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. In the last month alone, headlines have proclaimed that “The New Cold War Is Here,” heralded “Putin’s New Cold War,” and warned that “Trump Is Preparing for a New Cold War.” 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.
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