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How Cold War shaped global order, what it can teach us about a potential Cold War 2.0

Great power competition has dominated eras of global multipolarity and with the recent rise of countries like China and Russia, that rivalries between leading powers may be ushering us into another Cold War

Written by Mira Patel | Mumbai |
Updated: March 20, 2022 6:58:40 pm
Ukraine crisis, Russia Ukraine, cold war, world war, Russia, russian invasion of ukraine, russia news, ukraine news, russia ukraine news, russia ukraine war news, world news, indian expressWhat the Cold War can tell us about conflicts to come

After the end of the second World War, the uneasy alliance between Russia and the rest of the allied powers began to crumble. By 1948, the US had launched the Marshall Plan to deliver economic support to countries fighting off the influence of communism, thus dividing the world into two spheres of influence, one backed by communist Russia and the other by capitalist America.

The Cold War began as a competition between two superpowers and ended with one reigning triumphant. It’s beginning, coinciding with the decline of Europe, marked a shift into a bipolar world and its end, the beginning of a unipolar one. However, with the recent rise of China and the unchecked ambitions of Putin, it seems as though the epoch of US ideological dominance is about to give way to multipolarity, a system that boasts the unfortunate reputation of being a conduit for many of mankind’s deadliest wars. 

In order to understand how and why we may be entering into the second phase of the Cold War it is important to examine the trajectories of key countries and by extension their role on the global stage before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

United States

In 1947, US diplomat Charles Bohlen wrote a defining memo to US Secretary of State, George Marshall, setting the foundation for what would later be called the Marshall Plan. In it, he wrote, “the United States in the interest of its own wellbeing and security and those of the free non-Soviet world must … draw (the non-Soviet World) closer together politically, economically, financially, and in the last analysis, militarily in order to be in a position to deal effectively with the consolidated Soviet area.”

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This conviction in containment became fundamental to America’s foreign strategy and shaped the belief that spheres of influence would replace colonial conquests in determining the ideological torchbearer of the world. Throughout the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union engaged in great power competition, fighting proxy wars across Eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.

While never directly engaging in combat against each other, the two countries fought numerous conflicts including those in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan, in order to install or protect governments that were sympathetic to either communism or capitalism. The idea was to contain states within spheres of influence, by intervening in conflicts or maintaining favorable trade terms, so that those states could later act as a line of defense or simply provide the numbers that indicate the ideology is working.  

Throughout this time, leaders of both countries were adamant against direct warfare, largely due to the nuclear threat that both posed to each other. The nuclear deterrent was a defining feature of the war as in the event of a nuclear attack, the US and the Soviet Union would be drawn into mutually assured destruction. Once, in a joint statement with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, US President Ronald Reagan accepted this uncomfortable truth, stating that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

After the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union was dissolved, the US and Russia initially maintained relatively good relations. In fact, the two even discussed getting rid of their nuclear arsenals altogether, with leaders during the 1990s embarking on a series of discussions towards this end. However, once Putin came into office, this fragile partnership began to show its cracks. In the first two decades of the 21st century, the US and Russia have been on opposing sides of issues ranging from NATO expansion, involvement in the Middle East, and Russia’s alleged cyber warfare against Washington. 

There are a number of reasons behind this deterioration but from a realist perspective, the answer is simple. Russia and America are once again at odds because, for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia poses a formidable security threat to US interests. When the Cold War ended, the US was left economically, militarily, and geopolitically dominant. Operationally that meant, as Secretary of Defence James Mattis put it, the United States “enjoyed uncontested or dominant superiority in every operating domain. We could generally deploy our forces when we wanted, assemble them where we wanted, and operate how we wanted.”

As Russia and China rose in power, that unchecked dominance was slowly eroded. The US and its allies seem cognisant of the danger of this changing world order as liberalism and capitalism give way to authoritarianism and economic coercion. Acknowledging this, during his first press conference as President, Joe Biden described the US-China rivalry as part of a broader conflict between democracy and autocracy. This was not simply rhetoric. Biden knew then, as many of us are realising now, that powerful nations who fail to abide by liberal standards threaten the very pillars of democracy and globalism, pillars that were constructed on the back of US hegemony, which day by day slowly faded away.

India and China

Many believe that Putin’s success in Ukraine is contingent on the response of two other global powers, namely, India and China. India’s support would give Putin legitimacy and China’s would help alleviate the devastating impact of US sanctions. 

During the Cold War, India remained ostensibly non-aligned. However, in reality, New Delhi was far closer to Moscow than it was to Washington. When the Soviets invaded Hungary, India refused to vote for a US-sponsored resolution condemning the invasion and later stood silently by when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia. The Soviets repaid the favour by backing India during its conflicts with Pakistan, and more crucially, by selling India military equipment, providing between 70 and 80 per cent of it during the Cold War and up to 70 per cent today.

Still, by publicly maintaining a stance of non-alignment, India could maintain relations with both the US and the USSR, allowing it to issue nominal platitudes in favour of diplomacy while shying away from active involvement in the conflict. Although New Delhi has attempted to diversify India’s alliances since the end of the Cold War, especially by moving closer to America, it is still heavily dependent on Russia for military supplies. Such is its proximity to Moscow, that in a December article for Foreign Affairs, Ukranian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba called on India to issue a statement against Putin. He wrote that if India told the Kremlin that Russia’s actions were “unacceptable,” that would be a “very strong message of support (for Ukraine) and make an impact.” Thus far, India has refrained from muddying the waters, calling only for a diplomatic resolution from the conflict.

India’s influence over this conflict is not just limited to its own formidable standing demographically, economically, and culturally. If India were to criticise Russia, it would, for all intents and purposes, decimate Russia’s sphere of influence by showing that the crisis worried countries beyond the West. Russia has abandoned hope of finding allies amongst democratic heavyweights like the US and Western Europe, but it still relies on support or at very least the absence of criticism from nations like India. China too features heavily in Putin’s calculus and even though they had a rocky start, relations between Beijing and Moscow have improved drastically over the last two decades.

Despite being communist heavyweights with seemingly shared ideologies for most of the Cold War, China and the USSR were bitterly at odds. The two largely disagreed on their interpretations of communism, with tensions reaching a crescendo during Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward in 1958. When Soviet premier Joseph Stalin died in 1953, Mao considered himself the head of international communism and pressured the Soviets to help China develop nuclear weapons in order to realise that goal. The Soviet Union vehemently refused and was so threatened by the prospect that it was prepared to launch a pre-emptive strike against China’s first nuclear test site.

Surprisingly, it was the US that dissuaded it from doing so. The powers in Washington recognised the risk of a Soviet-Chinese war, especially if nuclear weapons were involved, and urged both sides to maintain restraint. Once again, containment trumped confrontation, mirroring many of the same approaches we’re seeing today. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, China and Russia resumed diplomatic relations. In the last two decades, both countries have developed strong ties resulting from, as scholar Hal Brands describes, a mutual interest in usurping the current world order.

He writes that “when China and Russia use disinformation and strategic corruption to meddle in liberal societies or work to make international organizations friendlier to illiberal rule, they contribute to a global autocratic resurgence that benefits both states.” Essentially, Brands argues that as two nations that would benefit from a dramatic shift in global power dynamics away from the West, China and Russia have much to gain (but also much to fear) from the other’s ascendency. Recent sanctions on Russia have made Moscow even more dependent on Beijing and without the latter’s support, it would be difficult for the West to cripple Putin economically in the short to medium term.

Arguably, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has chartered the world on a different trajectory. Not only will China and India’s reaction be a massive determinant of the outcome of the war, but their very significance itself has fundamentally altered the global world order, ushering it into a period of multipolarity.

Cold War 2.0

The quarter century following the Cold War was the most peaceful period in modern history. However, as America’s influence declines, the possibility of developing nations fighting one another seems to be rapidly escalating. According to Michael Beckley, a professor at Tufts University, after the Cold War, America attempted to consolidate its influence around the World. While leading US policymakers heralded in an era without great power competition, they failed to recognise that spheres of influence had not been eliminated but instead, shifted heavily in favour of the US. Beckley writes that after the Cold War, “instead of building a new order, they doubled down on the existing one.” Today, in the face of unprecedented global challenges, “many of the order’s pillars are buckling under the pressure.”

In the last few decades, India has emerged as one of the strongest economies in the world, with demographic trends strongly in its favour. China has built island fortresses in international waters, claimed large tracts of land outside of its territory and has launched large scale infrastructure projects to organise Eurasia economically in favour of Beijing. Russia for its part has invaded two sovereign nations since 2008 and has engaged in several attempts to undermine western democracy. To make matters worse, Iran seems to also be on the rise, expanding its influence over much of Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. Additionally, barring Iran, whose emerging nuclear program is of much concern to the West, all the other nations are verified nuclear powers, thus exponentially raising the stakes of any potential conflict. At this point in time, these divisions of power and ambitions are emblematic of the multipolarity of our current world order. 

So, what does history say about the stability of a multipolar world? Unfortunately, the answer makes for grim reading. According to Buckley, “eras of fluid multipolarity typically end in disaster, regardless of the bright ideas or advanced technologies circulating at the time.” Pointing to the massive conflicts that emerged after Europe’s Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial era of the early 20th century, he writes that “the sad and paradoxical reality is that international orders are vital to avert chaos, yet they typically emerge only during periods of great power rivalry.” Buckley goes on to argue that while competing with the likes of China and Russia may be “fraught with risk…it might be the only way to avoid even greater dangers.”

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Essentially, Buckley is of the opinion that there are two emerging world orders – one, backed by the US and its allies, that rests on the concept of democracy making the world more peaceful, and the another, backed by China, Russia, and India, which posits that disruptions to the system are part of the natural order. Great powers, democracies or otherwise, have always competed for dominance. That was true during the Cold War and is once again true today. Due to their recent actions, China and Russia are the prime contenders against the Western orders, but the influence of states like India and Iran should not be ignored. As countries form different blocs and alliances, the stakes of the game are constantly rising.

In an article titled The Inevitable Rivalry, noted academic John Mearsheimer not only asserts that a new Cold War is underway, but also describes why it may be considerably more dangerous than its predecessor. He states that, “Cold War Two is already here, and when one compares the two cold wars it becomes apparent that the US-China rivalry is more likely to lead to a shooting war than the US-Soviet rivalry was.”

The first point of contrast is related to capabilities. China is closer to the US as a military and economic power than the Soviet Union ever was even at its heyday. Furthermore, throughout the Cold War, the USSR maintained a heavy military presence across Western Europe and was routinely required to contend with insurrections in countries within its sphere of influence. Today, Russia, China and India have all enhanced their military capabilities, extending their influence across the globe without committing to any iron clad defence agreements with allies. Therefore, while the Soviet Union had to spread its forces over a vast swath of geography, Putin’s Russia can concentrate its efforts in one specific region, allowing it to seize and control that region far more effectively. China in particular is testament to the potential success of such a strategy, having built up its armed forces in the East China Sea. While the US still outnumbers China militarily, its forces are spread across the globe and would struggle to mobilise in the event of a conflict in Asia.

Mearsheimer also argues that during the Cold War, the Iron Curtain drew distinct battle lines across East and West Europe, “with little chance of a superpower war in Europe, because policymakers on both sides understood the fearsome risks of nuclear escalation.” In contrast, there is no clear dividing line in Asia, but instead, “there are a handful of potential conflicts that would be limited and would involve conventional arms, which makes war thinkable.” Basically, while nuclear power was once a deterrent against conventional warfare, the latter seems to have flipped the switch. Today, China and Russia’s nuclear arsenal is what justifies their use of conventional warfare, with leaders in Beijing and Moscow seemingly recognising that their nuclear threat is enough to deter other countries from getting involved when they violate the norms of the liberal world order.

According to Beckley, a new Cold War could have multiple different iterations. The most conceivable outcome is the formation of a loose bloc consisting of China, Russia and Iran fighting against the hegemony of the United States. If Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is followed by a Chinese invasion of Taiwan or an Iranian nuclear build up, the three countries could undermine the West without officially banding together in their pursuit to do so. Furthermore, if India steers away from non-alignment in practice, if not theory, it could determine the direction in which the pendulum swings. This outcome is in no way certain but likely enough to disrupt conventional methods of thinking and give rise to another era of great power competition.


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