We seem to be living in a time of perpetual warfare. Since the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 we’ve had the first Gulf War in Iraq, the genocide in Rwanda, the conflict in the Balkans when old tensions sprang up following the breakup of Yugoslavia, and the continuing oppression of the Palestinians by the Israeli state.
Following the September 11 attacks in 2001 the War on Terror was launched, which led to the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. Even more recently there have been wars in Libya, Ukraine, as well as ongoing conflicts in Syria and Yemen.
The refugee crisis is a direct result of these wars, and Europe has faced severe consequences in the form of terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom, Spain, France, Belgium and Germany. Tensions between superpowers are also growing as a result, especially over the Syrian conflict, with Russia backing President Bashar al- Assad on one side and the United States and their coalition backing rebel groups seeking to overthrow him.
There is also the continued threat of Islamic State, which has taken over large territories in Iraq and Syria, capitalising on the chaos that has engulfed the region.
So far these conflicts have been regional, but what is the possibility of a return to the Cold War era and a direct conflict between world superpowers? To answer this I sought the assistance of some experts in the field, Professor of Modern History Mary Heimann and Dr James Ryan, lecturer in Russian History at Cardiff University.
So could there be another Cold War on the horizon? The Soviet Union was one bloc, under one ideology, hoping to spread their system of international socialism across the globe – much like the U.S. and its allies have been trying to do with capitalist democracy.
Modern Russia is not like that, it is an authoritarian state, resistant to revolution, helping to prop up a president of another authoritarian state.
The Cold War was between two superpowers with separate ideologies. The world is now a more interconnected system, a multipolar rather than a bipolar one, with almost every country working under some form of capitalism.
As Dr Ryan tells me: “That is absolutely central to this. In 1985 something like 4 per cent of the Soviet economy was dependent on foreign trade. The Russian economy today is almost fully integrated into the world economy. Russia cannot insulate itself from the world the way the Soviets could”.
He adds: “Ideology was certainly pretty key to the original Cold War and that really is absent today. That’s a major difference; we don’t have the same ideological conflict”.
There are now no ideological blocs like there were pre-1989. Many of the former Soviet Republics have joined the EU and crucially NATO. Who would the new Cold War be between? Who are the major players? The distinction is not as clear in today’s world as it was in the past.
Russia’s economy is weak, China has entered the fray and U.S. hegemony is being challenged like it hasn’t been since the days of the Soviet Union. A Cold War, like the cloak and dagger style spy fest we have seen in countless movies, seems unlikely.
Yet the world is a dangerous place, tensions are high and nuclear weapons are still one of the biggest threats to our existence on this planet. There’s a lot of reports emanating from Russia that Putin has built numerous nuclear defence shelters, and carried out nuclear attack drills involving 40 million people being evacuated.
— Arms Control Assoc (@ArmsControlNow) October 20, 2016
The Russian president has also said he will roll back on the symbolic plutonium enrichment agreement. With an estimated reserve of enough weapons grade plutonium for Russia to make over 22,000 nuclear weapons, to add to the 7,300 already active ones, should we be worried?
Though Russia may not have the same political influence as the Soviets and are economically weak, they are currently on a programme of major military modernisation, which has stabilised their faltering economy to some extent.
The U.S. too is upgrading. No American president has built more doomsday weapons than Obama, despite winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 after promising to help ‘rid the world of nuclear weapons’.
I asked Professor Heimann what she thought of the possibility of a direct conflict between nuclear powers: “Certainly the rhetoric is very dangerous on both sides I would say. I suppose one thing to bear in mind is the extent to which ever since 1989 the former Soviet Union – the Russian Federation – has been kind of pushed beyond its comfort zone”.
For example, NATO has continued to push eastward – despite assurances they would not encroach on former Soviet territory – and have stationed weapons in Poland and most recently Romania. This is clearly going to be received as very threatening from the other side.
Professor Heimann continues:
I personally don’t think that [direct confrontation] is likely, but I think the wars by proxy are incredibly dangerous. The things that alarm me are the extent to which it’s helpful, maybe for Russian internal reasons, to maintain this kind of state of tension and alert which happened during the Cold War on both sides. It had its domestic political reasons to keep people in a state of readiness, it unifies people if you have a common enemy on the other side, it also means that you have all kinds of powers that you don’t normally have if you’re not in a state of war or war readiness. There are dangers in the West as well. I don’t see a direct nuclear confrontation as likely because for the same reasons it hasn’t happened up to now.
Those reasons are the principle of mutually assured destruction – or the delicate balance of terror as it is more subtlety known – meaning essentially that, if you strike at us, then we strike back and everyone is fucked.
Perhaps more worrying is the similar political situation in Europe and elsewhere to that of the pre-World War Two landscape. Extreme right wing parties have gained momentum in nearly all European countries since the 2008 recession, with most blaming their problems on refugees and immigrants, alongside the continued demonisation of Muslims.
Britain is becoming more isolated, a fact that will be set in stone once Brexit is enforced, and the U.S. is becoming more inward looking, as Professor Heimann states: “I think it’s very striking to anyone who’s a historian, how similar to the thirties it is just now and how every nation state seems to be reacting more or less as it did in the past – which is alarming. I’m more worried about the rise of forms of racism and race discrimination than about nuclear Armageddon, personally.”
However, the world is an unpredictable place. When lunatics like Kim Jong-un in North Korea have the capability to launch nukes anything can happen, and what if Donald trump gets elected to the White House? This is a man with not even a tenuous grasp on international relations or affairs. The fact that he could have world ending power under his index finger is a terrifying prospect.
Furthermore, it seems we are at a stalemate with Syria. There have been reports that British planes have been given the go ahead to engage Russian fighters if they feel threatened, and what of the possibility of NATO planes enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria? That would involve direct contact with Russian fighters also.
The Russians have just deployed their biggest naval fleet since the Cold War, shadowed on its journey to Syria by the Royal Navy. World War Three might not be such a distant possibility, and with all of the various wars different nations are currently engaged in, who’s to say that it has not already begun?