Sunday, March 7, 2021

New Cold War Exists in Rhetoric but Not in Reality, Four Russian Experts Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 5 – Today, on the 75th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s Fulton speech which many see as the start of the Cold War, four Russian foreign policy experts were asked whether there is now a new cold war. They are unanimous that such a conflict exists at the level of rhetoric but not in reality (

            Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Politics and head of the Presidential Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, says that the cold war was about not only military-political power but about ideology and the latter no longer plays the role that so defined the period after Churchill’s speech.

            Today, he continues, there is nothing like this: “Russia and even China live in the very same paradigm of a market economy as does the US.”  Earlier there was a contest between planned and market economies, but “now there isn’t and apparently never will be again.”

            Information technology also means that no side can isolate itself from the other, “at least not yet.” But the most important change is that “there is an ever-greater break between the information picture of the world and reality. On both sides.” In the information space, “a real war is going on.” But not in reality, as the situation in Syria highlights.

            During the cold war, Lukyanov says, the international order was defined by the nuclear standoff and the fear of mutual destruction. That was something new because it meant that while wars among smaller powers could occur, wars between the major ones which had nuclear weapons became unthinkable.

            That is still true and so those who argue that what has emerged now represents a return to a pre-cold war world are wrong as well, he concludes.

            Vladislav Zubok, a Russian scholar at the London School of Economics, says that the cold war was about “a gigantic confrontation between two powers which in essence clashed on the remnants of a poor Russia.” Then the US “produced half of the world’s industrial output and owned almost all the gold.” None of these things is true any longer.

            No one has yet decided on a good term to describe the current situation, but “cold war” isn’t an appropriate one. Instead, the conflict between Russia and the US is taking place at the level of rhetoric to serve the domestic needs of ruling elites who find it useful to present their opponents as agents of the other side.

            With the rise of Trump, what had been the established American ideology has been shaken profoundly, he continues. But in Russia, there is no ideology but “only attempts to think one up.” And the rise of other powers, China in particular, make the bipolarity of the cold war an anachronism when applied today.

            Ivan Kurilla, an Americanist at St. Petersburg’s European University, says that people always are tempted to use old terms for new realities, but “the cold war had its own features and now those are not present.” The only place where there really is a new cold war is in rhetoric, but that isn’t the same thing as a real cold war between two superpowers.

            Instead, and here he echoes Zubok’s remarks, the ruling groups are using this rhetoric to solve domestic problems. And they are uncertain how to respond to real changes, including the rise of China. A generation will have to pass before there is a complete paradigm shift in that regard, Kurilla suggests.

            And Andrey Kortunov, director of the Russian Council for International Affairs, says that “the world has changed and our countries have too” from what they were in the cold war. “It is possible with conditions to call the situation a cold war but one must understand that one is speaking about a situation different in principle and about different relations.”

            In contrast to the past, the world is no longer bipolar, competition in it is not based on ideology in the first instance, and there are increasingly powerful non-state actors who pursue agendas often at odds with the state system. It is no longer possible to isolate any society by erecting an iron curtain.

            Moreover, Kortunov continues, peoples around the world are increasingly focused on common problems like the environment, biological diversity, climate change and the exhaustion of resources than they were during the cold war. And as a result of this combination, there is not the same arms race as earlier.

            That doesn’t mean there aren’t serious problems and dangers, he concludes. “The current situation is close to the first stage of the cold war in the 1950s when there had not yet been set agreed upon rules, and there were no mechanisms for arms control or risk reduction” between the US and the USSR.

            At that time, the two sides sought to find or establish the limits on their actions. But as all remember, Kortunov says, “this was the most dangerous period because the threat of war was the greatest.”

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