Early in 2022, the question of whether the world had entered into a new Cold War was a matter of debate. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 seemingly answers the question. It reignited nuclear fears and, for all that has changed, inevitably echoed the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968. As this issue goes to press, the outcomes are impossible to predict. But the conflict could play an analogous role to the Korean War by institutionalizing existing tensions.
What we’re witnessing today is not the potential Cold War most had been expecting, and, if we are entering a new era of Cold War, it will not simply be a matter of conflict between Russia and “the West.” Russia produces 3 percent of global GDP, while China contributes more than 18 percent. Containing China was the purpose of President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia.” One of the few areas of agreement between the Trump and Biden administrations is that China represents a threat to the long-term interests of the United States. Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin do share a common opposition to U.S. hegemony and, at a meeting in February before the invasion, promised a friendship with “no limits.” Russia and China, they pledged in a statement, “stand against attempts by external forces to undermine security and stability in their common adjacent regions.”
Even if we are entering into a new period of Cold War, its logic and structures will be different than those of the first. If we were to reduce the first Cold War to its core features, they could be these:
1. The Cold War was a bipolar great-power conflict.
2. It had the potential to erupt into violence between the two powers, creating existential global risk. In practice, this prevented direct military conflict, pushing competition into espionage and fighting into “hot zones.”
3. The conflict burrowed its way into all layers of global politics, effectively making the United States and the Soviet Union participants in the political coalitions of governments around the world.
4. The conflict pitted two fundamentally opposed systems against each other, and they competed to prove not only their military superiority but also their superiority as ways of arranging human affairs and distributing the products of human achievement.
How closely does the current situation match these features?
On the first point: the overwhelming military power of the United States and the Soviet Union tended, with some exceptions, to divide the world into one of two major camps. If the world in 2022 has some of those features, there is likely to be a slipperiness to the factions. Though the United States remains the world’s dominant military force, the country has had three successive generations in which foreign interventions have demonstrated the limitations of that power. More importantly, the economic capacity of the globe is much higher in 2022 than it was in 1945—and, though not well distributed from the point of view of the global poor, it is more evenly spread out. China, the United States, and the European Union all have economies of similar size, with substantial areas of integration and mutual dependence. While the United States and the EU find themselves aligned on many issues, as do China and Russia, there are also strains and divergence. The bipolarity of the first Cold War won’t be precisely replicated.
Second, although the invasion of Ukraine has roused nuclear fears, the broader U.S.-China competition seems more confined to economic competition. (As of this writing, the primary form of retaliation against Russia from the United States and Europe has been economic sanctions.) In the 1940s, the unprecedented threat of atomic weapons caused people to float wild proposals, such as arranging human settlement into long lines that would be difficult to bomb. Nothing so dramatic seems on the horizon. But, as in the first Cold War, constraining military conflict pushes competition into other realms. Technological change has opened up internet-based competition, changing the nature of espionage and disinformation campaigns. The terrain of cultural combat in a second Cold War would have less to do with jazz and literary magazines and more to do with memes and social-media influence.
In the first Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union eventually reached a stage at which they were willing to collaborate to reduce nuclear risk. But the most certain planetary threat in 2022 is climate change, and both China and the United States need to transition to less destructive energy sources. Unlike nuclear competition, rivalry in the energy sector should produce less pollution, rather than more atomic weapons, inverting one part of the dangerous logic of the first Cold War. On the other hand, competition over access to key resources such as lithium may well resemble Cold War proxy battles.
On that matter, the third quality of the Cold War—the active role that superpowers took in the governments of other countries—is already a very real part of the world today. The United States and China are eager for allies, as is Russia. The former Chilean ambassador to China has already proposed that Latin American countries navigate this environment with a policy of “active nonalignment.” For diplomats, this competition for influence has had a Cold War–like quality for years. One dangerous feature of this dynamic is that external coalition partners can shore up authoritarian governments that would otherwise fall under democratic pressures; loans can be extended for political rather than economic purposes, and corruption and organized crime can create networks that entrench mafia-like states. It is unlikely, for example, that the Venezuelan government would have been able to cling to power in the face of extreme unpopularity and an extraordinary collapse in GDP without Russian and Chinese assistance.
One important feature of the first Cold War’s brutality was U.S. support and toleration of dictatorships, as long as they suppressed communist activities. The United States still has some authoritarian allies, but the most geopolitically dangerous situations, as the invasion of Ukraine demonstrates, are in vulnerable democracies on the security perimeters of Russia and China. Self-determination in those places will be subject to considerable pressure and is likely to be seen through an ideological lens by all the major powers.
That brings us to the fourth feature of the first Cold War: the total competition between alternative ways of arranging human affairs. Unlike the Soviet Union, China has a market economy, albeit one that differs from the U.S. economy in its forms of protection for private property and in the role of the state. There is now, as before, competition to show that one system is superior to the other for the purposes of producing stability and growth. But the competition lacks the ideological firmness of the fight between capitalism and communism.
Still, this division of the world into democracies and autocracies certainly informed the Biden administration’s “Summit for Democracy” in December 2021, which linked Biden’s foreign policy vision of shoring up democratic allies to the domestic task of defeating the authoritarian threat of Donald Trump. That linkage already points to another significant difference: the Communist Party was miniscule in the United States during the Cold War, whereas Trump’s movement represents the plurality of one of the two major political coalitions and is further entrenched by minoritarian features of the U.S. political system. The rhetoric of the first Cold War relied on an idealized notion that U.S. institutions were wise in their design and creation, well balanced, stable, and prosperous. This was always an exaggeration—Southern states were authoritarian enclaves into the 1970s, for example—but the current mood among political elites is one that emphasizes the vulnerability of U.S. institutions and of democracy itself. If the United States is going to oscillate between rule by a coalition that identifies democracy with civic and political rights and a coalition that is indifferent or hostile to them, it will be difficult to sustain an ideological competition of the sort made possible by the broad anticommunist consensus of the Cold War.
There are unmistakable similarities between global affairs in 2022 and those of the Cold War. Still, the differences are significant enough that we should not assume that a new Cold War would be just like the last one. When Francis Fukuyama imagined the “end of history” as the Cold War ended, he warned that it might be a “very sad time.” “The struggle for recognition,” he wrote with preemptive nostalgia, “the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.” It may be that a highly ideological struggle has been reignited. But it may also be that “the endless solving of technical problems” has been elevated to the core of global competition. It may fail to be boring and still be a very sad time.
Patrick Iber teaches history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is the author of Neither Peace nor Freedom: The Cultural Cold War in Latin America.