The U.S. is trying to punish Russia and command the world using the international order and establishments it has built. It wields control over world trade and the power of the dollar. However, the more it does so, the more the world will doubt the United States. An international order ruled by a hegemon that does not contribute public goods to the global community but nibbles away at them is sure to collapse.
“From Stettin in the Baltic, to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.”
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who led the Allies to victory in World War II, experienced a shocking defeat in the postwar general election. Nonetheless, the retired war hero proceeded to visit the United States on March 1946 and prophesied the beginning of a new war. His Iron Curtain speech was a signal that the world was heading toward a cold war as the Allies started to drift apart following their triumph.
A month earlier, American charge d’affaires in Moscow George Kennan’s long telegram had arrived in Washington from the U.S. Embassy there. In a lengthy five-chapter text, Kennan warned the secretary of state about the “problem of Soviet communism,” arguing that “[i]t should be approached with same thoroughness and care as the solution of major strategic problems in war.” He concluded that “it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken, if Soviet power is to be secure.” It was the moment when the first cornerstone of the containment policy against the Soviet Union was laid.
The Soviet Iron Curtain and the U.S. policy of containment came together in a strange harmony, giving birth to a new international order called the Cold War. But the U.S. did not achieve containment merely by excluding the Soviet Union from the free world. The U.S. helped found NATO and established new alliances with Japan and South Korea to guarantee security for its allies. Although the U.S. suffered massive casualties and financial costs from its wars in Korea and Vietnam, it accepted them as a necessary price for protecting the free world.
“Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos,” Secretary of State George Marshall said in 1947. In addition, the U.S. provided massive financial aid to its allies so they could rebuild their economy. After World War II, Marshall, a war hero, set up a European Recovery Program worth $15 billion, an expenditure that amounted to about 5% of the nation’s gross domestic product at the time. Marshall insisted there was no underlying political agenda to his program. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953, in apparent support of his position. But the recovery program subjected the Eastern bloc to unacceptable economic conditions, and the greatest beneficiaries of the Marshall Plan were countries in the West — most notably Britain, France and West Germany. This economic aid served as a catalyst for the formation of NATO and marked the beginning of the Cold War in Europe.
The Cold War was a global order established by the U.S. at tremendous cost. The U.S., of course, did not act solely out of compassion, as evident by the multitude of benefits the Cold War afforded American capitalism. Still, it is important to remember that the U.S. willingly provided public goods needed to maintain this order during the Cold War.
That the U.S. did so highlights the stark difference between the old Cold War and the new Cold War of today. Joe Biden’s administration has fiercely criticized the authoritarian regimes in China and Russia and condemned Russia’s war crimes in Ukraine. But the president’s actions fail to match his words. Instead of supplying public goods, the U.S. is draining its stores.
Despite the invasion of Ukraine by an authoritarian country, the U.S. is fervently opposing military intervention. Of course, Ukraine is not an official U.S. ally, but the same argument would have applied to South Korea in 1950. Biden has repeatedly raised concerns that the conflict could escalate into a world war, but again, the same concerns would have also been present in 1950. The explanation is simple: the U.S. has become reluctant to invest the lives of its people in maintaining the international order. It has left the matter in Ukraine’s hands offering only weapons, military training and words of encouragement.
The U.S. will not be the one to bear the economic costs of the war, either. While more than 4 million Ukrainian refugees have been displaced, Europe will be responsible for accommodating most of them. Meanwhile, the U.S. has announced that it will admit up to 100,000 refugees through the “full range of legal pathways.” Although the U.S. has imposed various economic sanctions on Russia, European countries are the greatest victims. The European economy, which has operated by importing natural resources from Russia and exporting industrial goods to Russia, is rapidly fluctuating, but the U.S. seems to have no thoughts about another Marshall Plan. Instead, it is increasing the sale of its own crude oil and natural gas, and being saluted for keeping up.
The U.S. is trying to punish Russia and command the world using the international order and the institutions it has built. It wields control over the world trade order and the power of the dollar. However, the more it does so, the more the world will doubt the U.S. An international order ruled by a hegemon that does not contribute public goods to the global community but nibbles away at them is sure to collapse. The “new Cold War” is not the same as the old Cold War. It should be natural, then, for South Korea and the rest of East Asia to find a strategy that is different from the past as well.