On Stephen Kotkin, ‘Myth of the new cold war’, Prospect First Drafts, March 28, 2008
I am sorry to inject a bit of confusion, but, actually, both Kotkin and Edward Lucas (an ex-colleague many years ago in the BBC World Service) could be right in whether there is a new cold war. It depends on perceptions. And the central players in the new cold war may not be America and Russia.
The last cold war which ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union was more real because it involved a prolonged confrontation between two different power blocs, each with a clear ideology and social system. The West, which saw Soviet communism as a threat, engaged in containment until the USSR collapsed. China’s break from the Soviet Union and strategic defection to the West muddied the waters, but the divisions between the two main power blocs remained intact.
Today, if neoconservatives, and those who buy their rhetoric, are to be believed, radical Islam has replaced communism as the main threat to Western liberal democracies. It is a greatly mistaken view, because one billion Muslims spread all over the world cannot be seen as a single bloc. There are so many shades and interpretations of Islam. Followers of the Islamic faith live in different cultures. And there is no line of demarcation between Western liberalism and Islam as such.
Despite the difference between ‘then’ and ‘now’, President George W Bush is engaged in what is widely seen, rightly or wrongly, in the Muslim world and elsewhere as containment (of Islam).
Many in the West and the Muslim world see each other as a threat. Steps taken by states in the name of combating the threat – immigration, visa restrictions, collection of private information, personal profiling, stop and search policing of immigrants – can easily be seen as part of a containment policy.
These are features of a new cold war, or shall we say ‘war on terror’. Today’s ‘new cold war’, if there is one, is a product more of perceptions, less of reality. And Russia, if anything, is an ally of the West. I await the arrival of the next President in the White House in the hope there will be less strident rhetoric and ignorance.