Many authors attribute the origin of the Cold War to a long telegram sent in 1946 by the Deputy Head of the Diplomatic Mission of the United States in Moscow, political scientist and diplomat George Kennan, in which he warned of permanent insecurity felt by Soviet leaders, their infirm secrecy, and their hidden desire to create a “political force committed fanatically to the belief that with US there can be no permanent modus vivendi.” That warning, which was in turn frightful for the Americans (fear is the most common cause of war, according to Thucydides), resulted in the implementation of the American containment doctrine, the start and internationalization of the Cold War, and the transformation of international relations into a bipolar system led by the United States and the Soviet Union, allowing politics to be interpreted, dissidents suppressed, arsenals justified, and superpowers strengthened.
The Cold War was not a war, but rather a strategy of competition, equilibrium, and globalization whose paradigm was the existence of two poles of influence and three principles of behavior, according to Graham Allison: “Not using nuclear weapons; not directly engaging the soldiers of a superpower; and mutually respecting spheres of influence.” That is to say, for the most committed or necessary allies. Seen in this light, in the world of the 21st century there is no Cold War II on the table. However, the media and certain interests see certain events as if they were a replay of the phenomenon. As if Russia, upon invading Crimea and considering Ukraine a zone of influence, had started the Cold War again. Or as if trade tensions between the United States and China were an episode from the new Cold War between two new superpowers. Let us analyze the issue, to call into question its veracity.
There is no Cold War playing out in our time, because, first of all, there are not two superpowers facing off. There are at least three superpowers if we consider Chinese economic strength and Russia’s military strength as two strategic rivals against the only true superpower in existence, which is the United States. China is given potential superpower status due to its immense growth in recent years–in 2008 China’s economy was smaller than Japan’s and today it is more than double its size–, its growing global influence, and its desire to become a superpower, thereby allowing it to incorporate territories under its sovereignty and establish bases and spheres of influence. Its foreign policy texts and actions in recent years as well as the discourse of its leaders recognize this. And Russia is considered due to its recognizable intention to weaken the international credibility of western democratic systems and its strategy of intervention in Syria, coercion in Ukraine, and deterrence with exercises like Vostok 18, where it deployed 36,000 tanks and 1,000 planes in collaboration with China.
Despite that one-off collaboration and other broader areas of cooperation between the two counties in regional organizations, the highly publicized Russia-China alliance has not become a stable global pole of power, much less has it been considered a pole of political attraction or strategic resistance against a common rival or enemy. It is best understood as a bilateral relationship, strengthened by certain interests, but in which both powers diverge on many issues such as trade and the key matter of two-headed leadership, as Putin and Xi Jinping are not willing to cede to their counterpart.
Secondly, the bipolar confrontation of the Cold War had three settings (bilateral, regional, and global), while the rivalry between the great powers today is limited to specific issues and to isolated regions and conflicts. The uptick in protectionism, for example, affects our time with regard to specific issues and products and has not led to the creation of economic or trade blocs where guidelines and restrictions are established for ideological reasons. Additionally, protectionism is not exclusively aimed against a specific rival–China may be a prime example of this strategy–, but rather it includes products from third, non-ally countries or such policies come from other spheres and economic powers like the European Union. Something similar could be argued with regard to economic sanctions or embargoes, which are aimed at governments considered hostile to the globalization dynamic or security, or in order to act as a measure of pressure against the political actions of certain countries. In these cases, they are not measures that are part of a unilateral decision, but rather measures issued by some multilateral decision-making body (European Union, United Nations, agreements).
Moreover, in regions where bipolarity may currently make more sense such as Southeast Asia, tensions between China and its area of influence and the United States and its allies have not materialized in an armed conflict such as those in Korea and Vietnam, nor have they blocked independent political and economic relations for the majority of the players in the game. However, in Europe, stronghold of military deterrence (NATO–Warsaw Pact) and the border between the two superpowers of the last century, there is no such situation today, while the Middle East, an area of balance of power and influence in the Cold War, has been in open, multifactorial war for more than a decade, with different players and interests clashing, breaking through patterns past.
Thirdly, because tripolarity is not a reality either. The European Union is an economic, political, and social power, whose global presence not only competes, but in many aspects exceeds the other three. Its model of integration and solidarity continues to be a reference in areas like Latin America and Africa and it is a draw for immigrants from many regions. Other governments and emerging powers such as Brazil, Turkey, and India currently represent a third world that has little or nothing to do with the post-colonial idea of those distant, “non-allied” countries. Therefore, the mutation of the unipolar world at the beginning of the millennium has shifted to a multipolar, heterogeneous system where globalization continues to act as a flow-revitalizing paradigm.
Among these flows, communication has the greatest influence on today’s global society. The United States holds determining leadership over this factor. The media, technology, and messaging from the superpower put pressure on the value order of the other players. China, with its vision of Internet sovereignty, closes itself off from the influx of diversity and free expression driven by the great programmers. Russia fights it with post-truth propaganda: fake news and cyberattacks. Global citizens monitor it and question it. The Cold War today is, if anything, a digital war. The first victim in this new, open, and global war was, as in all wars, the truth. Also as in all wars, no one knows exactly why it started or when it will end.