What happened to that peace dividend?

With the Cold War being waged for more than half my life, I was among the many millions fascinated with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Twenty years ago today, the East German government — intentionally or not — opened up its borders. For most, it is also perhaps the most substantive symbol of the beginning of the end of the Cold War.

I recall actually thinking at some point in the next year or two that the world really had changed. I thought that perhaps my kids actually would live in an entirely different world, one without the threat of nuclear holocaust and World War III. I was wrong — but I was far from alone.

One of the supposed benefits of the end of the Cold War was the “peace dividend.” Money previously devoted to defense expenditures could instead be used to reduce the national deficit, improve education and health care, remedy infrastructure problems, etc., etc., etc. Government leaders in the West even made it a political slogan, seeking to add more bloom on the rose of ending the Cold War.

Here we are 20 years later and I think that even though a peace dividend was declared, it never really got paid out. True, defense spending did decline in the 1990s, we saw tax cuts and we enjoyed budget surpluses. But since 2001, our military budgets have more than doubled. We’ve moved — both fiscally and politically — from fighting a Cold War to fighting the so-called War on Terror. The national deficit soared during that same time. And here we sit 20 years later with education and infrastructure funding still problematic and still fighting about health care. You can’t lay the blame at the feet of one political party or one ideology, whether it’s in the sense of having failed to take advantage of an opportunity or in not foreseeing that the dividend and what it represented could be short-lived. What if that money had been spent on domestic problems or, God forbid, foreign measures that generated support for the United States?

We probably did have a peace dividend. Sadly, though, I think it got spent in ways again demonstrating we humans tend to wear blinders and can’t — or refuse to — set aside political differences to accomplish meaningful change. The peace dividend was a nice concept. Too bad we didn’t spend it more wisely.

We know how to organize warfare, but do we know how to act when confronted with peace?

Jacques-Yves Cousteau, Calypso Log, 1993

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