Russia’s Challenge

By John McLaughlin, a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. From 2000 to 2004, he served as deputy director of central intelligence (THE WASHINGTON POST, 17/08/08):

The crisis in Georgia has been discussed largely in terms of whether it echoes what we knew in the Cold War. Yet this is too narrow a conception. We must bear in mind that when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it was not just the end of the Cold War. It was, more important, the collapse of an empire — one that took Russia centuries to build and that, during the Soviet period, exerted global influence.

The last time empires collapsed on anything approaching this scale was during World War I, whose end saw the demise of both the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. Their collapse created enormous geopolitical vacuums and sent shock waves through Europe and the Middle East that eventually culminated in the largest single event in human history, World War II.

It has been 17 years since the Soviet collapse. Measured against the post-World War I-era time frame, we are at about the equivalent of 1935. In 1935, no one would have confidently foreseen the major events to come — not just World War II but the Holocaust, the invention of nuclear weaponry, the more than doubling of the world’s nations, the long struggle with the Soviet Union.

I am not suggesting that we are in for similarly dramatic or catastrophic events. But it’s clear that the dust has hardly begun to settle from the Soviet collapse, and we should not expect global stability for many years.

What are the implications of this?

First, given the tectonic shifts in the global underpinning, as in the aftermath of World War I, the potential for surprise is enormous — a warning bell for our nation’s intelligence community in particular. The Balkan crises of the 1990s were harbingers; when empires collapse, something has to fill the vacuum, and it usually challenges the status quo or brings an element of unpredictability. The most visible examples today are Georgia and the other states newly independent of the former Soviet Union.

Second, in a chaotic world countries fall back on old instincts. Consider this shorthand way to think about recent Russian history: Gorbachev with his half-hearted reforms destroyed the Soviet Union; Yeltsin with his unrestrained commitment to privatization destroyed Soviet-era communism; and Putin is now reinventing Russia. As he does this, it is not so much Soviet instinct that Putin is falling back on. Authoritarianism in Russia preceded the Bolsheviks, as did the czarist reach for empire. Those are the wellsprings of Russian policy in this new century, conditioned by 70 years of Soviet history.

It is impossible to know how far Russia wants or is able to take this in a globalized world that bears little resemblance to the relatively uncluttered landscape of czarist times. But we will surely face an increasingly complex calculus in our dealings with Russia — and its neighbors.

Third, in a less predictable world, the United States will require unprecedented agility to maintain the kind of leverage we became accustomed to during the Cold War and during the «sole superpower» period that followed the Soviet collapse — a moment that may now be passing. But as Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and others have noted, agility is not our strong suit.

This reflects, in part, the fact that our national security institutions and decision-making structures were formed more than 60 years ago, during a period when we faced a singular and less agile adversary. That system allowed us to create impressive capabilities in separate areas of the foreign policy tool kit — military, diplomacy, intelligence — but we do not integrate them well, and we have trouble handling more than one or two major issues at once. It is past time to reexamine the National Security Act of 1947, the foundation upon which our current practices rest.

Fourth, we need to devote more time to long-range thinking and strategy — other areas where we have fallen short and where intelligence can play a key role. Our tendency to be driven by crises and to deal with problems as they arise stands in sharp contrast to the patterns of major countries that will also seek to shape the emerging world. Americans tend to think in four-year administrations and five-year budget cycles — particularly short horizons when you consider that Russia and China in particular, schooled by centuries of intrigue and competition, reflexively look further down the road.

Our leaders, especially presidential candidates and future intelligence leaders, would do well to contemplate a broader view of history. Those with the longer view will have a natural advantage as this post-unipolar world takes shape. The daily jousting of a presidential campaign is never conducive to long-range thinking, but once it is over, American partisans should recall the maxim that differences on national security should end, or at least blur, at the waters’ edge.