Almost exactly seventy-five years ago, on March 12, 1947, then-U.S. President Harry S. Truman, alarmed by Soviet aggression in the Eastern Mediterranean and its efforts to undermine war-ravaged democracies in Western Europe, announced a dramatic reorientation of the United States’ national security policy.
Addressing a joint session of Congress, he committed the United States to a new global mission to contain the Soviet Union by “support[ing] free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressures.” The speech set off a fifteen-week frenzy of diplomatic activity that culminated on June 5 with the proposal of the Marshall Plan.
This new grand strategy—now known as the Truman Doctrine—was not the orientation members of the U.S. foreign policy establishment had anticipated during World War II. As I outlined in my 2009 book, The Best Laid Plans: The Origins of American Multilateralism and the Dawn of the Cold War, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s (FDR) administration had instead laid the groundwork for an open, rule-bound postwar world undergirded by new international institutions. Its twin pillars were to be a universal security system—the United Nations—and a multilateral economic order directed by the Bretton Woods institutions and a potential new international trade organization.
FDR was convinced that the United Nations would “spell an end to the system of unilateral action, the exclusive alliances, the spheres of influence, the balances of power and all the other expedients that have been tried for centuries—and have always failed.” Similarly, he believed the economic organizations, guided by the principles of nondiscrimination and reciprocity, would replace the autarkic blocs and closed systems of imperial preference that had helped poison the interwar period.
Unfortunately, the Soviet Union found this open-world vision, and the priority it accorded democratic freedoms over spheres of influence, deeply threatening. As Moscow tightened its grip over Eastern Europe, Washington was forced to defer its universalist dreams and focus on building a narrower community of so-called free world nations—notwithstanding the European colonial powers that remained in the postwar period—that would be capable of deterring Soviet aggression and subversion. The United States moved to bolster Western Europe economically, politically, and, with the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949, militarily.
This history resonates today in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Like Stalin before him, Russian President Vladimir Putin is challenging the very concept of a rule-bound international system, seeking to overturn the territorial and political status quo and hoping to extinguish the sovereign independence of neighboring states. And as in the late 1940s, Russia’s actions today are galvanizing Western solidarity, with the United States and its allies rededicating themselves to FDR’s vision of an open world composed of free societies.
The United States and other Western nations should beware of exaggerating the ideological threat posed by today’s authoritarian powers.
But despite these surface commonalities, the geopolitical, economic, and ideological contexts for the current crisis are in fact quite distinct from those of the late 1940s. The United States and allied policymakers, who are fond of historical analogies, should heed three principal differences as they formulate a joint response to the latest act of Russian aggression.
First, the modern correlation of forces in Europe is nowhere near as concerning for Washington. In early 1947, U.S. officials looking across the Atlantic saw a continent on the verge of collapse, vulnerable to internal subversion and defenseless against external attack. Then-Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson warned that with communists holding four ministries in the French Cabinet and infiltrating the army, factories, and trade unions, “the Russians could pull the plug any time they [chose].” Today, democracy is firmly consolidated in most of Europe, with partly-free Hungary and the Balkans serving as stigmatized outliers.
What’s more, the European Union and the United Kingdom combined have more than 500 million citizens, nearly three-and-a-half times Russia’s population, and a collective gross domestic product of approximately $18 trillion, more than twelve times Russia’s. NATO, meanwhile, has by now developed robust military capabilities to deter and respond to an attack on any of its thirty members, while the Russian army is struggling to subdue Ukraine. The biggest strategic risk Russia poses to the West, of course, lies in its massive nuclear capabilities. But unless Putin is suicidal, there is no reason to presume that the logic of mutually assured destruction is any less compelling now than it was during the Cold War.
Second, the United States and its allies today enjoy huge economic leverage over Russia. During the early Cold War, economic interdependence between the Western and Soviet blocs was minimal. In pursuit of self-sufficiency, the USSR and its satellites remained largely outside the Western-dominated international economic system by instead establishing and operating within the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, or COMECON, which was founded as a direct response to the Marshall Plan. By contrast, today’s Russia is deeply embedded in the international economic system, dependent on global markets for, among other things, oil revenues, foreign investment, gig economy access, and vital technology.
Russia’s dependence has provided a target-rich environment for Western economic retaliation, despite Moscow’s efforts to insulate itself from sanctions. Since 2015, the Russian Central Bank has foregone foreign spending to stock up on currency reserves now worth an impressive $631 billion. Unfortunately for Putin, the West is preventing Russia from using this rainy-day fund by blocking its access to Western financial institutions, U.S. dollar transactions, and the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) network. Further complicating matters for the Kremlin, Russia’s supposed “rock-solid” partner, China, has thus far been hesitant to provide it with an economic cushion or to expand the Kremlin’s access to the Chinese domestic alternative to SWIFT. The economic forecasting firm Oxford Economics projects that Russia’s economy could shrink as much as seven percent in the coming year.
Finally, the ideological context is different. What made the Cold War intense and enduring was its Manichean struggle between two competing universalisms—democratic capitalism and communism. As a U.S. diplomat, Charles Bohlen, explained in 1947, U.S. officials were forced to recognize, to their dismay, that there were “two worlds instead of one.” Accordingly, the overriding goal of U.S. foreign policy was to unite the “non-Soviet World” against their shared enemy.
The relevant question is whether a similar dynamic has arisen today. Well before the Ukraine crisis, many analysts had declared the start of a “new Cold War” that is pitting advanced market democracies against autocracies. Russia’s invasion has reinforced this view, with numerous voices proposing a revival of the Truman Doctrine’s “containment” approach. Certainly, the United States and other Western nations should resist Russian and Chinese aggression. But they should also beware of exaggerating the ideological threat posed by these authoritarian powers.
Echoing Truman’s sweeping language, U.S. President Joe Biden has described the “battle between the utility of democracies … and autocracies” as the core struggle of the present. There is an important difference, though, between the threat the Soviet Union presented in 1947 and that posed by Russia and China today. For all its manifest faults, the ideology of Marxism-Leninism resonated with many popular communist, socialist, and nationalist movements. Today, though, Moscow and Beijing are seeking to expand their influence not by peddling a universalist ideology, but by courting and supporting strongmen around the world who similarly perceive democracy as a direct threat to their grip on power. What this so-called league of authoritarians lacks, however, is a compelling worldview capable of attracting mass popular support worldwide. This is an obvious Achilles heel that the United States and its allies can exploit.
The West has already won the war of ideas. Today’s “long twilight struggle” instead lies in the hard work of translating those ideas into reality—at home and abroad.
This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.