Why a new Cold War can be avoided

All is not well in U.S.-Russia relations. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and aggression in eastern Ukraine—and its new airstrikes in Syria—have brought the two to lows not seen since the Cold War. Presidents Obama and Putin sniping at each other from the rostrum of the U.N. General Assembly only accentuated that divide.

But does this incipient enmity mean that a new Cold War is inevitable? Andrej Krickovic and Yuval Weber, in a recent post on this blog, argued that avoiding a new Cold War requires a new security framework for Europe. But they don’t think that such a framework can be achieved. 

We share their skepticism. One would have to be either ignorant of political realities or hopelessly naïve to be optimistic about such prospects under current circumstances. But we are not prepared to surrender and accept what would be an incredibly costly new Cold War, or perhaps even worse. Military expenditures by the United States alone were around $18 trillion during the Cold War. The conflict destabilized nearly the whole world, presented a constant fear of catastrophic nuclear war, and at times even threatened American democracy. Recognizing just how bad such an outcome would be should focus minds and change political calculations. 

Pessimism about the prospects for successful negotiation is common in international affairs. But it should not be an excuse for inaction. We have argued elsewhere that the Obama administration’s “middle way” approach to Russia—by which it maintains cooperation on key global issues while keeping up pressure on Russia for its actions in Ukraine—is unsustainable in the long run. Eventually, the United States will have to choose between a new Cold War and a negotiated solution to the crisis with Russia. 

[T]he Obama administration’s “middle way” approach to Russia…is unsustainable in the long run.

We acknowledge that such a deal would involve difficult compromises. The key question is: Is the alternative to a negotiated settlement preferable to an attempt to achieve such a settlement, even if the attempt ends in failure? Given that we, Krickovic, and Weber all agree that the alternative is a new Cold War—an extraordinarily bad outcome—the negotiation option merits investing significant time and effort, even if the prospects of success are not great.

Overstating the obstacles

Reaching a negotiated settlement, while unlikely, is not impossible. The objections Krickovic and Weber raise—namely commitment problems and concessions that wouldn’t fly in domestic politics—are all real but overstated. 

Commitment problems exist in every international negotiation. In this case, it is clear that neither side would ever be fully convinced of the other’s commitments. But for a negotiated settlement to work, the parties do not have to get over their mistrust. Neither the United States nor the USSR ever trusted each other, but they were certainly able to find mutually acceptable agreements. The key to international agreements is not trust; it is finding terms that all sides believe in their respective interests to follow.

Krickovic and Weber rightly call attention to the domestic politics on both sides. And indeed, if the terms of the deal turn out to be as the authors suggest they would (involving Russia reversing the annexation of Crimea and the United States agreeing to limit NATO expansion, among other possibilities), those costs might well be insurmountable. But the purpose of a negotiation is to find mutually acceptable terms; if talks succeed, the outcome will by definition not include terms that either “shake the [Russian] regime’s legitimacy to its very foundations” or “give Russia a de facto veto over NATO’s policies.” 

If at first you don’t succeed

As a matter of future-focused analysis, the authors might be right: Russia and the United States might not be able to negotiate successfully. But from a policy perspective, their argument reads like an elaborate theoretical justification for inaction. Indeed, the logic of Krickovic and Weber’s argument would have predicted that the Iran nuclear deal could not possibly have happened. But, surprising as it was, it did. The bottom line is that policymakers, let alone analysts, cannot know with certainty whether a negotiation will or will not succeed unless one is attempted. And in this case, there has been no such attempt. 

In the end, it is not clear why the very real difficulties the authors cite, which are inherent in any complex negotiation, are so much harder in this case than any other. The key point is that it is fairly easy to conceive of an agreement that is in all parties’ interest. As long as such a win-set exists, it is not impossible to imagine getting a deal. As long as the alternative is so costly, it makes sense to try.