Cold War v2.0

“November of this year will be 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and arguably the symbolic end of the Cold War. History never repeats itself, but it rhymes – are we seeing version 2.0 of the Cold War in 2014?”

A lesson in history

The Cold War is named as such as there was no direct large-scale armed conflict between the key players – the Western Bloc (the United States and NATO allies) and the Eastern Bloc (USSR and allies of the Warsaw Pact[1]). Instead there were regional wars, the simmering threat of nuclear war and a dedicated fight for psychological supremacy and power that was waged through propaganda, espionage and the Space Race.

Cold War Alliances

map

US Propaganda

Soviet Propaganda

usprop russian-prop

After World War II, Stalin imposed Soviet-style communism on its eastern neighbours, just as Chinese communism was establishing itself. The Soviet Union actively promoted its communist ideals in Latin America (Cuba), the Middle East (Afghanistan) and Asia (Vietnam, North Korea) while the US through programmes like Operation Cyclone[2] provided direct financial aid and weaponry as well as covert support to anti-Soviet groups; and all out military force in Vietnam. 

Successive American presidents and Soviet leaders used differing strategies to try and maintain political dominance both domestically and internationally often through rhetoric and posturing. Due to the very real threat and awareness that escalations to a “hot war” would ultimately mean nuclear weapons deployment and MAD – mutually assured destruction – a delicate balance-of-power needed to be maintained by both super-powers.

Defence budget figures for the ex-Soviet Union are not readily available, but the chart below details US Military spending post-World War II. Within the Cold War era, the Vietnam War – in many ways a proxy for the Cold War – consumed a large portion of the US budget – over 10% of US GDP during the 1960’s. Although beyond the scope of this article, it is interesting to see the post 9/11 response in defence budget allocation; now around 5% of US GDP.

US Defence Budget History (Billions of 2005 Dollars)

graph1

Take two . . .

There is much literature detailing the previous Cold War era – the question is whether we are once again forming East-West power Blocs. The Cold War was largely about ideology, what appeared to be a credible alternative to capitalism and democracy – people across the world were prepared to fight and die in the name of Communism. However, there was no direct conflict between the US and the USSR – no troops were sent “behind the Iron Curtain” – neither side wanted to risk all out conflict, particularly after the Cuban Missile Crisis[3].

The US right-wing media and politicians are currently having a field day accusing the current US government as being “weak” in its response to Putin’s manoeuvring in Ukraine. They of course have their own political agenda at play and are enjoying the opportunity to use Cold War scare-mongering. There is certainly no Western military force assembling to combat the increasingly hostile Russian-orchestrated breakup of Ukraine and a military response is unlikely.

Instead, we have a situation where the current degree of economic interweaving between the east and west makes economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the west a bit of a blunt tool. Those sanctions may hurt Europe almost as much as Russia (oligarch London playboys aside). The threat of nuclear conflict has also diminished, New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), a follow-on from the START I treaty signed between Presidents Bush and Gorbachev in 1991 was signed by Presidents Obama and Medvedev in 2010 with both nations committing to further reductions in nuclear weapons.

Nuclear Weapons Stockpiles

russia-usSource: Norris, Robert; Hans M. Kristensen (July 1, 2010). "Global nuclear weapons inventories, 1945−2010". Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

Version 2.0?

We are certainly in a situation where on the surface, Cold War analogies abound. There is rhetoric and political posturing, displays of Russian nationalism (Sochi) and incitement of conflict in Ukraine – but the ideological underpinning of the Cold War is absent. No one is going to take up the Communist cause for Putin’s rich circle of ex-KGB officials.

The west will continue to make noises about respect for sovereign borders and freedom and democracy which served as the back track (but with little real effect) for version 1.0 of the Cold War. Rather than Cold War v2.0, the current situation could be better described as “Cold War Lite”.

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[1] The Warsaw Pact: a pact for the mutual defence of Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania and the Soviet Union.

[2] Operation Cyclone was the CIA code name for the operation to arm and finance the Afghan mujahideen who opposed the Soviet intervention. Critics of this operation claim the US was responsible for arming and financing the very groups that would coalesce to form the Taliban.

[3] The Cuban Missile Crisis was a 13 day confrontation in 1962 between the Soviet Union and Cuba against the United States. The Soviets intended to place nuclear missiles in Cuba; the US would not permit the delivery of such weapons and equipment and a naval blockade was set up. Several Soviet ships attempted to run the blockade and the Cold War came unnervingly close to a nuclear conflict.