The setting and the backdrop for a review of the New Cold Wars could not be better: Vladimir Putin on a state visit to China; his meeting with Xi Jinping to further the “no limits” partnership; Washington slapping Beijing with steep tariffs to offset what is perceived to be imbalances in trade; Ukraine bearing the brunt of a sharp Russian offensive in the Kharkiv region; the continuing Israeli offensives in and around Rafah in the Gaza and muted American threats of stopping the munitions flow; Iran huffing, puffing and smarting over Israeli direct and indirect hits on its assets; and Egypt signalling that it is about to pull out of the mediation talks involving the Hamas and hostages.

Now, that would seem to be a plate full for any leader, policy maker or an academic explaining the dynamics of the international system to graduate and under-graduate students. Worse still for a politician like Joseph Biden who has walked the hallways of Congress and the Washington establishment for over 50 years and wondering where things fell apart. Well, David Sanger has painstakingly taken a reader through a masterpiece that has a little of everything… history, geography, politics, perceptions misperceptions and above all wishful thinking.

How could things fall apart when only in 1989 folks were opening champagne bottles to mark the “end” of the Cold War? How could things go so terribly wrong? In four parts and some 20 chapters, Sanger weaves the tale of how brilliant minds stumbled, at times not knowing or even refusing to see what was in front of them. How else could one explain the refusal of President Biden to accept the imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine when every available bit of intelligence pretty much nailed down the date and time of when the first tanks would roll in?

Misreading Putin

In fact through detailed interviews from the named and unnamed senior officials Sanger provides the pathetic inability to “read” what Putin has been saying, and for a very, very long time. Difficult still to digest how a President and his policy makers could have been so naïve to believe that Putin would not mind NATO missiles in his front yard when only six decades ago in 1962 John Kennedy and his advisors ramped up the rhetoric and brought the United States and the then Soviet Union so close to a nuclear exchange.

On more than one occasion Sanger reflects on where the Russian leader “is coming from” or a person who likes to see himself as Peter the Great. “… the question of why Putin invaded (Ukraine) may be less interesting than why so many in the West — from Washington to Berlin — missed the signals”, the author notes.

Reading through the pages of Sanger’s monumental work, one cannot miss the trap American leaders laid for themselves since the so-called end of the Cold War.

Between 1950 and 1980, no President wanted to be taken to the political woodshed for having “lost” Korea, Vietnam, Iran or Afghanistan; and in redefining the new challenges of the post Cold War era, no one wanted to lose out in the emerging new world order where the preeminence of the United States was being challenged by a Russia that was seeking to re-establish itself as a European and Asian power, a Europe that did not want to be identified only with American national interests and a China whose natural rise was seen threatening to Washington globally and in the Indo Pacific where Beijing was fishing in troubled waters.

The problem with losing something is that it should have been in possession to begin with. Or as Bill Burns the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency has been quoted in 2019, “ Who lost Russia? It’s an old argument, and it misses the point. Russia was never ours to lose”.

The same could be said of the characterisations of Korea or Vietnam or in an inability to read beyond the initial roadmap Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon laid out for normalization of relations with the People’s Republic of China.

Reining in China

Strangely, the impression coming out of Washington through post Cold War Presidents is that somehow China can be reined in by slapping economic tariffs or in the formation of strategic alliances in the Asia Pacific without giving a second thought to Beijing’s overall economic, political and strategic objectives, including over Taiwan.

Sanger’s brilliant analysis, weaving through different themes, brings up the unthinkable: the actual use of nuclear weapons, a topic that was seemingly reserved for the loonies and nut heads but has come to be bandied about so openly thanks to the ongoing war in the Ukraine.

Only a national security and strategic expert like Sanger could have painted the dynamics of the present changing world order primarily from a Washington perspective. America’s worldview is not confined to only Russia, China and Europe but increasingly having to take into account the Asia Pacific, the Middle East, Latin America and Africa.

The “why’s” of how others see America is equally critical for a stable world order, which increasingly is seen as a distant dream. That is perhaps a story for another day.

The reviewer is a senior journalist who has reported from Washington DC on North America and United Nations

Check out the book on Amazon here.

New Cold Wars
Author: David E. Sanger
Published by: Crown
Pages: 528
Price: $33