August 27, 2007


The New American Cold War (Stephen F. Cohen, 10 July 2006 , The Nation)

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. [...]

Nor is the Kremlin powerless in direct dealings with the West. It can mount more than enough warheads to defeat any missile shield and illusion of "nuclear primacy." It can shut US businesses out of multibillion-dollar deals in Russia and, as it recently reminded the European Union, which gets 25 percent of its gas from Russia, "redirect supplies" to hungry markets in the East. And Moscow could deploy its resources, connections and UN Security Council veto against US interests involving, for instance, nuclear proliferation, Iran, Afghanistan and possibly even Iraq.

Contrary to exaggerated US accusations, the Kremlin has not yet resorted to such retaliatory measures in any significant way. But unless Washington stops abasing and encroaching on Russia, there is no "sovereign" reason why it should not do so. Certainly, nothing Moscow has gotten from Washington since 1992, a Western security specialist emphasizes, "compensates for the geopolitical harm the United States is doing to Russia."

American crusaders insist it is worth the risk in order to democratize Russia and other former Soviet republics. In reality, their campaigns since 1992 have only discredited that cause in Russia. Praising the despised Yeltsin and endorsing other unpopular figures as Russia's "democrats," while denouncing the popular Putin, has associated democracy with the social pain, chaos and humiliation of the 1990s. Ostracizing Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko while embracing tyrants in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan has related it to the thirst for oil. Linking "democratic revolutions" in Ukraine and Georgia to NATO membership has equated them with US expansionism. Focusing on the victimization of billionaire Mikhail Khodorkhovsky and not on Russian poverty or ongoing mass protests against social injustices has suggested democracy is only for oligarchs. And by insisting on their indispensable role, US crusaders have all but said (wrongly) that Russians are incapable of democracy or resisting abuses of power on their own.

The result is dark Russian suspicions of American intentions ignored by US policy-makers and media alike. They include the belief that Washington's real purpose is to take control of the country's energy resources and nuclear weapons and use encircling NATO satellite states to "de-sovereignize" Russia, turning it into a "vassal of the West." More generally, US policy has fostered the belief that the American cold war was never really aimed at Soviet Communism but always at Russia, a suspicion given credence by Post and Times columnists who characterize Russia even after Communism as an inherently "autocratic state" with "brutish instincts."

To overcome those towering obstacles to a new relationship, Washington has to abandon the triumphalist conceits primarily responsible for the revived cold war and its growing dangers. It means respecting Russia's sovereign right to determine its course at home (including disposal of its energy resources). As the record plainly shows, interfering in Moscow's internal affairs, whether on-site or from afar, only harms the chances for political liberties and economic prosperity that still exist in that tormented nation.

It also means acknowledging Russia's legitimate security interests, especially in its own "near abroad." In particular, the planned third expansion of NATO, intended to include Ukraine, must not take place. Extending NATO to Russia's doorsteps has already brought relations near the breaking point (without actually benefiting any nation's security); absorbing Ukraine, which Moscow regards as essential to its Slavic identity and its military defense, may be the point of no return, as even pro-US Russians anxiously warn. Nor would it be democratic, since nearly two-thirds of Ukrainians are opposed. The explosive possibilities were adumbrated in late May and early June when local citizens in ethnic Russian Crimea blockaded a port and roads where a US naval ship and contingent of Marines suddenly appeared, provoking resolutions declaring the region "anti-NATO territory" and threats of "a new Vietnam."

Time for a new US policy is running out, but there is no hint of one in official or unofficial circles. Denouncing the Kremlin in May, Cheney spoke "like a triumphant cold warrior," a Times correspondent reported. A top State Department official has already announced the "next great mission" in and around Russia. In the same unreconstructed spirit, Rice has demanded Russians "recognize that we have legitimate interests ... in their neighborhood," without a word about Moscow's interests; and a former Clinton official has held the Kremlin "accountable for the ominous security threats ... developing between NATO's eastern border and Russia." Meanwhile, the Bush Administration is playing Russian roulette with Moscow's control of its nuclear weapons. Its missile shield project having already provoked a destabilizing Russian buildup, the Administration now proposes to further confuse Moscow's early-warning system, risking an accidental launch, by putting conventional warheads on long-range missiles for the first time.

In a democracy we might expect alternative policy proposals from would-be leaders. But there are none in either party, only demands for a more anti-Russian course, or silence. We should not be surprised. Acquiescence in Bush's monstrous war in Iraq has amply demonstrated the political elite's limited capacity for introspection, independent thought and civic courage. (It prefers to falsely blame the American people, as the managing editor of Foreign Affairs recently did, for craving "ideological red meat.") It may also be intimidated by another revived cold war practice - personal defamation. The Post and The New Yorker have already labeled critics of their Russia policy "Putin apologists" and charged them with "appeasement" and "again taking the Russian side of the Cold War."

INTRODUCTION: to RONALD REAGAN: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader

In 1982, the learned Sovietologist Seweryn Bialer of Columbia University wrote in Foreign Affairs, “The Soviet Union is not now, nor will it be during the next decade, in the throes of a true systemic crisis, for it boasts enormous unused reserves of political and social stability.” This view was seconded that same year by historian and eminence grise Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who observed that “those in the United States who think the Soviet Union is on the verge of economic and social collapse [are] wishful thinkers” who are only “kidding themselves.”

John Kenneth Galbraith, the distinguished Harvard economist, wrote in 1984: “That the Soviet system has made great material progress in recent years is evident both from the statistics and from the general urban scene.... One sees it in the appearance of well-being of the people on the streets.... and the general aspect of restaurants, theaters, and shops.... Partly, the Russian system succeeds because, in contrast with the Western industrial economies, it makes full use of its manpower.”

Equally imaginative was the assessment of Paul Samuelson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a Nobel laureate in economics, writing in the 1985 edition of his widely used textbook: “What counts is results, and there can be no doubt that the Soviet planning system has been a powerful engine for economic growth.... The Soviet model has surely demonstrated that a command economy is capable of mobilizing resources for rapid growth.”

James Reston, the renowned columnist of the New York Times, in June 1985 revealed his capacity for sophisticated evenhandedness when he dismissed the possibility of the collapse of communism on the grounds that Soviet problems were no different from those of the United States: “It’s clear that the ideologies of Communism, socialism and capitalism are all in trouble.”

But the genius award undoubtedly goes to Lester Thurow, economist and well-known author, who, as late as 1989, wrote, “Can economic command significantly ... accelerate the growth process? The remarkable performance of the Soviet Union suggests that it can. Today it is a country whose economic achievements bear comparison with those of the United States.”

Wise men tend to be impatient with dummies, and thus we can understand the tone of indignation with which Strobe Talbott, a senior correspondent at Time and later an official in the Clinton State Department, faulted officials in the Reagan administration for espousing “the early fifties goal of rolling back Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,” an objective he considered misguided and unrealistic. “Reagan is counting on American technological and economic predominance to prevail in the end,” Talbott scoffed, adding that if the Soviet economy was in a crisis of any kind, “it is a permanent, institutionalized crisis with which the U.S.S.R. has learned to live.”

Equally scornful was Sovietologist Stephen Cohen of Princeton University, who wrote in 1983: “All evidence indicates that the Reagan administration has abandoned both containment and détente for a very different objective: destroying the Soviet Union as a world power and possibly even its Communist system.”

Finally, a wise man gets something right. But then he spoils it by condemning Reagan for pursuing a wrongheaded and suicidal objective, one that revealed that the president was suffering from “a potentially fatal form of Sovietophobia ... a pathological rather than a healthy response to the Soviet Union.”

Perhaps one should not be too hard on the wise men. After all, explains Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse: “History has an abiding capacity to outwit our certitudes.” The wise men may have been wrong, Schlesinger concedes, but then “no one foresaw these changes.”

But here is the problem with this view. The dummy foresaw them! Consider what he said long before the wise men issued their pronouncements. In June 1980, Ronald Reagan met with a group of editors at the Washington Post. As reporter Lou Cannon, who arranged the meeting, recalled the incident to me, his colleagues expressed grave concerns that Reagan was escalating the arms race. Reagan told them not to worry: “The Soviets can’t compete with us.” Everyone around the table was astonished, because no one shared Reagan’s presumption of Soviet economic vulnerability. Yet Reagan assured them, “I’ll get the Soviets to the negotiating table.” Cannon recalls, “When he said that, nobody believed him.”

In 1981, Reagan told the students and faculty at the University of Notre Dame, “The West won’t contain Communism. It will transcend Communism. It will dismiss it as some bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.” He repeated this theme, in almost exactly the same words, in a subsequent speech in Orlando before the National Association of Evangelicals.

How dumb can you get? From the wise men’s point of view, Reagan’s rhetoric was too inane and outlandish to take seriously. But Reagan wouldn’t stop. In 1982, he addressed the British Parliament in London. “In an ironic sense,” Reagan said, “Karl Marx was right. We are witnessing today a great revolutionary crisis.... But the crisis is happening not in the free, non-Marxist West, but in the home of Marxism-Leninism, the Soviet Union.” Reagan added that “it is the Soviet Union that runs against the tide of history by denying freedom and human dignity to its citizens,” and he predicted that if the Western alliance remained strong, it would produce a “march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history.”

The wise men could hardly contain their derision: Give the man a brain transplant.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 27, 2007 6:19 PM

That would be, NYU Sovietologist Stephen Cohen.

Posted by: erp at August 28, 2007 11:29 AM