Hal Brands Twilight Struggle

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The Twilight Struggle’: Competition Between the Sunshine of Peace and the Darkness of War

The Twilight Struggle: What the Cold War Teaches Us About Great-Power Rivalry Today

By Hal Brands

Yale University Press, 2023

Reviewed by Colin Robertson   

POLICY MAGAZINE February 19, 2023

Is the world slipping into a new Cold War? And, if so, what can we learn from the last one? Hal Brands gives us much to consider in The Twilight Struggle: What the Cold War Teaches Us about Great-Power Rivalry Today

A prolific essayist and author on US foreign policy and diplomacy, Hal Brands is the Henry Kissinger Professor of Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

While the Cold War of 1945 to 1990 was the first to feature nuclear weapons, it is, says Brands, only the most recent in great-power competitions dating back to those recorded by Thucydides, Tacitus and earlier historians.

The Cold War is still part of our collective memory. It provides relevant experience for the US and its allies when it comes to blending cooperation with competition, marshaling a diverse and often fractured coalition, and thinking about long-term strategy while dealing with short-term shocks.

The Cold War, writes Brands, “was never strictly a debate of hard power or ‘geopolitical interests’” but “the larger principles—self-determination, democracy, human rights—that Americans had shed so much blood to defend.” Brands draws out key lessons, including the advantage of strategic patience, the focus on sustaining alliances, and the value of aligning grand strategy with national values.

If the Soviet Union was the principal antagonist for the West in the Cold War, this time it is a rising China. As led by Xi Jinping, China is determined to displace the USA in the Indo-Pacific and Eurasia while simultaneously undermining the rules-based international institutions and subverting democracies everywhere including, as CSIS reveals, in Canada.

Vladimir Putin’s Russia is also a threat, largely because of its arsenal of nuclear weapons and cyber capability. Putin wants to restore the sphere of influence once enjoyed by the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe, while sabotaging NATO and the European Union, and destabilizing world order generally.

Future historians will likely point to February 2022, and the signature of the Russo-Chinese “no limits” friendship on the eve of the Beijing winter Olympics and then the Russian invasion of Ukraine as the start of the new great power confrontation that, in this iteration, pits democracy against autocracy. Brands says we can expect a series of long and grinding contests most of which will be “twilight struggles”  — hence the book’s title — because they happen “between the sunshine of peace and the darkness of war.”

In response, argues Brands, the US and its allies must build robust democracies at home and develop military deterrent capability.

Sustaining democracy at home is essential, says Brands, because this is an ideological struggle. A free, open and diverse society is a proven magnet to business, students and tourists, and refugees and migrants from every corner of the world.

Entrepreneurial by instinct, newcomers join the innovators and discoverers that give the West its edge. This was instilled in me by former Secretary of State George Shultz who decried the attempts after 9-11 by then-Vice President Dick Cheney to ban migration from Muslim nations.

But openness must also be accompanied by military strength, including cyber-deterrence, intelligence capacity, and informational capability, given the pervasive reach of social media and mis/disinformation. While avoiding backing a “desperate, nuclear-armed regime” into a corner, there is “no path to success that doesn’t involve making China and Russia pay exorbitantly for aggressive policies.”

Ukraine is an alarm bell for NATO allies to meet their commitments. The Cold War framework — the hub and spoke alliances, the multilateral institutions — has endured although it now needs reform and reinvigoration. It means allies must meet the NATO commitment of spending 2 percent of GDP on defence by 2024. Canada currently spends 1.3 percent. Only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt, declared John F. Kennedy in his 1961 inaugural address, can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.

The West, writes Brands, must be realistic in its expectations.

The most we can likely hope for is a return to “peaceful co-existence”, in which we can all enjoy the benefits of trade-based reciprocity. “Constructive inconsistency” is how Brands describes working with nations like India, Philippines and Vietnam because, as we are learning in the application of sanctions on Russia, the weight of the “consolidated” democracies – the EU, G7, Korea, Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan – is insufficient.

Dealing with China or Russia, says Brands, will also inevitably involve “relying on expedients, from covert action to outright coercion, it would never sanction at home.” But this is too often tricky and treacherous and, for democracies, a slippery slope as the US learned in the Iran-Contra scandal. Integrating morality into foreign policy is hard. It often involves compromises. But it should always be kept in mind not least because it is in our best interests.

Brands says we can learn much from the strategy and tactics employed during the Cold War. The best starting point is still George F. Kennan’s containment strategy. Spelled out in “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” (Foreign Affairs, July 1947), Kennan argued that the Soviet Union could “be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points.”

At the time, few thought containment was the best strategy.

Isolationists like Herbert Hoover and Joseph Kennedy called for Washington to abandon its allies and withdraw to the Western Hemisphere. Kennedy, writes Brands, argued the US must “conserve American lives for American ends, not waste them in the freezing hills of Korea or on the battle-scarred plains of Western Germany.” Walter Lippmann, the leading American columnist of the day labeled containment a “strategic monstrosity” that would force unending interventions on behalf of “satellites, puppets, clients, agents about who we know very little.”

For now, the competitions with China and Russia have remained below the threshold of direct and open conflict, although daily cyber-intrusion is a gray zone and the necessary provision of Western arms to Ukraine is making it a proxy war.

Kennan’s view of the Soviet Union was that Stalin was incapable of good relations with the West because the combination of traditional Russian insecurity and expansionism, Communist ideology and Stalinist paranoia meant that it could never trust the capitalist world. But Stalin was not Hitler and he was in no particular hurry, so when he ran up against resistance he would recoil. Thus, the policy of containment. That Kennan lost faith in his own prescriptions because he put the emphasis on statecraft rather than military buildup is another story.

While strategy needs clear direction with conceptual guardrails, the vagueness of containment on specific tactics, says Brands, was also its strength because it allowed continuous adaptation to circumstances. Thus, the creation of institutions at home, like the National Security Council. Abroad, it resulted in NATO and the alliance system.

The “fusing of geopolitics and ideology”, Brands argues, “was necessary to create a Cold War consensus.” It furnished an overarching strategic theme: support for democracy. While anticipating the internal collapse of the Soviet system, it encouraged strategic patience.

Brands is ambivalent about détente. While engagement and statecraft are essential, the danger for the West is to ascribe our hopes to our adversaries when in fact our enemies are our enemies and they will exploit our piety. Ronald Reagan was right to employ the old Russian maxim “trust but verify”, with the emphasis on verification.

For now, the competitions with China and Russia have remained below the threshold of direct and open conflict, although daily cyber-intrusion is a gray zone and the necessary provision of Western arms to Ukraine is making it a proxy war. While history does not repeat itself there are similar rhythms of Cold War history that we need to study and learn from. That means preventing competition from turning into conflict.

Brands says much of Cold War strategy was distinguishing between what was central and what was peripheral. American commitments tended to proliferate and got them into trouble in places like Vietnam. While Ukraine does not qualify under NATO’s Article V, what happens there could well have implications elsewhere. With Taiwan his target, Xi Jinping is watching how the West responds in Ukraine.

There is also the danger of fatalism and ascribing strengths to the adversary that they don’t have. Despite Sputnik, Russia was never technologically or strategically superior to the United States. So, too, with China, which may have certain asymmetric advantages, but faces major demographic, environmental and internal strains at home.

We need to avoid acting precipitously. There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the justification for invasion. Wishful thinking should never pervert intelligence subjected to critical scrutiny. Action against Afghanistan was necessary because it gave Osama bin Laden his base for 9-11. But as with Iraq, staying on and trying to install democracy turned liberation into the trap of occupation.

The Cold War, writes Brands, fundamentally changed the United States. It was both a national and international security emergency that lasted for decades. It required the US to do things that were without precedent. This included creating a large standing military establishment, a network of global security alliances, commitments to the defence of frontiers half a world away, and a centralized intelligence apparatus. The new challenge is creating cyber capability that was never previously imagined.

It was not the peace envisaged by Churchill and Roosevelt when they met off Newfoundland’s Grand Banks in August 1941 to sign the Atlantic Charter. But it was necessary.

Diplomatic history and grand strategy have gone out of fashion in our universities because they were perceived as too linked with traditionalists and old-school agendas. But understanding history and geography, study abroad and learning languages, is critical to better prepare for the future. As Brands says: “we need to see competition as a way of life” and prepare accordingly.

The Cold War is still part of our memory. We should study it systematically. Hal Brand’s Twilight Struggle is a good starting point.