The US is Mired in a Cold War Model From the 1950s

Photograph Source: Presidential Executive Office of Russia – CC BY 4.0

The Biden administration is in denial regarding the dangerous Cold War that currently exists between the United States, China, and Russia that qualifies as Cold War II.  The current Cold War promises to be more dangerous, more costly, and more implacable than its predecessor, which dominated the 1950s and early 1960s.  Fortunately, the administrations of John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon lessened the impact of the Cold War in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis, and the U.S. failure in Vietnam, respectively.

The Kennedy administration learned from the Cuban crisis in 1962 that it must  enhance dialogue between the superpowers and, as a result, created a Hot Line between Moscow and Washington.  Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev also put the two nations on the road to arms control and disarmament with the signing of the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) in 1963.  Kennedy had to take on the opposition of the Pentagon to gain support for the PTBT, which was a decisive marker in the bureaucratic politics of the 1960s.  The arms control dialogue opened the door to detente.

The Nixon administration moved even more adroitly in the 1970s as National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger developed a strategy of triangular relations that allowed the United States to have better relations with the Soviet Union and China than Moscow and Beijing had with each other.  This triangularity led the Kremlin to seek closer relations with Washington, leading to two major arms control agreements, the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.  U.S. relations with China also became more stable and predictable.

The Kennedy and Nixon national security teams understood that George F. Kennan’s policy of Containment that had dominated U.S. strategy in the international arena since the end of World War II had outlived its usefulness.  Unfortunately, the Biden administration is relying on its own policy of Containment—indeed Dual Containment—to control its relations with both Russia and China.  The idea that China can be contained by U.S. power is counter-productive because the Chinese have developed a strong military and economic posture in the Asian arena, dominating trade in the Indo-Pacific region as well as making significant progress in the Global South at the expense of U.S. interests.

Dual Containment is failing for a variety of reasons.  First, the policy of painting both Russia and China with the same brush, which is supported in the mainstream media and the foreign policy community, is senseless.  The policy has helped to push Moscow and Beijing together, which finds them in their closest relationship in history.  In terms of triangulation, the United States is now the odd man out, and the Biden administration is doing nothing to change the dynamics.

Moscow and Beijing were ideological allies in Cold War I, but currently they are driven by very different policy interests.  They have avoided a mutual defense treaty, and China has resisted Russia’s efforts to get Beijing to agree to a new natural gas pipeline (“Power of Siberia 2”) between the two nations.  China, moreover, has avoided providing Russia with lethal weaponry for the war in Ukraine. China’s hesitancy should provide diplomatic openings for the United States.

Second, the conventional wisdom regarding Russia is driven by a Cold War model that exaggerates Russia’s power and influence.  Much was made out of President Vladimir Putin’s recent trip to North Korea, including hysteria about the threat of war in Asia and the possibility of an “October surprise” between Moscow and Pyongyang that would target the United States.  Rather, I would argue Putin’s trip to North Korea was a sign of Russian weakness, with Moscow needing more weapons to deal with a stalemated situation in Ukraine and pointing to a struggling Russian military economy that requires assistance from such weak nations as North Korea and Iran.

Third, many nations throughout Asia, Africa, and South America want no part of a Cold War between the United States, Russia, and China.  Biden’s national security team seems to be echoing the policy of President Eisenhower’s Cold War secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, who preached to the international community that you’re “either with us or against us.”  It’s simply not working!  The global community isn’t buying into U.S. exaggerations of the international power and influence of Moscow and Beijing.  Unlike the United States, Russia and China are not trying to ideologize or politicize their relations with the Global South…and they are having far more success than the United States as a result.

Fourth, the cost of Cold War II will increase significantly if we do not reverse course.  The Pentagon’s budget is already approaching $900 billion, and the total cost of national security spending exceeds $1.2 trillion, which is greater than the budgets of all the nations in the global community combined.  As a result of the worsening triangular situation, we are witnessing the start of a strategic and nuclear arms race that will benefit no one, except weapons manufacturers.  The increased costs of military spending and nuclear modernization is ignoring the fact that we have weakened Russia with the expansion of NATO on its western border, and that we have outpaced China by expanding relations with Australia, India, Japan, and South Korea.  Most NATO nations are significantly expanding their defense budgets, and the nations of the Indo-Pacific that I’ve cited are doing so as well.

Finally, it is essential to restore the dialogue between the three major nuclear powers in order to return to the arms control and disarmament agenda.  Too many nuclear agreements have been broken by the United States, and Washington should take the lead in restoring the agreements and bringing China into the conversation.  The climate crisis is worsening daily, and there can be no solution without U.S. and China’s agreement on steps that must be taken immediately. The U.S. and China are the major drivers in global economic growth, and need to work on an economic agreement that rivals the agreement that the European Union is negotiating with China. Problems associated with immigration, terrorism, and nuclear proliferation also require negotiations among the triangular states.

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