The new cold what?
Sep 4th 2008
Naming the stand-off between Russia and the West
DEFINING the beginning and end of the old cold war—let alone is the issues at stake—is tricky. Did it start with Lenin? With Stalin? Or with the Iron Curtain’s erection in Europe at the end of the second world war? And when did it end? With the Helsinki Accords of 1973, or with Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika?
Historians can quibble indefinitely, but a rough definition might be that the cold war was an era of rivalry, both military and ideological, between two global superpowers. It started with the Berlin airlift of 1948, and petered out in the 1980s.
The phrase “the new cold war” has grown increasingly popular. In the past year it has appeared, along with a mention of Russia, fully 1861 times in major world publications, according to the Lexis-Nexis database. By contrast, it appeared only 1062 times in the five years between September 2001 and September 2006.
But does it make sense? Russia may flirt with Venezuela and Iran, and refuse to vote for sanctions against Zimbabwe at the UN, but the days of serious proxy wars in faraway countries are clearly over. The West’s disagreement with Russia is mostly a regional conflict about the future of the former Soviet empire in Europe, not a titanic fight about the future of the world.
The reason is simple: Russia is too weak for global struggle. The Soviet Union could at least pretend to be a superpower. Russia cannot. In alliance with China, it might perhaps be able to form a serious anti-western alliance. But that does not seem to be happening.
As Andrei Piontkovsky, a sapient Russian commentator, points out, an alliance between Russia and China would be like one between a rabbit and a boa constrictor, with Russia as the lapine element. Even in nuclear arms, Russia is no match for the West. As far as conventional weapons go, any adversary bigger than Georgia would present problems.
And the clear ideological division seems missing too. Russia does not preach a messianic ideology that attracts fervent believers all over the world. Westerners who sympathise with the modern Kremlin are a rum mixture of amoral financiers, America-haters, isolationist cranks and anti-capitalists. If they ever met each other, the dislike would be instant and apparent.
Finally, Russia is integrated into the West in business, financial and cultural terms to an extent that would have been inconceivable in Soviet days. Millions of Russians travel abroad. For all except a tiny number of determined oppositionists, Russia is an open society where people can live their lives as they like.
Yet for all that, talk of a “new cold war” is not necessarily absurd. Historical events never repeat themselves precisely. The current era of confrontation with Russia is new and different (and unsettling for those who believed fondly in a new era of perpetual peace).
But the similarities deserve mention too. The main theatre is the same: the countries of eastern and central Europe. In those days they were struggling to be free of the Soviet empire. Now they are struggling not be sucked back into a “lite” version of it based (mostly) on economic influence rather military occupation.
The ideological struggle between capitalism and communism has been replaced by a clash of values: are a free press and an opposition that can win elections necessary parts of a modern economy? The West says yes; Russia says no. Even in the old cold war, Russian imperialism played a big if submerged role in Soviet thinking. Now that seems back too. That’s nasty. And a nasty short-hand term for it, sadly, is needed.
Thursday, September 04, 2008