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Keeping cool

Apr 20, 2012 - By Steven R. Peck

The cold War is over, but similar dramas on a smaller scale never stop

The big, long, immensely complex global standoff pitting the United States and its loyalists against the old Soviet Union and its compulsory allies known for nearly 50 years as the Cold War is considered to be over, and has been for years.

But there are small encores going on all the time, minor league echoes that remind us of the big show.

It's been happening a lot this spring. North Korea secures a pledge of food assistance from the United States, then announces plans to test launch a long-range missile that could carry bombs into South Korea, Japan, perhaps Australia. Don't you dare, says President Obama, not if you want those food shipments. North Korea goes ahead with the launch anyway, which is an embarrassing dud. Doesn't matter, says the president. It's the intent, not the outcome that counts. No food aid.

Iran toys endlessly with technology that mirrors what is necessary to build a nuclear weapon. Israel watches uncomfortably as the U.S., Britain, Russia and others try to keep Iran from going further.

Governments in Egypt, Syria, Libya and Tunisia totter. Some fall, perhaps with a nudge from the U.S., perhaps not. China, Russia and Europe observe and fidget.

Venezuela's preening peacock, Hugo Chavez, makes a show of visiting Cuba's Lion in Winter, Fidel Castro, while the U.S. seethes.

Pakistan takes U.S. money, material and advice with one hand, then slashes at our ankles with the other. India clenches and unclenches its fists just over the border.

Afghanistan begs the U.S. for help one day, demands that the U.S. vamoose the next. Iraq staggers forward absent the U.S. troops which occupied it for a decade. Neither nation engenders much confidence that it can live with us or without us. Neighbors crouch, waiting for an opportunity, angling for a kindly nod from Europe, Russia or China.

There is scent of the turbulent teenager in all of this, with none of the irritating players capable of participating on the world stage with an appropriate statesmanship, yet any one of them perfectly capable of creating catastrophe just to show off.

All the while, the one entity which at least tries to keep its arms around the whole unruly mess, the United States of America, is staging a presidential election.

The U.S. conducted at least 10 elections and had a president resign during the Cold War. We'll do it again during these smaller-scale dramas as well. That, too, is part of our nation's moral stronghold amid the willful chaos of the planet.

The pre-eminent American Cold War historian John Gaddis, who has just won the Pulitzer Prize for his first-class biography of the late George Kennan, one of the great Cold War figures, reminds us that one of the modern triumphs of the human race is that the Cold War stayed just that -- cold. It wasn't easy, and there was plenty of ugliness, bloodshed and conventional killing to go around, but we did manage to avoid the alternative. There was no global nuclear war.

For all the bluster, Doomsday remained unthinkable enough that the primary players never let it happen. Our continuous challenge now is to find the right balance of tolerance and authority to keep the temper tantrums at the kids' table from engulfing the grown-ups.

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