.

Eight Decades of Political Warfare

The Folly and the Glory | Tim Weiner | Henry Holt and Co. | September 2020.

Unsurprisingly, the recent years have seen a flurry of publications attempting to understand and characterize Russia, its behavior, its aims, and its relationship with the United States. The aggressive campaign in advance of the 2016 election, at least for America, sparked a renewed interest in the Cold War adversary. To be sure, the blitz against Georgia, the electronic invasion of Estonia, and the annexation of Crimea all signaled a revanchist Russia, but it was not until the 2016 election hit home that many Americans woke up.

For most Americans, conflict with Russia was consigned to the history books and perhaps the occasional paperback thriller. Yet, while the Cold War ended, the tensions and conflict with Russia never went away; America just stopped paying attention. The public wasn’t alone in such an assessment. Successive administrations from Clinton to Bush 43 to Obama all sought to treat Russia as a defeated adversary, a wary partner, or a relationship in need of “reset” (or “overload” in an incorrect translation of “peregruzka”). Moscow must not have gotten the memo, for the Kremlin and its intelligence apparatuses were still on a war-footing.

Throughout the Cold War, the United States and Russia waged a conflict not with bullets and bombs, but with words and propaganda. It was not a hot war, but it was a political war—one of ideas and values, narrative and messaging, covert action and espionage, skullduggery and disinformation. This history is indeed perhaps one of the most fascinating stories of the 20th and 21st centuries and one that begs for a thorough exploration. Mr. Tim Weiner attempts to provide such an exploration, following the thread from the post-World War II geopolitical settlement to the most recent election in his latest book The Folly and the Glory.

The Narrative Thread of the Cold War

Crafting such a history requires a fine balance of the strategic and the tactical: it needs the macro-level scene-setting of politics between Washington and Moscow (but not so much that it is a diplomatic history), yet it also needs to peek behind the curtain to see the wilderness of mirrors that was this contest, all without losing the critical broader focus. It needs a narrative thread and, perhaps most importantly, a consistent definition of the political struggle as a framing narrative.

Here, Mr. Weiner starts strong. Using George Kennan’s “Long Telegram” on the sources of Soviet behavior and how Washington should confront Moscow, Mr. Weiner provides a solid foundation for the following 75 years of conflict. Kennan’s definition of political warfare and his subsequent strategy to confront communism and the Soviet Union would be an interesting framework to measure Washington’s response, its successes and failures, and to divine lessons for today and the future. It is, however, disappointing that this narrative approach was not maintained for the remainder of the book.

Such an approach would have been welcomed in a field drowning under the weight of “hot takes” on the election interference in 2016 and 2020, the dynamic between President Trump and Vladimir Putin, and Russian perfidy here and abroad. There is a need for this story to be told. How did Washington wage political warfare during the Cold War? What was successful, what wasn’t, and why? How did Moscow view and wage this conflict? What lessons did it hold for 2016, 2020, and beyond? Is the United States equipped to wage political warfare or gray zone warfare, or is it culturally too binary?

Moreover, some of the questions that Mr. Weiner seems keen to explore are left unanswered. How can an open, democratic society wage a war that requires, in some cases, undemocratic behaviors? Can Washington successfully compete with Moscow by playing with a straight bat, or must it get dirty?

A Polemic View of History

Approaching political warfare and the Cold War requires a deft touch that understands the context of the times, understands the thinking of the key figures, and understands the tactics employed by both Washington and Moscow. David Shimer in his book Rigged (reviewed for the Diplomatic Courier) masterfully charts covert foreign election interference undertaken by the CIA and KGB throughout the Cold War. Shimer’s work is a great example of how the subject should be approached—balanced yet justifiably (and understandably) critical.

The Folly and the Glory is neither, choosing to be exceptionally critical of Washington’s activities in the Cold War to the point of excess. It wasn’t that the policies were misguided, the decisions were incorrect, or that in hindsight the efforts were for naught. Rather, Mr. Weiner finds the institutions, the people, and the overarching strategy malicious, nefarious, and criminal.

This is not to say that there were no excess or misguided (and indeed illegal) activities that took place. The Church and Pike Committees exposed many of the CIA’s misdeeds and rightly increased Congressional oversight through the House and Senate Select Committees on Intelligence. But there exists a fundamental disconnect in Mr. Weiner’s telling that is sadly unexplored—again, how can a democratic society wage political warfare against an authoritarian communist regime without taking undemocratic actions, and should that society do so?

Mr. Weiner seems content to throw stones at the CIA’s glass house but does not turn the same withering gaze on Moscow or its behavior. His chapter-length exploration of the decision to expand NATO stands out on this account. He seems to suggest that this is the post-Cold War original sin; if only Washington hadn’t expanded NATO, breaking its word to Moscow, then we wouldn’t be in the current conflict with Putin. Undoubtedly, NATO’s expansion strained relations between the United States and Russia, feeding into the latter’s historical paranoia about territorial encroachment. But given the dynamics of the time, Washington’s triumphalism of and belief in the end of history, and Moscow’s belief that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”, it is hard to envision an alternative scenario in which Russia accedes to America’s unipolar moment and does not enter into some post-Cold War competition.

His assessment of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election of President Trump is simplistic and deterministic. In his writing, Moscow all but ensured that the former real estate magnate assumed the Oval Office. Here again Mr. Weiner’s desire to be breezy glosses over significant complexities and dynamics, which are enumerated at length by other authors in recent books.

Moscow did not create the divisions within American society, it merely exploited them, built upon them, and enflamed them—something the Soviet Union did throughout the Cold War and Moscow will undoubtedly continue to do in the future. Here is another reason why it is so critical to address the state of American civil society and culture—no adversary can hurt America as much as Americans can hurt their own country as its citizens fixate on that which divides rather than unites.

Folly and Frustration

The Folly and the Glory is ultimately a frustrating book. The premise is promising—a look at political warfare, how it was waged by the United States and the Soviet Union (and Russia, today), and what it means for today and the future.

That promise, however, is never fulfilled. It is too breezy to be a detailed history of the Cold War and selective in its exploration of events. It dedicates an entire chapter to America’s covert involvement in the Congo, but Vietnam and Afghanistan are barely mentioned. By comparison, John Lewis Gaddis’ The Cold War: A New History is breezy, thorough, and informative in equal measures.

Mr. Weiner’s analysis of the Central Intelligence Agency and its conduct during the Cold War is a frustrating rehash of his National Book Award-winning Legacy of Ashes. This is disappointing, to say the least. Legacy of Ashes is less a history of the CIA and more of a polemic screed in which there are no redeeming characters, everything is nefarious and malicious, and every failure foreshadowed the Bush administration’s post-9/11 shortcomings.  

When Mr. Weiner does turn to actual elements of Moscow’s political warfare campaigns, such as active measures, it leaves the reader wanting more and, sadly, it can be found better and, in greater depth, elsewhere. Thomas Rid’s Active Measures (also reviewed for the Diplomatic Courier) is an exceptionally detailed and thorough examination of Moscow’s disinformation, misinformation, and propaganda campaigns against the United States during the Cold War and to the 2016 election.

This result is particularly disappointing given the need for such a history and the writing of Mr. Weiner. His writing—though one may (and in this case, does) disagree with his analysis—is accessible, enjoyable, and fluid. It is a shame then that such talented writing and an intriguing start give way to a breezy, one-sided, and flawed history.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

a global affairs media network

www.diplomaticourier.com

The Folly and the Glory

Image by Pixabay.

October 3, 2020

The Folly and the Glory | Tim Weiner | Henry Holt and Co. | September 2020.

Eight Decades of Political Warfare

The Folly and the Glory | Tim Weiner | Henry Holt and Co. | September 2020.

Unsurprisingly, the recent years have seen a flurry of publications attempting to understand and characterize Russia, its behavior, its aims, and its relationship with the United States. The aggressive campaign in advance of the 2016 election, at least for America, sparked a renewed interest in the Cold War adversary. To be sure, the blitz against Georgia, the electronic invasion of Estonia, and the annexation of Crimea all signaled a revanchist Russia, but it was not until the 2016 election hit home that many Americans woke up.

For most Americans, conflict with Russia was consigned to the history books and perhaps the occasional paperback thriller. Yet, while the Cold War ended, the tensions and conflict with Russia never went away; America just stopped paying attention. The public wasn’t alone in such an assessment. Successive administrations from Clinton to Bush 43 to Obama all sought to treat Russia as a defeated adversary, a wary partner, or a relationship in need of “reset” (or “overload” in an incorrect translation of “peregruzka”). Moscow must not have gotten the memo, for the Kremlin and its intelligence apparatuses were still on a war-footing.

Throughout the Cold War, the United States and Russia waged a conflict not with bullets and bombs, but with words and propaganda. It was not a hot war, but it was a political war—one of ideas and values, narrative and messaging, covert action and espionage, skullduggery and disinformation. This history is indeed perhaps one of the most fascinating stories of the 20th and 21st centuries and one that begs for a thorough exploration. Mr. Tim Weiner attempts to provide such an exploration, following the thread from the post-World War II geopolitical settlement to the most recent election in his latest book The Folly and the Glory.

The Narrative Thread of the Cold War

Crafting such a history requires a fine balance of the strategic and the tactical: it needs the macro-level scene-setting of politics between Washington and Moscow (but not so much that it is a diplomatic history), yet it also needs to peek behind the curtain to see the wilderness of mirrors that was this contest, all without losing the critical broader focus. It needs a narrative thread and, perhaps most importantly, a consistent definition of the political struggle as a framing narrative.

Here, Mr. Weiner starts strong. Using George Kennan’s “Long Telegram” on the sources of Soviet behavior and how Washington should confront Moscow, Mr. Weiner provides a solid foundation for the following 75 years of conflict. Kennan’s definition of political warfare and his subsequent strategy to confront communism and the Soviet Union would be an interesting framework to measure Washington’s response, its successes and failures, and to divine lessons for today and the future. It is, however, disappointing that this narrative approach was not maintained for the remainder of the book.

Such an approach would have been welcomed in a field drowning under the weight of “hot takes” on the election interference in 2016 and 2020, the dynamic between President Trump and Vladimir Putin, and Russian perfidy here and abroad. There is a need for this story to be told. How did Washington wage political warfare during the Cold War? What was successful, what wasn’t, and why? How did Moscow view and wage this conflict? What lessons did it hold for 2016, 2020, and beyond? Is the United States equipped to wage political warfare or gray zone warfare, or is it culturally too binary?

Moreover, some of the questions that Mr. Weiner seems keen to explore are left unanswered. How can an open, democratic society wage a war that requires, in some cases, undemocratic behaviors? Can Washington successfully compete with Moscow by playing with a straight bat, or must it get dirty?

A Polemic View of History

Approaching political warfare and the Cold War requires a deft touch that understands the context of the times, understands the thinking of the key figures, and understands the tactics employed by both Washington and Moscow. David Shimer in his book Rigged (reviewed for the Diplomatic Courier) masterfully charts covert foreign election interference undertaken by the CIA and KGB throughout the Cold War. Shimer’s work is a great example of how the subject should be approached—balanced yet justifiably (and understandably) critical.

The Folly and the Glory is neither, choosing to be exceptionally critical of Washington’s activities in the Cold War to the point of excess. It wasn’t that the policies were misguided, the decisions were incorrect, or that in hindsight the efforts were for naught. Rather, Mr. Weiner finds the institutions, the people, and the overarching strategy malicious, nefarious, and criminal.

This is not to say that there were no excess or misguided (and indeed illegal) activities that took place. The Church and Pike Committees exposed many of the CIA’s misdeeds and rightly increased Congressional oversight through the House and Senate Select Committees on Intelligence. But there exists a fundamental disconnect in Mr. Weiner’s telling that is sadly unexplored—again, how can a democratic society wage political warfare against an authoritarian communist regime without taking undemocratic actions, and should that society do so?

Mr. Weiner seems content to throw stones at the CIA’s glass house but does not turn the same withering gaze on Moscow or its behavior. His chapter-length exploration of the decision to expand NATO stands out on this account. He seems to suggest that this is the post-Cold War original sin; if only Washington hadn’t expanded NATO, breaking its word to Moscow, then we wouldn’t be in the current conflict with Putin. Undoubtedly, NATO’s expansion strained relations between the United States and Russia, feeding into the latter’s historical paranoia about territorial encroachment. But given the dynamics of the time, Washington’s triumphalism of and belief in the end of history, and Moscow’s belief that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”, it is hard to envision an alternative scenario in which Russia accedes to America’s unipolar moment and does not enter into some post-Cold War competition.

His assessment of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election of President Trump is simplistic and deterministic. In his writing, Moscow all but ensured that the former real estate magnate assumed the Oval Office. Here again Mr. Weiner’s desire to be breezy glosses over significant complexities and dynamics, which are enumerated at length by other authors in recent books.

Moscow did not create the divisions within American society, it merely exploited them, built upon them, and enflamed them—something the Soviet Union did throughout the Cold War and Moscow will undoubtedly continue to do in the future. Here is another reason why it is so critical to address the state of American civil society and culture—no adversary can hurt America as much as Americans can hurt their own country as its citizens fixate on that which divides rather than unites.

Folly and Frustration

The Folly and the Glory is ultimately a frustrating book. The premise is promising—a look at political warfare, how it was waged by the United States and the Soviet Union (and Russia, today), and what it means for today and the future.

That promise, however, is never fulfilled. It is too breezy to be a detailed history of the Cold War and selective in its exploration of events. It dedicates an entire chapter to America’s covert involvement in the Congo, but Vietnam and Afghanistan are barely mentioned. By comparison, John Lewis Gaddis’ The Cold War: A New History is breezy, thorough, and informative in equal measures.

Mr. Weiner’s analysis of the Central Intelligence Agency and its conduct during the Cold War is a frustrating rehash of his National Book Award-winning Legacy of Ashes. This is disappointing, to say the least. Legacy of Ashes is less a history of the CIA and more of a polemic screed in which there are no redeeming characters, everything is nefarious and malicious, and every failure foreshadowed the Bush administration’s post-9/11 shortcomings.  

When Mr. Weiner does turn to actual elements of Moscow’s political warfare campaigns, such as active measures, it leaves the reader wanting more and, sadly, it can be found better and, in greater depth, elsewhere. Thomas Rid’s Active Measures (also reviewed for the Diplomatic Courier) is an exceptionally detailed and thorough examination of Moscow’s disinformation, misinformation, and propaganda campaigns against the United States during the Cold War and to the 2016 election.

This result is particularly disappointing given the need for such a history and the writing of Mr. Weiner. His writing—though one may (and in this case, does) disagree with his analysis—is accessible, enjoyable, and fluid. It is a shame then that such talented writing and an intriguing start give way to a breezy, one-sided, and flawed history.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.