Russia’s Our Enemy Again. What Should We Do?

News Abroad
tags: Cold War, Russia, Putin, Trump

Mr. Creswell is an associate professor of history at Florida State University.


In 2012, then candidate for president Mitt Romney declared that Russia was the United States’ “number one geopolitical foe.” In response, Romney’s opponent, President Barack Obama, mocked him mercilessly, taunting, “The 1980’s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.” For her part, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton opined that, “It’s somewhat dated to be looking backwards.” The press also pounced, including the prestigious New York Times: “His comments display either a shocking lack of knowledge about international affairs or just craven politics. Either way, they are reckless and unworthy of a major presidential contender.” The basic consensus was that Russia was not by any stretch the United States’ main geopolitical foe, and that anyone who said otherwise was unfit to be the commander in chief.

Since then, however, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has embarked on an aggressive foreign policy. It has launched an undercover war against Ukraine, annexed Crimea, regularly invades Western airspace, assassinated Russian defectors living abroad, and intervened in the Syrian civil war. Most recently, Russia stands accused of meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Now many people, including some of Romney’s chief detractors, are singing a much different tune.

The head of U.S. Strategic Command, Air Force Gen. John Hyten, declared that, “Russia is the most significant threat just because they pose the only existential threat to the country right now.” The chief of Britain’s general staff, General Sir Nicholas Carter, described Russia as presenting “the most complex and capable security challenge we have faced since the cold war.” A newly converted New York Times now chastises President Donald Trump for repeatedly denying “the existence of a profound national security threat: Russia’s attempt to interfere in the 2016 election on his behalf.” And rather than seeing concerns about Russia as dated, Hillary Clinton today sees herself as a “bit of a . . . Paula Revere. I'm trying to sound the alarm about this [Russian threat]— you've got to understand what Putin's strategy is. [He] wants to destabilize our country ....” Many other commentators are also delivering a gloomy assessment of Russian intentions toward the United States.

If Russia is indeed the “profound national security threat” that many now claim it is, how should the United States respond? Rather than looking for some mythical crystal ball, the United States should instead revisit its past strategy toward the now defunct Soviet Union. While history does not repeat itself, the steps the United States took during its competition with the U.S.S.R. provide a useful analytical framework for coming to grips with today’s geopolitical challenges. Despite some setbacks, the United States laid the groundwork for its eventual victory in the Cold War without undermining itself. Let’s briefly recount a few of those steps.

In 1949-1950, Russian-led communism really was on the march. In late August 1949, the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic device, thereby ending America’s atomic monopoly. Two months later, the Chinese communists emerged victorious in China’s long civil war. Then in late June 1950, troops from communist North Korea launched an attack on U.S. ally South Korea, thereby beginning the Korean War. Coupled with a number of other communist advances, the United States and its allies seemed squarely behind the geopolitical eight ball.

But the story did not end there. As Bradford Lee explains, the United States responded by crafting a long-term strategy designed to meet its main political objectives. The United States built and maintained a superior military alliance (NATO), and it helped to construct and sustain an international economic system that generated great wealth and public satisfaction. The United States also did a better job of developing and integrating different instruments of military power and non-military influence. This sound strategic vision helped lead to victory in the Cold War.

One of America’s first steps was to create a military alliance. Following the outbreak of the Korean War, President Harry Truman renounced his previous announced plan for fiscal austerity and instead tripled the U.S. defense budget. In September 1950, Washington pushed its NATO allies to agree to the armament of West Germany. Although the process was a tortuous one, by May 1955 West Germany, which was developing into an economic powerhouse, had become a full-fledged member of NATO and received the green light to begin arming itself. NATO then added Greece and Turkey in February 1952. At bottom, the United States and its allies transformed an alliance largely on paper to one that successfully deterred a Soviet attack on Western Europe.

Though the United States focused on a military build up, it did not forget its economic base. After World War II the economy expanded greatly until 1973. The Soviet Union also experienced significant post-1945 economic growth. However, this growth ended by 1960, as the inherent incompatibility of central control and a dynamic modern economy became manifest. This incompatibility ultimately led to the collapse of the USSR in 1991. The United States, therefore, maintained vast economic superiority over the Soviet Union during this entire period.

What’s more, the United States also invested heavily in its human capital. The G.I. Bill is one example. By 1956, roughly 7.8 million veterans had used the G.I. Bill to attend college or enter a training program. These veterans greatly boosted the American economy as a result.

The United States also responded to Russian technological advances by going them one better. Shaken by the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957, the following year President Dwight D. Eisenhower established NASA. The space agency vaulted the United States into the lead in aerospace technology and was also responsible for a number of spinoff technologies, which had important commercial and military applications.

The Vietnam War was of course the primary strategic mistake the United States committed during the Cold War. However, this disaster forced the United States to assess and reassess its strategy. Following the war, the country refrained from getting deeply involved in misguided long-term military adventures for the remainder of the century.

In short, the history of the period reveals that the United States adopted and carried out strategies that kept it well ahead of the USSR economically, militarily, and politically. Understanding this history is an intellectually sound way to prepare for current and future geopolitical challenges, and thus provides a rough guidebook for dealing with Putin’s Russia.

This history tells us that rivalry with Russia is nothing new. Moreover, while the Russians are using new instruments of war (e.g., cyber warfare), the strategy is straight out of their old playbook. It’s an effort to spread disinformation and undermine American legitimacy.

This history also suggests that the strategies that won the Cold War—building superior military alliances, maintaining a powerful and diversified economic system that generates great wealth and public satisfaction, and developing and integrating different instruments of national power and non-military influence (Diplomatic, Information, Military, and Economic – the DIME) – are the best way to deal with an aggressive Russia.

Now, some might interpret these remarks as advocating a new Cold War. But let’s be clear: while Russia and the United States are rivals, this competition bears little resemblance to the real Cold War. And any reasonable steps the United States takes to defend its core interests are not going to put that shattered Humpty Dumpty back together again. 

For this and other reasons, even a troublesome Russia shouldn’t dominate American time and energy. The United States should instead devote most of its attention to China. Russia is a fading power, while China is on the rise. Russia cannot conquer Europe in conventional military terms—and knows it—but China can dominate Asia, a region that has long been important to the United States. In response to both powers, the United States should get its priorities right and develop and maintain a sound grand strategy. Understanding what worked (and what did not work) during the Cold War is a good place to start.

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