Stephen Wertheim on Danger of Escalating a Cold War with RussiaHistorians in the News
tags: Cold War, foreign policy, Russia, international relations
One month into the war in Ukraine, it’s clear that the conflict’s geopolitical ramifications will be wide-ranging, and many are warning of a revived 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 drawn between the Cold War and the present confrontation, not all of which are reassuring.
For this week’s newsletter (subscribe here), I called up Stephen Wertheim, who is a senior fellow in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the author of Tomorrow the World: The Growth of U.S. Global Supremacy, and a leading critic of interventionist foreign policy. We discussed how today’s situation compares to the Cold War, and the various unsettling scenarios that might play out. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.
DAVID KLION: How appropriate is the term “new cold war” to describe the current geopolitical standoff 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 then and now. It’s more powerful if it’s used to raise a warning about where we may be heading: toward a state of permanent and open-ended hostility, where no meaningful diplomacy can take place and outstanding differences can’t be resolved. If you look at a map of which countries worldwide have 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 against a cold war prior to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine now find ourselves in a very different position. Now that Russia has committed this act of aggression, one that warrants significant punishment by the West, any near-term prospect of decent relations between the US and Russia is gone. The West will undertake a serious effort to counterbalance Russian military and economic power for some time. So although the value of warning against a new cold war is minimal, there are still productive questions to ask about what the US should be doing relative to Europe, and to what extent countering Russia should be one of the foremost priorities of US foreign policy.
DK: Where do you come down on that? What priorities do you see as competing with this renewed focus on containing Russia?
SW: I think there’s a clear effort underway in Washington to seize on the war in Ukraine in order to make the case that the US should continue to be the indispensable nation. Before, the Biden administration had been trying to prioritize security in Asia and the prosperity and well-being of the American middle class, but now the administration may be tempted to add to those goals a more intensive mission to contain Russia.