Beware a New Cold War

by | Jan 23, 2015


The notion of a New Cold War with Russia first arrived in 2008 with the publication of Edward Lucas’ book The New Cold War: The Future of Russia and the Threat to the West. It received some attention at the time, but the cold war construct in its title gained little traction until the 2014. Since the Ukraine has been in crisis the phrase “a New Cold War” has become fairly commonplace in the media. Part of the reason for this is that the emotional memory of the Cold War is still strong and ‘cold war’ remains an easy, ready and convenient trope for media commentators in need of dramatic content. However, we should be concerned with more than rhetorical overreach by writers of headlines, book titles and opinion pieces.

While “a New Cold War” has not yet been adopted as an official framework for US foreign and military policy, there are many foreign and military policy-makers who will be tempted by its appeal. We should be circumspect about following them down this path.

The Cold War

The original Cold War amplified, displaced, and generalized the post-WWII tension between the USSR and its former Western allies. As it developed it infected and transformed international relations globally, undermining potentials for integration and cooperation everywhere and in every field, including commerce. It fed on itself, rendering many lesser disagreements and disputes intractable once they were sucked into the dominant framework of highly conflictual and militarized relations. From a global and historical perspective, this became an inefficient and destructive dynamic.

In terms of accountable costs:

The Cold War likely added at least a half a trillion in 2014 dollars to annual global military expenditures averaged over the course of its forty plus year span, shares disproportionately paid by Russia and the US. This translates into between one and two percent of global GDP diverted to military capabilities particular to the Cold War.

There were roughly 100,000 Americans deaths in the hot corners of the Cold War. Thirty million people died in 35 major interstate and civil wars across the globe. Many, not all, of these peripheral conflicts were encouraged and provisioned by the Cold War protagonists. To this accounting we should also add the costly mischief carried out over forty years by civilian and military operatives on both sides.

There are also two costs which are probably impossible to quantify:

1. As a construct “the Cold War” was used to ratchet up the presentation of great power competition to the level of “war” in order to mobilize the country to confront a particular threat. To a large extent it was quite successful in that regard. A significant portion of the creative energies of a generation or two of Americans and allied peoples were marshaled to the cause. At what cost to other possible endeavors? Probably quite significant.

2. Enormous fears were induced in Americans and Russians in order to gain their consent for this program and to marshal their energies. The narratives feeding these fears were so often repeated that the fear response in much of the public became automatic, often feeding on itself into more complex and fantastic convolutions. A sort of collective neurosis resulted which undermined societal capacity for rational action, critical thought and efficient allocation of resources. These sort costs don’t get into most economic measures, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. They represent a collateral cost of cold war.

New Cold War?

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and active support of rebels in Eastern Ukraine is not the beginning of some wider Russian aggression toward nations to its west. Russia has neither the wherewithal nor any interest in beginning a general war in eastern or central Europe. It does have real, repeatedly stated, interests in Ukraine and other immediate border areas (“near abroad.”) [for more from the Bulletin on Russia and Ukraine see “NATO expansionand the Ukraine.”] In an exchange of letters in the pages of Foreign Affairs debating the question of “Who Started the Ukraine Crisis?” John Mearsheimer points out:

Great powers always worry about the balance of power in their neighborhoods and push back when other great powers march up to their doorsteps. This is why the United States adopted the Monroe Doctrine in the early nineteenth century and why it has repeatedly used military force and covert action to shape political events in the Western Hemisphere.

The combined economic capacity of the US and EU countries is many times that of Russia. Russia cannot win a war with the West and Moscow surely knows that. Henry Kissinger, among others, supports this assessment of limited Russian objectives in Ukraine saying: “The annexation of Crimea was [a special case] not a move toward global conquest.”

Why a New Cold War

If Russia is not intent on a campaign of conquest, then why has the specter of a New Cold War been raised?

One reason is that it serves very well in support of arguments for more military investments.

Three examples of how the new Cold War construct is and will be used by advocates of higher investment in a militarized foreign policy:

1) Morphing the apparent ‘Russian menace’ manifested through the Ukraine crisis into a New Cold War provides good political argumentation for the present bi-partisan program of getting the Pentagon budget back on its fast growth path following recent inadvertent modest budget decreases caused by the Budget Control Act’s sequester provisions. [We have written about this political alignment previously in thisBulletin.]

2) NATO does not need to spend more on its militaries to defend Europe from real or potential threats from Russia. Yet for more than a decade the US has been urging European countries to spend more. Why? Not for defense of Europe, but rather to provide ready forces in support of US led ‘out of area’ interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria … perhaps later in Iran, Pakistan, and various African countries. European countries have for the most part (and with good reason) thought the better of it. Events in Ukraine have frightened many Europeans and it is likely there will be an uptick in defense spending in some NATO countries. However, if the Ukraine settles down to a lower level of civil conflict, if regular Russian troops don’t come west, then European countries will likely return to a preference of spending no more than 2% of their GDP on military power. A New Cold War framework will be more persuasive than the Ukraine crisis for sustaining higher defense spending in Europe.

3) Loren Thompson writing in Forbes invokes the Russian threat as the most compelling reason why the US needs to invest more in homeland defenses against ballistic missile attack. Until recently advocates for such investments had to rely on the fairly unpersuasive case of a North Korean attack. A cold war with its attendant sense of mortal struggle provides an emotional lever in making the case for almost any military investment, no matter how tenuous the connection is between the investment and the actual character of the conflict.

It would be one thing if “a New Cold War” were limited to being “with Russia.” It probably wouldn’t have much lasting organizing traction as such — because Russia is a declining power, and, if the US and NATO play their strategic cards with any wisdom at all, Russian power tactics in its near abroad need not be a matter of much global concern. That is, if Russia as a unified nation survives in its current state as a relatively weak regional power on the periphery of Europe.

However, Allen Sinai, the prominent economic forecaster, recently raised a troubling possible consequence of a new cold war with Russia. At the American Economic Association annual conference in early January he spoke of the likelihood of Russia falling into depression brought on by steeply declining oil prices, resulting in the more than negligible possibility of Russia then “going belly up” and “failing” as a unified state. He posed the strategic question, “Does Russia need to be saved?”

The world was extremely lucky that when the Soviet Union collapsed its widely dispersed nuclear weaponry was repatriated to Russia — with the strong encouragement from the US and NATO. Last month Moscow ended twenty years of “cooperative threat reduction” programs in which the US funded and provided expertise to the Russians in securing and reducing stocks of weapons and material.

A disintegrating Russia would make the post-Cold War collapse of Yugoslavia look like a summer picnic. Imagine Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia twenty years ago with nuclear weapons. Pushing Russia over the edge into state collapse might be the most irresponsible step (in terms of Western security) that the US could take at this time.

Furthermore, if the construct of “a New Cold War” spreads its rhetorical wings to encompass future relations with China we will have a much bigger problem. China is, of course, a rising power. We need to be doing everything we can to build partnership, not confrontation, with China by helping to construct an inclusive common regional security and economic framework — which is the opposite of constructing cold war.

Should US leaderhsip fail to build a common (inclusive) Pacific regional security structure and, instead, decides it needs to mobilize the American people for an arms race with China, a New Cold War encompassing both Russia and China will be a convenient construct in support of that program.

The Wrong Choice

A cold war framework for our relations with Russia, China, and any other powers that might eventually align with them, could easily result in the addition of $200 to 300 billion in annual US security expenditures.

If US leadership makes a priority of investing in a larger more resource intensive national security sector it will mean less resources for other investments needed to sustain US economic strength. If we go the way of a new cold war we will hasten the relative decline of our economy while other nations which opt out of the New Cold War will come away winners.

Reprinted with permission of Reset Defense Bulletin, a publication of the Project on Defense Alternatives, Center for International Policy.