Back to Brinkmanship
Can a new Cold War be avoided? Containment, not rollback, is what’s needed.
AT THE heart of the original Cold War was nuclear confrontation. In his 1945 essay “You and the Atomic Bomb,” which he wrote two months after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, George Orwell coined the term “cold war” to describe the new epoch that he saw emerging after the fall of Nazi Germany and the rise of the Soviet Union and the United States. He predicted that the bomb would “put an end to large-scale wars at the cost of prolonging indefinitely a ‘peace that is no peace.’” It was this very scenario that he depicted in his dystopian novel 1984, which drew on James Burnham’s Managerial Revolution and features Eurasia, Oceania and Eastasia in a permanent standoff several decades after an atomic war. Any actual conflicts or skirmishes take place in borderlands that are located well away from the three main empires.
This cold peace was pretty much what obtained after 1945 in international affairs. The two superpowers, the Soviet Union and United States, avoided direct conflict. Instead, they used proxy powers and national liberation movements, mostly located in the Third World, to try and shift the correlation of forces, as the Kremlin used to call it, in their favor, whenever and wherever they could. The territory under their direct control was off limits—the United States did not intervene during uprisings in the eastern bloc in East Germany, Hungary or Poland. The Kremlin confined itself to helping to fund communist parties in France and Italy, and to supporting the peace movement clandestinely. The peril of an atomic exchange was so immense that neither the Soviet Union nor the United States went to war over flashpoints such as Cuba and Berlin.
What Orwell did not anticipate was that one side, the Soviet Union, would collapse completely, leaving the other as Mr. Big. After 1989, a euphoric belief in a kind of Whig interpretation of history took hold in the West, in which the progress of liberal democracy was seen as inevitable—a credo that was encapsulated in Francis Fukuyama’s essay in the National Interest, asking, “The End of History?” At the time Fukuyama’s essay provoked furious ripostes, but this triumphalist doctrine was embraced by many neocons and reached its apogee in the 2003 Iraq War, when the George W. Bush administration proclaimed that regime change would lead to a democratic wave washing through the Middle East. In his second inaugural address in 2005, Bush drew an explicit link between America’s prosperity and security at home and the spread of democracy abroad. He said, in essence, that it was America’s duty and obligation to go in search of monsters to destroy:
“We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world. America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.”
When asked whether he had asked his father about going to war with Iraq, Bush responded, “He is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength. There is a higher power I appeal to.”
SINCE THEN, however, America’s promotion of democracy and wars of choice in the Middle East have boomeranged. The war in Iraq was a fiasco. Afghanistan is a quagmire. In America, terms such as “regime change” have fallen into disrepute. The West has lost its confidence. Populists are looking for a way to escape the iron cage of modernity. The era of Reagan and Thatcher proclaiming the verity of the free market and the expansion of freedom seems almost as remote as the scientific laws of history that Marxists once propounded.
Alas, it is authoritarianism, not democracy, that seems to be on the upswing. “Perhaps it is a universal truth,” wrote James Madison, “that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to provisions against danger, real or pretended from abroad.” It is a precept that a number of leaders are following as they point to foreign threats, above all those allegedly emanating from the United States. In China, President Xi Jinping has altered the constitution to transform himself into a “leader for life.” In Russia, Putin has been elected to a new six-year term, and will be in power until he is seventy-one, and perhaps well beyond.
In March, Putin made a point of declaring that Russia had developed new nuclear weapons that could evade any American defenses. He complained that Washington had been acting for years as though it could unilaterally dictate the terms of engagement between the two countries. “No one listened to us,” he said. “Listen to us now.” His grandiose mixture of threats and complaints, complete with a reference to a doomsday device that could shower radioactivity over the West Coast, inevitably brought to mind the prospect of a new Cold War, as well as memories of the older U.S.-Soviet confrontation, when films like Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe depicted the dire and unintended consequences that could result from an unrestrained arms race. In the latter film, the cold warrior and statistician Professor Groeteschele, played by Walter Matthau, asks,
“Where do you draw the line once you know what the enemy is? How long would the Nazis have kept it up, General, if every Jew they came after had met them with a gun in his hand? But I learned from them, General Black. Oh, I learned.”
Where indeed? In a recent press briefing about his peculiar conversation congratulating Putin upon his reelection, President Donald Trump explained that he seeks to curb a new arms race that is “getting out of control,” but also boasted that “we will never allow anybody to have anything even close to what we have.” Already Trump has vastly expanded the American military budget, raising outlays to $700 billion for the fiscal year 2019. Trump, in a decision first approved by President Barack Obama, intends to devote $1 trillion to modernizing the American nuclear force over the next three decades.
THE RESULT is that predictions of a new Cold War have been proliferating. Writing in the New Statesman, for example, the international-relations theorist Sir Lawrence Freedman maintains,
“It is not so much a replica of what we might call Cold War 1.0 but a new version with its own characteristics. Cold War 2.0 deserves the designation because it might turn hot. That is the risk that demand attention.”
It is a challenge that Michael Lind, who has contributed to this magazine for many years, is well equipped to address. In this issue he argues that a new Cold War is not only inevitable; it is already occurring. According to Lind,
“within the last few years, what [Boris] Yeltsin in 1994 called ‘the cold peace’ between Russia and the American-led Western alliance has become both colder and less peaceful. Relations between the United States and China have become increasingly conflictual, in the military, diplomatic and economic realms alike. The cold peace of the 1990s and 2000s is over. Cold War II is here.”
Also in this issue, Paul Heer, an expert on Asia at George Washington University, suggests that in assessing American security in Asia, it is time to take another look at the original containment doctrine devised by George F. Kennan in 1947 in his famous “X” article for Foreign Affairs. In Heer’s view, “if the legendary Soviet expert were alive today, he might well endorse a strategy aimed at limiting Chinese influence in East Asia relative to that of the United States—which is what Chinese leaders today call ‘containment.’”
For much of his life, Kennan sought to dispel the idea that he advocated outright military confrontation with the Soviet Union. Instead, he believed that it was imperative to allow the system to decay from within by damming it up, as he put it, “at every nook and cranny”—but soon he also was distressed by the militarization of the conflict with the Soviet Union to the exclusion of economic and cultural ties. He espoused negotiations, particularly on the American military presence in Europe and on nuclear weapons, with the Soviet Union, which he regarded as a power that felt encircled and beleaguered.
Perhaps one diplomatic effort that might help avert a new cold war with Russia is arms control. This past February, Defense Secretary James Mattis testified to the House Armed Services Committee that he believed there were two nuclear weapons systems that could be used as bargaining chips with Russia. The first is submarine-launched cruise missiles. Mattis indicated that these could be used to help prompt Moscow to adhere to the provisions of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Mattis also raised doubts about the utility of Cold War–era intercontinental ballistic-missile silos.
Then there is the issue of Iran. If the administration abandons the nuclear deal, it would run the risk of emboldening Tehran to develop nuclear weapons. If it can reach a compromise with the European allies and negotiate tougher provisions, the administration could end up strengthening the deal. The question is whether it is really prepared to arrive at a compromise, or simply wants to jettison the deal. With the new foreign-policy team that Trump has installed, including national security advisor John Bolton, who has replaced Gen. H. R. McMaster, the latter seems the most likely answer.