Ukraine’s ‘Back to the Future’ scenario: Deploying troops is a Cold War solution

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Russia tanks roll up to the Ukrainian border and — BAM! — the Cold War lives again. At least it does according to the Washington consensus, and now President Biden is weighing the deployment of thousands of U.S. troops to NATO countries. 

Do you remember 10 years ago, when President Obama zinged Republican challenger Mitt Romney during a presidential debate? Romney said Russia was America’s biggest threat, and Obama zapped him with: “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.” 

No one is snickering now. Instead, it is “Back to the Future Part IV,” which may lead to an unnecessary nuclear war with Russia because we cannot think beyond the 1980s, at least in terms of strategy. Since 2018, experts in U.S. national security circles routinely compare “great power competition” to the Cold War (especially the Tom Clancy version). Scholars, pundits, journalists, the defense industry and members of Congress habitually describe our strategic competition with Russia and China as “a new cold war.” It’s become a cliche, one that Chinese President Xi Jinping complains about and Russian President Vladimir Putin revels in. For the latter, the Cold War frame is a diplomatic victory because it supplants the weak Russian Federation with the mighty USSR, a superpower. We unconsciously attribute more power to Putin than he deserves.

To deal with Putin and others, we must first stop comparing great power competition to the Cold War. The two are fundamentally different. For starters, the Cold War era was pre-email and pre-internet. Life back then is unimaginable to people under 40 today: typewriters, pay phones and airplane smoking sections. Globalization and technology have transformed the way we think, connect and live — in all countries. It also has changed the character of war. Consequently, viewing current events through the lens of past ones is a dangerous trope made by lazy thinkers, invoking that old adage, “Generals always fight the last war, especially if they won it.” 

Before we refight the Cold War, however, let’s exit the Delorean and think about how warfare has changed.

First, deterrence no longer works, and we should expect little from putting our troops in harm’s way in Eastern Europe. Deterrence was a core pillar of Cold War strategy and now it is as obsolete as an 8-track tape. Our superior armed forces did not deter Russia from taking Crimea in 2014 or invading Georgia in 2008. Nor did it keep Russia from launching expeditionary military operations in the Middle East and Africa since 2015, the first time it had done so since the 1980s. Similarly, the U.S. has deployed multiple aircraft carrier groups to the South China Sea over the past decade, yet it has not stopped China from expanding there. Our threats do not dissuade Iran from developing a nuclear bomb or inhibit terrorist groups. Deterrence is obsolete in modern warfare, yet our Cold War mentality refuses to see it. Evidencing our cognitive dissonance, the Pentagon invented a new buzz phrase to remedy the situation — “integrated deterrence” — which is pretty much identical to the Cold War concept. We learn nothing.

Second, the world’s economies are now intertwined, unlike during the Cold War. Back then, there were two isolated economic blocs, the West and the USSR, and they rarely interacted; consequently, strategies of sanctions, trade wars and other weapons of economic destruction were limited. One Cold War legacy is that “economic warfare” is not taught at our military’s war colleges today, even though it has always been a major facet of war. By contrast, now we live under a single economic system of global free trade, and this creates economic interdependence among states. The financial crisis of 2007–2008 started in the U.S. and wrecked several countries’ economies. Today, China and the U.S. share a “mutually assured financial destruction” pact, and both would suffer if someone instigated a run on the U.S. dollar. The economic angle of modern warfare presents opportunities and risks to the cunning strategist, something alien to Cold Warriors. 

Third, the Cold War was a bipolar system between the West and the USSR. Today, the world is at least “tripolar” and maybe more. Think of polarity as children in a playroom: Kids share and laugh, but sometimes they bully each other and fight over toys. If there are two kids, it’s a bipolar play zone, making it easier to establish “the rules” —  and when one kid steals a toy, the other always knows who did it. Not so if you have a small brood of rugrats. Agreeing on “the rules” in that case may be impossible, and the guilty can easily blame the innocent for toy theft. With so many suspects, false flag operations become a real threat (some kids are masters at this). Multipolar playgrounds also invite complex alliance structures, as any teacher or parent will attest. The Cold War was a two-kid playground, but today there are three alpha kids, plus a few behind the bushes.

Fourth, the world is socially more integrated now, making it more complex to identify someone as “communist” versus “capitalist.” Forty years ago, if you heard Russian spoken on an American street, you would turn your head in surprise and suspicion; not only was it rare, but fears of a communist Fifth Column haunted our culture back to the first “Red Scare” in 1917 and to the infamous McCarthy hearings in the 1950s. Now hearing Russian is common; since the fall of the Berlin Wall, countless Russian and Chinese citizens have come to the U.S. to study, live and work, and Americans take no notice. However, there have been some concerns. There is more to war than warfare, and more to warfare than killing. The social dimension matters more today than 50 years ago.

Sending U.S. troops to Eastern Europe is old-think committed by paradigm prisoners of the Cold War. Current geopolitical circumstances and the character of war have changed over the past 50 years. If we model our present too closely on the past, we will doom our future. Yet, every week, pundits, experts and scholars compare great power competition to the Cold War, proffering “lessons learned.” We must resist these naïve comparisons. At best, they are a strategic distraction that delays success. At worst, it is “the noise before defeat,” to paraphrase a saying attributed to Sun Tzu. 

Sean McFate is the author of five books, including “The New Rules of War: How America Can Win — Against Russia, China, and Other Threats” (2019). He is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a professor at Georgetown University, and an adviser to Oxford University’s Centre for Technology and Global Affairs. He served in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division.

Tags Barack Obama Cold War Great power competition Joe Biden Mitt Romney Russia-US talks on Ukraine Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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