The Cold War Strikes Back

How we ended up in a new Cold War without anyone knowing

A Peacekeeper missile test in the Marshall Islands. Each line is a nuclear warhead racing down through the atmosphere.

The other week, I saw something weird on Wikipedia. No, it wasn’t a list of animals with fraudulent diplomas. It was the wiki page for the Syrian civil war. In the infobox, the article noted the five-year long conflict was “part of the Arab Spring, the Arab Winter, the spillover of the Iraqi Civil War, Iran–Saudi Arabia proxy conflict, and Cold War II”.

“Cold War II!?” I thought to myself. Sure, things are pretty sketchy on the world stage, but I didn’t really think we were declaring the start of a new global war quite yet. I also thought I would have heard about it. Sure enough, the actual article on Cold War II is basically a summary of a few sources that describe the tensions between the US/NATO and a new Eastern Bloc, headed by Russia or China (whoever seems more dangerous at the time, I guess) as a new cold war.

The use of the term in the infobox soon attracted the eye of the ever enthusiastic wiki editors, with one user named Albrecht declaring that the Wikipedia should not be “consecrating/legitimising the pseudo-concepts spawned by our notoriously impoverished clickbait culture” and that the term should be removed. Indeed, Albrecht! So it was decided that the Syrian civil war wasn’t really a part of Cold War II, and that Cold War II isn’t really a thing.

It’s worth pointing out that this term and the idea of our contemporary world resembling a Cold War split between two superpowers hasn’t made much of an impact in the international relations/geopolitical analysis community — partially why I was surprised to see the term at all. That said, this idea that we are all in a new cold war has been pushed by fairly senior national figures — Russia’s Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, for one.

The 2016 Victory Day parade in Red Square.

For what it is worth, I think that there are some interesting similarities between the Cold War and today. Syria looks like a pseudo-proxy war between the US and Russia (with the added twist of nominal cooperation at the diplomatic level… sometimes). American and European trained Ukrainian army units engage with Russian-supported rebels in the Donbass. Russian subs stalk the Baltic, spooking the Swedish. Everyone is cosying up with old friends and new frenemies. On the espionage front, cyber warfare has given new life to the concept of covert action. The KGB is back in the form of the MGB. And perhaps most scarily, nuclear weapons are once again in the news.

Kim Jong Un happily smiles at a nose cone of a weapon of mass destruction. KCNA.

However, the modern international arena is much more complicated and unstable than the Cold War period. The fact that “Cold War 2” can refer to either Russia or China as the US’ enemy demonstrates how ill-defined the term is. The Cold War was a very specific period in history that was not just defined by spies, proxy wars and tension between states. It was defined by the geopolitical conundrum of nuclear weapons, and the intractable difficulty of actually engaging in conflict because of them. It was also an intense ideological battle, with clearly defined ideological blocs. There are ideological battles today, but the most effective of these are not state-sponsored, but emerge “from below” — from movements that are propelled by the disenfranchised and alienated, not by governments.

Even the return of the nuke as a topic of importance is one that doesn’t neatly fit into the Cold War paradigm. Today, most countries that have nuclear weapons are regional powers — as would be any new entries to the nuclear club. Regional powers don’t play to the nuclear logic that the superpowers did. Pakistan, for instance, maintains a policy of first use in the face of a conventional threat. It is likely that North Korea will adopt a similar policy once it can build up its technical competence. It is easy to understand nukes as a “cold war thing” — historically important, ever-present, but ultimately irrelevant to the modern world, a relic of a bygone era. The returning importance of the nuke as a modern geopolitical feature is concerning, but the multipolar nature of nuclear weapons distribution makes a mockery of Cold War ideas.

My point is that the Cold War 2 term misses out on what made the Cold War… the Cold War. It also fails to recognise how complicated, multipolar and different our world is now. That is both reassuring and worrying at the same time. We can’t fall back on the old script, we have to write a new one.