It’s really easy to get cranky right now and believe the world is retreating into to a sad Cold War binary in which Russia and its allies are always in high tension with the United States and its allies. A new Cold War.
Well there’s Russia, and spies, and the United States, and it feels tense, right? Very Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
For those of you 40 and over with your Frankie Say No t-shirts, you will recall that as a time when there were two great empires and their vassal states, and two leaders, against whom one side was Good and one side was Evil. Depending on your politics, or subscription to the Readers Digest.
At its peak, the Cold War was a global system of countries centred on the United States and the Soviet Union. They both had client states and influence – here’s the CIA’s view of a few. And here’s how it worked in Chile.
While it didn’t determine everything that was going in global world affairs, it influenced most of it. At its core was an ideological contest between capitalism and socialism that had been going throughout the twentieth century. It was a win/lose binary, neither seeing compromise with the other. It was intense, and likely to kill us all.
Many echoes of the Cold War are with us and will be for a while. And there’s no doubt as to President Putin’s ideological lineage. While now he works is oligarchs more efficiently than Cyrus The Great, Putin was a spy for the Soviet Union.
But as large countries rise and fall, great-power tensions occur. It happens, and doesn’t need the terminological laziness applied from seventy years ago. There’s nothing like the bread-lift to Templehof,
rolling of the communists in Italian and French elections,
the Cuban Missile Crisis between Kennedy and Khruschev,
or the Prague Spring
and its crushing –
no it’s weirder and it’s different.
What has also changed is the rise of China’s economy and the strengthening of its state with a pretty clear and open grand strategy, the shift of the United States into incoherence with little executive control over its grossly distended military, the destabilisation of Europe, the rise of new and great trade pact blocs,
and the control of most of the world’s assets by even fewer corporations to the extent that states are less and less relevant to world affairs unless the state steers those companies directly or indirectly.
Today’s international affairs are in large part murky and challenging, with Good and Bad binaries gone. But they are a far cry from Cold War absolutes. Calling 21st century great-power tensions a new Cold War just obscures more than it reveals. It’s a terminological laziness. Although many echoes and remnants of the Cold War are still with us, the determinants and conduct of international affairs have changed and are changing fast.
The politics of oil is changing fast.
The politics of trade and infrastructure throughout all countries surrounding China is changing.
The moral certainties within developed-nation politics are splintering very fast. A continued rise in tolerant states with strong rights and redistributive systems has turned into a retreat. The capacity to even be a citizen is far more uneven globally and not getting better.
All that is solid has melted into air. This is not the new Cold War.