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How Triumphalism Squandered America’s Cold War Victory

In the minds of U.S. policymakers, America represents all mankind, and everything it does is by definition moral and right.

Jacques Stella (1596-1657), The Rape of the Sabines. (Public domain/Princeton University Art Museum via Wikimedia Commons)

Three decades ago, humanity was enjoying a special Christmas present: the end of the Soviet Union. The communist behemoth had arisen amid the chaos and slaughter of the First World War. Indomitable revolutionary Vladimir Ilyich Lenin had driven the fringe Bolshevik Party to power. Joseph Stalin institutionalized terror and created a military superpower.

Nikita Khrushchev mixed liberalization with chaos and nearly triggered nuclear war over Cuba. Leonid Brezhnev enshrined sclerotic incompetence and inefficiency, spurring the Evil Empire’s decline. Then came Mikhail Gorbachev, who attempted to reform and save the Soviet Union but ended up burying the communist system.

The day after Christmas in 1991 the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics disbanded. The Soviet Communist Party had been dissolved after the attempted coup in August. Gorbachev was out of work. And the Soviet flag was lowered from the Kremlin for the last time.

It was an extraordinary triumph for the U.S., the West, and all mankind. Unfortunately, what followed was an equally extraordinary lost opportunity. As my Cato colleague Ted Galen Carpenter put it, instead of fully integrating Russia into the West, “beginning with Bill Clinton’s administration, the United States pursued arrogant and clumsy policies that ultimately culminated in the new cold war with Moscow that plagues the world today.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the USSR’s collapse led to extraordinary hubris. Looking back, Gorbachev cited the “triumphant mood in the West, especially the United States.” He explained: “They grew arrogant and self-confident. They declared victory in the Cold War.”

As a result, America now faces a potential revived Cold War with Moscow as well as a growing Sino-Russian condominium if not alliance. The unmitigated militancy and militarism that dominates Washington’s foreign policy establishment and especially the congressional Republican Party risks dragging America into a shooting war with Russia over Ukraine, which never has been a serious matter of U.S. security. Indeed, some GOP lawmakers appear to lust for war—a big one.

For instance, taking a position that can only be described as demented, Sen. Roger Wicker advocated: “President Biden should make clear that there is no scenario under which Ukraine will be overrun by Russia, period. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is already courting a bloodbath should he attack Ukrainian troops. President Biden should up the ante by warning him that an invasion would saddle him with an intolerably high Russian casualty count. This means leaving all options on the table and granting no concessions.” Wicker advocated not only intervening with ground forces, but using nuclear weapons, evidencing a judgment so malformed that he shouldn’t be allowed to visit the U.S. Capitol, let alone be elected to serve in it.

What went so wrong? Between 1989 and 1991 fantasy became reality. However, American policymakers weren’t satisfied with the incalculable gains from freeing hundreds of millions of people from communist rule. So Washington decided to run the table, ultimately risking the peace.

Gorbachev took over as communist general secretary in 1985. The USSR was in trouble, but few analysts expected its collapse. Gorbachev took half steps to reform the economy while abandoning the coercive tools necessary to enforce change. As 1989 dawned the Soviet Union was in increasing difficulty. Still, few foresaw its disappearance from the Cold War’s famed bipolar world.

Early that year came elections in Poland. Once this would have been unthinkable. For decades the Red Army enforced communist orthodoxy on the satellite regimes. None of the earlier attempted liberalizations, including twice in Poland, ended well: East Germany 1953Poland 1956Hungary 1956Czechoslovakia 1968Poland 1980. However, Gorbachev told Moscow’s allies that they were responsible for solving their own political problems and the Red Army would not intervene. Which made the unthinkable—a free vote and noncommunist government—reality in Warsaw.

Then a reform government in Hungary tore down its equivalent, if not quite so formidable, “Berlin Wall” with Austria, leaving a jagged hole in the infamous Iron Curtain. Some East Germans streamed out of their country and Eastern Europe. Others flooded Leipzig streets to protest their government. On November 9 the real Berlin Wall came crashing down. Protests forced the end of communist regimes in Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria. In a stunning conclusion to a dramatic year, on Christmas Day an uncomprehending Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, bizarre and cruel communist rulers who had wrecked Romania, found themselves before a drumhead firing squad.

Then it was the Soviet Union’s turn. The USSR was essentially a radical continuation of the Russian Empire, which always relied upon force to hold the provinces in line. Gorbachev, though a reform communist who hoped to transform and thereby save the Soviet Union, dropped this essential ingredient for the Not-Quite-So-Evil Empire to survive. Indeed, for abandoning coercion—he refused to arrest secessionists—he was derided as a “coward.” Which is why, three decades ago, he found himself unemployed and viewed with contempt. The main Soviet successor state, the Russian Federation, entered a chaotic new world.

Relations among victors and losers were never going to be easy. Unfortunately, the triumphant West made it worse, much worse. With the USSR’s collapse, NATO no longer had a serious role to play, but, as public choice economics would predict, the transatlantic alliance immediately determined to find a new raison d’etre. Among the more bizarre ideas suggested were for NATO to promote student exchanges, fight drug trafficking, and protect the environment. Ultimately the “transatlantic” alliance took on out-of-area activities, meaning wars largely unrelated to Europe’s security. Having decided to preserve the anti-Moscow alliance, its members then moved to expand it as well, despite contrary assurances to the Gorbachev and Yeltsin governments.

This reflected arrogance, most importantly. In the minds of U.S. policymakers, America represents all mankind, and everything it does is by definition moral and right. Running the world without Moscow’s interference would be a grand adventure. The Soviets/Russians had lost and there was nothing they could do to stop the U.S. Anyway, Russia would get over it. As the New York Herald wrote a century and a half earlier when advocating for the U.S. to absorb all of Mexico after its defeat: “Like the Sabine virgins, she will soon learn to love her ravishers.”

Alas, Moscow never did. Washington expanded NATO up to Russia’s borders and continued to drive eastward. Without maintaining even a pretense that expansion improved U.S. security, the alliance included such powerhouses as Montenegro and North Macedonia; the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, famed star of The Mouse that Roared, seemed likely to be next. Along with Georgia and Ukraine, which NATO promised to incorporate, despite their presence on Russia’s border.

Putin, no friend of liberty, responded with calculated brutality. When the reckless, feckless Mikheil Saakashvili, president of Georgia, fired on Russian troops while expecting U.S. backing, Moscow battered the Georgian military and applied the Serbia precedent, ensuring separation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Bush administration entertained a proposal to intervene militarily—which would have triggered retaliation and perhaps even full-scale war between the U.S. and Russia. Luckily, having Sen. John McCain’s foreign policy adviser on the Georgian payroll was not enough for Tbilisi to buy U.S. intervention.

Washington and its allies also dismembered Serbia, historically allied with Russia, and backed “color” revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. In 2014, the U.S. and Europe supported the street putsch against the elected pro-Russian leader of Ukraine. The State Department’s Victoria Nuland was recorded discussing who the U.S. wanted to install as the new premier while Europe was seeking to divert Ukrainian trade to Europe. Only then did Russia act—illegally and violently, but effectively, and with greater restraint than many expected.

Rather than launch a general invasion, attempting to swallow the indigestibly large nation of 44 million or create a “land bridge” to Crimea, as some people predicted, Moscow backed separatists in the Donbas, creating an ongoing conflict that made future NATO membership unlikely. The Putin government also grabbed Crimea, historically part of Russia and with a majority of Russian-speakers, who likely wanted to reunite, thereby safeguarding Moscow’s naval base of Sevastopol on the Black Sea. Of late, Putin has heated up the conflict, concentrating Russia military forces and threatening some form of aggressive action against Ukraine in an attempt to force the U.S. to negotiate a modus vivendi, which Washington should have sought seven years ago.

Although Washington focused its ire on Putin, Russian antagonism toward the U.S. runs far deeper because of American behavior. During the 1990s, the public view of the U.S. flipped from roughly 80 percent positive to 80 percent negative. If Putin is overthrown, he might be replaced by a more extreme nationalist. Indeed, opposition politician Alexei Navalny is, or at least was, no liberal, a fact ignored by his Western supporters, who risk facing a younger and more attractive adversary if Navalny ends up in power.

It’s not too late for Washington to act. Indeed, President Joe Biden appears determined to negotiate a settlement with Moscow. Doing so won’t be easy, however.

Putin’s release of proposed treaties hikes the pressure on both sides and discourages an informal understanding. Other NATO members want to be part of any talks, even though they consistently underinvest in their militaries and would expect Washington to do all the heavy lifting in any fight with a revived Red Army. And the Ukrainians demand a seat at the table even though, contra their rhetoric, they are not entitled to NATO membership or Western aid.

The administration should advance America’s interest and be tough with allies as well as Russia. NATO expansion should end. In return, Russia should stop interfering in the Donbas. Practical understandings, if not legal resolutions, need to address seemingly unsolvable issues, such as Crimea.

The line between alliance members and non-members should be kept clear. Washington should begin transferring, not just sharing, defense burdens of prosperous, populous allies chosen to rely on America. And fiscal reality will force Washington to set domestic needs as an increasing priority and drop continuing efforts to play globocop. Perhaps most important will be adopting the humility that has been lacking in U.S. foreign policy since the Soviet Union’s dramatic end three decades ago.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.

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