Column: Let’s not confuse the Cold War with what is happening today


It’s hard to pick up a foreign policy journal, or even turn on the television, without encountering someone predicting, recommending, or deploring a “new Cold War” with Russia, China, or both.

That’s perfectly understandable, and even defensible, if you mean a new period of strategic competition, pressures, and geopolitical tensions befitting all-out war. Such a lowercase “Cold War” can already be seen.

The US and its allies are doing almost everything but declaring a “hot war” on Russia over its immoral aggression against Ukraine. Things are not as tense with China, but there is a broad consensus, particularly among Republicans, that “containing” China – to use a Cold War term – should be at the heart of American foreign policy. And even many who disagree believe we are entering one NewCold warwith China if we want to or not. After all, sometimes wars, cold or hot, are not wars of choice.

I agree that new cold wars with Russia and China are both necessary and not necessarily desirable. But I worry that the semantic confusion of the historic Cold War and this new Cold War might get us into trouble. George Orwell observed in “Politics and the English Language” that “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. Bad use can spread through tradition and imitation, even among people who should and know better.”

The Cold War was entirely a creature of its time. Indeed, as Orwell himself noted in his 1945 paper “You and the Atomic Bomb” our conflict with the Soviet Union was a product of the nuclear age, and he predicted that nuclear weapons would make a war that had ended months earlier unlikely.

Fear of nuclear war still constrains our actions—and, I hope, those of our adversaries—but the differences between the Cold War era and today are profound.

First of all, the Cold War was not a time of lasting peace. The Korean and Vietnam wars were also part of the Cold War, as were the Soviet invasions of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan.

It was very easy to sever economic ties with the Soviet Union because we had so few at first. The same is largely true of today’s Russia, which is a nuclear superpower but an economic refugee. It is GDP is less than half California’s (Russia’s per person GDP is one-eighth that of California).

China is now the second largest economy in the world and a global manufacturing powerhouse. Any expectation that the US and the international community would sever ties with China over an invasion of Taiwan, as they did with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, seems overly optimistic. China crushed democracy in Hong Kong and sent Uyghurs to concentration camps, and the international business community largely shrugged.

The Soviets vowed to “liberate” the world from capitalism, “bourgeois” democracy and religion. This type of ideology made it comparatively easy to garner political support for containment—yet even then, there was ample national and international opposition to America’s anti-Communist policies.

In fact, “under God” was officially inserted into the oath of allegiance differentiate America from the “godless communists”. Presenting the bill, Senator Homer Ferguson (R-Mich.) said, “I think this change in promise is important because it highlights one of the really fundamental differences between the free world and the communist world, which is belief in God .”

No one in the House or Senate opposed the change.

For better or for worse, it seems unlikely that such a thing would be possible today. Religion no longer binds the nation in the same way and our domestic culture wars – whether it’s over the response to the COVID-19 pandemic or the school curriculum or Vladimir Putin as Anti-wake hero – don’t seem very compatible with a new Cold War. and freedom even is no longer the battle cry it once was on the left or right.

Orwell argued that some expressions come to us like parts of a “prefabricated chicken coop” and end up doing our thinking for us. We may indeed be on the verge of a new Cold War, but we need new thinking that doesn’t necessarily spring from old phrases like “Cold War”.

@JonahDispatch Column: Let’s not confuse the Cold War with what is happening today

Caroline Bleakley

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