The conflict in Ukraine, the first stage of the new cold war

Long before the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the view that the world was entering a new Cold War was widely shared by international policy makers. The long and dangerous rivalry in the gray zone separating peace from war has been a fundamental historical fact since the Peloponnesian War, when the Athenian empire collapsed under the blows of Sparta after thirty years of rivalry.

The Cold War, that “twilight struggle against the Soviet Union,” as John F. Kennedy called it, was a period of total competition, ideological, economic, technological, between West and East, which lasted for almost half a century. It ended with a resounding victory for the Western powers, the triumph of democracy over authoritarianism, the market economy over the centralized economy, which opened up a long period of influence on the whole world in the United States.

But thirty years of relative calm will eventually lead to failure: contrary to the US goal, neither Russia nor China wanted to become part of the new Western order. On the contrary, Moscow and Beijing saw in American policy not a factor of stability, but a threat to their security and power.

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Lessons to be learned from the previous crisis

Thus, this stability in the world order collapsed for a number of years before abruptly collapsing on February 24th. Whatever the outcome of the war in Ukraine, the coming period is likely to be marked by increased competition between the United States and Russia, but above all China, whose desire to redraw the map of the world and make autocracy a new universal human value should become even more intense.

Thus, this is a new type of cold war that risks dragging on for a long time and seriously threatening the prosperity and stability of the Western world. Is it possible to draw some lessons from the previous one in order to conduct today’s ones more effectively?

Hal Brands is convinced. Historian, specialist in American foreign policy, professor at the Johns Hopkins Institute of International Affairs, author of numerous books, consultant to the administration and intelligence agencies, he analyzes the “first era” of the Cold War in depth to draw strategic lessons for today.

“We once again entered into a global struggle for power and world order”

Of course, the author admits, history alone cannot help us in solving today’s strategic problems. “Events are like snowflakes, none of them are exactly alike,” he writes. Nevertheless, we have once again entered a global struggle for world power and order, a struggle between systems and values, an increasingly gray area between war and peace.

Revisiting American Strategy

In order to fight on equal terms with China and Russia, the Western world, and especially the United States, must adopt a “strategy” like that of “containmentwhich George Kennan advocated in 1947 to stop the expansion of the Soviet zone in what was probably the golden age of American foreign policy.

Waging this new cold war forces America to make strong choices in terms of economy, influence on international organizations, alliances, if it is going to resist aggressors, fight for its values, and prevent any hostile power from amassing enough resources to threaten it. This would mean that Joe Biden decides to break with the policies that have been pursued in recent years and have organized a more or less orderly withdrawal of the United States from the affairs of the outside world.

His decisions to massively support Ukraine with money and weapons seem to indicate that such a test is underway. But we must not forget another fundamental lesson of the Cold War: this is a long-term matter.

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“Twilight Struggle: What the Cold War Teaches Us About Great Power Rivalry Today,” Hal Brands, Yale University Press, March 2022

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