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Playing with Fire in Ukraine

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As the conflict in Ukraine becomes a protracted military stalemate, there are signs that both sides are reaching their war-making limit and may yet be forced to seek a diplomatic resolution.

rom his first days in office, Joe Biden and his national security advisers seemed determined to revive America’s fading global leadership via the strategy they knew best — challenging the “revisionist powers” Russia and China with a Cold War-style aggressiveness. When it came to Beijing, the president combined the policy initiatives of his predecessors, pursuing Barack Obama’s “strategic pivot” from the Middle East to Asia, while continuing Donald Trump’s trade war with China. In the process, Biden revived the kind of bipartisan foreign policy not seen in Washington since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

Writing in the December 2021 Foreign Affairs, a group of famously disputatious diplomatic historians agreed on one thing: “Today, China and the United States are locked in what can only be called a new cold war.” Just weeks later, the present mimed the past in ways that went well beyond even that pessimistic assessment as Russia began massing 190,000 troops on the border of Ukraine. Soon, Russian President Vladimir Putin would join China’s Xi Jinping in Beijing where they would demand that the West “abandon the ideologized approaches of the Cold War” by curtailing both NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe and similar security pacts in the Pacific.

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine loomed in late February, the New York Times reported that Putin was trying “to revise the outcome of the original Cold War, even if it is at the cost of deepening a new one.” And days later, as Russian tanks began entering Ukraine, the New York Times published an editorial headlined, “Mr. Putin Launches a Sequel to the Cold War.” The Wall Street Journal seconded that view, concluding that recent “developments reflect a new cold war that Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin have initiated against the West.”

Instead of simply accepting that mainstream consensus, it couldn’t be more important right now to explore that Cold War analogy and gain a fuller understanding of how that tragic past does (and doesn’t) resonate with our embattled present.

The Geopolitics of Cold Wars

There are indeed a number of parallels between our Cold Wars, old and new. Some 70 years ago, in January 1950, Mao Zedong, the head of a Chinese People’s Republic ravaged by long years of war and revolution, met Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in Moscow as a supplicant. He was seeking a treaty of alliance and friendship that would provide much-needed aid for his fledgling communist state.

Within months, Stalin played upon this brand-new alliance by persuading Mao to send troops into the maelstrom of the Korean War, where China soon began hemorrhaging money and manpower. Until his death in 1953, Stalin kept the U.S. military bogged down in Korea, as he sought “an advantage in the global balance of power.” With Washington focused on war in Asia, Stalin consolidated his grip on seven “satellite states” in Eastern Europe — but at a cost. In those years, a newly created NATO would be transformed into a genuine military alliance, as 16 nations dispatched troops to Korea.

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Last February, in a reversal of Cold War roles, Putin arrived at that Beijing summit as a supplicant, desperately seeking Chinese President Xi Jinping’s diplomatic support for his Ukrainian gambit. Proclaiming their relations “superior to political and military alliances of the Cold War era,” the two leaders asserted that their entente had “no limits… no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation.”

Soon after, the Russian president would invade Ukraine, while ominously putting his nuclear forces on high alert, a warning to the West not to meddle in his war. In a clear parallel to the old Cold War, nuclear weapons are far too dangerous for a direct superpower conflict to break out, so the U.S. and its NATO allies chose surrogate warfare in Ukraine. Just as the Soviet Union once armed North Vietnam with surface-to-air missiles and tanks to bloody the U.S. military, so Washington now began supplying Kyiv with high-tech weaponry to damage the Russian army.

As Ukrainian defenders armed with U.S.- and NATO-supplied shoulder-fired missiles destroyed 2,500 of its armored vehicles, Russia would be forced to pull back from its bid to capture the Ukrainian capital and shift to a months-long slog to seize the Russian-speaking Donbas region near its own border. This effort has, in turn, sparked an artillery duel now fast approaching the sort of strategic stalemate not seen since the Korean War (a conflict that remains unresolved nearly 70 years later).

Beneath such surface similarities between the two eras, however, lies a crucial if elusive difference: geopolitics. As I explain in my recent book, To Govern the Globe, this is essentially a method for the management of empire. At the high tide of the British Empire in 1904, English geographer Halford Mackinder published an influential article arguing that Europe, Asia, and Africa weren’t, in fact, three separate continents but a unitary landmass he dubbed “the World-Island,” whose strategic pivot lay in the “heartland” of central Eurasia. Mackinder later boiled his thinking down to a memorable maxim: “Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; Who rules the World-Island commands the World.”

Apply Mackinder’s principles to the old Cold War and you can indeed see an underlying geopolitics that lends coherence to an otherwise disparate conflict spread across four decades and five continents. In the 500 years since European exploration first brought the continents into continuous contact, the rise of every major world power has required one thing above all: dominance over Eurasia, now home to 70% of the world’s population and productivity. Those five centuries of imperial rivalry could be summarized, thanks to Mackinder, in a succinct geopolitical axiom: “The exercise of global hegemony requires control over Eurasia, and contestation over that vast continent thus determines the fate of empires and their world orders.”

By the time the Cold War ended in 1991, Washington had translated that axiom into a three-part geopolitical strategy to defeat the Soviet Union. First, it encircled Eurasia with military bases and mutual-defense pacts to contain Beijing and Moscow behind an “Iron Curtain” stretching 5,000 miles across that vast land mass. Second, the U.S. intervened, using either conventional force or CIA covert operations whenever the communists threatened to expand their power beyond that “curtain” — whether in Korea, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, or sub-Saharan Africa. Finally, Washington aggressively defended its own hemisphere from communist influence of any sort, however homegrown — whether in Cuba, Central America, or Chile.

In a magisterial sweep through a millennium of Eurasian history, Oxford scholar John Darwin found that, after World War II, Washington achieved its “colossal imperium… on an unprecedented scale” by becoming the first power ever to control the strategic axial points “at both ends of Eurasia.” Initially, Washington defended Eurasia’s western axis through the NATO defense pact signed with a dozen allies in April 1949, making the Cold War, at its outset, little more than a regional conflict over Eastern Europe.

In October 1949, however, communists surprised the world by capturing China. Moscow then forged a Sino-Soviet alliance that suddenly threatened to become the dominant force on the Eurasian land mass. In response, Washington moved quickly to counter that geopolitical challenge by forging four bilateral defense pacts, thereby developing a 5,000-mile chain of military bases along the Pacific littoral from Japan and South Korea all the way to Australia. By serving as the frontier for the defense of one continent (North America) and a springboard for its dominance of another (Eurasia), the Pacific littoral would become Washington’s key geopolitical fulcrum.

In the 1960s, the Sino-Soviet alliance would suddenly collapse into a bitter rivalry — a lucky break for Washington that left Moscow without a major ally anywhere in Eurasia. Reeling from their breach with Beijing, the Soviet leaders would spend several decades trying, unsuccessfully, to break out of their geopolitical isolation by expanding into Latin America, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, southern Africa, and, fatally, Afghanistan, catalyzing a succession of local conflicts that led to the deaths of some 20 million people between 1945 and 1990.

Alfred McCoy
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