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The New American Cold War | The Nation

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The New American Cold War

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EDITOR'S NOTE: This article--originally published in the July 10, 2006, issue of The Nation--appears with a new introduction by the author restating his analyses and arguments in the context of recent developments.

About the Author

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

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In a wide-ranging conversation, he discusses the surveillance state, the American political system and the price he’s paid for his understanding of patriotism.

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

Two reactions to this article were particularly noteworthy when it first appeared in The Nation almost exactly one year ago. Judging by activity on the magazine's website and by responses sent to me personally, it was very widely read and discussed both in the United States and in Russia, where it was quickly translated on a Russian-language site. And, unlike most Russian commentators, almost every American specialist who reacted to the article, directly or indirectly, adamantly disputed my thesis that US-Russian relations had deteriorated so badly they should now be understood as a new cold war--or possibly as a continuation of the old one.

Developments during the last year have amply confirmed that thesis. Several examples could be cited, but two should be enough. The increasingly belligerent charges and counter-charges by officials and in the media on both sides, "Cold-War-style rhetoric and threats," as the Associated Press recently reported, read like a replay of the American-Soviet discourse of the 1970s and early 1980s. And the unfolding conflict over US plans to build missile defense components near post-Soviet Russia, in Poland and the Czech Republic, threatens to reintroduce a dangerous military feature of that cold-war era in Europe.

Nonetheless, most American officials, journalists and academics, unwilling perhaps to confront their unwise policies and mistaken analyses since the Soviet Union ended in 1991, continue to deny the cold-war nature of today's relationship with Russia. A resident expert at the Council on Foreign Relations tells us, for example, that "the situation today is nothing like the Cold War times," while another think-tank specialist, testifying to Congress, can "see no prospect of a new Cold War."

Indeed, many commentators even insist that cold war is no longer possible because today's US-Russian conflicts are not global, ideological or clashes between two different systems; because post-Soviet Russia is too weak to wage such a struggle; and because of the avowed personal "friendship" between Presidents Bush and Putin. They seem unaware that the last cold war began regionally, in Central and Eastern Europe; that present-day antagonisms between Washington's "democracy-promotion" policies and Moscow's self-described "sovereign democracy" have become intensely ideological; that Russia's new, non-Communist system is scarcely like the American one; that Russia is well situated, as I explained in the article, to compete in a new cold war whose front lines run through the former Soviet territories, from Ukraine and Georgia to Central Asia; and that there was also, back in the cold-war 1970s, a Nixon-Brezhnev "friendship."

Nor is this merely an academic dispute. Unless US policy-makers and opinion-makers recognize how bad the relationship has become, we risk losing not only the historic opportunity for an American-Russian partnership created in the late 1980s by Gorbachev, Reagan and the first President Bush, and which is even more essential for our real national security today; we also risk a prolonged cold war even more dangerous than was the last one, for reasons spelled out in my article.

Still worse, the overwhelming majority of US officials and opinion-makers who do acknowledge the serious deterioration in relations between Washington and Moscow blame the development solely on Putin's domestic and foreign policies. Not surprisingly, the most heretical part of my article--that the origins of the new cold war are to be found instead in attitudes and policies toward post-Soviet Russia adopted by the Clinton administration back in the 1990s and largely continued by this Bush administration--has found even less support. But unless it too is fully acknowledged, we are left only with the astonishing admission of a leading academic specialist with longstanding ties in Washington. Lamenting the state of US-Russian relations, he informs us, "Nobody has a good idea of what is to be done."

What must be done, however, is clear enough. Because the new cold war began in Washington, steps toward ending it also have to begin in Washington. Two are especially urgent, for reasons also explained in the article: A US recognition that post-Soviet Russia is not a defeated supplicant or American client state, as seems to have been the prevailing view since 1991, but a fully sovereign nation at home with legitimate national interests abroad equal to our own; and an immediate end to the reckless expansion of NATO around Russia's borders.

According to principles of American democracy, the best time to fight for such a change in policy is in the course of campaigns for the presidency. That is why I am pleased my article is reappearing at this time. On the other hand, the hour is late, and it is hard to be optimistic.

— Stephen F. Cohen
June, 8, 2007

Contrary to established opinion, the gravest threats to America's national security are still in Russia. They derive from an unprecedented development that most US policy-makers have recklessly disregarded, as evidenced by the undeclared cold war Washington has waged, under both parties, against post-Communist Russia during the past fifteen years.

As a result of the Soviet breakup in 1991, Russia, a state bearing every nuclear and other device of mass destruction, virtually collapsed. During the 1990s its essential infrastructures--political, economic and social--disintegrated. Moscow's hold on its vast territories was weakened by separatism, official corruption and Mafia-like crime. The worst peacetime depression in modern history brought economic losses more than twice those suffered in World War II. GDP plummeted by nearly half and capital investment by 80 percent. Most Russians were thrown into poverty. Death rates soared and the population shrank. And in August 1998, the financial system imploded.

No one in authority anywhere had ever foreseen that one of the twentieth century's two superpowers would plunge, along with its arsenals of destruction, into such catastrophic circumstances. Even today, we cannot be sure what Russia's collapse might mean for the rest of the world.

Outwardly, the nation may now seem to have recovered. Its economy has grown on average by 6 to 7 percent annually since 1999, its stock-market index increased last year by 83 percent and its gold and foreign currency reserves are the world's fifth largest. Moscow is booming with new construction, frenzied consumption of Western luxury goods and fifty-six large casinos. Some of this wealth has trickled down to the provinces and middle and lower classes, whose income has been rising. But these advances, loudly touted by the Russian government and Western investment-fund promoters, are due largely to high world prices for the country's oil and gas and stand out only in comparison with the wasteland of 1998.

More fundamental realities indicate that Russia remains in an unprecedented state of peacetime demodernization and depopulation. Investment in the economy and other basic infrastructures remains barely a third of the 1990 level. Some two-thirds of Russians still live below or very near the poverty line, including 80 percent of families with two or more children, 60 percent of rural citizens and large segments of the educated and professional classes, among them teachers, doctors and military officers. The gap between the poor and the rich, Russian experts tell us, is becoming "explosive."

Most tragic and telling, the nation continues to suffer wartime death and birth rates, its population declining by 700,000 or more every year. Male life expectancy is barely 59 years and, at the other end of the life cycle, 2 to 3 million children are homeless. Old and new diseases, from tuberculosis to HIV infections, have grown into epidemics. Nationalists may exaggerate in charging that "the Motherland is dying," but even the head of Moscow's most pro-Western university warns that Russia remains in "extremely deep crisis."

The stability of the political regime atop this bleak post-Soviet landscape rests heavily, if not entirely, on the personal popularity and authority of one man, President Vladimir Putin, who admits the state "is not yet completely stable." While Putin's ratings are an extraordinary 70 to 75 percent positive, political institutions and would-be leaders below him have almost no public support.

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