NEW YORK – Western relations with Russia have rarely been worse than they are now, in the aftermath of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intervention in Ukraine and decision to annex Crimea. But US President Barack Obama has sought to assure the world that this is not the beginning of a new Cold War.
Even so, hawkish American liberals and hardline conservatives are comparing Obama’s leadership unfavorably with supposedly tougher presidents like Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. Never mind that Eisenhower did nothing to stop Soviet tanks from crushing the Hungarian uprising in 1956, or that Reagan had no intention of supporting Solidarity activists when they rose against Poland’s communist regime.
In many ways, the Cold War made things easier for US presidents. There were only two great powers – China did not really count until recently – and their spheres of interest were clearly defined. The Soviet Union’s ruling ideology was equally clear: a Stalinist version of Communism.
Stalinism, like Maoism in China, was in fact deeply conservative, aimed chiefly at consolidating the regime’s power at home and its domination over satellites abroad. The ideological enemy was the capitalist world, but the immediate enemies were “Trotskyists,” “revisionists,” and other “reactionary elements” inside the Soviet sphere. In times of crisis, old-school Russian nationalism was mobilized in the service of Soviet interests.