The new cold war

06 Aug 2017


WHEN the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, US President George H. W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker promised Moscow that Nato would not be moved closer to Russia’s new borders. That promise was broken some years later by the Bill Clinton administration when the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland were incorporated into Nato, followed soon after by Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, previously part of the Soviet Union itself.

George Kennan, the famous ‘X’ who anonymously penned the 1947 Foreign Affairs article that provided the blueprint for America’s successful containment of the Soviet Union, was quoted by Tom Friedman (New York Times, May 2, 1998), as saying: “I think it (Nato expansion) is the beginning of a new cold war. ...the Russians will gradually react ... it is a tragic mistake”.

The Russians did react, as Kennan predicted, after Vladimir Putin had consolidated power. When the attempt was made to bring Georgia into Nato, Moscow sliced off two statelets from Georgia. When the pro-Russian president of Ukraine was ousted in a ‘political coup’, Putin took over Crimea and supported the ethnic Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Although the US is no longer the global hegemon, it continues to behave as if it is.

Today, Russia is again a first-rate military power. Its actions in Georgia and Ukraine will not be reversed. Moscow’s forces robustly patrol its western land, air and sea frontiers. The forthcoming large military manoeuvres across Belarus will illustrate Nato’s vulnerability. Russia has also reasserted its political, military and diplomatic role in the world’s ‘hot spots’.

The cerebral president Barack Obama displayed surprising strategic naiveté by simultaneously provoking Russia and announcing his vaunted ‘pivot to Asia’ to contain a rising China.

Despite America’s formidable naval power in the Pacific and its alliances with Japan, India and Australia, the US will be unable to oblige China to relinquish any of the territories or islands it claims unless it resorts to a full-blown war. China’s growing military and economic power also implies that the US will be unable to build reliable alliances to encircle China or block its sea routes.

In the new Cold War, America is pitted against two great powers which, between them, are likely to control the Eurasian ‘heartland’ and thus, if Halford McKinder’s thesis is right, also ‘control the world’. The US, meanwhile, is mired in the self-created quagmires of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

Although Donald Trump is a geopolitical novice, realisation of his desire to normalise relations with Russia (whatever his personal motives) would have reduced America’s great power adversaries from two to one. The US Congress has scuttled this option by imposing the new sanctions against Russia.

Trump’s effort to secure China’s cooperation on North Korea was also sensible. The attempt proved infructuous because the US demand that China apply extreme pressure on Pyongyang to unilaterally give up its nuclear and missile capabilities was exorbitant and unrealistic. Trump’s tweeted rants against China after the latest North Korean missile tests, US weapons sales to Taiwan, and renewed ‘freedom of navigation’ forays in the South China Sea have soured the prospects of Sino-US cooperation.

The early years of the first Cold War, when the US and the Soviet Union sought to consolidate their respective spheres of influence and resorted to brinkmanship, were the most dangerous. It was only after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis that both awoke to the danger of a nuclear Armageddon and instituted measures to regulate their competition, including nuclear arms control. Thereafter, the Cold War was fought either in the shadowy world of espionage and sabotage or through proxies.

The second cold war is in an early and dangerous phase and will be difficult to ‘manage’.

First, unlike the first Cold War, it is a trilateral, not bilateral, power struggle. Crisis management will become even more complicated once other militarily significant states align themselves with or against the major powers. Indeed, as at the outbreak of the First World War, international peace and security could be disrupted by the actions of any one of several state and non-state actors.

Second, the US appears to be seriously overestimating its power. Although the US is no longer the global hegemon, it continues to behave as if it is. Coercion and force seem to be Washington’s preferred option to address almost every challenge it confronts. Unless such belligerence is moderated, a great power conflict could erupt in Eastern Europe or the South China Sea; and the US could end up in shooting wars with North Korea and Iran. Some have even advocated US counterterrorist intervention in Pakistan without calculating the consequences.

Third, the potential for catastrophe has been magnified because, unlike the 1950s, now there are not two but nine nuclear weapon states. A conventional conflict in Korea or South Asia could rapidly escalate to the nuclear level.

Fourth, today’s conflicts are mostly ‘hybrid’ wars, encompassing special operations, sabotage and cyber warfare. As Afghanistan, Iraq, Ukraine, Syria, Libya and Yemen have illustrated, it is easy to start such ‘complex’ wars but extremely difficult to prevent their escalation and expansion.

The most tragic consequence of the new cold war will be the erosion of the collective efforts required to address the emerging existential and global threats: poverty and hunger, climate change, nuclear war, mass migration, communicable diseases. Nor will it be possible to collectively exploit the vast opportunities for human progress and wellbeing that technology and innovation now promise.

In the article mentioned, George Kennan added that what bothered him was “how superficial and ill informed the whole US Senate debate was’ (on Nato expansion). The same can be said about recent debates in the US Congress on Russia, Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, Pakistan and a host of other issues.

The world’s destiny cannot be left to be determined by militarists, political pygmies, or partisan interests. It is imperative that political leaders who possess a global vision of a shared human future forge a new ‘Westphalian’ consensus to circumvent a second cold war, effectively prohibit the resort to force, control armaments and promote active international cooperation to address the common challenges that confront mankind.

The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.

Published in Dawn, August 6th, 2017