Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

The West Needs a Cure for Cold War Fever

Yes, a new cold war is upon us. It’s time to stop talking about it and start trying to win it.

By , a nonresident fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis.
A young Czech woman shouts at Soviet soldiers
A young Czech woman shouts at Soviet soldiers
A young Czech woman shouts at Soviet soldiers on a tank during the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia, in Prague on Aug. 26, 1968. Bettmann/Getty Images Archive

The less you know about the old Cold War, the more you’ll be tempted to feel nostalgia—or shivers down your spine. One narrative glorifies the decadeslong conflict as a time of crystalline moral clarity—a Manichean struggle between good and evil, pursued with exemplary collective purpose and discipline. It ended in triumph with the collapse of communism: the disintegration first of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe and then of the Soviet Union itself. Never mind that the East-West struggle played out very differently for many countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, where it was an era of proxy wars fueled by ruthless superpower competition.

Another all-too-simple narrative sees the Cold War as a barely avoided apocalypse. The terrifying era of nuclear brinkmanship was marked by near-disasters including the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and the 1983 Able Archer incident, where the Kremlin misinterpreted a NATO exercise of that name as preparations for a surprise attack. If the Cold War ended peacefully, this narrative goes, it was only by the skin of our teeth. Had we been just a tad less lucky, I wouldn’t be here to write this article, nor would you be here to read it.

So, when people describe the current conflict between the rich democracies and the Sino-Russian authoritarian axis as a new cold war, they bring their views of the old Cold War with them. Is this a final chance to complete the unfinished business of 1989, nailing stakes through the heart of the Russian and Chinese empires? Is talk of a new cold war a distraction cooked up by the military-industrial complex to stoke arms sales—and a last hurrah for the neoconservatives who failed so badly with their wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

The less you know about the old Cold War, the more you’ll be tempted to feel nostalgia—or shivers down your spine. One narrative glorifies the decadeslong conflict as a time of crystalline moral clarity—a Manichean struggle between good and evil, pursued with exemplary collective purpose and discipline. It ended in triumph with the collapse of communism: the disintegration first of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe and then of the Soviet Union itself. Never mind that the East-West struggle played out very differently for many countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, where it was an era of proxy wars fueled by ruthless superpower competition.

Another all-too-simple narrative sees the Cold War as a barely avoided apocalypse. The terrifying era of nuclear brinkmanship was marked by near-disasters including the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and the 1983 Able Archer incident, where the Kremlin misinterpreted a NATO exercise of that name as preparations for a surprise attack. If the Cold War ended peacefully, this narrative goes, it was only by the skin of our teeth. Had we been just a tad less lucky, I wouldn’t be here to write this article, nor would you be here to read it.

So, when people describe the current conflict between the rich democracies and the Sino-Russian authoritarian axis as a new cold war, they bring their views of the old Cold War with them. Is this a final chance to complete the unfinished business of 1989, nailing stakes through the heart of the Russian and Chinese empires? Is talk of a new cold war a distraction cooked up by the military-industrial complex to stoke arms sales—and a last hurrah for the neoconservatives who failed so badly with their wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

I distrust simplistic schemes of thought, not least because I have the advantage of remembering the old Cold War. I was a child when the Soviets and their vassals invaded Czechoslovakia and spent my teens campaigning for political prisoners behind the Iron Curtain. I thrilled to the upheaval the Polish pope, John Paul II, sparked in his communist-ruled homeland. I then lived, studied, and worked in the Eastern Bloc, covering the collapse of communism in Czechoslovakia and chronicling the Baltic states’ emergence from Soviet occupation to restored nationhood. But at the same time, I remember my native Britain’s claustrophobic culture of official secrecy, its deplorable moral compromises such as tacit support for the South African apartheid regime, and the pervasive climate of fear. The Cold War needed to be fought, but it is nothing to be nostalgic about.

Unlike most journalists who specialized in the region in that era, I did not move on after the West’s Cold War victory. I started worrying that the West was misreading post-Soviet Russia. Although the planned economy and one-party state were gone, the ingrained imperialist mindset, it seemed to me, was not. Sergey Karaganov, an advisor to the supposedly pro-Western Russian President Boris Yeltsin, said in 1992 that Russia had the right—indeed the duty—to intervene in neighboring countries on behalf of people the Kremlin considered Russians. This could be people who were Russian by ethnic descent, by linguistic or cultural affiliation, or through political loyalty. This view—which was around long before Russian President Vladimir Putin turned it into official policy—was as slippery as Adolf Hitler’s campaign on behalf of Volksdeutsche—the ethnic Germans whose mistreatment was the pretext for the Third Reich’s territorial claims on Czechoslovakia.

The biggest and most important difference between the Cold War era and today is that the West has forgotten the rules of the game and how to win it.

As my worries about Russia’s latent—and increasingly not-so-latent—imperialism grew, so did my concerns about the Western failure to react. The old democracies, such as Britain, Germany, France, and Italy, were stunningly ignorant about the countries to their east. This ignorance stoked arrogance and complacency. Greed played another big role in distorting perceptions: Bankers, lawyers, accountants, advisors, and assorted fixers and grifters all flocked to Moscow on the caviar express, as the procession of unscrupulous, high-earning Western expats became known. Many of them made their personal fortunes as Russia staggered toward what seemed to be a market economy.

Exasperated by the continuing underestimation of the threat, I wrote a book, The New Cold War. Published in 2008, it warned readers that the rest of the world was in an undeclared but fierce struggle with a Russian regime that hewed to repression at home and aggression abroad. They should wake up or risk losing. Although the book’s title succeeded in grabbing attention, I made it explicit that the new cold war was very different from the old one. For a start, Russia is far weaker than the Soviet Union. The latter, for all its failings, was indeed a superpower. Russia is the world’s largest country by landmass and has a huge nuclear arsenal—but its economy is only one-tenth the size of the European Union’s. Its defense spending is less than one-tenth that of the United States.

Secondly, Russia lacks a soft power arsenal. Communism was a coherent ideology with global appeal. Putinism—a mixture of anti-Westernism, religious obscurantism, Russian chauvinism, and Soviet nostalgia—is incoherent and of limited appeal in the outside world. The Soviet Union was a magnet for intellectuals and cultural figures, such as the American singer Paul Robeson, who was incensed by the injustices and racism of 1930s America. Communism as a theory—not so much in reality—was attractive to a swath of idealists around the world. That is not the case for Russia now, of course. The most prominent foreign catches for Putin’s regime are the fugitive U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden and the martial arts star Steven Seagal. These are hardly the counterparts of luminaries such as the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and the British socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb.

Yet in some respects the new cold war at least rhymes with the old one. The West has a serious military confrontation with Moscow in Europe with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The Cold War standoff over West Berlin—which started with the Soviet blockade in 1948, peaked with the 1961 Berlin crisis, and abated only with the four-power agreement of 1971—is mirrored these days in the Baltic states. Like West Berlin during the Cold War, they are hard, perhaps even impossible, to defend but symbolically vital. If Putin does not get his way in Ukraine, testing NATO’s unity and resolve over its willingness to defend these three small countries will be a tempting option. And if he does gain something to depict as victory in Ukraine, then moving on to the Baltics to exploit the perceived failure of the United States and its allies will be even more tempting.

Despite Russia’s lack of a globally attractive ideology, there is a clear clash of ideas. The West likes to think the argument is about democracy and the rule of law, but that is only partly true. In the good-government rankings, some Russian allies, such as Armenia, would probably score better than some Western ones, such as Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. That, too, recalls the old Cold War, when the fact that Portugal, Greece, and Turkey were at various times dictatorships did not impede their membership in NATO.

The real clash of ideas today is about sovereignty. The United States and its European allies wish to uphold the post-1991 settlement in which countries can make their own choices about security and geopolitical orientation. Russia regards that as impermissible. In the Kremlin’s mind, any deals made in the early 1990s were the result of economic duress and negated by subsequently broken Western promises (such as the long-debunked assurance that NATO would not enlarge). Russia now states very clearly that it wishes the United States to end its security role in Europe and NATO to abandon any practical defense of its post-1991 members.

In today’s version of the Cold War, financial and economic relations play a far more significant role. The Soviet Union and its satellite countries did not have Eurobonds or companies listed on Western stock exchanges. They exported limited amounts of natural gas and oil. Russia has created quite different conditions, thanks to global integration since 1991: At the heart of political decision-making in countries such as Germany, economic integration has created a pro-Russian lobby, which blunted reactions to the Kremlin’s mischief for many decades. Today, the era of so-called win-win trade and investment relations has given way to a chilling (literally) realization of the costs. We have discovered how hard it is for some European countries to reduce their dependence on Russian natural gas, oil, and coal. In the Soviet era, the Kremlin mismanaged agriculture so badly that the country had to import grain, whereas capitalism has turned post-independence Ukraine into one of the world’s largest food exporters. The threat of global famine as a result of Russia’s invasion is shaping the world’s diplomatic response.

The Soviet high command knew that an attack on a well-prepared adversary would be costly and likely fruitless.

The biggest and most important difference, however, is that the West has forgotten the rules of the game and how to win it. Over four decades of the old Cold War, the United States and its allies learned many useful lessons. They worked out how to combat communist propaganda and subversion. They configured their military posture to provide credible conventional and nuclear defense of Western Europe. They controlled their supply chains, put a tight lid on dual-use exports, and built military and civilian infrastructure. The successes of the Soviet space program provided the impetus to take science and technology seriously. Government information policy prepared the civilian population for the possibility of nuclear war and tried hard to ensure that the gruesome failures of Soviet rule were well understood by publics on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Western countries devoted enormous diplomatic resources to countering Soviet influence in the rest of the world and within international organizations from the United Nations on down. In all, the United States and its allies spent colossal amounts of money on these and other national security priorities.

All this boosted deterrence: The Soviet high command knew that an attack on a well-prepared adversary would be costly and likely fruitless.

While the West certainly needs to relearn deterrence, it is only one of the lessons from the old Cold War. The United States and its allies also worked out something else: how to manage a constant but changing conflict. The success of the Berlin airlift showed that the Soviet Union could be faced down. The alarming ebb and flow of the Korean War showed the dangers of weakness and overstretch. Heady talk of so-called rollback—the toppling of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe—ended with the West’s failure to support the 1956 Hungarian uprising. Instead, the emphasis became containment, ensuring that the Soviet empire did not expand—by exploiting the collapse of European colonial rule in Africa, for example. From Nikita Khrushchev onward, every Soviet leader was seen by the West as a potential interlocutor. To minimize the risk of escalation and convey the West’s resolve to defend itself, it was all the more important to find channels of communication.

All these lessons need to be learned anew. For all its military superiority over Russia’s decrepit forces, NATO is struggling to create a credible defense for the Baltic states, for Poland, and in the Black Sea region. Washington and its allies also need a comprehensive defense against the full spectrum of hybrid warfare that Moscow—and, for that matter, Beijing—are already deploying. That will require hard thinking on questions ranging from restrictions affecting higher education to the role of technology companies in curbing propaganda attacks. Cybersecurity, supply chain resilience, and boosting social trust and cohesion are priorities in this new type of cold war, too.

While doing all that, the other big task is creating a diplomatic framework for dealing with the Kremlin. One aim must be better Western cohesion that puts a stop to Russia’s ability to divide NATO and the EU. Another lesson from the old Cold War is to communicate unambiguously the colossal costs Russia will incur with any military adventure against the Baltic states or other NATO member. A third is to minimize the risk of accidental escalation, particularly with hotlines, to avoid a misunderstanding leading to the use of nuclear weapons.

This is not a call for endless, empty dialogue—the kind long promoted by the now-discredited German foreign-policy establishment. The point is not to befriend Russia or seek to change the nature of the regime through economic or cultural entanglement. These diplomatic frameworks and processes are a means to an end, not an end in themselves.

Yes, the world is now in a new cold war. That is all the more reason not to be confused about the old one. The differences and similarities are important and offer many useful lessons. But they are relevant only if we act on them.

Correction, July 7, 2022: The initial version of this article mistakenly included Spain in a list of countries that were dictatorships while members of NATO.

Edward Lucas is a nonresident fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a Liberal Democratic candidate for the British Parliament, a former senior editor at The Economist, and the author, most recently, of Cyberphobia: Identity, Trust, Security and the Internet. Twitter: @edwardlucas

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