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The Ukraine Temptation: Biden Should Resist Calls to Fight a New Cold War

Author: Stephen Wertheim

Affiliation: the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the Center for Global Legal Challenges at Yale Law School

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Affairs 

Date/Place: April 12, 2022/ Washington DC, USA

Type of Literature: Article  

Word Count: 2538

Link: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2022-04-12/ukraine-temptation 

 

Keywords: The Ukraine War, the Biden Administration, Advocates of the US Global Primacy, Restraint, Strategic Discipline, the Specter of the New Cold War 

Brief:

Stephen Wertheim is one of the most prominent advocates of the restraint approach in American foreign policy, which is based on the de-militarization, the reduction of excessive military interventions across the world, and avoidance of global primacy discourse (particularly advocated by liberal internationalism) which is seen by restrainers as dangerous and unwise ideology. In this article, the author seeks to distance the US administration from the stimulating calls (by the global primacy advocates) to wage a new cold war against emerging powers (China and Russia), especially with the temptation imposed by the war in Ukraine to do so, warning of the risks and high costs of an American foreign policy ruled by the Cold War logic. He argues that the pursuit of global primacy will not solve problems as much as it will exacerbate them and distance the United States from pursuing more pressing priorities related to its real and vital interests. An approach based on restraint and strategic discipline is the best option.

 

The article is divided into three parts. In the first part, the author notes that the Russian invasion of Ukraine led to the renewed rise of global primacy advocates who have been urging the Biden administration (and previous administrations) to bring about a major and sustainable shift in American foreign policy under the justifications of confronting Russian aggressiveness and all “reckless and risk-taking dictators” anywhere to protect “the free world”, riding the current wave of anti-Russian sentiment. This moment is similar to previous cases that ended with Washington adopting such calls, making mistakes, wasting opportunities, and keeping the country away from dealing with urgent priorities and pursuing its vital and core interests. The author urges Biden to avoid repeating this mistake. Pursuing such calls would divert Washington’s efforts regarding China, a power that actually challenges American interests more than any “reckless dictator” in Russia or anywhere in the world; as Putin’s attack on Ukraine did not provide any compelling evidence that Washington should take on new commitments or tasks as the vital US security interests are not at stake in Ukraine. Thus, the author describes US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War as stagnant and lacking a clear strategy. Continuing to think in this way “could lead U.S. officials to give up on formulating a strategy on the basis of discernable national interests. The United States would find itself policing the world, no matter the stakes.” Moreover, Wertheim argues that global primacists have exaggerated the Russian threat to Europe, and are aimed at pushing the United States to launch a new Cold War as the best option to defeat the rising adversaries in Eurasia and perpetuate American global primacy. According to him, Russia does not have the economic or military capabilities to drive far into Europe, as they claim. The size of the EU economy is five times larger than its Russian counterpart. It is expected that the sanctions imposed on Russia will widen the size of this gap in favor of the EU. Also, “the European members of NATO already outspend Russia on defense, and Europe’s geopolitical awakening will only push them to spend more.” Despite these facts, global primacists insist on adopting an expanded concept of American interests and responsibilities that would make the country in a state of a new cold war against Russia and China. The war would cost it enormous burdens unrelated to its vital interests. In addition, the US is no longer able to maintain global military hegemony, especially with the decline in its contribution to global economic output compared to the time of the Cold War, and in contrast to the growing contribution of China and Russia.

 

The second part argues that the war in Ukraine is turning Europe into a more unified and determined geopolitical player which makes the possibility for Washington to pursue an approach based on strategic discipline more necessary and achievable. The author urges Biden to reject the Cold War strategy because it makes the world divided, half of it dependent on the United States. Instead, he should strive to make the world more resilient and capable of effective collective action. Therefore, Wertheim calls for supporting Ukraine with weapons and helping it to defend itself instead of waging a war against Russia on its behalf, in a way that may cause an expansion of the US military role in Europe and weaken US security. Furthermore, he urges the United States to throw its weight decisively to end the war and reach a settlement. To get that, the author recommends ending the harsh sanctions against Russia. The United States should also show publicly its opposition to looking again at Ukraine’s NATO membership prospects. Biden should seize this golden opportunity to put the European order on a path to self-sufficiency in both a defensive and strategic sense. Reducing the United States’ burdens in Europe will enhance its strategy in Asia, and Biden must avoid the costly and irrational choice of global primacy, which makes the United States fight on two fronts, in the European and Indo-Pacific arenas.

 

The third part goes on to suggest recommendations that would move Biden (and his future successors) away from a new Cold War and push him to focus more on the priorities his administration initially set such as focusing on Asia and China, providing prosperity to ordinary Americans, saving American democracy, addressing climate change and the pandemic’s effects. They are the most important issues urgently and in connection with the US’ core and vital interests more than what the war in Ukraine and the global primacy seduces. A new cold war would impose enormous costs and generate unnecessary risks. The quest for global primacy would exacerbate the American domestic woes and stifle urgent international cooperation. The Biden administration should not allow the Ukrainian war fears to overburden the country and prevent it from furthering the vital interests of Americans, just as such fears did after the 9/11 attacks.


By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA  Senior Research Associate

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