A new Cold War?

Comments on a thoughtless debate

ZOiS Spotlight 14/2018 by Bernd Greiner (18 April 2018)

‚Yes, it’s cold war 2‘ Headline of Private Eye Magazin, London. ©Kathy deWitt / Alamy Stock Foto

Lazy thinking is obviously contagious. Whenever any controversy flares up involving Russia or China, the skeleton labelled “Cold War” is hauled out of the closet. Everyone cribs from everyone else and proceeds from the clear but unspoken assumption that there can be only one plausible answer to the question whether the past is repeating itself – and the answer is a deeply worrying “yes”. That in itself shows the absurdity of asking the question in the first place. The next step is to apportion blame, and here too, reflex rather than reflection comes into play. Old geographical habits die hard, so the drop in the political temperature is blamed on the chill factor from the East. And there we have it: the familiar balance in the world is restored – good versus evil, insiders and outsiders, us and them.

Selective amnesia

For historians, it is depressing to see how easily memories of the recent past can be erased. Who recalls that not long ago, two hostile camps sought to assert the legitimacy of their respective ideological claims even in far-flung corners of the Earth, clinging rigidly to the idea that their own survival depended on the other’s capitulation? Who remembers that for four decades, the two blocs built up their arsenals as if they might have to fight a new world war at a moment’s notice – and more than once indulged in the most egregious muscle-flexing? Who remembers that the “cold peace” in the Northern hemisphere came at a price, namely “hot wars” and the loss of more than 20 million lives in the Global South? It’s as if no one has ever seen, heard or read about any of this.

These examples suffice to illustrate the gap between the Cold War in its heyday and present-day conflicts. No matter what their cause or where they take place, today’s conflicts are regional disputes, not a global stand-off over fundamentals. They are characterised not by entrenched alliances but by shifting coalitions of the willing, as in Syria. None of the wars fought since 1990 comes close to being a bloodbath like Korea or Vietnam. And today’s arsenals are increasingly equipped for scenarios which, during the classic Cold War, would have been witnessed, at most, in sci-fi films: cyber wars, robot battles, commanders with artificial intelligence. In other words, it’s the same old story: nothing stays the same, and every era requires its own solutions.

What can we learn from the Cold War?

The point of the story is that we need to be looking in a very different direction. A debate about the Cold War can yield useful insights for the present – but only if we approach it from a different perspective: one which does not take confrontations, crises and escalations as the frame of reference. Focusing on the horrors is not productive. Instead, we should look to the Cold War to find out how disputes were dampened down – specifically, to see which strategies were developed and implemented as a way of managing conflict, bridging divides, making walls more permeable, creating more fluidity in entrenched situations. It was because of, not in spite of, the Cold War that a wealth of useful ideas came to be discussed from the late 1960s onwards. Sadly, they are now forgotten, and everyone is losing out.

A rediscovery of the policy of détente would be particularly timely, indeed long overdue. That means creating common security, instead of achieving it at the other’s expense. It means moderating conflicts through dialogue and diplomatic means, not fuelling them through an arms build-up. And it means giving the economically weak a hand up, in order to move closer to peaceful solutions at political level. When these cornerstones of a new way of thinking were first mooted in East and West, the international situation was just as complex as it is today. There were Russian tanks on the streets of Prague, the US was on the rampage in Vietnam, and there were border skirmishes between Chinese and Soviet troops. And yet politics shifted course, contrary to expectations, mainly because the protagonists – with Willy Brandt leading the way – refused to be trapped by negative experiences.

Of course, each era needs its own solutions. That’s why revisiting détente is not about indulging in nostalgia. It is about recognising that some experiences outlive their era and may prove to be useful in different circumstances. This applies especially to the approach to political confidence-building during the Cold War; we need only think of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) and its follow-up meetings. Because the majority of participants were committed to the principle of “peace through communication” and cultivated intensive contacts at all levels, a renewed escalation of the Cold War in the early 1980s was kept in check – despite the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, martial law in Poland, and a fresh spiral in the arms race. Without these painstaking diplomatic efforts, it would not have been possible to scrap an entire generation of nuclear weapons – the intermediate-range missiles stationed in Europe – for the first time under the INF Treaty in 1987.[1] And it is safe to assume that the confidence built up between East and West was a key prerequisite for bringing the Cold War to an end without bloodshed.

And so, once again, political creativity is called for. What does “common security” mean today? How can the major powers’ legitimate interests be reconciled with the smaller countries’ security needs? Where is it possible to build on past experience? Which political tools may be useful, even under changed conditions? And what kind of contribution can an engaged public make?

Anyone who explores the Cold War from this perspective will uncover much that is surprising and inspiring. But it’s not a job for lazy thinkers.


[1] See Agnes Bresselau von Bressensdorf, Frieden durch Kommunikation. Das System Genscher und die Entspannungspolitik im Zweiten Kalten Krieg 1979-1982/83, Berlin, Boston 2015; Martin Klimke, Reinhild Kreis, Christian F. Ostermann (eds.), Trust, but Verify. The Politics of Uncertainty and the Transformation of the Cold War Order, 1969-1991, Stanford University Press 2016.

Bernd Greiner is the Director of Berliner Kolleg Kalter Krieg / Berlin Center for Cold War Studies.


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