In September 1987, American Secretary of State George Shultz sat down with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. Both ministers were in New York attending the United Nations General Assembly. As was a habit during this kind of meeting, Schultz handed Shevardnadze a list of reported human rights abuses in Soviet Union.
“George, I will check this out,” Shevardnadze said in response, “and if your information is right, I will do what I can to correct the problem. But I am not doing this because you ask me to; I am doing it because it is what my country needs to do.”
On many similar occasions, Shevardnadze’s predecessor, Andrei Gromyko, would protest that such a lists were interfering in Soviet affairs. But this time, the Russian minister and American secretary stood up and shook hands. “As I watched the scene, with as much emotion as amazement, it dawned on me that the Cold War was over,” wrote Jack F. Matlock Jr., an ambassador to the U.S.S.R. from 1987 to 1991, who was in the same room.
Today, former ambassador Matlock is one of the very few American voices who thinks that — in the years that followed the Cold War — the West missed the golden opportunity to close the gap of what for decades was a deeply polarized world. Instead, the world faces a new and profound crisis with the new standoff in Ukraine, one in which Russia and the United States are fighting a proxy war. Many are calling it Cold War II, pointing out that this time the cold might last for more than half a century and perhaps end up in a real conflict.
The beginning of the Cold War between the winners of the Second World War coincided with the foundation of NATO, whose first goal was to protect Western democracies from yet another German aggression. The Soviet territorial expansion escalated tensions and created conflict among the winners of WWII. It then became clear that Stalin had joined WWII not only to defeat Germany, but also to restore Russian power and security on its western frontiers. Whatever was to become of Germany after the war, the region separating Germany and Russia could not be left in uncertainty. The territories running in a north-south arc from Finland to Yugoslavia comprised small, vulnerable states whose inter-war governments had, with the exception of Czechoslovakia, been uniformly hostile to the Soviet Union. Poland, Hungary and Romania, in particular, had been consistently unfriendly to Moscow and suspicious of Soviet intentions towards them. As Tony Judt writes brilliantly in his book on the western and eastern factors of the growing conflict, the only way for Stalin to resolve this problem was the establishment of governments that could be relied upon to never pose a threat to Soviet security. Stalin did what he knew the best: he aligned the political systems of Eastern European states with that of the Soviet Union. And this, writes Judt, had been what Stalin intended and wanted to do from the start. So to make a long story short, Stalin knew about the geopolitics of what was soon to become a new world order.
Mutatis mutandis — just a few minor changes — and many years later, the process of alignment is similar to what Brussels has been imposing on every new aspiring member of the European Union. How else can we understand that long, detailed and scrupulous process of “harmonization” of legislation that Brussels is requesting from every country that aspires to become a member of the European Union? Sure, the methods are not Stalinist and cruel, and the tools are different, but, geopolitically speaking, the goals are virtually the same.
In the late ’80s, the world became less polarized: the ideological obstacles evaporated along with the collapse of the Soviet economy, squeezed and dried out in the arms race with the West. The Cold War finally ended after mutually beneficial negotiations.
Until, according to the prevailing Western opinion, a former KGB officer by the name of Vladimir Putin gained power and started to destroy post-Cold War Europe.
“This problem began in the 1990s, when the Clinton administration adopted a winner-take-all policy toward Post-Soviet Russia on the premise that the United States had won the Cold War, and therefore Russia was roughly akin to Japan and Germany after World War II,” says Stephen Cohen, a professor at New York University and Princeton. “They adopted a policy that was spearheaded by NATO expansion, but there was a lot more to it than that. They pursued a form of negotiation diplomacy called selective cooperation. If you deconstruct it, it means ‘Russia gives, we take,'” Cohen says. “This policy was adopted by the Clinton administration, but it’s pursued by every political party, every president, every American congress since President Clinton, to President Obama.”
One the other side, one of the reasons Russia bowed to the new strong man was chaos at home. Before Putin, post-Soviet Russia was run by criminal organizations. The chaos in Russia was so overwhelming that Western humanitarian organizations were unable to distribute aid to the country, though it was suffering many shortages. The West applauded Putin for imposing some level of order. Less so when he started to pull the former Soviet republics in Central Asia back under Russia’s umbrella. But there was yet another reason for Putin’s appraisal and strong reception back home: After NATO bombed Belgrade and Serbia in 1999, Russia felt an overwhelming sense of anxiety. Since NATO also bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, panic spread all the way to Beijing. Both Russia and China felt that they too could become potential targets of the modern warfare that America used to export democracy far beyond its borders. I was in Beijing then, and remember well the fear and anger. The emotions were palpable. For a while, the Chinese were discussing the possibility of reversing the process of the country’s reforms and to close the borders again. And just when things calmed down a bit, George W. Bush’s first mandate as America’s 43rd president immediately reopened old wounds. In the first month of Bush’s presidency, the White House unilaterally declared the Asian Pacific a zone of American national interest (a script followed by President Obama’s White House a decade later), an announcement that was followed by robust reinforcement of American intelligence forces in the Pacific — Australia in particular. A few months later, the Chinese captured an American spy plane and forced it to land on the Chinese island of Hainan. Tensions rose even higher when Donald Rumsfeld, then U.S. Secretary of Defense, started a campaign for the creation of a defense organization similar to NATO in Asia. After 9/11, this idea took a different turn, with the U.S. becoming involved in the Middle East for more than a decade. Now it was the U.S. exhausting its economy with heavy military spending in Iraq and Afghanistan, while Beijing and Moscow were left alone to grow economically. They actually helped Washington occasionally. That is, until 2008, with the diplomatic crisis in Georgia, and a year ago, with the crisis in Ukraine.
Last year, Foreign Affairs Magazine published a piece that further detailed the background of the conflict. The piece may be considered flawed, since it does not take into consideration the vicious character of a Russian leader with no regard for democracy. But according to some Russian sources, Putin — as hateful as he is — seems pretty moderate compared to the rest of the political class that stands behind him.
Currently, the major efforts for peace are focused on Ukraine becoming a buffer zone, with NATO pulling out of the area. This seems to be the most plausible way to disentangle the crises, while further geopolitics with more actors sitting around the negotiation table will continue.
In the meantime, the signals of a cold war are getting louder and the possibility of real war becoming stronger. Just this week, the Russians started maneuvers to demonstrate their new capacity to defend their vast territory, while Americans are showing their muscle along the borders of the Baltic States.
By blindly following NATO’s expansion to the East and offering Ukraine a chance to join the EU, Europe might become the biggest loser in this game. With no proper defense forces and without an adequate foreign policy strategy, the European Union might further fall apart when NATO starts moving its forces out of the Old Continent.