Jonathan Power, firstname.lastname@example.org
Monday 22 October 2007
Last Update 22 October 2007 12:00 am
“Old soldiers never die, they just fade away”, said Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Maybe the same could be said of the 20th century’s most important geopolitical conflict, the Cold War. Perhaps just because there was never a final catharsis, the Cold War has never quite gone away and, unlike the soldier, is able to rise again from its ashes.
After this last weekend’s high level US-Russian meeting in Moscow relations between the two big powers are at a dangerous turn. Quarrelling publicly about the building of US missile defenses on the soil of former Warsaw Pact members, threatening to abrogate important arms treaties (and in America’s case already having withdrawn from one important one), and with the leaders of both countries having become more dictatorial and less subject to judicial restraint, the danger signs are rather too plentiful for comfort. After all, despite large reductions in nuclear armaments both sides still have thousands of the beasts ready to be trained on each other. If both sides had decided to be friends in the way their post-Soviet leaders promised those rockets would have ceased to exist more than a decade ago.
Could Russia become a military adversary once again? In Washington last month I put this question to Zbigniew Brzezinski, the hard-line Soviet scholar and national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter. “I rather doubt it”, he replied. “For one thing to be a military adversary of the US on a global scale Russia would have to have some sort of a mission, a global strategy, maybe an ideological reason. That strikes me as rather unlikely. But there may be tensions between the US and Russia. In some respects it has manifested itself on some narrow fronts right now. Beyond that, Russia’s capabilities are much lower than they used to be. Russian society expects more for itself in socioeconomic development and it is more difficult to deny that in the context of the relative access of Russia to the outside world and the outside world’s access to Russia. In brief, the kind of total mobilization that the Soviet system could impose on Russia and the motivation for it would be much more difficult to legitimize in the absence of a compelling, overarching, ideological justification.”
But why have both sides allowed matters to so badly slip? In Moscow I put this question to Georgi Arbatov, now retired but for decades the eminence grise of the Soviet foreign policy apparatus and the man who drew up the policies that undergirded Gorbachev’s decision to reach out to the West. “The US was infatuated with being the only superpower and started some adventures,” he replied. “Not all of them were bad. Kuwait was OK — it had to be done. But now in Iraq they are engaged in a bad war with a very doubtful outcome.”
“We also, because we have a lot of internal problems, haven’t used the end of the Cold War well. Our leaders were satisfied by being accepted as a member of the big eight. I don’t think another Cold War is imminent but we have entered into a period of multilateral international relations with many centers of power. We had this before World War 1. It is not easy politics. It demands a very big effort and a lot of brainwork. I am not sure both sides have prepared for this. We can slip into worse and worse situations, step by step”
Arbatov like Brzezinski believes there are a lot of built-in pressures that make a return to the Cold War difficult. “The whole economic situation forbids it”, he says. “You have seen on the way here these small towns with big expensive houses. This is what the bureaucracy is interested in”. But he adds another important point: “We were too ideological in the past in the Soviet Union, but you can’t live without some ideology. We have to stop this stupid talk about how Russia will go its own way. It’s nonsense. The leadership must think more about where the present situation is leading the country to, how to solve the problems and where exactly do they want to lead the country.”
“We could have done more to engage and perhaps entangle Russia in a relationship with the West, which would have had the effect of reducing some of the increasingly dominant nostalgia for an imperial status that is being evidenced by the Kremlin,” observes Brzezinski.
Interestingly, both of them see a future Russian membership of the European Union as an important way, to “help stabilize Russian politics”. (Arbatov’s words.) Is that what is necessary to finally bury the Cold War? It well could be.