A new Cold War?

A new Cold War?

Thirty years on from the fall of the Berlin Wall, the world is a very different place. The liberal world order that appeared triumphant in 1989 faces unprecedented challenges – including renewed hostility from Russia – but also from a range of other sources.


As the international community celebrates 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of seemingly immutable Central/East European communist regimes, it is hard to remember the optimism that prevailed at the end of 1989. Conventional wisdom in those days held that the end of the Cold War would usher in an era of unprecedented security and cooperation. 

Today, however, the atmosphere is very different.  In particular, against the background of renewed tensions between Russia and the West, many claim that the Cold War is back. Yet, such statements are misleading and counterproductive.


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The Brave New World

True, today’s tensions among the world’s most powerful states are particularly acute.  In this context, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Cold War has returned to haunt us.

However, there are substantial differences between the world we inhabit today and the one we knew three decades ago.  Due to space constraints, I focus here on the Euro-Atlantic area—though that is related to broader global transformations.  In the Euro-Atlantic world, the enlargement of the EU and NATO and multiple other transformations have created a world that has little in common to the Cold War era. What used to be a relatively simple geometry of confrontation between rival blocs has been replaced by a complex set of relations among multiple actors.  In this context, categories of friend/enemy are more complicated, and different definitions of “us” vs. “them” coexist. Old boundaries between domestic/international and private/public have also become blurred, generating hybrid networks of  “entrepreneurs” that perform governance practices traditionally associated with the state.

Today’s tensions among the world’s most powerful states are particularly acute. In this context, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Cold War has returned to haunt us.

In this brave new world, ideology plays a vital role—but not in the form of Cold War ideological clashes. The liberal order is facing some serious challenges, but this time not from communist ideas/movements supported by Moscow.

Today, following the global rise of radical-right political forces, we are witnessing unprecedented attacks on the liberal order coming from within as well as outside the Western community.  In the eyes of many Western radical-right actors, Russia is not the enemy.  In fact, those actors tend to support Putin’s conservative vision of statehood.  By contrast, their attacks target liberal managerial elites, accusing them of using both the national state and international institutions of global governance to advance liberal agendas at the expense of the values and autonomy of authentic national communities.

It is also important to remember that today Russia is more integrated into the global economic system.  Hence, Western policies vis-à-vis Moscow are complicated by considerations such as access to natural gas or the role of Russian money in Western banks. For instance, last year a report published by the UK’s House of Commons revealed that London acts as a “laundromat” for Russia’s corrupt assets, which “support Putin’s campaign to subvert the international rules-based system.” These are just some of the developments that we miss if we conceptualize today’s Euro-Atlantic world in terms of a simple West vs. Russia geometry.

Having said that, we do need to acknowledge that we live in a climate of growing confrontation between Russia and the West/NATO. Today, the risk of violent conflict is deeply worrisome, particularly as it occurs in a context marked by the deterioration of arms control agreements


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What is to be done? 

There is no simple answer to this question, but several steps could be taken to reduce the tension between Russia and the West/NATO. Canada could play a constructive role in these steps.

Ironically, we need to start by remembering a key lesson of the final years of the Cold War, when, despite their multiple disagreements, both superpowers understood the importance of arms control.  Ottawa should join forces with its European partners and also build alliances with like-minded actors in the US to persuade Washington and Moscow to renew their commitment to arms control.    One of the key priorities should be to convince Washington that a stability-enhancing extension of the 2010 New STARTwould also bring tangible benefits to the US—for instance, by maintaining the flow of information the American military/intelligence community receive about Russian strategic forces.

In addition, Canada should strive to reduce uncertainty between Russia and the West, while also contributing to efforts to increase the credibility of NATO’s deterrence strategy.  These two policies—as the Cold War also taught us—need to be pursued simultaneously. Yet, today there is growing alarm about the broken communication process with Russia.  Consequently, even minor incidents could quickly escalate out of control. This is particularly dangerous in a situation in which uncertainty is exacerbated by the proliferation of new technologies that enable complex forms of hybrid warfare.


We need to start by remembering a key lesson of the final years of the Cold War, when, despite their multiple disagreements, both superpowers understood the importance of arms control.

In this context, there should be more effort to use institutions such as the NATO/Russia Council to clarify differences and sources of antagonism, and gain a better understanding of each other’s “red lines”. Furthermore, Council members could also explore the possibility of regional agreements to limit troops/weapons and enhance transparency in areas where the number of incidents has been particularly high.

More broadly, the UN and regional organizations should be mobilized to promote cooperation in areas where Moscow and the West recognize they have shared interests—such as preventing the proliferation of nuclear material to non-state actors. In this area, Canada could work harder to secure the cooperation of its European partners as well as that of concerned countries from the “Global South”. This would make it easier to not only address a key source of insecurity in the 21st century but also build habits/norms of collaboration that could subsequently be applied in more sensitive/conflictual areas. 

In essence, contrary to what some experts claim, we are not witnessing the return of the Cold War.  But, in a climate of renewed tension and uncertainty,  the danger of violent conflict is real. To minimize it, policy-makers should remember key lessons of the Cold War– and then innovatively apply them in today’s more complex world. It remains to be seen if they will be bold and creative enough to do so.

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