No, we aren’t on the brink of a new Cold War with Russia and China

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a welcome ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China June 8, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Lee     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC1AA9284B20
Editor's note:

It might a popular phrase to drum up clicks and interest, but the United States is definitely not on the brink of the next Cold War with Russia and China, write Michael O’Hanlon and Sean Zeigler. This piece originally appeared in USA Today.

Increasingly in U.S. national security circles, it has become common to hear talk of a new Cold War with great-power rivals. But this way of thinking is imprecise at best, dangerous at worst. A distinguished group of American experts has just warned against such thinking in regard to China, lest it create a self-fulfilling prophecy. However unbecoming Vladimir Putin’s rule may be in Moscow, we need a similar corrective for how we think about Russia.

The Trump administration’s 2018 National Defense Strategy, like the second-term Obama administration’s “Third Offset” concept, usefully reemphasizes deterrence of great-power conflict. There can be no doubt that Russia and China have both behaved in a much more assertive and threatening manner in recent years. But the United States has a tendency to overdo such policies. In the case of Russia, while NATO’s modernization efforts, and its modest military reinforcements in places like the Baltic states and Poland are welcome, we must avoid a pervading mentality that anticipates a struggle with the Kremlin at every turn. 

Cold War rhetoric about Russia is misconceived 

The dangers and fallacies of thinking in Cold-War, zero-sum, and military-first policies towards Russia are several-fold. First, today’s Russia, while both vindictive and ambitious, has nothing like the global ambitions of the Soviet Union. While it expresses a sense of betrayal by the West, it evinces no grandiose concept for worldwide conquest. As authors such as Timothy Snyder and Robert Kagan rightly argue, there can be a sort of authoritarian contagion that leaders like Putin could spread. But this is hardly akin to the Kremlin’s Marxist-Leninist ambitions for conquest during the Cold War.

Second, a Cold-War-like attitude ignores how much we are still working with Russia on key global security concerns. Russia’s role is especially important given its veto powers at the United Nations Security Council, crucial for policies such as imposing sanctions on threatening nations. If there is someday to be a new deal with Iran to supersede the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or if there is to be a negotiated denuclearization plan of some sort with North Korea, Russia’s support will be crucial. Despite troubled relations in recent years, Moscow generally has supported American policy at the United Nations in regard to these countries. Even in places where Russian policy is distasteful, or even reprehensible, such as in Syria, it will be far easier to solve problems if we can de-conflict our approaches with Moscow — and in fact, certain types of military deconfliction have been taking place for some time there, making possible the defeat of the ISIS caliphate.

Third, for all the debate about NATO’s lack of adequate seriousness when it comes to defense burden-sharing, the alliance remains impressive. Although only 7 countriesmeet the official goal of spending at least 2 percent of GDP on their armed forces, NATO collectively accounts for more than half of all world military spending. Most members have significantly increased their defense budgets since the Crimea crisis of 2014. NATO has also deployed enhanced forward presence battalions to the Baltic states and Poland. They do not constitute a robust defensive perimeter, but they at least represent a stronger tripwire than before. NATO would do well to make its reinforcement capabilities for this region more robust, but it is hard to see Mr. Putin really believing he could get away with an all-out invasion, even today. So far, he has cautiously avoided any military excursions into NATO countries.

Fourth, European nations do not get enough credit for the sustaining their sanctions on Russia as a result of its aggressions against Ukraine. Over the last half decade, largely as a result, the Russian economy has essentially gone flatGross domestic product and foreign direct investment in Russia have both declined since its Crimean invasion. Not only has this outcome delivered a useful punitive blow against Putin and many of his cronies, it has quite possibly helped dissuade any further Russian aggression, be it against Ukraine or Georgia or even a Baltic state, adding another dimension of deterrence to what NATO is doing militarily. A greater integration of economic and military measures of deterrence should be pursued in the United States and NATO, as one of us has recently argued in a new book, The Senkaku Paradox. More credible policies are needed in particular for limited and grey-area conflict zones. Such scenarios do indeed remain worrisome, as Russia continues to engage in disinformation campaigning and election meddling — but these efforts should not be confused with the existential risks of the Cold War. 

We can defuse tensions with Russia

And finally, thinking in Cold-War terms can blind us to the need to debate some of our own policies, where there may be opportunities to defuse U.S.-Russia tensions with creative ideas. A case in point is the future of NATO expansion, especially into former Soviet republics. Since 2008, NATO has officially promised to bring Ukraine and Georgia into the alliance at some point in the future. President Obama and President Trump have both let this Bush administration initiative stand. That would be a mistake.

Geographically and strategically, such a move would be a bridge too far for an alliance that was designed to stabilize the North Atlantic region. Moreover, while nothing can excuse Russia’s aggressions, the net effect of that 2008 NATO announcement, which contained no timetable for eventual membership for Georgia and Ukraine and no interim security guarantee as they waited, was to paint a giant bullseye on each of their metaphorical backs. We need to work out a new concept for security in eastern Europe that would enhance their security short of alliance membership, rather than degrade it as a half-serious promise of future alliance membership has done to date. 

All other national options that any sovereign state should enjoy, such as the right to join the EU if invited, must be protected in such an arrangement, but NATO membership would be counterproductive. Indeed, under present conditions, it is really not even possible.

The world is unsettled, and risky, yes. But those who liken the contemporary environment to the Cold War may have forgotten how profoundly dangerous most of the latter period really was.