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A “New Cold War” Against Russia Is a Terrible Idea

Defining Putin as America's main enemy is threat inflation at its worst.

SAUL LOEB / Getty Images

Donald Trump is often described as an unconventional politician, but there is at least one surprising way he’s following in the footsteps of his most recent predecessors. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama began their presidencies with high hopes of improving U.S.-Russian relations. At a 2001 summit in Slovenia, Bush met with Vladimir Putin and famously said, “I looked the man in the eye. I found him very straightforward and trustworthy—I was able to get a sense of his soul.” In 2009 in Geneva, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, a button that was supposed to be marked with the word “reset.” (Unfortunately, and perhaps prophetically, the word used was перегрузка, meaning “overload.”) But by the end of his presidency, Bush had to defuse a conflict between Russia and neighboring Georgia, while Obama has contended with Russian adventurism in Ukraine and interference in the U.S. election. In response to the latter, Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats last month, declaring them persona non grata in the U.S.

Putin pointedly declined to retaliate over Obama’s diplomatic punishment, apparently confident that the incoming Trump administration would backtrack. “While we reserve the right to take reciprocal measures, we’re not going to downgrade ourselves to the level of irresponsible ‘kitchen’ diplomacy,” Putin said. “In our future steps on the way toward the restoration of Russia-United States relations, we will proceed from the policy pursued by the [Trump] administration.” In response, Trump tweeted yet another compliment of Putin:

The mutual admiration between Putin and Trump seems to promise a new rapprochement. But what if Trump finds, as Bush and Obama did before him, that there are fundamental areas of disagreement with Russia which no amount of goodwill can paper over? If Trump did want to change tack, he’d find that many Americans—not just Republican hawks like Senator John McCain, but also Democrats like his defeated rival Hillary Clinton—would eagerly support an anti-Russian foreign policy.

Molly K. McKew, who has been an advisor to the government of Georgian President Saakashvili and to former Moldovan Prime Minister Filat, argues in Politico Magazine that Russia is already at war with the U.S. According to McKew, Russia sees the U.S. as “the main enemy” and is working to undermine the American-dominated global order. Thus, McKew hopes Trump will come to his senses and treat Russia as the nation’s primary threat. In other words, McKew is calling for a return to the bipolar view of global politics that held sway during the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, when Americans thought every issue was a question of the free world versus “godless communism.” McKew is admirably forthright in stating her desire:

The truth is that fighting a new Cold War would be in America’s interest. Russia teaches us a very important lesson: losing an ideological war without a fight will ruin you as a nation. The fight is the American way. When we stop fighting for our ideals abroad, we stop fighting for them at home. We won the last Cold War. We will win the next one too. When it’s us against them, they were, and are, never going to be the winner. But when it’s “all against all” — a “multipolar” world with “multi-vector” policy, a state of shifting alliances and permanent instability — Russia, with a centrally controlled, tiny command structure unaccountable for its actions in any way, still has a chance for a seat at the table.

Even if Trump’s pursuit of reconciliation with Russia is dangerous, this call for a new Cold War is equally troubling. If Trump underestimates Putin’s malevolence (or thinks he can use it to his advantage), McKew and those who think like her are engaged in reckless threat inflation, wildly overstating the extent of Russian ambitions and power in support of a costly policy.

The old Cold War was fueled by stark ideological differences between communism and capitalism, played across a planetary chess board. Both the U.S. and Russia had allies all over the globe, with hotspots ranging from Cuba to the Congo to Vietnam. Current U.S. troubles with Russia aren’t the result of such ideological differences—Putin’s mix of authoritarianism and crony capitalism being no different than many regimes America works with happily—and are intensely localized along Russia’s borders, in countries like the Ukraine and Georgia. One could argue that America should defend such countries (a position McKew was paid to do) but such a policy can hardly be the pivot on which American foreign policy turns.

McKew contends that Putin is trying to create a multipolar world, which would give Russia more leverage against its enemies. That imputes vastly more power to Putin over global affairs than he has. In fact, the world has been multi-polar since at least the early 1970s, if not earlier, thanks to the rise of nations in Europe and Asia outside the superpower duopoly. Whether Russia wants a multipolar world or not is irrelevant to the reality that multi-polarity exists. A Cold War redux focused on containing Russia means ignoring the rise of powers like China and India (which go unmentioned in McKew’s article). These countries are much more economically robust than Russia and will loom much larger in the world in the coming decades. To follow McKew’s advice would be to give greater importance to Ukraine and Georgia than to the continents of Africa and Asia. By any measure, Russia is a declining global power, with a shaky economy dependent on resource extraction. Making an anti-Russian agenda the center of American foreign policy would be senseless.

Cold War revivalism offers itself as an alternative to Trump’s Russian-friendly policy, but both suffer from the flaw of nostalgia. Trump hopes that by bringing America and Russia together, he can suppress emergent threats like China. McKew apparently wants to downplay China and India and return to policies that were fashioned for the geopolitics of the 1950s. Even in the Eisenhower era, the simplicities of Cold War thinking came with an enormous cost: repression at home in the form of McCarthyism, support for repressive regimes all over the globe, and ignorance of ideological splinters in the communist world (such that diplomatic ties with mainland China were forestalled for three decades). Are these policies worth returning to?

There’s a middle ground between McKew’s Cold War fantasies and a U.S.-Russia alliance. Obama tried to follow a middle course by working with Putin where possible (as with the Iran nuclear deal) and punishing Russian adventurism in a calibrated fashion (with sanctions in response to the Crimean aggression). Unfortunately, any hope of this middle ground position continuing ended with Trump’s election to the presidency. The worry now is that if Trump’s pro-Russia gambit fails, the fallback position will be listening to the likes of McKew and launching a new Cold War.