Congress’ endless probe into Russia’s alleged involvement in the 2016 US presidential election, along with other recent high-profile news stories such as Russia’s role in Syria and the attempted assassination of an ex-Russian agent on British soil, make us wonder whether or not the Cold War really came to an end when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Certainly, Russian President Vladimir Putin often appears determined to keep the fight alive. But before we put all the blame on him, we need to recall not only the origins of the Cold War and the CIA but of the spying profession itself.
The CIA was created largely to meet the threat of the Soviet Union, with its world-dominating mission, following the victory of the Allies over the Axis powers in World War II. President Truman was determined that the United States would never be vulnerable to another devastating surprise attack such as the one suffered at Pearl Harbor. Nuclear weapons had raised the stakes. The Soviet Union, or someone backed by the Kremlin, could cause far more devastation than Imperial Japan could have ever hoped to wreck on December 7, 1941. Moreover, Truman and then President Eisenhower were concerned with the threat of Soviet agents spreading mischief within the US and throughout the world. Thus, the US entered the Cold War both for reasons of immediate security against a sneak attack and for the ideological battle against the spread of Soviet-influenced communism. The fight was for the freedoms of liberal democracy over the tyranny of communism. Political leaders of just about every liberal democracy employed clandestine services in the fight.
When the Soviet Union officially came to an end in 1991, many thought the Cold War was over, even if there persisted a vague awareness of China as a communist nation with sufficient means to pose a vast threat to the rest of the world. Nevertheless, the euphoria was understandable. The evil empire was at an end. President Reagan had called the USSR the evil empire because of its evil practices born of an evil ideology—communism. Since Russia had repudiated its evil ideology, there would be no more reason for it to be evil. We could all be friends, perhaps even collaborate on the present threat of another kind of evil empire that Islamic extremists desired.
We can be thankful that Russia is no longer a communist country driven by the desire to spread its evil ideology to the rest of the world. Russia even claims to be partnering with the West in the battle against Islamic extremists. That is her excuse for her policy and presence in Syria. But we must keep in mind that Russia is still a formidable world power run by people who were born and bred in a communist culture, who desired to spread its influence to the rest of the world, and who hated the liberal democracies that opposed it, especially the United States. Putin is not the only ex-KGB officer with political clout.
We can be thankful too that tensions between Russia and the US are not at the level they were at the height of the Cold War, but they still exist. Putin’s actions guarantee their persistence. However, the US and Russia would still be spying on each other even if the Cold War had turned icy, even if, and this may seem strange to us, we had become fast allies. The reasons why can be found in the reasons why peoples from the very beginning of recorded history employed spies. In fact, spying and soldiering, if not the oldest professions, are certainly a close second. The reason is simple. Civil authorities want to know what their neighbors are thinking and doing because all neighbors are potential enemies as well as allies. Diplomacy has always been a kind of warfare where allies are sought and enemies checked. All political relationships are fluid, and today’s ally can quickly become tomorrow’s enemy.
When it comes to potential enemies, those in charge of our common good want to know who, when, where, and how. After all, the very essence of civil authority is the ability to protect citizens from internal and external threats. These threats will always exist because human beings are capable of great evil and great harm to each other. Human governments, which have their raison d’être in preserving the common good, are also capable of even greater evil than individuals because they have vastly more power. Nation-state leaders can never be absolutely sure when other nations may adopt a less than optimal friendliness toward them. Christianity provides a theological explanation for this state of affairs: the fall of humankind from a state of grace, in which there was perfect harmony between humans with each other and with God, to a state of sin, in which human beings now seek to dominate each other with their own selfish desires (St. Augustine’s libido domini). Evildoing has to be checked by the civil authorities, or no kind of ordered life would be possible (pacifist communities ever exist by the goodwill of non-pacifists). The just war tradition is the attempt to specify moral principles about when and how to use force to achieve a tolerably ordered human society. Spying is one of the means.
Given the facts of human nature and the very purpose of civil authority, certain acts of force are justified, even against allies. Allies may possess information crucial to our wellbeing but, for their own political reasons, do not wish to share it with us. This is why even the best of allies—the US and Israel for example—spy on each other to some degree. It was not that Israel thought the US was about to launch an attack on her that prompted Israel to send one of its spies, Jonathan Pollard, to spy on the US. But Israel wondered about US intentions in the Middle East and if the Americans had information they were hiding from Israel that could have proven useful to Israel. The US did not think Israel was about to unleash a weapon when it (and the United Kingdom) returned the Pollard favor and spied on Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The US and the UK wanted information about a country whose actions could play a large role in stabilizing or destabilizing a key strategic area.
If it is tempting to find hidden information about allies, it can be a positive obsession with enemies that pose a definite threat to our own safety and common good. The Soviet Union posed such a threat for most of its existence, even though we were very slow to recognize the threat until after Second World War. Russia poses less of a threat than the old USSR, but its behavior under Putin is troubling, to say the least. So, are we still in a cold war with Russia? Yes. But then we are also in a cold war with North Korea and Iran. The war with Russia may be more of a concern to us than that with North Korea and Iran, but that is because the latter two do not have the same weapon of mass destruction capabilities of the former. We may also say that we are in an even colder war with many other nation-states, most notably China.
The sad reality is that there is no nation-state in which we (or any other nation-state) can place total faith. This is particularly true when people are fueled by an anti-liberal-democratic ideology. But no matter the ideology, there is no nation-state that could never be conceived of as an enemy of another nation-state. This is just the way the world will work until the lion lies down with the lamb. Only then will we have no more need of a CIA with its mission statement about being our first line of defense or of an MI5 with its motto of “Defend the Realm.” Only when God puts an end to history will there be everlasting peace and friendship among all peoples. But until that blessed time, we keep an eye on each other.
Darrell Cole is Professor of Ethics at Drew University. He writes regularly on the ethics of war and is the author of Just War and the Ethics of Espionage.
Photo Credit: Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump meet at the 2017 G-20 Hamburg Summit on July 7, 2017. By the Kremlin, via Wikimedia Commons.