Since coming to office, President Bush has made real progress in challenging some of the lingering legacies of the Cold War. He has advanced a vision of defending U.S. national security interests that is not constrained by Cold War logic and agreements. Mr. Bush’s new approach to international security issues has yielded real results—including most notably President Putin’s agreement in July to rethink Russia’s categorical rejection of missile defense systems.
But to end the Cold War totally will require Bush to advance new thinking on the other major legacy of that era—the divide between rich and poor, democratic and autocratic, NATO and non-NATO—that still separates Europe into East and West. This final remnant of the Cold War will disappear only when Russia becomes a democracy, fully integrated into Western institutions. Unfortunately, the promotion of Russian democracy has taken a back seat to arms control. In the long run, this is a bad trade for American security interests.
Bush is our first truly post–Cold War president. Before becoming president, even Bill Clinton worried about multiple warheads on Soviet ICBMs, pondered communist expansion in Asia, and was curious enough about the Soviet Union to travel there. Bush was doing other things during the Cold War. My guess is that he never met a "Soviet" citizen. Unlike most of his foreign-policy advisers, who made their careers fighting the Cold War, Bush’s thinking is unencumbered by a past era.
For many, this lack of experience is frightening. Yet Bush’s lack of baggage also presents opportunities.
Twelve years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and 10 years after the Soviet Union broke up, it is striking how many Cold War practices continue. Tens of thousands of U.S. troops remain in Germany, Pentagon war plans still aim to destroy with nuclear missiles Russian military plants (many of which are long out of business), and U.S. and Russian heads of state still meet to discuss arms control.
"The best defense against a hostile Russia in the future? Promoting Russian democracy and integration into the West now."
Bush’s willingness to think beyond the Cold War must be applauded. Already, he has compelled everyone to rethink the strategic equation between offensive and defensive weapons systems. Although still unwilling to discuss concrete numbers, Bush has reiterated his campaign promise to reduce—unilaterally, if necessary—the number of nuclear warheads in the U.S. arsenal. In agreeing with Putin this past July to link the discussion of these reductions with consultations about defense systems, Bush has moved closer to convincing the Russians that his plans for missile defense need not threaten their security.
But getting Russian acquiescence on this new equation is the easy part of dismantling Cold War legacies. After all, Presidents Yeltsin and Clinton agreed years ago that nuclear arsenals should be reduced far below levels agreed to in Start II. And despite all the posturing, Putin and his security officials don’t really believe that the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty is the "cornerstone" of strategic stability between the United States and Russia. They rightly have calculated that even the most robust U.S. missile defense system will not make nuclear deterrence obsolete. Most important, Russian government officials know that a U.S. missile defense system is a tool of limited utility in most foreign and security policy issues.
And that’s the problem with Bush’s current policy toward Russia. By focusing almost exclusively on securing Russian acquiescence to missile defense and U.S. withdrawal from the ABM treaty, Bush has devoted almost no attention to the most important issue in U.S.-Russian relations—Russian democracy and Russian integration into the West.
If Russia becomes a full-blown dictatorship in the next 10 years, a U.S. missile defense system will be a rather useless weapon in the arsenal for dealing with an enemy Russia. If, in this worst-case scenario, autocratic Russia decides to invade NATO member Latvia, destabilize the Georgian government, or trade nuclear weapons with Iran, Iraq, or China, our missile defense system will do little to deter these hostile acts against U.S. national interests.
"If Bush can nudge Putin in a more democratic direction, then he will be remembered as the president who dispelled the last lingering elements of the Cold War."
The best defense against these potential hostile acts is to promote Russian democracy and integration into the West now. If Russia becomes a full-blown democracy in the next 10 years, then the prospects for conflict between the United States and Russia, be it over the Latvian border or the balance of nuclear weapons, will be reduced dramatically. A democratic Russia moving toward entry into the European Union and even NATO will also make possible the unification of Europe and the final disappearance of East-West walls (be it through visa regimes or military alliances) that still divide Europe.
Bush has capitalized on his personal rapport with Putin to change the way our countries think about strategic weapons. It’s time for Bush to work with his new friend to advance Russia’s integration into the West, a goal that will require the deepening of Russian democracy. If Bush can nudge Putin in a more democratic direction, then he will truly be remembered as the president who buried the last lingering elements of the Cold War.