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The difference between the Cold War and today’s hot peace

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There are many ways to define the topic — our connected world, fraught with danger — referenced by World Economic Forum President Børge Brende at this week’s Global Trends Council meeting in Dubai. “We’re living in a truly globalized world where your problems are my problems and vice versa,” he said in the opening session. “In many ways, we have moved from Cold War to hot peace.”

At the very least, the topic begs the question of what has changed since 1991, and what remains the same.

In 1991, the United States was the sole superpower with no peer competitor on the horizon. The Soviet Union had collapsed, with its successor Russian Federation suffering from a depression marked by 25 percent unemployment. Both sides welcomed disarmament proposals, either to collect the “peace dividend” or because they no longer could afford the competition. China was slowly emerging from its decades-long sleep, but as a trading partner to the Western world.  Moscow-Beijing relations remained in a Siberian deep freeze. 

The European Union was strong, and NATO began to contemplate the future of an Eastern Europe that was no longer in thrall to the Kremlin. India and Pakistan broke into the nuclear club, but North Korea seemed as technologically backward as it was poor. The Middle East was firmly in America’s back pocket, with even traditional Kremlin allies such as Syria supporting American efforts to free Kuwait from Iraqi occupation.

By 2019, the United States was still a superpower, but one that had abdicated its role of world leadership. Bogged down in Afghanistan after an 18-year war with nothing to show for its efforts, the siren call of isolationism has sounded strongly. The Obama administration tried unsuccessfully to disengage from Iraq, just as the Trump administration has tried unsuccessfully to disengage from Syria. The difference between the two eras is style. Confronted with unparalleled Russian geopolitical gains, the current administration’s attitude is, “There is a lot of sand over there.”

The Russian economy is strong, propped up by the sale of the twin pillars of natural resources and weapons. More importantly, Russia has learned the art of using natural resource sales as a weapon: cutting off natural gas sales to Ukraine and Europe twice in the past two decades, and building economically superfluous pipelines to gain the ability to reward friends and punish foes with alacrity.

Disarmament is now a dream of the past; both sides are allowing the various SALT and START treaties to expire. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty has been abrogated by both sides amid mutual recriminations. Only New Start remains, and it is scheduled to expire in February 2021.

Below the strategic level, Russia has intervened directly or indirectly in separatist conflicts in numerous countries surrounding the Russian Federation: Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine. In each case, after it has stirred up separatist violence to a boiling point, it seeks to interpose itself as the peacekeeper. This peacekeeping role has allowed Russian troops to return to the borders of the former Soviet Union. Now, as its military recovers, Russia has sought an expeditionary role placing its troops as peacekeepers in Syria.

Moscow and Beijing now consider themselves strategic partners. It makes sense geopolitically:  Moscow needs markets for its oil and petroleum, and Beijing needs the oil and petroleum for its economy. The West now defines China as an economic competitor, rather than a partner. The European Union is fragmenting, with Brexit dominating the headlines and other countries trying to make bilateral energy deals with Moscow. NATO’s expansion triggered Russian reactions in Georgia and Ukraine. Newly accepted countries such as Hungary are flirting with Moscow.  Turkey, a strong NATO ally since 1952, has purchased the Russian S-400 anti-missile system.  At the same time, it has allowed itself to become dependent on Russia and Iran for its oil and gas supplies, while signing contracts with Moscow to build four nuclear reactors.

India and Pakistan remain a threat to one another, but the nuclear club now includes an erratic North Korea. Pyongyang promises to eliminate its nuclear forces, but only after the United States unilaterally disarms its nuclear forces in South Korea — placing both Seoul and Tokyo at risk of nuclear blackmail. The Middle East has been shaken by the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Arab Spring, the rise of ISIS, and the West’s intervention in Syria. In the end, Iran has added Iraq and Syria to its shaky alliance system, while Russia makes economic inroads in the Gulf.

What has changed is that the United States no longer practices realist foreign policy. Many of the changes outlined above can be traced directly to America abandoning its role as the offshore balancer for the Eurasian continent. What has not changed, however, is that Russia has not abandoned the realist political struggle. As America steadily retreats behind its oceanic borders, either Russia or chaos fills the vacuum left behind. 

When America finally recognizes that its unilateral withdrawal from the Cold War battlefield is actually hurting its interests, rather than preserving them, one hopes that a hot peace is the only thing the world need fear.

James J. Coyle, Ph.D., served in a number of positions in the U.S. government, including as director of Middle East Studies, U.S. Army War College. He is the author of “Russia’s Border Wars and Frozen Conflicts.”

Tags China Cold War Global politics NATO Russia Russia–United States relations

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