President Biden and his national security team have contended since he took office that all the easy, tempting comparisons between this era and the Cold War are misleading, a vast oversimplification of a complex geopolitical moment.
The differences are, indeed, stark: The United States never had the kind of technological and financial interdependence with its Cold War adversary, the Soviet Union, that so complicates the increasingly bitter and dangerous downward spiral in the relationship with China.
And Mr. Biden’s advisers often argue that Russia is not the Soviet Union. Yes, it has nuclear weapons, they say, but its conventional military capacity has now been severely degraded in Ukraine.
And in Soviet times, the United States felt compelled to fight an ideological battle around the world. In the new era, it is fighting China’s efforts to use its economic and technological power to spread its influence.
Nonetheless, the echoes of the Cold War are growing louder. Mr. Biden himself added to the din this week. In Vilnius, Lithuania, on Wednesday night, addressing a crowd that was waving American, Lithuanian and Ukrainian flags, he repeatedly invoked the struggle of the Baltic nations to free themselves from a collapsing Soviet Union, and told Vladimir V. Putin that the United States and its allies would defend Ukraine, and with it other vulnerable parts of Europe, “as long as it takes.”
Mr. Biden never quite said explicitly that the United States must again “bear the burden of a long, twilight struggle” — President Kennedy’s famous description of the Cold War in his 1961 inaugural address, as it entered its most dangerous phase. But Mr. Biden’s message was essentially the same.
“Our commitment to Ukraine will not weaken,” he said. “We will stand for liberty and freedom today, tomorrow, and for as long as it takes.”
Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, said in an interview in Helsinki, Mr. Biden’s last stop, that while Mr. Biden may have taken some poetic license to compare Lithuania’s story with Ukraine’s struggle, it is did not signal an effort to revive the spirit or strategies of the Cold War era.
“Fundamentally there still is a challenge of aggression,” he said. “A need to stand up in defense of sovereignty, territorial integrity, freedom and democracy. But those elements can be present without returning to ‘Back to the Future’ on the Cold War.”
What went unspoken during the summit, at least publicly, is another major difference between now and three decades ago: the uncertain level of bipartisan support for continuing to push back on Russian aggression.
From the Truman administration through George H. W. Bush’s years in office, both major American political parties were devoted to outlasting America’s geopolitical adversary, even if they argued over tactics and whether to get involved in local conflicts. That is not clear now. On the edges of the NATO summit in Vilnius, foreign ministers and aides from close allies and distant ones were asking whether Congress would begin to slow aid to Ukraine when the current appropriations run out at the end of the summer.
And they asked what the chances were that the opposition to American involvement in the war from the two leading Republican presidential candidates — former president Donald J. Trump and Florida governor Ron DeSantis — might take hold in a broader swath of the population.
“The Americans are worried that Europe will flag,” one senior European official, who requested anonymity, said during the Vilnius summit. “We worry America will flag. And everyone worries that the Ukrainians will run out of ammunition and air defenses.”
Mr. Biden was asked about those concerns at a news conference with President Sauli Niinisto of Finland on Thursday and responded that “there is overwhelming support from the American people” to back Ukraine and NATO. But then he stated the obvious: “No one can guarantee the future, but this is the best bet anyone could make.”
If there was an overarching theme to Mr. Biden’s trip this week, it was that the West should prepare for a long, expensive confrontation that will require levels of cooperation and integration of intelligence and military forces unlike any attempted before.
“At this critical moment in history, this inflection point, the world watching to see, will we do the hard work that matters to forge a better future?” he said at the news conference. “Will we stand together, will we stand with one another? Will we stay committed to our course?”
Buried in the NATO communiqué are the building blocks for the next twilight struggle. There are plans for larger defense budgets, though nearly a decade after NATO set a minimum military spending standard of 2 percent of each member’s GDP, most of the wealthier Western European nations have yet to hit the goal. (The smaller former Soviet republics have done a lot better.) There are plans for a truly integrated NATO military strategy, including specific ways to integrate cyber defenses, and to ramp up the production of conventional artillery rounds, which almost no one thought would ever be needed again in Europe.
But the reality is that those changes are just a beginning — and hardly sufficient if the West is entering years, or decades, of enmity with Russia, officials say. Jens Stoltenberg, who agreed last week to extend his tenure as secretary general of NATO, acknowledged the reality in an article for Foreign Affairs.
“Even if the war were to end tomorrow,” he wrote about the Ukraine conflict, “there is no sign that Putin’s broader ambitions have changed. He sees freedom and democracy as a threat and wants a world where big states dictate what their neighbors do. This puts him in constant confrontation with NATO’s values and international law.”
Like Mr. Biden, he made the case that letting Mr. Putin gain any territory from his military adventure would “send a message to other authoritarian regimes that they can achieve their objectives through force. China, in particular, is watching to see the price Russia pays, or the reward it receives, for its aggression.”
Mr. Stoltenberg’s observation is indisputable. But as several American and European officials acknowledged during the Vilnius summit, such commitments make it all the more difficult to begin any real cease-fire or armistice negotiations. And promises of Ukraine’s eventual accession to NATO — after the war is over — create a strong incentive for Moscow to hang onto any Ukrainian territory it can and to keep the conflict alive.
As President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine told reporters in Vilnius, “We want to recover our lands, restore security on our territory. That’s victory.” He added: “A frozen conflict is not a victory.”
Mr. Biden used his visit to Helsinki to celebrate one clear difference from the Cold War: Finland and Sweden’s move, weeks after the invasion, to apply to join the alliance after decades of formal neutrality — though in recent years they trained and cooperated with NATO.
American officials regard Finland as a model new member: While the country is tiny, with a population of 5.5 million, it has nurtured some of the most skilled intelligence capabilities in the air and on the sea in all of northern Europe. And its 800-mile land border with Russia complicates the choices Mr. Putin must make about how to deploy his stretched military resources.
Once Sweden joins as well, which may be only months away now that Turkey has lifted its long-running objections, the Baltic Sea will essentially become Lake NATO. Its entire shoreline would be composed of NATO nations except for Russia’s small accesses around St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad.
Lurking in the background of the summit meeting was another factor that makes this era sharply different from the Cold War: the role of China.
The communiqué issued in Vilnius included extensive discussion of the risks of supply chain dependency on suppliers like China, an issue NATO did not think about much in the past.
In the Cold War, there was a single major adversary; now there are two, and the contours of their “no limits” relationship is still something of a mystery. American officials believe Beijing is providing technology to Russia, but not the weaponry it craves. While China’s president, Xi Jinping, talks of his close relationship with Mr. Putin, American intelligence officials believe the Chinese leader is worried about what he is seeing as Russia struggles on the battlefield.
And Mr. Xi may be hesitant to fuel yet another conflict with the United States when he has so many on his hands that more directly affect China’s future. Those include the effects of the cutoff of high-end computer chips — which Chinese officials complain about regularly — and the likelihood of new restrictions from Washington on Western investments in critical technologies, including artificial intelligence.
There was never a debate about such issues in Cold War days, of course, because the United States and the Soviets barely traded with each other, and neither made any of the products that the other depended upon.
“The Cold War is just not a particularly useful analogy in fundamental respects,” Mr. Sullivan said, ticking off “the level of economic interconnectedness, the nature of the technology competition, the need to cooperate on global challenges that spill across borders” with China.
“These are such fundamentally different drivers of the relationship and geopolitics today than anything in the Cold War.”