How about we fight just one Cold War at a time?

In an important article in Foreign Affairs entitled "The Ukraine Temptation," Stephen Wertheim, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, urges the Biden administration to reject calls to effectively reverse America's strategic pivot to Asia by becoming more involved in the Russia-Ukraine war.  Wertheim recognizes that it is China, not Russia, that poses the most immediate threat to U.S. strategic interests.  The essence of Wertheim's advice, to paraphrase President Lincoln during the Civil War's Trent Affair, is one Cold War at a time.

Wertheim notes that the images of bombed Ukrainian cities that Americans are seeing daily on their television and smartphone screens, as well as the rhetoric of the Biden administration and others about Russian war crimes and civilian deaths, have understandably produced a "wave of anti-Russian sentiment" in the United States.  But sentiment should not guide foreign policy; geopolitical interests, security threats, and an appreciation of the need to balance commitments with resources should.

Wertheim writes that the Biden administration has increased the number of American troops in Europe to 100,000, despite the fact that our European partners possess the economic and manpower resources to provide for their own common defense against Russia.  Wertheim, sounding a bit like former president Donald Trump (though Wertheim would likely recoil from such a comparison), writes that we should turn Europe "into a more unified and determined geopolitical actor."  And he notes that Russia's invasion of Ukraine has "generated international dynamics" among European nations that should enable the United States to focus on China and the Indo-Pacific, where we face the greater and more immediate threat to our geopolitical and security interests.

Wertheim rightly criticizes those who want the United States to "stop any act of 'autocratic aggression' in eastern Europe or East Asia, and perhaps wherever else 'the international order' might appear to be imperiled."  "The call for a cold war against China and Russia," he continues, "would have Americans take on enormous burdens not because specific U.S. interests require it but because U.S. primacy does."  There is a sensible touch of John Quincy Adams in these phrases, but the better analogy is with Lincoln during the Civil War.

On November 8, 1861, Confederate diplomatic envoys John Slidell and James Mason aboard the British steamer Trent were captured by Union ships in the Bahama Channel.  The diplomats were sailing to England and France in an effort to persuade those governments to extend formal recognition to the Confederacy.  The two diplomats were imprisoned in Boston.  The Union cheered, but the British protested and demanded the release of Slidell and Mason and an apology.  Great Britain prepared for war with the United States.

Lincoln understood that the United States could not afford to wage war against Great Britain and the Confederacy.  He convened a Cabinet meeting and after some discussion made his decision.  The diplomats would be released, and the United States would disavow the actions of the Union shipmen who boarded the Trent (but there would be no apology).  Lincoln closed the meeting by telling his Cabinet members: "One war at a time." 

Wertheim supports providing aid to Ukraine, while also urging a negotiated settlement involving sanctions relief to Moscow and a commitment to abjure NATO membership for Ukraine.  But his most important recommendation is for the United States to "put the European security order on the path to self-sufficiency."  Europe, he correctly notes, "is more than capable of developing military power to balance Russia."  And a stronger, more self-sufficient Europe would make it more feasible for the United States to successfully meet China's geopolitical challenge in the Indo-Pacific.

And although Wertheim is a globalist who thinks climate change poses the greatest long-term threat to American security, unlike other globalists, he recognizes that America's resources are not limitless.  He understands that American global "primacy" is a dangerous and costly mirage.  Fighting two cold wars at a time, Wertheim writes, "would impose enormous costs and generate unnecessary risks."  Far better to replicate the strategic prudence of Lincoln.

Image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.

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