Rupert Cornwell: The return of the great powers

Russia lost the original Cold War, but the United States is now weaker than it was 20 years ago
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What would George Kennan, peerless diplomat and father of the "containment" doctrine that guided America in the Cold War have said? Russian troops strut about Georgia as if they own the place; an American President lambastes the Kremlin, while Russia's foreign minister sneeringly comments that "you can forget about ... Georgia's territorial integrity", hinting at de facto annexation of the disputed regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Would not Kennan, were he still alive, conclude that history has gone on a 60-year fast rewind, and that the Cold War is back?

The answer is an unequivocal no. Vladimir Putin's Russia is a most unlovable power. But it is no longer the world-wide ideological adversary of the West, using proxy wars on four continents to advance its cause. In some respects it is not adversary but ally (albeit an often fickle one) of the US on issues such as Iran, North Korea and the Middle East.

Putin has partially rebuilt Russia's armed forces from their rusty nadir under his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, but today's Russia cannot project military power around the world on a scale that remotely matches America. Economically, Russia has chosen a blend of statism and jungle, gun-law, Western capitalism, but its consumer-oriented "soft power" is minimal. There is no Russian Google, no Russian challenger to Coca-Cola.

Events in Georgia have underscored how Moscow is an increasingly assertive rival of the US. But it is not Washington's mortal adversary in a 21st century reincarnation of the Cold War. And why should it be? Russia, after all, lost the original Cold War. Right now it is flourishing under existing arrangements – which reflect less a new bellicosity on the part of the Kremlin, but a new set of global realities.

First, the US is relatively weaker than it was when the Cold War ended almost 20 years ago – in economic, military and not least moral terms. The recession almost certainly now upon it will be the most painful since that of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and conceivably the worst since the Great Depression.

America, moreover, is trillions of dollars in hock to foreign creditors such as China and Japan. Globalisation may be a splendid thing. But it has not yet repealed history's law that great powers are brought down by debt and economic failure, not by defeat on the battlefield. In fact, America's military might also is less imposing than it was. American aircraft carrier groups, each packing more firepower than most countries, may patrol the seven seas. But resources of manpower and hardware have been stretched desperately thin by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even if it wanted to, the US could not send troops into Georgia, any more than it could do so into Iran.

Finally, there is America's moral decline. It was all very well yesterday for George Bush to rail against Russia's "bullying and intimidation" of Georgia and to proclaim, in utter disregard of the facts, that "the days of spheres of influence are behind us".

It was none other than the US that set the gold standard for spheres of influence with the Monroe Doctrine, back in 1823. And how, pray, has Washington behaved these past decades towards Cuba and other regimes in its Central American backyard, whose policies it disapproved of? In its determination to prevent Nato from setting up shop in Georgia and Ukraine, and its hostility to the US missile defence installations in the old "near abroad" of Poland and the Czech Republic, Russia is observing Monroe to the letter.

Every great power's foreign policy contains a good dollop of hypocrisy. But America's foreign policy, uniquely, has always had an avowedly moral dimension. In the past, US claims to be on the side of the angels were broadly buttressed by events. Even to neutrals in the Cold War, it was America, not the Soviet Union, that seemed to be on the right side in that long silent struggle.

However, one of Mr Bush's greatest disservices to his country – and one whose cost his successors will long be counting – is to have made that hypocrisy visible to a child. His entire foreign policy can be read in the key of, "do as we say, not as we do".

So much, however, for American decline. Russia simultaneously has been on the rise, above all thanks to a new weapon (or rather, long dormant old weapon), its natural resources. During the Cold War, Russia's vast energy and mineral wealth was not a big geopolitical factor. They are now. Increasingly Europe's pre-eminent supplier, Moscow can turn the oil and gas tap on and off at will. Several times it has done so in recent years to signal its displeasure with former satrapies such as Ukraine and Georgia. But some countries in central and western Europe are no less vulnerable to energy bullying.

Even so, a reduced imbalance between the old superpower rivals does not translate into a new Cold War, in which Russia offers itself as the Soviet Union redux, an opposite pole and social model for the entire world. What we are witnessing is a reversion to pre-20th century great-power politics, featuring not just a somewhat creaky US and a resurgent Russia, but emerging actors such as China, India and, who knows, maybe Europe as well. In Moscow's case, its current great-power behaviour is fuelled by resentment and a desire for payback, after the humiliations of the Yeltsin era – on a playing field that is now tilted in its direction.

In short, spheres of influence, insofar as they ever went away, are back. Traditionally, if you find yourself in the wrong one, then you try to get another great power to help. That is what Fidel Castro did with the Soviet Union. It is what Georgia tried, and utterly failed to do, in playing the US/Nato card against Russia. And it is why the Poles, after endless prevarication, have suddenly signed on to missile defence. It may infuriate the Russians, but it places American bodies squarely in Moscow's line of fire. The game now is all about spheres of influence and trying to escape them.

That surely would be the conclusion of George Kennan. When he wrote his celebrated The Long Telegram in 1946, Kennan believed – correctly – that the inherent contradictions of the Soviet system would bring about its demise. Alas, spheres of influence will not go away so easily.