The neo-cold-war world

Paul Letters looks at today's tri-polar global order and finds the claims of extensive spying, economic sanctions, diplomatic expulsions and provocative fly-bys all rather familiar

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 June, 2014, 4:51pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 June, 2014, 5:06am

The history books misinform us that the cold war finished around 1990. Last month, Western sanctions on Ukraine provoked Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to compare the current situation with the cold war era. The fact that President Vladimir Putin played down such a comparison should make us more inclined to see its validity. In reality, the cold war has never stopped bubbling up (most obviously on the Korean peninsula), and now Russia's imperial resurgence has set new precedents that Beijing could seek to emulate.

We tend to think a cold war requires, specifically, two antagonistic leading powers, like the US and the USSR in the last century. However, when George Orwell coined the term "cold war" in 1945, he had three "great empires" in mind: China would emerge as the third "super state".

The tri-polar nature of the current world order - Russia, China and the US (plus its glued-on allies) - includes some cold war hallmarks yet also adds one or two new motifs. We still have economic sanctions, the retaliatory expulsion of diplomats (such as by the US in response to Russian interference in Ukraine) and perilously close fly-bys (Chinese fighter jets buzzing up to Japanese reconnaissance aircraft) akin to those between the US and USSR in the cold war movie, Top Gun. What is new is the development of cyberspying, aptly topped off with the triangulated defection of Edward Snowden. Now the most widely known spy in history - excluding James Bond - Snowden turned traitor on the US government and, before defecting to Russia, he fled first to China (he would not have chosen Hong Kong were it not in the People's Republic).

Spying may be more of a desk job than it once was, but the fact you can spy from home, thousands of miles from danger, encourages more espionage than could have possibly occurred during the cold war. The US has accused China and Russia of cyberspying - but of course all three are at it in abundance, which is only natural in the circumstances. The rise of communist China threatens US hegemony, and Russia's authoritarian democracy presents an alternative model to any so-called consensus - Washington's or Beijing's.

The current Sino-Russian entente, from the recent gas deal, their common stance over Syria and friendly relations with Iran, through to Beijing's willingness to overlook Moscow's contravention in Ukraine of the core principle upon which Chinese foreign policy is based - that of noninterference - echoes the cold war, or at least its early phase. When China became the USSR's communist kid brother in 1949, it admired its elder sibling's bravery and bravado and disregarded its indiscretions. The brothers later drifted apart. Yet, before China came of age in the 1990s, the USSR's nervous breakdown (1989-91) was a shocking familial embarrassment.

But now the Russian - although not, as some commentators allude to, the Soviet - empire is striking back. Don't be fooled by media suggestions of a rapprochement with Ukraine by Putin: he is the consummate realist leader, adept at the zero-sum game, the rules of which - together with his own KGB career - were forged during the cold war era.

Moscow's boldness and its desire to draw closer to Beijing as an ally can only embolden China in its quest to restore its own place in the world, including in the East and South China Seas. Russia sets the example on how to obtain territorial objectives. In early March, Western media widely reported that Putin had no intention of annexing Crimea. For example, regarding the then forthcoming referendum, The Independent newspaper in the UK stated that "greater autonomy and independence may both be on the ballot paper. But not reunification with Russia". Two weeks later, knowing neither Ukraine nor Nato would retaliate with force, Putin annexed the gas- and oil-rich Crimean peninsula. Putin had achieved his primary objective, and China was left wondering why its own territorial claims seem so intractable.

In the old cold war, public allegiance was more clearly defined, at least on the West's side of the fence. If you were North American or Western European, for instance, in general, your allegiance to the US may have reasonably been assumed.

Today, there are more obvious signs of dissension within the West. For example, many Americans - and many more Europeans - see Snowden as a heroic figure for acting against the megalomaniac US authorities.

And throughout Europe - including in former Soviet-controlled nations such as Hungary - nationalist politicians, whose standing rose in the recent European Union elections, profess sincere admiration for Putin. Interestingly, Putin's fan base also includes a growing band of US Republicans, and, of course, many citizens and leaders in China.

So it's a paradoxical neo-cold-war world. There's far less fear that this cold war will turn nuclear, but no fear disputes - whether in east Europe or East Asia - will resolve themselves without the use of aggressive cold war tactics. Is China currently just warming up?

Paul Letters is a political commentator and writer. See