Photo illustration by John Lyman

World News


Russia and Lessons for the Post-Cold War World

In 1961, then-Harvard Professor Henry Kissinger asked former President Harry Truman what he had been most proud of during his presidency. Truman’s response was succinct and substantive: “We totally defeated our enemies and then brought them back to the community of nations. I would like to think that only America would have done this.”

Truman knew of what he spoke. In the years following the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, he approved the Marshall Plan, which furnished money, food, fuel, and machinery to West Germany and other European nations as a means to push them toward political and economic cooperation. In the wake of Imperial Japan’s surrender later that same year, America airlifted food to the country to stave off possible famine and began rebuilding cities to get people back to work.

While holding both countries accountable for their actions, the United States sought to avoid punitive measures that would further devastate the vanquished polities and lead to the kind of revanchism that had contributed to the Second World War. Moreover, Washington realized that these geopolitical allies would help to balance global power against the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin and the nascent People’s Republic of China under Mao Zedong.

In sum, the Truman administration helped lay the foundation for key alliances in Europe and East Asia that worked to secure America’s position as a superpower and, ultimately, the global hegemon.

Given the success of these policies, it would seem that the United States would have been ready to pursue them again in the wake of its greatest geopolitical triumph since World War II, namely the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War. The basis for such action was particularly valid due to the fact that the decades-long conflict concluded without a shot being fired directly. This doesn’t dismiss the fact that millions died fighting proxy wars on behalf of China, the Soviet Union, and the United States in places like Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan, but the reality is that the vast nuclear arsenals of both countries were never used against one another.

However, the United States chose not to fortify the new Russian Federation in the same manner as it had West Germany and Japan. To its detriment, it pursued economic and military policies that would ultimately prove inimical to America’s interests and the global balance of power.

From the start, the U.S. did not work to oversee (and thus stabilize) Russia’s economic transition. When the Soviet system disintegrated, no infrastructure existed to sustain the economy and, consequently, there were no regulations or protections for new private enterprises. Without guarantees to protect businesses from government corruption or the Russian mafia, incentives for foreign investment in Russia ceased to exist. Absent any American oversight, new Russian President Boris Yeltsin simply handed state-run industries to well-connected individuals (the future oligarchs) at bargain prices while eliminating price controls, all of which led to hyperinflation that wiped out the savings of average Russians until nearly half of the people found themselves living below the poverty level.

Throughout these events, President Bill Clinton declined to intervene and remained steadfast in his support for Yeltsin’s corrupt and inefficient government, a hands-off approach compounded by the Clinton administration’s refusal to treat Russia as an equal partner in matters of national security – specifically NATO.

While President George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of State, James Baker, had verbally assured Mikhail Gorbachev, the then leader of the Soviet Union, in February 1990 that NATO would not expand one inch eastward, the subsequent Clinton administration did not believe this was in America’s interests. Rather than allowing Russia and other Eastern European countries to simply work with NATO through its Partnership for Peace program, the U.S. sought to expand the alliance by fully incorporating Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic (all former members of the Warsaw Pact) in 1999.

Such policy drew the ire not only of political doves but hardened cold warriors including career diplomat George Kennan as well as Senators Sam Nunn and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Kennan, the architect of America’s containment strategy of the Soviet Union, described this action as “the most fateful error of American foreign policy in the entire post-Cold War era.” His sentiments are shared by former Secretary of Defense William Perry (1993-97), who contends that, by ignoring Russia’s strongly-held views on NATO expansion and viewing Moscow only as the loser of the Cold War, the United States helped create a climate “ripe for the rise of an autocratic leader who would instead demand respect and power through force.”

Although opportunities to reverse course would be squandered through further expansion of NATO and other actions in the years that followed, the groundwork for the current nadir in U.S.-Russia relations was laid in the 1990s. Jack Matlock, former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, summarized the effects of U.S. policy this way: “In 1991, polls indicated that about 80 percent of Russian citizens held a favorable view of the United States; in 1999, nearly the same percentage had an unfavorable view.”

America’s failure to capitalize on opportunities for strategic partnership with Russia have brought it closer to nuclear conflict than at any point since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Moreover, the current situation is more precarious due to the even greater ideological aspirations of China and Iran along with their ramifications for the U.S. and its allies. To effectively counter these adversaries, the U.S. should seek an end to the conflict in Ukraine based upon the Minsk agreements. Furthermore, Washington must consider its mutual interests with Moscow while outlining a plan by which to pursue them. Before any of this can be done, however, both sides must express a desire to restore détente by acknowledging past mistakes that have led to this point.

According to Kissinger, Truman wanted to be remembered not so much for America’s victories as for its conciliations. Having completely defeated his country’s enemies through the use of nuclear weaponry, he knew that providing a framework for them to thrive would build mutual trust and further America’s national security at the onset of a new era.

If the United States wishes to maintain its leadership of the post-Cold War world, it must be willing to apply this lesson to its relationship with Russia at this critical juncture by creating a place for it within the community of nations.

As Truman understood, this is something that only America would (and could) do.