During the Cold War, the two sides of the conflict for global power were unmistakably clear, with American-led democracies wrangling with the U.S.S.R and its communist allies for supremacy. The 30 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, although far from peaceful, were less starkly divided, with major world powers competing largely over economic and cultural influence, while also finding ample room for cooperation when their interests aligned.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may mean that era is over. Western nations quickly came together to impose sweeping sanctions on Russia’s economy and offer substantial logistical support for Ukrainian forces. President Biden pledged to make Russian President Vladimir Putin “a pariah on the international stage.” Putin has framed the conflict in existential terms, warning that NATO intervention could risk spreading the war beyond Ukraine’s borders and hinting at a willingness to use nuclear weapons.
The Cold War lasted roughly 45 years from the end of World War II to the Soviet collapse in 1991. The era was defined by an intense political, economic and military rivalry between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. Though the world’s two dominant powers never came into direct conflict, American forces joined wars in Korea and Vietnam in an effort to stem the spread of communism. The specter of nuclear war loomed over the entire period, reaching its crescendo with the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.
Why there’s debate
Many historians and political experts see reasons to believe that a new era of direct conflict began the moment Russian forces advanced into Ukraine. For the first time in decades, they argue, the world has a defining conflict built around fundamental divisions over which model of governance will dominate.
There are clear differences between the Cold War era and today. Russia is not the United States’ chief rival — that role has fallen to China, Russia’s most important ally. Communism is no longer the primary threat to democracy. Many experts see the rising influence of authoritarianism, as practiced in China, Russia and other nations, taking that place now. They predict that in the coming years, the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism could follow patterns seen in the Cold War — including the severing of international ties, proxy battles and the ever-present threat of nuclear conflict.
Skeptics say the Cold War framing isn’t the right way to understand the current political conjuncture, particularly because the war in Ukraine is very “hot” at the moment. There are also doubts about Russia’s ability to sustain an extended period of opposition with the West and China’s willingness to fully align itself with a leader as unpredictable as Putin. Others have warned against the dangers of slipping back into Cold War brinkmanship, which they argue will fuel conflict and undermine the diplomatic cooperation needed to calm tensions at this volatile time.
Cold War dynamics have returned, although the enemy has changed
“Instead of communism, the ideological battle lines this time will be between democracies and autocracies. … During a conflict such as in Ukraine or potentially in Taiwan, autocracies might support one another through diplomatic backing, economic cooperation and military assistance. Their support in turn would be met by democratic countries’ cooperating politically, economically and militarily.” — Jaro Bilocerkowycz, Conversation
There’s nothing cold about the conflict taking place
“This is a new situation. This is not a cold war; this is a hot war — and it directly involves one of the great powers.” John Lewis Gaddis, historian, to the Los Angeles Times
The threat of nuclear conflict, the Cold War’s defining feature, is back
“Making the prospect of nuclear war — even if improbable — a part of the international calculus in potential conflict is still a startling departure, for some from more than 30 years of post-Cold War security.” — Jill Filipovic, CNN
We’re entering an era that is far more unpredictable than the Cold War
“The real comfort in the comparisons with the Cold War derives from its ending. It did not end in nuclear war. It did not finish with the triumph of totalitarianism. It did not culminate — in its final years — in great bloodshed. … The conflict between Russia and the West that began this week is terrifying precisely because it does not resemble the Cold War.” — Michael Kimmage, Politico
Failure to learn the lessons of Cold War has led to a new one
“Since the end of the Cold War, both Russia and the US have led mostly by the example of their power and rarely by the power of their example, undermining in the process international peace and security. … They have wasted three decades, focusing primarily on advancing their own narrow interests just as they did during the Cold War, and in the process only paved the way for, well, another Cold War.” — Marwan Bishara, Al Jazeera
The West can avoid another Cold War by prioritizing peace over power
“So what can stand in the way of this wasteful Cold War revival? Could security focus first on building the cooperation needed to address pandemics and climate change? Could it create institutions that divert resources from the entrenched institutions of war? … Could this war lead us to think more seriously about how to build peace rather than how to build weapons?” — Katrina vanden Heuvel, Washington Post
The U.S. is once again enmeshed in a struggle between competing world views
“Two visions of the world are on a collision course: that of the free world, and that of the authoritarians. This conflict is the principle line of division in the world today—more important the any clash of civilizations, than the fight against terrorism, than economic competition. “ — Paul Miller, Dispatch
Russia is too weak to carry out another Cold War
“Events can be momentous without meriting grandiloquent description. There can’t be a new cold war because the Russia of today can’t sustain a cold war. It’s not the U.S.S.R. Economically, it’s not even Spain. Operative all along hasn’t been Russia’s historical and geographic imperatives, but the grotty nature of the current regime. A kleptocracy is reaching its natural ending.” — Holman W. Jenkins, Jr., Wall Street Journal