During the last months and weeks, relations between the United States and Russia have experienced growing strains and tensions. Because of Ukraine and Syria to be sure, but also because of the Russian concession of asylum to Edward Snowden and of the American criticisms to Russian homophobic laws. Moreover, there are tensions over the Artic, Caucasus, Iran, and so on. Journalists very often indicate the growing strains between the US and Russia as signs that a “new Cold War” might be in the air. To argue this, is to fundamentally misunderstand what the Cold War was about, and what the current state of US-Russia relations is. And to label what is happening as a “new Cold War” is likely to lead us to misunderstand the past and the current state of affairs even further.
US-Russia relations experience growing strains, true. But such strains are not fundamentally different from the strains that are likely to emerge now and then between any two big world actors with a great deal of influence and interests abroad. The US President and the Russian one do not really get on well with each other? That happens. The US and Russia support different parties in the struggles occurring at the margins of their zones of influence (Ukraine, Caucasus, Syria)? That happens. The US and Russia are competitors for energy and primary commodities? That happens. The US and Russia exploit each other’s weak points for domestic purposes (Snowden, homophobia)? That happens. What is happening, is the occurrance of a partially adversary relationship between two world actors. The character of their relationship is not unique, and it can be surprising only for those few who have not overcome the “triumph of liberalism” euphoria yet.
What is not happening, is a “new Cold War” between the US and Russia. However important the US and Russia are, they do not enjoy anymore the primacy position they had before 1989. Their clashes do not imply a clash between an entire First World on one side and an entire Second World on the other one. US and Russia are free to clash on a number of issues, but the rest of the world is quite free to go its way in the meantime: third countries and their own domestic actors can ignore the clashes, or support US on one item and Russia on another one – as a number of them do. Moreover, the strains in the US-Russia relationship are not likely to bring about proxy wars in faraway countries: if military confrontation is to happen, it will occur in areas close to Russia (Syria, Ukraine). Finally and most importantly, the strains in the US-Russia relationship are definitely not likely to bring about a nuclear confrontation.
What is underway, is not a “new Cold War”. There are tensions, but they are not extraordinary in any way. The Cold War was something fundamentally different. Since the couple of countries involved is more or less the same, it may be tempting to resort to “Cold War” as a handy and evocative label. But to use such a label makes it tempting also to use the 20th century Cold War as a blueprint for the interpretation of the current state of affairs. I doubt whether such a blueprint can be really useful: I guess it does not help much in understanding what is really going on today. I also guess that it does not help much in understanding what went on before 1989. The inappropriate use of the “Cold War” label could spread and engrain a simplistic understanding of the 20th century Cold War itself, hindering the understanding and memory of its complexity and uniqueness.
This post was first published on January 18, 2014. It was slightly amended on March 2, 2014 as a consequence of the crisis in Ukraine.