The cynicism behind Cold War revivalism

Why the Cold War is NOT back and the hawks in Washington and Moscow need to shut up about its imminent return.

The Cold War is not back. And neither Russia nor the United States can afford it anyway, writes Bishara [AFP]

Blowing hot air about a Cold War redux has reached new heights following the crisis in Ukraine. It revealed the level of hysteria among Russian and American ideologues. So much, that even the cool-headed began to speak of the need to avert another Cold War “we cannot afford”.  

But is a Cold War 2.0 plausible at all? (A subject for discussion on the next episode of EMPIRE).

Many of those who use the term “Cold War” nowadays, do so casually to warn against the dangers of a widening Moscow-Washington divide. That’s commendable.

But the alarmists, who attach a strategic and historic significance to the reference, tend to advocate renewed military build-up in Europe. That’s both flawed and dangerous.

The first thing to remember about the Cold War is the fact that it wasn’t much of a war in the North, nor was it cold in the South. And it was unique in the way it was simultaneously “waged” on multiple fronts: Ideological (philosophical/intellectual), universal (a vision for the future of the world), global (nuclear), international (in every continent and over every state), and strategically between the greatest military machines in world history.

Cold calculus

Washington’s strategy was designed to keep the Soviets out, the Germans down and the Americans in Western Europe. In parallel, Moscow’s strategy aimed at controlling the East Germans, keeping America out of Eastern Europe and the Soviets in. 

In the process, the two built up the most formidable military alliances in history – The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Warsaw Pact, and embraced the biggest deployment of military hardware on the fault lines between East and West Europe.

Their capacity for total destruction in Europe, including total obliteration of each other through nuclear weapons, limited their strategic calculus and transformed the Cold War into a decades-long ceasefire. A standoff that eventually – and astoundingly – ended with the dismemberment of the Soviet Union, and the collapse of Moscow’s domination in Eastern Europe without a single shot being fired.  

So, to speak of a Cold War today is rather absurd considering that the Warsaw Pact is no more, NATO is at Russia’s doorstep, and America has just finalised the withdrawal of two thirds of its troops from Europe as part of a worldwide redeployment which includies a pivot to Asia.

Meanwhile, Russia and its former European satellites are, with varying degrees, economically integrated in the West. And Germany, de facto the new leader of integrated Europe, is opposed to a return to cold War type tension.

Since the beginning of the crisis, Chancellor Merkel has been keen on working with Putin to de-escalate and tried to bridge the divide between Washington and Moscow. Without Berlin’s approval and participation, America will be challenged to mount an aggressive strategy towards Russia. Even its proposed sanctions couldn’t work without Germany, Russia’s biggest trading partner. 

To reverse all of this over Ukraine is improbable – short of a political earthquake. Interestingly, Presidents Obama and Putin might have done little to de-escalate the crisis, but they have steered away from the alarmists’ vision and their extreme strategies. 

And hot wars

A return to the Cold War also means going global. For decades, Washington supported authoritarian regimes against the Communist expansion, and Moscow built up totalitarian movements and regimes against the capitalist/imperialist West. In the process, they armed thugs, supported terrorists, hosted criminals, and financed assassins throughout the world.

Their strategies culminated in proxy wars within and between countries throughout the developing south. Protracted wars that proved terribly costly in more ways than one to people in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

But just as Washington stood for freedom and human rights – at least theoretically, it seemed on more than a few occasions to be on the wrong side of history as it undermined anti-colonial and anti-authoritarian movements for fear of Soviet expansion among others.

The type of policies that President Obama regretted in public when he spoke of America putting its short term interests above its long term values.

No one disputes that Washington has won and Moscow has lost the Cold War. And despite repeated failures since, Washington continues to maintain the fantasy of changing the world and continues to exercise influence throughout the Third World as the “world’s only super power” and “leader of the free world”.

But Moscow has given up its ideological fantasy and its global mission to change the world. Yes, it throws its weight every once in a while behind a dictator or a nemesis of the United States, however, these opportunistic moves do not rise to its Cold war global reach.

At best, Russia tries to be a regional power, but the good old days of the “Evil Empire” are long gone. 

Resurrecting the empire takes more than holding Bashar al-Assad’s hand or tapping Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on the back. It requires a certain ideological clout, economic power and a different vision for the world, something Moscow lacks.

Resurrecting the empire takes more than holding Bashar al-Assad’s hand or tapping Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on the back. It requires a certain ideological clout, economic power and a different vision for the world, something Moscow lacks.

Needless to say, millions of civilians continued to die in senseless wars after the Cold War – from Colombia to Yugoslavia and from Rwanda to Afghanistan. But these were no longer instigated or escalated by the ideological East-West divide.  

Warming up to capitalism

A return to the Cold War also means clashing universal visions. But the Communists are a small minority in Russia, the former Soviet republics and throughout Eastern Europe.

Communism as a rallying ideological vision for the future of the world is long gone and Russia has no vision of its own to preach or export. It has embraced the Western capitalist mode of production with varying degrees of state intervention after a wave of exaggerated liberalisation in the 1990s.

Russia’s leading political parties, including Putin’s United Russia, embrace a variation of Western type liberal, nationalist, conservative, or social democrat orientations, with a twist of populism and perhaps Russian Orthodoxy – whatever that means.

Moscow has, slowly but surely, integrated Russia into the world economy by joining the Western led World Trade Organization and becoming the eighth member of the world’s leading industrialised economies, G8.  

While its trade with the US is  low – at around $38 bn (and holds $139 bn in U.S. Treasury securities), Russia’s first trading partner is the European Union, or  or 50 percent of its total exports and imports, with almost $330 bn traded annually. Moreover, Russia is a major destination for German investors with 6,200 German companies doing business there, just as the United Kingdom is a destination for $11 bn worth of Russian investments. 

That’s why, despite repeated warnings from Washington, Europe’s leading economies are not about to turn back the clock on their economic relations with Russia, not only because it makes no business sense; but they reckon business is the better path to security. 

Searching for a ‘third voice’

The Cold War is not back. And neither Russia nor the United States can afford it anyway.

The United States, which emerged from the WWII with 50 percent of the world’s GDP, hovers  today around 20 percent (at PPP) and descending.

It remains to be seen whether the Ukraine crisis is a game changer in Russia’s relations with the West. But short of a return to the Cold War, the unfolding strategic drama between the two capitals could have severe impact on stability in Europe and elsewhere.

That’s why concerned states and powers around the world should avoid the ongoing polarisation and unite around an alternative solution in Ukraine and beyond to calm down the warmongers in the US and Russia.

The West could be more sensitive to Russia’s insecurities, and Russia could be more sensible in its strategic posturing. That includes among others, maintaining Ukraine’s non-allied status as a buffer country between Russia and the North Atlantic Alliance. The declaration by the acting prime minister of Ukraine, Arseniy Yatsenyuk that Kiev will not join NATO is a step in the right direction.

It also includes rejecting any attempt by the two protagonists to export their tensions and conflict to the Middle East, Asia and beyond. This is simply unacceptable.

Moreover, Washington and Moscow must continue with their post Cold War nuclear arms reduction towards total abdication as stipulated by the NPT treaty. Not only does Mutual Assured Destruction – or MAD – remain a theoretical possibility, other states would be encouraged to develop nuclear weapons if the US and Russia exploit the ongoing tensions to attempt a nuclear build up.

The Cold War ideologues are making too much noise because the peace camp is not speaking out loud enough. Time to reverse the trend to keep the warmongers in check.

Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera.