Cold War Comforts

Read Time:4 Minute, 47 Second YORK – Western relations with Russia have rarely been worse than they are now,
in the aftermath of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intervention in Ukraine and
decision to annex Crimea. But US President Barack Obama has sought to assure the
world that this is not the beginning of a new Cold War.

Even so, hawkish American liberals and hardline conservatives are comparing Obama’s
leadership unfavorably with supposedly tougher presidents like Dwight Eisenhower and
Ronald Reagan. Never mind that Eisenhower did nothing to stop Soviet tanks from
crushing the Hungarian uprising in 1956, or that Reagan had no intention of
supporting Solidarity activists when they rose against Poland’s communist regime.

In many ways, the Cold War made things easier for US presidents. There were only two
great powers – China did not really count until recently – and their spheres of
interest were clearly defined. The Soviet Union’s ruling ideology was equally clear:
a Stalinist version of Communism.

Stalinism, like Maoism in China, was in fact deeply conservative, aimed chiefly at
consolidating the regime’s power at home and its domination over satellites abroad.
The ideological enemy was the capitalist world, but the immediate enemies were
“Trotskyists,” “revisionists,” and other “reactionary elements” inside the Soviet
sphere. In times of crisis, old-school Russian nationalism was mobilized in the
service of Soviet interests.

China was similar. Mao was not an imperial expansionist – he never even bothered to
ask the British to give back Hong Kong. Mao, too, focused Chinese nationalism almost
entirely on the brave new world of Communism.

Everything changed, however, after Mao’s death and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Communism, as a ruling ideology, disappeared in Russia and has become so diluted in
capitalist China that little more than its symbolic trappings – and a Leninist party
with a monopoly on power – remain.

This left a vacuum in both countries, with Russia’s government struggling to justify
an elected autocracy, and China’s one-party dictatorship seeking a new source of
legitimacy. Old, discredited traditions were suddenly revived. Putin quotes
half-forgotten philosophers in an effort to show the spiritual superiority of
Russia’s national soul. Chinese officials now talk about Confucianism as the basis
of a new political identity.

Much of this is half-baked, at best. Most Chinese, including government officials,
have only a patchy knowledge of the Confucian classics. They tend to cherry-pick
quotations that support their own grip on power, stressing such “traditional”
virtues as obedience to authority, neglecting to mention that Confucian thought
upholds the right to rebel against unjust rulers.

Putin’s favorite philosophers are a mixed bag of mystical nationalists who all
conceived of Russia as a spiritual community based on the Orthodox faith, but whose
ideas are too diverse in other ways, and too obscure, to provide a coherent
ideology. Nor are their thoughts always in line with Putin’s own. Putin regards the
collapse of the Soviet Union as a major calamity; yet he freely quotes Ivan Ilyin,
who became a ferocious opponent of the Soviet regime and was banished by Lenin to
Western Europe in 1922.

It may be that Putin genuinely believes that Russia is a spiritual bastion against
the decadence of a Western world that has been corrupted by materialism and
homosexuality. It is also possible that China’s current rulers, whose families have
grown rich through political favors, are convinced students of Confucian philosophy.
But the governments in Russia and China are guided by something much trickier to
deal with: nationalism based on resentment.

Maoist dogma in China has been largely replaced by something called “patriotic
education,” manifested in school textbooks, history museums, and an assortment of
monuments. Chinese grow up with the idea – not wholly wrong – that China was deeply
humiliated by foreigners for more than a hundred years, especially during the
nineteenth-century Opium Wars and the brutal Japanese invasions. Only a strong
China, under the firm leadership of the Communist Party, can protect its people from
future depredations.

In Russia, Putin, too, is manipulating old grievances and a traditional sense that
the wicked West is bent on undermining Russian unity and destroying its soul. As is
true of China’s leaders, Putin accuses the West of ganging up on Russia.

One can call this paranoia, but it is not completely irrational. After all, both
Russia and China are surrounded by countries allied to the US. And, by pushing NATO
as far as the Russian borders, the West has hardly been sensitive to Russian
security concerns.

The problem with nationalism based on resentment is that it impedes diplomacy, which
is based on give and take. Criticism is quickly seen as a sign of hostility or
disrespect. Unwelcome moves by American or Japanese politicians are officially
branded as “insults to the people.”

Of course, much of this is intended for domestic consumption – a way to mobilize
public opinion behind authoritarian rulers. But these powerful autocracies’
resentful nationalism still makes them harder to deal with than their more brutal,
but less unpredictable, Communist predecessors.

Given that military confrontation would be extremely dangerous, the best formula
might still be the one framed by the US diplomat George Kennan in 1947. If China and
Russia cannot be treated as friends, conflict can be managed by recognizing their
different interests, by constant vigilance, and by maintaining the strength of our
own democratic institutions. If, pace Obama, we are at the start of a new Cold War,
so be it. The whole point of the Cold War was to ensure that a hot one would be

Ian Buruma is Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard
College, and the author of Year Zero: A History of 1945.

Copyright: Project Syndicate

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