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The U.S. Can’t Afford a Double Cold War

A new global order needs to avoid simultaneous conflict with China and Russia.

By , the director of foresight in the Scowcroft Strategy Initiative, and , a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and its New American Engagement Initiative.
Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping via a video link at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence.
Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping via a video link at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence.
Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping via a video link at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow on Dec. 15, 2021. Mikhail Metzel/Sputnik/AFP via G

Once upon a time, when there were world-historical crises such as the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fate of German reunification, the world’s single superpower didn’t issue demands or ultimatums. Rather, as in those cases, Secretary of State James Baker subtly employed inherent U.S. leverage. The United States used strategic empathy to grasp other parties’ perceived interests, red lines, and minimal requirements and find an enduring solution that reconciled differences.

That is how the George H.W. Bush administration’s artful diplomacy ended the Cold War without a shot being fired and with a bilateral treaty to draw down the U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons stockpiles. This eventually led to a reduction of about 85 percent of both stockpiles from their Cold War peaks; whole conventional weapons systems in Europe disappearing; and Russia, the former adversary, being treated as a partner.

Three decades later, however, through strategic myopia, promiscuous use of power, and a flawed Russian transition, Bush’s “new world order” has come undone. There’s plenty of finger-pointing on all sides, but no matter who gets blamed, the world needs a new global order that avoids the mistakes of previous attempts that only laid the groundwork for future conflicts, such as happened with the Versailles peace treaties in 1919.

Once upon a time, when there were world-historical crises such as the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fate of German reunification, the world’s single superpower didn’t issue demands or ultimatums. Rather, as in those cases, Secretary of State James Baker subtly employed inherent U.S. leverage. The United States used strategic empathy to grasp other parties’ perceived interests, red lines, and minimal requirements and find an enduring solution that reconciled differences.

That is how the George H.W. Bush administration’s artful diplomacy ended the Cold War without a shot being fired and with a bilateral treaty to draw down the U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons stockpiles. This eventually led to a reduction of about 85 percent of both stockpiles from their Cold War peaks; whole conventional weapons systems in Europe disappearing; and Russia, the former adversary, being treated as a partner.

Three decades later, however, through strategic myopia, promiscuous use of power, and a flawed Russian transition, Bush’s “new world order” has come undone. There’s plenty of finger-pointing on all sides, but no matter who gets blamed, the world needs a new global order that avoids the mistakes of previous attempts that only laid the groundwork for future conflicts, such as happened with the Versailles peace treaties in 1919.

In that vein was U.S. President Joe Biden’s off-the-cuff admonishment that Russian President Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power” (following a previous ad-lib calling Putin a “war criminal”). However true and emotionally satisfying, the unscripted remark—swiftly walked back by Secretary of State Antony Blinken—has eclipsed his powerful Reaganesque speech in Poland and could have ominous consequences if Moscow thinks it has nothing to lose. Is there zero chance the United States can negotiate with Putin to end the war?

Similarly, as the series of intelligence leaks on supposed Russian collusion with China shows, the United States has sought to publicly shame Beijing for its refusal to condemn Putin and warn of the dark consequences if it tilts fully toward Russia. Blinken has accused China of being “on the wrong side of history.” But if the United States hopes to influence Beijing’s choices, convicting China before it actually provides material support to Russia is more likely to trigger an angry backlash than incentivize cooperation.

Fighting a two-front new cold war would mean far higher military expenditures, great uncertainty weighing down the global economy, and a diversion from the Biden administration’s foundational goal of rebuilding the United States. Successfully negotiating a lasting agreement on Ukraine that then moves into far-ranging, likely protracted, negotiations on conventional arms reduction talks with both Moscow and eventually Beijing is highly desirable.

At the moment, the Biden administration appears less focused on shaping a new era than preparing for a repeat of the Cold War or an even worse one with both Russia and China as opponents. It is Henry Kissinger’s strategic triangle in reverse.

Given Russia’s actions, right now there may be little alternative but confronting and pressurizing Moscow. A largely reactive Biden administration has done well to assemble an allied coalition. But it appears intent on seeing a total Russian defeat, which given the U.S. track record on lifting sanctions would not necessarily lead to anything more than a frozen conflict between the West and Russia. By itself, that’s nowhere close to the scale of the first Cold War. Russia is a shrunken power that makes up less than 2 percent of global GDP. (Even by 1990, when the West had far outstripped it, the Soviet bloc held 9 percent of global GDP.) Russia’s once vaunted military is taking mass casualties from a country a fraction of its size. Add China in, however, and the picture looks very different.

China is a key swing factor with potential leverage over Russia. So far, China has tried to reconcile the irreconcilable—its strategic partnership with Russia, its so-called principles of sovereignty and noninterference in the internal affairs of others, and its economic interests in the United States and European Union, with some $3 trillion in euro and dollar assets. It has adopted a sort of pro-Russian neutrality that is unsustainable, and the Chinese Communist Party elite are likely debating whether Russia, which just weeks ago was a strategic asset, has become a growing liability. It is approaching a crossroads. It will either distance itself from Russia and curb economic support or tilt toward Moscow and defy sanctions. The United States needs to incentivize China toward the first viewpoint, not publicly threaten it in a way that risks reinforcing Beijing’s victim narrative.

When it comes to dealing with Russia, the picture is trickier. Certainly, Russia needs to withdraw all of its troops as soon as possible. But that leaves lots of questions up in the air. Russia isn’t going away. Would Putin, if he survives, or a post-Putin leadership reconcile with the West or just bide his time for another war with Ukraine or others, particularly if there hasn’t been a Russia-Ukraine-NATO agreement on Ukraine’s status? Many in Ukraine and the West will want to see the country still join NATO even if there is a promise of neutrality.

Any durable peace would require new security arrangements and understandings between the United States and NATO and Russia and Ukraine. This is the elephant in the room. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has hinted that he might accept some type of neutrality. If so, would NATO rescind the 2008 Bucharest declaration offering Ukraine and Georgia prospective accession? What quid pro quo would the United States and its allies expect from Putin?

In the failed diplomacy prior to Moscow’s invasion, U.S. officials said they offered Putin an offramp but he refused, though it is not evident they put Bucharest on the table. But if we want to avoid a Versailles-type aftermath, Russian interests can’t be dismissed that easily. Would the United States want a nuclear alliance on its border? To build a more permanent peace, we need have some strategic empathy. Russia’s fixation on strategic depth or a buffer between it and hostile forces—in this case, NATO—is age-old, going back centuries, not just a recent figment of Putin’s paranoia. Another Russian ruler will almost certainly have similar concerns. That doesn’t mean accepting those concerns as automatically legitimate or justified—after all, Russia’s record with its neighbors has seen more autocracy than neutrality. But they do need to be taken into account.

Before the United States stumbles into a double cold war, the Biden administration needs to pro-actively grasp the opportunities afforded by this horrendous conflict. The quagmire that Putin finds himself in results from his gross miscalculations. It gives the United States and its allies leverage for designing a durable peace before we cross a Rubicon in which Russia has reduced Kyiv to ashes and is using tactical nuclear weapons to stop NATO’s military supplies for Ukraine.

It is difficult to see how any outcome would be a win for Putin, but at the same time, he cannot accept defeat. This is where risk escalation comes in. Exploring a face-saving resolution is in U.S., European, Russian, and Ukrainian interests, as satisfying as a Putin collapse would be.

Some positive moves for the Biden administration would be an endorsement of Russo-Ukrainian peace talks, and if neutrality is agreed to by Kyiv, Washington should quietly work with Moscow and Kyiv on a workable form of neutrality that ensures Ukraine’s security absent accession to NATO. This will not settle all the Russo-Ukrainian differences, but it’s a giant first step that can lead to a settlement of Crimea’s status as well as the future of the two statelets in Donetsk and Luhansk.

The current hands-off approach only increases the chance of a breakdown. The recent call between U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and his Russian counterpart is encouraging. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have done assisting work in keeping the channels open not only to Putin but also in dialogue with Beijing. But, at the end of the day, it is the United States that really matters.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Baker and National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft had to manage not just Russian qualms about the reunification of Germany but those of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as well. The Bush administration’s plethora of artful assurances, balancing U.S., European, and Soviet interests (e.g., only German NATO troops in the former East Germany), gained Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s assent to a reunified Germany inside NATO. There may be lessons from that experience of how to find a favorable balance of interests. The inclusive 2+4 negotiating process (replicated in the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program in 2003) may offer a model for Russia-Ukraine negotiations, with the Russians and Ukrainians at the center and the others—perhaps the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany—supporting and facilitating a mutually acceptable solution.

This is an inflection point in history and, as such, requires bold leadership, vision, and contemplation of new paradigms. The experience of the winding down of the Cold War and the adroit diplomacy of Baker and Scowcroft, resulting in a reunified Germany with reassurances to Russia, should serve as a template for tackling today’s once-in-a-generation opportunity as well as challenge.

Mathew Burrows is the director of foresight in the Scowcroft Strategy Initiative and co-director of the New American Engagement Initiative, both at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. In August 2013, Burrows retired from a 28-year career in the State Department and CIA, the last 10 years of which were spent at the National Intelligence Council.

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and its New American Engagement Initiative. Twitter: @Rmanning4

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