The Lost Peace: How the West Failed to Prevent a Second Cold War

Image of The Lost Peace: How the West Failed to Prevent a Second Cold War
Release Date: 
November 28, 2023
Yale University Press
Reviewed by: 

Writers who challenge the conventional wisdom about history and current events are usually interesting and provocative; Richard Sakwa . . . is both.”

Writers who challenge the conventional wisdom about history and current events are usually interesting and provocative; Richard Sakwa, professor emeritus of Russian and European politics at the University of Kent, is both. In The Lost Peace, Sakwa contends that the West—mainly the United States—is largely to blame for the new Cold War with Russia and China. He is half right.

Sakwa believes that the West had an opportunity to forge an enduring great power peace at the end of the Cold War. Instead, the United States sought to maintain its “unipolar moment” by extending its “hegemony” to Russia’s borders in Europe with NATO enlargement and trying to prevent China’s rise in the Asia-Pacific. America, Sakwa writes, “believed that its triumph over the Soviet adversary demonstrated the need to spread its power and values globally.” He describes this approach as “rich in hubris” and doomed to fail. And he places the blame on U.S. and Western neoconservatives and liberal interventionists.

Sakwa sees Western promotion of a “rules-based international order” as a disguise for maintaining Western—mainly U.S.—hegemony. NATO enlargement was one aspect of this phenomenon. Other examples were U.S. intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s, the Global War on Terror after the September 11, 2001 attacks, the promotion of the Arab Spring, U.S. involvement in so-called “color revolutions” in Ukraine and elsewhere, and efforts at containing China in the Asia-Pacific.

The ill effects of NATO enlargement on European security is the most convincing part of Sakwa’s book. The West’s victory in the Cold War produced a geopolitical hubris among U.S. policymakers that ignored the impact that NATO enlargement would have on Russia and its leaders. There was enough warning about this—by elder statesmen George Kennan, former Ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock, Jr. (who wrote a blurb for Sakwa’s book), former arms control negotiator Paul Nitze, former national security staffer and Russia history expert Richard Pipes, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and many others—but U.S. leaders and their European allies moved forward to expand NATO with a momentum that took it to Russia’s borders.

Successive American administrations demonstrated a complete lack of Bismarckian realism—it was Bismarck who valued in statesman and diplomats the ability to see things from other countries’ perspectives. Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Medvedev, and Putin all voiced their opposition to NATO enlargement based on their view that it negatively affected Russia’s security, but to no avail. The result was Russia’s war in Georgia in 2008, its seizure of Crimea in Ukraine in 2014, and its invasion of Ukraine in 2022. And a broader result was the revival of a Cold War in Europe that Sakwa believes is more dangerous than the 1945–1989 Cold War.

Sakwa mirrors his criticism of U.S. policy toward Russia with similar criticism of U.S. policy toward China. But here, his analysis breaks down. Unlike America’s post-Cold War Russia policy, U.S. and Western leaders continued the policy of engagement of China long after it made any sense to do so. If U.S. and Western policy in Europe produced a revival of Russian imperialism under Vladimir Putin, it was not U.S. or Western expansion in the Asia-Pacific that produced Xi Jinping as China’s supreme leader.

China’s rise was in part due to U.S. and Western trade, finance, and investment. U.S. engagement of China persisted (and persists to this day under the Biden administration) even after China’s rhetoric and actions have made it unmistakably clear that China aims to replace the United States as world leader. Sakwa thinks otherwise, at one point in the book describing China as a “status quo power.”

He downplays the significance of China’s aggression in the South China Sea and its geopolitical offensive across Eurasia and in other parts of the globe. And he criticizes the United States—especially the Trump administration—for attempting to form an anti-Chinese alliance in the Indo-Pacific region. China, Sakwa believes, does not need to be contained.

Sakwa at times flirts with geopolitical realism, but he characterizes himself as a “sovereign internationalist,” who believes in the efficacy of arms control, the existential threat of “climate change,” and the need for global cooperation and in some instances global governance. The “hero” of his book is Mikhail Gorbachev, whose “vision of East-West reconciliation and the transformation of international politics,” Sakwa believes, could have produced a lasting peace.

What was most needed to produce an enduring post-Cold War peace, Sakwa believes, was U.S. restraint. Instead, we have a revival of the Cold War in Europe and a new Cold War in Asia. And the fault, he says, lies mostly with America. He is mostly right when it comes to Russia and Europe, but he is dangerously wrong about China and Asia.