To operate in a renewed Cold War atmosphere, the U.S. needs to realistically pursue its interests and its values
- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By Joe Funderburke, Ad Godinez, Andy Whiskeyman and Bryan Groves
Best Defense guest fireteam
The Cold War is not over; it is taking a new shape. The new Cold War involves a one-sided competition in which only Russia actively competes. Meanwhile, America is gradually awakening to the reality of a world it had hoped was "yesterday’s news." Unfortunately, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics has returned — if indeed it ever left. The truth is Russia never agreed to the post-Cold War rules; it just needed time to reassert its agenda.
America provided Russia that time by focusing on grandiose ideas instead of purposeful, incremental gains. In essence, its foreign policy elevated liberal "home runs" over a steady diet of realist "singles and doubles." This happened because national elites adopted mental models that included the "peace dividend" and a perspective that the universalization of Western liberal democracy was possible because the world had reached The End of History.
Subsequently, the United States conducted military interventions in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya — all for liberal ideals of democracy-promotion or humanitarian intervention. Arguably, the Persian Gulf War and less so Panama were the only interventions since 1989 in which the U.S. prioritized realpolitik concerns over liberal ideals throughout the mission’s duration. Yet swinging for home runs has sometimes led to ambitious strategies whose political legacy is doubtful because it is highly dependent on forces beyond any nation’s control. The current situations in Somalia, Iraq, and debatably in Afghanistan are cases in point.
As the United States pursued values, Russia has pursued interests. Recent events in Crimea and Ukraine, combined with Russia’s 2008 Georgia invasion, demonstrate Russia’s multi-faceted approach to reestablish regional hegemony against what it views as encroachment by the EU, NATO, and the United States. Diplomatically, Russia has vetoed U.N. Security Council resolutions to hold Assad accountable, proposed the deal to rid Syria of chemical weapons, conducted proxy propaganda campaigns, and strengthened its relationship with the other BRICS and Cuba. Militarily, Russia appears to be utilizing a revamped special operations force both in Crimea and in eastern Ukraine. Economically, Gazprom cut natural gas supplies to Ukraine over price and debt disputes. Further, the 30-year, $400-billion natural gas deal with China in May strategically outmaneuvered the United States and Europe, ensuring Russia stayed multiple chess moves ahead of potential rivals.
Our primary point, however, is not about Russian actions. Our argument is what Henry Kissinger argued in 1969: that American foreign policy is most effective when it balances U.S. interests with American ideals.
For instance, U.S. support for the coup that installed Pinochet as the Chilean leader in ’73-’74 was consistent with American interests, but contrary to U.S. values. The U.S. humanitarian intervention in Somalia in ’92-’94 was in line with American values, but not interests. Yet the alignment of national interests and values made U.S. intervention in the Persian Gulf War positive and powerful.
Swinging the foreign-policy pendulum back toward the nexus of interests and values does not mean that liberal ideals are devoid of merit. The U.S. role following WWII proved the worth of liberal values. Yet the last 13 years revealed the limits of power used in pursuit of liberal ideals. Freedom and democracy cannot simply be given to people. They must fight for it themselves and shape it to their historical and cultural traditions — albeit in some cases with American or international support. However, since the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States has had a propensity to interject itself at times when restraint might have been the more prudent course.
It’s time for that to change; the United States must recognize the limits of what it can realistically achieve. Reassessment of American foreign policy is in order. The rebalance to the Asia-Pacific is a step in the right direction. So, too, is the strength of resolve not to "swing" just because we can.
Long-term perseverance in this regard, however, involves breaking entrenched mental paradigms and transitioning from seeing the world through primarily an idealist lens to one that reasserts a realist perspective. Perhaps then the U.S. will regain the situational awareness it once had during the Cold War. One place to start is by fully integrating its military and interagency efforts, as advocated by a recent Atlantic Council Combatant Command Task Force report. This approach is proactive, coherent, and realistic. It also facilitates a strategically oriented foreign policy focused not on "home runs," but on "singles and doubles." This will incrementally provide positive returns over the long-term.
Joe Funderburke is pursuing a Ph.D. in Security Studies at the University of Central Florida. Ad Godinez is pursuing a Ph.D. in History at the University of Kansas. Andy Whiskeyman is pursuing a Ph.D. in Strategic Studies at the Air University’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. Bryan Groves is pursuing a Ph.D. in Public Policy at Duke University. All are U.S. Army officers and members of the Advanced Strategic Planning and Policy Program within the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the Department of the Army, the Combined Arms Center or the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, or our universities.