Everything old is new again as the saying goes, so it is no surprise that the mainstream media has likened the current state of global affairs as “Cold War 2.0.” Is this media hyperbole or a misreading of the geo-political climate?
It is true that Russia has been flexing its military muscle in recent years, most notably in an effort to bring former regions of the Soviet Union back under its sphere of influence. China is also ramping up its military might as its seeks to extend its own influence. Yet the mass declaration of Cold War 2.0 could be a true misreading of the current political situation.
An Old name for a New Problem
“I’m not a fan of the Cold War 2.0 framework to describe our current situation,” said Tate Nurkin, senior director of thought leadership within the IHS Aerospace & Defense group. “The Cold War 2.0 analogy doesn’t really fit with what we are seeing in world today.”
Instead, the current geo-political situation could be seen more akin to a return the pre-World War I “balance of power” among various state actors, with regional aspirations, not global domination in mind.
“Our current situation is much more the latter not the former,” said John Gordon, senior policy researcher for the RAND Corporation. “One key difference is that during the Cold War we had serious dangers that could lead to a global conflict that don’t really exist today. There were also many proxy wars: Americans were killed in Vietnam by Russian and Chinese weapons, while Russians were killed in Afghanistan by groups that had the support of America. Both sides were using any and all means at their disposal to gain an advantage and this included weapons and financial support.”
Clash of Ideology
The biggest reason that Cold War 2.0 is the wrong world view comes down to ideology.
“During the Cold War, not only did we have those proxy wars in Vietnam, Asia and even Africa but it was really a standoff of two very different ideologies and two different social economic systems,” said Ron Suny of the Eisenberg Institute for Historical Studies, professor of social and political history at the University of Michigan. “There are hardly any socialist or communists states around, and even North Korea would like to be more capitalistic.”
Russia today has a state capitalist society, with some limited free media and other democratic – albeit limited – facets added Suny.
“The bigger picture is that this is really not the Cold War 2.0 because you have a relatively weak state in Russia, which can barely spend 10 percent of its GDP on its military, against the United States,” Suny told ClearanceJobs. “That doesn’t even include the money spent by other NATO members…Russia can’t really compete. It is really trying to be a regional power and dominate the area that the Soviet Union had as regional hegemony.”
In addition, it is worth noting that NATO today is made up of not only former Warsaw Pact nations such as Poland, Romania and Hungary, but that the alliance also now includes nations that were once part of Soviet Union including the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
“We shouldn’t forget that it took Russia most of the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union to get back on its feet,” said RAND Corp.’s Gordon. “Russia for centuries have felt they were a great power at least in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and they still see this as their natural sphere of interest and a vital interest at that.”
China has become increasingly more capitalist as it has moved away from the Communist doctrine, in part because of the failure of the Maoist policies during the actual Cold War.
“In the case of China, what you are seeing is the natural flexing of muscles for a country that for centuries was grossly underperforming in its economic potential,” Gordon told ClearanceJobs. “Mao’s economic and social models were a disaster and failed.”
Some proponents of the Cold War 2.0 model have pointed to China’s attempts to build a sphere of influence beyond South East Asia, but Gordon said that too is a misreading of the situation.
“This isn’t neo-colonialism by the Chinese or an attempt at world domination by spreading their ideology,” Gordon added. “They are expanding a bit in Africa to gather resources to build their economy. Their extension to East Africa and Latin America is an economic move, not a world domination move.”
The New, New World Order
If anything the second decade of the 21st century – 100 years after the horrific destruction brought on by the First World War – is almost a reshuffling of the early 1990s New World Order. That may mean more regional competition but it is less likely the great powers will go down the road that lead to World War I, which in turn led to the Second World War and subsequently the Cold War.
“We will see the Russians and Chinese, and soon the Indians and maybe even the Brazilians as the near term competition in region areas,” said Gordon.
The bigger danger in the short term is from non-state actors such as ISIS, as well as its allies and affiliates. How these groups can be defeated remains a problem without a solution.
“The immediate threat worldwide is ISIS, but in the Middle East we could be on the wrong side of history by our backing of kings and emirs against the population,” said University of Michigan’s Suny.
The other threat is from the rogue states – especially as cyber warfare, not to mention nuclear weapons, allow these nations to stand up to major global powers.
“That is a concern for our security like never before,” said Nurkin. “You see more actors today with the capability to do real harm, and both nuclear and cyber are real threats.”
Non-state actors and non-Cold War players could be the real threat, as they build cyber and nuclear capacity.
“As recently as the 1990s, if there was a Second Korean War the risk to Japan was low,” explained Gordon. “Then the North Koreans could have fired some inaccurate missiles, maybe launched a suicidal commando raid against Japan, but that was it. If North Korea acquires nuclear weapons delivery capabilities as it clearly wants, then the Japanese are at risk and they will in turn want a capability to hit back.”
During the Cold War both sides knew that mutual assured destruction was the order of the day if the weapons were used. Regional powers may see no other option if their regime is in danger. This presents a possibility for other powers to be dragged in.
“That is where a China-U.S. war or a Russia-U.S. war becomes more of a possibility, as those small regional players miscalculate the situation,” added Gordon.