Holding Onto the Cold War

Photograph Source: Mikey – CC BY 2.0

The United States cannot escape the consequences of the Cold War.  The Cold War has shaped our political culture, our political institutions, and our national priorities.  The Second World War ended 75 years ago, but we still outspend the entire global community on defense; control an overseas military infrastructure with more than 700 bases and facilities; and allocate tens of billions of dollars annually to nuclear forces.  Now add the absurdity of the Space Command.  The Cold War divided Europe; engulfed the Third World (our briar patch); inspired a reckless arms race; and created chronic geopolitical tensions.  As a result, the United States has become a national security state relying on military power and use of force, despite having the most secure geographical boundaries of any major power.

Recent events in Haiti that culminated in the assassination of President Jovenel Moise is one more reminder of our Cold War policy of supporting authoritarian leaders around the world in order to advance U.S. interests.  Biden supported Moise despite warnings about his increasingly autocratic rule.  U.S. presidents throughout the Cold War emphasized the importance of democratic government and “rules-based internationalism,” but these bromides were typically observed in the breach.

No American president has been willing to tackle the problem of our national security state, although some presidents have done better than others. Presidents Eisenhower and Carter could claim no significant battlefield casualties on their watch, and Presidents Kennedy, Nixon, and Reagan opposed the Pentagon in their pursuit of arms control and disarmament.  But no president since Eisenhower has understood the military.  Several were intimidated by the military (Clinton and Obama) and others too willing to yield to the military (the senior Bush and the junior Bush).  Biden has the advantage of a half-century of exposure to our militarization of national security policy.  He even warned Barack Obama not to get “boxed in” by the military, thereby earning the ire of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who—like too many secretaries— was “captured” by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

But six months into his presidency, Biden has not addressed collective and universal solutions to foreign policy; instead, he trades on Cold War tropes, particularly with regard to Russia and China.  Biden’s efforts to challenge both Russia and China is particularly counterproductive in view of the close Sino-Russian relationship that Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin have forged.  They have ended a sixty-year period of discontinuity that included struggles over aid to North Vietnam; warfare on their border;  and differences over military aid and geopolitical rivalries.

Biden’s diplomatic foray into Europe in June and his summitry with Germany’s Angel Merkel in July produced ample evidence of the kind of “old thinking” that has dominated U.S. policy and diplomacy even after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which created an opportunity for “new thinking.”  Biden’s European thrust revolves around the relaunching of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, including expanding its scope to deal with a challenge from China.

Biden’s national security team believes that the United States can isolate and contain China.  For the first time, a NATO document included China in the list of security threats for the alliance, which probably produced a good deal of head scratching in Beijing.  The key European states signed on reluctantly; they prefer not to be part of the Sino-American differences that were worsened by the Trump administration.  Meanwhile, Russian President Putin may be taking satisfaction from NATO’s firm stance against China, which was designed in part to compensate for the lack of a firm stance against Russia.  Germany’s defense of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and Franco-German interest in coordinating policy with Russia point to the absence of any lasting success for Biden’s diplomacy in Europe.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel clearly and succinctly said with regard to U.S. and European approaches to the problems of Russia and Ukraine that “We’ve come to different assessments.”  Merkel made no specific response to Biden’s interest in countering China.  France and Italy appear to be aligned with Germany on these key bilateral issues. Similarly, many Asian nations don’t want to choose between the United States for reasons of security vs. China for reasons of their own prosperity.

Instead of reversing the decoupling policies of the Trump administration toward China, Biden has appointed a national security team that is committed to more aggressively countering and containing China in East Asia.  Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan are China hardliners.  Sullivan’s deputy is Kurt Campbell, who developed the policy of a “pivot” toward China ten years ago; Campbell’s senior aide in the National Security Council is Rush Doshi who recently published “The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order.”  Sullivan has placed another hardliner, Ely Ratner, as a special adviser to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.  These appointments suggest the problem of classic groupthink on China, our greatest diplomatic challenge, relying on the Cold War principle of negotiating from a position of strength.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military-industrial-congressional community is taking advantage of Sino-American differences over the South China Sea and U.S.-Russian tensions over Ukraine to campaign for greater defense spending.  The defense community particularly is fixated on the issue of China as a major threat, and appears to have no understanding of possible constraints on policy toward China.

At the same time, there is a bipartisan consensus in Congress that China constitutes the central threat to the United States.  The U.S. Innovation and Competition Act attracted a bipartisan majority by emphasizing the importance of challenging China in Artificial Intelligence and quantum computing.  The often hyperbolic charges in the Congress and the mainstream media against China have led to “xenophobic rhetoric” against Asian-Americans, according to leaders of the congressional Asian Pacific American caucus.

The Biden administration believes that the development of state-of-the-art weaponry will discourage China from more aggressive moves toward Taiwan and in the South China Sea.  U.S. actions in the South China Sea revolve around quasi-Cold War measures that include deployment of aircraft carriers in freedom of navigation operations.  U.S. actions vis-a-vis Ukraine are aimed at creating a “strategic relationship” with Kiev, and challenging the Russian sphere of influence in the Black Sea.

The Biden administration is wrongly trying to present Russia and China as existential threats to Western democracy.  Too many pundits and the mainstream media describe Iran and North Korea similarly.  These countries are problems for U.S. diplomacy, but the existential problems for the United States are a world with too many nuclear powers; a pandemic; a climate crisis; and cybersecurity.  These problems demand a collective and cooperative approach, and the United States is best placed to lead the way in making Russia and China stakeholders on these issues.  Unfortunately, Biden and his national security team don’t appear to be willing or even witting.


Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for counterpunch.org.