Risks of a New ‘Zero-Sum’ Cold War

The one-sided uproar in Official Washington over the Ukraine crisis, a cartoonish depiction even including parallels to Hitler, ignores the many on-the-ground gray areas. It also threatens to recreate the Cold War’s dangerous “zero-sum” calculations, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

It is perhaps unsurprising, but nevertheless unhelpful, for so much of the discussion in the United States about policy toward Ukraine to be fueled by Cold War-type juices that the crisis has gotten flowing. Current-day Russia gets equated with the earlier USSR, within a frame of mind that equates any Russian advance with a setback for U.S. interests.

Even the Cold War itself was never that zero-sum, and a failure to realize that fact got the United States into some significant mistakes, the Vietnam War being the costliest one. But at least in the Cold War there was a global competition of ideologies, in which the United States and the Soviet Union were the two lodestars.

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona.

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona.

No such competition is involved in the standoff in Crimea. The balance of forces in the northern Black Sea region is of major importance to Russia; it is not of such importance to the United States.

Some of the most outspoken and unadulterated expressions of the frame of mind involved come from Sen. John McCain. He declares that for Vladimir Putin, “all rivalries are zero-sum.” The senator warns us that even if President Obama says we are not in competition with Russia, “Mr. Putin believes Russia is in competition with us, and pretending otherwise is an unrealistic basis for a great nation’s foreign policy.”

Of course Russia is in competition with the United States in various respects, just as every other nation in the world, including ones generally termed “allies,” are in competition with the United States on something or other. But clearly McCain is making a much more extensive assertion than that, one that sees an all-encompassing zero-sum competition.

Even if Putin did think in such terms, why should the United States let itself get sucked into a similar brand of mistaken thinking? That sounds like letting our competitor set the rules of the game.

This situation most resembles accepting a playground dare: buying into some win-or-lose proposition just because a tough kid we don’t especially like challenges us to do so. And don’t worry, Sen. McCain assures us, about possibly losing, because, check your lexicon of foreign policy clichés, the “tide of history” is on the side of Ukraine and “the political values of the West.”

In fact, Putin surely is smart enough to realize that not all rivalries are zero-sum. Moreover, he probably realizes what he would be losing if he swallows Crimea. The losses would include not only economic countermeasures by the West but also a major blow to any hope of moving the rest of Ukraine, shorn of one of its more pro-Russian pieces, closer into the Russian orbit.

A tough-thinking Vladimir Putin has good reasons to be thinking about possible ways out of this crisis that are not all unilateral, not all military, and certainly not all zero-sum.

While he is doing such thinking, he also sees how domestic Russian politics have been working to his benefit in a traditional rally-round-the-flag way in response to this crisis and to how the Russian regime and media have been spinning it. The tough Putin we see is surely responding more to this political dynamic than acting out delusions about zero-sum competition with the West.

The West does have an interest in this dynamic, but it is not the one Sen. McCain is talking about. We have an interest in not encouraging and empowering the sort of elements within Russia that would welcome a new Cold War. Unfortunately a zero-sum, Cold War-like reaction from our side may already be tending to do that.

The Center for the National Interest’s Dimitri Simes observes about what is going on in Russia, “Hard-line people, more nationalist people, they are being energized, they think this may be their moment,” and besides the hardliners from whom we are already hearing “there is a lot behind them that is potentially more serious and more ominous.”

There is much sound policy advice about the Ukraine crisis available on the U.S. side that is not at all stuck in Cold War thinking, such as from John Mearsheimer or Graham Allison. Mearsheimer stresses the importance of thinking in geopolitical terms, understanding the concept of spheres of interest, and realizing that Russia has much more at stake in and around Ukraine than the United States does.

Such thinking is what leads two of America’s foremost elder strategists steeped in the continental realist tradition, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger, both to invoke explicitly Finland as a model for how Ukraine could exist peacefully and prosperously with both Russia and the European Union. That concept is in sharp contrast to how “Finlandization” was used as a dirty word at times during the Cold War and again has been invoked as a pejorative in the current crisis.

The zero-sum mentality frequently accompanies the notion of supposed American weakness as the cause of ills throughout the world, and McCain joins in that theme with gusto. He blames the current U.S. administration and “a growing disregard for America’s credibility” for having “emboldened” not only Vladimir Putin but a wide variety of “other aggressive actors.”

Looking backward, that notion is invalid as gauged by the historical record. Looking forward, the notion is poor policy guidance both for that reason and because if one were to start drawing lines in sand to try to demonstrate credibility, the Ukraine crisis would be a poor place to do it.

Mearsheimer persuasively emphasizes how much the current crisis grew out of earlier Western and especially U.S. moves to bring Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. The fact that a central part of the crisis has been the overthrow of a fairly elected, even if corrupt, leader also ill serves the cause of democracy and other “political values of the West.”

In years following the Cold War one has heard much lecturing in Washington about the need to get past a “Cold War mindset.” Such a mindset, unfortunately, is alive and well today, although not primarily in the government bureaucracies that were the principal targets of the lectures.

Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama have many challenges if they are, along with leaders of the European Union and Ukraine, to resolve the current crisis successfully. One of those challenges is to cope with domestic elements in both countries that pine for the Cold War and that end every addition problem with the number zero.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

10 comments for “Risks of a New ‘Zero-Sum’ Cold War

  1. Peter Loeb
    March 18, 2014 at 05:28

    Washington and “the West” which it says it speaks for are so very eager
    to run the Ukraine and other nations of the world. It ponpously proclaims
    INTERNATIONAL LAW but does not utilize international law in the form of
    the UN Charter to implement it. Of course, if it did this it would not prevail.

    And in cases of annexation and repeated violation of international law, the
    recent “alarm” over Israeli defiance as expressed in the recent committee
    of the General Assembly (March 5,2014) is never mentioned. This report,
    GA/PAL/1287 is available at the UN General Assembly swebbsite. The

    report has been forward to the Security Council where one must suppose
    that the US with its veto will kill it and silence all mention of its contents.

    Sanctions etc. are by explicit definition in defiance of international law which
    requires that such actions be taken by the UN Security Council.

    I urge that all carefully read this report.

  2. Jonny James
    March 17, 2014 at 18:00

    To be very crude: No dollar hegemony, no US empire and the likely collapse of the US economy. Dollar hegemony is slowly being threatened, but not by the euro.

    With QE, ZIRP, rampant corruption in the forex markets, the commodities markets, LIBOR, stock markets etc. the abuse of the US dollar system is seen by the BRICs and others as becoming too much to bear. They have negotiated bilateral swap agreements, bypassing the dollar.
    The pain of forming a new currency bloc is nowhere near the pain of financing the US “free lunch’ through the US treasury reserves at central banks. China is financing its own military encirclement.

    To save dollar hegemony in intl. markets, Russia and China have to be weakened and isolated and puppet regimes eventually installed (like in Ukraine for example).

    NATO goes hand in hand with dollar hegemony, if Russia can be threatened, isolated and contained, or even better, destabilized and broken up, the less of a threat to dollar hegemony it will be. Same with China and the so-called “pivot”

    This is a win-win situation. As Gen. Smedley Butler noted in “war is a racket” the purpose of US wars and military expenditures have nothing whatsoever to do with security or protection – it’s all about crony contracts. Wars are about looting the treasury. Remember the trillions that are unaccounted for at the DoD? TRILLIONS!

  3. MarkU
    March 17, 2014 at 15:41

    As Paul Pillar has stated, allies are also competitors. The Euro was being touted as a potential rival to the dollar until the EU economy was poisoned by toxic financial instruments originating mainly from the US. As I understand it the US has very little trade with the Russian Federation. A sanctions war will mainly damage the EU and Russia, maybe one of the motives behind the Ukrainian meddling is to economically f_ck the EU.

  4. Joe Tedesky
    March 17, 2014 at 13:49

    Could Germany be the ultimate pivot in this struggle for Ukraine? To me Mackinder’s Heartland Theory goes straight to Haushofer’s Mitteleuropa’s claim to take the World Island…Ukraine!

    I would like to hear from all of you, if you care to address my comment here, to what you may think. I see Germany standing the most to gain, as well as the one with the most to lose. What do you all think?

    • Jonny James
      March 17, 2014 at 18:15

      Well, if Germany continues to kow-tow to Washington’s fp demands, that might be questionable.

      One factor that makes Mackinder’s somewhat out-dated theory more relevant today is the Eurasian “heartland” is sitting on top of huge deposits of gas/oil and other natural resources. Ukraine is a stepping-stone to the big prize: Russia itself.

  5. F. G. Sanford
    March 17, 2014 at 13:03

    It’s easy to pass this off to anyone who hasn’t followed Brzezinski’s years of incessant drum-beating to gore Russia’s ox. In his, “The Grand Chessboard”, he advocates specifically for denying Ukraine to Russia’s sphere of influence so that “it can never again become an empire”. The steady incursion of NATO ever closer to Russia’s border is another Brzezinski brainchild. This man is no “elder statesman”. He has been stirring the pot of global unrest since 1979 when his efforts led to militarization and weaponization of the Mujahideen, which led to the Taliban and ultimately Al Qaida. His geopolitics, when boiled down to its distilled essence, resembles little more than a re-branded version of Karl Hausehofer’s “Geopolitik”. Elder statesman, my ass. For what it’s worth, regardless of his eccentricities, Webster Tarpley suggested “Finlandization” long before either Kissinger or Brzezinski mentioned it. Apparently, even war criminals recognize a good idea when they hear it, because they stole this one from Tarpley.

    • Bill Jones
      March 17, 2014 at 13:35

      The goal here is, of course, to surround Russia with anti-missile systems sufficient to neuter any credible claim of mutually assured destruction, in order to enable a survivable first strike option in the diseased minds of the Washington DC psychos.

      • MarkU
        March 17, 2014 at 15:19


    • Jonny James
      March 17, 2014 at 17:46

      Yes, and apparently Zbiggy is not the only one at the CFR who thinks that way (be they labeled a neocon or not). He is labeled as a traditional “realist” in IR schools, but the irony is that he is strikingly similar to the PNAC crowd in his fp prescriptions and he is apparently, even though few ever mention it, Obama’s chief fp advisor.

    • Jonny James
      March 17, 2014 at 18:09

      I also agree with you about Tarpley.
      I tell folks to not throw out the baby with the bathwater, pardon the expression.

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