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Technology and disinformation places U.S. in multiple cold wars, author argues


The early pages of David Sanger's new book contain the following scene. It's a perfect, white night in Saint Petersburg, Russia, May 2002. Then-U.S. President George W. Bush and then-as-now-Russian President Vladimir Putin and their wives are on a luxury yacht floating down the Neva River. The dinner menu includes black caviar and foie gras, and it is elegantly served, as Sanger tells it, by a brooding man in a dark suit, a man who Sanger learned years later was one Yevgeny Prigozhin, who, of course, last year launched a rebellion, marched his forces on Moscow and then died in a fiery plane crash last August but who, on that starry 2002 night, was merely Putin's chef.

Well, David Sanger can recount these details with authority because he, too, was floating down the Neva River, one of many presidential trips he has covered as a reporter over four decades at The New York Times. It's a career that's given him a front-row seat to, among other things, the end of the Cold War and now to what he sees as the "New Cold Wars." That's the title of his new book, and he's in our studio to tell us about it. Hey there, David.

DAVID SANGER: Great to be back with you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So the yacht story - I mean, it's a great story. Let's just say that. But aside from that, you use it to remind us that there was a moment when it seemed the Cold War was not just over but that with a little effort, it could be erased from memory, from history. Take us back.

SANGER: That's exactly right. This was one of 24 or 25 meetings between President Bush and President Putin. That's unimaginable today. Joe Biden has met Putin in person as president exactly once.

KELLY: Once in Geneva.

SANGER: That's right.

KELLY: Yeah.

SANGER: I was at that meeting as well.

KELLY: As was I.

SANGER: And I have a funny feeling, as I suspect you do, that may be the one and only.

KELLY: Yeah.

SANGER: And it's a reminder that, back in 2002, the conversation on that boat was about whether or not Russia might actually join the EU and whether, eventually, it might become a member of NATO, the alliance that had been created to contain the Soviet Union.

KELLY: It's mind-boggling to think that's where we were.

SANGER: It is with NATO, you know, fully engaged in everything but person-to-person combat with the Russians. This is a book about the great shock that came from the discovery that we were wrong not only about Russia but about China, which American officials for decades also believed, for very different reasons, would join Western institutions, the Western economy and that, in both cases, the lure of Western markets would mean that there would be few or no territorial arguments, few or no direct confrontations.

KELLY: Peace and prosperity for all. Instead, we have arrived at "New Cold Wars," the title of your book. It's plural, people will be noticing. Explain.

SANGER: It's plural because in the old Cold War, we had one major adversary, the Soviet Union. And it was primarily just a military contest, although a terrifying and nuclear one. In the new Cold Wars, we have a military confrontation with Russia that's also a disinformation war. In China's case, we have military, economic and technological competition but mostly technological.

KELLY: So let me push you a little bit on this thesis you're advancing that we are in or facing new Cold Wars because I want to look at some of the things that feel quite different. One we've touched on - you're looking not just at a bipolar world but at Russia and China and the dual challenges that that poses. Another difference that gets talked about less but that you take on in the book - the paramount importance of the private sector. You quote a Biden administration cybersecurity advisor who told you it used to be governments that had access to perfect information and that now it's companies. Tell us about the role that Big Tech like Microsoft, Google - that they are playing in defending the U.S. and our allies.

SANGER: A quite critical one. You know, the book opens with the Munich Security Conference in 2022, when European leaders were walking around the weekend before the war broke out, saying, we don't think the Russians are going to do this. Four days later, the war broke out. The early warning or one of the crucial early warnings that the war was about to break out came from Microsoft, which saw attacks mounting from Russian cyber forces on Ukrainian government offices, sent a warning to the White House. And that turned out to be one of the crucial warnings. In the response that Ukraine put together, it happened, effectively, in large part, because of Starlink. And had it not been for...

KELLY: Elon Musk's.

SANGER: ...Elon Musk connecting Ukraine to this network of satellites, the Russians would have succeeded in cutting off the Ukrainian communications. They had taken out a big satellite network that the Ukrainians depended on. So these were only two examples, but they also make us and our allies more dependent on the whims of private companies. There was a moment, of course, famously...

KELLY: Led by private citizens...

SANGER: That's right.

KELLY: ...Who don't answer to the U.S. government.

SANGER: That's right. And Musk was a great example when he would not extend Starlink coverage to help the Ukrainians go attack Russian ships off Crimea.

KELLY: I mentioned when we began speaking, David, you've been at the Times for four-plus decades now. You've covered five American presidents...

SANGER: That's right.

KELLY: ...And counting back - so starting with Clinton.

SANGER: Yeah. And before that, I was in Japan.

KELLY: Yeah. Does this moment feel less predictable, less settled than others that you have covered?

SANGER: Definitely. There was, in the Cold War, for all of its terrors, something of a predictable cadence. We knew who the single adversary was. We knew who had launch authority over their weapons. We could watch and count their weapons. We are in an age now of proxy wars. We are taking on the Russians in a hot war in which President Biden has given his staff something of contradictory instructions here. One is don't let the Russians win, and the second one is don't start World War III. Both seem like very reasonable objectives, but they're a bit in tension.

The second is we are seeing combinations of power, like the Russians and the Chinese, where we don't understand the dynamics. Of course, what Nixon and Kissinger were trying to do in the mid-'70s, in putting together the relationship with China and opening to China, was to avoid exactly that combination. And now we are seeing the interplay of middle players, Iran and North Korea, but also those standing on the sidelines a bit, like India, which have continued to buy Russian oil and ignore the American- and Western-led sanctions but have not fully signed up with the Russians on the invasion.

KELLY: David Sanger. His new book is "New Cold Wars: China's Rise, Russia's Invasion And America's Struggle To Defend The West." Thank you, David.

SANGER: Thank you, Mary Louise.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID AXELROD'S "HOLY THURSDAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.