Back on Thin Ice?
Illustration by Dennis Lan for USC Dornsife Magazine.

Back on Thin Ice?

The conjecture that we may be on the brink of a new cold war is a chilling one, racheting up our global anxiety levels, but is it accurate? [4¾ min read]
BySusan Bell

The Cold War. The phrase evokes grainy images of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Space Race, Soviet propaganda posters and the proliferation of fallout shelters in backyards across America.

The end of World War II set the stage for the Cold War — the struggle between capitalism and communism that pitted East against West for almost half a century and brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later signaled the death knell of the ideological battle for hearts and minds of people worldwide.

“If you define the Cold War as a battle between rule books, then the liberal internationalists’ book — based on Anglo-American capitalism, the promotion of democracy and democratic values, the rule of law and multilateral building of institutions to manage security and the global economy — won,” notes Steven Lamy, professor of international relations and spatial sciences.

For a while, the United States enjoyed a unilateral moment as the undisputed global superpower. But now, 30 years later, with the rise of China as a major economic and military power, the interference by Russia in the U.S. 2016 presidential election, and what many regard as the abdication of America’s leadership role as defender of the liberal world order, is a new Cold War heating up again?

Lamy prefers to describe the heightened global tension as a period of great power rivalry between the U.S., China and Russia.

“I don’t think we’re in a new Cold War, although it serves a purpose for some people to suggest that, especially those who want to increase military budgets,” he said.

Certainly, the language of the Cold War is flourishing, he argues, not only in the Pentagon and within the Chinese and Russian military, all of which favor an “us and them, good versus evil” mentality, but also in wider American political discourse which, he notes, increasingly incorporates Cold War rhetoric based on fear and the outsider.

The concept of a new Cold War, he says, is “a fireball thrown down the hallway” to divert attention from the real issues — namely how to manage globalization so it’s more equitable and sustainable and to address the world’s key problems of climate change, global  poverty and increasing inequality.

USC Dornsife’s Russia expert Robert English takes a different view, arguing that we are already in a new Cold War, although he concedes that it’s significantly different from the last one.

“It’s not Marxism versus capitalism, it’s not ideological, but it is a competition that has many parallels,” notes English, associate professor of international relations, Slavic languages and literature, and environmental studies. While English agrees with Lamy that the focus on a Cold War is serving as a diversion from more pressing issues, he still maintains that we’re in a spiral of mutual demonization, which is how the last Cold War began.

Just as they were last time, these increasing tensions, English says, are “marked by irrational fear that’s distracting both countries from much bigger problems.” 

A New Kind of Warfare?

Cyber warfare, English adds, is a perfect example of this demonization.

“If Americans understood that we have cyber war capabilities and have used them more than the Russians ever have, then they might look at Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election a little differently,” he said, noting that the U.S. has interfered in Russia’s elections on numerous occasions.

English also recalls tension over 2013 reports that the U.S. National Security Agency hacked German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone. Now, when the U.S. complains about Russian hacking, the Germans roll their eyes, English says. In fact, recent Europe-wide polling from the Pew Memorial Trust shows that majorities in Italy, France and Germany view America as a greater threat to world stability and to their countries than Russia.

“We tend to forget our own transgressions and magnify those of the other side,” English said. “If we’re serious about improving relations with Russia, this has to be acknowledged. There are many ways we could cooperate with Russia instead of being at loggerheads.”

A Bigger Threat

In fact, in terms of cyber warfare, China is a far greater threat than Russia, English argues. The Chinese, he says, have excelled at using cyber interference and social media manipulation to influence elections and politics in Southeast Asia.

But the most serious challenges to our liberal international order are coming not from China or Russia, English insists, but from inside the liberal states.

“Only we can destroy ourselves,” he says.

Describing Brexit as a disaster of the first order for the West, English warns that the threat to European integration and cooperation by far-right populists is far more important than anything Moscow or Beijing can dream up.

“It’s the nationalism of our own members that’s the problem, not Russia or China,” says English, cautioning against the dangerous reflex of blaming others for our own problems.

Lamy agrees. The situation we now face is much more complex than the Cold War, he notes. No longer a single issue about trying to convert the world to our ideology, today’s situation is a geopolitical conflict that involves the forces of democracy and liberalism against authoritarianism and state capitalism.

Lamy argues that under President Donald Trump, the U.S. has abandoned Pax Americana and the promotion of liberal internationalism — the global economic system that won the Cold War — for a more neo-mercantilist position based on “America first.”

Among the victims of this great power rivalry, he says, are some of the moral positions we’ve now set aside that made the U.S. different from other states.

“Now blatant national interests prevail in all three major powers,” Lamy said. The casualty of this new focus is human rights. “That’s what’s collapsing. And it’s collapsing because of national interests, not because of a new Cold War.”

Read more stories from USC Dornsife Magazine’s Spring/Summer 2019 Issue.