Are we in a Second Cold War? And is this new Cold War more dangerous than the old one? Are the Russians seriously contemplating using tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine, as we are repeatedly told?
Is the world today in a more dangerous state than when the two nuclear armed superpowers went ‘jaw, jaw’ during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis – when the US and Soviet people, together with the rest of the world, held their breath in those 13 days of October?
The answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no’.
Prominent old hands in the West – practitioners, scholars and commentators – insist that yes, this evolving new Cold War is definitely more dangerous than the old one; and that yes, the war in Ukraine is more dangerous than the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. To buttress their arguments, they cite repeated Russian warnings and actions (such as the recent ICBM test by Russia, and statements by Putin and Lavrov) indicating that Moscow wants to deter the West and NATO from direct involvement in Ukraine. Even worse, they argue that Moscow and Putin may do so out of ‘desperation’ about losing the war, or even merely to avoid losing face. And if tactical nuclear weapons are used in Ukraine, then all hell may break loose.
The old Cold War lasted from 1947 to 1990. It ended with acceptance by the Soviet Union and others of the unification of Germany on 22 September 1990. The Soviet Union collapsed a year later, in December 1991. The division of Germany and the Berlin Wall constituted both the substance and the symbol of the Cold War, which, as partly a geopolitical but mainly a Manichean ideological conflict, soon became global.
Precisely because the Cold War was an ideological struggle between two ecumenical and messianic visions, it was supposed to be an endless conflict. Those of us who lived through it, especially in US universities, had been so taught. Theories to explain this ‘endless conflict’ were endless as well. But they were all bad theories. They proved bankrupt. Few were the practitioners and scholars who predicted the demise of the Cold War. But they were certainly no prophets. They were students of history with analytical skills.
The old Cold War went through three phases. The first lasted from 1947 to 1962. It is agreed that this was the most dangerous phase, with crises in Berlin and Cuba that brought the two superpowers into face-to-face confrontation. After 1962, the world witnessed a transition period – one of peaceful coexistence – and, after 1969, the Cold War entered its second phase, that of detente. Detente lasted from 1969 to 1979. Detente was critical to subsequent developments, and is particularly relevant today with the Ukraine crisis. It was during this period that multilevel channels of communication were established hierarchically and horizontally between East and West. Detente facilitated the ‘institutionalisation’ of most of the rules and regulations of the high-stakes game between the two superpowers, enabling the rational management of power politics. Detente also empowered the people on both sides of the divide. The third and final phase of the old Cold War was sophisticatedly managed until its end in 1990. The end of the Cold War was an event unprecedented in the political history of the world: a state of unprecedented power collapsed without major war.
Those who handled the Cold War’s repeated crises had lifelong experience of dealing with such situations, whether conventional or unconventional, frontal or proxy
Given that we face yet another war in Europe, do we today find ourselves in a more dangerous world than then? My opinion is that no, we do not. And I rest my case on the stakes of the Cuban missile crisis. In 1962, the stakes were existential, not just for the two superpowers but for the rest of the world as well. During those dark days, the two superpowers confronted each other frontally tous azimuts. They were on red alert everywhere, and not merely around Cuba. What level of nuclear alert (DEFCON – Defence Ready Condition) is the US on today on account of the Ukraine war? Certainly not the same level as it was on during the Cuban crisis.
Yet we are told in no uncertain terms that Armageddon may be just around the corner. It is part of human nature – and no doubt aided by the appropriate ideological disposition – to view an ongoing crisis as worse than one that occurred decades ago and that was resolved amicably. But in the case of Cuba, for example, we now know what the US decision-makers did not know then: that besides the nuclear-tipped missiles there were scores of tactical nuclear weapons on the island, with local Soviet commanders authorised to use them if Cuba were attacked. Soviet nuclear submarines around Cuba were also so authorised, if attacked. And in at least one case, an ‘accidental’ firing by one which was provoked by US depth chargers was averted due to the cool headedness of its commander.
How dangerous the 1962 crisis was for the US was evidenced by a poll conducted some months afterwards. Asked what they were doing during those scary days in October, the majority of the respondents said they resorted to making love – determined, one supposes, to go out with their own bang as well.
The Cuban missile crisis was resolved through artful compromise and mutual and substantial concessions by both sides. The US did not win, and the Soviets did not lose.
The Soviet Union may now be gone, but an independent communist Cuba is still there – a legacy of the 1962 compromise under which the US undertook not to attack Cuba.
Most importantly for our purposes, world peace and security were preserved, even though the two superpowers came perilously close to a nuclear war. They are not in such a position today over their proxy war in Ukraine. Cuba was the ‘mother of all’ Cold War crises, but it was not the only one. And it was President John F Kennedy who described best the existential dilemma facing the world after the Berlin Wall crisis was diplomatically resolved. It was ‘a hell of a lot better than a war’, he is reported to have said. And it was ‘talk, talk’ that resolved the 1962 crisis as well.
The old Cold War was more dangerous than what the world is facing today in and around Ukraine. But those who handled its repeated crises (including those in Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East and Afghanistan) had lifelong experience of dealing with such situations, whether conventional or unconventional, frontal or proxy. All had lived through the hell of the Second World War, and they knew from the very outset that the introduction of nuclear weapons changed the nature of war and hence the rules of the game. Clausewitz’s aphorism on politics and war held no more. Armageddon was now part of power politics. Rationality, deterrence, diplomatic back-channel, bilateral summit, multilateral conference – all combined to keep the Cold War cold. Almost by nature, Washington and Moscow got into each other’s shoes. This enabled them to handle crises that brought them into confrontation and, additionally, to handle their proxies accordingly.
The discipline of the old Cold War, which the superpowers exercised both towards themselves and on their proxies, now appears to be gone
The institutionalisation of many aspects of the Cold War – especially various arms control agreements – and the process of doing so through arduous and long negotiation, created a caste of high-level bureaucrats with a vested interest in peacekeeping and peace-making. Mechanisms for avoiding accidents – of which there were many hair-raising examples during the Cold War – constituted a serious component of this endless process. But one way or another, peace and security were preserved.
The bottom line is that in the old Cold War there existed political and military leaders (and a corresponding bureaucracy) who had had experience of war and crises, who were cognisant of the stakes, and who studied and got to know their opponents in the process of managing the ‘endless conflict’. The final case in point is the handling of the last phase of the Cold War under Gorbachev and the Reagan/Bush administrations.
The evolving new Cold War, then – seemingly about Ukraine but certainly not confined there – is more dangerous than the old one because none of the constraints outlined above exist today. There may exist some rationality on the level of Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin with regards to nuclear war (as well as from countries like Germany). But that is not enough. The rest of the institutional constraints that characterised the ‘long peace’ of the old Cold War have been gradually deconstructed since 1991. The discipline of the old Cold War, which the superpowers exercised both towards themselves and on their proxies, now appears to be gone.
This is what makes the ongoing war in Ukraine more dangerous than analogous crises before. There has been, we read, no communication whatsoever between Washington and Moscow since 15 February. And the level of hostile rhetoric is going through the roof. Where will ‘jaw, jaw’ without ‘talk, talk’ lead?
If the war overspills, what would that involve? The Europeans especially – the UK included – should reflect seriously on the fact that there is yet another unnecessary war in Europe, and about their responsibilities before and now. Where are they as autonomous actors? Do they really want to have such autonomy – or to remain ‘freeloaders’ security-wise as part of an exclusive Atlanticist club? Their record so far is dismal. Worse, they are currently doubling down on the war. Do they realise that if something larger occurs, it will take place neither in Siberia nor in Alaska?
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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