Cold War Catastrophes the U.S. Can Avoid This Time

Containing Russia is a good idea. Crusading against it is not.

An illustration showing a nuclear bomb inside a cage
The Atlantic

About the author: Anatol Lieven is a senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and the author of Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry and Climate Change and the Nation State.

Whatever happens in Ukraine, America and Russia are now set for a lengthy period of intense confrontation. U.S. support for Ukraine against Russia’s invasion was entirely justified. But as the fighting goes on, America’s growing involvement in Ukraine’s war effort—including huge financial and economic aid as well as heavier and more sophisticated weapons—could evolve into a wider, direct conflict between the two great powers. This new cold war might box the United States into making an unconditional commitment, as Henry Kissinger and others have warned, to goals that are horribly dangerous and contrary to national interests.

Another look at the original Cold War’s early years, when the United States found itself drawn into several such commitments around the globe, could be a useful guide to avoiding new versions of the disasters that sometimes resulted. The U.S. policy of containment toward the Soviet Union after World War II was absolutely necessary, but what became overzealous framing of that strategy led to unnecessary conflicts and dreadful suffering in many parts of the world. Even though the Cold War did end in eventual victory for the West, the long confrontation inflicted damage on the United States itself, from which it has never recovered.

The parallels between the situation today and the start of the Cold War are not perfect. Stalinist Communism was a malignant force, with real ambitions to achieve world revolution and destroy all democratic capitalist systems. The Soviet Union, which had played by far the most important part in the defeat of Nazi Germany, was unquestionably a military superpower. The Red Army’s battalions stood ranged across the heart of Germany. The U.S.S.R. and Soviet Communism posed a genuine threat to U.S. allies and economic interests in Western Europe.

Far from being the mighty military force of the Stalin-era Soviet Union, Russia’s ground troops today seem little better than heavily armed brigands—brutal, even criminal, and a disaster for Ukraine and Ukrainians, but not a serious danger to the West. Although the war in Ukraine started as a Russian attempt to turn all of Ukraine into a client state, the defeats and failures of the Russian army have reduced its scope to a postcolonial conflict over limited territories in the country’s east and south.

As ugly as the spectacle is, these limits of scale permit a calmer, more level-headed approach to the U.S. response than seemed demanded at first, in the shocking early days of the invasion. But they’re no cause for complacency. A crucial feature of the conflict today is that it is not, as it was during the Cold War, sublimated or exported to some far-flung part of the globe: The U.S. military aid to Ukraine is taking place in a war within Europe, right on Russia’s border. Such a European theater was something that every postwar U.S. president was careful to avoid, because they all understood that a hot war in Eastern Europe would drastically raise the risk of an escalation ending in nuclear catastrophe.

In that light, the transition that took place during the second Truman administration, from George Kennan’s approach toward containing the Soviet Union to Paul Nitze’s, should be a cautionary tale to the U.S. and its allies today. Kennan’s strategy of limited and defensive containment in Europe was based on a profound understanding of the intrinsic weaknesses of the Soviet system: If Soviet expansion could be contained, he hoped, that system would eventually collapse of its own accord.

That is, of course, what did finally happen—but not before Nitze had intervened to make containment a more aggressive policy, global in scope and heavily militarized, drawing local disputes all over the world under the umbrella of the Cold War, to terribly destructive effect. In the words of the State Department’s official historian:

In 1950, Nitze’s conception of containment won out over Kennan’s. NSC 68 … called for a drastic expansion of the U.S. military budget. The paper also expanded containment’s scope beyond the defense of major centers of industrial power to encompass the entire world. “In the context of the present polarization of power,” it read, “a defeat of free institutions anywhere is a defeat everywhere.”

That National Security Council paper, NSC-68, led to the U.S. interpretation of the North Korean invasion of South Korea later that year as part of a plan for world domination ordered by Moscow, rather than a peninsular civil war. A decade later, the same misconception—coupled with the “domino theory,” which regarded any Communist success anywhere as a menacing step toward universal Soviet triumph—led America into the completely unnecessary catastrophe of Vietnam. The thinking behind NSC-68 was responsible for a series of other disastrous U.S. mistakes, such as the 1953 overthrow of the liberal nationalist government under Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran, assorted coups and massacres in Central America, and support for several nominally anti-communist but despicable forces in Africa’s civil wars.

Although Nitze’s approach made the carnage far worse, some responsibility lies in an original flaw of the Kennan doctrine: As Walter Lippmann pointed out early on, it failed to distinguish properly between vital national interests and peripheral ones (albeit the U.S.S.R. was susceptible to making the same error). Nevertheless, the U.S. did observe the distinction at times of severe stress by refraining in both Korea and Vietnam from resorting to nuclear weapons. And fear of nuclear cataclysm, together with Kennan’s advice, influenced Dwight Eisenhower’s decision to reject John Foster Dulles’s idea of “rolling back” Soviet power in Eastern Europe by encouraging national uprisings backed by U.S. military force. This restraint was rooted in the recognition that Communist influence over Eastern Europe did touch vital Soviet interests, which Moscow would risk nuclear war to defend.

U.S. policy today is in danger of making some of the same mistakes of the early years of the Cold War. The stage is much smaller, but the danger is, in some ways, greater because the proxy war is being waged on territory that Russia considers absolutely vital to its national interest and that also borders NATO members’ land. If the U.S. were to stumble into adopting a new version of “rollback”—with Russia, standing in for the U.S.S.R., not just contained in eastern Ukraine but completely defeated, provoking unrest at home and possibly regime change—that would run a far greater risk of nuclear escalation.

The memory of the Cold War should be a warning against the danger today of a neo-Nitze doctrine of seeing every dispute involving Russia as a zero-sum struggle against an existential foe, regardless of actual U.S. interests and local realities. Sometimes, in fact, it would behoove us to note that American and Russian interests can still coincide. However foul the Assad regime in Syria, for example, we should not forget that the U.S. and Russian forces in that country are, in effect, allied against the Islamic State, which wants to destroy both Moscow and Washington. In other words, Russia backs Bashar al-Assad for similar reasons that the U.S. supports President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt. The same pragmatic logic applies to Russian military deployments in the Sahel. We should acknowledge, too, that Russia’s critiques of some of America’s policies—notably, of its military interventions in Iraq and Libya—have proved not merely correct but, in Lippmann’s sense, an accurate guide to what would have been in U.S. interests.

Finally, a new Cold War runs the risk of finding enemies domestic as well as foreign. The specter of McCarthyism still stalks the land in a spirit of paranoia and hatred that haunts American political culture. Just as Senator Joseph McCarthy grotesquely exaggerated a negligible communist threat within America, so accusations of treasonous conduct against Americans aligned with Donald Trump’s pro-Putin stance have been overblown. Attacking political opponents as traitors is not a tactic that has worked out well for democracy. In any case, right-wing extremism is as homegrown in America as it is in Brazil, Poland, India, and indeed Russia.

None of these historical lessons argues against U.S. support for the defense of Ukraine in the face of Russia’s invasion. They do argue strongly, though, against ruling out a compromise peace in favor of a complete victory for Ukraine. Worse still would be to turn the war in Ukraine into the beginning of another militarized global crusade.