Let’s see, America is prepositioning battle tanks with our East European NATO allies to counterbalance Russia; U.S. and Russian military planes flew within 10 feet of each other; Russia is building a new generation of long-range ballistic missiles; and the U.S. and China are jostling in the South China Sea. Did someone restart the Cold War while I was looking the other way?
If so, this time it seems like the Cold War without the fun — that is, without James Bond, SMERSH, “Get Smart” Agent 86’s shoe phone, Nikita Khrushchev’s shoe-banging, a race to the moon or a debate between American and Soviet leaders over whose country has the best kitchen appliances. And I don’t think we’re going to see President Barack Obama in Kiev declaring, à la President John F. Kennedy, “ich bin ein Ukrainian.” Also, the lingo of our day — “reset with Russia” or “pivot to Asia” — has none of the gravitas of — drum roll, please — “détente.”
No, this post-post-Cold War has more of a WWE — World Wrestling Entertainment — feel to it, and I don’t just mean Russian President Vladimir Putin riding horses bare-chested, although that is an apt metaphor. It’s just a raw jostling for power for power’s sake — not a clash of influential ideas but rather of spheres of influence: “You cross that line, I punch your nose.” “Why?” “Because I said so.” “You got a problem with that?” “Yes, let me show you my drone. You got a problem with that?” “Not at all. My cyber guys stole the guidance system last week from Northrop Grumman.” “You got a problem with that?”
The Cold War had a beginning, an end and even a closing curtain, with the fall of the Berlin Wall. But the post-post-Cold War has brought us full circle back to the pre-Cold War and the game of nations. There was a moment when it seemed as though it would all be otherwise — when it seemed that Arabs and Israelis would make peace, that China would evolve into a more consensual political system and that Russia would become part of Europe and the G-8. That was a lifetime ago.
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Now Western reporters struggle to get visas to China, no American businessman with a brain takes his laptop to Beijing, Chinese hackers have more of your personal data now than LinkedIn, Russia is still intent on becoming part of Europe — by annexing a piece here and a piece there — and the G-8 is now the G-1.5 (America and Germany).
When did it all go sour? We fired the first shot when we expanded NATO toward the Russian border even though the Soviet Union had disappeared. Message to Moscow: You are always an enemy, no matter what system you have. When oil prices recovered, Putin sought his revenge for this humiliation, but now he’s just using the NATO threat to justify the militarization of Russian society so he and his fellow kleptocrats can stay in power and paint their opponents as lackeys of the West.
NATO’s toppling of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, the Arab Spring and the Moscow street protests that followed rattled Putin, said Sergei Guriev, the noted Russian economist now based in Paris. “Putin understood that he lost the Russian middle class and so he started to look for legitimacy somewhere else” — in hypernationalism and anti-Americanism.
But Guriev makes an important point. “If not for the Western sanctions on Russia, East Ukraine would already have been part of Russia today,” he said, adding that there is nothing Putin fears more than Ukraine succeeding in diminishing corruption and building a modern economy that would be everything Putin’s Russia is not. Guriev is worried, though, that the anti-Western propaganda Putin has been pumping into the veins of the Russian public will have a lasting effect and make his successor even worse. Either way, “Russia will be a big challenge for your next president.”
The Chinese leadership is not as dumb or desperate as Putin — and needs access to U.S. markets more — so, for now, China’s leaders still behave with some restraint in asserting their claims in the South China Sea. But the fact is, as the Asia expert Andrew Browne noted in The Wall Street Journal, “the U.S.-China relationship has lost its strategic raison d’etre: the Soviet Union, the common threat that brought the two countries together.” They have not forged a new one, like being co-managers of global stability.
In short, the attraction of the U.S. economy and the bite of U.S. sanctions are more vital than ever in managing the post-post-Cold War game of nations, including bringing Iran to nuclear talks. We may be back to traditional geopolitics, but it’s in a much more interdependent world, where our economic clout is still a source of restraint on Moscow and Beijing.
Putin doesn’t disguise his military involvement in Ukraine for nothing; he’s afraid of more U.S. banking sanctions. China doesn’t circumscribe its behavior in the South China Sea for nothing; it can’t grow without exporting to America. It’s not just our guns, it’s our butter.
It’s why we should be expanding U.S.-shaped free-trade deals with Asia and Europe and it’s why the most important source of stability in the world today is the health of the U.S. economy. We can walk softly only as long as we carry a big stick — and a big wallet.