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6 Reasons Not to Reboot the Cold War

Back to a future we really need to leave behind.

Miriam Pemberton

The Pentagon budget unveiled this week calls for quadrupling spending on efforts to counter Russia. The money would move more troops, tanks, and artillery into position near the Russia border. This last Obama budget would also fund another installment in a $1 trillion and 30-year plan to “modernize” our nuclear arsenal with new land-based missiles, bombers and submarines.

If Congress supports the White House’s request, this budget would have our country spending more, adjusting for inflation, than we did during most of the Cold War. The Republican-controlled Congress wants to add even more. Sounds like we’re gearing up for a reboot of that war, doesn’t it? Here are six reasons why this is a big mistake.



  1. It’s what Putin wants.
    As the Russian economy squeezes the lives of Russian citizens ever tighter, Putin is doing what Russia’s strongmen leaders have always done: Distract them with dreams of a return to their imperial past. Appeal to their centuries-old sense of insecurity about external threats, whose only cure is militarism. What plays into this narrative best? The U.S. and NATO amassing troops on their border.
  2. It’s what Pentagon contractors want.
    Twenty-five years after the Soviet empire collapsed, the U.S. military remains built for confrontations with “great powers.” As the Pentagon conceives it, the fight against ISIS is relatively cheap, and requires flexibility that doesn’t fit well with the nice long procurement cycles the contractors favor. ISIS has no fighter jets, a fact that complicates the sales pitch for the $1.5 trillion dollar F-35 fighter jet program. A new Cold War would make that job a lot easier.
  3. Contrary to popular belief, the Reagan military build-up didn’t bring the Soviet Union to its knees.
    The idea that it did is one of the big myths of the late 20th century. It’s refuted by the guy who would actually know: the last Soviet leader, who presided over its military stand-down. Mikhail Gorbachev has said repeatedly in retirement that the buildup made it harder to convince his hardliners that they didn’t need to respond in kind, but could negotiate reductions in the nuclear arsenal. It prolonged, rather than ended, the Cold War.
  4. We can’t afford it.
    We’re now spending more than the next 13 countries put together, and more than three times as much as China. Nine times as much as Russia. Meanwhile the water crisis in Flint, Michigan points to the consequences of our neglect of our country’s infrastructure. According to the National Priorities Project, foregoing the cost of beefing up our nuclear arsenal for one year would enable U.S. to send nearly 600,000 more students to college for four years. Instead we want to spend more to rekindle the Cold War?
  5. It’ll undermine the most significant diplomatic success in recent years.
    The international agreement preventing Iran from building a nuclear weapon for years to come would not have been possible without Russia’s support. It was one of the rare bright spots in U.S.-Russian relations. Something to build on. Putting troops and artillery back on the Russian border will threaten this tenuous progress.
  6. It could trigger a nuclear holocaust.
    Following the end of the (what we may soon have to call the first) Cold War, the United States and Russia negotiated steep cuts in each country’s nuclear arsenal, though there are still enough on both sides to destroy the world many times over. As signatories to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, they committed to getting to zero. They also cooperated for years on securing stockpiles of nuclear materials around the world to keep them out of terrorist hands. That progress is now stalled, as Washington pursues its “modernization.” No other fact threatens our very existence the way this one does. Do we really want to return to the days when these weapons were on hair-trigger alert, and the countries possessing them considered themselves at war? President Barack Obama, who won the Nobel Peace Prize on the strength of his commitment to nuclear disarmament, should know better.

Miriam Pemberton directs the Peace Economy Transitions Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.
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