By Nat Rachman
There is a new Cold War brewing. Its parameters are different, its urgency, for now, less pressing, but its emergence remains unmistakable. In his 1992 State of the Union speech, George H W Bush heralded his country in the face of the Soviet Union’s collapse, as ‘the undisputed leader of its age’. For his Secretary of State, James Baker it was time for optimistic and enthusiastic cooperation on a global scale. Speaking from a stage in Princeton, he called for ‘a coalition for a diplomacy of collective engagement, a coalition to create pathways of hope, a coalition to make at the end of the Cold War a beginning – a new beginning for all the nations of the world’. ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’, he concluded, ‘history and the American people expect no less of us.’ No such cooperation, however, has taken place. Instead, the great powers are re-assuming those old positions of suspicion, fear and warmongering that 1991 was supposed to have ended.
The global wars and nuclear apocalypse that loomed over the post-war order never came to pass, but violent conflict remained, mediated through ‘sympathetic’ rebels or ‘friendly’ governments. It is a model that appears to have made a come-back. Just as Russia continues to support the troops of Bashar Al-Assad, so too did the US choose to back Kurdish and Syrian opposition fighters, budgeting half a billion dollars for its 2014 ‘Train and Equip’ program. While ended by the Trump administration, the now sacked Secretary of State Rex Tillerson still maintained a troop presence in the north of the country, both to prevent an ISIS resurgence and to force Assad to the negotiating table. The old foes of Russia and the US are by no means the sole participants in the Levant’s conflicts, with Iran, a nuclear power and perennial object of suspicion in Washington, funneling around $9 billion dollars to the Syrian regime while using its own soldiers to back its Shiite ally. But the Levant is only one theatre for such proxy-wars – the battleground of Ukraine is a similarly clear indication of the scope of Russia’s ambitions, resulting in the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of much of the country’s east by its Kremlin funded rebels. Increasingly noticeable war-games from NATO in Estonia and Ukraine present meanwhile a frightening vision of war. The old battlegrounds of Nicaragua and Angola, when the US’s Contras and UNITA were ranged against the Soviet-backed FSLN and MPLA, have found an ominous new life in Europe and the Middle East.
“From Moscow to Tehran, the diplomatic situation is becoming ever chillier, and a new period of distrust and conflict may be dawning.”
Tensions have long since escaped the battlefield, leaking into the global economy itself. Heavy sanctions from both the US and the EU have continued to target Russia, prompting the Kremlin to respond by banning all food imports. Indeed, while the American President may desire a friendlier relationship with Putin, the Senate has as of yet not moved in the same direction, approving a new round of punitive measures by a vote of 98-2. The Magnitsky Act, named after the Russian lawyer beaten to death by police after exposing enormous state corruption, similarly seeks to make life hard for Russia, denying many of Putin’s cronies access to the US banking system. And with news of the attempted murder of double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, almost certainly at the behest of the Kremlin, Britain may soon take a tougher line on Russia. The exact repercussions of this new struggle for hegemony remain unclear – the fallout from the huge and coordinated Russian campaign of misinformation, involving the compromise of the Democratic Party’s email servers, has yet to run its full course as the investigation of Special Counsel Mueller rumbles on. By now however, it is at least clear that the trust and cooperation that Secretary Baker harked after from his stage at Princeton has long since died. Amidst assassinations, propaganda campaigns, proxy wars and economic aggression, the spectre of post-war paranoia has instead arisen again. Even the fears over the horror of nuclear war have been reawakened in a way not felt for almost three decades, as Trump and North Korea engage in a brinkmanship many hoped had died out. With the recent departure of Secretary Rex Tillerson, Iran, the other spoke of George W Bush’s so called ‘axis of evil’, may increasingly join North Korea as a genuine nuclear threat. Fired in large part for his less hawkish approach to the Obama administration’s disarmament deal, Donald Trump, a man Tillerson described as ‘a f****** moron’, will now have greater scope to pursue the trademark aggression which has so alarmed the old political elite. The arrival of Mike Pompeo, a former CIA man with a penchant for flexing the US’ muscles abroad, may have presented the President with the arch-enabler for his strongman tactics. From Moscow to Tehran, the diplomatic situation is becoming ever chillier, and a new period of distrust and conflict may be dawning.
Unlike the Cold War of the 20th century however, a new period of geopolitical conflict would not be bipolar. Instead, the rise of China has disrupted the old post-war duality of superpowers, in which America’s main rival was indisputably the Soviet Union. China, by no means an ally to the US or indeed to Russia, is at least less openly aggressive regarding Western interests than Moscow. That, however, might change. Trump’s promises of a trade war with China and a confrontation over its currency manipulation have the potential to plunge relations between the two greatest global powers into even frostier terrain. Obama, a president perhaps defined above all else in foreign policy by caution, has been replaced by a man prone to 3 AM twitter storms. As such, the prospect of American restraint over claims to the South China Sea or Taiwan has been consequently dimmed. The same struggle for world influence that both the USSR and the US engaged in is a central preoccupation of Beijing. Its expansive, inflammatory maritime claims alongside a proclivity for bullying its neighbours is only one prong of such a plan, with its hugely ambitious investment in Africa another integral part of this global strategy. From around $55 billion dollars of trade with the continent in 2006, the figure now stands above $160 billion. Since 2000 over $10 billion dollars of African debt have been annulled by the China, with Xi Jinping pledging $60 billion in loans and assistance. Beijing’s new scramble for Africa has clear parallels to the Soviet-US struggles in the DRC, Mozambique and Angola. Instead of using arms however, Beijing has chosen money.
But perhaps an even greater significance of China’s rise is presented by its ideology. With the end of the Cold War, the Western model appeared to have won. Bush proclaimed in reference to 1991 that ‘communism died this year’. Liberal capitalism, however, has not taken its place. The implicit elision of the end of communism with the birth of democracy has proven far from inevitable; history has not ended and the hopes for a global emancipation have, at least in the powers of Russia and China, been firmly extinguished. Xi Jinping’s recent move to a life-long term and the enshrinement of his own personal ideology into the Communist Party’s constitution has created a system more dictatorial than any in China since Mao. The only true rival to the USA has not only adopted the antithesis of its own model of American ‘liberty’, but has also seen great success by it. Secretary Baker had perceived something of this danger, even in his triumphalist speech at Princeton in 1991. The Russian people, in his view, had to ‘learn what it is to live under freedom’; ‘it may seem easy to them’, he remarked ‘to slip from their commitment to freedom, to turn to the simplistic solutions of a new demagogue or dictator, and if they do, their problems will again manifestly become our concerns’. The ascension of this Chinese brand of authoritarianism has provided a powerful alternative to his vision of American democracy, presenting, as Baker foresaw, a new worry for those in Washington. A second Cold War, if it truly breaks, will therefore be framed once again as a battle of ideas; it will not however, be between capitalism and communism. The ideology of Marx has been irrevocably abandoned by Moscow and Beijing, even if significant vestiges of that past remains, particularly in huge state involvement in economic matters. Instead, the contest will be between dictatorship and democracy, authoritarianism and liberty. Imperfect as the West’s version of freedom may be, it remains a central contrast to the near totalitarian reach of Russia and China. Churchill’s idea of an iron curtain ‘from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic’ can no longer hold true. The borders of conflict are less defined than before, the struggles less polarised between two indisputable superpowers. The dream however, of an unchallenged Western model has again perished. The old fears, momentarily quietened in 1991, are creeping unmistakably back in.