trust which took decades to build. These breakdowns will not be repaired anytime soon.
The last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev passed away on August 30, 2022. His leadership spawned three decades of relative peace and prosperity. As he passes from the scene the world is entering a period of declining living standards and greater conflict.