Tensions are rising between Russia and the West, and so naturally people have started to draw parallels between the current international political climate and that during the Cold War. In this article, Eloise highlights some of the similarities and differences between the two situations, and raises the question of whether calling this “the second Cold War” is simply a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Is this the second Cold War?
Tensions between the West and Russia are undeniably rising, reaching new heights with the recent attack in Salisbury – but has the situation returned to the extent of a second Cold War? The similarities that are emerging between the original Cold War (1947-1991) are striking, and perhaps most overwhelmingly, frightening. However, although it is easy to quickly categorise any Russian-related conflict as a ‘cold war’, this has the potential to create an outdated approach – when ultimately, it is a different era.
Technological developments since the Cold War are the perhaps the greatest difference between then and now. Communication is much more sophisticated, meaning that Kennan’s ‘Long Telegram’ today may have just been a particularly lengthy email… which perhaps could have avoided a great deal of the miscommunication, misinterpretation and misunderstanding that fuelled the Cold War. Therefore, today’s situation shouldn’t allow itself to become a Cold War – society has evolved in a way that should prevent some of these mistakes from repeating themselves, and so categorising it as such could condemn the world to another Cold War unnecessarily. Similarly, the continually expansive nature of globalisation has forced Russia to become included and cooperative with Western capitalism in a way that it refused to be in the latter half of the 20th Century. Russia engages with Western capital markets, importing Western goods and technology and exports oil and gas – a relationship that would be incomprehensible during the most hostile years of the Cold War.
However, this relationship is fragile. Today’s ‘Cold War’ may simultaneously be fuelled by technology via provocative social media. President Trump continues to fire off antagonistic tweets, which add to the lack of a respectful working relationship between Russia and the USA through the indirect insults being broadcast to the world. Trump claimed that ‘Our relationship with Russia is worse now than it has ever been, and that includes the Cold War’, but by proclaiming this via twitter, Trump is creating the foundations of a second Cold War by implication. To further this, Trump patronises Russia, suggesting that they need ‘help with their economy’ which will inevitably infuriate Putin, and is reminiscent of the sentiment of the Marshall Plan of 1948.
The combination of nuclear threats and rivalries, alongside the attempted assassinations (particularly the most recent Salisbury attack) have the ability to shatter any form of relationship and create tensions reminiscent of the Cold War. Society’s attitude to Russians seems to be reverting back to the Cold War era – the abundance of Soviet Bond villains (for example Rosa Klebb and General Grubozaboyschikov) had faded to give way to the middle east, but today’s media appears to be returning to the perception of the Russians as the villains – as shown in the recent BBC series of McMafia. Combined with the disgrace within Russian sport, the vilification of Russia through popular culture is a similarity to the Cold War era, that if uncontrolled, can be dangerous in leading public opinion to antagonise and heighten the situation into something more harmful than the current reality.
Whilst the threat of Russia is prevalent, with the Salisbury nerve-agent attack and the continual testing of new nuclear weapons heightening the severity of this, Russia is not the major global power that the Soviet Union once was. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the USA seemed to be in a stand-off, vying for the top spot – NATO versus the Warsaw Pact – but Russia’s former Warsaw Pact members have since switched alliances to NATO (Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania among others), leaving Russia’s sphere of influence severely depleted, and the USA’s significantly strengthened, meaning that the rivalry is no longer on the same level.
The difference between the Cold War and the present should not undermine the serious nature of today’s circumstances, but instead perhaps encourage a different approach. Putin is using tactics that remind the world of Stalin – manipulating election results, indirect threats, whilst Trump is provocative in a way that mimics Truman – but resigning ourselves to the fate of a second Cold War prematurely could sentence the world to an indefinite future of hostility unnecessarily. If the label of a ‘Cold War 2’ could be avoided, then perhaps the situation could be handled less fatalistically, and therefore avoid allowing this unrest to escalate to the extent of a second Cold War.
By Eloise Hall