For about four years now, since Russia’s occupation of Crimea and China’s launch of the Belt and Road Initiative, there has been much speculation about whether another Cold War between East and West is coming: But are we really returning to the past? Contemporary politics is full of false analogies, and the return of the Cold War seems to be one of them.
At its peak, the Cold War was a global system of countries centered on the United States and the Soviet Union. It did not determine everything that was going on in the world of international affairs, but it influenced most things. At its core was an ideological contest between capitalism and socialism that had been going on throughout the twentieth century, with each side fervently dedicated to its system of economics and governance. It was a bipolar system of total victory or total defeat, in which neither of the main protagonists could envisage a lasting compromise with the other. The Cold War was intense, categorical, and highly dangerous: strategic nuclear weapons systems were intended to destroy the superpower opponent, even at a cost of devastating half the world.
Today’s international affairs are in large part murky and challenging, but they are a far cry from Cold War absolutes. Calling twenty-first-century great-power tensions a new Cold War therefore obscures more than it reveals. It is a kind of terminological laziness that equates the conflicts of yesteryear, which most analysts happen to know well, with what takes place today. Although many echoes and remnants of the Cold War are still with us, the determinants and conduct of international affairs have changed.
Although many echoes and remnants of the Cold War are still with us, the determinants and conduct of international affairs have changed.
Russia’s truculent and obstructionist foreign policy under President Vladimir Putin comes from a sense of having lost the Cold War in the 1980s and having suffered the consequences of the defeat in the 1990s. Many Russians hold the West responsible for the chaos and decay that befell their country under Boris Yeltsin’s presidency. They miss the respect that the Soviet Union got as the other superpower (even though few miss the dreariness of the Soviet state itself). They cherish a strong president who, they believe, has given Russia its self-respect back by sticking it to the West as often as possible, just as they welcome the inner stability that they believe Putin has given Russia.
China, on the other hand, believes that its unprecedented economic growth has given it the status of a predominant power in the region—it is no longer a pawn for others as it was during the Cold War. If the Cold War was holding China back, then the post–Cold War era has set China free to act on its own behalf, as many Chinese believe. Meanwhile, Communist Party leaders are obsessively studying how the Soviet Union collapsed, in order to avoid a similar fate for their country. China (and everyone else) has inherited the North Korea imbroglio from the Cold War, as well as a deep resentment of what most Chinese see as U.S. global hegemony.
On the U.S. side, the main echo of the Cold War is a sense—very prominent among President Donald Trump’s voters, but also apparent elsewhere—that Washington has been taken advantage of by others. As the argument goes, throughout the Cold War, the United States delivered security on the cheap for the rest of the capitalist world while American allies helped themselves to U.S. money and jobs, giving little in return. Many U.S. voters feel that their country, having won the Cold War, gained next to nothing as a result. The current administration is thus shedding systemic responsibilities in favor of much narrower U.S. interests.
These are aspects of how the Cold War created the world we live in now. But today’s international affairs have moved beyond the Cold War.
Bipolarity is gone. If there is any direction in international politics today, it is toward multipolarity. The United States is getting less powerful in international affairs. China is getting more powerful. Europe is stagnant. Russia is a dissatisfied scavenger on the fringes of the current order. But other big countries such as India and Brazil are growing increasingly influential within their regions.
Nationalism is also on the rise. Having had a hard time reasserting itself after the ravages of two nationalist-fueled world wars and a Cold War that emphasized non-national ideologies, all great powers are now stressing identity and national interest as main features of international affairs. Cold War internationalists claimed that the national category would matter less and less. The post–Cold War era has proven them wrong. Nationalists have thrived on the wreckage of ideology-infused grand schemes for the betterment of humankind.
Whatever international system is being created at the moment, it is not a Cold War. It may turn out to be conflict-ridden and confrontational, but using “Cold War” as common denominator for everything we don’t like makes no sense. Instead, we should try to understand how perceived lessons from the past influences thinking about the present. If we want to apply history to policymaking, we must learn to be as alert to differences as we are to analogies.