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I Knew the Cold War. This Is No Cold War.

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12.03.2018

A lot of smart people seem to think the United States and Russia are in a “new Cold War.” You can find articles on the subject in Politico, the New Yorker, and the Nation, and a quick Google search will take you to an entire website devoted to the topic, yet the more balanced views of a couple of years ago are harder to find these days. Politicians in both countries are using increasingly harsh language to describe each other and people on both sides are convinced the other is engaged in various dark plots against them. There are even signs of a new arms race, with Russian President Vladimir Putin boasting about sophisticated new nuclear weaponry and the United States preparing to launch a costly program of nuclear modernization.

The current situation is bad. But to call it a “new Cold War” is misleading more than it is enlightening. If one compares the two situations more carefully, what is happening today is a mere shadow of that earlier rivalry. Viewing today’s troubles as a new Cold War downplays the role that human agency and bad policy decisions have played in bringing the United States and Russia to the current impasse, distracts us from more important challenges, and discourages us from thinking creatively about how to move beyond the present level of rancor.

To see why this is so, remember what the original Cold War was like.

For starters, the Cold War was a bipolar competition in which the United States and the Soviet Union were far and away the two most powerful countries in the world. Although other factors contributed to their rivalry (see below), each was the other’s greatest potential threat and by necessity each kept a wary eye on the other. To a large extent the Cold War was structurally determined by the global distribution of power among states, and some sort of rivalry was probably inevitable (even if other factors were involved and helped determine its intensity).

Moreover, the two superpowers stood in rough parity with each other, although the United States was, on balance, in a much better position. The United States’ economy was about twice as large as the Soviet Union’s and its allies were far more capable and reliable than theirs. After all, the United States had West Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan, France, Israel, and a number of other powerful states on its side; the USSR had the likes of South Yemen, Cuba, Angola, and a bunch of restive satellites in the Warsaw Pact. China was Moscow’s junior partner at first, but the two communist giants soon had a nasty falling out and Beijing tacitly realigned with the United States in the 1970s (as did Egypt, another Soviet client state). The United States had........

© Foreign Policy