The New Cold War
It is now a commonplace that a new Cold War has begun, brought upon the West by the aggressive partnership of Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. But it has been 30 years since the Cold War ended, and many Americans (and Europeans) are too young to know or have forgotten what the Cold War was like--and how the United States led the free world to victory. The combination of military strength and ideological pressure that led to victory will be needed again, and in National Review magazine I tried to analyze what this new Cold War will demand of us, and the temptations to avoid. Here is the text:
The New Cold War
March 3, 2022
THE NEW COLD WAR
Only the oldest Americans have memories of the 1930s, when German and Japanese power threatened war in both Europe and the Pacific. In those years Americans well recalled the earlier “Great War” and wanted no repeat of it. Isolationism was strong and the Roosevelt administration trod carefully in building American defenses and offering help to allies. Even when war began in Europe in 1939, America stood back until it was directly attacked.
The coming decades may resemble the 1930s more than any other period since. Whether they will lead to a peaceful contest or a conflict that tests the nation as much as or more than did the Second World War is the awful question we now face.
We are not ready — militarily, politically, or psychologically — for the prolonged crisis ahead of us. Vast American productivity, wealth, and power overwhelmed Germany in both the First and the Second World War, and Japan in the latter. We were certain of victory, and our allies knew that once we entered the war, the outcome was not in doubt.
In the Cold War, Russia rivaled us in military power but — though many analysts vastly overstated the size of the Soviet economy — its communist system meant that it could never keep up. The gap in wealth and technological progress grew by the decade. Still, Russia and Soviet communism posed a great challenge, and the “Cold” War saw tens of thousands of American deaths in Korea and Vietnam. Russia seemed to be steadily gaining ground geopolitically by the end of the 1970s, but Ronald Reagan led a resurgence of American military and economic power and determination, and a decade later the Soviet Union fell. For 30 years now, Americans have been able to fight the dangerous but not existential threat from terrorism without much worry about the shape of the world our children will live in.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is not an attack on the United States, and in that sense is perhaps more like the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 than like Pearl Harbor: a sharp announcement that all bets are off. Like 9/11, it tells us that the world is far more dangerous than we have wanted to believe. Even many Americans who saw China as the great challenge of the 21st century often thought we could simply draw back from Europe and the Middle East and turn to the Pacific again. A look at U.S. defense spending confirms our relaxed view of the threats we faced: Spending was 9 percent of GDP in 1960 and then fell to under 5 percent in the late 1970s. The Reagan buildup raised it to 6.6 percent by 1986, but then it fell again: under 6 percent, then under 5, then down to 4, then under 4 percent from 2014 to 2020.
Today we face challenges to U.S. interests that are growing each year and may actually be greater than those of the 20th century. Neither Germany nor Japan nor the combination of the two constituted a peer rival to the United States. But what if Nazi Germany and Japan had maintained an alliance with the USSR? That is the risk presented when a fully rearmed, aggressive Russia and a rich, aggressive, and technologically advanced China tell us that the international order that has lasted since 1945 must end, and American predominance with it.
Consider the Putin–Xi Jinping joint statement made on February 4: “The new inter-State relations between Russia and China are superior to political and military alliances of the Cold War era. Friendship between the two States has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation . . .” This is a clear announcement of a new alliance meant to go beyond the Cold War — in part by creating a partnership that will lead to a very different outcome this time.
Moreover, Putin and Xi announced a new Brezhnev Doctrine: “Russia and China stand against attempts by external forces to undermine security and stability in their common adjacent regions, intend to counter interference by outside forces in the internal affairs of sovereign countries under any pretext, oppose colour revolutions, and will increase cooperation in the aforementioned areas.” The old doctrine said no country could leave the Soviet camp; now Russia and China are insisting that no dictatorship anywhere near their borders can free itself or join the democratic, pro-U.S. camp. The frontiers of freedom can be breached, but they may never be expanded.
In fact, the invasion of Ukraine is step four for Putin, after Georgia, Crimea, and Donbas, invasions done under U.S. administrations of both parties over a decade and a half. Had we reacted more strongly in those cases, had we imposed severe costs, the Ukraine invasion would likely not have occurred. Putin learned a lesson; so should we.
This challenge will test our nation to its core. The first and quick U.S. reaction to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine should be to understand that aggression will be repeated unless it incurs a heavy price. Before we turn to addressing the next decades, we should address the coming months. Putin must learn that crime does not pay, or else he will try it again — even against NATO countries we are pledged to defend. If we are cowed by his threats against “interference” and his warning that Russia is a “powerful nuclear state,” we are telling him that we will not stop him from reestablishing Russian domination over all of Eastern Europe — the Soviet empire rebuilt. Russia’s economy, finances, and energy exports are weapons for Putin, and we should be acting more forcefully now to weaken all of them. What’s more, doing so will show the Russian people — who did not ask for and may oppose killing thousands of Ukrainians — that their leader is going down a path that will lead to harm for them and their country. The more Russia is penalized for this aggression, the shorter may be Putin’s years in power. His plan is to be “president for life,” but that plan may not work out if the invasion of Ukraine is seen to be a hugely dangerous gamble that failed.
That means a permanent refusal to recognize Putin’s conquest and the quisling government he may install. The United States refused to recognize Stalin’s 1940 annexation of the Baltic states, even as decade after decade rolled by. The same adamant refusal should govern here, however long it takes for Ukraine to be free again. And real resistance to Putin means backing a Ukrainian resistance and supplying it with the money and weapons it will need to bleed Putin. Facing a determined and effective Ukrainian insurgency is the best way Russians may come to conclude that Putin’s gamble has been a disaster — and turn against him.
This will be very difficult. For one thing, that resistance needs to be based someplace, and that place (Poland makes the most sense geographically) will face attack by Putin; it will need strong and unwavering American support. Rhetoric is nice, money is better, but steel is best: American forces in Europe must be redeployed east, to protect the nations that have borders with Russia and (now) Ukraine. Having our troops and armor sitting in Germany now makes little sense.
The second reaction should be to rally all our allies, across the globe, which will not act unless led by the United States. Putin has just one ally of any importance in his Ukraine attack — China. Putin and Xi have each other in the sense that they have a common enemy in us, but they should remind us of Hitler and Stalin in the days of the Nazi–Soviet pact: murderers finding temporary advantage. This is not an alliance based on trust. By contrast, the United States has since the Second World War been the creator and beneficiary of a vast system of alliances based on fundamental common interests and common values, something the Soviets never had and Russia and China do not have today. Most of our own allies have stepped forward already, but willpower may wane over time. Maintaining unity will require both serious U.S. action and constant effort to keep allies on board; George Shultz likened diplomacy to gardening in its requirement for endless and repetitive effort.
However well the United States reacts to the invasion of Ukraine in the coming weeks, over the medium and long term the United States must take advantage of every asset we have or can create when facing Russia and China.
There will be no substitute for military strength, and we do not have enough. It should be crystal clear now that a larger percentage of GDP will need to be spent on defense. We will need more conventional strength in ships and planes. We will need to match the Chinese in advanced military technology, but at the other end of the spectrum, we may need many more tanks if we have to station thousands in Europe, as we did during the Cold War. (The total number of American tanks permanently stationed in Europe today is zero.) Persistent efforts to diminish even further the size of our nuclear arsenal or prevent its modernization were always bad ideas, but now, as China and Russia are modernizing their nuclear weaponry and appear to have no interest in negotiating new limits, such restraints should be completely abandoned. Our nuclear arsenal will need to be modernized and expanded so that we will never face the kinds of threats Putin is now making from a position of real nuclear inferiority.
The United States is an energy superpower and must expand this strength. The point is obvious: As we were once and will need again to be the arsenal of democracy, we must also try to be its fuel depot. We cannot supply all allied needs, but we can supply ourselves and influence the allies who constitute the bulk of world production aside from Russia. Foolish limits on American energy production must be pulled back, especially in the next decade, while allies wean themselves off Russian energy sources. The Europeans and especially the Germans deserve condemnation for putting themselves so deeply in Russia’s hands on oil and gas, but more useful than recrimination will be helping them turn away speedily. And indeed, the Europeans appear to realize now that they must act, protecting their national security by both increasing military spending and ending energy dependence on Russia. In addition to U.S. production, other alternative sources, such as Eastern Mediterranean gas supplies from Israel, Egypt, and Cyprus, can help Europe back away from Russian energy.
Enhancing our energy production and military strength, both of which are essential components of preparing for the new Cold War, will require a functioning political system with bipartisan cooperation on national-security issues. When Roosevelt faced the Nazi threat and when Truman faced the Soviets, they were smart enough to seek some form of bipartisan cooperation — and they got it from Republicans who put country over party when it came to national security. Roosevelt brought the Republican Henry Stimson into his cabinet as secretary of war in July 1940, before the United States was at war. Senator Arthur Vandenberg, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, gave invaluable support to Truman in passing the NATO treaty in 1949 and funding the Marshall Plan.
President Biden should consider now whether there are any steps he can take to overcome, on national-security issues, some of the deep and bitter partisanship that marks our politics today. Realistically, this will not mean multiple Republicans in his cabinet, but will he do anything? Why has he not asked all living presidents, including George W. Bush, to come to the White House very visibly for consultation and advice and in a show of unity? Why has he not invited in Republican leaders such as Mitch McConnell and the ranking Republicans on the House and Senate armed-services and foreign-relations committees? Why not ask former officials such as James Mattis, Condoleezza Rice, James Baker, and Robert Gates for help? Why not have a talk with Henry Kissinger? Surely President Biden does not believe that all the experience and wisdom he needs can be found in Tony Blinken and Jake Sullivan — and if he does believe it, the nation does not. But even, or especially, if he refuses to bring in a new team, Biden must show the nation that he is making a real effort to remove the poison from politics when national security is at stake.
Of course, it takes two to tango, and some Republicans, led by former president Trump, have in the face of crisis been irresponsible. Biden should ignore them, but Republicans should reject their partisan posturing and demand something better: patriotism. If Biden decides that his team, and his party, can go this alone, he will be making a very consequential error. Republicans should seek to advance our national interests. If the American people then judge that it is the party of military strength and political responsibility, it will be protecting our security and also winning more elections.
In what will now be a dangerous and lengthy struggle with Russia and China, one that may last for generations, as did the Cold War, there will be three temptations the United States must avoid. The first is to seek relief by putting our heads in the sand. For too many decades Americans have persuaded themselves that once China got rich, it would turn away from militancy and stop threatening its neighbors and brutalizing its own populace. This is clearly false, just as it is false that Putin’s demands can be negotiated into acceptable compromises. We are in an unavoidable competition with both countries, which see us as an enemy, and we can avoid the challenge only by surrendering allies and assets. Realizing this fact is the critical first step in rallying Americans to the requirements that defense of our freedom and our prosperity will impose on us. The world today is far more dangerous for us than it has been since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and it will remain so while those two regimes exist. The danger cannot be wished away.
The second and related temptation is to think there’s a shortcut in competing with China, which is to forget the rest of the world. “We are overcommitted in the Middle East and Europe,” that mantra goes; we have finite resources and need all of them for China. This is a grave error because abandoning allies and interests anywhere will weaken all our alliances everywhere. If we want allies to forgo Russian oil and gas, for example, supplies of Middle East oil and gas become that much more important, and abandoning the Middle East is impossible. What’s more, our military resources are not fixed; they are the product of budget decisions taken every year by Congress and the president. Americans must awaken from the decades-long dream that our downsized military is adequate because major interstate conflicts are impossible. We see now that they are not, and it remains true that if we want peace, we must prepare for war — in Europe and in Asia. The decision of the Obama administration to move from preparedness to fight two and a half wars to readiness for one war at a time was not sensible a decade ago, and now it is plainly dangerous. The United States cannot assume that simultaneous crises in Europe and Asia are impossible.
Third, we must resist the temptation to conclude that in such a dangerous world, promotion of freedom is a luxury we cannot afford. On the contrary, freedom is one of the most powerful weapons in our hands; it is what separates us morally from the Russian and Chinese regimes, and this is understood around the globe even if we sometimes ignore it. Putin and Xi understand this deeply, as their joint statements show. It helps explain why we lead global alliances while they have only marriages of convenience: Common values underlie our closest relationships and make them supple and long-lasting. Ukrainians are fighting for national sovereignty and for liberty, and they know the two are inseparable. Putin has just reminded a billion people around the world why they accept and want American leadership, and our commitment to live in liberty and allow them to do so is central to our prospects in the coming struggle.
Reagan always understood that the Cold War was more than a conflict among states; it was even more fundamentally an ideological conflict between the forces of liberty and the powers that would snuff it out nation by nation until our own was in jeopardy.
This new struggle has been thrust upon us by Russia and China; there is no escaping it. Strength will be rewarded and weakness will be punished. The days of easy American preponderance have come to an end; for the next few decades we will have to work hard to keep the global balance of forces from turning against us. If history is a guide, the American people will rise to the challenge as long as our own national leadership is up to the task. As we judge those who seek to lead, this is the prime test we should put to all of them.
ELLIOTT ABRAMS — Mr. Abrams is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the chairman of the Vandenberg Coalition.