Did the United States Really Win the Cold War?

A scuttled M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tank. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Marine Corps

The Cold War's conclusion should be viewed with less triumphalism.

The United States has a range of interests in the Middle East: among them, minimizing disruptions to the flow of petroleum, containing the spread of the Islamic State and ensuring Iran’s continued adherence to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. But given how little it has to show for its interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, or for its broader attempt to reconfigure the Middle East, it should resist the impulse to increase its military involvement in that region—especially considering how much more complex the Middle East’s dynamics are today than they were in the aftermath of September 11, 2011. Aaron Miller and Richard Sokolsky observe that, “[i]f the past 25 years of U.S. foreign policy demonstrates anything, it is the limits of America’s power to pursue transformational change in a cruel and recalcitrant world.”

Present calls for the United States to deepen its military role in Iraq and Syria either downplay that lesson or, more dangerously, proceed from the conviction that America’s inability to remold the Middle East stems from an insufficient application of military power. Witness the castigation of U.S. impotence that has attended the fall of Aleppo. Emile Simpson observes that “despite technological innovation, war today is still won, and the follow-on peace is still determined, by infantry on the ground. There is a real limit to what proxy rebel forces can do, especially when they are fragmented and infected by Islamists.”  Moreover, he notes that those who have been urging the United States to conduct “a multiyear counterinsurgency campaign...must show that there would have been U.S. public support for such a move either in 2011 or 2013—and it seems to me that there was not.”


In Europe, perhaps owing to concerns about its perceived “credibility” and “strength,” the United States risks being drawn into a conventional, potentially even nuclear, confrontation with Russia over territory that is of far greater strategic and symbolic value to Moscow than to Washington.  America’s response is also incommensurate with an objective appraisal of Russia’s capabilities: its population is slated to decrease by over 10 percent through 2050; its gross domestic product fell by almost four percent in 2015 and is projected to grow by a mere 0.2 percent this year; and the relatively low price of crude oil—around $54 per barrel today, compared to $114 in June 2014—means that a major pillar of its economy is under strain. A recent analysis notes, moreover, that Russia’s ongoing “military spending spree has diverted funds from other areas of the sanctions-wracked economy. Many state corporations and industries are struggling to keep their heads above water.” Despite these realities, many U.S. observers have adduced Vladimir Putin’s tactical acumen as evidence of a dramatic Russian resurgence. Ivan Krastev warns that “the return of the Cold War narrative is becoming a factor in Russia’s growing international influence. The West’s current obsession with Mr. Putin is at the heart of the Russian president’s newly discovered soft power….Russia’s power of attraction today is rooted not in its ideology but in its powerful image.” 

The United States does not need to ally with Russia. Given the range of their shared interests, though—counterterrorism, energy security in the Arctic and the implementation of the Iran deal, for example—it makes little sense to pursue policies that risk converting Russia from a frustrating partner into an immutable adversary. To that end, the United States should pressure the European members of NATO to assume a greater role in countering its revanchism; it is encouraging that the European Commission has announced “plans to ‘turbo boost’ spending on cyber security, war ships, and drone technology as part of a multibillion-euro European Defense Fund.” The United States should also appreciate that taking a maximalist posture on Ukraine is likely to encourage, not dissuade, further Russian provocation. Graham Allison and Dimitri Simes accordingly urge Washington to “offer Moscow a solution that Russian leaders would consider at least minimally acceptable”; in their judgment, one would entail “implementation of the Minsk agreements with concessions by both sides, reestablishing Kiev’s control over Donetsk and Luhansk but providing these two regions with genuine autonomy, and assurances that Ukraine would not join NATO for as far as the eye can see.”