In his final State of the Union address, in 1992, President George H. W. Bush sounded almost ecstatic. “The biggest thing that has happened in the world in my life, in our lives, is this: by the grace of God, America won the Cold War.” The ideological struggle between the U.S.-led West and the Soviet-dominated East—which played out in proxy wars around the world over four decades—had not simply ended, the President declared. The U.S. had triumphed. “A world once divided into two armed camps now recognizes one sole and preëminent power, the United States of America,” he told a joint session of Congress. “And they regard this with no dread. For the world trusts us with power, and the world is right.” Bush really did believe in what he labelled “a new world order” marking the end of an era. “The quest for freedom is stronger than steel, more permanent than concrete,” he said, in November, 1989, as the Berlin Wall and Communist regimes of Eastern Europe were crumbling.
Both of Bush’s assertions seem dubious—even naïve—three decades later. In a stunning announcement on Friday, President Biden said that, based on “significant intelligence,” the U.S. believes President Vladimir Putin intends to invade Ukraine. The Russian leader “is focussed on trying to convince the world that he has the ability to change the dynamics in Europe in a way that he cannot,” Biden told reporters. On Saturday, during a stop in Lithuania, a former Soviet republic that is now a NATO ally, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said that Russian forces “are uncoiling and are now poised to strike.”
Amid escalating tensions, a new debate has emerged among historians and experts on Russia about whether the Cold War ever really ended—at least as far as Moscow is concerned—and whether American arrogance blinded successive U.S. Presidents. Russia, with the largest army in Europe, is now resurgent. It is trying to reëstablish its traditional sphere of influence. In Europe over the past fourteen years, Russia has invaded and annexed part of Ukraine, and invaded Georgia and recognized two of its breakaway provinces as independent countries. For the first time, Russia has entrenched a military presence on the Mediterranean at naval and air-force bases in Syria, in the Middle East. In Africa, thousands of Russian contract mercenaries have been deployed on the Mediterranean coast of oil-rich Libya as well as in Sudan, Mali, the Central African Republic, Mozambique, and Madagascar. Now Russia appears intent on absorbing geostrategic Ukraine—a country slightly smaller than Texas that borders four members of NATO—either by military force or political coercion. Moscow counters that Washington’s criticism is hypocritical, given U.S. military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, much farther from its own shores, during the past two decades.
From the vantage point of history, some experts now view the current tensions as merely a new phase in a Cold War that never ended. “We can trace current strains back to the Cold War,” Robert Daly, the director of the Kissinger Institute, at the Wilson Center, told me. “There are important continuities.” He said the crisis today was not preordained or inevitable. If American, Russian, and Chinese leaders had made “a whole slew” of different choices along the way, history could have taken a different and less troubled course. “But it now looks like the period between the Cold War and today was an interregnum,” he said. “We thought issues were resolved, but it’s now clear that they weren’t.” The new prism on the past will be hard for Americans to accept, he said, because the crisis today reflects a “collective failure” over decades. [Continue reading…]