The New American Cold War
Worsening the geopolitical factor are radically different American and Russian self-perceptions. By the mid-1960s the US-Soviet cold war relationship had acquired a significant degree of stability because the two superpowers, perceiving a stalemate, began to settle for political and military "parity." Today, however, the United States, the self-proclaimed "only superpower," has a far more expansive view of its international entitlements and possibilities. Moscow, on the other hand, feels weaker and more vulnerable than it did before 1991. And in that asymmetry lies the potential for a less predictable cold war relationship between the two still fully armed nuclear states.
There is also a new psychological factor. Because the unfolding cold war is undeclared, it is already laden with feelings of betrayal and mistrust on both sides. Having welcomed Putin as Yeltsin's chosen successor and offered him its conception of "partnership and friendship," Washington now feels deceived by Putin's policies. According to two characteristic commentaries in the Washington Post, Bush had a "well-intentioned Russian policy," but "a Russian autocrat...betrayed the American's faith." Putin's Kremlin, however, has been reacting largely to a decade of broken US promises and Yeltsin's boozy compliance. Thus Putin's declaration four years ago, paraphrased on Russian radio: "The era of Russian geopolitical concessions [is] coming to an end." (Looking back, he remarked bitterly that Russia has been "constantly deceived.")
Still worse, the emerging cold war lacks the substantive negotiations and cooperation, known as détente, that constrained the previous one. Behind the lingering facade, a well-informed Russian tells us, "dialogue is almost nonexistent." It is especially true in regard to nuclear weapons. The Bush Administration's abandonment of the ABM treaty and real reductions, its decision to build an antimissile shield, and talk of pre-emptive war and nuclear strikes have all but abolished long-established US-Soviet agreements that have kept the nuclear peace for nearly fifty years. Indeed, according to a report, Bush's National Security Council is contemptuous of arms control as "baggage from the cold war." In short, as dangers posed by nuclear weapons have grown and a new arms race unfolds, efforts to curtail or even discuss them have ended.
Finally, anti-cold war forces that once played an important role in the United States no longer exist. Cold war lobbies, old and new ones, therefore operate virtually unopposed, some of them funded by anti-Kremlin Russian oligarchs in exile. At high political levels, the new American cold war has been, and remains, fully bipartisan, from Clinton to Bush, Madeleine Albright to Rice, Edwards to McCain. At lower levels, once robust pro-détente public groups, particularly anti-arms-race movements, have been largely demobilized by official, media and academic myths that "the cold war is over" and we have been "liberated" from nuclear and other dangers in Russia.
Also absent (or silent) are the kinds of American scholars who protested cold war excesses in the past. Meanwhile, a legion of new intellectual cold warriors has emerged, particularly in Washington, media favorites whose crusading anti-Putin zeal goes largely unchallenged. (Typically, one inveterate missionary constantly charges Moscow with "not delivering" on US interests, while another now calls for a surreal crusade, "backed by international donors," to correct young Russians' thinking about Stalin.) There are a few notable exceptions--also bipartisan, from former Reaganites to Nation contributors--but "anathematizing Russia," as Gorbachev recently put it, is so consensual that even an outspoken critic of US policy inexplicably ends an article, "Of course, Russia has been largely to blame."
Making these political factors worse has been the "pluralist" US mainstream media. In the past, opinion page editors and television producers regularly solicited voices to challenge cold war zealots, but today such dissenters, and thus the vigorous public debate of the past, are almost entirely missing. Instead, influential editorial pages are dominated by resurgent cold war orthodoxies, led by the Post, whose incessant demonization of Putin's "autocracy" and "crude neoimperialism" reads like a bygone Pravda on the Potomac. On the conservative New York Sun's front page, US-Russian relations today are presented as "a duel to the death--perhaps literally."
The Kremlin's strong preference "not to return to the cold war era," as Putin stated May 13 in response to Cheney's inflammatory charges, has been mainly responsible for preventing such fantasies from becoming reality. "Someone is still fighting the cold war," a British academic recently wrote, "but it isn't Russia." A fateful struggle over this issue, however, is now under way in Moscow, with the "pro-Western" Putin resisting demands for a "more hard line" course and, closely related, favoring larger FDR-style investments in the people (and the country's stability). Unless US policy, which is abetting the hard-liners in that struggle, changes fundamentally, the symbiotic axis between American and Russian cold warriors that drove the last conflict will re-emerge. If so, the Kremlin, whether under Putin or a successor, will fight the new one--with all the unprecedented dangers that would entail.