The United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, continues to condemn the Russian Federation in the Security Council. Recently, she condemned Russia for the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Previously, she had condemned Russia over spy poisoning in England, for its aggressive actions in eastern Ukraine, and for the occupation of Crimea. Beyond the Security Council, details of systematic athletic doping have also sullied Russia’s image in the West.
One could certainly argue about the veracity of each of the above claims. There has been little public proof presented about Russia’s role in the poisoning. Calls for an international investigation of the perpetrators of the chemical assault would certainly help to clarify who is the guilty party. And the relation between Russian political leadership and doping allegations remain unsubstantiated. Clarification here is also necessary.
Besides forensic expertise, there may be another way to present the situation of Russian/United States relations. One could ask: Is the West describing Russia negatively because of nostalgia for the Cold War? Is the West reverting to the time when the two Great Powers dominated the news?
For over four decades, the United States and Russia were enveloped in an ideological, political and military confrontation. The Cold War was the dominant international political reality from 1945 to at least 1989. Generations on both sides of the Iron Curtain were socialized to the sounds of sirens warning of an imminent nuclear attack.
Have we turned the page? Has the Cold War really ended? Halley’s rhetoric at the Security Council has a familiar ring. It harkens back to Khrushchev’s shoe thumping and Adlai Stevenson’s waiting for an answer “until hell freezes over” during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
There are many who profit from a continuation of the Cold War. For those seeking an enemy, Russia once again satisfies that need. Amorphous groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS are more complex. Terrorism is too vague a term, much harder to define and locate. An ideology is harder to castigate than a geopolitical reality like the Soviet Union and its allies or the Russian Federation.
Spending for the military continues to increase. The development of new weapon systems as well as the updating of nuclear hardware are significant budget items. Even in times of economic hardship, no one dare propose reducing military spending. There has been no realistic peace dividend after 1989.
Nationalists are also winners in a return to Great Power confrontation. President Trump’s criticisms of globalists are part of an increasing backlash against the post-World War II international order. Revitalized signs of increasing trade protectionism mirror the rise of populist right-wing governments. America First is reflected in Russia First, as if complex interdependence was only an invention of some Harvard political scientists.
Even academics have gotten into the picture. At a recent conference in the United States, Great Power politics vied with the decline of the liberal international order as the major subjects. Committed Cold warriors were back on the podium, reminding those who had forgotten, that they were always correct in portraying Russia as the natural enemy of the West. The end of history was short lived.
Against this wave of nostalgia, is it possible to look to the future on a more positive note? What about cooperation between Russia and the West? What about global issues such as climate change, nuclear threats from non-state actors, mass migration or income inequality? What about increasing scientific and medical cooperation? In the 21st century, there is a need for a global agenda rather than a simplistic nationalist one.
The major issue following the collapse of the Soviet Union was how to bring Russia into the international system. The entry of Russia into the World Trade Organization in 2012 was a positive step. But that was merely an institutional arrangement, just like the NATO-Russia Council established in 2002. Beyond the institutional, there remains the question of whether Russia can be part of the international system and not be liberal or democratic. (The same question applies to China.)
The liberal international order had many assumptions that are being tested today. If the West really wants Russia to be included in the system, continuous condemnations are counter-productive. Nostalgic rhetoric has no place if the Cold War is truly over.