Why Biden thinks he needs a new Cold War

“We are not looking for a Cold War,” President Joe Biden told world leaders gathered at the United Nations on September 21, 2022. He continued that America was not asking “any nation to choose between the United States or any other partner. .”

But that’s probably not how everyone views the prospect of a new Cold War. Despite Biden’s protests, foreign policy watchers are increasingly defining the relationship between the United States on one side and Russia and China on the other as a “cold war” in which the countries are, in fact, supposed to choose sides. Additionally, in a March 2022 poll, more than six in 10 American adults said the risk of a Cold War was higher than it had been five years earlier.

To be clear, there’s no reason to question Biden’s personal sincerity. But as a Cold War historian, I think it is legitimate to question whether the “no return to the Cold War” position is entirely representative of the Washington foreign policy establishment, given that the Cold War presented advantages and opportunities for the United States.

Moreover, I believe that if Americans were really honest on the matter, some would concede that they are in fact missing the Cold War.

Identity and Intervention

From the end of World War II in 1945 to the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the Cold War apparently provided benefits to successive US administrations and to the American general public who have since disappeared.

Perhaps more importantly, the United States could justify interventionist foreign policies during the Cold War era. In faraway places from Greece to the Congo, the United States has presented itself as a benevolent superpower aiding fledgling democracies against an expansionist communist threat, real or perceived.

Supporting allies, whether in South Korea or South Vietnam, made sense when Moscow, in the words of President Truman, had gone “beyond the use of subversion to conquer independent nations” and used “armed invasion and war”.

Proxy wars, where superpowers clashed through local allies, were much more palatable when the enemy could be seen as a global ideological threat.

The Cold War also offered a form of cultural capital to its champions, allowing Americans to embrace a virtuous national identity, pitting it against the evils of atheistic communism. In this framework, Americans were the moral defenders of universal democratic principles. The Communists, on the other hand, were the antithesis of these ethical doctrines.

In the popular 1947 comic “Is It Tomorrow,” for example, children learned that the communists’ rise to power rested on the tools of “starvation, murder, slavery, [and] Oblige.” There was little ambiguity when painting the Moscow goons in bloody red strokes.

Given these threats, those working within the congressional-military-industrial complex have found a simple and popular justification for increased defense spending. In just one year – from 1948 to 1949 – Congress approved a 20% increase in defense appropriations.

The Berlin Crisis, the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War, the successful Soviet nuclear test, and the formation of NATO – all of which took place in 1949 – foreshadowed a future in which Americans needed a powerful military machine to protect their security and interests.

Of course, the growth of the US military meant power and influence on the world stage, an added benefit of burgeoning defense budgets.

Personal (and political) gain

While serving national security objectives, the Cold War could also promote certain interest groups and individuals in the political landscape of the United States.

It is not surprising that opportunistic politicians were able to take advantage of wartime rhetoric by claiming that they alone defended the security of the nation.

Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy proved the most infamous, even pitting his fellow citizens against each other for populist approval ratings. In 1950, McCarthy described the world as being in two “hostile armed camps” and urged the nation to become “a beacon in the wasteland of destruction”.

His public notoriety – though perhaps not his downfall – showed how Cold War fears could be exploited and then translated into political rewards.

Joe McCarthy’s Red Scare still haunts America. Photo: Screenshot/PBS

And, as McCarthy’s Red Scare has suggested, the perceived threats of domestic communism could also be used by social conservative critics to force consensus on a rapidly changing postwar American society.

In just one instance, “red bait” maliciously claimed that the Southern Negro Youth Congress had been infiltrated by communists and that the broader civil rights movement was a front for anarchist Marxists.

Could today’s conservatives similarly use the threat of “the other” to promote an Americanism that seeks to promote unity rather than individual identities, rights, and immigration writ large? Those who argue for a return to a “Cold War consensus” certainly believe this.

Myth and reality

The 1990s, however, hinted that Cold War triumphs had unintended consequences. Not only has the stability of the international system seemingly been shattered in the post-Cold War world, but the absence of a unifying enemy has seemed to leave American citizens turning against each other.

Americans have engaged in raucous culture wars at home, with critics complaining of stifling “political correctness” that tramples on their freedom of speech and expression. Meanwhile, America’s armed forces have been cast adrift overseas in search of a viable grand strategy after the end of their decades-long commitment to containing communism.

Political scientist John J. Mearsheimer even argued at the end of the Cold War in 1990 that Europe was “returning to a state system which had created powerful incentives for aggression in the past”.

It is no coincidence that Mearsheimer also recently suggested that NATO’s post-Cold War push into former Soviet countries is to blame for the current war. Perhaps the Cold War had indeed offered a sense of stability as much as she had feared.

For a while, the global war on terror after 9/11 offered the promise of a new threat, a threat existential enough on which to build a new American grand strategy for the 21st century. In his 2002 State of the Union address, President George W Bush said the United States faced “an axis of evil, arming itself to threaten the peace of the world”.

Yet for all its threat, the Axis and its “terrorist allies” couldn’t seem to generate enough fear to hold America’s attention for as long as the Cold War communists. True, the United States remained in Afghanistan for two long and violent decades, but the threats there seemed more local than existential.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) speaks with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, September 16, 2022. Photo: Kremlin Pool/Sputnik/ Sergei Bobylev

Putin’s Russia today foreshadows a possible return to a global cold war – a new struggle between “good” and “evil”. So, given President Biden’s assertion that he is not looking for one, Americans should think deeply about what a Cold War might look like in the 21st century.

The Cold War in myth and memory may have seemed a more idyllic time when united Americans ruled a fairly stable international system. Yet those decades were far more violent, far more contentious, both at home and abroad, than Americans might care to admit.

Some in Washington might indeed be happy to return to a new Cold War. But policymakers should think twice before engaging the nation in a decades-long conflict that rests more on an imaginary past than on a critical reading of that history.

Gregory A Daddis is Professor and USS Midway Chair in Modern American Military History, San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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