Really, actually avoiding a new Cold War

Any interesting argument on foreign policy can be attacked from many, even opposing angles. So it is with enormous gratification that we see that our argument about the possibility and need to avoid a new Cold War with Russia has drawn fierce criticism from both Moscow and Washington. First, from Russia (with if not love than at least respect), Professors Andrej Krickovic and Yuval Weber took the view that a new Cold War is inevitable because neither the United States nor Russia can pull off a negotiation to avoid one. When we countered that this level of fatalism is unwarranted, our colleague Steve Pifer replied, with perhaps even greater affection, that such a negotiation is unnecessary and even immoral.

Steve believes that the United States can continue the current level of confrontation with Russia more or less indefinitely and avoid the kind of danger that the original Cold War posed. He further suggests that even to attempt a negotiation with Russia over the issues that led to the Ukraine crisis and the general deterioration in U.S.-Russia relations would constitute a sell-out of Ukraine and, worse, might well produce a hot war.

The question of whether the current U.S. confrontation with Russia can be managed indefinitely without a major conflagration is clearly a matter for debate. But on recent evidence—the continuing Russian aggression in Ukraine and Western sanctions in response, the frightening proxy confrontation over Syria in which U.S. weapons could well be killing Russian soldiers, and the steadily increasing stream of provocations and invective from both sides—the trends are not good at all. The U.S. presidential campaign will not make management of these tensions any easier. In short, without a major shift in policy, a prolonged confrontation with Russia—a new Cold War—seems highly probable. 

Even were such a confrontation to materialize, Steve believes it would not entail the same costs and risks of the first one. We agree that a new Cold War would be quite distinct and perhaps of lesser scale than the last one. But given the enormous costs—financial, political, moral, and humanitarian—of that conflict, this is hardly a comforting thought. 

Elsewhere we have described the specific consequences of this new confrontation and they are not small: instability and tensions throughout Eastern Europe; paralysis of multilateral diplomacy; and outright Russian spoiling of U.S. efforts to address global challenges (e.g., in Syria). A new Cold War would also dramatically raise the risk of thermonuclear annihilation, which however unlikely is a very bad outcome indeed. If our society has, in its post-Cold War comfort, forgotten this possibility and the sense of terror this threat conveyed on a daily basis, that is all to the good. But we remember that we lived under this threat as children, and it is not something we want for our children.

[T]he principle that every country should have the freedom to make its own choices applies equally to the United States as it does to Ukraine.

In addition to downplaying the implications of a new Cold War, Steve offers an impassioned plea to protect Ukrainian interests and independence from Russian depredations. Steve’s commitment to the country to which he was once ambassador speaks well of him as a diplomat and a human being. And we join his denunciation of Russia’s actions. But it is Ukraine that will suffer most from a new Cold War. So long as a new Cold War continues, Ukraine will remain a violent and perennially destabilized economic basket case, a Sudan on the Dnipro. We find it counterintuitive, therefore, that efforts to avoid this outcome could possibly come at Ukraine’s expense.

And contrary to the implication in Steve’s piece, the United States has no commitments to defend Ukraine. There is no such obligation in the Budapest Memorandum. As then Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott (now president of Brookings), who led the negotiations on the memorandum, said at the time: “This [memorandum] does not mean the U.S. is willing to come to the defense of Ukraine if it is attacked militarily” (Agence France Presse, November 18, 1994). Any side offer of such a commitment made to the Ukrainians by U.S. diplomats and not notified to Congress has no standing.

But beyond this technical legal point, we would note that the principle that every country should have the freedom to make its own choices applies equally to the United States as it does to Ukraine. There is nothing in international law, U.S. treaty commitments, or the Ten Commandments that obligates the United States to fight a new Cold War in order to defend Ukraine’s right to choose alliances. Ukraine, of course, can and should do whatever it feels is in the interests of its people, but the United States has the choice about whether and how to support its decisions, particularly if such support has the potential to do grievous harm to U.S. interests. More to the point, the NATO alliance is not prepared to grant Ukraine’s choice for membership and we should stop pretending otherwise. 

[P]ursuing a negotiated settlement to the crisis can go hand-in-hand with a robust reassurance and deterrence posture for NATO allies in Eastern and Central Europe.

We see little reason to believe that a negotiation that succeeded in creating an inclusive regional order, ensuring stability and security in non-NATO/EU Europe, could lead to a hot war between Russia and NATO, as per the ominous conclusion to Steve’s piece. In fact, evidence from the past 18 months suggests precisely the opposite: The escalation in tensions between Russia and the West could lead to a hot war. The series of close-calls in the air, provocations on the sea, and incendiary rhetoric all began after the Ukraine crisis. In any case, pursuing a negotiated settlement to the crisis can go hand-in-hand with a robust reassurance and deterrence posture for NATO allies in Eastern and Central Europe. After all, the United States does have an obligation to come to their defense. 

In the end, Steve, Yuval, Andrej and we all seem to agree that some sort of new Cold War is possible, even likely. For Steve, it is not so bad; for Andrej and Yuval, it is inevitable; for us, it is an avoidable tragedy. But even we have to admit, that in part on the evidence of Steve’s argument, the United States is not likely to engage in the kind of negotiation needed to avoid a new Cold War. Frankly, we are sorry to have found this level of agreement with our critics on such an unfortunate outcome.