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Great power rivalry: The Cold War returns

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Thirty years after the end of the Cold War, tensions between the world's superpowers is rising again (Image by Dan Jensen)

The economic crisis of capitalism and the return to the doctrine of great power rivalry has seen Cold War rhetoric return but without any ideological justification, writes Dr William Briggs.

IT IS NOW 30 years since the USSR ceased to be. The end of the Cold War was to herald an era of peace, harmony and the “end of history”. Instead, we have wars, inequality, economic crisis, climate catastrophe and pandemic.

The Cold War had a certain logic to it. There were ideological differences. Thirty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there are no ideas beyond capitalism, nationalism and the pursuit of power.

Much has been made of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s anguished remark that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a disaster. What Putin says is right, but he is not talking of the passing of an idea of socialism. His anguish is tied to his vision of a Great Russia.

The tragedy of the past three decades for the former Soviet people is there for all to see. Poverty and inequality grow. The economy works for some but not for the bulk of the population. A sense of hopelessness stalks the land. The past three decades have seen the territory of the former Soviet Union whittled away as NATO forces steadily encroach and borders are seen to be threatened.

Such conditions make the lure of nationalist responses and calls to past glories alluring. Millions of Russians have memories of times which, in their estimation, were better, more stable and which allowed for a sense of pride in what had been achieved.

Since coming to power, Putin has promoted the symbolism of the USSR at every turn. It is a symbolism that ignores the revolution that created that same Soviet Union. His is a confection that seeks to promote nostalgia for the lost prestige that went with the Soviet state. He has successfully reasserted the sense of nationalism that had been manipulated by Stalin.

The parades are back, although not May Day or 7 November. Instead, they have a purely martial air. It is a narrative that plays well with Russians and particularly those who remember a Soviet Union that appeared to challenge the might of the United States. Those Cold War images have been rebadged by Putin for the 21st Century and are images that the USA is happy to run with.

The two states have different motivations for returning to the rhetoric of the Cold War. The existence of the Soviet Union was, for the U.S., at once both an interesting problem and a blessing. The Cold War was able to be used to maintain political stability at home, while also providing a useful means of promoting its “values” abroad. It permitted an obscene arms race and cemented U.S. global power.

America is now facing even greater problems. There is the interrelated problem of a capitalist crisis internationally and domestically which is compounded by the rising economic power of China. The United States has chosen to replay the same ideological but now illogical threat scenario that once existed. It has invoked Cold War memories to demonise both China and Russia in a deliberate repeat of earlier tactics and policy.

Towards the end of the Cold War, the U.S. engaged in a campaign of massive spending on its military with the view to “bleeding” the economy of the USSR. It was a case of who had the biggest economic reserves. The U.S. today seems prepared to suffer economic losses in the hopes that its rivals will sustain even more crippling losses. It is a dangerous strategy. There is another danger that is obvious and that is the clear link between nationalism, economic nationalism and the drift to militarism and war.

Nationalism and national identity dominated every stage of Russia’s long history. Putin has, rather unashamedly, manipulated the images. The brutality of successive regimes has been able to be translated, in the hands of the mythmakers, into an heroic history. The people suffer but in the name of something great.

It has been sustained for generations. The Russian Revolution offered a chance to put the myth to bed; to create a new narrative where the people might come to play the significant role. It was a fleeting moment as Stalinism snuffed out that narrative and returned to “Mother Russia” and to nationalism.

When the Soviet Union crumbled, the carpetbaggers swept through. The long history of great Russia was being replaced by a fistful of dollars. National pride was trodden into the mud. Is it any wonder that Putin’s grotesque parody and pastiche of nationalist symbols gained such traction?

The demonisation of Russia serves a very real purpose. Russia represents no threat to U.S. power, but its economy, largely based as it is on the strength of its natural gas exports into Europe, does. Any reliance on Russia is perceived as a weakening of direct U.S. influence. Ever since the collapse of the USSR, the U.S. and its NATO allies have sought to physically reduce the territory that had once been the Soviet Union.

Today, Putin issues warnings to the USA and to NATO about any further expansion which threaten Russia’s security. The post-Soviet period saw former Soviet republics form alliances with the European Union and by implication with America. In the face of this push from the USA and its allies, the Russians pushed back. War is now being spoken of and U.S. President Joe Biden has threatened “severe” economic repercussions should war break out in Ukraine.

For any economic sanction to be “severe” would necessitate a concerted U.S.-EU approach. Russia is the EU’s fifth biggest trading partner and the EU ranks as number one for Russia. Whether the USA could rely on its European allies to hold the line would depend entirely on ensuring supplies of gas to Europe. If supply chains could be secure, then the Russian economy could easily be destroyed. This economic strangulation echoes the policies of the Cold War but without any ideological justification.

This is a dangerous juggling act for all parties concerned. The United States feels impelled to weaken any potential rivals, be they economic, political or military. This has both domestic and international implications. The home audience needs to be massaged. Important allies need to be reassured that alliances are worth maintaining and smaller powers need to be reminded that it is in their best interests to remain within the orbit of American power.

The American military doctrine has shifted from its “war on terror” and has returned to the great power conflict view of international relations. When such a policy was last in place, the Cold War framed the thinking of the world. It was based on the flawed logic of ideological difference. Today, naked aggression and the desire to hold on to global power makes enemies of all and leave the world in a most precarious state.

A return to Cold War rhetoric remains irrational and dangerous but after all, as Harry Angstrom, in John Updike’s Rabbit at Rest put it:

‘Without the Cold War, what is the point of being an American?’

Dr William Briggs is a political economist. His special areas of interest lie in political theory and international political economy. He has been, variously, a teacher, journalist and political activist.

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