Younger moviegoers made “Goosebumps” last week’s winner at the box office. But for those of a certain age, the Cold War era depicted in “Bridge of Spies,” Steven Spielberg’s splendid espionage film, might be the spookiest movie playing.
The drama isn’t in the denouement. History has already been written, and the victors are the good guys, including attorney James Donovan (Tom Hanks), whose intrepid integrity is matched by an America unwilling to compromise on core values.
No, it’s not the ending that chills, but the never-ending tension of a time when Red Square May Day parades, gray-suited CIA agents, and black-and-white ideology defined geopolitics. The unease isn’t just in looking back but ahead, and wondering if U.S.-Russian relations are entering a new Cold War — or worse.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism was supposed to make the era the stuff of history (and, yes, movies). And for a generation or so, the Cold War did seem iced. But recently a revanchist Russia has upended assumptions, and the formal and informal institutions that kept the Cold War from becoming a direct U.S.-U.S.S.R. war have rusted.
“In retrospect, the Cold War was a very clear-cut set of circumstances,” said Tom Hanson, a former Foreign Service officer who served in the Soviet Union. Hanson, diplomat in residence at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, added that the period “kind of focused minds on both sides.”
Minds may still be focused, but institutions may not be, said Georgetown Prof. Angela Stent, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of “The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century.”
“We had mechanisms to defuse what could have been very dangerous,” Stent said. “But in Russia today we really lack those institutions — you have a highly personalized system of decisionmaking that we don’t understand well. But we don’t have those channels anymore. Even the military channels have atrophied.”
The man personalizing this system is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who seems more id than ideology.
“Today Russia does not put forward a global ideology,” Stent said. “But it is certainly putting itself forward as a conservative international power that is promoting stability around the world and supporting leaders in power.”
Clearly one of those leaders, Bashar Assad, Syria’s homicidal president who met Putin in Moscow this week, is contributing to instability in both the Mideast and Europe. And Russia’s Syrian intervention may further destabilize dynamics between Moscow and Washington. In fact, the risk of a military mistake led to “de-confliction” talks between the two nuclear nations.
Beyond Kremlin tensions, a disintegrating global security environment exacerbates the challenges. “We have to take this era as seriously as we took the Cold War, even though the threat is more fragmented and dispersed, because the threat of miscalculation is greater,” Hanson said.
That fact hasn’t been lost in Brussels, headquarters of NATO, the European Union and other international institutions designed to keep the peace.
The Crimean crisis, Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine and other European provocations have refocused the alliance. “After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, we spoke of the era of the peace dividend,” Johan Verbeke, Belgium’s ambassador to the United States, told me last week. “But now we have to revert to the old reflex, that old Cold War reflex that security cannot be taken for granted.”
Verbeke, on a Twin Cities visit coordinated by the Minnesota International Center, referred to a recent NATO summit: “Wales was a geostrategic wake-up call because the geostrategic configuration in Europe and beyond is changing.”
Changing to what is uncertain.
Hanson believes that rather than heading into “a new bilateral Cold War with Russia, we’re heading into a multilateral situation” — not the singular Soviet red star, but “a constellation of forces or even alliances” we could face at some point.
But Stent says the focus will remain on Russia and the United States. “Everyone believes we are the two nuclear superpowers and that we have to maintain a certain level of communication with the Russians and make sure nothing worse happens.”
And whatever happens, it won’t end with President Obama.
“It will depend more on Russian actions and what happens in the Kremlin than whoever becomes [U.S.] president,” Stent said. “Irrespective of whether they are Republican or Democrat, they will inherit the same inbox and have to deal with the same problems.”
There should be no nostalgia for the Cold War. But it’s possible that this fall’s viewers, next fall’s voters and maybe even the next president may regard the movie, and the era, as a time of more moral and geopolitical clarity than the current chaos.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.