A Post-Cold War President

In Washington, cold war thinking dies hard, but President-elect Barack Obama knows we need to confront 21st century issues, writes Nina Hachigian.

President-elect Barack Obama will be the first president in a generation who did not live most of his adult life during the Cold War. (AP/David Guttenfelder)
President-elect Barack Obama will be the first president in a generation who did not live most of his adult life during the Cold War. (AP/David Guttenfelder)

The Cold War ended well over 15 years ago, but that’s not always evident if you spend time in the corridors of power in Washington. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) wasn’t the only voice suggesting we kick Russia out of the Group of 8 industrialized nations, and deep fear about China’s rise still animates many policymakers.

President-elect Barack Obama is the first president in a generation who did not live most of his adult life during our epic struggle with the Soviet Union and a once truly communist China. The Obama presidency marks the beginning of a new era in so many ways, but not least of all for the motivating paradigm of American foreign policy.

The Cold War instilled four central truths in American policymakers. First, the biggest threat to America would come from another nation. Second, geopolitics was a zero-sum game; if the Soviet Union was gaining power and influence, then we were losing it. Third, our brute military power, if we had enough of it, could keep us safe. And, finally, our foreign policy was largely divorced from domestic policy. The quality of our health care system, for example, had little to do with our standing in the world.

None of these tenets hold true today. The most potent threats we face do not come from other nations. Our security and prosperity are clearly dependent on the security and prosperity of others. The global financial crisis is a daily reminder of this, as are the still uncertain security consequences of wildly volatile energy, food, and commodity prices in the developing world. Our military power alone cannot keep us safe—only by working with other countries can we protect our own—and our domestic policy choices are highly relevant to our success in the world.

President-elect Obama does not have to unlearn decades of experience to appreciate that the worst threats Americans face do not come from other nation states. The two forces that could kill large numbers of Americans in the near term are terrorists—especially using a nuclear weapon—and an outbreak of a deadly pandemic such as the avian flu. Climate change is a potentially highly destructive medium- to long-term threat given the global insecurity that will accompany its most devastating impacts.

Our former enemies China and Russia are critical allies against these forces of chaos. The only way to tackle these threats is if they and us and our partners in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America work together. In the Senate, Obama championed a program that assists Russia in securing the tons of loose nuclear material in that country that terrorists covet. His announcement this week that the United States will cut its carbon emissions sharply in the coming years shows the American leadership essential to curtailing global warming.

But once the United States is credibly leading the world on this issue—by cutting our own emissions—then the next hurdle is China, which is now the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gases. Without Beijing on board, we simply can’t lick the problem. Nor can we hope to curtail an outbreak of influenza without cooperation from the likely epicenter of such a pandemic—China.

Obama’s rhetoric about China and Russia during the presidential campaign was critical at times, but sober. Indeed, our relationships with these powers will not be easy, and we will clash on many issues—over Burma, Sudan, Taiwan, and missile defense, to name some possible candidates. Yet on the issues most critical to American safety, we have to collaborate with them.

President Obama will have his work cut out in bringing his vision to the rest of Washington. For one, our nation’s defense budget does not reflect today’s security environment. Our annual defense outlays are laden with tens of billions of dollars worth of irrelevant weapons systems, such as the F-22 fighter plane—a weapon that costs over $350 million per plane—and would likely be useless if we ever did enter a head-to-head conflict with a big power some decades from now.

Of course we need a strong military prepared for a big power battle. But restoring a modicum of balance to our national security budgets reflects the reality that our military alone—as we’ve learned so well over the past eight years—cannot keep us safe. Those excessive defense-hardware dollars would buy much more American safety if they were spent securing Russia’s nukes, especially now that the country once again seems headed for financial disaster as volatile world oil prices roil its economy. Or those defense dollars could be used to shore up the highly underfunded World Heath Organization—the only body in the world that can coordinate multicountry responses to outbreaks of contagious disease. Let’s not forget that not so long ago the SARS epidemic spread to six countries in a matter of hours and public health experts think another major flu pandemic is “unavoidable.”

Finally, President-elect Obama understands the new but deep linkages between foreign and domestic policy. He speaks forcefully about American international economic competitiveness. Focusing on health care is not just the right thing to do—controlling costs will encourage companies to keep jobs in America. Primary education, especially in math and science, is critical to the innovation that drives our economy in an era when China and India are luring their scientists back home. Infrastructure investments, especially in renewable energy, could stimulate our economy in the short run and make it stronger in the long run.

One feature of American policy, however, has not changed with the end of the Cold War. America still must lead. Not the way the Bush administration did—by trying to dictate the answers and abandoning rules and institutions that help make the world orderly—but in the way Obama did during his campaign—with an open mind and a strategy focused on motivating others to help solve global problems.

The United States will need to work with even those nations we do not like to solve our toughest problems over the course of this century. Despite the many disasters on our doorstep, Americans and the world have the leader we need for this new era. And not a moment too soon.

Nina Hachigian is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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Nina Hachigian

Senior Fellow