There’s a Soviet-era joke that goes, “The future is certain, but the past keeps changing.”

It seemed more profound than funny last week as Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine. Suddenly it seemed like a 30-year-old international order disappeared and we were back in the Cold War.

If the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 signified the end of the post-World War II ideological battle between communism and liberal democracy, the invasion of Ukraine may signal something just as significant – the end of the post-Cold War idea of a world united in peace under universal values of human rights.

It has been unravelling for a while. Elections in Russia and other former communist states brought to power nationalists  who sow division and crush dissent. Free markets created rich people in poor countries, leading to corrupt governments and legal systems. And with last week’s events, we see that a catastrophic war in Europe or nuclear annihilation are not out of the question.

If we are entering a new era of Cold War thinking, I hope we can bring back some of the ideas of the era that haven’t been in use for a while.

Like, there used to be something called “The Free World.”

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It was on the western side of the Iron Curtain, which separated it from the “captive nations” of the Soviet Bloc.

On one side, people wore Levis and drove better cars, but that wasn’t the real difference. They also were free to say what they thought, read what they liked, worship if they wanted and elect their own leaders. On the other side, governments were imposed, religion was forbidden, books were censored and everyone had to be careful about who might be listening when they talked.

If that sounds simplistic, it is. It’s the way I learned about the world as a child, the son of a Cold War refugee from Yugoslavia, who always worried about the family he left behind.

As I got older, I learned about the contradictions and hypocrisy built into our side of the Cold War – from the Hollywood blacklist to Vietnam. But to my father and his immigrant friends, the Free World was a real place, absolutely distinct from what they left behind and something they were unapologetically proud to be a part of.

It’s true, in the post-Cold War era, we did all become more like each other, and not just when it came to the availability of American blue jeans.

It turns out that some former communists are really good at capitalism and have been able to amass huge piles of wealth, which they can stash abroad, where it does their fellow countrymen no good. Meanwhile, Americans have become almost as cynical about politics as citizens of the old Soviet Union. Many of us believe that public institutions are just for show, elections are rigged and the real decisions are made by the powerful in secret.

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For a new Free World in a new Cold War, we need to make the differences clear again.

That means real democracy where every eligible person can vote and every vote is counted equally. We can’t distinguish ourselves from a dictator like Putin as long as American elected officials get to pick the electorate through practices like gerrymandering and biased voting rules.

And we’ve got to make corruption illegal again. The Supreme Court has given corporations and wealthy individuals a virtually unlimited ability to influence elections through donations. It has also made it almost impossible to prosecute any office holder who sells access to the same donors. The Pandora Papers, a consortium of news organizations, analyze leaked bank records showing where dictators (including Russian President Vladimir Putin) and oligarchs around the world hid their money. The list included few Americans, but another report, by ProPublica, showed why: Billionaires like Elon Musk of Tesla and Jeff Bezos of Amazon don’t have to hide their money, because they hardly pay any income taxes. Their handpicked government officials have written a tax code that works for them.

This has produced a historic gap between rich and poor and sawed off the ladder into the middle class. A Free World country has got to do more than pay lip service to equal opportunity. Anti-corruption, here and abroad, should be the anti-communism of Cold War II.

The last 30 years looks like a missed opportunity to build a more just and free world. Thirty years from now, I hope we’ll see the past differently.


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