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Brian Till
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A Post-Cold-War World

Comment

MADRID — In the first years of the 1990s, grinding wars in the Third World were resolving themselves at an astounding pace; intractable low-intensity conflicts navigated toward durable peace in a way the world had never seen before. It was, of course, because the patrons of those wars had lost interest. The Mujahidean, the Unitas, and the Contras, Renamo, MPLA, and the ANC — militant, ideological and formidable, yet orphaned all.

In many places, warriors around the world — many of whom weren't sure what they were fighting for anymore — began laying down their arms and trying to rebuild their nations.

It is among the most important, and perhaps least recognized, legacies of the fall of the Berlin wall.

The Cold War, we must recall, at least its second incarnation, was in fact a very hot, very global war in which over a million lost their lives in Southern Africa alone. Though a fraction of the causalities belonged to the flags that funded and ensured the war continued — Americans accruing theirs in Vietnam, Soviets losing theirs in Afghanistan — amassed casualties in total approach or even exceed 10 million, with theaters in Latin America, Southeast Asia and Southern Africa.

I was sitting aboard a plane Monday night when my phone rang, an unknown number — I usually take such as a good sign; I answered to find a German voice on the other end. It was a young civil servant I had met with the better part of nine months before, making a pitch for an interview with his boss, former chancellor Helmut Kohl.

Kohl had been absent that day from beautiful celebrations in Berlin, where despite a steady drizzle, fireworks lit the night as a cascade of giant, foam dominoes, painted brightly by young students who had never known the wall they were replicating, symbolically fell along the route the wall once divided.

Kohl was one of the great statesmen of the last century, overseeing the reunification of East and West Germany and setting the consolidated state on its steep, successful trajectory.

I came across Kohl again on the flight: It was in the page of a memoir by Fernando Henrique Cardosso, a transformative former Brazilian president who I'm to meet Cardosso at an annual conference of former global leaders known as the Club de Madrid.

Kohl, Cardosso writes, had told him he had a "historic responsibility." Kohl went on to describe the vitriol he felt toward the French as a child growing up in Bonn, which was occupied by France following World War II.

Kohl said he had realized that if France and Germany weren't integrated economically, the cycle of distrust could never be broken, the rivalry never bettered. His children would grow up plagued by the same resentment and perhaps go to war once more. Thus, he had worked to pull the nations together.

Brazil, he told Cardosso, had a duty to do the same with Argentina. To put aside mistrusts and rivalry to integrate and advance together in a new post-Cold-War world. Cardosso would do such in the Southern Cone, pulling together the Mercosul trade bloc effectively enough that Washington, uninvited to the deals, found itself vexed and perhaps even embittered.

The wild shift in landscape that began 20 years ago this week provided the chance to reshape our world; indeed, for many parts of the globe, the end of the Cold Ward did change nearly everything. But we didn't change enough. If we had pulled ourselves toward Russia as effectively as Cardosso and Kohl embraced their rivals, perhaps we'd have already reduced our nuclear stockpiles to tens, rather than thousands. Perhaps war, even by proxy, would be as unfathomable as aggression by France against Germany.

As I landed in Madrid this morning, I was touched by the late-night call from Helmet Kohl's office. It was, unfortunately, an affirmation of what I'd known months before: The chancellor wasn't well enough to meet with me. A fall in 2008 left Kohl severely incapacitated, and a recent attempt at an interview hadn't gone well, the aide told me.

I'd missed my chance to sit with this seminal man and discuss the world, his reflections and regrets. He, on the other hand, seems to have rarely missed an opportunity to reach out, act boldly and urge us to re-imagine the world. We could use a bit more of that.

Brian Till, one of the nation's youngest syndicated columnists, is a research fellow for the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington. He can be contacted at till@newamerica.net. To find out more about the author and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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