Why the Last War May Have Triggered This One

After World War II, Japan and Germany became enduring U.S. allies. Why didn’t the Cold War end the same way?

By , a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy.
NATO leaders attend their summit at the Grove Hotel in Watford, England, on Dec.4, 2019.
NATO leaders attend their summit at the Grove Hotel in Watford, England, on Dec.4, 2019.
NATO leaders attend their summit at the Grove Hotel in Watford, England, on Dec.4, 2019. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Putin’s War

After World War II, the United States managed to transform two powerful aggressor states, Germany and Japan, into enduring and peaceful allies. After the Cold War, by contrast, Washington embraced a series of policies that ultimately helped turn Russia into an enduring and bitter rival, culminating in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. 

As the West grapples with how to deal with Putin’s aggression, it may be worthwhile to examine why the two conflicts ended in such opposite ways.

To be sure, there were profound differences between the two. At the end of World War II, U.S. Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman pursued a policy of unconditional surrender and occupation, totally extirpating the militarists in Germany and Japan and effecting what amounted to a top-to-bottom transformation of both countries. Although many missteps occurred along the way, Washington’s approach was, for the most part, magnanimous and sensitive to political and cultural differences. 

After World War II, the United States managed to transform two powerful aggressor states, Germany and Japan, into enduring and peaceful allies. After the Cold War, by contrast, Washington embraced a series of policies that ultimately helped turn Russia into an enduring and bitter rival, culminating in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. 

As the West grapples with how to deal with Putin’s aggression, it may be worthwhile to examine why the two conflicts ended in such opposite ways.

To be sure, there were profound differences between the two. At the end of World War II, U.S. Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman pursued a policy of unconditional surrender and occupation, totally extirpating the militarists in Germany and Japan and effecting what amounted to a top-to-bottom transformation of both countries. Although many missteps occurred along the way, Washington’s approach was, for the most part, magnanimous and sensitive to political and cultural differences. 

After the Cold War ended, there was no physical occupation of the former Soviet Union by U.S. or Western militaries. Instead, a kind of psychological occupation took place. Enamored by the idea that the “end of history” was at hand and democratic capitalism was the only way forward, a sense of triumphalism characterized the West’s approach. On two fronts, economic and political, Washington pursued a set of hubristic policies that created deep mistrust among the Russian governing class and laid the groundwork for Putin’s rise to power and his revanchist pretensions about the restoration of a greater Russia. 

On the economic front, U.S. officials failed to recognize that a former communist empire that lacked the rule of law and new institutions might not be ready for a swift conversion to democratic capitalism. Free market consultants at the Harvard Institute for International Development as well as the International Monetary Fund pressed for rapid privatization of the former communist production system—what they called shock therapy. But privatization swiftly degenerated into what the Russians, with bitter humor, called prikhvatizatsiya or “grabification,” the inequitable seizure of former state-owned enterprises by party apparatchiks-turned-oligarchs. 

The result was massive capital flight from Russia. The country went into a long economic slide, and super wealthy oligarchs today still dominate Russia’s underdeveloped economy. As the World Bank’s former chief economist, Joseph Stiglitz, wrote: “By paying insufficient attention to the institutional infrastructure that would allow a market economy to flourish—and by easing the flow of capital in and out of Russia—the IMF and [U.S.] Treasury had laid the groundwork for the oligarchs’ plundering.” Not surprisingly, Putin first rose to power by inveighing against the oligarchs’ dominance.

In the political arena too, hubris and high-handedness were the order of the day. As the Soviet Union began to collapse, then-U.S. President George H.W. Bush and his administration initially counseled caution about too quickly dismantling the former Soviet Union because they were concerned about nuclear proliferation. In a speech delivered in Ukraine in August 1991, as Ukrainians were getting ready to vote on a referendum to withdraw from the Soviet Union, Bush cautioned against the advent of “suicidal nationalism.” American triumphalists savagely pounced on him, with New York Times columnist William Safire famously deriding Bush’s remarks as the “Chicken Kiev” speech. Under Bush’s successor, Bill Clinton, and then under U.S. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Washington changed course, pushing for an aggressive expansion of NATO to embrace all of the former Soviet bloc’s nations. Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic were first, followed by the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania as well as Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia.

NATO went further at the Bucharest summit in 2008, pledging that Ukraine and Georgia would eventually be invited to join the alliance. (George W. Bush wanted to immediately offer both nations Membership Action Plans—the first step to NATO entry—but Germany and France were more cautious about antagonizing Russia.) 

At the same time, Washington also began forthrightly working to manipulate Ukrainian politics, as evidenced by an embarrassing taped 2014 conversation revealing that then-U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland (who has since been promoted to U.S. President Joe Biden’s undersecretary of state) was engaged in setting up a Western-style government. U.S. officials took to dismissing nuclear-armed Russia as a third-rate power—or as Obama put it in 2014 when he was challenged about his cavalier response to Putin’s annexation of Crimea, a mere “regional power.”

Such attitudes only aggravated the Kremlin’s injured pride and encouraged a long period of pushback from Moscow. Putin began taking back territories of the former Soviet sphere piece by piece and questioning Ukraine’s statehood and territorial integrity. The partial occupation of Georgia and Moscow’s recognition of its breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, were only a precursor to the 2014 annexation of Crimea, the takeover of Donbass, and Putin’s recognition last week of Luhansk and Donetsk, Ukraine’s Russian-dominated separatist regions.

In some respects, the way Washington ended the Cold War resembled far more the botched ending of World War I than World War II. After Berlin’s surrender in 1918, the hubristic and vengeful Treaty of Versailles—which economist John Maynard Keynes accurately predicted would reduce Germany to poverty and servitude—created a seething ferment of resentment in Europe’s largest nation and gave rise to dictator Adolf Hitler. (“Men will not always die quietly,” Keynes wrote ominously in his book, The Economic Consequences of the Peace.) Although the West cannot be blamed entirely for Putin’s emergence, he is also largely a creature of nationalistic resentment. Putin is, in effect, seeking to relitigate the end of the Cold War, which he and Russian elites consider to have been unjust. It is somewhat analogous to what Hitler did in revisiting Versailles in the most violent and deceitful way possible: rearming Germany and launching the worst war in history.

“I think Putin has been nursing this grievance and resentment for the better part of 30 years when the world wrote off Russia as a ‘has-been,’ and he has been plotting Russia’s return all this while,” said former senior Indian diplomat Gautam Mukhopadhaya, who began his career in the Indian Foreign Service on the Soviet desk. “As far as Putin is concerned, the West has not even given Russia the minimal respect of considering it a strategic adversary.”  

World War II, again, was a contrast: Different cultures were preserved and respected (most notably, perhaps, through Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s decision to retain Japan’s wartime emperor, Hirohito, on the throne). To a remarkable degree, most grievances were addressed—helped along, of course, by the purging of Nazi and Japanese militarist leaders through war crimes trials. The biggest difference, perhaps, was that both Germany and Japan were utterly devastated by the war and therefore more accepting of deep societal change. But a series of enlightened policies, such as the Marshall Plan, which helped rebuild Europe, generated decades of goodwill. The assiduous avoidance of pride or hubris during occupation gave rise to U.S.-friendly leaders like Konrad Adenauer, Germany’s first postwar chancellor, and Japanese Prime Minister Kijuro Shidehara, who proposed that a total renunciation of war be incorporated into Japan’s constitution. 

It’s noteworthy that, at the time, U.S. leaders were assiduously trying to avoid the mistakes made after World War I, since they realized by then that World War II had sprung directly out of those errors. “We will not accept a world like the postwar world of the 1920s, in which the seeds of Hitlerism can again be planted and allowed to grow,” Roosevelt said in 1941. 

The question going forward is whether Biden and other Western leaders can find an equitable way to end the latest war that sprung from a previous one.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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