Jul 21, 2023

The Institutionalization of the New Cold War

Photograph Source: U.S. Embassy and Consulate – CC BY 2.0

The 31 countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are taking their victory laps over the latest expansion of the political-military alliance.  The boastful communique for last week’s NATO summit in Lithuania had more than 60 references to nuclear weapons, and promised modernization for NATO’s nuclear powers: the United States, Britain, and France.  There is increased likelihood for the pre-positioning of advanced military weaponry, particularly artillery and air defense systems.  The Baltic Sea will become Lake NATO.

When the NATO countries halt their celebration, it will be time to plan for the next Cold War, which will be far worse than the Cold War that dominated the 1950s and 1960s.  Cold War 2.0 will be more expensive than its predecessor, and far more difficult to bring to a close. The excessive military spending will complicate far more urgent tasks dealing with the climate crisis and the next pandemic, which will eventually occur.  Finally, arms control and disarmament, which was the primary process for pursuing an end to the earlier Cold War, will be more difficult to orchestrate.

The first Cold War was relatively easy for the United States to manage.  The twelve founding members of NATO were compatible in terms of policies and processes; and the perception of the threat was shared.  In Cold War 2.0, the United States will not be as dominant; the alliance will be divided between the western and eastern members of the alliance; and the perception of the threat will vary due to domestic politics and geographic proximity to Russia.  The current difficulties and debates over Ukraine membership; future relations with Russia; and appropriate levels of defense spending are already creating tensions within the alliance.

U.S. supporters of NATO expansion have provided a series of fatuous arguments to defend their position.  The New York Times has trumpeted that “Ukraine has become a testing ground for state-of-the art weapons and information systems, and new ways to use them, that…could shape warfare for generations to come.”  The military-industrial complex couldn’t have written this justification more succinctly.  Right-wing ideologues, such as the Washington Post’s Marc Thiessen, boast that “lessons learned on the Ukrainian battlefield could be used to help Taiwan,” which ignores the differences between an amphibious assault in Taiwan vs. the war of attrition in Ukraine.

The earlier Cold War was accompanied by a profound concern for the danger of nuclear weapons and the need to prevent a direct confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union.  Soviet General-Secretary Nikita Khrushchev was overthrown in 1964 because of his reckless deployment of short and medium-range missiles in Cuba, which was resolved diplomatically and led to the first genuine arms control agreement between Moscow and Washington as well as the creation of a hot-line communications system.  The conventional  wisdom in Washington these days is that Russian President Vladimir Putin is too rational to actually use nuclear weapons.  There have been numerous intelligence failures over the years because we assumed that our rationality could be applied to others, even a Russian leader who has acted so recklessly in Ukraine.

President Joe Biden and his national security team believe that Putin has already lost the war and that additional Western military weaponry will force him into negotiations.  This is similar to earlier U.S. officials, such as Secretary of State James Byrnes, who argued that using the atomic bomb against Japan in 1945 would persuade the Soviets to withdraw their forces from Eastern Europe after the war.

Former Trump deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger has argued that “Putin’s defeat would do a lot of damage to Xi Jinping’s credibility” by making it clear that the Chinese leader had backed a loser, thus weakening the Sino-Russian partnership. Thiessen adds that a Ukrainian victory would deter China, assuming that the Ukrainian and Taiwanese issues are inseparable, which isn’t the case.  Conversely, he argues that a Russian victory “would embolden our enemies from the Middle East to East Asia,” and would “erode U.S. alliances in Europe and Asia.”

There is very little inevitability in the geopolitical world, but one thing is certain: a long-term confrontation between Russia and Ukraine will revive the possibility of a major European land war, including political tension along Russia’s border with its NATO members and even a direct Russian-American confrontation.  The United States already spends as much on defense as the rest of the global community, and Republicans and Democrats are currently competing for huge increases in a military budget that is already bloated.

In view of these ominous developments, the United States and Russia must begin direct communications regarding security arrangements in Europe.   There have been informal talks between Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and former U.S. officials, such as Charles Kupchan and Richard Haass, who recently wrote in Foreign Affairs that the answer to the war can be found with additional long-range western weaponry.

In any event, the unofficial talks are no substitute for talks between the State Department and the Russian Foreign Ministry.  Unfortunately, Secretary of State Antony Blinken appears to have no interest in establishing links to his counterpart, and the third-ranking member of the department, Victoria Nuland, is a well-established cold warrior well known to Moscow for interfering in Ukrainian domestic politics in 2014.  Biden’s national security team believes that only additional weaponry will end the war.

Neither Putin nor any likely successor to Putin will accept the fact that Russia’s western border will be occupied by NATO member-states that will include a very powerful Polish military; a combat-hardened Ukraine; three Baltic states that will accommodate German forces; and sophisticated U.S. military weaponry wherever the Kremlin looks.  Moreover, Germany will become a major military power as Chancellor Olaf Scholz has referred to the Russia-Ukraine war as a historic turning point.  Ukraine, moreover, will receive security guarantees at war’s end that will eventually include NATO membership.

It’s easy to say that Putin should have thought about this before invading Ukraine last year, There is already speculation in Europe about giving NATO membership to Moldova and Georgia in addition to Ukraine.  The United States needs to understand that the current military spiral must end before it is at war with Russia.  Only talks between Washington and Moscow could possibly identify possible compromises in the European theatre, which will require security guarantees for both Russia and Ukraine.

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