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By calling it a ‘cold war’ we risk containing ourselves

Sergei Bobylev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures while speaking with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on Sept. 16, 2022.

Nothing animates the national security commentariat like a war — or the threat of one. Thus, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s threats regarding Taiwan, especially since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) visited the country, have unleashed a torrent of commentary about what we were seeing and what it means for the future. 

A common theme in that proffered “wisdom” is that we are surely now — if we weren’t already — looking at a new or second cold war. In particular, the war in Ukraine has us increasingly thinking about Russia, like we did the Soviet Union, as a military threat that needs to be contained. Similarly, China’s increasing belligerence has reinforced analogous notions we already held about its military power and inclinations. 

But these historical echoes notwithstanding, buying into this new/second cold war characterization is not just a mistake — it is dangerous. 

If the above-mentioned military actions and their systemic ripples teach us anything it is that the challenges posed by Russia and China today are about so much more than their military power. These challenges include the entire range of complex issues — climate change, globalization, migration, economic contagion, info-sphere contamination, technology proliferation, supply-chain disruption, social trust erosion, pandemics, and such — that now dominate the strategic spectrum. All these issues are highly interconnected and interdependent, and both Russia and China are fully and inextricably enmeshed in them all. 

Reinforcing this complexity is a networked information environment that is fundamentally different from that of the Cold War. Thirty years ago, the flow of information was still largely top-down as the ability to broadcast remained limited, mostly to governments and corporate media. Today, however, communications technology allows almost anyone, anywhere, to broadcast and exert influence with previously unimaginable scale, scope and speed. The effective result is that our traditionally distinct conceptual hierarchies/categories — global, regional, national, local, political, military, economic, social, cultural, war, peace, etc. — grow more blurry by the second. 

This brings us to the question of why the “new cold war” characterization is dangerous. The risk is that our ever-increasing references to cold war, even if modified with “new” or “second,” will reestablish that term as our primary strategic “frame.” In psychology, a verbal frame is a linguistic characterization — often a metaphor — that shapes the way we perceive and respond to a particular issue.  

During the Cold War, those two words — that frame — became associated with a particular policy: highly militarized physical containment. For sure, containment in that stark and narrow form was well-suited to the time’s more bounded and hierarchical strategic environment. However, if that linguistic construct once again becomes our primary frame, we risk perceiving and treating today’s far more complex — unbounded and networked — strategic landscape with approaches bereft of the breadth and creativity it requires

Put differently, while traditional military containment undoubtedly will remain relevant, such highly circumscribed and focused approaches must not become the default. If they do, they may well box out the “bigger-picture” perspectives and approaches essential for dealing with an ever more sprawling and messy strategic environment. 

In sum, the danger posed by a cold war frame is, rather ironically, nothing less than self-containment. 

Many will dismiss this fear outright. They will say it is impossible for a mere figure of speech, a metaphor, to influence our thoughts and actions so powerfully. Despite such objections, psychological research suggests otherwise. Moreover, the strategic debate underway in U.S. national security circles indicates that it already may be happening. One need not listen very hard to hear the constant references to a (new) cold war and the reverberations of the (old) Cold War containment playbook coming through loudly and clearly

Historians caution that when comparing two things — such as strategic eras — it is easy to become fixated on the similarities. (Who doesn’t love a great analogy?) The flip side of this is that we often miss or ignore the differences. In instances where the similarities are overwhelming, that might not matter so much. But when we are thinking about strategic environments that share only a veneer of resemblance, we would be well advised to consider both similarities and differences. 

And if we still seek a war from which we can truly derive some wisdom, we might want to look back at Cortés’s invasion of the Aztec Empire in 1519. During that operation, Hernán Cortés scuttled his fleet to make his force understand that there was no going back. Indeed, that is where we are regarding this notion of cold war redux. There is no going back. We need to burn the boats. 

Josh Kerbel is a professor of practice at the National Intelligence University, the academic component of the U.S. Intelligence Community. The views expressed here are his alone.  

Tags China-Taiwan tension Cold War Military strategy Nancy Pelosi Russian invasion of Ukraine

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