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The Twilight Struggle

The Twilight Struggle

In The Twilight Struggle, Hal Brands illuminates the vices and virtues of American statecraft during the Cold War.

Michael Kimmage
The Twilight Struggle: What the Cold War Teaches Us about Great-Power Rivalry Today
by Hal Brands (Yale University Press, 328 pp., $26.49)

With The Twilight Struggle: What the Cold War Teaches Us about Great-Power Rivalry Today, Hal Brands has written an acutely prescient book. A professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Brands has also served at the Department of Defense. He is a historian, but not the kind who is interested only in history. Concluding with lessons drawn from the historical record, The Twilight Struggle is modeled on ancient history, on history meant to offer political instruction, and explicitly on Thucydides’s magisterial history of the Peloponnesian war. Brands wants this book to guide contemporary policy debates, which is something it brilliantly enables.

Brands has several reasons for turning his gaze upon the Cold War. The first is to understand a wrong turn taken by the United States after 1991. Too much optimism crystallized around the collapse of the Soviet Union and around the unique status of the United States in the 1990s—freed, it was supposed, from the bonds of rivalry. The attacks of September 11 interrupted the bland optimism of the 1990s, but they contributed to a sense of strategic drift, to an overemphasis on irregular warfare, and on the tangled, zero-sum geopolitics of the Middle East. As a result, “America’s intellectual and bureaucratic aptitude for competition atrophied after the Cold War,” Brands writes.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

The rise or return of Russia and China since 1991 furnishes another reason to contemplate the rivalries of the Cold War, Brands believes. The War on Terror became—in some respects—a distraction from the less visible and less dramatic Russia-China challenge. Step by step, 21st-century China was making huge economic strides and cultivating grand ambitions for itself. Russia relied more on military than economic power, waging war in Georgia in 2008, in Ukraine in 2014, and in Syria in 2015. The ascendancy of China and Russia, coupled with a set of “deeply ideological conflicts between authoritarianism and democracy,” put the United States in the same strategic and political space where it had been for much of the Cold War. The United States had to live with serious rivals. Thus it ought not to have forgotten about, and should not fail to learn from, the history of the Cold War.

The Twilight Struggle was published before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The horrific war that has been unfolding for the past three months has not made Brands’s book less relevant. Neither did the declaration of a “no limits” partnership between China and Russia shortly before the invasion. A somewhat speculative sense of systemic competition had in fact been hovering in the air for some time—Europe and the United States on one side of it, China and Russia on the other. War in Ukraine has made this contestation suddenly very urgent—on the battlefields of Ukraine, across the global economy, and in cyberspace. Exactly as it was intended to do, The Twilight Struggle sheds light on the conundrums of the present by uncovering instructive analogies from the past.

The value of Brands’s book lies not just in its erudition and its lucidity but also in its complexity. His ultimate concern is the success of the United States past and present. In the end, “the Cold War ended with the political triumph of the West and the ideological triumph of democracy.” But the ingredients of such triumphs were varied, contradictory almost, and the record of Cold War policymaking was not simply triumphant. The Cold War often led the United States astray. When the United States was successful, its virtues were the coordinated resolve to compete internationally and to make long-term strategic choices. Even at the best of times, getting the recipe right and matching the alignment of day-to-day policy with decade-to-decade strategy was enormously difficult.

One Cold War necessity was prudence. According to the strategy of containment, “peace did not require appeasement, and victory did not require war.” Containment had to exist within the limits of U.S. capacity and the strengths of the Soviet adversary. Once the Soviet Union acquired nuclear weapons, containment was folded into the architecture of deterrence, giving new meaning to the pursuit of victory without war. After 1961, the year Brands identifies at the most dangerous year of the Cold War, “Moscow and Washington would only go so far in testing each other’s spheres of influence.” The Cold War may have been fought everywhere, but it was never fought to the death.

The United States had its worst Cold War failures in the vast and punishingly ambiguous periphery between the communist and the non-communist world. In Vietnam, the United States fell into perilous excess, overextending itself and inviting China and the Soviet Union to punish it for doing so. Elsewhere, the United States could be lured into “a dangerous Cold War amorality”—into the manipulation of other political cultures in the name of democracy, that is—most often in Latin America and in the Middle East, but in Africa and Asia as well.

If overreach in what was then called the “third world” was the Cold War vice, Cold War virtue was the proper application of political force. Here Brands emphasizes situations of strength. Of these “the creation of the free world” was the most important, the bonds of affiliation and alliance, which married values to interests and interests to values in Europe, Asia, and beyond. Academic knowledge—Soviet studies, in short—enabled deft political action. Brands describes this political warfare as “a cumulative discipline.” The intersection of democracy promotion and of incipient national movements in Eastern Europe put many cracks in the edifice of Soviet power.

Even détente, in Brands’s analysis—that period of relaxation in the late 1960s and early 1970s—reflected the relentless logic of Cold War competition. Détente is what a great power does when it has to engage in a bit of retrenchment, and that was what the United States was doing during and after the Vietnam War.

A final necessity for winning the Cold War, in The Twilight Struggle, was organization and the overall dynamism of the United States. World War II set in motion an enthusiasm for planning, and this was easily carried over into the early Cold War—a loose but effective linkage of policy formation, intelligence gathering, technological progress, and investment that often crossed the line between the public and private sectors. The Cold War stimulated economic growth, which in turn helped the government to prosecute the Cold War. The United States gradually left the Soviet Union behind, economically and militarily. The ultimate situation of strength was the creativity of American society.


Brands’s The Twilight Struggle falls short in one respect. It oversimplifies the motif of winning with regard to the Cold War’s end phase. The end phase is more fully captured, for instance, by the historian Vladislav Zubok in a recently published study of the Cold War’s termination from the Soviet point of view. Zubok’s Collapse demonstrates the highly contingent nature of the Soviet defeat in 1991, reducing it almost to the incompetence of Mikhail Gorbachev. This reading of the Cold War does not deny the many situations of strength the United States had amassed by the 1980s, but it qualifies the agency of the United States, which for Brands, it seems, is the essence of the story. A situation of luck is not exactly equivalent to a situation of strength, and with Gorbachev the United States got exceedingly lucky.

More consequentially, The Twilight Struggle collapses the Cold War too neatly into a U.S. versus Soviet battle. An intent focus on Moscow allows for the following generalization: that “Washington won the Cold War by making the free world function better—and by making the Communist world function worse.” But add China to the equation, and this generalization makes somewhat less sense. Communist China adopted many capitalist traits after its internal revolution in 1979. And yet it did not cease being communist in its own eyes; its Communist Party did not go out of business. Whether China actually functions well or badly, whether as a great power it functions better or worse than the free world circa 2022, is in the eye of the beholder.

China has demonstrated prudence. With its Belt and Road Initiative it has taken action, and China does not lack for either organization or dynamism. What it lacks of course is true democracy, and here The Twilight Struggle illuminates a key American asset. When the United States has made mistakes, it could change course—as it did several times during the Cold War. When the popularity of various Cold War policies lost steam, elections brought in new leaders, new ideas, and new approaches. That could at times militate against the exercise of strategic patience. But ultimately, the flexibility democracy affords has been crucial, and has helped over time to legitimize U.S. foreign policy. If China has learned some lessons from the Cold War successes of the United States, it is unable to learn this lesson.

In addition to the wisdom on offer, The Twilight Struggle has a healthy bi-partisan or non-partisan tenor. One might almost read it as homage to two American presidents, one a Democrat and the other a Republican. Harry Truman ended up the first and most consequential Cold War strategist, and he was the consummate man of action, not to mention a New Dealer who cared about coordinating the activities of the federal government. Dwight Eisenhower came to the White House after Truman. Like Truman, he was not an eloquent defender of the democratic ideal but a defender he was. Eisenhower was also gifted in prudence, in not going too far and in not spending too much. Where his predecessor Thucydides was obsessed with mistakes, Brands is more captivated by foreign-policy excellence, a gift he wishes to impart to his readers not just at a moment of partisan division, but at a time of mounting international peril.

In The Twilight Struggle, Hal Brands offers American policymakers and citizens a rich and thought-provoking historical tableau. From it he teases a more than workable formula for 21st-century American foreign policy. Prudence honors the dignity of limits; it is imperative in our never-ending nuclear age; and it reminds policymakers that resources are by definition finite. Action is far preferable to a nostalgic defense of the status quo, and it follows as much from ideals as it does from interests. The United States should act on its interests and in the name of its ideals. Coordination may not come naturally to democracies, especially to democracies that—like the United States—have a libertarian streak. But coordination marks the difference between a stated and an executed foreign policy.

Michael Kimmage is professor of history at the Catholic University of America and author, most recently, of The Abandonment of the West: The History of an Idea in American Foreign Policy (2020).

Photo: Flickr user Iamyankee.007.

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