Archive for August 22nd, 2008

A New Cold War?

Here’s a quote from Secretary Rice. Do you think “Russia” could be replaced by “The United States” in the quote, and have it still ring true?:

Russia is a state that is unfortunately using the one tool that it has always used whenever it wishes to deliver a message and that’s its military power. That’s not the way to deal in the 21st century.

While the hypocrisy our leaders offer in response to the Russian action continues to annoy me, it’s important not to let that lead to justifications or rationalizations of the Russian action. Moreover, comparing blogs and media commentary, it’s clear that Russians and Americans both tend to have a knee jerk “my side is good, the other side bad” reaction, something which can explain the hypocrisy both sides show when attacking the other side. Still, in all this clamor the big question remains: are we facing a new Cold War?

The answer is no, but that might not be as good news as it sounds. The Cold War represented an era in world politics where: a) fights were about ideology; b) the world had a clear bi-polar structure in terms of power politics; and c) nation-states remained dominant units of economic and political power. Since then fights have become more about territory, ethnicity and religion, the world has morphed from bipolarity, briefly to unipolarity, and now multipolarity, and nation-states no longer control the fundamental driving forces of their economic and even political health. This is true for Russia and the US too, even if they don’t feel the trend as strongly as others (yet).

The bad news is that such a multipolar world with multiple potential points of conflict consisting of states which do not control the variables leaves open the chance of unexpected crisis and misperception. The danger is, as I noted last week, that a crisis like Sarajevo in 1914 could unleash a series of events that ultimately leads to conflict, even nuclear war. This shouldn’t happen, it’s in no ones’ interest for it to happen, and unlike 1914 we don’t have publics itching for war. But it’s a more perilous situation in many ways than the old Cold War, where the two actors knew each other and could keep events reasonably in their grasp.

So what exactly is going on with Russia? I believe that after two decades of humiliation after humiliation at the hands of the US, Russia is determined to secure it’s place in the international system. They’ve learned that if they go along with the US or give only mild criticisms, they get rolled. NATO expanded, NATO went into Kosovo, the US invaded Iraq. Russian interests are seen as secondary; the country has been viewed, correctly, as weak and in dissarray. Now they are looking to turn things around.

First, they now have a competent, if also far too corrupt, government. Russians associate western style democracy with the horrible Yeltsin years, and prefer the stability Putin’s rule has brought, even if it has meant a sacrifice of freedom and democracy. Second, they have large oil revenues, and given how this current crisis and boisterous threats from Russia has caused oil prices to shoot up, it could be that they in part want to make sure oil stays expensive so they continue to reap high profits (cynically one could imagine Iran and Russia taking turns racheting up tensions to keep oil prices high!) With the US militarily overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the US economy reeling, they realized that the US has been overestimating its power and isn’t in a position to do much against Russia.

But what about talk now of quicker movement for Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO, and a missile defense system in Poland which seems to have really angered the Russians? Don’t read too much into the rhetoric. Vladimir Putin may be a lot of things, but he’s not stupid. He and the Russian elite know that NATO will expand, and that the missile defense system in Poland the Czech Republic was all but a done deal. There is nothing Russia can do about those things, and Putin knows it. Moreover, Russia has no desire to try to reclaim the “Russian Empire” as McCain puts it, or develop a true confrontation with the West.

As boisterous as Russian rhetoric may sound, they know their limits — and the limits of American reach. Russia has a severely weakened military, and how their only trump card — possession of massive amounts of nuclear weapons — is of limited value. The West fears war with Russia because it could escalate out of control. But Russia fears such a war too. During the Cold War the USSR dominated European conventional forces; now they are a shadow of what they used to be. That strategic reality is understood by all players.

So why Georgia? Since it was clear last April that the question was not so much if but when Georgia would enter NATO, and that the sticking point was the South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions, Russia had a window of opportunity to provide NATO with a fiat accompli before expansion. They knew that since these regions were already outside Georgian control, and had a population loyal to Russia, they had a good rationale for their incursion. It was a limited, brilliantly executed, operation. They now can assure that when NATO does expand, the issue of South Ossetia and Abkhazia will require Russian approval for settlement. Russia may not annex these territories, but they will enjoy autonomy from Georgian control, and probably on going peacekeeping including Russians — at least until relationships alter to the point that all sides freely choose a different path.

Moreover, NATO advisors were on the ground, and NATO watched Russia war game this scenario last month. I do not believe the Russian incursion was as much as a shock as the Bush Administration claims. The US is not about to slam the door on Russia, and Putin and President Medevdev are not about to scrap their progressive agenda. They are more like the progressive Czars of old, Peter I or Katherine the Great. But even those pro-West reformers were also authoritarian and wanted to make sure reform did not get out of hand (and their successors usually were reactionary because they thought it had). They want ties with the western and world economy.

Finally, the world is now multipolar, and Russia is playing a game that includes the EU, China, Iran, and other states that have regional economic or political weight. Unlike the Cold War, the US can’t rely on Western Europe simply following its lead, and this gives Russia room to maneuver, especially with Europe dependent on Russian natural gas and oil. So, as long as neither Russia nor the US gets in a position where they feel like they have to assert their power too much, I would expect neither a Cold War, nor a breakdown in relations. Yet one question troubles me a bit. In many ways this is like 19th century Realpolitik, and one can understand and analyze the way the actors are positioning themselves and strategizing. Yet unlike the 19th century, we have real globalization and economics has integrated economies far more than ever before. This should be a good thing — a war would hurt everyone — but if we end up fighting over oil and other resources it could lead to some dangerous brinksmanship ahead.

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