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Out of the Cold War?

Is America stuck in the Cold War or headed into a new one? Over the last 25 years, American grand strategy has had to do some heavy lifting to address the rise of terrorism—but it may have lost sight of the more dangerous threat posed by great power wars.

Worry over the deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations was a common theme earlier this week when powerhouses of realism and restraint met to debate foreign policy at “Advancing American Security [1],” a conference hosted by the Charles Koch Institute. The meeting brought together academics like John Mearsheimer [2]Barry Posen [3], and Stephen Walt [4] with prominent D.C. policy experts, including Christopher Preble [5]Gian Gentile [6], and Michael O’Hanlon [7].

Although designed to “examine the past, assess the present, and explore the future of U.S. foreign policy,” many of the panels touched on Cold War vs. post-Cold War grand strategy.

CKI Vice President William Ruger began by posing the question: “Has there been a coherent theme to U.S. foreign policy over the last 25 years?” In response, Mearsheimer dove into a description of liberal hegemony over the last two decades, which essentially amounts to the U.S. being involved everywhere to avoid a problem popping up anywhere. He argued that the U.S. undertook this commitment to direct globalization and proceeded to muck up the Middle East and Europe. To most people, this sounds a lot like a vestige of post-Cold War triumphalism:

The basic foreign policy here is one of liberal hegemony—and it has two dimensions to it. The first is that we’re bent on militarily dominating the entire globe—there’s no place on the planet that doesn’t matter to the indispensable nation, we care about every nook and cranny of the planet and we’re interested in being militarily dominate here, there, and everywhere. That’s the first dimension. The second dimension is we’re deeply committed to transforming the world—we’re deeply committed to making everybody look like us.

Kathleen Hicks went even further in her answer, and claimed that there has been continuity in American grand strategy since 1945:

I actually think there’s been incredible continuity since the end of the Second World War and it just continued on post-Cold War. And that’s really, to start really where John started, it’s about the advancement of U.S. interests by leading in the world and I think that has been a very consistent theme in how each administration has pursued that. Particularly for following the end of the Cold War [each president] has definitely varied how each of those interests they’ve been most attuned to: economic, human rights and international order and/or U.S. physical security and the security of its allies, and how they’ve chosen to implement that, I think has varied to some extent but there’s an incredible continuity I think of 70-plus years in American foreign policy.

Since 1945, the U.S. has been through the Cold War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the First Gulf War, and a gestalt War on Terror that initiated military interventions of varying strengths in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Libya, and Somalia. The international hierarchy changed from bipolarity during the Cold War to unipolarity after the USSR’s dissolution. What does it say about American grand strategy if there has been continuity from the Soviet Union to ISIS?


It’s possible that the panelists are stuck in a Cold War mentality, though that’s unlikely. More probable is that the preoccupation with the Soviet Union and modern-day Russia stems from the fact that Russia has remained the only country capable of posing a significant threat to America’s position of power. China might be headed in that direction, but doesn’t seem to be there yet. Thus, Russia is one of the few threats that realists generally recognize as a valid danger.

Mearsheimer and Hicks offered broad policy suggestions for diffusing tensions with Russia in order to avoid a 21st century great-power war. Most importantly, slowly withdraw from NATO and turn it over to Europe.  Both panelists said that contemplating the inclusion of Georgia and Ukraine was a mistake that resulted in Russian sensitivity to American overreach. Mearsheimer said, “We do not consider those countries (Georgia and Ukraine) of vital strategic interest but we were talking about including them in NATO which would give them an Article 5 guarantee.” Furthermore, he continued, NATO enlargement was not intended to contain Russia; its initial goal was the spread of democracy, liberal institutions, and economic independence.

Without a strategic rethink in U.S.-Russian relations, Mearsheimer warned that Russian paranoia and sense of vulnerability could ignite conflict. When asked about the biggest foreign policy mistake of the last 25 years, Mearsheimer first said Iraq, and then added the crisis in Ukraine and the resulting destabilization of U.S.-Russian relations: “If you take a country like Russia, that has a sense of vulnerability, and you push them towards the edge, you get in their face, you’re asking for trouble.”

Caroline Dorminey is an editorial assistant at The American Conservative.

17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "Out of the Cold War?"

#1 Comment By Rambler89 On May 23, 2016 @ 12:31 am

I recall that when the Soviet Union collapsed, the shock and dismay of the Bush I administration was almost palpable. Bush, like Gorbachev, thought too highly of the Soviet power structure to think it could just pop like a balloon. Bush’s own ideal seemed to be a kinder, gentler statism. As the USSR fell, as if on cue, Bush sought out every opportunity to talk up the threat of Islamic fundamentalism (which was created by U.S. meddling in the Mid-East). With his characteristic spontaneity and profundity, he gave the impression of following a Strangelovian script. (“Mineshaft gap!”)

#2 Comment By Philip Giraldi On May 23, 2016 @ 6:30 am

It is important to note that Mearsheimer was basically saying that US foreign policy has been a train wreck while Hicks, an Obama Pentagon appointee, was essentially defending it. Everyone at the conference agreed that Iraq defines failure but Mearsheimer was insightful enough to realize that actually the aggressive policy towards a nervous Russia bears potentially far worse consequences, up to and including nuclear war.

#3 Comment By Kurt Gayle On May 23, 2016 @ 8:25 am

“Without a strategic rethink in U.S.-Russian relations, Mearsheimer warned that Russian paranoia and sense of vulnerability could ignite conflict.”

It’s not “Russian paranoia.” If the Russians engineered the equivalent of the US-backed Ukrainian coup in Mexico — and brought Canada, the Caribbean, and Central America into a Russian-led military alliance with Russian troops and missiles in place throughout the region – US alarm and strong US push-back would hardly be signs of “US paranoia.”

#4 Comment By Eric On May 23, 2016 @ 10:11 am

Note that it seems the great policy gurus (of which I am unsure of how many actually spent a day in uniform) are ignoring the elephant in the room they created-the hard fact that the US military, specifically the army, is in no condition to fight a first class military in a conventional war. Putin knows quite well he can push his aggressive Russian reassertion of regional power because for the last fifteen years, the US military has been concentrating exclusively on counterinsurgency, counterterror, contingency operations, or whatever technobabble they have labelled it today over at State. Think we have anything left that has the training, much less the will, to stop a Russian armored division from going anywhere it wants to go? Seal team six and some drone jockeys sitting in an office somewhere might be the worst nightmare for some islamist barbarian in his busy day of beheadings and other assorted savagery, but I’m not so sure it scares Ivan much nowadays.

A Cold War strategy is the wrong one to use as a model for a resurgent Russia anyway. Putin is not trying to reassemble the Warsaw Pact, and he’s no ideologue. If anything, he’s reasserting the Imperial Russian foreign policy of the Tsars, when they were operating from a position of strength, not the last gasp futility of Nicholas II. If you want a historical precedent to start looking back to draw lessons from, we need to reach deeper than the last 70 years.

#5 Comment By Johann On May 23, 2016 @ 10:33 am

The US came out of WWII with a lot of world-wide soft power. Most countries not in the Communist sphere were willing to cooperate with us just because we were the US. We have squandered that soft power. Its pretty much gone now.

#6 Comment By SteveM On May 23, 2016 @ 10:34 am

Re: Kurt Gayle, “It’s not “Russian paranoia.”

Yeah, I gotta agree with Kurt. Look at the Moscow skyline now versus 1991. To think that Russia is prepared to revert to a closed Stalinist model all for the sake of re-taking ex-Soviet republics with native populations that despised their Soviet overloads is ludicrous.

What benefit exactly would absorbing the Baltic states or invading Poland provide Russia? Does anyone excepting the nutzo Neocons and their uniformed high-priests in the Pentagon actually believe that the Russian people want to go to war with the West?

I’ve said this many times before, so pardon my perseveration. The current root cause of the current fractured U.S. – Russia relationship lies between Barack Obama’s ears.

Obama is a narcissist and expects sycophantic adulation. Only Vladimir Putin don’t play that game. Obama hates him for it. And Obama’s hate of Putin translates to an administration that is collectively antagonistic towards Russia. Because that’s what the boss wants.

Neocon vulgarians like Victoria Nuland are happy tools of the perverse Obama mindset to stick thumbs in Putin’s eye at every opportunity without considering the strategic consequences.

The simple fact is that Obama the narcissist personalized business. And as usual American taxpayers are paying for his psycho-pathology. I.e., it don’t cost Obama or the Neocons nuthin’.

#7 Comment By SDS On May 23, 2016 @ 11:25 am

“Most importantly, slowly withdraw from NATO and turn it over to Europe.”

Every time this is slightly hinted or mentioned; by Trump or anyone else; it is met with wild derision….
Here it’s almost a common-sense given….

“NATO enlargement was not intended to contain Russia; its initial goal was the spread of democracy, liberal institutions, and economic independence.”

REALLY? Then why wasn’t membership offered to Russia to begin with? Get them in ASAP, and all that?

#8 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 23, 2016 @ 11:53 am

Excuse my failure to be moved by any of this. That these are the premier (I assume) policy experts is more than a bit dismaying.

Nearly all of this should have been front and center in 2001. It should have been no secret that Russia had no intention of ” . . . going quietly into that good night.”

Her light was not a dying light but one of shift toward a more viable financial engine that would in effect make her more effective nationally and internationally.

No offense to my superiors, but most of this hardly seems ground breaking. Of course Iraq is a failure as is Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and I don’t doubt that the hints of democratizing Saudi Arabia or at least reducing the power of the Royal Family is going to have similar results.

I will have to take a look at the related articles. But the hurdle now is how disentangle ourselves and effectively manage the mess we have made toward some stable end.

In either case that is going to be some trick. Talking about Europe is easy. It’s the muck of the ME that is going to require some tough choices.

#9 Comment By LouisM On May 23, 2016 @ 1:16 pm

Mearsheimer and Walt wrote a brilliant book on the Israel Lobby. Now the recommendation to leave NATO is prudent, prescient and well timed. I cannot see Hillary Clinton leaving NATO but I can see Donald Trump leaving NATO.

The US can easily ally with NATO if Europe is ever threatened but one could argue that the suicide of all the NATO countries is occurring exactly because the NATO countries have devoted so much to their social welfare state that they cannot even defend their borders from global instability or economic migration. Europe must dismantle a portion of their social welfare state to finance their common social defense. The US creating a false narrative is rotting our ally’s from within…and if this rot continues they wont be our allies when we need them.

#10 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 23, 2016 @ 2:38 pm

I doubt we will leave NATO. Decreased involvement is wise, but a complete withdrawal is unlikely, even if conducted over time.

#11 Comment By delia ruhe On May 23, 2016 @ 3:37 pm

“…Russia has remained the only country capable of posing a significant threat to America’s position of power. China might be headed in that direction, but doesn’t seem to be there yet. Thus, Russia is one of the few threats that realists generally recognize as a valid danger.”

This doesn’t ring right. While the US has a growing corruption problem, it’s nothing like Russia’s, which is sucking the economic life out of the country. Its population is in decline, and its one export commodity, petroleum, will never return to what it was. Indeed, it has sold oil and gas rights to China at bargain basement prices because China’s negotiators knew they were dealing with a desperate Russia. But the deal had long-term advantage, namely the advantage of saving Russia for better things – such as a central place in China’s Eurasia vision.

And that vision terrifies Washington – even to the point of negotiating two enormously destructive trade deals in secret as a way of “containing” China. And to preserve American hegemony, China must be contained at any cost – a cost to be paid by the world’s 99 percent. Most of Congress isn’t much interested in the 99 percent, so many in both neoliberal corporatist parties who are presently dragging their feet on the TPP will probably come round eventually. But the TTIP is another matter: practically every activist organization in Europe is up in arms over it. Neoliberal economics makes it impossible to negotiate trade deals that don’t poison the water, air, and soil of every participating country while further crushing their working classes on whose backs the One Percent would enjoy a bonanza.

So there we have it: a desperate Russia and a terrified “pitiful giant.” I’d put my money on China, since China is the only nation with the chops and the money to create something positive in the way of developing countries that badly need it and realizing a vision of connectivity, productivity, and prosperity across all of Eurasia. Getting there will be difficult and messy, but at least it will have something spectacular to show for it, instead of the chain of polluted banana republics produced by bad trade deals.

#12 Comment By john On May 23, 2016 @ 9:43 pm

Where were American tanks in 1983? Where are they now? They are hundreds of miles closer to Moscow. Yet Russia is the “aggressor”. We turn on our anti missile shield to protect Europe against Iranian missiles. What Iranian missiles? Russia has very very good reason to be “paranoid”. They have been invaded within living memory and lost 30% or so of their population. The US has never suffered at this level. I just don’t understand why the middle of Europe can’t be a neutral area i.e non-Nato non Warsaw pact. That horse has left the barn, but I just don’t see any upside at all to poking the bear.

#13 Comment By cka2nd On May 24, 2016 @ 3:22 am

Not only do I agree with Mr. Gayle that Russia has good reason to feel vulnerable and paranoid, but I think Prof. Mearsheimer is expressing American chauvinism if he thinks the U.S. establishment – political, foreign policy, military and media – is not entirely capable and stupid enough to incite a conflict with Russia. What is remarkable to me is how the economic and financial establishment can drive trade policy and back/force intervention throughout Latin America and the Middle East but appears to be powerless to reign in their attack dogs when it comes to Russia and China, arguably Earth’s #2 military and economic powers, respectively. Or is it that said economic elites are just as arrogant and/or ignorant as their political, military, etc., etc. subordinates?

By the way, have the realists had anything to say about the Obama Administration’s machinations in Latin America that has in any way differed from the administration or the mainstream media?

#14 Comment By Stephen On May 24, 2016 @ 5:51 am

I noticed the author left out all the mess of the dissolution of Yugoslavia in her narrative of post cold war interventions. In so doing, she went from Bush senior directly to junior and skipped Clinton altogether. I think our war on Kosovo was the most dishonest and criminal action I have seen from our government in my lifetime. I will never view my government the same as a result. The real reason for that war seems to have been putting a big military base clise to Russia.

#15 Comment By Alex (the one that likes Ike) On May 24, 2016 @ 10:35 am

As to Kosovo, some Italian media already call it an ISIS base at the heart of Europe.

#16 Comment By E.iteCommInc. On May 24, 2016 @ 8:18 pm

“I think our war on Kosovo was the most dishonest and criminal action I have seen from our government in my lifetime.”

genocide is one of those issues, for which i support intervention. The genocide was so atrocious, that even the Russians called the Serbs to task.

#17 Comment By Hren On May 25, 2016 @ 11:21 am

Finally a sober view is being delivered by US establishment. Would be nice that sober view was born or at list followed up by White House.