Cold Shoulder

More than 50 years after the Cold War began, the Jack S. Blanton Sr. Chair in History H.W. Brands discusses why Russian-American relations are still at odds today.

Current American troubles with Russia and Vladimir Putin naturally recall tense moments of the Cold War. Some pundits suggest that we are about to return to those grim days. They are almost certainly wrong.

What made the Cold War the Cold War was a combination of two factors that are not present today. First, the Soviet Union of the 1940s and 1950s was an undeniable military superpower. The Red Army had done most of the heavy lifting in defeating Nazi Germany, and Stalin never seriously demobilized. American forces stationed in Europe during the occupation of Germany and after the creation of NATO were at serious risk of being overrun in the event the Cold War turned hot.

Second, communism was an ideology whose time appeared to have come. The Russian Revolution in 1917 delivered to communism the largest country in the world; the Chinese Revolution in 1949 handed over the most populous nation in the world. For the newly independent countries of Asia and Africa, communism offered a credible alternative to the democratic capitalism of the West.

The American side eventually won the Cold War, but its victory was by no means inevitable. As late as the 1980s conventional wisdom held that the Cold War was a more or less permanent feature of the international landscape. Only when reforms led by Mikhail Gorbachev revealed the rottenness of the Soviet system did that system implode. The economy collapsed, making Moscow’s military pretensions unsustainable and depriving the Kremlin’s communist ideology of significant appeal.

The Russia that Vladimir Putin eventually inherited was an economic wreck and an ideological vacuum. The Russian economy has improved only marginally. And Putin has no ideology to speak of—certainly nothing that is exportable in the manner that Marxism-Leninism was in the salad days of the Cold War.

The only thing that makes Russia worrisome is its remnant nuclear arsenal. Yet there is no more reason to think Russia will use its nukes than there was to think the Soviet Union would. Deterrence—the threat of instant incineration by American retaliation—worked then and it will work now. During the Cold War the Soviet Union posed a double-barreled threat to the United States: as a military peer and a compelling ideological rival. Today’s Russia is an annoyance but nothing more.

So why do Americans fret about Russia? Nations need enemies, or at least they find them useful. The Soviet Union served the purpose for 40 years. Old habits die hard.


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