"Soviet Union? I thought you guys broke up."
"Nyet! That's what we wanted you to think! Hahaha!"
So goes the conversation betweenU.S. and Russian representatives to the UN in an episode of "The Simpsons." In the next scene, we see a new Berlin wall spring from the ground and a resurrected Lenin punch his way out of his glass tomb yelling: "Must crush capitalism!"
I imagine a lot of Americans felt they were witnessing something similar during the events of this August: Russia's invasion of Georgia, their swift victory and their subsequent recognition of the independence of Georgia's two breakaway provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Few Americans would say they had Georgia on their minds prior to the recent conflict. But Americans can't help but be distressed by the military defeat of a democratic, pro-Western government at the hands of Russia. It feels like something out of the past. Seven years ago, President Bush met Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, and declared that he had looked in his eyes, got a "sense of his soul," deemimg him trustworthy. John McCain by contrast recently said that when he looked into Putin's eyes he only saw "a K and a G and a B."
Fears of a new Cold War are probably premature. A resurgent Russia stalking American allies in Eastern Europe is troubling, but absent now is the great global ideological battle that characterized the cold war. Although the Soviet Union was never as strong as it was perceived to be and was always doomed to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, the fact remains that during the 20th century, communism was a major political competitor with capitalism and liberal democracy. What haunted Americans during the Cold War was the appearance of forces dedicated to communism on every continent, often with the Soviet Union as their patron.
Russia has been surprisingly isolated. China and other Central Asian nations allied with Russia refused to grant their recognition of the separatist provinces in Georgia. Venezuela, however, has recognized the provinces. For Venezuela's president Hugo Chavez, a new cold war might be desirable. But it's more likely a pragmatic move by a leader who thrives on anti-American rhetoric and will support anyone who has beef with the US.
For the US, the reassertion of Russian power could be dangerous. We need a foreign policy paradigm that will take Russia into account, and "the war on terror" won't cut it. But neither will resurrecting old cold war assumptions. The situation has changed, and thankfully we're in a stronger position than before.