President Biden and his national security team have argued since taking office that easy, tentative comparisons between the current era and the Cold War are misleading, broad interpretations of a critical political era.
The difference is indeed stark: The United States has never had the kind of technological and economic interdependence with its Cold War adversary, the Soviet Union, that complicates the dangerous and dangerous downward spiral of relations with China.
And Biden’s advisers often argue that Russia is not the Soviet Union. Yes, it has nuclear weapons, they say, but its military capabilities have now been severely damaged in Ukraine.
And during the times of the Soviet Union, the United States felt compelled to wage a global ideological war. In the new era, it is fighting China’s efforts to use its economic and technological power to spread its influence.
However, the echoes of the Cold War are growing. Mr. Biden also added to the din this week. In Vilnius, Lithuania, on Wednesday night, speaking to a crowd waving American, Lithuanian and Ukrainian flags, he repeatedly called for the struggle of the Baltic states to free themselves from the fallen Soviet Union, and told Vladimir V. Putin that the United States and allies can protect Ukraine, as well as other vulnerable regions of Europe, “according to that.”
Mr. Biden did not make it clear that the United States should “again bear the burden of a long, dark war” – President Kennedy’s famous description of the Cold War in his inaugural address in 1961, when it entered its most dangerous phase. But Biden’s message was the same.
“Our commitment to Ukraine is unwavering,” he said. “We stand for freedom and liberty today, tomorrow, and forever.”
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, said in an interview in Helsinki, Biden’s last stop, that while Biden may be taking poetic license to compare the case of Lithuania to the war in Ukraine, that doesn’t mean he’s trying to be tried. reviving the spirit or methods of the Cold War era.
“There is actually an anger problem,” he said. “The need to stand up in defense of sovereignty, international integrity, freedom and democracy. But those things can be achieved without going back to ‘Back to the Future’ during the Cold War.”
What was not mentioned at the meeting, at least publicly, is another major difference between now and three decades ago: the uncertainty of bipartisan support for continuing to push back against Russian aggression.
From the Truman administration through George HW Bush’s years in office, all of America’s major political parties are committed to ending America’s adversary, even as they disagree on strategy and whether to get involved in local conflicts. This is not known now. On the sidelines of the NATO meeting in Vilnius, foreign ministers and allies from close and distant allies were asking whether Congress will begin to reduce aid to Ukraine when the available funds expire at the end of the summer.
And he asked what the chances are that opposition to America’s intervention in the war from the Republican presidential nominees — former President Donald J. Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis — could gain traction with the public.
“The Americans are worried that Europe will flag,” one European official, who asked not to be named, said at the Vilnius conference. “We are worried that America will do the flag. And everyone is worried that the Ukrainians will lack weapons and air defense.”
Mr. Biden was asked about these concerns during a press conference with President Sauli Niinisto of Finland on Thursday and he replied that “there is a lot of support from the American people” to support Ukraine and NATO. But then he said the obvious: “No one can guarantee the future, but this is the best bet anyone can make.”
If there was an overarching theme in Mr. Biden’s visit this week, it would be that the West is preparing for a long, expensive confrontation that will require cooperation and a combination of intelligence and military forces unlike those attempted before.
“At this critical time in history, when the world is looking to see, will we work hard for a better future?” he said at a press conference. “Will we stand together, will we stand each other?” Are we going to be committed to our studies?”
The burial of NATO is the building block for the next western war. There are plans for greater defense, even nearly a decade after NATO set a minimum military budget of 2 percent of each member’s GDP, most of the rich countries of Western Europe have not yet achieved that goal. (Smaller former Soviet republics have fared much better.) There are plans for an integrated NATO military strategy, including specific measures to integrate cyber defense, and to increase the production of conventional weapons, which almost no one thought would happen. they will also be needed in Europe.
But the reality is that this change is only the beginning – and not enough as the West enters years, if not decades, of hostility with Russia, officials say. Jens Stoltenberg, who agreed last week to extend his term as NATO secretary general, acknowledged the reality in a Foreign Affairs report.
“Even if the war ends tomorrow,” he wrote of the conflict in Ukraine, “there is no sign that Putin’s ambitions have changed. They see freedom and democracy as a threat and want a world where big countries control what their neighbors do. This puts him in constant conflict with NATO principles and international law. “
Like Mr. Biden, he said that allowing Mr. Putin finds every step in his military journey “to send a message to other oppressive governments to achieve their goals through the use of force. China, in particular, is looking to see the price that Russia pays, or the reward that it receives, for its brutality.”
What Mr. Stoltenberg saw was undeniable. But as a number of American and European officials acknowledged at the Vilnius conference, such commitments make it very difficult to start real negotiations for a ceasefire or for fighting. And the promise to replace Ukraine in NATO – after the war – creates a strong incentive for Moscow to occupy any Ukrainian territory it can and maintain the conflict.
As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told reporters in Vilnius, “We want to restore our territory, restore security in our territory. That’s victory.” He added: “The cold war is not winning.”
Mr. Biden used his visit to Helsinki to celebrate one clear difference in the Cold War: the move by Finland and Sweden, a few weeks after the attack, to apply to join the alliance after decades of neutrality – although in recent years they have trained and cooperated with NATO. .
American officials see Finland as a model new member: Although the country is small, with a population of 5.5 million, it has developed some of the most advanced air and sea capabilities in northern Europe. And its 800-kilometer border with Russia interferes with Mr. Putin needs to figure out how to use his military.
Once Sweden rejoins, which is only a few months away until Turkey withdraws its objections, the Baltic Sea will become a NATO Sea. Its entire coastline will be occupied by NATO countries except for a small Russian area around St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad.
Lurking in the background of the summit was another factor that makes this era so different from the Cold War: China’s position.
The statement made in Vilnius included a serious discussion of the dangers of dependence on suppliers like China, an issue that NATO has not given much thought to in the past.
In the Cold War, there was one great enemy; now there are two, and the lines of their relationship “there are no limits” are still a matter of mystery. American officials believe that Beijing is providing technology to Russia, but not the weapons it craves. As the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, talks about his close relationship with Mr. Putin, American intelligence officials believe that the Chinese leader is worried about what he sees when Russia is fighting a war.
And Xi may be reluctant to start another conflict with the United States when he has so much in his hands that affects China’s future. These include the effects of cuts to high-end chips – something Chinese officials often complain about – and the possibility of new restrictions from Washington on Western investment in key technologies, including artificial intelligence.
There was no conflict about such issues in the days of the Cold War, because the United States and the Soviets did not trade with each other, and they did not produce any of the goods that the other depended on.
“The Cold War is not a very useful metaphor for important things,” said Mr. Sullivan, looking at “the nature of economic integration, the nature of modern competition, the need for cooperation on global challenges that cross borders” China.
“These are the drivers of international relations today more than anything in the Cold War.”