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How America's Cold War Victory Was Wasted by Triumphalism

In the eyes of American officials, America symbolizes all of humanity, and whatever it does is thus moral and correct.

Humanity was given a wonderful Christmas present three decades ago: the dissolution of the Soviet Union. During the turmoil and death of World War I, the communist monster arose. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, a fearless revolutionary, had led the Bolshevik Party to power. Joseph Stalin established a military superpower by institutionalizing terror.

Nikita Khrushchev combined liberalization with instability, almost triggering nuclear war in the Cuban missile crisis. The Evil Empire's downfall was aided by Leonid Brezhnev's enshrinement of sclerotic ineptitude and inefficiency. Then there was Mikhail Gorbachev, who tried to reform and preserve the Soviet Union but ended up burying the communist system in the process.

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was abolished the day after Christmas in 1991. After the failed coup in August, the Soviet Communist Party was disbanded. Gorbachev had lost his job. The Soviet flag was also lowered for the final time from the Kremlin.

It was a historic victory for the United States, the West, and all of humanity. Unfortunately, what happened next was an equally exceptional chance that was squandered. As my Cato colleague Ted Galen Carpenter put it, instead of fully integrating Russia into the West, “beginning with Bill Clinton’s administration, the United States pursued arrogant and clumsy policies that ultimately culminated in the new cold war with Moscow that plagues the world today.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the USSR’s collapse led to extraordinary hubris. Looking back, Gorbachev cited the “triumphant mood in the West, especially the United States.” He explained: “They grew arrogant and self-confident. They declared victory in the Cold War.”

As a result, the United States today risks rekindling the Cold War with Moscow, as well as a burgeoning Sino-Russian condominium, if not alliance. The unbridled militancy and militarism that pervades Washington's foreign policy elite, particularly the Republican Party in Congress, threatens driving the United States into a shooting confrontation with Russia over Ukraine, which has never been a genuine security issue for the United States. Indeed, some Republican politicians appear to be lusting towards a massive battle.

For instance, taking a position that can only be described as demented, Sen. Roger Wicker advocated: “President Biden should make clear that there is no scenario under which Ukraine will be overrun by Russia, period. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is already courting a bloodbath should he attack Ukrainian troops. President Biden should up the ante by warning him that an invasion would saddle him with an intolerably high Russian casualty count. This means leaving all options on the table and granting no concessions.” Wicker advocated not only intervening with ground forces, but using nuclear weapons, evidencing a judgment so malformed that he shouldn’t be allowed to visit the U.S. Capitol, let alone be elected to serve in it.

What went so horribly wrong? Fantasy became reality between 1989 and 1991. However, the immeasurable benefits of liberating hundreds of millions of people from communist oppression did not satisfy American leaders. As a result, Washington chose to take command of the situation, putting the peace at danger.

In 1985, Gorbachev became the communist general secretary. The Soviet Union was in jeopardy, but few observers predicted its demise. Gorbachev adopted half-measures toward economic reform while eschewing the harsh weapons needed to drive change. The Soviet Union was in serious trouble when 1989 began. Few predicted its demise from the legendary bipolar environment of the Cold War.

Poland had elections in the spring of that year. This would have been unimaginable in the past. The Red Army imposed communist dogma on satellite countries for decades. None of the earlier attempted liberalizations, including twice in Poland, ended well: East Germany 1953Poland 1956Hungary 1956Czechoslovakia 1968Poland 1980. However, Gorbachev told Moscow’s allies that they were responsible for solving their own political problems and the Red Army would not intervene. Which made the unthinkable—a free vote and noncommunist government—reality in Warsaw.

Then a reform government in Hungary tore down its equivalent, if not quite so formidable, “Berlin Wall” with Austria, leaving a jagged hole in the infamous Iron Curtain. Some East Germans streamed out of their country and Eastern Europe. Others flooded Leipzig streets to protest their government. On November 9 the real Berlin Wall came crashing down. Protests forced the end of communist regimes in Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria. In a stunning conclusion to a dramatic year, on Christmas Day an uncomprehending Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, bizarre and cruel communist rulers who had wrecked Romania, found themselves before a drumhead firing squad.

Then it was the Soviet Union’s turn. The USSR was essentially a radical continuation of the Russian Empire, which always relied upon force to hold the provinces in line. Gorbachev, though a reform communist who hoped to transform and thereby save the Soviet Union, dropped this essential ingredient for the Not-Quite-So-Evil Empire to survive. Indeed, for abandoning coercion—he refused to arrest secessionists—he was derided as a “coward.” Which is why, three decades ago, he found himself unemployed and viewed with contempt. The main Soviet successor state, the Russian Federation, entered a chaotic new world.

Relations among victors and losers were never going to be easy. Unfortunately, the triumphant West made it worse, much worse. With the USSR’s collapse, NATO no longer had a serious role to play, but, as public choice economics would predict, the transatlantic alliance immediately determined to find a new raison d’etre. Among the more bizarre ideas suggested were for NATO to promote student exchanges, fight drug trafficking, and protect the environment. Ultimately the “transatlantic” alliance took on out-of-area activities, meaning wars largely unrelated to Europe’s security. Having decided to preserve the anti-Moscow alliance, its members then moved to expand it as well, despite contrary assurances to the Gorbachev and Yeltsin governments.

This reflected arrogance, most importantly. In the minds of U.S. policymakers, America represents all mankind, and everything it does is by definition moral and right. Running the world without Moscow’s interference would be a grand adventure. The Soviets/Russians had lost and there was nothing they could do to stop the U.S. Anyway, Russia would get over it. As the New York Herald wrote a century and a half earlier when advocating for the U.S. to absorb all of Mexico after its defeat: “Like the Sabine virgins, she will soon learn to love her ravishers.”

Alas, Moscow never did. Washington expanded NATO up to Russia’s borders and continued to drive eastward. Without maintaining even a pretense that expansion improved U.S. security, the alliance included such powerhouses as Montenegro and North Macedonia; the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, famed star of The Mouse that Roared, seemed likely to be next. Along with Georgia and Ukraine, which NATO promised to incorporate, despite their presence on Russia’s border.

Putin, no friend of liberty, responded with calculated brutality. When the reckless, feckless Mikheil Saakashvili, president of Georgia, fired on Russian troops while expecting U.S. backing, Moscow battered the Georgian military and applied the Serbia precedent, ensuring separation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Bush administration entertained a proposal to intervene militarily—which would have triggered retaliation and perhaps even full-scale war between the U.S. and Russia. Luckily, having Sen. John McCain’s foreign policy adviser on the Georgian payroll was not enough for Tbilisi to buy U.S. intervention.

Washington and its allies also dismembered Serbia, historically allied with Russia, and backed “color” revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. In 2014, the U.S. and Europe supported the street putsch against the elected pro-Russian leader of Ukraine. The State Department’s Victoria Nuland was recorded discussing who the U.S. wanted to install as the new premier while Europe was seeking to divert Ukrainian trade to Europe. Only then did Russia act—illegally and violently, but effectively, and with greater restraint than many expected.

Rather than launch a sweeping invasion to swallow the 44 million-strong country or build a "land bridge" to Crimea, as some feared, Moscow backed rebels in the Donbas, resulting in a continuing war that made NATO membership doubtful. The Putin government also seized Crimea, which had been traditionally part of Russia and had a majority of Russian-speakers who undoubtedly wanted to reunite, securing Moscow's Black Sea naval stronghold of Sevastopol. Putin has recently escalated the confrontation by concentrating Russia's military capabilities and threatening aggressive action against Ukraine in an attempt to push the US to discuss a modus vivendi, which the US should have sought seven years ago.

Although Washington focused its ire on Putin, Russian antagonism toward the U.S. runs far deeper because of American behavior. During the 1990s, the public view of the U.S. flipped from roughly 80 percent positive to 80 percent negative. If Putin is overthrown, he might be replaced by a more extreme nationalist. Indeed, opposition politician Alexei Navalny is, or at least was, no liberal, a fact ignored by his Western supporters, who risk facing a younger and more attractive adversary if Navalny ends up in power.

It’s not too late for Washington to act. Indeed, President Joe Biden appears determined to negotiate a settlement with Moscow. Doing so won’t be easy, however.

Putin’s release of proposed treaties hikes the pressure on both sides and discourages an informal understanding. Other NATO members want to be part of any talks, even though they consistently underinvest in their militaries and would expect Washington to do all the heavy lifting in any fight with a revived Red Army. And the Ukrainians demand a seat at the table even though, contra their rhetoric, they are not entitled to NATO membership or Western aid.

The administration should advance America’s interest and be tough with allies as well as Russia. NATO expansion should end. In return, Russia should stop interfering in the Donbas. Practical understandings, if not legal resolutions, need to address seemingly unsolvable issues, such as Crimea.

The distinction between alliance members and non-members must be maintained. Defense obligations of rich, populous partners who have decided to rely on America should be transferred, not merely shared, by Washington. And, as a result of the budgetary reality, Washington will be forced to prioritize domestic priorities and abandon its ambitions to play global cop. Perhaps most importantly, the United States must reclaim the humility that has been missing from its foreign policy since the collapse of the Soviet Union three decades ago.

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