A [Cold] War by Any Other Name

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Watch Robert Legvold discuss Return to Cold War with David Speedie at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.  

In April 2016, two Russian fighter jets simulated an attack on a U.S. destroyer just 70 miles off of Russia’s Baltic naval base at Kaliningrad. The jets buzzed within yards of the destroyer, close enough to leave a wake in the sea behind them. Was this hair-raising stunt nothing more than saber-rattling on the part of the Russian military? Or was it yet one more sign of a far more sobering situation? Has the world been witnessing the escalation of a major confrontation between the former Soviet Union and the United States? Has a "new" Cold War in fact already begun? And if so, how did we get here? Robert Legvold, professor emeritus at Columbia University and one of the world's foremost experts on Soviet and Russian foreign policy, tries to answer these questions in his concise and tightly argued new book, Return to Cold War.

Have we entered "Cold War II" (as Legvold and others call it)? The signs are ominous. A succession of distressing incidents should worry policymakers worldwide. Legvold points out that we are reliving the hardening of attitudes that greatly determined the course of conflict between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. As was the case during the early days of the Cold War, today one would be hard-pressed to find a voice within either the American or the Russian political establishment willing to admit that his or her country played a role in the breakdown of relations between the two superpowers. On the contrary, President Vladimir Putin harshly condemns American policies, and then is in turn widely vilified in the U.S. by government, policymaking, and other influential figures. In short, jingoistic rhetoric from both Moscow and Washington continues to fan the flames of enmity.

From the Kremlin's point of view, the United States is pursuing a policy of foreign destabilization in order to assert and maintain economic and geopolitical control. As Legvold notes drily, "Major powers do not respond graciously to hostile alliances pushing up to their borders." Conversely, Washington believes that Russia is determined to satisfy its imperial ambitions, even if this means upending the global world order. Both countries appear inured to the notion that this is just the way things are, and the way they will remain, unless the other side sees the error of its ways and fundamentally transforms its foreign policy. In such a dysfunctional relationship, successful cooperation—such as the negotiation of the Iran nuclear deal and the disarming of Syria’s chemical weapons—is limited to isolated instances, while conflicts in other areas leave earlier agreements, however painstakingly established, in tatters.

Treaties and safeguards that now lie in ruins include the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty (ABM), which assured security during the Cold War, precluding the possibility of an arms race. Meanwhile, the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), and other crucial agreements are eroding and may not survive to the end of the decade. Legvold cites the disintegration of these treaties—along with the emergence of multiple nuclear actors, cutting-edge nuclear delivery technologies, and greater reliance on tactical nuclear weapons to offset conventional force imbalances—as creating a strategic geometry vastly more complex and potentially more treacherous than anything that existed when the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. faced off during the Cold War.

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Robert Legvold at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs

It is therefore urgent that the arms control regime be rejuvenated, but cyber, space, and Arctic security have also emerged as areas that will require robust bilateral cooperation and diplomacy to be properly addressed. Climate change, terrorism, counterfeit trade, human trafficking, drug smuggling, illegal arms dealing, extremism, and many other global issues cannot be dealt with effectively without U.S.-Russian cooperation. Legvold highlights these areas to show the unaffordable costs of the current animus between the two nations, but he also draws attention to the fait accompli of the end of geopolitical stability in Europe, a region that was the crucible of violent conflict in the 20th century, but which had since provided a rare and prized zone of stability in the world. Today, as NATO quadruples its forces on its eastern flank and Russia runs counter-exercises that include the deployment of aircraft and missiles with nuclear payloads, Europe is once again divided along battle lines.

Perhaps the greatest contributing factor to the breakdown of relations has been the inability of either country to articulate the stakes that make the U.S.-Russia relationship so important. Both countries have gestured toward the importance of maintaining good relations, but neither country bothered to define the significance of those "good relations." Accordingly, neither the United States nor Russia, as Legvold writes, “was in much of a position to appreciate (or be constrained by) what was being lost as the relationship disintegrated.” He stresses that, in order to arrive at stability, both the U.S. and Russia must develop a practical strategic vision of where they would like to see the relationship be ten years down the road, and—with that goal in mind—work in reverse.

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As Legvold makes clear, tackling such an ambitious program during this fraught period of U.S.-Russia relations will be challenging. But even beginning such a project will be in vain, unless the two crucial factors that generated the crisis are immediately confronted. First, both sides must understand why a productive relationship is so vital. Second, both sides must reflect upon their own shortcomings and failings since the end of the "first" Cold War—not only in order to reverse the effects of those mistakes, but to ensure that they are not repeated. Only then, argues Legvold, will the two powers begin to discard the decades of suspicion and ill will that have built up, freeing them to move forward toward a future of global peace and stability. Robert Legvold's Return to Cold War should prove indispensable for making this vision a reality. For specialist and nonspecialist alike, it is an excellent analysis of how we got into this labyrinth, and a level headed guide of how we can get out of it.

Scherbakov is research assistant, Russia/Eurasia and Office of the President, Carnegie Corporation of New York.