President Biden and his national security team have maintained since he took office that any easy, tempting comparisons between this era and the Cold War are misleading, a vast oversimplification of a complex geopolitical moment.
The differences are, in fact, stark: the United States has never had such a technological and financial interdependence with its Cold War adversary, the Soviet Union, which thus complicates the increasingly bitter and dangerous downward spiral in the relationship with China.
And Mr. Biden’s advisers often argue that Russia is not the Soviet Union. Yes, it has nuclear weapons, they say, but its conventional military capability has now deteriorated badly in Ukraine.
And in Soviet times, the United States felt compelled to fight an ideological battle around the world. In the new era, it is fighting against China’s efforts to use its economic and technological power to spread its influence.
However, the echoes of the Cold War grow louder. Mr. Biden himself added to the noise this week. In Vilnius, Lithuania, on Wednesday night, addressing a crowd that waved American, Lithuanian and Ukrainian flags, he repeatedly invoked the struggle of the Baltic nations to free themselves from the crumbling Soviet Union, and told Vladimir V. Putin that the United States and its allies would defend Ukraine, and with it other vulnerable parts of Europe, “as long as necessary.”
Mr. Biden never quite said explicitly that the United States must once again “bear the burden of a long, twilight struggle” — President Kennedy’s famous description of the Cold War in his 1961 inaugural address as it entered its most dangerous phase. But Mr. Biden’s message was essentially the same.
“Our commitment to Ukraine will not weaken,” he said. “We will stand for liberty and freedom today, tomorrow and for as long as it takes.”
Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, said in an interview in Helsinki, Mr. Biden’s last stop, that while Mr. Biden may have taken some poetic license to compare Lithuania’s history to the struggle of Ukraine, it did not mean an effort to revive the spirit or strategies of the time of the Cold War.
“Fundamentally there is still a challenge of aggression,” he said. “It is necessary to stand up for the defense of sovereignty, territorial integrity, freedom and democracy. But these elements can be present without returning to “Back to the Future” about the Cold War.”
What was left unsaid during the summit, at least publicly, is another major difference between now and three decades ago: the uncertain level of bipartisan support for continuing to repel Russian aggression.
From the Truman administration through the years of office of George HW Bush, both major American parties were dedicated to surviving America’s geopolitical adversary, even if they argued about tactics and whether to get involved in local conflicts. That is not clear now. On the sidelines of the NATO summit in Vilnius, foreign ministers and aides from allies close and far asked whether Congress would begin slowing aid to Ukraine when current appropriations expire at the end of the summer.
And they asked what the chances were that the opposition to US involvement in the war by the two main Republican presidential candidates – former President Donald J. Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis – could catch on with a wider segment of the population.
“The Americans are afraid that Europe will flag,” said one senior European official, who requested anonymity, during the Vilnius summit. “We are afraid that the US will flag. And everyone is worried that the Ukrainians will run out of ammunition and air defenses.”
Mr. Biden was asked about those concerns at a press conference with President Sauli Niinisto of Finland on Thursday and responded that “there is overwhelming support from the American people” to support Ukraine and NATO. But then he stated the obvious: “No one can guarantee the future, but this is the best bet anyone could make.”
If there was an overarching theme to Mr. Biden’s trip this week, it was that the West should prepare for a long, expensive confrontation that will require levels of cooperation and integration of intelligence and military forces unlike any attempted before.
“At this critical moment in history, this inflection point, the world is watching to see if we will do the hard work that is important to forge a better future?” he said in the press conference. “Will we stand together, will we stand with each other? Will we stay committed to our course?”
The building blocks for the next twilight struggle are buried in the NATO communique. There are plans for bigger defense budgets, although almost a decade after NATO set a minimum military spending standard of 2 percent of each member’s GDP, most of the wealthier Western European nations still have not hit the target. (The smaller former Soviet republics did much better.) There are plans for a truly integrated NATO military strategy, including specific ways to integrate cyber defenses, and to increase the production of conventional artillery bypasses, which almost no one ever thought of. be needed again in Europe.
But the reality is that those changes are just the beginning — and hardly enough if the West is headed into years, or decades, of hostility with Russia, officials say. Jens Stoltenberg, who agreed last week to extend his tenure as NATO secretary general, acknowledged the reality in an article for Foreign Affairs.
“Even if the war ends tomorrow,” he wrote of the Ukraine conflict, “there is no sign that Putin’s broader ambitions have changed. He sees freedom and democracy as a threat and wants a world where big states dictate what their neighbors do. . This puts him in constant conflict with NATO’s values and international law.”
Like Mr. Biden, he claimed that letting Mr. Putin gain any territory from his military adventure “would send a message to other authoritarian regimes that they can achieve their goals by force. China, in particular, is watching to see the price that Russia pays, or the reward it receives, for its aggression.”
Mr. Stoltenberg’s observation is indisputable. But as several US and European officials acknowledged during the Vilnius summit, such commitments make it all the more difficult to begin any real ceasefire or armistice negotiations. And promises of Ukraine’s eventual accession to NATO — after the war ends — create a strong incentive for Moscow to hang on to any Ukrainian territory it can and keep the conflict alive.
As President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine told reporters in Vilnius, “We want to regain our lands, restore security on our territory. That’s a victory.” He added: “A frozen conflict is not a victory.”
Mr Biden used his visit to Helsinki to celebrate one clear departure from the Cold War: the move by Finland and Sweden, weeks after the invasion, to ask to join the alliance after decades of formal neutrality – although in recent years they have trained and cooperated with NATO. .
U.S. officials view Finland as a model new member: While the country is tiny, with a population of 5.5 million, it has nurtured some of the most skilled intelligence capabilities in the air and at sea in all of northern Europe. And its 800-mile border with Russia complicates the choices Mr. Putin must make about how to deploy his strained military resources.
Once Sweden also joins, which may be only months away now that Turkey has lifted its longstanding objections, the Baltic Sea will essentially become Lake NATO. Its entire coastline would be composed of NATO nations except for Russia’s small approaches around St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad.
Hiding in the background of the summit was another factor that makes this era sharply different from the Cold War: the role of China.
The communique published in Vilnius included an extensive discussion of the risks of supply chain dependence on suppliers such as China, an issue that NATO has not given much thought to in the past.
In the Cold War, there was a single major adversary; now there are two, and the contours of their “unlimited” relationship are still something of a mystery. US officials believe Beijing is providing Russia with technology, but not the weaponry it craves. As Chinese President Xi Jinping talks about his close relationship with Mr Putin, US intelligence officials believe the Chinese leader is worried about what he is seeing as Russia struggles on the battlefield.
And Mr. Xi may be hesitant to instigate yet another conflict with the United States when he has so many that more directly affect China’s future. These include the effects of the phase-out of advanced computer chips – which Chinese officials regularly complain about – and the likelihood of new restrictions from Washington on Western investments in critical technologies, including artificial intelligence.
There was never any debate about such matters in the days of the Cold War, of course, because the US and the Soviets barely traded with each other, and neither made any of the products the other depended on.
“The Cold War is simply not a particularly useful analogy in fundamental relations,” Mr. Sullivan said, noting “the level of economic interconnectedness, the nature of technological competition, the need to cooperate on global challenges that extend across borders” with China.
“These are fundamentally different drivers of the relationship and geopolitics today than anything in the Cold War.”