Modern Diplomacy
A Return to the Cold War? Why Is It Useful to Study Bipolar Crises?

In a recent interview, US Secretary of State Blinken stated that the era of the post-bipolar world order is over. Now we face a new reality - the excesses of Russian-Western rivalry taking the form of regional crises, driven by mutual hostility. One cannot but agree with the Secretary of State's assessment, although it is worth acknowledging that the United States does not really understand the importance of these changes, as it engages in regular provocations at Russia's sea and air borders, expels Russian diplomats and allows itself to use increasingly harsh rhetoric.

Diplomacy does not tolerate this — it is an exact science. A new round of military escalation in Ukraine has shown that the system of international relations is rapidly returning to the Cold War confrontation model. It had several characteristics. First, the bipolar confrontation was saturated with the dynamics of local conflicts: they were called “proxy wars” because they were fought by proxy — the superpowers competed with each other through the hands of their clients. The Ukrainian conflict is more reminiscent of such crises than US interventions following the collapse of bipolarity. Second, the Cold War took place within the framework of an irreconcilable ideological confrontation. In today’s realities, the international arena is divided between the narrative of unipolarity and the “right side of history” on the one hand, and the new multipolar world order, on the other.

At the same time, the era of bipolarity had features that have no analogue today.
The Cold War gave rise to the phenomenon of institutionalised conflict, that is, the creation over time of mechanisms for managing confrontation, a kind of “rules of the game”.

Each crisis was a "variable sum game“ — a situation in which both opposing sides could benefit. After a series of crises following World War II, the USSR acquired the status of a formidable opponent of the United States, securing the bipolar architecture of the world order in the second half of the 20th century. Also during the years of the Cold War, in addition to contradictions between the superpowers, there was a special interdependence — an interest in preventing nuclear Armageddon. The parties also saw the limits of the permitted escalation. The logic of the “penultimate step” of conflict behaviour assumed the presence of strategic incentives to aggravate the situation to the limit, but without the political confrontation escalating into military hostilities. In turn, nuclear deterrence was built on the idea of ​​"reasonable irrationality," or persuading the enemy that their counterparty would indeed take the suicidal step of nuclear escalation, if necessary. Moreover, the Cold War was distinguished by a global status quo: a divided world gave rise to an unspoken doctrine of non-interference in the affairs of a neighbouring bloc. This directly contradicts with the current realities: the conflicting parties now alternately accuse each other of trying to revise the world order. Therefore, the world has yet to develop rules for prudent strategic behaviour.

As for the Valdai Discussion Club, my colleagues and I have prepared a report to outline the conceptual foundations of such behaviour, drawing them from the history of the Cold War.

The history of international relations in the second half of the 20th century can rightly be called a “test laboratory” of the national foreign policy elites of the Soviet Union and the United States. This experience was formed not only in the course of a desk search in various departments of the optimal strategy to respond to a crisis, but also in the course of direct improvisation in crisis situations — when the world was on the verge of destruction. If we hope to avoid spontaneous military escalation, familiarity with such experience is now more important than ever.

During several milestone crises between the USSR and the West, the elites came to realise that the world cannot commit collective suicide. The Berlin and Caribbean crises, as well as the Cuban Missile Crisis of the 1980s, when the opposing sides faced the real possibility of World War III, can be cited as the most striking examples shaping the Soviet-American response experience. Today, historians unfairly overlook the Suez Crisis. Its key significance lies in the fact that following its conclusion, Great Britain and France ceased to exist as great powers. The history of bipolar confrontation is not only a conflict between the USSR and the USA. Already in the 1950s, the Soviet-Chinese alliance showed its first cracks, gradually transforming it into a confrontation.Hero of the Soviet Union, Major General Vitaly Bubenin recalled:“We were preparing for the invasion of our territory.” And already in 1969, for the first time in history, the two nuclear powers clashed on Damansky Island, and for the first time since 1941, Soviet border guards entered into battle with the regular army of a neighbouring country.
The history of the Cold War paints before researchers episodes when counterparties deliberately used escalation as a tool for forcing negotiations, towards an optimal political result for themselves.

Perhaps, only now before the attentive reader, there are again associations of conflicts of a disappeared era. Both Russia and the West resort in the best traditions of bipolarity to the strategy of purposeful military, political and economic pressure in an attempt to undermine the viability of a competitor. It is possible that, once they get the hang of it, the parties will retain this line of conflict behaviour for decades, realising that this is the optimal strategy for interacting with the opponent. Given the tightening pressure of the international environment, the acceleration of social time and the faster exchange of information, the risks of an inadvertent transition to military escalation are much higher than they were seventy years ago.

My point is a minor one: we must return to the practices of prudent competition — where the benefits of the “variable-sum game” are found, the boundaries of “penultimate step” escalation are calculated, and the signals of “reasonable irrationality” are assimilated. The history of the Cold War will be our main aid in such a search.

Situation on the Korean Peninsula. An Expert Discussion
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.