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This Isn't the Return of the Cold War. It's Worse.


Crises compel analogies, and since Moscow’s current foe is Washington, and Washington’s is Moscow, an irresistible set of analogies has arisen. “A New cold war?” asks a USA Today headline. A Bloomberg headline references “Cold War Ghosts.” CNN intones a “Cold War-style Conflict.” In the more sober words of a New York Times headline: “If Not a Cold War, a Return to a Chilly Rivalry.” But the Cold War analogy obscures more than it clarifies.

Both Putin and Obama are working off of new foreign-policy scripts, and the imaginative distance between them will make it almost impossible for them to communicate with one another. Ironically, there was greater room for negotiation between Moscow and Washington, in the final years of the Cold War than there may be in the years to come.

Throughout the Cold War, the U.S. proudly led the West. The West was a military alliance, embedded in NATO, and it was a family of sorts, an expression of Franco-American, German-American, and Anglo-American kinship. The West embodied ideals as well, a Plato-to-NATO sensibility and narrative, in which the Soviet Union was the latter-day Persia. Its Asiatic despotism beautifully framed America’s defense of Hellenic liberty. Before proclaiming himself a Berliner, Kennedy addressed his West Berlin audience in Latin. Civis romanus sum, he told them in the summer of 1963, your Western kin from across the Atlantic.

The Soviet Union was, by contrast, the birthplace of international communism. After World War II, Stalin imposed Soviet communism on Eastern Europe, just as communism was establishing itself in China. In the 1960s and 1970s, Moscow looked to Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa for the revolution’s onward march; in Europe, Soviet communism was falling on hard times. The Soviet Union could not match the West’s allure in states under Soviet control (Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary) and within the Soviet Union itself (the Baltic Republics). By 1991, the Soviet Union had been destroyed, in part, by Eastern Europe’s hunger to join the EU and NATO.

Twenty-three years later, the U.S. is still the leader of NATO. Yet it is no longer the leader of the West, a phrase that President Obama and Vice President Biden have avoided in the past few weeks because it has never figured in their foreign policy. Their emotional connection is to the international community. As Obama put it in his March 17 statement about Ukraine: “from the start, the U.S. has mobilized the international community in support of Ukraine to isolate Russia for its actions and to reassure our allies and partners.” Speaking in Vilnius, on March 19, Biden contended that “the world is changing and rejecting outright [the Russians’] behavior.” Obama has de-territorialized American foreign policy. International law and the global court of public opinion—not the regional interests of the U.S. and the EU—will militate against Russia’s territorial ambitions in Ukraine and in Eastern Europe as a whole.

In Ukraine, Obama has no global war to win for the West. Therefore, the U.S. will bestow no Marshall Plan on Ukraine. It will conduct no Berlin airlift into Sevastopol or Simferopol—or into Donetsk or Kharkiv or Odessa. The containment doctrine, if it ever applied to the situation in Ukraine, has already shown itself to be obsolete. Crimea will belong to Russia, and the U.S. will not send troops to Ukraine as it did to Korea and Vietnam.

The Plato-to-NATO narrative has long ago fallen from fashion in American intellectual and political culture. Were it to be revived, it could not easily accommodate Ukraine, which is more post-Soviet than indigenously Western. During the Cold War, the U.S. made financial and military sacrifices for allies considered to be under threat. In the future, the U.S. may support Ukraine as a member of the international community, but it will make no serious sacrifices on its behalf.

Meanwhile, Putin’s Russia has shed communism, and it has shed internationalism. Putin’s March 18 speech on Crimea was a historically grounded appeal to Russian nationalism. It is necessary, he argued, “to refute the rhetoric of the Cold War and to accept the obvious fact: Russia is an independent, active participant in international affairs.” A participant in international affairs is not equivalent to a member of the international community. Where Obama sees an international community, Putin sees a forest of colliding national interests in which the American national interest is the most aggressive. Russian prestige, Russian territory, and the status of Russians outside Russian borders are Putin’s concerns, and there is no Cold War logic behind them.

Cold War analogies exaggerate the contemporary stature of Russia and the U.S alike. Washington and Moscow are no longer what they were from 1945 to 1991, the pivot points of international politics. However local Cold War conflicts could be, they always radiated outward. Angola mattered, to Moscow, for what it signified about Moscow’s relationship to Washington, and Pakistan mattered, to Washington, for what it signified about Washington’s relationship to Moscow. The Cold War forced the U.S. and the Soviet Union into expansionary attitudes and postures, lest the actual expansion of one’s enemy culminate in a diminution of one’s own power—loss of face might mean losing the war. Since 1991, Moscow and Washington have been free to explore the pleasure of non-action. Moscow has accepted Estonia’s entry into NATO, Tallinn being some 224 miles from Saint Petersburg; and the U.S. has chosen to absent itself from many crisis zones, while contemplating a reduction in defense spending.

In addition, the Cold War binaries cover up the most interesting binary to have emerged from Ukraine. Reacting to the same crisis, Putin and Obama have committed themselves to two irreconcilable visions of international politics. In Putin’s, solidarity flows from the ethnos, from the language, religion, and history of a particular people formed into a state. The rhythm of international politics is set by the assertion of power; and the international community is, at best, a fiction. In truth, it does not exist; behind it are states who participate in international affairs as they see fit, and never out of pure altruism. Least altruistic of all is the United States. As emphasized in a Russian Foreign Ministry response to a March 5 State Department fact sheet on Ukraine, which opens, remarkably, with a quote from Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground: “The U.S. does not and will never have the moral authority to teach others about international norms and respect to other countries’ sovereignty. What about the bombings of former Yugoslavia and the invasion of Iraq on false pretenses?” 

In the rival vision, the international community, and America’s leading role within it, is fully real. It has values that are real, and these values encourage democracy, rule of law, human rights, and a free media. The international community has recognized Ukraine’s will to be a part of the international community. Over time, and with the help of the EU and the U.S., Ukraine will draw closer to the international community until one day it exists seamlessly within it. An assumption that the drift of history is liberal, toward democratic and international norms, and away from nationalist recidivism, underlies American foreign policy in general. As Obama’s recently retired ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, writes about the prospects of Putinism, “the U.S. … will win this new conflict in Europe. Over the last century, democracies have consolidated at a remarkable pace, while autocracies continue to fall.” 

Soviet-American communication was never easy during the Cold War. Yet after the Cuban Missile Crisis it became possible. The U.S., which had refused to recognize the Soviet Union for the first 15 years of its existence, came to appreciate the leverage and security that high-level contact provided, and the Soviet Union had practical needs—for money, for grain—that made the U.S. an attractive partner. By the late 1960s, Soviet and American leaders could look beyond the capitalist-versus-communist moral fervor of the early Cold War. In the 1980s, Gorbachev put up with Reagan’s anti-communist jokes, while Gorbachev’s Leninism did not inhibit a friendship from evolving between the Soviet General Secretary and the American president.

By comparison, the current tension between Russian nationalism and American internationalism will offer less room for diplomatic maneuvering. Obama sees the nationalism of Putin as illegitimate, a flashback to the age of Bismarck, a lynchpin of autocratic government and an unacceptable bridge of influence between Russia and ethnic Russian or pro-Russian constituencies in Ukraine—or anywhere else in the former Soviet Union. Nationalism is Moscow’s path to isolation from the international community. Putin sees the internationalism of Obama as illegitimate, a coded language fabricated to mask the realist agenda of the U.S. and the EU, which is to push Europe’s border as far eastward as it will go. Internationalism is Washington’s path to Eurasian dominance. Russian-American communication will only be possible when one or the other side gives up on its vision of national and international affairs.