The Cold War as narrative? Old representations and new emotions

ZOiS Spotlight 37/2019 by Christoph Creutziger and Paul Reuber (9 October 2019)

East-West sign from the perspective of the southeast coast of England. © KW Photography / Alamy Stock Foto

It is almost 30 years since the end of the Cold War, both as a historical era and as a global geopolitical imagination. In the West, however, the East still remained one of its “excluded others” within geopolitical framings because long-practiced risk discourses do not simply disappear. Although they lost part of their interpretive power in the 1990s and 2000s; they nevertheless remained valid as an element of international risk scenarios in the discursive “archives” of geopolitics. Despite the emergence of new paradigms such as the “Clash of Cultures” or the “North-South-Divide”, the old East-West binarity never vanished completely. Rather, the 2008 war in the Caucasus and the Ukraine conflict from 2014 brought them back into public discourses with full force. What emerged, surprisingly quickly, was the narrative of a “New Cold War” – a narrative which appears to have emotional resonance, even though today’s conflicts are different in almost every respect from those that occurred during the original Cold War.

Which discursive elements and shifts characterises the new geopolitical imaginations of East-West discourses? This is the key question of a research project at the Department of Geography at the University of Münster (funded by DFG). Based on millions of newspaper articles and social media posts, political speeches and images, the project explores the changing shape of geopolitical narratives in Germany.

Russia: the elephant in the room

The findings show that the West still appears to need the East to represent itself as a geopolitically and morally superior West. Indeed, this kind of imagination has gained considerable traction since 2014. Meanwhile, the political geographies of Us and Them in Western media have shifted: in the coverage the New Cold War is no longer a global phenomenon but is mainly linked to political crisis and wars in the East, specifically in the context of Russian interventions in neighbouring countries. The West itself forms an unmarked centre in this dualism. Even Ukraine plays a subordinate role in the discourse. Granted, Ukraine is the battleground, but events and protests here tend to be assigned to broader geopolitical framings like pro-Russian vs. pro-European.

Discoursive pathways to a New Cold War

How should these narratives be interpreted in theoretical terms? The archives of geopolitics (Reuber) consist of geopolitical representations that are so powerful because they have been dominant framings of the political maps of world order in history. Under certain conditions they have the potentiality to reappear in political debates, media coverage and even in popular culture. In many Hollywood movies, for example, the Russian bad guys retain their “East European” accents even after dubbing, and tropes live on in the form of jokes and caricatures. To date, Russia is frequently portrayed as archaic and backward, with images of powerful old men and exploited young women, icy vistas and (presumably Russian) bears. In our discourse analysis, fragments of these representations can be found in debates in the German Parliament as well as in editorials in opinion-leading print media. And when it comes to Russia’s domestic affairs, media coverage represents them mostly as a political game of a few powerful leading figures. The current portrayal of Putin as a strongman ruler, a latter-day czar, is the most obvious example of such a kind of framing: his childhood and his life are used as a vehicle to explain Russian foreign policy. All that he embodies is thus seen as emblematic of the Russian nation as a whole.

The geopolitical discourse dominates Russia's representations in Western media over other topics. This can help to understand why musicians from Russia in the Eurovision Song Contest are sometimes booed by the audience because of their Russian-ness: the negative geopolitical imaginations seem to outweigh the artistic performance. For many other countries, the dividing line between politics and pop culture is much more clear-cut. Where Russia is concerned, the reporting is patchy in the extreme: it seems that apart from Putin, only very few aspects – mostly (geo)political ones – are worthy of coverage. In western imaginations the East was politically, morally and aesthetically downgraded for decades, especially during the Cold War. There has been virtually no attempt in Germany or elsewhere to analyse the propaganda discourses on both sides. To many people, the phrase “The Russian is at the door” still sounds like a threat, not like a visit.

However, it is not just old geopolitical representations that are capable of inspiring fear today. The same can be said of political actions: after all, Russia did annex a peninsula and is engaged in more or less open warfare in Eastern Ukraine. Although a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia is  currently not in prospect, the two sides are – due to the power of historical geopolitical framings – resorting to the kind of threatening gestures symptomatic of the Cold War, with large-scale military exercises along the border and Russian and NATO planes escorting each other in international airspace more often than in the 1990s in a self-perpetuating justification of the crisis.

Old thought patterns – new emotions

Geopolitics of crisis also operate on an emotional level, where some important shifts can be observed in our data. In the 1980s, fear was the defining emotion in Germany in relation to the Cold War and the Soviet Union. It was rooted mainly in the belief that Europe would be devastated in a “hot” nuclear war between the superpowers, no matter who (and how) the conflict started. However, the analysis of large numbers of readers’ letters and social media posts shows that over the past five years, contempt rather than fear has been the prevailing emotion. Feelings of contempt relate to Putin as well as to Russia as a whole. Today, feelings of fear that a war could genuinely happen or feelings of hope that the lines of conflict could be significantly reduced are much less common.

Together, these results show how important it is to combine the analysis of emotions and discourses to understand present geopolitical representations and conflicts. It's not just about the distribution of armoured units and missile bases, it's often geopolitical risk discourses that prepare the conflicts and wars in people's minds long before the clashes begin. In this respect the case study shows: If you look at political relations between Russia, its neighbours and the European Union through the geopolitical lens of the Cold War, you will be likely to find signs of it everywhere. In order to avoid the risk of such a single story, it is important to differentiate. It would be desirable if Western media were able to criticise Russian policy without promptly falling back into old binarities. Especially when debates become more emotional, it is important to keep an eye on the geopolitical archives and their different narratives. They can help us to understand why some representations may feel like "truths" while others are marginalized or silenced.


Christoph Creutziger is a researcher and Paul Reuber is a Professor of Political Geography at the Institute of Geography, University of Münster.