At a press conference in the Hague, President Obama dismissed the suggestion that Mitt Romney had been right in 2012 to peg Moscow as America’s top strategic challenge. “The truth of the matter is that America’s got a whole lot of challenges,” Mr. Obama said. “Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength but out of weakness.”
The pooh-poohing of Moscow certainly understates the severity of the challenge posed by a restive Russia. No world leader should be sanguine when having disagreements with other countries that own nuclear weapons. But, that said, the nature and scope of that challenge does not support the “Cold War is back” rhetoric now current among many pundits. Today’s Russia is not yesterday’s Soviet Union. This Russia represents a problem all its own.
In sparring with reporters, the president suggested that Russia’s seizure of Crimea was actually proof of Moscow’s weakness—an attempt to mask the significant strategic vulnerabilities facing a new Russian ‘empire.’ It’s an interesting take on events, but not terribly reassuring. After all, the 1914 Austria-Hungarian invasion of Serbia was rooted in trying to cover-up the empire’s strategic vulnerabilities. In 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor out weakness. That same year, Germany invaded Russia to end once and for all the insecurity of its Eastern flank.
History is littered with examples of powers trying to paper over problems by striking out. That doesn’t make the wars they ultimately provoke any less horrifying or destructive.
A reckless Russia on the outskirts of the transatlantic alliance is trouble. Armed squabbling on NATO’s borders has the potential to spiral into a regional conflict. That ought to be recognized on any president’s list of top strategic concerns.
Further, as Mr. Obama continues to gut the U.S. military, conflict in one part of the world that requires America’s attention can create space for competitors elsewhere to make mischief while Washington’s back is turned.
The president’s dismissive characterization in The Hague suggests he is either masking or missing how momentous a challenge the Crimea crisis poses for his presidency. But that is not to say that the other extreme—an assertion that we are on the verge of Cold War redux—is more accurate or appropriate.
The paradigm of East facing off against West is unhelpful. Indeed, embracing the idea of a “new” Cold War would actually make us a lot less safe. Here are five reasons why it doesn’t work and what we need instead.
#1—Russia is no “Evil Empire.” Mr. Obama is right: Russia is not a global military power, at least as far as conventional forces are concerned. Consequently, its invasion of Crimea does not justify calls to refurbish the U.S. arsenal. We do, however, need to refurbish our arsenal for reasons that are far bigger than Russia and started long before Putin’s election. The reality is that the U.S. has underestimated its requirement for post-Cold War conventional forces since the 1990s. This chronic problem has intensified severely during the second half of Mr. Obama’s presidency, in which defense spending has become a budget-cutting drill masquerading as strategy. America needs a better military not just to deal with Putin but because, even before the Crimea crisis, our forces have been starved of the resources needed to assure they can adequately protect U.S. vital interests worldwide for the foreseeable future.
#2—Russia is not a global competitor. The U.S.-Soviet competition was truly global in scope. Today, Moscow meddles in the Middle East and dabbles in Latin America, but it can’t match U.S. power theater-for-theater worldwide. But the U.S. must watch several regional and rising powers worldwide. Nations can coordinate their malicious activity with Russia’s or stage some trouble of their own if they sense the U.S. will be too preoccupied with Putin to deal effectively with their actions. Tehran, for example, might decide to clown around in the Straits of Hormuz the next time Moscow messes with a Baltic state. The U.S. may not need a worldwide containment strategy like it did during the days when the Iron Curtain was at its height, but it surely needs a more serious global strategy to protect its vital interests and allies.
#3—There is no existential ideological conflict. Putin isn’t trying to resurrect a communist empire. (If anything he’s building a mini-me version of the nineteenth-century empire.) His minions are a bunch of corrupt oligarchs, not the Third International. Putin has, however, invested heavily in the disinformation and dirty tricks tactics employed by the Soviet Union. The U.S. has to get back into the political warfare business, if it doesn’t want to be outdone by Moscow. Furthermore, Washington must stop being blasé about defending core western values such as liberty, religious freedom, and human rights against all comers. The administration’s penchant for boutique campaigns on “politically correct” causes doesn’t cut it.
#4—This is not a “single threat” world. We no longer live in a bipolar word with two competing superpowers. The president nailed it when he said “America’s got a whole lot of challenges.” What he failed to mention is that many of these challenges are of his own making. He has bungled the drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, responded ineptly to the Arab Spring, poorly managed China’s push to rewrite the norms for settling territorial disputes in the Pacific, presided over the resurgence of Al Qaeda and made no real progress in diminishing the long-term threat of a nuclear-armed Iran or North Korea. America may not need the Truman Doctrine, but it certainly needs something better than the Obama Doctrine.
#5—The economic equation is far different. The United States held a huge economic advantage throughout the Cold War. The U.S. could count on its free-market economic engine to purr smoothly while the Soviet planned economy self-destructed. Today, the U.S. economy has lost much of its competitive advantage. According to the Wall Street Journal–Heritage Foundation “Index of Economic Freedom,” economic freedom in the U.S. has declined for an unprecedented eight years in a row. The U.S. needs a sound fiscal strategy to match a new foreign and defense policy.
A sound criticism of the president’s leadership wouldn’t call for a new Cold War with Russia, but it would argue that the Crimean crisis and the president’s response suggest a White House uncomfortable and outclassed in dealing with the world as it is. Killing the Cold War rhetoric is the first step in disengaging in a meaningless “labeling” debate and focusing on what America needs: different diplomacy, a refurbished military, and better statecraft.
Originally published in The National Interest.