Cold War’s underlying conflict never ended

    WORLD  27 February 2024 - 04:05

    The Hill has published an opinion piece claiming that abandoning Eurasian allies like as Ukraine in its fight against Russia, or Israel in its fight against Iran, is a catastrophic geopolitical miscalculation by US. Caliber.Az reprints the article.

    Americans believe that they “Won the Cold War” — that is, that the US defeated the Soviet Union’s bid for global dominance. Washington outlasted Moscow, leading to the USSR’s imperial collapse. 

    Yet the Cold War itself was not a singular, isolated event. It is more properly understood as one period in a much longer struggle for Eurasian mastery. The trouble with US strategy today is its assumption that the U.S. was victorious in a singular, unique contest for global leadership. Unless America breaks free from such thinking, it will be incapable of articulating, let alone prosecuting, a strategy for Eurasian competition.

    Two major inflection points dominate American strategic thought: 1945 and 1991. The former marked the end of America’s isolationist tradition in international politics, the latter the unexpected triumph over Marxism-Leninism.  Yet neither is placed in its proper context. 

    Allied victory in 1945 is cast as a moment that generated a tragic necessity — at the apex of triumph, democracies suddenly faced a new threat on the Eurasian landmass. By 1950, the scale of the challenge was apparent, as was the American response, a strategy of “containment” that prevented the expansion of Soviet influence and deterred an armed attack in Western Europe. 

    Meanwhile, 1991 is viewed retrospectively as a missed opportunity to generate a new world order (to use the terminology of the George H. W. Bush administration), in which a security architecture encompassed the entire northern hemisphere from Vancouver to Vladivostok (in Mikhail Gorbachev’s words).

    We mistakenly view both moments as unique historic moments, not as changes within a continuous Eurasian competition. Indeed, Eurasia is the overarching lens through which international politics should be viewed from at least the 17th century.

    The Eurasian landmass, encompassing the European Peninsula, the Middle East, the Indian Subcontinent, and East Asia, and including Central Asia and Siberia, has been economically interconnected since the Greeks first resisted Persian attempts at Mediterranean domination.  Economic contact continues today, with Eurasia remaining home to most of the world’s population, resources, and markets. This economic connectivity, however, has increasingly transformed into a political connectivity. Strategic events on one side of the Eurasian landmass, because of the scale of political actors and alliance structures upon it, have a direct effect on political and strategic questions on the other side.

    The alliance of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan posed an existential threat to the US If either could dominate western or eastern Eurasia, the US would face a multi-continental threat capable of barring the US from major overseas markets and, in time, accumulating enough power to act in the Western Hemisphere.

    The Soviet Union posed the same sort of threat. At the head of a Eurasian-wide communist alliance, the USSR could subjugate Europe through political subversion and outright conquest, thereby gathering resources for a real campaign against the Americas to undermine US power.

    This is why the “Cold War,” as conceived of in American strategic history as a battle against communism, never actually existed.  For the Soviet-U.S. contest, while containing a global ideological component, was more fundamentally a struggle for power over the Eurasian landmass, similar to previous clashes between France and BritainBritain and Russia, and the Anglo-Franco-Russian coalition against Germany. The only difference is that two systemic wars within 31 years shattered European power, leaving only a European-Asian Russia and an Atlanticist US as the only actors capable of exerting their influence across Eurasia.

    Under this more coherent reading of strategic events, the USSR’s collapse merely ushered in a reset to begin another period of Eurasian competition. The Cold War, far from being the final ideological triumph, was instead the latest act in a centuries-long struggle for Eurasian primacy.

    This explains Russia’s complete rejection of the post-1991 settlement, a feature largely continuous between the Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Putin governments. From the moment the Berlin Wall fell, Moscow refused to accept that it had “lost” a political rivalry. Gorbachev sought to negotiate a slow unravelling of the Soviet Eastern European security system because Moscow was convinced that the Warsaw Pact’s demise simply reset the situation to 1945. Yeltsin’s Russia sought NATO membership, not because its interests aligned with those of the Atlantic Alliance, but because Moscow was convinced that it deserved greater rights than those accorded to former Warsaw Pact states.  When this failed, first Yeltsin and then Putin moved Russia toward a confrontational stance, hoping to resurrect Soviet and Imperial Russian power in Eurasia. 

    Competition never ended; the players simply changed.

    Communist China took a similar view.  It seized the economic opportunities afforded by Western goodwill, but it never actually surrendered any of its territorial or political claims in East Asia, as demonstrated by the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis. Almost 30 years on, it is clear that the burial of Eurasian rivalry was never truly in the cards for the Chinese, either.

    The US has belatedly accepted that strategic competition is back — that “competition is underway between the major powers to shape” the world. Yet it has still not fully accepted the character and shape of that competition.

    The Biden administration’s policy has been to emphasize alliance management. It would be a reasonable consideration, except that it comes at the expense of a coherent approach to supporting Ukraine, a real military buildup in Asia, and restraining Iran. 

    Conservatives err in their understanding of the competition by giving an extreme emphasis to China, to the exclusion of other strategic questions. This misses the reality of Eurasian competition. Deterring and defeating a Chinese assault on Taiwan may be a necessary condition for victory, but it is grossly insufficient, considering the reality of commercial interlinkages between Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. The US must secure its objectives across Eurasia: the argument for prioritization promises the false allure of fake choices.

    When combined, the left and right both have a taste for disengagement — the right through criticisms of free-riding allies, the left through an inability to expand military capacity rapidly enough to meet strategic threats. The former ignores all alliances’ unyielding need for leadership: the latter is blind to security’s inextricable link with hard power. They make a dangerous couple.

    Abandoning Eurasian allies such as Ukraine in its fight against Russia, or Israel in its struggle against Iran, is not only a moral tragedy, but a colossal strategic blunder. A Russia aggrandized with Ukrainian conquests and an Iran-dominated Middle East will undermine the economic system on which American and allied power depends. It will make the task of defending Taiwan impossible.

    America emerged from isolationism in the 1940s, kicking and screaming, only because of prudent statecraft and political leadership. It faced a world torn asunder, and for the next 50 years sought to preserve a modicum of civilization despite threats of annihilation and capitulation.

    Yet the imperative of leadership did not end in 1991 any more than it had in 1945.


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