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Washington: John Lewis Gaddis is the Robert A Lovett professor of military and naval history at Yale and is frequently described as “the dean of Cold War historians” for his formidable scholarship on the period. His biography of George F Kennan — the American diplomat whose Long Telegram from Moscow is credited with having shaped the American strategy of containment against the Soviet Union — won the Pulitzer Prize. His recent books include a concise history of the Cold War and a treatise on Grand Strategy.

Exactly a week after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, on March 3, Gaddis spoke to NBP News about the significance of this moment, how it is different from the Cold War, what Kennan would have thought of Vladimir Putin and advised the US to do, the history of the Sino-Russia relationship, India’s predicament in light of its non-aligned past, what went wrong in the post-Cold War era, and what lies ahead.

Is the Cold War back?

The Cold War, as we knew it from 1945 to 1989, is not back because that Cold War had certain distinctive characteristics, one of which was the ideological character of the conflict – capitalism versus communism. I don’t think that’s coming back. That Cold War certainly was an outgrowth of circumstances of World War II and how that ended – that situation is not coming back. So you can think of that Cold War – I like to put that one in capital letters – as being a distinctive period in international relations. However, cold wars, with lower case letters, generic cold wars, have been there throughout history. Not all conflicts have become hot wars and many have just continued over very long periods of time. In your part of the world, for example, the Anglo-Russian competition, the Great Game in the 19th century, never actually directly resulted in a hot war between Russia and Britain. And similarly, the long competition between Britain and America in the 19th century, after 1812, never produced a hot war. So cold wars are there and they happen fairly frequently.

Where we are right now, I think, is up in the air, I would say that historians will define the period from 1989-1991 up to the year 2022 as the post-Cold War era.

And I think that’s what we have been moving toward in the past 10 years or so. Where we are right now, I think, is up in the air, I would say that historians will define the period from 1989-1991 up to the year 2022 as the post-Cold War era. We need a better name for it. You are not going to sell very many books if you just entitle them the post-Cold War era, but so far, we don’t have a name. But I do have the strong sense that whatever that period was, those 30 years, has changed now as a result of what’s happened in Ukraine, as a result of what is happening more widely in the world, and particularly as a result of the rise of Russia and China and the corresponding rise in authoritarianism that is associated with both of those countries.

So looking back on it, I think we will say the post-Cold War era ended somewhere between 2015 and 2022 or thereabouts. And that this is the first big indication of something else right now. Ukraine is a very dramatic expression of that. What that something else is, is very difficult to say. Historians don’t like to make predictions because they know how easily we can be wrong. So we always like to do retrodiction, which is prediction looking backwards, which is just explaining what happened. So we tend to resist this. But I think all of us have the sense of something having come to an end last week, of something new beginning this week, and whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, whether it’s going to be a peaceful thing or a war-like thing is unclear.

So looking back on it, I think we will say the post-Cold War era ended somewhere between 2015 and 2022 or thereabouts. And that this is the first big indication of something else right now. Ukraine is a very dramatic expression of that.

What has happened first, as everybody is saying, is the first major land war in Europe in 75 years. So that’s a very long time. But what is also happening is the most blatant and overt challenge to the principle of sovereignty and the sanctity of borders that we have seen arguably, someone pointed out, since Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. You would have to go back that far to see an international border violated, to see agreements to respect that border violated, with dire consequences, of course, for both countries. I am not saying it’s going to be that bad, but I am saying that this is a fundamental challenge to the nature of the international system, which is unlike any other challenges that we have had since the end of World War II.

I will return to the similarities and distinctions with Cold War. But, given that you said that the significance of this moment lies in the violation of the principle of sovereignty. I want to flag what critics of US policy say – that, look, this is something that the US has consistently done too. Iraq was an obvious example of it. What is it that makes the Russian invasion of Ukraine distinct from aggression by Western actors in different theatres from the second world war to now?

Well, you must remember who Saddam Hussein was in the first place, and you must remember that what happened in 2003 was only a second instalment of what had happened in 1990. Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait, he had violated an international border just in the same way that Putin has done with Ukraine, with the invasion of Kuwait. And there was a massive campaign with widespread support to eject him from that. But there was still a lot of business left over. The question was did he have weapons of mass destruction? It turned out he had had them, but no longer had them in 2002-2003. So I think it was a different situation. Also, (Volodymyr) Zelensky in Ukraine is not Saddam in Iraq by any stretch of the imagination. And I think that was a difference. There is no question that the American decision to go in in 2003, in retrospect, was a mistake. It was a massive intelligence failure on the part of almost everybody who was involved in that effort. But that’s not sufficient, it seems to me, to justify what has happened last week, which is a very different situation.

The roots of the breakdown

What is it that the world could have done differently to make the post-Cold War era a more sustainable period of peace?

Somebody in England last week sent me an article that I had written in 1997 or 1998 before anybody had ever heard of Vladimir Putin. (Boris) Yelstin was still in power at that point. And what I said in that article was that I thought – this is 1997-1998 – that NATO expansion to include Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary was opening up problems for the future because there would be no way that NATO could stop, having admitted those countries, there would be immense pressure to admit other countries further to the east. And eventually, you would begin to encroach on the territories of the former Soviet Union. So there would be pressure to admit the Baltics. There would be pressure to admit Ukraine so on and so forth.

I was also saying then that given the circumstances, it seemed to me, that instead of hanging on to the old idea of NATO, as a means of containing the Russians, we should actually enlarge the enlargement process and bring the Russians into the security system that we were constructing — the post-Cold-War security system. And I still regret that that was not done at that point, because, with Yeltsin in charge, this would have been a very attractive option for Russia at that time. And it might even have appealed to Putin — he had, at an earlier stage, talked about that possibility. So I regret that that was not done. I think that was shortsighted. And I said that at the time, and I still believe that now.

However, that does not excuse what happened last week. Critics of the Versailles Peace Treaty, after World War I, made the charge that it was an excessively vindictive treaty and it was unfair. And, of course it excluded Germany and Soviet Russia. But you could make that criticism and continue to make that criticism, but that did not mean that you defended Hitler’s violation of Czech sovereignty. It does not mean that you had to defend the Munich agreement or justify Hitler’s aggressions in 1938 and 1939. So a mistake made at one point in the past, as I think this was on the part of the US and its NATO allies, still does not justify what has happened. We have been kicked over into something new at this point.

Given the circumstances, it seemed to me, that instead of hanging on to the old idea of NATO, as a means of containing the Russians, we should actually enlarge the enlargement process and bring the Russians into the security system that we were constructing — the post-Cold-War security system.

The Cold War, Stalin and Putin

I went back to one of your books on the Cold War, where you have written about some of Stalin’s actions after the Second World War. As the US was devising the Marshall Plan, Stalin took steps which, at that point, seemed like an expansion of his control but you argue was actually overreach. Do you believe that like Stalin then, Putin has overreached now?

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I think that’s possible if you look at it in very broad terms. The specific incidents are different. With Stalin, we had a coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948, but not an invasion. We had the Berlin blockade, which was definitely overreach. And the Americans exploited that fairly effectively, both of these things, with the Marshall plan aid. So, that was overreach and threw Stalin into some perplexity as to what he should do next. And we know something about this now from the Soviet archives.

I do think that Putin has overreached. What provoked him to overreach? I think it’s too early to say, but indications of overreach are three or four different things.

One is his view of history. He began in 2007-2008, rewriting Russian history to take it back beyond the communist period, back to the Czars, back to Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great. So it’s Russian imperialism, old-fashioned Russian imperialism, something that inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent would know a good deal about from the 19th century. So that was one thing.

Secondly, he was becoming increasingly vehement in his rhetoric. And then, particularly since the Covid pandemic, he has become increasingly isolated. So those photographs of Putin at the end of a table, which is as long as a soccer pitch or something like that, and his advisors are down, you know, a quarter of a mile way at the other end of the table, or Putin here and (Emmanuel) Macron down there, and so on, this is very strange. This is almost pathological, in the sense of isolation, in the sense of the fear of contamination, the fear of germs, all of those kinds of things. And if that is symbolic of the way Putin’s advisors are treated, it means he is isolated within the Kremlin. It means that he is surrounded by yes-men who are at a great distance and are incapable of giving him objective advice. And I think that does get back to something that we know about Stalin as well. We know it about other authoritarians in the past. It was also a characteristic of Hitler for sure.

Since the pandemic, Putin has become increasingly isolated. So those photographs of Putin at one end of a table and (Emmanuel) Macron down there [a quarter of a mile way at the other end of the table], is very strange. (AFP)
Since the pandemic, Putin has become increasingly isolated. So those photographs of Putin at one end of a table and (Emmanuel) Macron down there [a quarter of a mile way at the other end of the table], is very strange. (AFP)

I think it’s a different situation from the current situation in China. It seems to me that Xi (Jinping), for all of his authoritarian instincts and all of his care about the pandemic, still has a circle of advisors around him. And I think contrary views can percolate up. I am not sure that’s true with Putin anymore. I think he has eliminated all independent voices and that is not a prescription for wise leadership because it assumes that as leaders get older, they will become more energetic and they will become wiser and they will become more intelligent. And if you believe that you believe that the moon is made of green cheese – we all know that that’s completely illogical. And yet that’s the assumption. That’s what happens when a leader is isolated. And that I think is where Putin is at this point.

Which Soviet leader does Putin resemble the most?

Well, Stalin is close for sure. You could go back to some of the more irrational Russian czars like Nicholas the first perhaps. But the comparisons get a little bit flaky the further back you go. Peter the Great is a very mixed figure, as well as Ivan the Terrible. But just comparing Putin to Ivan the Terrible is a terrible idea I think – it’s too much distance there. But Stalin, about whom we know quite a lot now, is an interesting comparison, because we do know that he had a narrow circle of advisors. However, we also know that he was listening to them. He was never isolated from them in the same way. We also know – and this is new information – that Stalin was an avid reader of books and his library has now been studied. And we know that he was reading every book in the library – literature, arts, history, what not – and annotating things. And nobody would have thought of Stalin doing this. Is Putin similarly inclined? I have no idea. Putin is, by definition, opaque, as Stalin was when he was the leader. And it will take time for us to assess what really makes him tick.

What’s going to be the impact of the war in Russia, on Putin?

I think it cannot be good for Putin. This is not going to be a popular war. It’s highly significant that the young troops that were brought in had been told they were on military exercises in Belarus, and there is evidence that they were quite surprised to learn on Thursday and Friday (February 23 and 24), that, in fact, now that they were in Ukraine, people were shooting real bullets at them. There have been, in the last week or so, by official Russian figures, something like 470 Russian troops killed in this conflict. And that means these body bags are going back to Russia. And, it’s very likely that’s an under-count. So we know what the impact of body bags going back was when the Russians invaded Afghanistan. And that was very, very powerful in undermining the regime.

I think that the same phenomenon is going to happen, and that will happen to average people. That’s not something that will necessarily happen to the oligarchs. It will happen to average people, but the oligarchs themselves are in trouble now because the sanctions have a lot more bite than we had predicted. And that’s the other big surprise of this last week – the extent to which NATO allies have rallied. We are seeing extraordinary things, like the Finns, of all people, sending arms to Ukraine, the Swiss of all people, violating the confidentiality of the supposedly sacrosanct bank accounts of the oligarchs. These are things we’d never seen before. And, most strikingly, the German reversal, overnight flip, just like that. And Germany is now ahead of the pack instead of lagging behind. These things cannot be good for Putin. I don’t think he anticipated these things. If they are surprises to us, they must be surprises to him. So I think these are considerations as well that will ultimately put him in a weaker position. I don’t think he is long for leadership. I think something will happen that will retire him from leadership at some point. I don’t know when, I don’t know how, but I think that will happen.

We are seeing extraordinary things, like the Finns, of all people, sending arms to Ukraine, the Swiss of all people, violating the confidentiality of the supposedly sacrosanct bank accounts of the oligarchs. These are things we’d never seen before.

The Sino-Soviet split; the Russia-China bond

I want to talk about China and Russia. In the first few decades of the Cold War, they were close; then we saw them split, with the US capitalising on that split. Do you see the cementing of ties between China and Russia as a major structural shift that has already happened? Or do you think there are tensions there which can still be exploited?

I think that China likes to swing both ways. So Chairman Mao himself said in 1949, we will lean to the side of the Soviet Union, which they did, and that led to the Korean war. But then in 1969, after a shooting war almost broke out on the Ussuri River, Chairman Mao leaned to the side – of the United States. And I think this is what China historically does – it tilts back and forth.

One thing that’s interesting about those events of 1969 and Mao’s decision to lean toward the US is what we know of what caused it. And we know now from the documents that there was a direct connection between the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, not the coup, but the invasion in 1968 and the subsequent proclamation by (Leonid) Brezhnev, of what came to be known as the Brezhnev doctrine and Mao’s decision. We know that when the Soviet troops went into Prague and the other Czech cities, they were not greeted as liberators, but they were greeted as oppressors. And this was a big surprise to the troops who had been told that they were liberating the country — and the Czechs surrounded the tanks said go home, go home. This is not where you belong. It’s just like what we’ve been seeing this week in Ukraine. In defence of this, and in an effort to recoup, Brezhnev issued a general proclamation that wherever socialism was in danger, meaning the Soviet variety of socialism, the Soviet Union would reserve the right to intervene and come in and protect it. Mao read this. And just at about that time, the shooting war broke out in Manchuria. And it’s clear now that the Brezhnev doctrine was the single greatest thing that drove Mao toward the Americans because he was more worried about the Soviet Union than he was about the United States at that point. And we have the records of his discussions with his marshals, where he is trying to educate them on this kind of balancing and they find it quite incredible, but nonetheless, he carried it off.

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So I think this has a history and I think it’s an example with Brezhnev of how ill-considered violations of national borders, and particularly then blatant defences of them, can lead to backlash, can have an effect, and can drive erstwhile allies into the hands of adversaries. I am not predicting for sure, by any means, that this is what’s going to happen with China. Things are somewhat different now.

It's clear now that the Brezhnev doctrine was the single greatest thing that drove Mao toward the Americans because he was more worried about the Soviet Union than he was about the United States at that point.
It’s clear now that the Brezhnev doctrine was the single greatest thing that drove Mao toward the Americans because he was more worried about the Soviet Union than he was about the United States at that point.

But it does seem to me that China has to worry about a State that is as unpredictable as Russia has become under Putin. China shares a very long boundary with Russia. And it seems to me that the circumstance that China, like India, has regularly endorsed the sanctity of boundaries and whether that’s a rhetorical position or an actual position, they are on the record as having done that. And then the evidence that we also have that they thought Putin was bluffing, they did not really expect that this would lead it to an attack, an invasion, a full-scale invasion. We had a conference here with some Chinese officials on Thursday (February 23) evening, the day of the invasion, and it became clear that they had been surprised.

So I think there are various circumstances here that would say, yes, Putin has overreached. Yes, this may strain Sino-Russian relations. I don’t think it’s necessarily going to solidify them. I think it will go in the other direction. And of course, none of this is to say what the domestic impact of all of this is going to be in Russia. And that will be another issue.

So I think this has a history and I think it’s an example with Brezhnev of how ill-considered violations of national borders, and particularly then blatant defenses of them, can lead to backlash. 
So I think this has a history and I think it’s an example with Brezhnev of how ill-considered violations of national borders, and particularly then blatant defenses of them, can lead to backlash. 

In the 1960s, when that rift happened, the balance of power was such that the Soviets were the senior partner, the more powerful partner. Today, the Chinese are the stronger partner, the senior partner, the Russians are more dependent on the Chinese, and therefore the Chinese incentive to break away is limited. Would that be accurate?

Yes. No question about that. If you look at any of the indicators, particularly economic strength, Russia is a third world state compared to China. Somebody has said it’s a gas station. It has oil and gas, but not much else. And I think that’s absolutely true. It’s still under-developed, with a declining population. And it’s quite astonishing to go through Manchuria and Siberia, as I have had the chance to do a couple of times, and just see the contrast across the Amor river, and see how populated Manchuria is and how empty Siberia is to see this difference. So yes, China is definitely the senior leader in terms of power. And I think China’s actions in the end will have a very powerful effect on the outcome of all of this.

The unprecedented US playbook

What do you think of the US response so far?

I think, contrary to the way that the (Joe) Biden administration fumbled the withdrawal from Afghanistan, for which there’s no very good excuse, I think they have handled this one quite well. First of all, they saw it coming. The quality of the intelligence has been extraordinary. And, we know that we were letting them know what we knew as early as back in November. Bill Burns, as CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) director, was in Moscow in November saying we know what you are planning. And it turned out that what we knew turned out to be exactly accurate, and we were predicting it every step of the way. Well, that has to be disturbing to Putin on several grounds. He has to worry about the security of his own intelligence. Can they not keep secrets over there? He has to worry about the accuracy of our judgements. He has to worry about who might be betraying this information. Compared to the past, where the Americans have been quite bad at prediction, we were quite good at prediction in this case, which adds credibility to the American position.

Having got this far, it also seems to me that we are also wise in showing restraint in several different areas. So we have said very clearly that we will not be militarily defending Ukraine because Ukraine is not a NATO member. We said equally clearly we will defend those states that are NATO members, for sure. So that establishes clear intentions on our part. We have increased the sanctions as we said we would, but without cutting off the oil and gas. So it’s still a selective application of sanctions. And we did something quite interesting. Last week, Putin called a nuclear alert. We did not respond by calling one of our own. And indeed, we postponed a long scheduled missile test in California just to keep things cool, so it doesn’t accidentally send signals. So far, I think the response has been very effective on the part of Biden. I would be loath to predict what the future will bring, but it’s a big improvement.

Historically, is this the first time that a great power has used the release of intelligence publicly, as a deterrence strategy, to this extent?

I think, yes. I cannot remember a situation like this. You could say that there is some precedent in the Cuban missile crisis in the sense that we exposed, or we released, photographs taken by U-2 reconnaissance planes. And you will remember the famous picture of Adlai Stevenson in the Security Council with those pictures. But, of course, the Russians knew that we were flying U-2. So over Cuba, that was no secret to them. It was quite clear how that intelligence had been obtained. I don’t know of a comparable situation like this, where this much intelligence has been released, yet it’s still unclear how it was obtained, but it has proven to be extraordinarily accurate.

Did it goad Putin into going in because it did not serve the objective of deterring him — or did it serve the objective of unifying allies and restoring the credibility of US power?

I don’t think we know the answer to that. In fact, I’m sure we don’t know the answer to that. We will have to wait for the opening of the Putin papers for that.

India: One of the 5 greatest powers

During the Cold War, India took a non-aligned position, it led the non-aligned movement, but then tilted towards the Soviet Union. India is in a bind again. What do you make of India’s position?

I am not completely surprised because I am aware of the non-aligned position. I have always seen this as a centre of gravity to which India wants to return after being buffeted in one way or buffeted in another way. But India has often been buffeted, which has made non-alignment less than possible. It’s been buffeted by Pakistan at various points. It certainly has been buffeted up in the mountains by China periodically. And so it doesn’t surprise me that India is maintaining this position. I do think there may be costs because India is such an important power. India is itself on the verge of becoming a super power. Certainly in any description of the five greatest powers in the world, India would be one of them, for sure, no question.

And that certainly is reflected in its increasing presence in Indo-Pacific and the relationships that are developing in that. So how long India can maintain that prominence, that emergence as a great power and, at the same time, maintain the non-alignment stance is going to be a tricky proposition. The real question will be what is India’s attitude going to be the next time the Chinese chomp off some part of the Himalayas? Is India going to maintain policy of neutrality and non-alignment? Is it going to be able to look to the Russians to come to its assistance if the Chinese chomp off part of the Himalayas? I wouldn’t count on the Russians to come to India’s assistance in that situation, despite the fact that they are supplying a lot of arms to India.

The real question will be what is India's attitude going to be the next time the Chinese chomp off some part of the Himalayas? (File Photo)
The real question will be what is India’s attitude going to be the next time the Chinese chomp off some part of the Himalayas? (File Photo)

So I think, non-alignment is fine in principle, but practice, as always, has some erosive qualities. And maybe the proper stance for India might be to think very carefully about the circumstances in which it should abandon non-alignment and tilt to one side. And it should pick a moment in which it could make the most of that opportunity. And that would be my suggestion. Don’t do it over anything trivial, but make it a significant moment. And then that could carry enormous weight in world politics – the tilt away from non-alignment. But it’s far from me to be telling the Indian government what to do.

Unlike the past, when non-alignment was a stated policy, India appears to be in a somewhat different situation. One, India has got much closer to the West in the last 20 years than it was during the Cold War. Two, India is today facing Chinese aggression and needs the US more than it did in the past. And three, it seems it is uncomfortable with what Russia has done; its statements in the security council seem to reflect that discomfort, but it is dependent on Russia, especially in defence. And it is worried that criticising Russia in public will push the Russians more towards the Chinese.

Yes. I understand all of those. And that’s why I think that the policy India has taken can be defended on just the grounds that you articulated. But I don’t think it should be seen as a permanent policy because I can foresee circumstances in which a dramatic departure from it could be a very wise thing to do.

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George Kennan in 2022

Would George F Kennan have been surprised with Putin’s invasion?

George Kennan would not have been surprised by Putin. He would have found the rise of Putin quite natural given Russian history. He would not have objected to a kind of five-polar system because he actually called for that in the early days of containment. His views on Ukraine, however, were always ambivalent and strange because he always said the Baltic states are not part of Russia and therefore Americans were right never to recognise the assumption of the Baltic states. But he also said that Ukraine is historically part of Russia. Now, whether he would have stuck to that – he was saying that 25 years ago – in the current situation, I kind of doubt. Whatever you think of Ukraine as a nation and does it have historical roots or not, the fact is it is a nation now, and it has been created as a nation. In fact, you could say the architect of Ukrainian statehood is Vladimir Putin. He has made it into a nation. All you have to do is see those videos of Zelensky out in the square, surrounded by his people, as compared to Putin at the end of his long polished table to see what Ukraine is as a nation. And Putin has made it.

Putin made Ukraine into a nation. All you have to do is see those videos of Zelensky out in the square, surrounded by his people, as compared to Putin at the end of his long polished table to see what Ukraine is as a nation.(AFP)
Putin made Ukraine into a nation. All you have to do is see those videos of Zelensky out in the square, surrounded by his people, as compared to Putin at the end of his long polished table to see what Ukraine is as a nation.(AFP)

He blames Lenin for it.

I thought it was fascinating that he blamed Comrade Lenin. I am very sympathetic to Comrade Lenin in this circumstance, which is unusual for me.

And what would Kennan’s version of the Long Telegram have been today to US policymakers?

I think it would have been what he said in the Long Telegram, which is that we have two extremes to be avoided here. One would be a new world war and one would be appeasement of the kind that happened in the late 1930s. And the third option would simply be to buy time and wait for historical processes to convince the leaders of the Soviet Union that their own system was not working, at which point they would either change the leadership or the leadership itself would change the system. And in the end, both things happened, but ultimately the Soviet leader (Mikhail) Gorbachev changed the system because it was completely clear that it was not working. Something like that I think is still relevant today. Stay away from those two extremes of war and appeasement.

George Kennan would not have been surprised by Putin. He would have found the rise of Putin quite natural given Russian history. 
George Kennan would not have been surprised by Putin. He would have found the rise of Putin quite natural given Russian history. 

Give it time for the contradictions within Putin’s system to manifest themselves. My own guess is that this will happen much more rapidly than was the case in the Cold War, because I think they are more severe now. He has made them severe. He has made them much worse by what he has done in the last week or so. So it seems to me that what we have to wait for ultimately is action within Russia itself to change its leadership. And then when that happens, if we are lucky, we may move toward a different kind of Russia. But there is no guarantee that that will happen that way. There is no guarantee as to when that will happen. But I think it’s the best we can hope for in this situation. Otherwise, simply stay strong, stay resolute, and make sure that our own societies are strong from within and reflect our best values.

Give it time for the contradictions within Putin’s system to manifest themselves. My own guess is that this will happen much more rapidly than was the case in the Cold War, because I think they are more severe now. He has made them severe.

But if Putin thinks that regime change is the overall objective of the West in Russia, will it lead to a more destabilising outcome.

Well, I don’t know what he thinks. I do think that Russia is in a position now of having dangerously unstable leadership. To that extent, I think regime change there is absolutely necessary in one way or another. And that’s not going to come in by us invading Russia. It’s going to come in from processes working within the Russian system itself. I think that the sanctions will be important, but even more important will be the attitude of the other great powers – and so this is China, it is India, it could be Japan, it could be the EU and so on. I think that there is a considerable capacity there on the part of those great powers to come up with strategies in which we can tell the Russians that we want you to be thinking about post-Putin leadership, what would a post-Putin Russia look like, and what would its place be in the world? And could we assure the Russians that a post-Putin Russia would find a much more comfortable place in the world than Putin’s Russia is now finding? I think that would be the truth.

A return to the post-1815 system?

What is it that big powers today should do to prevent a prolonged Cold War, or a hot war as we are seeing at the moment?

Do remember that the old Cold War from 1947 to 1989 was not totally a bad thing. There were many good things about the Cold War. The fact that it remained Cold for one thing in an age of nuclear weapons. The fact that procedures were developed in a situation of intense competition and yet rules were developed on tolerating satellite reconnaissance, for example, or on arms control – cooperation evolved at various points. There was never a formal peace treaty between the Soviet Union and the United States but lots of procedural arrangements were worked out during the Cold War, which kept that period stable for some 45 years. And that’s a very long time for an international system to be stable.

My objection to American policy in the next 30 years from 1991 up to 2021 is that we paid less attention to this. We were more unilateral. We considered ourselves to be the indispensable nation. I think anytime you hear any nation proclaiming its own indispensability, you should run in the other direction because I don’t think that’s wise to do. In fact, it’s arrogant. But the fact that we were thinking that we could sustain a complete monolithic unilateralism, it seems to me, was quite unrealistic. And certainly, by the end of the 2010s, it had become very clear that whatever that policy was had failed. So the question is where do we go from here? And I think a good model for us might be to study the Cold War, but to study the things that kept it Cold because that, in the long run, was the most important feature of the Cold War itself.

Does the fact that there were two big powers back then make a big difference from the current situation where one, international politics is far more fragmented, and two, there are these radical technological advances that can be deployed – and that makes the system far more unstable?

This is something that you will have to ask international relations theorists because you can make the argument both ways. You can say that Cold War was bipolar and that it remained in place for four-and-a-half decades precisely because of that. It was simple. There were just two great centres. But then you could also say that the post-1815 system in Europe, after the defeat of Napoleon, was multipolar, which it was because France was brought back in by Metternich. And you can say that that one lasted for about 40 or 45 years until Bismarck then redesigned it to unify Germany. So the duration of that one, which was a multipolar system, was about as long as the Cold War, which was a bipolar system. So theorists have to wrestle with whether multiple poles are more stable than two poles, whatever they are. And part of our intellectual difficulty in doing this is that we think about analogies to furniture. No piece of furniture that just has two legs is going to be stable. So we think, well, it’s got to have three, it’s got to have four, but great powers are not furniture. And so it may work differently.

But whatever the case, you are right, we are not going back to a bipolar system. That’s very clear. It’s going to be tri-polar, it’s more likely to be multipolar. It’s more likely to resemble the post-1815 multipolarity system because it will include not just China, but it’s going to include India. It’s going to include, I think, the European Union, which is showing quite significant signs of life this last week or so. So I think it could come back to a five polar system. And I think that would not necessarily be a bad thing.

We are not going back to a bipolar system. It’s going to be tri-polar, it’s more likely to be multipolar. It’s more likely to resemble the post-1815 multipolarity system because it will include not just China, but it’s going to include India.

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