Obama vs. Romney: Cold War Revival

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has been predictably ridiculed for his statement earlier this year that Russia is “without question our number one geopolitical foe.” I say “predictably” because we now live in a post-ideological age where enmity between nations doesn’t exist, where the very word “enemy” is a construction of fearmongering “neocons,” a world where, according to President Barack Obama in his 2009 speech to the United Nations, “The traditional divisions between nations of the South and the North make no sense … nor do alignments of nations rooted in the cleavages of a long-gone Cold War.”

Obama returned to Romney’s March comment last Sunday at a campaign event with Bill Clinton in Virginia. “I didn’t know we were back in 1975,” the president quipped.

The reason why Romney’s observation has been the target of such guffaws is that the reigning consensus on the left disagrees with the premise that the United States even has a “geopolitical foe,” never mind that it is Russia. (If Romney’s critics were to say that Iran or China is our greatest adversary, they might have a point, but that’s not what they’re arguing.) Yet one does not have to be living amongst “cleavages of a long-gone Cold War” to see how, on an array of issues, Russia is at cross-purposes with the United States, many of its allies, and the broader interest of upholding and promoting the liberal world order.

As Romney laid out in an article for Foreign Policy, Russia has demonstrated its adversarial nature via “obstructionism at the United Nations on a whole raft of issues,” not least of which is blocking any meaningful action to stop the ongoing slaughter in Syria. It also continues to occupy our ally Georgia (after having invaded it four years ago), has continually stymied global efforts at weakening Iran, and supports pretty much the entire roster of the world’s most odious regimes. Never mind these matters of grand strategy; the Russians harass and humiliate our ambassador, beam vicious anti-American propaganda around the world via their RT cable network, deploy radioactive poison to kill dissidents on British soil, and, last but certainly not least, oppress their own people. 

Recognizing that America and Russia are adversaries does not require us to go on a war footing, increase the number of nuclear missiles in Europe, or undertake any other aggressive Cold War–era policy. Present-day Russia is too weak and internally fragmented to merit such a response. It merely means recognizing unpleasant facts that stare one in the face.

Obama has been on something of a charm offensive recently with his foreign policy critics, praising the  latest book by Romney adviser Robert Kagan, who argues against the fashionable notion of American decline and in favor of continued American global hegemony. Kagan’s case is predicated largely upon the fact that the alternative would be some sort of condominium with Russia and China, a prospect he examined in his previous mini-book, The Return of History and the End of Dreams (which I reviewed here). To embrace Kagan’s argument is to implicitly accept the notion that Russia is a geopolitical adversary, one whose influence on practically everything is baleful, and for the president to mock Romney for making this plain means that the Kagan courtship and subsequent rallying cry for American leadership in his State of the Union address was little more than hot air.

There is an echo of the complaints about Ronald Reagan in the current hoopla against Mitt Romney; both men, like countless Republicans before, have been portrayed as trigger-happy warmongers, searching for enemies where none exist. But it is President Obama who seems more and more like a relic of the Cold War past. Everything, from his failed “reset” policy to his reassurances to Russian President Dmitri Medvedev of his “flexibility,” reminds one of another presidential candidate still stuck in 1975: Jimmy Carter.

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