The Thinker

The Cold War Returns

It is now looking like The Cold War did not so much end as it was postponed.

It sure looked like it ended back in 1989. For those of us of a certain age, the images of the Berlin Wall being torn down brick by brick (with many of the bricks being carted off as souvenirs) are indelible. Sometime in the early 1990s, I remember going to sleep with the realization that for the first time in my life, there was virtually no possibility of our country being attacked by nuclear missiles. No country had a reason to lob one at us. We were safe at last!

Over the last ten days or so, we have seen what sure looks like an opening salvo in The Cold War, Version 2. Russia and Georgia have been having a little tiff. It started over the largely ethnically Russian province of South Ossetia in Georgia. It was allowed quasi-independence from Georgia because Georgia feared Russia, its big brother. Who started this war? It is hard to say for sure, since there were plenty of skirmishes on both sides leading up to it, as The Washington Post cataloged yesterday. It looks like the Georgian army was the first to tip the apple cart by brazenly sending its troops into South Ossetia to show them who’s boss. To Georgia it was, “Well, excuse me for reclaiming my territory.” To the residents of South Ossetia it was, “Hey, I thought we were independent! Russia! Help!!” To Russia, it was “Let’s squash those Georgian buggers and send a signal that the Bear is back”.

Moving troops into South Ossetia was a spectacularly stupid move by Georgia, but one that was probably inevitable at some point. Disputed regions never remain disputed indefinitely. Eventually one side gets into a big enough huff and moves their chess piece. The Russian Army showed that Georgia’s forces were paper tigers. This left Georgia to squeal to its Western allies to help negotiate a cease-fire. Maybe Russia will withdraw, maybe not. Point made.

This war is not really about South Ossetia or neighboring Georgian territories under occupation by the Russian army. Telling this to the thousands of civilians who appear to have died because of this conflict is doubtless of no comfort. No, the roots of this event go back to that day in October 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell and the subsequently poor job the West did integrating Russia into the free world in the years since. Unsurprisingly, much of the blame can be laid on the Bush Administration, who have proven ever anxious to push its ideological saber when it could. This administration believes that possession is nine tenths of the law. That is why it never thought twice about suspending Habeas Corpus. If you have power, you should use it, whether earned or not. So of course we were going to overtly and covertly do everything we could to encourage Russia’s neighboring states to adopt our values. We needed an enlightened approach toward Russia. What we got was ideology.

In 1962, when the Soviet Union put mobile missile launchers in Cuba, the United States nearly became engulfed in a nuclear war. The result was the well-known and truly scary Cuban Missile Crisis. Today, just because we can, we are pressing new NATO states like Poland and the Czech Republic to accept our missiles as a “defense shield”. We are doing this supposedly to protect them from rogue states like Iran that might want to lob missiles at them. Of course, we are not doing it because Russia sits right next to them and has a habit of making sycophant states out of Eastern Europe. Why, we even invited the Russians in to check it the missile’s guidance systems. See, they’re not targeted at you. Never mind that in a couple minutes, they sure as heck could be targeted at Russia. Never mind that Iran has zero interest in lobbing missiles at the Czech Republic or Poland anyhow.

With the retirement of Boris Yeltsin and the rise of Vladimir Putin, the Russian government gave up governing by vodka. With Putin, smart leadership was back. His methods were hardly democratic, but he was a man of practical action. He knew he could leverage the power and greed in the West for Russia’s own aims. Democracy became inconvenient toward a more powerful goal shared by most Russians: wiping away the stain of humiliation over their defeat in the Cold War. Russia has enormous amounts of land and natural resources. Western capitalism became the means to reinvigorate their economy. Naturally, we in the West and elsewhere were more than happy to earn some fast bucks. Communism is gone, as it is pretty much in China as well. What is not gone is the tendency on both sides toward hegemony. And the bad news is that while America is now just coming off its energy high having consumed much of its most valuable natural resources, Russia has what is likely the largest natural resources in the planet, much of it untapped. It also has all sorts of metals and oil reserves needed to run a first world country. Moreover, we greedily facilitated the process by providing it with the technology and expertise.

Nuclear missiles, which used to be relatively far away in places like West Germany, may be but a relative stones throw from Russia if the West succeeds in putting these missiles in places like Hungary and the Czech Republic. In other words, 2008 looks very much like 1962 did to us, which is why recently one Russian general remarked if missiles go into Poland, it could be subject to Russian attack. Maybe this sort of delayed karmic experience is inevitable, but it did not have to be this way. It required the West, and the United States in particular, to act in a more enlightened manner instead of an ideological manner. Russia’s reaction to these new threats was entirely predictable. Consequently, they were wholly avoidable.

What would have been a more enlightened way to deal with Russia? Some ways were attempted. Russia was invited to attend the G-7, which became the G-8. We sent over venture capitalists and some that tried to teach America’s style of democracy, which proved to be a culturally imperfect fit. What was really needed was a slower and lower key approach. Eastern European countries had good reasons to want to become NATO and European Union members. Living under Russian occupation or its dominion was rarely a happy circumstance. What was also needed was a more respectful attitude toward Russia. If you want to avoid paranoia, you need to set up circumstances that reduce paranoid feelings. A slower and gentler approach toward helping emerging democracies would have been better. Providing military aid and advisors to neighboring countries like Georgia do nothing but inflame paranoia that the United States has motives beyond spreading freedom.

And so both sides are continuing their games of geopolitical chess which if we had acted in an enlightened manner we might have ended forever in 1989. Instead, the Cold War is reemerging unnecessarily, and doubtless its costs will be at least as high as they were during the last go around. Communism vs. democracy is no longer its animus. On the surface it appears to be about things like oil, free trade and keeping vital shipping lanes open. What is really going on is that the United States senses that it is an empire in decline, much like the British a century earlier. We also see Russia as a true empire for the first time. This time Russia is not saddled with the ideology that made it so inefficient. Our hope is that by sponsoring emerging democracies like Georgia, and by making sustaining friendships with strategic trading partners like Saudi Arabia the weight of these alliances will counter the newly unshackled Russian and Chinese states.

The effect of these changes is a new Cold War that in some ways is not that much different than the old one, and may well be scarier. The USSR is replaced by Russia, which is smaller, but by being more ethnically-pure may be more united. China is still China, but having embraced capitalism is also stronger. Then there is the United States. We thought we were the world’s only remaining superpower, but we were deluding ourselves. The United States is both stronger and weaker, both enabled and hobbled by being continents apart from the competition.

It remains to be seen how the emerging powerhouses of India, Indonesia, South Korea and Iran will fit into all this. It does appear that many more chess pieces are now in play and the game will get more complex from here on. All sides have studied the board for a long time. Russia’s invasion of South Ossetia is Pawn to King 4.


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