The phrase “Cold War” has become a cliche with little meaning. It was used to label every case of the Russia-US confrontation since the 1990s, and it finally became very common in the 2000s. Although purists were always against using this term without a proper connotation, it was already impossible to stop it.
The cliche “Cold War” seemed to explain everything, and its loose interpretation gained more value as the international situation got more complicated. An understanding of what is going on became the most scarce and even most desired commodity of the 21st century.
Meanwhile, the Cold War is a certain model of world order connected to the second half of the 20th century (the 1945 to 1989 period to be exact), and also a set of principles inherent to the relations between the superpowers.
The first definition is not applicable to the current situation. The Cold War as an historical stage was based on bipolar confrontation: The superpowers with equal capabilities determined everything that happened in the world back then, not through cooperation but in a course of intense strategic and political-ideological rivalry.
A set of rules was established that not only restrained the different sides’ ambitions, but also could be imposed on others if necessary.
That period has left us with nuclear deterrence and guaranteed mutual destruction today, which is fundamentally important, but insufficient for restoring the 40-year-old system. The context has changed dramatically.
Much as the Kremlin and the White House want it to be, Russian-US relations are not the core of world politics that overshadows the rest, as it used to be. It is impossible now to force other countries to do what the “heavyweights” want.
The balance of equally potent superpowers is no more. The US is incomparably more powerful than others, while counteractions to US policy are becoming more asymmetrical, making centralized world governance impossible.
However, the second definition of the Cold War is still applicable in regard of goal setting in mutual relationship.
The Cold War is not meant to be a solution to a conflict. Diplomacy is required to minimize risks, to lower tensions or, speaking in military terms that reappeared in political lexicon, to de-escalate.
No more and no less.
It is believed that the Cold War ended between 1989 and 1990 when former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev agreed that unified Germany could join NATO. Thus, he refused to treat European affairs as bloc politics.
However, one year prior he proclaimed the motto of the new epoch that would succeed the confrontation.
In December 1988, when he delivered a speech at the UN General Assembly, the then-Soviet leader stressed the necessity to abandon dividing lines due to aggravating global problems that required the united efforts of all humankind. Under the circumstances of the Cold War, such an appeal was irrelevant.
Regardless of the theses of philanthropists and “people of good will,” a unified humankind did not exist. What we had were two struggling political camps dominated by their agendas and a good deal of unaligned nations that fluctuated between them.
Gorbachev’s speech at the UN heralded the following epoch when the quest for a concerted reply to global challenges became dominant in world politics.
It is pointless to speak now about whether such an approach was successful or not, to what extent it reflected US hegemony, how sincere or selfish or perhaps naive its proponents were.
However, conceptually, the era of globalization — from economics to climate and terrorism issues — is compared with the time when the world was divided during the Cold War.
What is going on between Russia and the US can be described as a real Cold War.
First of all, joint crisis resolution or problem solving is out of the question. De-escalation as a political goal, which was first mentioned in the Joint Geneva Statement on Ukraine in April 2014, is not a solution to the crisis (it appeared after almost a year during the signing of the Minsk agreements, in which the US did not participate formally), but a measure to stabilize the conflict, control the confrontation.
However, the administration of former US president Barak Obama did not have the intention to start a total Cold War and tried to use its palliatives instead, which sometimes made the situation even worse.
A shift into the psychology of a real Cold War happened in the fall of last year after a failure to develop a plan to end the war in Syria. The White House was so frustrated that there were no attempts to work together at all.
US President Donald Trump’s astounding win gave hope that a Cold War could be averted.
Although some optimists were carried away by Trump’s statements to cooperate with Russia, they underestimated his hawkish inner circle (another soldier, John Kelly, who had served 45 years in the US Marine Corps, became Trump’s chief of staff) and negative sentiment of the US Congress establishment.
Nevertheless, only six months after Trump came to the White House the Cold War became reality.
However, although the goal set (no intention to cooperate) is a true fact, the situation with the structure of Russia-US relations is completely different from the one during the Cold War.
Trump makes erratic statements: At one moment he declares his willingness to reach an agreement with Russia and describes telephone conversations and meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin as “tremendous,” but expresses the intention to be very tough with Moscow at another.
There is no clear line. It is determined by opportunistic factors (primarily in domestic politics).
This means that Russia in fact is not so important for the Trump administration. The US Congress, which has codified sanctions very likely for decades to come, considers Russia only as a tool for addressing other issues, but not as a political actor.
Moscow is not interested in rising confrontation. Its rhetoric remains mostly restrained and its response measures are taken with reluctance, but the recent decision to reduce the number of the US embassy staff is almost unprecedented in peacetime.
On the other hand, it served as a restoration of parity.
Nevertheless, the lack of symmetry and predictability in the exchange of blows makes the situation more dangerous than during the Cold War.
Relations with Russia are just part of a far more general trend. The US withdrawal from the Paris climate accord signifies the end of the ideology that dominated after Cold War, the one that Gorbachev proclaimed in his UN speech.
“America first” is not merely a beautiful slogan, but the methodology related mostly not to Russia, but to US partners and allies. Such a tenet does not allow the possibility of bargaining or a reconciliation of interests, and joint action can be taken only after its practical implementation. The US cannot be “partially first” or “occasionally first.”
Thus, the recent Russia sanctions law surprised Europeans because of the US’ unconcealed reluctance to take into account their commercial interests and its readiness to promote US economic needs by political means, but not market mechanisms.
However, the document was created not by Trump and his team, who brought to light the principles of mercantilism in global trade, but by Congress, an ardent opponent of the US president. The US administration gets a tool for applying pressure on any competitor — either suspicious China or friendly Germany.
During the election campaign, Trump distanced himself from the “world supremacy” doctrine, which was taken as axiomatic for all the administrations after the Cold War.
Many have interpreted it as Washington’s desire to cut down its external activity and do its own business. However, things have gone differently.
Having given up “world supremacy,” which provides for the responsibility for others (whatever Washington makes of it), the White House (with the support of Congress) decided to use the power of the US exclusively to protect and promote its own interests, but on the same global scale as before.
This is a prerequisite for a lot of dangerous conflicts, and not only with Russia. It is time to remember the main achievement of the first Cold War — the mechanism of risk minimization and mutual restraint.
However, considering that this time there is one player, whose power is beyond any others’, mutual efforts should be made to deter him specifically.
Russia will not be able to cope with this on its own. Speaking of the response to the US policy, there should be work to change political alignments of countries to counter the US on various issues, in ways that would vary depending on the situation.
This is a great challenge for Russian diplomacy, which will require skills that are different from the ones that have been developed over the previous years.
Fyodor Lukyanov is chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy of Russia and editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs Journal.
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