Image: U.S. nuclear weapon test Operation Ivy, 1952. Via Wikimedia Commons.
I am a child of the Old Cold War. I was born during World War II, and my earliest childhood memories of the outside world were of the emerging Cold War in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
The Cold War had a deep impact on my life and the lives of others. It was presented as an epic ideological struggle of “democracy v. totalitarianism”, “capitalism v. communism”, “God v. atheism” and a host of other binary oppositions defined in one way by our side and in an entirely different way by the other side.
The mobilizing banners were based on two very different systems of politics and economics. The USSR and China were command economies with state ownership of the means of production and no market pricing. Until the late decades of the Cold War, these economies were largely sealed off from the global trading and financial system of market economies under American capitalist hegemony. Corresponding to these two economic models were very different political systems: command economies were run by authoritarian one-party states; market economies were run by competitive multiparty democracies.
By the 1970s the command economies of the Soviet bloc were visibly failing. They increasingly turned to Western financial capital to bail them out with investments, loans etc. Their poor performance in producing consumer goods could now be measured against the standard of prosperous capitalist economies, with a resultant dramatic decline in their legitimacy. The crisis of legitimacy affected the authoritarian political systems as well, and as command economies faltered, oppressive one-party states collapsed altogether across Eastern Europe in 1989, followed by the implosion of the USSR in 1990–91. Soviet Communism went into the dustbin of history.
Also in 1989, China faced the grave challenge of the mass student protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, but in sharp contrast to the imploding Soviet-bloc states, the Chinese regime ruthlessly crushed the protests and maintained the formal continuity of Communist Party rule.
A great paradox: in the USSR, where Communism died as formal state doctrine, the Communist economy failed to transition to an effective market economy; in China, where Communism survived as a formal doctrine, it transitioned to a globally competitive capitalist success story. In post-Soviet Russia, state assets were appropriated by mafiosi and oligarchs whose approach was essentially that of rent-seekers rather than entrepreneurs. In post-Maoist China, the reforms of Deng Xiaoping produced a private sector economy under strategic state direction with astonishing growth numbers.
Thirty years ago, Russia and China were roughly equal economically. Today, the Chinese economy is ten times the size of the Russian economy. In contrast to corrupt Russian crony capitalism, Chinese capitalists are leaders in innovative artificial intelligence and robotics, at the cutting edge of high tech.
Apart from ideology and economics, the other main impact of the Cold War was military. Each side had command over the means and the delivery of mass nuclear destruction on a catastrophic scale. Subsequent generations that have grown up outside the looming shadow of nuclear war perhaps cannot realize just how pervasive and insidious the threat of nuclear conflagration was in the 1950s and 1960s, with nowhere to hide.
These fears finally came close to realization in 1962 when, by now an undergrad at university, I watched in dread as Soviet ships steamed toward the American blockade during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The atomic clock stood at one minute to midnight, and this was the Cold War nadir. Yet both sides saw reason, stepped back, and prevented Armageddon.
Remarkably, throughout the entire Cold War era, the United States and the USSR never came into direct conflict with each other. The nuclear deterrent really was a deterrent to the kind of general wars that had been experienced in 1914–18 and 1939–45. That did not, however, mean a peaceful or violence-free world. The Cold War had very bloody killing fields that stretched in a great arc around the Communist bloc from Korea to Southeast Asia across the Middle East to North Africa. The superpowers backed contending armies in ugly proxy wars, while always prudently backing off from escalation into global war.
There was de facto recognition of spheres of interest. When Hungarians and Czechs revolted against Soviet rule and the Kremlin sent in tanks, the West stood aside. The Cuban Revolution in 1959 challenged the American sphere of influence off the Florida coast. The subsequent reckless Russian decision to station missiles in Cuba threatened to destabilize the Cold War system, but the crisis was resolved with an uneasy rebalancing: the withdrawal of Soviet missiles was matched by the withdrawal of American missiles from Turkey next to the Soviet border.
An infant when the Cold War began, I was middle-aged when it ended. It had haunted my world, so much so that I devoted a good deal of my scholarly career to researching and writing about the Cold War, trying to unravel its multifaceted impact on post-1945 politics and culture.
And now, long into my retirement, the Cold War is suddenly back. China – still under the direction of Mao’s old party, now led by a new all-powerful boss, Xi Jinping – is an antagonist that threatens Western global hegemony from a newfound position of economic and political strength. Russia, heartland of the old Soviet empire – now under a post-Communist Stalin wannabe, Vladimir Putin – has launched an invasion of Ukraine more brutal than the Soviet repressions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, calling forth all-points Western resistance from economic sanctions to military aid to Ukraine, once again raising the spectre of all-out war.
Is the New Cold War simply stealing the script of the Old Cold War? There are continuities. To the extent that the original Cold War was a Great Power competition over spheres of influence and exploitation, with Stalin reprising the role of imperial Tsar and Western leaders that of the imperialist monarchs of old, then today’s superpower contest looks grimly familiar.
Appearances can deceive. The biggest single difference lies in the virtual demise of the ideological divide that animated both sides in the past. Revolutionary Russia began with an ideological mission to build a communist utopia at home and abroad. Even in its last sclerotic phase in the Brezhnev years, the USSR never abandoned its ideological mission, backing so-called “progressive” or leftist forces against Western-backed “reactionaries” in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
The ideological drive behind Cold War rivalry had serious consequences. The domestic impact in the West of anti-Communism as a loyalty test for democratic citizenship disfigured the political cultures of liberal democracies for decades. Equally damaging was the negative effect on Western socialism of the Communist bloc’s Stalinist and Maoist perversions of the socialist ideal into grisly police state dystopias.
Today the ideological battle lines have been turned upside down. Vladimir Putin’s ideology is a murky amalgam of aggressive xenophobic Russian nationalism, authoritarianism and cultural reaction. To be sure, Soviet Communism was not innocent of appeals to nationalism, as during the “Great Patriotic War” against Nazi Germany, which in practice amounted to Russian rather than artificial Soviet nationalism, often at the expense of minority nationalities. But under Putin, Russian chauvinism is in explicit ascendancy.
Putin contemptuously dismissed the very notion of a separate Ukrainian nation just prior to the invasion. Western liberal democracy is viewed as alien to the Russian soul, while autocratic rule by a strong man is required for the Russian mission to rule over a great Slavic empire. In social terms, Putin has marked his time in power by launching state attacks against homosexuals and feminists and denouncing all liberal perversions undermining the moral fibre of the nation. While Putin may be sincere in these beliefs, they provide cover for the corrupt rule of greedy oligarchs. Beneath a façade of reactionary philosophy lurks the familiar face of self-serving kleptocracy.
It is no accident that as President, Donald Trump, premier kleptocratic demagogue, was often an ally of Putin, or that the far right of the Republican Party is pro-Russian. In Europe Putin has allied himself with the neofascist right, like Marine Le Pen’s party in France which he and his oligarchs bankroll. His army of cyberhackers has negative objectives, sowing disunity and distrust and undermining confidence in democratic institutions. The brutal and senseless invasion of Ukraine exemplifies his nihilism. Putin’s Russia can kill and destroy; it has difficulty building and creating.
Russia is a petrostate that produces few products for export other than its nonrenewable resources. With the challenges of climate change and now the invasion of Ukraine, Europe will eventually wean itself off dependence on Putin’s oil and gas exports. Yet as it is forced into isolation, the Russian economy – unlike the old Soviet command economy – is tied in myriad ways into the global financial and trading system. Because of this, economic sanctions brought on by the Ukraine invasion can now be devastating, certainly in the longer term if not in the short run.
China is a different matter, coming from a position of economic strength rather than weakness. China’s ruling ideology, with a passing nod to the Mao era – like Margaret Thatcher invoking “Victorian values” on behalf of Thatcherite neoliberalism – is something called “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” The socialist component seems elusive, but the reference to Chinese characteristics evokes the sometimes strident nationalism fostered by Xi. For foreign consumption, China’s economic model is described as the “Beijing Consensus” which stresses strategic one-party state direction of competitive capitalism, as opposed to the “Washington consensus” which the Chinese describe as a declining capitalism beset by political conflict and internal disunity.
But China’s economic success is also a potential constraint on its freedom of action. The Chinese government depends on a flourishing global economy to keep up its side of the implicit social contract it has with the Chinese people: economic growth in exchange for political quiescence. A return to the austere autarky of the Mao era would be damaging. Moreover, Chinese investors hold a huge amount of American debt. This is a new Cold War balance of mutually assured economic destruction. In such circumstances the sanctions weapon, potentially so devastating when wielded against Russia, will be of limited use against China. But those same circumstances constrain reckless Chinese aggression.
Maoist China supported Communist or pro-Communist forces abroad, starting with its military intervention in Korea and continuing with support of the Vietnamese Communist struggle against the United States. China’s Vietnam initiative ended badly when, following the American retreat, the Vietnamese and Chinese came to blows.
Xi’s China has abandoned any ideological mission abroad – its allies are now found mainly among ragtag dictators and kleptocrats who admire the one-party model. The recent turn toward a more aggressive China First foreign policy and infamous “wolf warrior diplomacy” are already producing diminishing returns. After Beijing’s crushing of the prodemocracy movement in Hong Kong and expansionary naval and border moves, many of China’s close Asian neighbours have become alarmed and are ready to look at defensive moves against Chinese expansionism.
China may find itself turning to Putin’s Russia, which will certainly be in need of new pipelines to divert its oil and gas from Europe to Asia. A new Chinese-Russian alliance will be one in which China is the senior partner, Russia the supplicant junior. This can hardly suit Putin’s ego, so the alliance will be under strain, especially if the West imposes sanctions on China for evading the sanctions against Russia. The old Sino-Soviet alliance, when the Soviets were the senior partner, broke down in the early 1960s: that pattern might well repeat itself with roles reversed.
The George Kennan policy of containment of the Soviet Union formulated in the late 1940s proved to be a winning long-term strategy for the West. The bipolar division of the world was profound, but the nuclear deterrent proved effective at maintaining peace between the superpowers, even as violence spilled out into other parts of the world. Patience rather than belligerence won in the end.
Containment is more complex today in a more integrated and interconnected world. The same need to contain aggression without touching the nuclear tripwire constrains Western states faced with the invasion of Ukraine as faced their predecessors in Eastern Europe.
China is a greater challenge, but there is now common ground between China and the West that did not exist in the past. Both sides can grasp the point, made by Hobbes at a time of English civil war, that economic and political competition can lead either to peace and prosperity or to the anarchic nightmare of the war of all against all. To achieve a peaceful outcome, all protagonists must admit constraints on their freedom of action.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the existential challenge of climate change that faces all countries and all systems equally. Finding ways to cooperate on saving the earth, even as competition heats up across other areas, is not only desirable but an absolute necessity. Failure to do so will mean that the New Cold War could lead to global disaster – even without anyone pushing the nuclear button.