What was the Cold War, and is it over?

I belong to the first generation for whom the Cold War is mainly history rather than lived experience. By the time I went off to college and started learning about the wider world, the Soviet Union had already collapsed. Even though the events of 1989-90 were in fact very recent, to me they did not seem like the news of the day but history that had already acquired the aura of age and inevitability, like the Protestant Reformation or the French Revolution. Communism seemed faintly ridiculous and largely irrelevant; even the left-wing student radicals invoked it as more a symbol of opposition to mainstream America than as a serious system of ideas. This impression was only reinforced when I moved to China in the late 1990s: China at the time seemed to be busily dismantling the apparatus of socialism and building ties with the US and the rest of the world.

That’s my excuse, anyway, for why I never got around to learning much about the Cold War; I had managed to acquire the quite mistaken impression that it was not something urgent to understand about the world. When in 2022 foreign-policy commentators began busily proclaiming “the start of a second Cold War” (Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times) or that “the Cold War never ended” (Stephen Kotkin in Foreign Affairs), I realized that I could not evaluate those claims because I did not have a clear definition of my mind of what exactly the Cold War was. So, I read a book about it: Odd Arne Westad’s The Cold War: A World History. Although it’s a long book with lots of details, the Cold War is helpfully defined on the very first page:

The Cold War was a confrontation between capitalism and socialism that peaked in the years between 1945 and 1989, although its origins go much further back in time and its consequences can still be felt today. In its prime the Cold War constituted an international system, in the sense that the world’s leading powers all based their foreign policies on some relationship to it.

Westad’s definition of the Cold War has two aspects: that of an ideological conflict between two totalizing and incompatible systems, and that of an international system, which forced many different issues and conflicts among countries into alignment with that ideological conflict. I found this is a useful distinction, as the arguments for a contemporary Cold War generally focus on the second aspect, the pattern of international relations. There’s no question that, since the invasion of Ukraine, the US and Western Europe are in increasingly direct rivalry with Russia and China. The continuity of this division with that of the Cold War period is what Rachman and Kotkin focus on in their essays.

But it’s harder to see a similar ideological conflict underway today. Westad consistently emphasizes how in the twentieth century both the US and the USSR were highly ideological states, organized around universalizing ideas not just national interests. Both countries were led by elites who believed that they were spreading the right ideas about the way to organize human societies throughout the world, and that their right ideas were mortally threatened by the other side’s wrong ideas. “It was its ideological origins that made the Cold War special and hyperdangerous,” Westad writes. The existential struggle between capitalism and socialism made every minor issue seem like a terminal conflict, encouraging both sides to raise the stakes.

While there have been occasional attempts on both sides of the current divide to paint it as essentially ideological as the same way as the original Cold War, these are less convincing. I found this interview with Chinese foreign-policy scholar Wang Jisi, translated by David Cowhig, to be a useful contribution:

Q: The question of whether there is a “new cold war” between China and the United States is now more controversial in academic circles. How do you see this issue?

A: Compared with the U.S.-Soviet relationship during the Cold War, the current U.S.-China relationship is still different in many ways. First of all, neither side can resort to “bloc politics”, so the U.S. and China will not become a bipolar opposition like the U.S.S.R. By “poles”, I mean attracting other countries to unite around them and form a united camp. The United States wants to do this, but it is difficult to do so. China, for its part, does not seek to build such a camp. In contrast, as the gap between other countries and China and the United States grows, the future may turn out to be a world in which the two powers stand side by side, but there will not be two camps as there were during the Cold War.

Secondly, from the ideological aspect, the competition between China and the United States is not as obvious as the ideological confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, but is mainly a manifestation of nationalism. Therefore, there is no ideological struggle between China and the U.S. like the one between the U.S. and the Soviet Union back then.

His analysis that what is underway is a conflict between national interests rather than totalizing ideologies seems correct to me. The US foreign-policy elite is historically prone to prone to seeing global events in ideological terms, and has tried to portray the current division as one of democracy and liberal values in opposition to authoritarianism. This is par for the course for the US; as Westad notes, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, “American foreign policy rolled on, unperturbed by any significant adjustments in strategic vision or political aims.” Since the US saw itself as the victor in the ideological conflict, its ideology was not in need of adjustment.

On the other side, though, the role of ideology has changed. Although Russia and China famously proclaimed a “no limits” partnership just before the invasion of Ukraine, this is founded more on a shared desire to resist US power than any shared ideology. The leaders of both Russia and China have articulated some grand theories underpinning their foreign policies, but both are more interested in national greatness for their respective nations than exporting a universalizing system of thought. The pattern is less of two broad ideological camps than of varying forms of opposition to US global leadership.

This is more or less the pattern that Ken Jowitt predicted in his essay “The Leninist Extinction,” originally published in 1991 (it’s available in his book of the same name, which I’ve previously praised here). Given how fresh the collapse of the Soviet Union still was at the time, the piece is remarkably insightful in its broad analysis of the consequences (though some of the specific predictions have not panned out). It’s worth closing with a lengthy excerpt of what now seems like quite a key passage:

The primary axis of international politics has disappeared. Thermonuclear Russia hasn’t, but the Soviet Union/Empire most certainly has. Its “extinction” radically revises the framework within which the West, the United States itself, the Third World, and the countries of Eastern Europe, the former Russian Empire, and many nations in Asia have bounded and defined themselves.

The first imperative is to anticipate national environments characterized by conflict (along both civic-ethnic and regional fault lines) and an international environment whose primary characteristic will be turbulence, not the stereotyped, fundamentally apolitical quality of international life during the Cold War. Turbulent environments produce more than their share of simultaneous emergences for a significant number of national and sub-national elites. An emergency environment calls for different political skills and leaders than the stereotyped bipolar environment of largely contained, and occasionally ritualized, emergency characteristic of the Cold War. On balance, in a turbulent world environment, leaders will count for more than institutions, and charisma for more than political economy.

Liberal capitalist democracy has generated a heterogeneous set of opponents: Romantic poets, Persian ayatollahs, aristorcrats, the Catholic Church, and fascists. However, for all the genuine and substantial differences separating these diverse oppositions, one can detect a shared critique. Liberal capitalist democracy is seen as one-sided in its emphasis on individualism, materialism, achievement, and rationality. The Roman Catholic preference for the family over the individual and the Nazi preference for “race” in place of the individual are radically different critiques, but the general critique is the same: liberal capitalism fails adequately to provide for the essential group needs and dimension of human existence.

As long as the West retains its partisan liberal capitalist democratic identity, it will regularly generate movements–internally and externally–opposing or attacking, attempting to reform or destroy it; movements that in one form or another will emphasize the value of group membership, expressive behavior, solidary security, and heroic action.

All of these have indeed come to pass: a “turbulent” international environment, an increasing role for charismatic leaders, and the persistent popularity of critiques of liberal values. The legacy of the Cold War is still very much with us, but its particular style of global ideological conflict probably is over, having been replaced with something not yet properly named.

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