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Why Putin’s War Against the West Is Just Beginning

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A bellicose Russia, shorn of its empire and suffused with resentment, is being led by a leader intent on payback for the wrongs that he believes were inflicted upon his nation after the end of the Cold War by vengeful and unscrupulous Western powers.

In 1902, the Boston Brahmin and historian Brooks Adams published an influential book called The New Empire. It arrived at a moment when America was becoming a great power as imperial aspirations supplanted the restraint of the old republic. In the aftermath of the Spanish-American War of 1898, America annexed Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and much of the Caribbean. The Panama Canal was about to be completed and Washington was making inroads into China. Adams concluded,

Supposing the movement of the next 50 years only to equal that of the last, instead of undergoing a prodigious acceleration, the United States will outweigh any single empire, if not all empires combined. The whole world will pay her tribute. Commerce will flow to her from both east and west, and the order which has existed from the dawn of time will be reversed.

Adams’ remarkably accurate prophecy, as the sociologist Daniel Bell once noted, offers a useful reminder that the conviction that America should seek to achieve global supremacy predated both World War I and World War II. The original mandarins who envisioned a Pax Americana included Elihu Root, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Henry Cabot Lodge Hay, and John Hay. Their apostolic disciples, such as Henry Stimson, saw themselves as the Platonic guardians of America. In his recent book Tomorrow, the World, Stephen Wertheim argues that this foreign policy elite made the conscious choice to champion internationalism in the form of armed supremacy after 1945. Still, during the Cold War, America’s ambitions were constrained by its rivalry with the Soviet Union, when spheres of influence, along the lines of the 1555 Peace of Augsburg’s famous phrase cuius regio, eius religio (whose realm, whose religion), obtained.

THE APPARENT stability of the Cold War meant that as the conflict ground on, some on the liberal Left came to reject the notion that it was ever necessary to confront the Kremlin as so much hooey. Starting in the 1960s, a minor academic industry developed around the idea that it was all a big mistake, the fault of merchants of death or red-baiting politicians. In his 1982 novel The Dean’s December, which was set in Bucharest and Chicago, Saul Bellow captured this illusion:

… liberalism had never accepted the Leninist premise that this was an age of wars and revolutions. Where the communists saw class war, civil war, pictures of catastrophe, we only saw temporary aberrations. Capitalistic democracies could never be at home with the catastrophic outlook. We are used to peace and plenty, we are for everything nice and against cruelty, wickedness, craftiness, monstrousness. Worshippers of progress, its dependents, we are unwilling to reckon with villainy and misanthropy, we reject the horrible—the same as saying we are anti-philosophical.

But a cadre on the American Right, first spearheaded by William F. Buckley, Jr., then joined by the neoconservatives who reviled the presidential candidate George McGovern and fled the Democratic party in the early 1970s, accepted this Leninist premise all too well, espousing an aggressive—no, revolutionary—policy of the rollback of communism. The Nixon-Kissinger policy of détente was disdained as tantamount to the appeasement of the Kremlin, one that was certain to lead to the demoralization and defeat of the West.

It didn’t. Indeed, one of the most striking moments in the Cold War arrived towards its terminus when the Soviet official and academic Georgy Arbatov declared to a Washington audience, “We are going to do a terrible thing to you. We are going to deprive you of an enemy.” Even Arbatov could not have known just how prescient his remark would become in following decades. No sooner did the Cold War end than American hawks started searching for a fresh adversary. Instead of following prudent realist principles, they embraced the idea of the universal applicability of the American model abroad—that liberalism could be equated with progress in history.

A taste of what was to come appeared in a Defense Planning Guidance document that was supervised by Paul Wolfowitz and caused a stir when it appeared in 1992. The document advocated for huge increases in the defense budget and called for America to remain the world’s sole superpower while dismissing the notion of multilateralism. George H.W. Bush and his National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft rejected it. Bush’s son did not. Restraint was out, braggadocio in. Bush the Younger invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, calling in his second inaugural address for an end to tyranny around the globe. The costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq alone came to over four trillion dollars. His successor, Barack Obama, had vowed to exit from Iraq and Afghanistan, but ended up leading a NATO coalition that bombed Libya. This campaign helped destabilize Syria, leading to an exodus of refugees to Europe.

At the same time, once the Cold War ended on American terms, Washington embarked upon the expansion of NATO by incorporating East Germany after the reunification of Germany. In 1990, Secretary of State James Baker told the Soviet leadership—in a statement that has become the basis for Russian aggrievement—that NATO would not move “one inch” eastwards if the Kremlin acceded to reunification. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, two new rounds of NATO expansion followed, extending the so-called Article V guarantee—“an armed attack against one or more of them … shall be considered an attack against them all”—to cover one billion people. Washington was in no mood to allay any Russian apprehensions. “To hell with that,” President George H.W. Bush said when asked if he would compromise with Moscow. President Bill Clinton thought it could be “bought off.” But as the historian M.E. Sarotte observes in her important new book, Not One Inch, this approach, which the diplomat and scholar George F. Kennan stoutly opposed at the time, turned out to be short-sighted:

Along the way, a promising alternative mode of enlargement, in the form of a partnership that would have avoided drawing a new line across Europe, fell to hard-line opposition. This tougher attitude achieved results, but it obscured options that might have sustained cooperation, decreased chances of a US-Russia conflict reoccurring, and served Washington’s interests better in the longer term.

TODAY, AS President Joe Biden grapples uneasily with geopolitical shifts and the pandemic crisis, the impression is growing abroad that a new era has begun in the West in which America is no longer primus inter pares but a superpower in terminal decline—one relegated, to borrow the title of a provocative book by Alexander Cooley and Daniel Nexon, to an exit from hegemony. Indeed, with polarization, political correctness, the banning of books, and alternative facts acquiring a new virulence, the belief that the United States itself may lurch into civil war has become increasingly prevalent. As the meretricious 1619 Project indicates, America cannot even agree on the most basic facts about its founding. Myths about the American Revolution as an exercise in white supremacy are percolating. At a minimum, the much-vaunted American model appears battered and bruised at home and abroad.

Writing in this issue, Nikolas K. Gvosdev underscores that nothing less than a thirty-year cycle has abruptly ended. Where this cycle began with “a series of events that heralded the triumph of the U.S.-led liberal-democratic system—the fall of the Berlin Wall, the nearly bloodless U.S.-led coalition victory in the Gulf War, and the lowering of the red banner of the hammer and sickle over the Great Kremlin Palace for the last time on December 25, 1991—the terminus of this post-Cold War epoch and the birth pangs of a new and yet unnamed epoch could not be more different.”

One sign of a new era is the increasingly truculent relationship between China and the United States. The West’s heady optimism that the introduction of capitalism to China would ineluctably result in political reforms has been dashed, as the Beijing leadership has clamped down internally and asserted sweeping claims to the South China Sea, alarming its immediate neighbors. President Donald Trump oscillated between denouncing China for unfair trade practices and praising its leader President Xi Jinping in a tweet for his handling of the pandemic as “strong, sharp, and powerfully focused on leading the counterattack on the Coronavirus.” Biden himself has not lifted many of the tariffs that Trump originally imposed upon China. Indeed, his objective has been to execute a pivot away from Europe and the Middle East to Asia. But while China may be an adversary of America, it is not clear that a competition with it must constitute Cold War II. But American pressure on Russia and China is prompting the two to cooperate much more closely. Both powers are regularly conducting joint military exercises. China is Russia’s No. 1 trading partner and the two tend to support each other’s foreign policy efforts. The more Washington leans on Moscow, the faster it seeks to bolster its ties with Beijing.

Where does this leave Washington? As Center for the National Interest fellow Paul Heer notes in this issue, a good deal of American vulnerability to China results from its own internal debilities. Some in Washington have succumbed to the temptation to ascribe America’s own weaknesses to Chinese perfidy rather than confront and rectify them. According to Heer,