In 2003, General David Petraeus asked “tell me how does this end”—the most memorable quote from the Iraq War. Once again, we are involved in a war—a war of horror and terror—with no idea of how it will end. There is even talk of World War III and the use of nuclear weapons, which has allowed oped writers to discuss the unthinkable. Their essays are often hyperbolic, but there is one certainty: the next Cold War will be more destabilizing than the original and will present challenges to national leaders who don’t appear up to the task.
The original Cold War, which lasted from the Berlin airlift in 1948-1949 to the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, eventually found Soviet and American leaders, particularly Leonid Brezhnev and Mikhail Gorbachev along with Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, who understood the importance of arms control and disarmament. Their successes, particularly the Non-Proliferation Treaty (1969); the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty(1972) and the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (1987), paved the way to a detente between Moscow and Washington that enabled the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union to take place without any threat of serious violence or confrontation.
In the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, however, a series of U.S. presidents took fateful actions that gratuitously worsened relations with Russia. President Bill Clinton enlarged the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and abolished the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in the 1990s; George W. Bush incorporated former Soviet republics into NATO and abrogated the ABM Treaty; Barack Obama supported deployment of a missile defense in Poland and Romania; and Donald Trump’s abrogated the INF Treaty. Trump’s fundamental ignorance and indifference toward arms control played a key role in the gradual unwinding of Russian-American relations. Trump also scuttled the Iran nuclear accord, which promised a measure of predictability to the Middle East, and walked away from the Open Skies Treaty that had a history dating to the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s. In creating a Space Force, Trump moved toward an arms race in space.
Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, U.S. decision makers have been particularly reckless in militarizing international security. The Iraq War was based on lies; the 20-year Afghan War was particularly mindless; and the interventions in Serbia in 1998 and Libya in 2011 created new international problems for the global community. The quasi-alliance between Russia and China confronts a paralyzed United States that relies on tired notions of containment.
Even before unleashing the horrors and terror of the invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin also contributed to a renewed Cold War. The five-day war against Georgia in 2008; the seizure of Crimea in 2014; the involvement in Syria in 2015 that included the campaign of terror against the city of Aleppo; and the intervention in the U.S. presidential election in 2016 are the key particulars in assessing Moscow’s blame for the deterioration of relations. Putin provided hints of this newly aggressive posture at the Munich security conference in 2007, when he lambasted the West for the expansion of NATO. Anyone with only a modest understanding of Russian security concerns could understand that Putin had thrown down some serious “red lines,” although only former German chancellor Angel Merkel seemed to understand the seriousness of the moment.
This cursory history points to the mutual responsibility of Moscow and Washington, but these events have been overtaken by the campaign of terror and wanton destruction that Putin has unleashed on innocent Ukrainians. Russia was in a state of decline prior to the war, and its military failures have only increased the horrors that Putin—and Putin alone—will inflict on a neighboring country populated by ethnic Russians as well as Ukrainians. The military plan was flawed, based on assumptions and intelligence that were wrong. The tactics involving logistics and maintenance were unworkable, and there were additional insufficiencies involving the use of combined arms, and the lack of a professional cadre of non-commissioned officers. The war has not gone according to plan (no war does), which finds Russia admitting fatalities. China’s media have altered their broadcasts to call for negotiations and mediation.
Eventually, there will have to be a resumption of the substantive dialogue with the Russian leadership in view of the serious strategic issues that confront Biden and Putin concerning strategic weaponry, non-proliferation, and international terror as well as the global problems dealing with Covid and climate. The fact that President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have branded Putin a “war criminal,” which he is, will make it more difficult for the two leaders to engage substantively. Putin never responded to personal criticism from Biden (or Barack Obama), and left it to Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, to describe the reference to “war criminal” as “unacceptable and unforgivable.” (Obama described Putin as a “ward boss, except with nuclear weapons.”) President John F. Kennedy was careful not to personalize the conflict with Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban missile crisis.
The Russian invasion will lead to more bellicose language between Moscow and Washington; greater militarization of international security; and record-setting defense budgets. The United States already spends more than the entire global community on defense when you add the budgets of the intelligence community; the Department of Energy; Veterans Affairs; and the Department of Homeland Security to the Pentagon’s current budget of $780 billion. The costs associated with our 750 military bases and operating facilities around the world will continue to grow. Russia has only two bases outside of the former Soviet space. China has one on the Horn of Africa; instead, it devotes a trillion dollars to its belt and road initiative, the new Silk Road.
The added cost of the modernization of our nuclear forces is particularly obscene because nuclear weapons have no utilitarian value other than the kind of rhetorical threat that Putin is indulging. The United States has already thrown trillions of dollars at nuclearizing our arsenal, including such dead ends as the nuclear-powered airplane ($6 billion); the nuclear-powered rocket engine ($2.7 billion); the Midgetman missile ($3.7 billion) and the Safeguard Antiballistic Missile system ($25 billion). We spend $25 billion annually to deploy and maintain our nuclear forces, including our so-called national missile defense system in California and Alaska that provides only a “phantom defense.”
Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration seemed to believe that it could practice coercive diplomacy against both Russia and China. The original Cold War benefitted from the Sino-Soviet split, which the policy community was late to acknowledge. Now, the Chinese and Russians have their closest political relationship in history, yet the Biden administration believes it can practice dual containment against both. A huge error to be corrected is not giving Chinese leader Xi Jinping any reason to believe that the Sino-American relationship would be improved if he responded favorably to any of Biden’s demands.
U.S. reliance on the military, with military commands in every corner of the world, must also be addressed. Our overseas military presence, designed to strengthen our security, has proved counterproductive. Our interventions overseas have only created more volatile conditions throughout the Third World. There needs to be a radical restructuring of U.S. foreign policy that places greater reliance on diplomacy and negotiation; arms control and disarmament; and international organizations. When Franklin D. Roosevelt assumed the presidency, he told his close advisers that the United States needed a new vision of domestic security, that we were “trapped in the ice of our own indifference.” Now we need a new vision of international security; we are trapped in the ice of our own lack of imagination.