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The New American Cold War | The Nation

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The New American Cold War

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The extraordinarily anti-Russian nature of these policies casts serious doubt on two American official and media axioms: that the recent "chill" in US-Russian relations has been caused by Putin's behavior at home and abroad, and that the cold war ended fifteen years ago. The first axiom is false, the second only half true: The cold war ended in Moscow, but not in Washington, as is clear from a brief look back.

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Stephen F. Cohen
Stephen F. Cohen is a professor emeritus at New York University and Princeton University. His ...

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We recently met with the courageous whistleblower for over three hours in Moscow for a wide-ranging conversation on surveillance, technology and politics.

Fallacies of US policy may be leading to war with Russia.

The last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, came to power in 1985 with heretical "New Thinking" that proposed not merely to ease but to actually abolish the decades-long cold war. His proposals triggered a fateful struggle in Washington (and Moscow) between policy-makers who wanted to seize the historic opportunity and those who did not. President Ronald Reagan decided to meet Gorbachev at least part of the way, as did his successor, the first President George Bush. As a result, in December 1989, at a historic summit meeting at Malta, Gorbachev and Bush declared the cold war over. (That extraordinary agreement evidently has been forgotten; thus we have the New York Times recently asserting that the US-Russian relationship today "is far better than it was 15 years ago.")

Declarations alone, however, could not terminate decades of warfare attitudes. Even when Bush was agreeing to end the cold war in 1989-91, many of his top advisers, like many members of the US political elite and media, strongly resisted. (I witnessed that rift on the eve of Malta, when I was asked to debate the issue in front of Bush and his divided foreign policy team.) Proof came with the Soviet breakup in December 1991: US officials and the media immediately presented the purported "end of the cold war" not as a mutual Soviet-American decision, which it certainly was, but as a great American victory and Russian defeat.

That (now standard) triumphalist narrative is the primary reason the cold war was quickly revived--not in Moscow a decade later by Putin but in Washington in the early 1990s, when the Clinton Administration made two epically unwise decisions. One was to treat post-Communist Russia as a defeated nation that was expected to replicate America's domestic practices and bow to its foreign policies. It required, behind the facade of the Clinton-Yeltsin "partnership and friendship" (as Clinton's top "Russia hand," Strobe Talbott, later confirmed), telling Yeltsin "here's some more shit for your face" and Moscow's "submissiveness." From that triumphalism grew the still-ongoing interventions in Moscow's internal affairs and the abiding notion that Russia has no autonomous rights at home or abroad.

Clinton's other unwise decision was to break the Bush Administration's promise to Soviet Russia in 1990-91 not to expand NATO "one inch to the east" and instead begin its expansion to Russia's borders. From that profound act of bad faith, followed by others, came the dangerously provocative military encirclement of Russia and growing Russian suspicions of US intentions. Thus, while American journalists and even scholars insist that "the cold war has indeed vanished" and that concerns about a new one are "silly," Russians across the political spectrum now believe that in Washington "the cold war did not end" and, still more, that "the US is imposing a new cold war on Russia."

That ominous view is being greatly exacerbated by Washington's ever-growing "anti-Russian fatwa," as a former Reagan appointee terms it. This year it includes a torrent of official and media statements denouncing Russia's domestic and foreign policies, vowing to bring more of its neighbors into NATO and urging Bush to boycott the G-8 summit to be chaired by Putin in St. Petersburg in July; a call by would-be Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain for "very harsh" measures against Moscow; Congress's pointed refusal to repeal a Soviet-era restriction on trade with Russia; the Pentagon's revival of old rumors that Russian intelligence gave Saddam Hussein information endangering US troops; and comments by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, echoing the regime-changers, urging Russians, "if necessary, to change their government."

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