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Are We Living through Another Cold War?

October 21, 2021

Speaker: Sergey Radchenko, Wilson E. Schmidt Distinguished Professor, Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs, Washington, DC, USA, and Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe, Bologna, Italy
Moderator: Francis J. Gavin, Giovanni Agnelli Distinguished Professor and Director of the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs, Johns Hopkins University SAIS, Washington, DC, USA
Chair: Michael G. Plummer, Director and ENI Professor of International Economics, Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe, Bologna, Italy

Professor Sergey Radchenko presents his inaugural lecture as SAIS Europe's Wilson E. Schmidt Distinguished Professor, an endowed professorship based primarily at SAIS Europe and coordinated by the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University SAIS in Washington, DC. Francis J. Gavin, Giovanni Agnelli Distinguished Professor and Director of the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs, welcomes in-person and online attendees to Radchenko's lecture and moderates the event.

Professor Radchenko opens his lecture in response to growing discussion of the United States as entering a "new Cold War era," one marked by intensifying US-Chinese relations and of a "deep freeze" in diplomatic relations with Russia. As Radchenko argues, while rooted in recognition of current events, such debate stems from a misunderstanding of what the Cold War was all about. Alternatively, according to Radchenko, a historical reading of the Cold War's true causes can correctly frame understandings of contemporary power struggles and thus inform an effective foreign policy response.

Radchenko notes that an immense new openness of Russian historical archives has prompted a new understanding of Soviet foreign policy in recent years. For example, while many scholars would previously have answered that the Cold War stemmed from Stalin's desire to dominate the world, recent archival analysis indicates that Stalin actually favored accommodation with the West. Soviet foreign policy, instead, was motivated by other crucial factors.

Framing his analysis in connection to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, Radchenko argues that the motivations for Soviet foreign policy can be understood through a similar, triangle-shaped lens: First, at the bottom of the triangle, as informed by the Soviets' real or perceived security needs, and second, afterwards, as driven by Soviet leaders' desire for legitimacy. Such security needs, as Radchenko lists, include Stalin's perceived threat of inevitable conflict with Germany if the country were not divided. Beyond such immediate security concerns, however, Soviet foreign policy was motivated uniquely by a desire for legitimacy, recognition from both Soviet allies and the United States of Soviet achievements. As Radchenko explains, the US-Soviet nuclear arms race was motivated not by a desire to use atomic bombs in conflict, but by the Soviets' desire to be recognized as an atomic superpower with the same perceived strength as the United States. Similarly, as Radchenko traces, Khrushchev and Brezhnev's foreign policy decisions reflect a desire to not only demonstrate leadership over their communist sphere of influence, but to receive recognition from the United States and the rest of the world as a great superpower.

Thus, according to Professor Radchenko, the true motivations for the Cold War become clear: Soviet foreign policy was not motivated by ideology, nor by the political ambitions of Stalin or his successors, but instead by the Soviet Union's desire for recognition as the great Eastern superpower and as a legitimate rival to the United States. This struggle for legitimacy, as Radchenko argues, is the central lens by which policy makers should approach contemporary US-Russia and US-China relations. This is Radchenko's final point: The great superpowers of the world are locked in a permanent Cold War, with alternating periods of more intense confrontation and periods of détente. The source of this struggle is and will remain a desire for legitimacy: to be recognized by both rivals and the world as not only the leader of their sphere of influence, but as a powerful player on the world stage.