This doesn't need to be a new Cold War
NATO has found new purpose. US media declares a new Cold War. It doesn't have to be this way.
Usually when I walk my dog Xena I like to listen to history or lefty-but-non-newsy podcasts. But some days, like when the Taliban did their speedrun takeover of Afghanistan, are Democracy Now! days. Today is one of those days, following the horrifying news that Russia has begun a major bombing campaign and at least partial invasion of neighboring Ukraine.
Today’s DN was typically interesting and insightful. The first guest, Anatol Lieven, talked about how absurd it was of Putin to use “denazification” as one of the pretexts for this military action. It is true that some Ukrainian nationalist militias have ties to fascist parties or are fascist themselves, the idea that the entire Ukrainian government is controlled by Nazis is preposterous.
Putin’s other stated goal, the “demilitarization” of Ukraine, is slightly harder to parse. It could mean something like severely crippling Ukraine’s Air Force and air defense systems. It could mean attempting to install a puppet regime that would end the country’s calls to join NATO, the current best guess of US intelligence agencies as of this afternoon. At its most maximalist, it could mean a full occupation of the the country of 41 million, which seems unthinkable at the moment.
The US, EU, and NATO’s responses have been highly coordinated and almost entirely in sync, as each of those bodies have leveled sanctions against Russia or otherwise moved to support Ukraine and neighboring countries. On its face, it’s a good thing for countries around the world to be able to band together to impose costs on the government of a country that has decided to invade or occupy another nation. Global security is better when there are strong consequences to imperial wars, whether carried out by the United States, Russia, or anybody else.
There are many dangers with this approach, however. For as much as US officials tout their “highly targeted” sanctions, the truth is that ordinary Russians will likely suffer under them. All too often, sanctions are described in corporate media as an alternative to war, rather than as the act of war that they are. It’s good that the sanctions are targeting wealthy individuals and financial institutions, rather than the energy sector or other industries that are more likely to hurt the general population.
Within Russia, public opinion is split on recognizing the two breakaway provinces in eastern Ukraine that Putin has used to justify his aggression. This is in sharp contrast to his annexation of Crimea in 2014, which garnered significant public support. The left in the US should resist calls to inflict mass pain on ordinary Russians in hopes of destabilizing Putin’s government, as the US regularly does with Iran and others. To the extent that it’s possible, the international left must stand in solidarity with the Russian anti-war left, which is facing widespread repression (a phenomenon not limited to Russia).
Another significant risk that’s beginning to emerge in the US is framing this conflict as a new Cold War. For the last several years, most neo-Cold War rhetoric has been aimed at China. (China, for its part, has refused to call Russia’s actions an “invasion” and appears to be strengthening its ties with Russia, though it is mostly sitting on the sideline of this new conflict for now.) With this new military operation, the US government and the press have been eager to adopt an explicit new Cold War framing. As but one of many examples, a Politico story from Monday began like this: “Welcome to the new Cold War. And like the last one, strap in for a long and costly military and diplomatic duel with the Kremlin.”
This new Cold War will almost certainly be framed as one between democracies and autocracies, a clear echo of the older rhetoric of “the Free World” and the “Evil Empire” or “Iron Curtain.” This approach is designed to cast the world in Manichean binaries of good and evil, and to bake in apologies for injustice in the United States. Sure it’s not perfect, but at least it’s not Russia.
Along similar lines, the sub-headline from a WSJ story today says Russian’s actions have given NATO “a new sense of unity of purpose,” summarizing a speech by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. This new “unity of purpose” is supposed to be comforting, I suppose, but it’s worth remembering that one of the many factors that led to this moment was NATO expansion eastward, as was dangling an empty promise to Ukraine that they could join the alliance.
That rhetoric also calls back to the neoconservative response to 9/11. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, neocons felt that the United States had lost its purpose and become decadent. It was a period of malaise and self-indulgence, they thought, without any unifying national myth. The attacks on 9/11 provided just the re-invigoration that the US empire needed — a new enemy bent on totalitarian rule, a “clash of civilizations” between the enlightened West and the backwards Middle East, and an answer to the existential despair that had descended on the listless US political class.
Now, there’s no evidence that Biden or Boris Johnson are going to use this new moment of purpose to wage their own disastrous imperial wars in the mold of George W Bush and Tony Blair. But, as the entirety of the War on Terror shows, once a country (or terrorist group) is defined as the ultimate enemy, these things take on an inertia of their own. Overall, Biden’s posture and response has been good, but there are plenty in the US who would love nothing more than a return to the Cold War days. They must be opposed here and abroad.