Figures of Soviet leaders including Brezhnev

I Knew the Cold War. This Is No Cold War.

March 12, 2018
Stephen M. Walt
This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy magazine with the subheading: "Everyone's favorite historical analogy makes for disastrous foreign policy today."

A lot of smart people seem to think the United States and Russia are in a “new Cold War.” You can find articles on the subject in Politicothe New Yorker, and the Nation, and a quick Google search will take you to an entire website devoted to the topic, yet the more balanced views of a couple of years ago are harder to find these days. Politicians in both countries are using increasingly harsh language to describe each other and people on both sides are convinced the other is engaged in various dark plots against them. There are even signs of a new arms race, with Russian President Vladimir Putin boasting about sophisticated new nuclear weaponry and the United States preparing to launch a costly program of nuclear modernization.

The current situation is bad. But to call it a “new Cold War” is misleading more than it is enlightening. If one compares the two situations more carefully, what is happening today is a mere shadow of that earlier rivalry. Viewing today’s troubles as a new Cold War downplays the role that human agency and bad policy decisions have played in bringing the United States and Russia to the current impasse, distracts us from more important challenges, and discourages us from thinking creatively about how to move beyond the present level of rancor.

To see why this is so, remember what the original Cold War was like.

For starters, the Cold War was a bipolar competition in which the United States and the Soviet Union were far and away the two most powerful countries in the world. Although other factors contributed to their rivalry (see below), each was the other’s greatest potential threat and by necessity each kept a wary eye on the other. To a large extent the Cold War was structurally determined by the global distribution of power among states, and some sort of rivalry was probably inevitable (even if other factors were involved and helped determine its intensity).

Moreover, the two superpowers stood in rough parity with each other, although the United States was, on balance, in a much better position. The United States’ economy was about twice as large as the Soviet Union’s and its allies were far more capable and reliable than theirs. After all, the United States had West Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan, France, Israel, and a number of other powerful states on its side; the USSR had the likes of South Yemen, Cuba, Angola, and a bunch of restive satellites in the Warsaw Pact. China was Moscow’s junior partner at first, but the two communist giants soon had a nasty falling out and Beijing tacitly realigned with the United States in the 1970s (as did Egypt, another Soviet client state). The United States had vastly greater power-projection capabilities, a superior navy and air force, more sophisticated technology, and better training. But the Soviet Union did have a large and well-equipped army that was designed for offensive warfare and its forces lay close to Western Europe and not that far from the Persian Gulf. And it eventually acquired a large arsenal of nuclear weapons. On balance, the United States was ahead, but never by a big enough margin to relax. So, the two superpowers competed constantly for additional influence, and did whatever they could to weaken the other without provoking World War III.

At the same time, the Cold War also featured an intense competition between rival political ideologies: liberal capitalism and Marxism-Leninism. Both were inherently universalist ideologies, insofar as their proponents believed that each provided a model for organizing society that was broadly applicable everywhere in the world. Liberal capitalism rested on claims about basic rights that all humans were said to possess, while Marxism-Leninism rested on “scientific” laws of social and economic development that Marx and his followers had supposedly discovered. Because each ideology saw itself as universally valid, proponents felt obliged to try to spread them far and wide. Even worse, given each side’s universalist pretensions, the mere existence of one posed a fundamental challenge to the legitimacy of the other. For both ideological and power-political reasons, therefore, “live and let live” was never a serious option.

Finally, as my colleague Arne Westad has shown clearly, the Cold War was a global competition waged on every continent in the world. The rivalry between Moscow and Washington shaped much of the agenda of world politics from the 1940s onward, and had far-reaching (and frequently negative) effects in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

That was the real Cold War, ladies and gentlemen, and let’s not forget that it was punctuated by several intense nuclear crises, an arms race in which each side accumulated tens of thousands of powerful hydrogen bombs, and proxy wars in which millions died. While regrettable and maybe even dangerous, what is happening today is a very different animal.

First, and most obviously, the world today is not bipolar. It is either still unipolar or some sort of heavily lopsided multipolar system, with the United States still No. 1 and the other major powers trailing behind. If bipolarity eventually returns, as many believe it will, China, not Russia, will be the other pole. And in a striking reversal of the early Cold War, Russia is now China’s junior partner and will be far weaker than its Asian neighbor for decades to come. (Russia will likely fall well behind India too, but that’s another story.)

Second, there was a certain rough parity during the Cold War, but today the United States is vastly stronger on nearly every dimension that matters. The U.S. economy is about $20 trillion, while Russia’s is less than $2 trillion. America is technologically sophisticated and highly innovative, while Russia’s wealth, such as it is, relies mostly on energy exports whose value is likely to decline as mankind gradually weans itself off fossil fuels. In the meantime, hardly anybody is saving up pennies (or rubles) to buy the latest Russian smartphone. The U.S. population is comparatively young and still rising; Russia’s population is aging rapidly and projected to decline sharply in the decades to come. Compared to the Cold War, today’s United States vs. Russia matchup is Godzilla vs. Bambi.

Third, there is no serious ideological rivalry at play today. America’s liberal brand may have been tarnished of late, but Russia’s ideological appeal outside its borders is minimal. Marxism-Leninism captured the imaginations and loyalties of millions of adherents around the world, but Putinism has appeal only to a handful of oligarchs or would-be autocrats. Donald Trump is probably the only person in America who truly believes strongman rule is preferable to democracy, but he won’t be president-for-life no matter how much he might want to be.

Fourth, the real Cold War was a global competition, whereas the geopolitical issues that divide the United States and Russia today are confined to areas close to Russia’s borders, like Ukraine, or to a small part of the Middle East. And for all the hot air that has been spouted about Putin’s “revisionism,” Russia’s role in most of these conflicts is essentially negative and defensive and very much the spoiler. Moscow may be able to keep Ukraine from moving toward the West or joining NATO, and it may be able to keep Bashar al-Assad in power in what remains of Syria, but like George W. Bush, Putin is discovering that clients are hard to control and getting into quagmires is easier than finding one’s way out. Moscow has shown little capacity to achieve positive ends on the world stage or to bring other nations together to work toward the goal of mutual betterment. When compared to Soviet leaders’ lofty dreams of world revolution, Putin’s “global agenda” is watered-down vodka.

But wait: What about those dastardly Russian attempts to manipulate the 2016 U.S. election, and to sow discord and disunity via bots, internet trolls, phony Facebook accounts, hacked emails, and other misdeeds? We still don’t know the full extent of Russian interference in our democracy, but Americans have every reason to be angry about it and should be demanding that the Trump administration take active measures to limit and or deter such behavior in the future. At the same time, our moral outrage ought to be tempered just a bit by the recognition that Washington has repeatedly interfered in other countries’ politics and used both overt and covert means to dispatch of governments we didn’t like. As far as we know, no Americans died as a result of Russia’s meddling, but there are hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who lost their lives because of our well-intentioned efforts to “liberate” them.

Equally important, Russia’s various activities were possible only because Americans had already allowed our democratic institutions to be seriously corrupted long before Moscow got involved. I’m not happy about whatever Putin, Fancy Bear, and other Russian agents may have done, but Newt Gingrich, Fox News, Breitbart, and the Drudge Report have done far more to fill American heads with claptrap than Moscow’s minions ever did.

Furthermore, we shouldn’t be at all surprised that someone like Putin — deeply resentful of repeated U.S. encroachments on Russian vital interests — saw this opportunity and seized it. Even a casual knowledge of American history would tell you that it only takes a little bit of foreign interference to get us to freak out completely. Remember McCarthyism, the Palmer Raids, or the “one percent doctrine”? No wonder Putin saw us as a fat target. But my point is that we mostly did this to ourselves.

Lastly, thinking of the current conflict between the United States and Russia as a new Cold War exaggerates its significance and distracts us from the far more serious challenge we face from a rising China. Even worse, it encourages us to take steps that are actively harmful to our own interests. Instead of trying to drive a wedge between Moscow and Beijing (as realpolitik 101 would prescribe), the “new Cold War” mindset implies that U.S.-Russian rivalry is overdetermined and makes us less likely to look for ways to resolve our differences over time. Even worse, it will encourage us to fall back on the confrontational approaches we employed during the real Cold War, which will merely drive Beijing and Moscow closer together.

None of this is to deny that U.S.-Russian relations are in a bad state. It is also hard to imagine someone as compromised as Donald Trump doing much to fix it. But instead of embracing the language and imagery of the Cold War, we would do better to think seriously about the missteps and blunders that have brought the United States and Russia to the present impasse, and look for creative new ways to unwind them. And step one is to discard a lazy label that can only get in the way.


Stephen M. Walt

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. He is also a member of the board at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the faculty chair of its International Security Program.

Photo by Glen Bowman shared under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.