In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
Mikhail Gorbachev in front of Berlin Wall sculpture in Fulton, Missouri

Cold War Legacy: Why Russia, China and America Are Where They Are Today

September 25, 2017
Kevin Doyle

With all the talk lately of a “new Cold War” between the U.S. and Russia, historian Odd Arne Westad’s latest book is a timely one. “The Cold War: A World History” examines the conflict from its ideological roots in the late 19th century through the collapse of the Soviet Union. In it, Westad offers keen insights into how the Cold War and its dénouement have given rise to the current conflict between Russia and the West, as well as the ascendance of China and the emergence of a multipolar world order. Westad, who teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, recently discussed these topics in a book talk and in an essay called “The Cold War and America’s Delusion of Victory in the New York Times. What follow are key points from the talk and the essay, some paraphrased and some directly quoted.

  • “The Cold War: A World History” is “not an attempt to say, ‘If we only understand how the Cold War ideological divide works, we will understand everything about the 20th century,’” Westad said at the talk. “But I would probably argue the opposite: If we want to understand the Cold War, we have to understand how it fits into the 20th century.”
  • Westad examines the Cold War through three significant turning points:
    • The split between social democrats in Europe and communists, which allowed the former to continue to develop without being labeled communist.
    • The Korean War, the first hot war of the conflict, which led to the militarization of the two superpowers on a global scale.
    • And the 1970s—a decade typically seen as a moment of American weakness, but in fact a time when the globalization of capital allowed the U.S. to buy into markets in Asia, while the U.S.S.R. remained isolated.
  • As China increasingly embraced the free market, the space for the Soviet Union to operate narrowed—which would prove to be a major factor in its collapse. Westad takes issue with the idea that Ronald Reagan’s hardline stance toward the Soviet Union was the main reason for its demise. While this may have contributed to Moscow’s isolation, Westad notes that Reagan was a willing negotiator on everything from nuclear weapons to regional conflicts.
  • The flawed belief that the Cold War had been won by the West would have lasting consequences. The West bought into two versions of post-Cold War triumphalism, Westad writes in his essay: “First was the Clinton version, which promoted a prosperity agenda of market values on a global scale. Its lack of purpose in international affairs was striking, but its domestic political instincts were probably right: Americans were tired of foreign entanglements and wanted to enjoy ‘the peace dividend.’ As a result, the 1990s was a lost opportunity for international cooperation, particularly to combat disease, poverty and inequality. The second was the Bush version. Where President Bill Clinton emphasized prosperity, President George W. Bush emphasized predominance.”
  • U.S. actions in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East can be directly traced to this flawed understanding: “As America entered a new century, its main aim should have been to bring other nations into the fold of international norms and the rule of law, especially as its own power diminishes. Instead, the United States did what declining superpowers often do: engage in futile, needless wars far from its borders, in which short-term security is mistaken for long-term strategic goals,” Westad writes.
  • There were also lost opportunities in the 1990s for greater cooperation with Russia. More should have been done to “link Russia in” with the European Union, especially through security cooperation. “Both the West and Russia would have been considerably more secure today if the chance for Russia to join the European Union, and possibly even NATO, had at least been kept open in the 1990s,” Westad writes. (In remarks made last year, Westad noted that, in hindsight, the biggest problem in the 1990s with regard to Eastern Europe was the lack of will to build structures in which Russia could participate, especially in terms of economic integration.)
  • As a result of this flawed approach, America is “less prepared than it could have been to deal with the big challenges of the future: the rise of China and India, the transfer of economic power from West to East, and systemic challenges like climate change and disease epidemics,” Westad writes.
  • On the Russian side, the collapse of the Soviet Union was a disaster and the “ultimate tragedy,” as Westad noted in his talk. The U.S.S.R. had gone from a superpower to nearly irrelevant in the span of years, naturally leading to feelings of discontent among Russians, who had been under repression for decades and now faced dire economic woes and a complete collapse of familiar institutions. “The collapse left Russians feeling déclassé and usurped,” Westad writes. Meanwhile, the West applauded the economic reforms under Boris Yeltsin, which were disastrous for Russia. In this context, the rise of Vladimir Putin and his promise to restore Russia’s lost glory is understandable.
  • The prime beneficiary of the end of the Cold War is China, which is now well integrated into the world economy and is directly challenging U.S. hegemony. “Russia and China, unlike the Soviet Union, are not likely to seek isolation or global confrontation,” Westad writes. “They will attempt to nibble away at American interests and dominate their regions. But neither China nor Russia is willing or able to mount a global ideological challenge backed by military power. Rivalries may lead to conflicts, or even local wars, but not of the systemic Cold War kind.”
  • Westad cautions against a false romanticism of the Cold War period. His book is meant in part to show younger generations that it was in fact “a dismal epoch” in history, he said. There was little sense of security and balance; rather, it was an incredibly dangerous time, with the superpowers often poised on the brink of war.

Kevin Dolye is a masters-degree candidate at Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and a student associate at Russia Matters.

Photo courtesy of the Missouri State Archives.