Despite numerous politicians’ and journalists’ bombastic claims, the Cold War is over and it neither has nor will it ever start again.
The current tensions between Russia and “West” will not and cannot take the same form as those that defined the world for almost half a century between 1946 and 1991.
However, while the current confrontation may be structured along different fronts and shaken by different fault lines, it can be to some extent as nasty as the Cold War. What follows is a sketch of five reasons why another Cold War is not upon us, but why we should be, none the less, quite seriously afraid.
First of all, the Cold War was a systemic confrontation between diametrically opposite concepts of development, governance, and society-state relations. The current confrontation is not. Russia is a market economy. Different from many other market economies, certainly, but it is a state where profit, competition, accumulation and capital play a central role, as in any other capitalist country. Russia is not planning to change this, but wants these mechanisms to work in specific ways to her advantage.
Second, the Cold War was a rather well structured confrontation where the “rules” were quite clear and both sides stuck to them as closely as they felt obliged. The master rule was the assurance of nuclear deterrence and the capacity of both sides to control their well-defined client states. Another undisputed rule was to inflict pain on the adversary and – sometimes – induce tragic human destruction but only to the point of the opponent started to perceive it as the existential threat beyond which they seek an immediate accommodation. Today’s confrontation has fewer rules, its main actors barely control the worldwide situation on the ground, many former clients are free agents, many of them pursuing their own agendas and often openly criticizing their old bosses. Those who possess nuclear weapons seem to be even less afraid of making known the limits of their accommodation of the wishes of the “great powers.”
Third, the Cold War was a “state to state” and “block to block” competition, a confrontation between the United States and the USSR and between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Nowadays, states have lost much of their sovereignty over they own affairs and the polity has less power to deliver on its promises. Power, broadly defined, has becoming increasingly unchained from political control and capital so-called “non-state actors” are as capable as states in inflicting chaos and destruction. A lack of control over more general “inter-state” issues (such as migration) has made even the strongest global players much weaker. The erosion of international institutions and international law obviously follow.
Fourth, the Cold War was marked by confrontation and competition between the systems while now the roots of competition sprout from within the globalized market and confrontation accompanies deep interdependence. Politicians, policy makers, and societies are not ready to adjust to a situation where we would fight each other and cooperate at the same time (as the global market demands from us. As a result, instead of two blocks we are dealing with increasing regionalization along economic lines, but also – increasingly – along roughly-defined “cultural” lines.
Fifth and most importantly, there is a deep perception in Russia that the current “international economic and political order” does not benefit Russia. In fact, the general view is that it plays directly against her. This is the exact opposite of the Cold War, which – to some extent paradoxically - helped Russia by forcing her to be a “world within herself”: self-sufficient and relatively immune to the caprices of the world market and world’s dominant currency.
The previous “war” was about two visions of the world; this one is about a revision of the consequences of the previous one within a completely different world. The Cold War played out in a rather well structured international environment (and still had terrible human costs), while the current confrontation is playing out amidst institutional, economic and social chaos. The goals for both sides are much less defined, and the means for achieving them more numerous. Finally, and troublingly, by comparison to the Cold War, Russia’s economic potential is much smaller while its military potential is as destructive as ever. One thing, however, has not changed between the Cold War and the current confrontation: deep mutual distrust. As such, the space for maneuver for both sides is smaller and the potential for a serious mistake much bigger. We are certainly not seeing a resurgence of the Cold War, and for this very reason I cannot help but conclude that the current Russia – West confrontation may prove to be even more dangerous.