Revisionism: In this analysis essay, Frank Gavin emphasizes the importance of taking a second look at history and challenging our assumptions about the past.

By Frank Gavin

Scholarship is not only about discovery of the new. It is also about challenging the old, or rather, what we think we already know. This can be difficult, even controversial, and never more so than when the subject being reexamined and revised is our own history. It is easy to forget that history is not simply a recounting of what has happened, but also the way we decide to remember, recount, and make sense of the past.

We often hold stylized narratives of the past in our heads that we believe to be unassailable. Ask an intelligent observer to outline the story of America’s engagement with the world after 1945, and he or she might offer a clear, bifurcated story: There was the Cold War and the post-Cold War era. The Cold War would likely be identified as an uninterrupted geopolitical and ideological conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States that began soon after World War II was over and ended with the revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989. The analyst might suggest that the United States prevailed by relentlessly pursuing the decades-long strategy of containment, articulated by George Kennan in his 1946 “Long Telegram.” With the collapse of the Berlin Wall and eventually the Soviet Union itself, the United States rapidly switched, like the film The Wizard of Oz, from black and white to color and to something completely different: America’s hegemonic, unipolar moment and the rise of liberal internationalism.

Upon closer examination, this seamless portrayal obscures as much as it reveals. Kennan’s version of political and economic containment was abandoned as a failure in the early 1950s, replaced by a more muscular military posture that he spent the rest of his career disparaging. Two especially intense periods of confrontation when global war was a distinct possibility — 1949 to 1953 and 1958 to 1962 — were interposed between longer periods of simmering competition and occasional détente and even cooperation. Even as ensuing administrations worked to craft comprehensive and effective national security strategies, as Paul Lettow’s article in this issue ably chronicles, America’s policies shifted while defense budgets rose and fell and rose again, in a rhythm driven as much by the vicissitudes of domestic politics as by any coherent long-term plan. As late as 1979, few would have assessed that the United States was ahead in the competition with the Soviet Union, to say nothing of being poised to ultimately prevail, and as late as 1986, fewer still would have predicted the great rivalry would soon be over forever. The United States did not appear to be especially hegemonic in the early years of the post-Cold War era: U.S. economic prospects seemed uncertain and American grand strategy stumbled, appearing ineffectual against such noted great-power political foes as the Somali rebels, Rwandan Hutus, Haiti, and Serbia.

Historical revisionism — the kind that dares us to challenge and interrogate strongly held assumptions about the past — helps push against our natural, if somewhat unhelpful, tendency toward retrospective or outcome bias: Since we know how a story like the Cold War ended, we can’t help but construct a neat narrative of inevitability. Revisionism also allows us to complicate our understanding of chronology and periodization. The conventional narrative of postwar international relations and U.S. grand strategy focuses on Europe and the U.S.-Soviet competition. The reality of world politics after 1945 was far messier, and a variety of forces —such as decolonization and the emergence of new nations; regional rivalries and conflict; European integration and eventual union; the rise of political Islam; and globalization and the financial, telecommunications, and rights revolutions — shaped global affairs as much, if not at times more, than the Cold War superpower rivalry.

The problem with a simplistic Cold War/post-Cold War narrative is exposed in Samuel Helfont’s fascinating reexamination of the 1991 Gulf War. The conventional wisdom sees the war as a military triumph for the United States that exorcised the demons of the Vietnam War and helped establish the practice of collective security while reinvigorating global institutions for an American-led liberal international order. This picture, however, was clouded by a post-conflict sanctions regime that impoverished the Iraqi people without unseating Saddam Hussein’s brutal Baathist regime, harming America’s global image while splintering the wartime coalition. The Gulf War was only the start of greater difficulties in a region that has been the cause of much grief for the United States ever since.

Re-thinking the Gulf War also complicates the issue of periodization, or how we mark and define historical eras. For many, the Gulf War was the first major event of the post-Cold War world. Another way to look at the conflict, however, was as an outgrowth and culmination of political dynamics that had been brewing in the region for years. The two key dates here are 1967 and 1979. Up through the mid-1960s, the Middle East was not a grand strategic priority for the United States, trailing well behind Europe, East Asia, and even Latin America in importance. Great Britain was the major Western presence in the region. The 1967 Six-Day War changed all of that. The Soviet Union appeared to seek greater influence in the Middle East, providing weapons and egging on client states Egypt and Syria, while financial and monetary burdens forced Great Britain to drastically reduce its footprint. Stuck in an unwinnable war in Southeast Asia, the United States could do little on its own to counter the Soviet gambit. While Israel easily prevailed in the conflict, America’s concern for Soviet regional influence drove it to establish deeper strategic ties with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Within a decade, America’s efforts to reverse Soviet influence in the region had been largely successful but at a steep cost: The Middle East had been elevated as a grand strategic priority while the United States had tied itself closer to arguably problematic regimes and even more problematic, complex regional dynamics. This left America exposed during the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran that not only transformed Iran but also the larger politics in the region. In this viewing, the Gulf War was not the clean, resounding start of a new era, but the messy interlude of a complex American commitment whose relation to the Cold War was uncertain.

Lindsey Ford and Zack Cooper similarly force us to re-think periodization and stylized histories in their excellent analysis of what 1969 can teach us today. The Nixon administration, which was reeling from the Vietnam War, facing powerful domestic calls for retrenchment, and hoping to reset American grand strategy in a more sustainable fashion, declared that its allies in East Asia had to do more to provide for their own security. Ford and Cooper reveal the varying paths different countries in the region took in response to this mandate, ranging from moving closer to the United States to accommodating threatening powers in the region.

Nixon’s Guam doctrine reflected Cold War and regional dynamics in East Asia that were much different than those in Europe. Korea was divided, Vietnam a disaster, integrative alliances like NATO and the European Union elusive, and China, after 1972, an ally of convenience. As Adam Tooze reminds us, “The simple fact is that the US did not prevail in the Cold War in Asia.” As the Communist Party’s ruthless massacre of protestors in Tiananmen Square revealed, Beijing did not share America’s view of history and world order. The Communist Party leadership was obsessed, then and now, with avoiding what it saw as the Soviet Union’s grave mistakes in the Cold War competition with the United States. Looking at today’s rivalry with China, Tooze suggests,

The mistake in thinking that we are in a ‘new Cold War’ is in thinking of it as new. In putting a full stop after 1989 we prematurely declare a Western victory. From Beijing’s point of view, there was no end of history, but a continuity — not unbroken, needless to say, and requiring constant reinterpretation, as any live political tradition does, but a continuity nevertheless.

In other words, not only did the Cold War play out differently in East Asia than it Europe, the history, meaning, and lessons from the conflict are understood much differently in Beijing than they are in Washington D.C. China, no doubt, has the lessons from the history of the Soviet-U.S. Cold War rivalry in mind as it reflects upon the utility of proxy wars as a tool of great-power political competition. Dominic Tierney’s analysis of the future of Sino-U.S. proxy war provides an excellent way to assess such conflicts, should they emerge as he expects.

Historical revisionism can be applied not only to events, but to institutions and practices. Since 9/11, as Susan Bryant, Brett Swaney, and Heidi Urben remind us, the military has been held in especially high esteem within American society. But as their fascinating survey reveals, such exceptionalism can come at a cost: The long-held and cherished notion of the non-ideological citizen-soldier gives way to a more politicized and perhaps isolated servicemember. Jim Golby and Hugh Liebert suggest that lessons from ancient history — particularly the classic works of Plato, Aristotle, and Polybius — may provide a better understanding and guide to the important norms of civilian control of the military.

My guess is that, like me, you will come away from this issue with a mix of reactions, from nodding acknowledgement to seeing an old problem in a different way to a fierce desire to contact the authors and argue with them. That is the desired outcome for any good journal. Challenging and revising history — and the assumptions and myths behind that history — is rarely comfortable, especially as the past provokes strong feelings for many people. I have long thought that an underappreciated but important measure of a nation’s underlying social and civic health is its ability to tolerate, and even encourage, historical revisionism. It is easy to forget how hard — and how rare — it is to create an intellectual, political, and socio-cultural environment that encourages a willingness to challenge any conviction, no matter how widely shared or deeply held. The results are often messy and contentious and unpopular. It is well worth the price, however. Historical revisionism —to ruthlessly examine and wrestle with our most treasured beliefs and assumptions — is a critical path to humility, understanding, and wisdom.



By Rugaba John Paul and Allawi Ssemanda.

During Vladimir Putin’s state of nation address in April, he warned the west that there would be severe consequences if the west had crossed Russia’s red line. This statement not only proved the narrative of a new 21st century cold war, but also showed the confidence of the Kremlin as a potential and confident new global power.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia’s global power dwindled especially in the first decade since soviet collapse (1991-2001). The move from a Communist Style Economy to a somewhat Capitalist economy coupled with a weak drunk leader in Boris Yeltsin, the Russian bear at the dawn of the 21st century was a shadow of its past. Then came Vladimir Putin, who transformed Russia and wanted the fatherland to regain its lost global influence.

In 2007, Times Magazine voted Putin person of the year, crediting him for returning his country from chaos to “the table of world power.” He was also voted World’s Most Powerful person four times between 2013 and 2016 for leading his country into global affairs. He is further credited for revolutionizing Russia’s economy and bringing stability in the country after defeating Chechnya rebels. Arguably, Moscow’s push in World’s affairs portraying Russia as a new Global player has had some positives such as enabling Russia host the 2014 Sochi winter Olympics and 2018 FIFA world cup but also rekindled some old cold war wounds with the western powers.

Russia and Africa: A new frontier?

Unlike Britain, France and Germany and other European powers, imperial Russia didn’t take part in the scramble for Africa nor had any colonial possessions. Fast forward to the cold war, Soviet Russia was a main supporter of revolutionary conflicts on the continent and played a big role in some of the major events on the continent during that period.

But in Putin’s Russia, Moscow is increasingly having a major role on the continent as it tries to compete with other Global Powers such as; China, United Kingdom, France and U.S.A. for the African slice of the cake.

In October 2019, Russia hosted its first ever Russia Africa summit which was attended by 43 African heads of states, and more than 3000 delegates from across Russia and Africa. During the summit, president Putin pledged Russian support to the continent in terms of aid, arms and political support without strings attached. This summit was seen as a statement by the Kremlin to try to restore the old influence the Soviet Union had on the continent. Some analysts argue that Russia is still lagging behind on the continent in terms of influence. Despite this, Moscow’s influence is on rise.  For example, Russia has sent mercenaries to Central African Republic to support the U.N backed government and has also backed the Haftar’s faction against UN backed Libyan government in the now slowing Libyan conflict. Also, Russia is playing a key role in the implementation of nuclear energy on the continent having signed deals with about 12 countries to operate their nuclear facilities whilst Russian state owned and private companies are cutting mining deals in countries such as Angola, Ghana, Cameroon etc. this is a clear indication, that with time, Russia aims at having a foothold on the continent.

Russia has also been in talks with a number of African Countries including among others Sudan and Djibouti to establish their military bases. In Djibouti’s case, analyst attribute Russia’s interest in the country to its strategic location which has made it an area of interest for greater powers with many opening their military bases there. Russia’s interests in Djibouti started way back in 2012, and held talks between 2012 and 2013 on same matter. However, after Russian-Ukrainian crisis over Crimea in 2014, the U.S pressured Djibouti to pause Russia’s advancement which many saw as rivalry against Washington’s interests in the region. Though Russia’s military installation base project seem to have lost momentum, the two countries are still working together in containing piracy.

Though Moscow missed out on Djibouti deal, it has found other potential candidates in Africa to host its military base(s) along the Red Sea, with the most receptive being Sudan. Indeed, in 2017, the then Sudan’s dictator and strongman Omar Al-Bashir, travelled to Sochi where he met his Russian counterpart and the two leaders discussed among others growing the two countries’ cooperation in areas like defence and security. Though signed documents did not include establishing a military base, the Putin – Al-Bashir meeting discussed the subject. In 2020, Russian government published information on its website confirming Moscow was in final stages of building a naval base along Sudan’s Red Sea coast. Moscow explained that a “logistical Support Centre” would be set up in Sudan stressing details of an agreement signed between Sudan’s Prime minister Mikhail Mishutin and Russian side.

However, one can argue that the prospect of establishing a permanent Russian military base in Sudan is now uncertain. The collapse of Sudan’s strongman, Al-Bashir regime in April 2019 and now improved diplomatic relations between Khartoum and Washington in October 2020 arguably makes Russian “protection” to Khartoum less important. In this case therefore, though the need for defence cooperation between Sudan and Russia may still be key, one can argue that the plans for a military base in Sudan are now in limbo since Khartoum is steady courting the Western for a more friendly diplomatic relationships – a journey that started with Washington removing Khartoum from its list of countries that sponsor terrorism and consequently removed the country from sanctions.

Russia’s Eritrean card and game.

Analysts and International Affairs strategists have in recent argued that changes taking place in Eritrea point at possibility of long-term Russian military presence in that country. After the country gained independence in 1991, Eritrea became one of the world’s most closed countries  and one of worst dictatorship on the continent. Important to note is that since the signing of a peace treaty with Ethiopia in and the lifting of UN sanctions late 2018, the once closed country has been on a somewhat diplomatic charm looking for opportunities to break out of its isolation and attract foreign investors.

Consequently, Asmara approached Russia and has been more actively since 2018. In August of that year, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov announced that Russia and Eritrea were negotiating the opening of a “logistics” base on the Eritrean coast.

Other evolutions followed. In preparation for the lifting of UN sanctions, Russian and Eritrean delegates met in October 2016 to discuss their future bilateral relations. Besides which, July 2019, Moscow announced it was lifting its own sanctions against Eritrea which set a stage for the two countries to relate after nearly a decade of sanctions.

However, as things now stand, there is no proof that the plans for a Russian logistics base on Eritrean territory are still pending. Indeed, the closed nature of Eritrean politics and the strategic nature of this type of negotiation make any interpretation hazardous. But in any case, the exchanges between the two countries on matters military continue as before. Indeed, early 2020 Russian defence officials revealed that Kremlin and Asmara had signed the first defence cooperation for Russia to deliver two Russian Ansat helicopters purchased as part of the development of military cooperation with Russia.  “This country is no longer under sanctions. In 2019, a contract was signed with Eritrea on the delivery of two Ansat helicopters in a military modification to transport personnel. The deal is to be fulfilled 2020,” noted Russian defence official.

Russia-Somaliland Option.

Somaliland which belongs dejure to Somalia but is de facto independent since 1991, has been referred to on several occasions as a possible Red Sea host for Russian armed forces. For decades now, Somaliland has been seeking recognition as a full-fledged member of the international community. And it is therefore on the lookout for foreign partners, especially among the great powers who could settle the issue of its status.

In 2017, the possibility of a Russian military base in Somaliland resurfaced. In the same year, while at the Russian embassy in Djibouti, an emissary from the Somaliland government offered to grant Moscow the right to build base at Berbera and if Moscow agreed to reorganize Somaliland as an independent country.  Then, in January 2020, there were reports of the imminent opening of a Russian military base in Somaliland.

However, a month after these reports, Russia’s ambassador to Djibouti described these reports and false denying Russia had plans of recognizing Somaliland as an independent country. If analysed critically, one can conclude that despite having interest in red sea, Russia which has always shown stance against great powers openly intervening in internal affairs of other countries may not be ready to make a U-turn on this by reorganizing Somaliland which Somalia would consider as Moscow interfering in her internal affairs. With that in mind, a conclusion can be made that the future of a Russian military base at Berbera is uncertain and it remains unknown fact.

Broadly, an argument can be made that Russia’s intervention in Middle East particularly in Syria has opened up other possible opportunities for Moscow to enter the Middle East and East Africa. Indeed, since 2015, Russia has been trying to gain more influence in the region and contacts between Russia and those two regions have grown considerably. However, it is important to observe that the limits of Moscow’s diplomatic influence become fairly evident whenever Russia’s ambitions to establish military base on the Red Sea are on the table. In many ways, Moscow’s diplomacy finds its initiatives somewhat baulked by what they see as region’s instability and by the fierce competition offered by the other major powers such as U.S and China.

Therefore, one can conclude that despite Kremlin’s undying interest to have more military bases in strategic areas like the red sea, the chances of a Russian military base seems to be slim and indeed are arguably the object of what should be termed as unreliable reports. However, important to note is that Russian ambitions in Africa and in the Middle East continue unabated. Even with challenges such as the slowdown of diplomatic exchanges forced by the Covid-19 pandemic and its far-reaching economic consequences, Kremlin hopes for a base near the Straits of Bab El-Manded and the Red Sea will remain a priority on Moscow’s regional agenda over the next few years and as night follows the day, one can safely say president Putin will try to achieve this today or “tomorrow”.


It’s clear that since the rise of Putin in Russia, the country’s global presence has risen to somewhat resemble the global influence of its soviet past. Her rise has risen eyebrows among western powers such as the united states, NATO and even Great Britain. The actions of the Kremlin over the past 20 years such as the annexation of Crimea, alleged poisonings of dissidents in the U.K, alleged cybercrime and election meddling in the U.S have given left rise of the Russia bear a negative outlook in the western world.

Needless to say, Russia has played a major role in global affairs. Through its diplomatic role in major international organizations, it has managed to push through agendas or reject agendas that seem to be pro-western. Russia, being founding member of the BRICS, has used its position to foster development in the developing world. During the ongoing covid 19 pandemic, Russia was the first country to manufacture and distribute its vaccine, Sputnik V Vaccine, which it has shared with other countries and helped in the global fight of the pandemic.  Presently, tens of African countries are expected to receive over 300 million doses of Russians Covid-19 vaccine – Sputnik V Vaccine.

As of now, from security to economic and diplomatic perspective, Russia’s match to Africa seems unstoppable – matching towards achieving Moscow’s ideal world Putin dreams of. A world where Russia is seen as a major player in Global affairs.  However, what is not clear is whether Moscow can achieve her ambitious goals in a short or long run especially with economic challenges occasioned by Covid-19 pandemic and slow economic growth in Russia.  However, no matter the challenges such as mistrust especially from the West and other challenges Moscow may meet along the way, Putin’s Russia has proved to be resilient to emerge victorious in dealing with challenges and criticism from the West.




How to manufacture a ‘new cold war’ with China

By Rachel Esplin Odell.

In recent months, many observers have sounded the alarm that hardening U.S. policy toward China could provoke a “new cold war.” As I wrote with my colleague, Quincy Institute Deputy Director of Research and Policy Stephen Wertheim in the New York Times, hawkish members of the Trump administration are using the current pandemic as an opportunity to launch a long-desired cold war that had failed to gain traction amidst Trump’s push for a phase-one trade deal.

However, some who agree with this critique of recent U.S. policy have challenged the use of this term, rejecting the basic premise that anything like the U.S.-Soviet Cold War of the 20th century is possible between the United States and China.

This critique of the critique has merit. The economic models of both the United States and China in the contemporary era depend upon robust integration with a global trading and financial system that makes them mutually interdependent — not only bilaterally, but also as nodes in complex multilateral production networks. Such a relationship does not easily lend itself to a cold-warrish dynamic of mutual isolation and segregation.

These same broader production networks also render countries around the globe, including America’s allies, mutually interdependent with both the United States and China, and thus highly resistant to choosing sides in any sort of “Cold War 2.0.”

These basic structural and geopolitical realities are not stopping the current administration from trying to wage an anti-China cold war, however. A cold war is not necessarily a state of mutual economic isolation between countries or multi-nation blocs. It can refer more generally to “intense economic, political, military, and ideological rivalry between nations, short of military conflict.” Recent U.S. policy toward China manifests all of these dimensions of rivalry.

Precisely because of the strong structural impediments, the current administration is having to work hard to manufacture a new cold war. And in order to do so, it is attacking the sources of ballast that have long stabilized the ship of U.S.-China relations.

In numerous administrative rules, enforcement actions, and rhetorical broadsides, this administration has warned businesses, state and local governments, colleges and universities, scholars and advocates, and diaspora communities against collaborations with Chinese entities, threatening them with punishment for serving as unwitting agents of the Chinese government. This approach was epitomized in a series of speeches delivered in June and July by National Security Advisor Robert O’BrienFBI Director Christopher WrayAttorney General Bill Barr, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The explicit goal of these speeches was to engineer a “whole-of-society response” to “the threat that the Chinese Communist Party poses not only to our way of life, but to our very lives and livelihoods.”

Some of the complaints raised in these speeches were founded on kernels of truth and legitimate concerns about Chinese government repression, censorship, and intellectual property theft. However, much like Senator Joseph McCarthy’s red-baiting in the 1950s, they went far beyond raising legitimate concerns. They extrapolated from isolated anecdotes to paint an ominous picture of a broad Chinese Communist Party conspiracy to undermine America’s economic and political system.

These allegations were also made without essential context regarding the actions of other nations or the United States itself. For example, in castigating China’s decision to expel some American journalists in March, O’Brien neglected to acknowledge that it was taken in retaliation to the U.S. placing restrictions on Chinese government media outlets operating in America. Likewise, his discussion of the security threats posed by Chinese technology companies made no mention of how these practices are modeled in part on practices of the U.S. government, which installs its own backdoors in hardware and software produced by U.S. companies.

These speeches highlight the irony that instead of implementing prudent policies that protect national security and data privacy, while safeguarding the civil rights of Chinese Americans and other U.S. citizens, the Trump administration is waging vitriolic ideological warfare against Beijing. It is employing overheated rhetoric to villainize China’s role in the world and its influence in America, all while professing a patronizing and simplistic “respect and admiration for the Chinese people.” In so doing, it is raising unfounded, broad-brush suspicion of economic, scientific, political, cultural, and interpersonal exchanges between the United States and China, the vast majority of which strengthen both countries. Such tactics compromise America’s vibrancy, openness, and pluralism by employing some of the same tactics of fear, closure, and intimidation that China sometimes itself employs.

This strategy is most directly harming Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans who are increasingly subject to discrimination and suspicion. They experience this harm through both the direct harassment of U.S. law enforcement and customs officials and, indirectly, through the government’s efforts to encourage companies and universities to exclude or monitor Chinese employees and students.

Thus, although there are indeed strong structural impediments to a new cold war, there is a risk that the current administration will succeed in exploiting the downward shift in U.S. public opinion toward China precipitated by the pandemic to undermine the dense networks between American and Chinese companies, state and provincial governments, universities, nonprofit organizations, and individuals. This could, in turn, erode a critical foundation that has served as a bulwark against U.S.-China conflict and hostility.

That said, these relationships have been nurtured and developed over the course of several decades. They are heavily institutionalized, with enormous investments of time, money, and goodwill. They have been boons to the American economy, generating jobs for American workers, demand for American goods and services, and synergistic scientific innovation. They should prove resilient to this administration’s red-baiting.

And it is essential that they do. For beyond their economic value, these ties enable America to better understand the complexities of China’s society and culture, its virtues and vices, its resilience and fragility, its humanity and banality — and vice versa. These humanizing insights are essential to blunt the ugly nationalism and racism increasingly manifest in American imaginations of China.


Source: Responsible Statecraft’s Rachel Esplin Odell.


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