There's been a lot of talk in the media in the last few days, as the Crimea crisis works its way towards a de facto annexation by Russia, about a "new Cold War" between Russia and the US. John McCain, eager to criticize Obama on almost anything, seems positively slavering over the prospect. But what McCain wants to call a "return to Realism" is anything but, and those journalists who want to make parallels between today's geopolitics and the Cold War need to go back to school.
While there were differing theories about the Cold War and what caused it, they boiled down in the end to an argument between three camps - the Classical Realists, the Neorealists, and the Hegemonic Stability Realists. Each saw the Cold War in a slightly different light:
- For Classical Realists (e.g. Hans Morgenthau), the Cold War was a struggle between two fairly evenly matched great powers, one of which liked things they way they were (a Status Quo power) and one of which wanted to change the world in its image (an Imperialist power). For Morgenthau, the conflict was a struggle for power driven not so much by the particular ideologies (communism vs. democracy) as by the underlying motivations. The US, in Morgenthau's view, was trying to defend the world largely as it was, while the Soviet Union wanted to topple that world and replace it with something else in its own image. This was a classic "aggressor-defender" model on the world stage, and a fairly persuasive argument to folks like George Kennan who were architects of US foreign policy in the 1950s.
- Neorealists (Ken Waltz and his successors) agreed with the Classical Realists that the world was bipolar - that is, that the US and the USSR were fairly evenly matched, and that no other powers were anywhere close. But Waltz argued that, to a great extent, motive doesn't matter. You don't need one of the two bipolar superpowers to be Imperialist (or Revisionist, or whatever you want to call someone who wants to change the system); you just need for there to be two superpowers. That, in and of itself, will generate conflict largely through the Security Dilemma. Waltz' other insight was that, while this conflict flowed from the structure of the international system itself (never mind what the superpowers actually wanted, they were more or less destined to compete), a bipolar system also constrained that conflict to reasonably stable levels (i.e. no major wars). Indeed, as historian John Lewis Gaddis (a big fan of Waltz' work) latter put it, the problem was not explaining the Cold War but the "Long Peace" - how did we manage to go so long with no wars between the major powers? In Waltz' view, the Cold War was determined by the bipolar structure of the international system, which also kept it from getting too far out of hand.
- Hegemonic Stability Theorists (think Robert Gilpin) broke with both of these traditions and argued that the Cold War did not represent a period of bipolarity between two equal superpowers, but rather a competition between one Hegemonic power at the top of the heap (aka the US) and a Challenger (the USSR) which, while somewhat weaker, was trying to catch up and topple the Hegemon. This is not far off from Morgenthau's Status Quo/Imperialist categories, but Gilpin saw the power equation as more dynamic - that Hegemonic powers inevitably decline while Challengers tend to catch up and overtake them. This doesn't always happen, of course - sometimes the Challenger fails, as the USSR apparently did in 1991.
So if we want to be Realists about Russia (and, apparently, both prominent Republicans and journalists are just dying to wear that language), then the Cold War was either a bipolar struggle between two equal powers or a struggle between a hegemon and a challenger trying to unseat it. Depending on your flavor of Realism, motives either do or don't matter - take your pick.
Here's the problem - none of this applies to today's relationship with Russia. Any similarities are entirely superficial - the fundamental variables have all drastically changed. So talk of a new "Cold War" is not just premature - it's foolish. Consider:
- Today's Russia is not a superpower equal to the US. It's not even close. The Russian economy has shrunk drastically since its Soviet days, as has its military might and reach. The Russian army taking over Crimea is roughly like the US military invading Tijuana - it's right there, the locals are vastly overmatched, and there are no nearby counterbalancing powers. Morgenthau understood that power declines with distance; apparently McCain has forgotten that lesson. So recent events notwithstanding, we are not dealing with a bipolar world with power divided between the US and Russia. China and Europe are far larger things than Russia is.
- Whatever you think of Vladimir Putin's intentions, and whatever imperialist motives you want to attribute to the Russia psyche, they are not out to take over the world. At worst, Putin's Russia wants to reestablish the previous empire, which was slightly larger than Russia is now - and even that may not be in the cards. But whereas Stalin, Khrushchev, and even Brezhnev actively sought to overthrow of democracy in the West, Putin could care less about what kind of government runs Washington, London, or Berlin. He doesn't want to take over the world, just his corner of it. Which means that unlike the 1950s, there is no existential threat to the West - not that Russia has the power to pose such a threat in any case.
All of this, of course, is IR Theory 101. Russia would have to get a lot more powerful and (depending on your view) its motives would have to change drastically in order for there to be the potential of a new "Cold War". Absent those factors - which don't seem anywhere on the horizon - let's drop the silly historical comparisons and focus on what is. If you want to be a Realist in making US foreign policy, you need to deal with the real world of today.