A month into the war in Ukraine, it’s clear that the geopolitical ramifications of the conflict will be far-reaching, and many are warning of a renewed Cold War between the United States and Russia – a prospect that some analysts and authors were raising even before last month. But historical analogies are never exact, and there are many important distinctions to be made between the Cold War and the current confrontation, not all of which are reassuring.
For this week’s newsletter (subscribe here), I called Stephen Wertheim, who is a senior fellow in the US Statecraft program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the author of Tomorrow the world: the growth of the world supremacy of the United States, and one of the leading critics of interventionist foreign policy. We discussed how the current situation compares to the Cold War and the various troubling scenarios that could unfold. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.
David Klion: How appropriate is the term “New Cold War” to describe the current geopolitical impasse surrounding the war in Ukraine?
Stephen Wertheim: I think the Cold War is a pretty poor metaphor if it’s meant to draw similarities between yesterday and today. It is most powerful if used to issue a warning about the direction in which we are heading: towards a state of permanent and unlimited hostility, where no meaningful diplomacy can take place and where outstanding disputes cannot be resolved. . If you look at a map of the countries of the world that imposed these sanctions on Russia, it’s quite similar to a map of the so-called free world that sought to contain the Soviet bloc.
That said, those of us who warned of a cold war before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine now find ourselves in a very different position. Now that Russia has committed this act of aggression, which warrants significant punishment from the West, any short-term prospect of a decent US-Russian relationship is gone. The West will undertake a serious effort to counterbalance Russian military and economic might for some time. So while the value of the warning against a new Cold War is minimal, there are still productive questions to be asked about what the United States should do in relation to Europe, and to what extent the fight against Russia should be one of the top US foreign policy priorities.
DK: Where are you? What priorities do you see as competing with this renewed focus on Russian containment?
SW: I think there is a clear effort underway in Washington to seize on the war in Ukraine to argue that the United States should continue to be the indispensable nation. Previously, the Biden administration had tried to prioritize security in Asia and the prosperity and well-being of America’s middle class, but now the administration may be tempted to add a mission to those goals. more intensive to contain Russia.
DK: And these missions may be contradictory, right? There is a very plausible argument that we are handing Russia over to China, that Western sanctions are encouraging a much closer relationship between these two powers, instead of pitting them against each other.
SW: Yes. This is one of the reasons why some people in Washington fear imposing such severe sanctions on Russia, for example by freezing the assets of the Russian Central Bank. While significant costs must be imposed on Russia, the track record of large-scale sanctions against other countries does not suggest a high likelihood of changing their behavior. Sanctions are a gamble. And if the sanctions are maintained in the long term, it will have the effect of making Russia more dependent on China. Some argue that this change has already happened, that Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin have forged a close relationship, and now the United States must respond to this reality. I think that’s somewhat wrong; China is still trying to figure out exactly what its position will be, and China has a strong economic interest in remaining engaged with the United States and the West more broadly. So I don’t think it makes sense to resign to a Sino-Russian alliance in the foreseeable future.
Note that most recent talk of a “new cold war” before last month had referred to China, not Russia. The United States will continue to view China as a major threat and competitor. So now we are potentially facing a very intense security competition against Russia and China. And as proponents of this view admit, such competition would necessitate a significant increase in US defense spending well into the indefinite future and place US forces on the front lines of two potential great power wars. Taking this approach would involve far greater costs and far greater risks than anything we have seen in the last three decades.
Anyway, that’s one of the many reasons why, if we get to the point where Ukraine is trying to reach a peace settlement, and one condition is that we lift some of the sanctions against Russia , it would be a difficult thing for the West to do, but also a necessary one. If we don’t tie specific sanctions to actions Russia might take to get them lifted, we don’t have a strategy at all, we only have sanctions. This is what so many, including members of the Biden administration, have argued against the Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ sanctions on Iran, which has in fact been punished for complying with the Obama administration nuclear deal.
DK: How worried should we be today about the prospect of the use of nuclear weapons?
SW: I am preoccupied! It’s hard to know how worried you should be. The situation today is in some ways less predictable than during much of the Cold War, when both sides understood how the other would behave.
What worries me most is the possibility that Putin may come to believe that the survival of his regime is at stake and that the tools at his disposal are diminishing. His conventional forces have struggled in Ukraine far more than he seems to have expected. Russia is now sanctioned, really embargoed, by much of the world, and Europe is trying to wean itself off Russian oil and gas. In this context, if Putin feels he is losing the war and his regime is in danger, one thing he has is a formidable stockpile of nuclear weapons. The US government has waged war games in which Russia sometimes uses nuclear weapons under such conditions.
I think Putin always acts on a certain rationality, even if it’s hard for us to understand. He knows the difference between a nuclear weapon and a non-nuclear weapon, and between a NATO country and a non-NATO country, for example. But at some point, could he become so desperate that he might want to change the strategic situation in a drastic way that would seem to give him a chance of survival, as opposed to no chance? It is imaginable, especially because Putin is used to fearing that the West will seek his overthrow.
DK: When we generally think of nuclear weapons, we might imagine that all major cities in the world are instantly destroyed. But there has been talk of lesser-powered tactical nuclear weapons designed for use on the battlefield; Putin could, for example, try to eliminate a column of the Ukrainian army.
SW: Yeah, that’s a more likely prospect. There are nuclear weapons that have a small blast radius, perhaps the size of an airport, but would still break the taboo against the use of nuclear weapons. Such an attack could be seen as more of a warning than anything else, and it could be less lethal than the conventional attacks that continue in Ukraine. It is an open question what would be the response of the United States then.
DK: Nuclear terror aside, what are the bigger risks and implications of a protracted Cold War-style confrontation between the US and Russia (or between the US and China, for that matter)?
SW: A cold war would trap both sides in a security dilemma in which a gain for one would be a loss for the other. It would stifle meaningful cooperation and diplomacy in areas where leaders on both sides might otherwise think they have an interest in cooperating, for example on climate change. And it could have negative effects on our domestic politics, similar to McCarthyism during the first Cold War.
A Cold War could also mean dividing the world along economic and cultural lines. Throughout the Cold War, the communist world did not interact much with the “free world”. But over the past three decades, despite all the downsides of globalization, the economic interests of most countries have been significantly divorced from their strategic and military interests. So if military competition continues to escalate, another danger is that we could start to see a disorderly economic decoupling from China that overshadows the one that suddenly happened between the West and Russia. Then the world would begin to look more like that of the original Cold War, and the risk of armed conflict would likely increase, as the value of taking over new territory would increase.
I wouldn’t have said this a month ago, but now there is an extreme risk that the world will split into economic blocs. The West has just shown that in a geopolitical eventuality, it can cut off a great power like Russia from much of the global financial system. Now, other countries must consider that the same thing could happen to them, or to their main trading partners, under certain circumstances. They may therefore want to make plans to align themselves economically with some states and abandon others, when the chips are down. And preparing for such an eventuality can actually help make that eventuality a reality, as states become less dependent on certain trading partners and form strategic partnerships with others. The risk is therefore that of a global shift not so much towards national autarky as towards international economic blocs, although we still have a long way to go before we get there.
DK: So, to sum up: how afraid should we be?
SW: I mean, there’s only bad news. It’s hard for me to see why some people seem to be excited about how the West has united against a common enemy. It’s a tragedy, and Vladimir Putin is the main culprit, but the world that emerges from this war in Ukraine will be poorer, more divided and more heavily armed.