Cold War Redux: Not So Fast

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Substantial commentary subsequent to the Russian invasion of Georgia is declaring the advent of a Cold War II. Estimable voices have concluded, not unreasonably, that with the Russian exercise of a military force against a democratic neighbor and ally of the United States, antagonisms dormant since the end of the Cold War will soon define future US-Russian relations and impact international matters accordingly. Acts once derided as mere posturing, such as conducting long-range aerial bomber patrols, are now ominously seen as indicative of growing tensions “not seen since the Cold War.” Fortunately, current American policymakers are uninterested in second global contest of wills. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates aptly commented in 2007, “One Cold War was quite enough.” Russo-American relations are indeed deteriorating but a second Iron Curtain dividing the European continent is unlikely. Nonetheless, but one potent play from the Cold War remains handy – the China Card.



The international landscape is radically different than the one inherited by the two superpowers in the wake of World War II. International affairs no longer pivots on just ideology and military capabilities, but also the breadth and depth of global economic integration and the manner in which each nations exercises its sovereignty in response to the challenge from globalizing forces.


For America, the period subsequent to the collapse of the Soviet Union defied easy categorization, much less insightful policy prescriptions. Recently, American scholars Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier summarized how the United States stumbled between the “indispensable nation” and “arrogance without purpose” in their aptly titled book “America Between the Wars.”


Chollet and Goldgeier recount how America, as the world’s sole superpower, retained tremendous freedom of action, but lacked a clear purpose and foundered from crisis to crisis, all the while professing its best intentions. However, as noted in a previous essay, a gap exists between how America perceives itself and how other nations perceive America; even worse, America is usually unaware of this gap. Accordingly, when America attempts to uphold its “values” (Kosovo) or its “interests” (Iraq), many countries conclude American unipolarity is hardly benevolent and only portends a threat to state sovereignty and integrity. Such apprehension is evident when contrasting Russian and PRC support for the American ejection of Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991 with the vehement opposition to American regime change in Iraq only twelve years later.


Numerous estimable observers will argue the divergence between America, Russia, and the PRC results from their inherently conflicting ideological stances. Under the Clinton and Bush Administrations, the United States has enthusiastically identified itself as a champion of democratic capitalism and has supported its propagation around the world. In contrast, the PRC and Russia have essentially espoused “authoritarian mercantilism,” whereby the state exercises considerable leverage in directing the countries’ economic priorities while also minimizing the citizenry’s political liberty. (Neither the PRC nor Russia has been deliberately spreading this concept with the same energy as the United States has democracy, but the two nations are extremely sensitive to calls for greater liberalization within or on its borders.) Thus, as Robert Kagan notes in his insightful analysis, “End of Dreams, Return of History”, Russia and the PRC interpret President Bush’s proclamation to stand – and act – on the side of liberty as ultimately destabilizing. “To ask one dictatorship to aid in the undermining of another dictatorship is asking a great deal.”



While postulating another global ideological conflict is tantalizing, characterizing current international affairs in this manner is misleading. By linking the two countries on the basis of their similar regimes, Kagan is obscuring a key point of divergence between them.



The PRC leadership has been historically reluctant to assert the nation’s growing heft on the world stage, traditionally protesting Western interference in underdeveloped countries and, more recently, asserting its ascendance constitutes nothing more than a “peaceful rise.” Russia, under Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his coterie of KGB comrades, is far more ambitious and fully expect to restore the nation to its historical greatness. Furthermore, the Russian leadership has determined the nation’s resurgence and re-establishment as a major player grants it the opportunity – and the right – to emulate America’s example. As demonstrated by the invasion of Georgia, Russia is fully prepared to intervene in another nation’s affairs and justify the action in terms employed by the United States. In this regard, Russia’s course of action runs counter to the PRC’s worldview. To paraphrase Kagan, Russia is more ready than the PRC to undermine a democracy.



Indeed, when Russia defiantly defended its invasion of Georgia in the face of Western opposition and expected support from the PRC and other anti-Western states, the leadership was rebuked. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev turned to the PRC-led Shanghai Cooperative Organization (SCO) for diplomatic support and called for its conversion into a counterweight to NATO. Instead, the SCO declined to support Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the two breakaway Georgian regions, and instead the members issued a declaration “[reaffirming] their commitment to the principles of respect for the historical and cultural traditions of every country and to efforts aimed at preserving the unity of each state and its territorial integrity."


Kagan’s bloc of autocratic states is not monolithic and the divergence between Russia and the PRC presents an opportunity for the United States to re-calibrate its foreign policy as the period of unipolarity comes to an end and to rethink how American power will be wielded in the future.

The China Card Updated

In the relationship with the PRC, America can begin the process for capitalizing on this opportunity. The PRC, in contrast to Russia, has embraced globalization and connectivity, making a sustained and comprehensive attempt to modernize and integrate with the global economy. Conversely, Russia has declined to diversify its petroleum-based economy and has permitted the political elite undue control over major sectors. Furthermore, the PRC leadership is violently opposed to liberalization, but espouses non-interference in other states; China has its own share of Kosovos within its borders and Iraqs on its borders and does not need the principle of intervention legitimized. Conversely, Russia has utilized its energy resources to blackmail its neighbors and has just invaded Georgia.


By signaling an intent to curtail un-sanctioned unilateral intervention abroad, the US can shape an understanding with the PRC based on the firm commitment to respect a state’s sovereignty going forward. Proceeding accordingly can result in cooperative efforts to constrain Russian irredentist impulses. Moreover, the US will regain credibility with other rising states, such as Brazil and India (especially), which may have sympathized with American objectives in Iraq, but could not countenance the manner in which America pursued them.


This course of action would spur opposition on the part of American policymakers opposed to accommodating the PRC dictatorship, especially when it is poised to emerge as a peer competitor. Unfortunately, as the experience in Iraq demonstrates, exercising regime change can serve American interests, but the comprehensive set of capabilities necessary to execute such an ambitious mission are absent. Moreover, America’s financial and fiscal crises are certain to take priority over expansive foreign policy goals in the near term.



Global responsibilities need not be abandoned and regime change can serve the nation’s interests, but the apparatus of national security needs to be restructured. American objectives will be just as effectively secured by being more judicious with military power and enhancing corresponding diplomatic and stabilization capabilities. (Recently, Russia has started to raise its profile in Latin America via its increasingly close relationship with Venezuela. Coincidentally, the US has begun re-shaping US Southern Command to be an “interagency” prototype. Latin America won’t be a “battleground,” but lessons learned will be important.)



In due time, the division between states will not be ideological, the historical anomaly, but between “status quo” and “revolutionary” states, the historical norm. If Russia persists, its isolation1 will only worsen, and will similarly sideline those nations, like Venezuela, choosing to bandwagon with it.



A second round of global ideological competition between democracy and autocracy should remain just that – a war in the realm of ideas.






1 In addition to isolation, the consequences to its economy are clear as well. Russia will be denied entry into the World Trade Organization and the Russian stock index, RTS, already declining since May 2008, fell even further just two weeks after the invasion of Georgia, reaching its lowest point in two years . On Sept. 26, Moody's Investors Service assigned a “negative” outlook to the country's banking system as it grapples to contain its worst crisis since the 1998 default.



Don’t Call It A Comeback…

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Let’s grow up conservatives. If we want to take this party back — and I think we can — let's get to work.”

Sen. Barry Goldwater, 1960 Republican Convention

Nominee Sen. John McCain’s selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin has galvanized a moribund Republican Party and electrified the conservative movement. In a presidential election during an ostensibly Democratic year, two years after an infamous “thumpin’” at the mid-term polls, McCain is rapidly gaining momentum and poised to become the frontrunner over the once seemingly inevitable historic candidacy of the first African-American nominee to the presidency, Sen. Barack Obama. Conversely, whether the GOP will lose more seats in the Senate and the House is not contested. Republican congressional campaign chiefs are readily conceding such, asserting the preservation of a caucus capable of sustaining a filibuster will be victory enough. Accordingly, once unenthused Republicans are now flocking to McCain, the perennial maverick of the party. Conservatives readily admit their newfound enthusiasm is due more for his bold gamble on Palin. While the selection has indeed provided yet another surprising turn in a presidential election season replete with drama, declarations of a “resurrection” – party-wise or movement-wise – are premature.


Genuine rise in the polls or not, this history-making ticket faces long odds and American conservatives should be prepared.


Since 1964, the Republican Party has been home to the modern conservative movement. But, as Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan demonstrated, patience can be critical.


When Goldwater politely declined the nomination in 1960, he knew the movement was unready. Unfortunately, the tragedy of the JFK assassination robbed him the opportunity to run against a more honorable man. Goldwater himself acknowledged he did not want to run in 1964 and knew at the convention he would lose to LBJ.


Goldwater and John F. Kennedy famously discussed traveling the country together and debating the issues respectfully. Instead, Goldwater had to overcome a bitterly fractious convention and a sitting president prepared to wage a disgracefully negative campaign. Goldwater was trounced and his conservative message was derided as extremist. Nevertheless, the additional four years permitted the conservative movement time to mature as a political force and identify an heir in the form of Ronald Reagan.


It was another twelve years before Reagan could finally marshal a substantive challenge on behalf of conservatism. However, he launched his bid against a sitting president. Reagan’s challenge to Ford in 1976 came up short but Ford also lost. To the misfortune of the country, the administration of Democrat Jimmy Carter proved inept and incapable.


Fortunately, Reagan’s 1976 bid provided the basis for the overwhelmingly successful nomination run four years later. By 1980, not only was the Republican Party ready to embrace Reaganite conservatism, but so was the entire nation. Reagan triumphed in a landslide and set the stage for the modern conservative electoral era.


In the twenty-eight years since 1980, Republican conservatism has dominated one or both elected branches of the federal government for all but two (data).




Nonetheless, all political movements ebb and realignments are inevitable.


With the 2008 Republican Party presidential ticket, American conservatives are in uncharted waters. Neither the presidential or vice-presidential candidate has been a longtime leader anchored in the movement. John McCain enthusiastically describes himself as a “foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution,” but he has never been one of its generals. Sarah Palin is famous for toppling the entrenched Republican political machine in Alaska. In the space of two years, she has shown herself to be a formidable governor an a attractive profile of conservatism’s future, but she has not yet indicated how she would tackle major national issues. Both are equal in their zeal for reform, but it is unclear as to how conservatism will guide their decision-making.


McCain and Palin are indeed the pair of mavericks they profess to be and represent a generational transition. By picking Palin, McCain has essentially accelerated the turnover in the Republican Party and conservative movement. While conventional wisdom suggested McCain should pick former rival Mitt Romney or another newcomer, Minnesota Governor Tom Pawlenty, neither would have been the adrenaline shot Palin has proven to be. Conservatives were ready for a walk in the wilderness if either Romney or Pawlenty had been picked, but the sudden popularity of Palin reminds conservatives how much vitality the movement and message retains, as well as the indisputable power a leader can marshal when drawn from the ranks of regular Americans, unlike a pretentious Obama or Beltway fixture Sen. Joseph Biden. With Palin, the opportunity for conservatives becomes today not tomorrow.



While McCain’s surge in the polls and Palin’s potential elevation to the vice presidency is grounds for conservative celebration, victory in November should induce caution. A McCain Administration will probably face an expanded (and very hungry) liberal Democratic majority in the Congress; if Obama loses, the Reid-Pelosi-led caucus would be sure to make every effort to make life miserable for the incoming administration. McCain should be prepared to yield a substantial role in leading whatever reform agenda is adopted.


Not that McCain has clarified what his reform agenda will entail. McCain has been a persistent renegade and contrarian – he acknowledges Reagan as an influence but identifies Theodore Roosevelt as his inspiration. While the 26th president is a treasured Republican icon, invoking TR unsettles contemporary conservatives, given the rambunctious president’s penchant for government activism and railings against “malefactors of great wealth.”


In similar fashion, McCain has gleefully antagonized the conservative movement with his various initiatives. After losing a hard-fought race to Bush in 2000, McCain reveled in his maverick reform personal, almost cavalierly disregarding his Republican identification and professed conservative principles. McCain voted against the Bush tax agenda claiming they only benefited the wealthy, sponsored campaign finance legislation at the expense of First Amendment rights, and championed an immigration bill inattentive to border security priorities. Whether McCain chart his own course is uncontested; what that course will be is unknown.


Inheriting an increasingly complicated international environment and a severely challenged economic situation, McCain will have to defy expectations in order to more than a transitional figure. In all likelihood, a McCain Administration would rely heavily on the veto (a welcome change), while occasionally reaching some accommodation with Congressional Democrats on a high-profile, but tangential, priority. The probability of McCain conceiving of and implementing the innovations required to align conservative principles with the challenges of modern governance is low.


Furthermore, while McCain has ably employed Palin on the campaign trail, what role Palin will have in the administration has not been defined. Palin is unlikely to have the latitude exercised by current Vice President Richard Cheney. If Palin lives up to expectations, a good possibility, her office could be the locus of policy experimentation and basis for nurturing new leadership. While Vice President Dan Quayle was derided as a lightweight, his office was a conservative stronghold during the more pragmatic Bush 41 administration. William Kristol served as Vice President Quayle’s chief of staff before emerging as a leading conservative thinker.


Should the Republican ticket lose, the seventy-two year old McCain would probably depart the stage lauded as a senior statesman. However, unlike Bob Dole’s defeat in 1996 when conservatives still retained the initiative via the Republican congressional majorities, conservatives would be completely shut out of the government after having thoroughly dominated the scene for a decade. Furthermore, conservative principles, while still ardently defended by proponents, would be considered discredited – fairly and unfairly – in the wake of the Bush presidency.


The future content and course of American conservatism is under debate right now. The saving grace would come in the opportunity to assume the reformist mantle the McCain-Palin ticket represented and capitalize on the enthusiasm both leaders (especially Palin) generated.


Sen. Obama’s (brief) record has been unreservedly liberal and his platform promises to reinstitute redistributionist and regulatory regimes abandoned fifty years ago. However, the last time conservatism was able to surge back came in the wake of the Nixon, Ford, and Carter presidencies, a period of time where conservatives too were in the opposition. As noted previously, it was sixteen years before Reagan was able to “succeed” Goldwater in capturing the nomination. The conservatives’ expected walk in the wilderness will be facilitated by maneuvering against an Obama Administration enabled by a Democratic Congress, but similarly they must expect continuing skepticism on the part of voters so soon after the debacles of the Bush presidency.


Conservatives must also resolve internal debates as to how future challenges will be addressed. The ambitions of national greatness conservatism foundered in the deserts of the Middle East. Sam’s Club conservatism presents intriguing possibilities and many state level leaders have demonstrated successes, but the approach does constitute an accommodation of liberalism’s deference to government. As shown by the Bush Administration’s disastrous Medicare reform package, the corresponding obligations have only exacerbated the already gargantuan entitlement mess, while barely injecting needed free market pressure into the health care system as promised. As called for in preceding essays, future conservatism should emphasize reconfiguring national security, rationalizing the tax code, reducing government, and reforming entitlements.


The key to sustained dynamism remains in precariously balance the interests of both traditionalists and libertarians, the twin pillars of modern American conservatism (and key to Republican political success).


A comeback is not in the making, but at least the process of creative destruction has begun.



Potential Congressional Caucus Reform

While the breadth and depth of American conservative leadership has diminished, a few stalwarts uphold conservative principles on the national, congressional, and state level. Sustaining and supporting each of these individuals in the lean years to come will be a challenge, but it is not the dearth of authority conservatism fears in its political leadership. Rather, the acquisition of power has actually been the greater detriment.

While legislated term limits reduce choice, conservatives readily recognize longevity has its disadvantages especially when a sustained stay in power is certain to corrupt. As McCain points out, not only did Republican conservatives fail to change Washington, but Washington actually changed them. Once power is attained, the clock starts ticking; integrity, once introduced to privilege, has an expiration date.


Going forward, Republican conservatives should again take another cue from Barry Goldwater. Even though Goldwater had to waited sixteen years before his party won the Senate, he left within four years himself. Accordingly, congressional Republican conservative, members and candidates, should agree to the following reform:


  1. If the Republican Party is in the minority, a member can stand for
    unlimited re-election.
  2. If the Republican Party achieves a majority, then a member will subject
    him or herself to the following term limits:
    1. In the House, beginning that year, veteran and incoming
      representatives can serve for six consecutive years.
    2. In the Senate,
      1. veteran members, if not re-elected in the year the majority is obtained, can stand for one more re-election. Otherwise, if a veteran member is re-elected in the year the majority is obtained, then he or she cannot stand for re-election.
      2. incoming members can stand for a single re-election.