Here’s a true story. In the heady weeks before the 2000 election, I was debating the state of the union on a now long-deleted message board when I posited that none of the issues being discussed in the presidential debate would matter in another generation. The internet being sort of what it is now even back then, I was immediately challenged to name three unappreciated future threats to US security in the next 25 years.
I listed terrorism, pandemic, and conflicts with revanchist Cold War opponents. In that order.
Mind you, I don't enjoy being right. Cassandra syndrome sucks, especially when everyone sees the pattern themselves too late and panics. In 2016, I was writing about Russian propaganda campaigns and Cambridge Analytica, warning readers that democracy was the target and both sides were subject to manipulation. By 2018, it was apparent to me that “resistance” politics had gotten lost in exactly the wilderness of mirrors that Vladimir Putin had hoped for; the pendulum had swung, and now both sides were fiercely defending hyper-partisan information bubbles.
I don’t know if the United States will go to war with Russia. I do know that Vladimir Putin benefits from the instabilities created by rumors of war. Gas prices go up (hooray, Nord Stream) whenever confusing signals perturb the infotainment ether. The first Cold War ended after oil prices plummeted because Russia depended on fossil fuel exports for ready cash. In the sequel, Putin flings the idea of a hypersonic missile around to raise tensions, observing the effects on the bottom line to learn what works.
Again, I cannot say that war isn’t coming. Maybe it is. I will get to that in a moment. First, let me note that this all has a familiar feel to it. My father subscribed to the monthly newsletter from the Center for Defense Information as a child, and I would read each issue with the weirdly obsessive interest of a 5th grader who could list Soviet ballistic missile throw weights. Under the Reagan administration, Americans were only starting to understand just how propagandized they were, and how the “bomber gap” and “missile gap” of the Cold War were essentially marketing campaigns for what Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex.” The nuclear sword of Damocles was undoubtedly real, poised over humanity’s collective neck in submarines and silos and bomb bays around the world. Nevertheless, both sides had done a terrific sales job on themselves by the time it was over.
Nor was it really, really over, which brings us back to this awful, awful sequel.
Putin is all the weaker as a political leader for his absolute grip on power. I don’t think he necessarily wants to risk an actual war against the west. He is probably just riding down time and age, another Russian autocrat from the Chekist tradition fossilizing in the role of Grand Poobah at the Kremlin. Whether or not the rumors of his illness are true, as head of Russian state he has more in common with Yuri Andropov than Ivan the Terrible.
Joe Biden has a popularity problem in a republican democracy. Withdrawal from Afghanistan has already hurt his poll numbers. Actual war is a risk I don’t expect him to take. If anything, his record in office so far is in fact more conciliatory than Trump’s was (hooray, Nord Stream). Republicans are in the enviable position of being able to oppose “his” war whilst shining up Tom Cotton to run in 2024 as the “get tough on Russia” candidate. Who benefits? Why, the decrepit machinery of the Washington Consensus along with its usual constituencies, of course. If there is no war, the center of American politics may yet hold, even if the political right stands to gain in the short term. And so it goes.
Which brings me to my final point. Around 2014, on a now-deleted chat thread in a virtual office, I began to share with close friends my growing fears that the United States was approaching a constitutional precipice. America divided violently once before, although almost all the fighting was confined to the south during the US Civil War. A second time around, however, the divisions will not be so easily-drawn. Eastern Oregon is a world apart from Portland. As Yale historian Timothy Snyder recently explained, a Second Civil War could very well end “with some kind of basic reconstruction, where the US as we know it doesn’t have to exist.”
I do not know if there will be war. What I do know for certain is that the United States of America is too deeply divided to fight any war for very long, and that any war that does not go very well, very quickly, could very well destroy the United States. That would be a very different ending from the first Cold War, when the Soviet Union dissolved at the end. It would also not be better for humanity, despite fashionable opinions to the contrary, because when empires collapse, it is on top of people. We should have learned this lesson already.
The new Cold War is more boring, less realistic, yet somehow more insidious than the first. I don’t like it and I don’t want it. Though I still prefer it to the Second US Civil War, which I would not wish to survive.
I can’t believe we’re actually doing this: staring down Russian aggression - again.