Has a New Cold War Already Begun?
Who prevails in the Ukraine war will determine whether international law, consensual government, and human decency will thrive and succeed.
During the Cold War and well into the twenty-first century, some governments, military analysts, academics, and even novelists anticipated a third world war that could involve a global nuclear holocaust growing out of a crisis between Russians and Americans. A failure of deterrence between the two sides, however unlikely, could have unleashed unprecedented destruction that would have put at risk the entirety of human civilization. As one writer put it, the survivors would envy the dead—an outcome that never happened because President Ronald Reagan, building on the policies of presidents from Harry Truman to Jimmy Carter, seized the moment to work with the Soviet Union, a policy embraced by his successors, including President Joe Biden. But, as he has pointed out, the Russian response to the U.S.-led Western support of Ukraine has increased the risk of a broader conflict.
Russia’s conflict against the people of Ukraine, now in its second year, is a war about political legitimacy and human rights. It is being fought across the globe by civilian and military “warriors” armed with ideas, economic strategies, and kinetic weapons. It is a conflict in which the very existence of liberal democracy and the international rules-based order is at stake. Who prevails in this war will determine whether international law, consensual government, and human decency will thrive and succeed in a region that is now free but was once part of the former Soviet Union.
This slow-rolling version of a new global conflict, as opposed to a nearly instant global apocalypse, is already in progress in Eastern Europe. Russia’s war against Ukraine is not only a series of tactical military engagements—Vladimir Putin is also fighting a war against the very foundations of the existing European system of states that once invited him to join, and the heritage of Western civilization. His concept of “Eurasianism” would replace a European order built on political democracy and market economics with one imposed by a Russian autocracy based on a twenty-first-century version of the former Russian empire. Unlike China, which has built financial institutions that could integrate into the Western economy, the Russian leader never developed the tools to allow for a broader economic integration with the rest of Europe. Instead, he isolated the Russian economy in a financial structure that he controls but is stagnant. This is both a power struggle and a war over values. Putin sees the democratic West as not only holding Russia back from rebuilding its former greatness, but also offering to the world a decadent set of political and moral guidelines and guardrails.
Unfortunately, Putin is not alone in his willingness to put aside the values of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment in favor of authoritarianism, imperialism, and autocracy. China, which the Biden administration and the Pentagon define as a pacing threat, is also attempting to expand its global influence and military power in order to reduce American influence in the Indo-Pacific region. Their recent surge of surveillance gathering balloons and other hostile intelligence collection activity is part and parcel of its current national security strategy. While Russia has placed its kinetic hitting power at the front end of its war against the West, China has preferred to develop strategic dependencies on Beijing via the Belt and Road Initaitive to the control of global infrastructure. As China’s military power increases, alongside the growing influence of its economic globalization, some of its leaders seek to position it once again to a position of global primacy akin to the Middle Kingdom—an outlook that the United States needs to keep in mind as we try to engage with them on global challenges, like climate change and food security.
In addition to China, Russia’s war against Ukraine is also supported by Iran and North Korea. They share a common dislike for the United States and its European and Asian allies, based not only on strategic calculation, but also on values antithetical to democratic pluralism. Their leaders identify themselves with unabashed ambitions for autocratic rule and military expansion, and are equally dismissive of human rights and accountability for abuses of power. Like all autocracies and authoritarian regimes, when challenged by dissident forces within their own societies, they place blame for their failures on foreign influence. In addition, Iran and North Korea support terrorism and subversion of other regimes and, in the latter case, issue repeatedly bellicose nuclear threats against neighboring states and others. But China’s reliance on a coalition that includes Iran and North Korea greatly threatens China’s current partnership with countries like Israel.
However, the current war over ideas does not only depend on the behavior of foreign state or non-state actors, relative to the interests of the United States and other Western democracies. The war of ideas is also being waged within Western democracies themselves. Proponents of anti-democratic ideas are finding willing audiences in the United States and elsewhere because of the ubiquitous means of global communication made available by modern technology. Some “apps” even offer seductive political content and messaging that can divide people against one another based on ideology, nationality, ethnicity, or other characteristics. A flood of divisive philosophical sewerage spills over from the basements of hatemongers into the higher reaches of foreign offices. The ability to create nearly instantaneous mobs of rage over misdescribed or otherwise sensationalized versions of events can create civil strife that places political order in imminent jeopardy. Terrorists no longer are limited to blowing up buildings. With modern technology, they can blow up national consensus on the most precious values that separate barbarians and autocrats from legitimate democratic leaders.
In sum: Vladimir Putin’s war against Western civilization, under the banner of reborn Eurasianism, is, in theory and in practice, a rearward march into a worse world. The current struggle is being fought within and across the boundaries of states, including the clash between the best ideas about civil society and the worst distortions of history’s lessons. It is important to remember that bad ideas can destroy just like smart bombs, which is why the Biden administration must keep its contacts with Russia open and its nuclear modernization program going.
Lawrence Korb is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former Assistant Secretary of Defense.
Stephen Cimbala is a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Penn State, Brandywine.