Print this page
31.10.2008. A Farcical Cold War

    In the last century there have been two cold wars – major geopolitical, economic and ideological confrontation. And now a third cold war is being foisted on the world. This one I would call farcical. 
   The first, prompted by the triumph of Communism in Russia and fascism in Germany, led to the Second World War, from which the Soviet Union, at a cost of nearly 30m lives, emerged a victor. The second – a classic cold war – the Communist USSR lost. The old West gained not only a moral and ideological victory, but a geo-economic one. Vast resources, economic and human, were redistributed in its favour. Because billions of people were involved in the capitalist system, the world enjoyed  unprecedented economic growth. But since the start of the new century the old powers have begun to lose. This has exacerbated tensions. A massed redistribution of the gross world product has turned from Europe to Asia, from the old capitalist countries to the new. A revolution has taken place in the energy sector as well. If in the mid-1990s a large part of the world’s reserves were controlled by companies and governments in the West, then a decade later, the overwhelming majority are controlled by governments of and companies in the countries doing the extracting, countries that have become far more independent. The increase in oil prices has further fostered the transfer of resources from the old West to these countries. Naturally, this has raised doubts about the triumph of the liberal-democratic model. As one might have predicted, at a certain level of development economic growth is assured not only by the free market, but by the ruling power, and not necessarily a liberal- democratic one. This is what happened in Europe in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. That is what’s happening now in Asia and Russia.
   Also, the old West has started losing foreign policy ground: Europe because of a loss of bearings in its development, aggravated by the EU’s over-rapid expansion; the US because of the “arrogance of power” that led to the Iraq fiasco.
   The erstwhile victors, in their search for the causes of their unexpected retreat, have found the ideological symbol of a new “enemy” – authoritarian capitalism. China and Russia are prime examples, as well as many other countries, despite fundamental differences in their political systems. 
There has to be an enemy against  whom one can unite. Scholars’ remarks – that a relative authoritarianism is typical of capitalism in the early stages of development, that its “maturity” will bring more democratic forms of government – have been ignored. Russia, too, has contributed to the increase in tensions in at least two ways. First, it has in many  respects become the symbol of changes that do not benefit the old West. This “young pupil” of Western democracies has become an independent player. A country seen as ready to pour its resources into the Western energy system has  instead taken them under its control. A global beggar only recently, Russia thanks to oil revenues now embodies the rise of new states. Second, we have abetted the new cold war with our own actions and gestures. We have been arrogant with everyone. We haven’t tried to pretend that we’re playing by the old rules. Even at the level of ordinary communication, we have often provoked irritation by flocks of nouveau riche Russians.
   Given these and other tectonic changes in world economics and politics, one should have expected the reactions from the old West, its counterattacks.
One could go on forever trying to sort out who was behind Tbilisi’s attack on South Ossetians. The reactions of the US and some countries in the old West and “recruits” in central and eastern Europe to Georgia’s aggression and Russia’s response speak for  themselves. The USA is trying to start a new farcical cold war in order to reign in Russia. But very few in the world are  ready to support the US. Indeed,  they are laughing. Russia emerged from the Georgian crisis a victor, not only militarily, but politically. Russia showed that she has the political will to defend her interests, that she will not accept the further еxpansion of  Nato. However, she also suffered losses. There was a drop in the stock market. More importantly, following Georgia’s aggression and the blatantly unfair reactions of the US and Europe, most of the Russian elite felt alienated from the West. Trust in the US fell. Trust in the Europeans, even old ones, also fell. Nevertheless, one should bear in mind that for Russia’s society and economy for the last 300 years at least, the most important source of modernization has been a European influence. The striving “to live the way they do in Europe” has always been a chief incentive for Russia to move  forward. Its weakening today may weaken weaken the impulse to modernize. The alienation from Europe will strengthen noncompetitive segments of society that are  afraid to move forward. Another potential loss is that the Russian elite has been distracted from constructive  goals at home: the fight against corruption, the modernization programme proposed by President Medvedev. If Russia is forced to become involved in resolving international conflicts, there won’t be  time for modernization.  Being drawn into a military-political  conflict is a serious danger. Russia must avoid such a confrontation, much more an arms race. Although additional investments in a new generation of general purpose forces are essential – that’s a lesson learned from Georgia’s aggression – we must also increase our flexibility and manoeuvrability with nuclear weapons. We need to begin new negotiations to limit and reduce excess nuclear arms.
   The US has chosen to foist a confrontation on Russia. I’d like to be wrong, but I feel the Americans will stay on this course, in one form or another, no matter who is the next President. The world economic  crisis may distract the world from this farcical cold war. Anyway, Russia is not willing to cooperate in waging this war. On the other hand, the world today with its monumental shifts, financial crises and creeping destruction of international law and multilateral institutions is beginning to recall the eve of the First World  War. Not allowing conflicts to escalate becoming our main task again.

// Russia Beyond the Headlines