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8 - Puzzles of the Cold War, lessons for the War on Terror

from PART II - Narrative at war: politics and rhetorical strategy in the military crucible, from Korea to Iraq

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 December 2015

Ronald R. Krebs
Affiliation:
University of Minnesota
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Summary

After the Vietnam War, there was much disagreement in the United States about the merits of consensus in the making of foreign policy. Some bemoaned the unraveling of the Cold War consensus and called for a new bipartisan accord to guide US foreign policy. Others saw in the Vietnam intervention the danger of consensus and warned against forging new rigid doctrines about the world. Still others concluded that consensus has been the exception, rather than the rule, in US foreign policy and thought the effort to forge it anew quixotic. It was a strange debate, in presuming that consensus was something nations self-consciously chose or rejected, that they could refashion their public narratives at will. But it was also strange in imagining that one can operate in a world without structures of meaning. Even those who yearned for consensus believed it possible, albeit regrettable, to conduct a policy debate that, in Ernest May's terms, involved only “calculated” choices and did not rest on any “axiomatic” principles.

Part II has explored what leads dominant public narratives of national security to endure and to erode. It should now be clear that the dynamics of national security narrative in the United States since the Second World War cannot be explained by reference either to the simple, unmediated realities of global politics or to an accumulation of costly and otherwise inexplicable failures. I start instead with the politics of uncertain and protracted military campaigns, in combination with the public nature of narrative competition. Per the theoretical framework of Chapter 5, and supported by the quantitative and qualitative evidence of Chapters 6 and 7, I argue that dominant narratives normally endure despite substantial battlefield setbacks, and that major battlefield successes, or the equivalent in crisis diplomacy, make possible their erosion.

This is a provocative claim. The literature on institutions, ideas, and discourses identifies a large and unanticipated policy failure – a shock – as the motor of change. Histories of the Cold War consensus support this intuitive argument, for they typically credit the Vietnam War with its collapse. But this reconsideration of the content and timing of the dominant Cold War narrative suggests otherwise.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2015

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