It has become something of a cliché to refer to the ongoing crisis in U.S.-Russian relations as a new Cold War. And indeed, the combination of mistrust, sabre-rattling, and zero-sum thinking that now prevails in Washington and Moscow does have has a grim familiarity.
Yet history, as Mark Twain is reputed to have said, does not repeat itself, it only rhymes. The most notable difference between the current standoff with Russia and the 20th-century Cold War is the absence of ideological confrontation between two systems each claiming to offer the true path to freedom, peace, and justice and backed by their supporters with a religious fervor.
While the absence of ideological polarization means this Cold War might be more amenable to a diplomatic resolution, it also means that, without an ideological rival to hold a mirror to its faults and hypocrisies, some of the uglier strands in American history have made a comeback. It also means that the bipartisan consensus that sustained U.S. foreign policy throughout the latter 20th century is in danger of fracturing, leaving the U.S. unable or unwilling to push back against Russia’s aggressive efforts to upend the liberal international order and construct a sphere of influence around its borders.
Notwithstanding McCarthyism and other periods of anti-Communist hysteria at home, the ideological confrontation with Moscow helped drive progressive social and economic change in the United States. Whether because they feared a Communist revolution at home or in an effort to defeat Soviet influence abroad, for much of the 20th century, both Democratic and Republican administrations sought to tackle inequality and racism, to increase funding for education and science, and to promote media literacy in part because of they recognized that doing so was an important contribution to the geopolitical and ideological struggle with Moscow.
Even before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, fear of Communist revolution encouraged American leaders to take seriously the dangers of rampant inequality.
As early as 1912, Theodore Roosevelt was calling for a national system of social insurance (something like today’s Social Security system) to ensure that the United States’ future was “one of healthy evolution and not one of revolution.” While he had long supported greater government intervention to redistribute the gains of capitalism, Franklin Roosevelt only signed the Social Security Act in 1935 after a huge surge in working-class activism, some of it violent, in which socialists and the Soviet-backed Communist Party played a leading role.
In part thanks to the success of FDR’s New Deal, both inequality and working-class radicalism waned after the 1930s. With the outbreak of a global Cold War in the wake of World War II, the United States came to worry less about revolution at home and more about preventing the spread of Soviet-style Communism abroad, particularly in post-colonial Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Much of this global Cold War turned on the respective ability of the U.S. and Soviet models to inspire imitation in the “Third World.”
As part of this struggle, Moscow was eager to highlight the failures and injustices of the American system.
One of its most powerful critiques focused on racial injustice in the United States. Even in the 1920s and 1930s, the USSR saw African-Americans grievance as a possible driver of revolution in the U.S. and provided a platform for African-American activists to denounce the legacy of slavery, violence, and segregation at home. Figures like the activist-poet-singer Paul Robeson and the poet Langston Hughes gravitated to the USSR, which they lauded as an antidote to the discrimination they experienced at home.
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After 1945, the Soviet Union consistently criticized segregation and other manifestations of racial injustice in the U.S. as part of its effort to weaken U.S. influence abroad (notwithstanding its own grim record on minority rights). Soviet media outlets targeting Asia, Africa, and Latin America highlighted racial strife in the U.S. to argue, in the words of a senior official in the Kennedy Administration’s State Department, that Jim Crow was “indicative of [U.S.] policy toward peoples of color throughout the world,” and that Washington would never reliably support the struggle for de-colonization.
The passage of civil rights legislation in the U.S. starting in the 1960s was justified to skeptics in part an attempt to weaken the impact of Soviet propaganda. As the historian Mary Dudziak has argued, a crucial driver of Cold War-era progress on civil rights was the need to make the case abroad that U.S.-style democracy was compatible with racial justice. Federal support for challenging segregation in court and for advancing civil rights legislation was justified in terms of success in the ideological struggle with the Soviet Union.
The ideological dimension also made the Cold War itself easier to prosecute, and ultimately win. Because the USSR was credibly portrayed as the negation of the United States’ ideals (acting as what David Fogelsong called the United States’ “dark double”), besting the Soviet Union came to provide a raison d’être for United States foreign policy from the late 1940s to the early 1990s. Whatever else they disagreed on, Democrats and Republicans were united in their belief that Moscow posed an existential threat not just to the U.S. homeland, but to the very ideals on which the United States was founded. That shared perception formed the basis of a longstanding bipartisan foreign policy consensus that emphasized U.S. support for liberal values, multilateralism, and resisting the spread of Communism.
Today, that consensus is in tatters, as a war for the soul of both parties rages between internationalist and isolationist wings. With the original Cold War a distant memory, Washington’s commitment to the institutions of the liberal order it created is in question in a way it has not been since the Second World War.
Russia, among other revisionist powers, benefits from this uncertainty. It supports opponents of the U.S.-led international order from both the Left and Right in the hopes of weakening the trans-Atlantic bond, securing its own sphere of influence, and peeling off sympathetic Europeans from the liberal West. Moscow still very much views the United States as its most dangerous strategic rival, and views its own security interests largely in zero-sum terms.
The original Cold War ended when the Soviet Union stopped believing in the ideals it claimed espouse. By the late 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev gave up the ghost on worldwide Communist revolution and, in 1991, on Communism at home.
Unfortunately, too many Americans came to regard the end of the Cold War and the discrediting of old-fashioned Leftist ideas like collective ownership of the means of production as a vindication of untrammeled capitalism. Meanwhile, tackling racial injustice at home ceased to be seen as a matter of national security, and in the process lost both its urgency and its bipartisan support. (Compare the records of Richard Nixon and Dwight Eisenhower on racial equality to those of Donald Trump.)
Though today’s Russia positions itself as a strategic rival of the U.S., it no longer offers an ideological alternative that inspires revolutionary enthusiasm. While the U.S. fears Russia’s missiles and its hackers, it has stopped fearing Russian ideas.
The absence of Cold War-style ideological competition wedded to strategic rivalry has made it easier for U.S. politicians to support for policies that reinforce rather than ameliorate inequalities of all types in the United States and to denigrate the role of the federal government as an instrument for tackling racial and socioeconomic disparities. It has also shattered the consensus that checking Moscow’s efforts to undermine the liberal order is a cause worth fighting for.
It is hard to imagine passage of the Republican Party’s grotesque tax bill, which the Congressional Budget Office and independent analysts predict will dramatically worsen inequality, or the federal government’s tepid response to racial strife in Charlottesville and elsewhere, efforts to weaken the Justice Department’s civil rights division, or reduced support for academic research taking place during the Cold War, when systemic competition with the Soviet Union provided a powerful argument for overcoming entrenched racial and economic interests to make the United States attempt to live up to its founding ideals.
In the original Cold War, it was these American ideals—which America claimed were universal—that triumphed, rather than American arms. Because we lack the ideological framing of the original Cold War, a real danger of the opposite outcome now exists. Now it is the U.S.(and many of its allies) who seem to have jettisoned much of their belief in the ideals and institutions that facilitated their Cold War triumph. Military spending may increase, but without a shared commitment to a worldview that speaks to the better angels of America’s nature, and inspires Americans and Europeans to “bear any burden,” in John F. Kennedy’s famous phrasing, to ensure the triumph of liberty, it is too easy to imagine the U.S. giving up the ghost of fighting for the order it constructed.
The Cold War contained history’s most dangerous moments for the survival of human civilization. If it had any redeeming features, they lay in the understanding that America’s ideals mattered, and ought to be upheld both at home and abroad. This new Cold War repeats much of the danger of its predecessor, but without the commitment to making a better country and a better world that once inspired the United States to take the hard choices that made victory possible.