The Big Chill

In Return to Cold War, Robert Legvold gives a succinct, lucid, fairly dispassionate and almost incessantly even-handed presentation of relations between the United States and Russia, writes Scott McLemee.

July 27, 2016

Historical analogy is a blunt and clumsy tool, and one serving better as a rhetorical device than as a method of analysis. The so-called law of the instrument -- i.e., “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” -- applies to historical analogy with double force. And not just because the stock of examples is usually narrow and cliché addled, as with the entirely too familiar Munich Pact formula: “X is the new Hitler; Y’s policy resembles that of Neville Chamberlain in 1938; therefore doing Z would exhibit Churchill-like foresight.” Nearly always the analogy is blatant propaganda on behalf of Z. You never find it used for heuristic purposes, such as determining who the current Wernher von Braun might be.

The deeper problem is that historical analogy is always just on the verge of a cognitive short circuit. Finding patterns in the world is one of the evolutionarily adaptive knacks of the human brain, but we’re still learning to test and fine-tune it -- an especially difficult prospect when the patterns we find (or think we find) belong to the realm of human action. What looks like historical parallel from one angle may well turn out to be self-fulfilling prophecy. This can be a problem, especially if large weapons systems come into play.

While never so dramatic as analogies drawn from the Weimar-to-Nuremberg continuum, framing contemporary geopolitics as a Cold War-like standoff between two superpowers has been a regular temptation over the years -- at least, for the one superpower left standing. The main candidates to take the erstwhile Soviet Union’s place have been China and the global jihadist movement, with Putin-era Russia as a more recent nominee.

Indeed, books and articles with “New Cold War” in the title began appearing even before the old one was quite finished -- indications, perhaps, of a wish for a certain degree of familiarity and continuity between eras, a recognizable and navigable lineup of affiliations and hostilities. The passing of a quarter century has also made the bipolar thermonuclear quagmire of an earlier era look more orderly and stable than the anarchic system of free-floating multilateral anxiety that prevails today.

For the past couple of weeks, I was on the verge of reading Return to Cold War (Polity) by Robert Legvold, a professor emeritus of political science at Columbia University, but then kept putting it off. Perhaps it was the lack of a question mark in the title: Return to Cold War sound like an imperative. The cover shows an upside-down dove, depicted as if in the middle of a kamikaze dive or following airborne contact with a very high wall. The whole thing seemed designed to squelch any flicker of optimism that had somehow survived the day's news.

But once I actually opened the book, I found such apprehensions were misplaced: Legvold is not given to simplistic analogy nor does he indulge any notion that a return to long-term, two-sided geopolitical stalemate is possible, much less desirable. If relations between the United States and Russia have deteriorated to the point that comparisons to the Cold War status quo are appropriate, it is only within the limits defined by the absence, as yet, of ideological differences that call for a fight to the death of one system or the other. The deterioration was not inevitable, and even with it underway, there have been episodes of cooperation, albeit growing fewer and narrower as the mutual distrust continues. The common denominator between the countries has been the failure to assess things at all equitably: “If one searched for a leader, policy maker or politician on either side who included somewhere in her or his analysis thoughts about missteps or failings on both sides, the quest would have been in vain.”

Not that foresight was impossible. Legvold quotes a striking comment by George F. Kennan, author of the American policy of containment at the start of the Cold War. “Expanding NATO,” wrote Kennan in 1997 in The New York Times, “would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era. Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalist, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the Cold War in East-West relations; and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.” By no means is that the key explaining the entire course of the past 20 years, but as predictions go, it has its merits.

The author's presentation is succinct, lucid, fairly dispassionate and almost incessantly even-handed. I got the sense that he wrote it as if addressing an assembly of the policy-making elites of both sides, pointing out the confluence of blunders and rationalizations that worsened steadily to create a situation that, if not necessarily irreversible, now looks likely to continue in the same direction for some time to come.


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