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The folly of thinking that we've entered a "new Cold War"


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In the April–May 2017 issue of Bookforum, Sean Guillory reviews three recent books on US-Russia relations: Who Lost Russia? by Peter Conradi, Return to Cold War by Robert Legvold, and Should We Fear Russia? by Dmitri Trenin. Guillory writes that economically and geopolitically, we have not returned to the conditions that brought about the Cold War. But that doesn’t blunt the allure of the idea, to both the US and the Russian governments alike. Check out an excerpt of the review below:

Then there’s the second question: whether we are in a new Cold War. You can find the Cold War meme at work both among Russia’s friends, such as The Nation’s Stephen Cohen, and its foes, such as Edward Lucas of The Economist. Like the “Who lost Russia?” question, the ghost of a new Cold War has been haunting us pretty much since the end of the old Cold War. In every dust-up between the US and Russia of the past two decades, one or both sides have charged the other with having a “Cold War mentality” in order to shame and caution them against further escalation. It’s a favorite insult, intended to point out the other side’s backwardness. Sadly, it’s lately begun to feel like rather less of a laughable throwback. The idea of a replay of the Cold War expresses itself as both trauma and desire. A new Cold War is scary because in theory it places the entire world at the mercy of US-Russia relations. By the same token, it’s weirdly consoling for both sides, even offering a certain measure of nostalgia. Both powers were at their peak during the Cold War’s tensest periods, and both understood the rules of engagement—the Cold War framing restores a sense of familiar, binary order in a rapidly changing world. We shouldn’t entirely discount the subconscious appeal a return to that greatness and simplicity might offer, especially at a time when the US and Russia are both experiencing internal shocks, newer powers are on the rise, and there are signs of utter chaos elsewhere.

Legvold starts by emphasizing that he is not a cold warrior trapped in an old paradigm. “Five years ago—even two years ago—I could never have imagined writing this book,” he writes. But the Cold War was “in the air,” and eventually Legvold succumbed to its airborne spores. Like many others, he has since the Ukraine crisis felt compelled to embrace arguments he previously met with skepticism. Legvold identifies five characteristics of this new Cold War to demonstrate its equivalence to the old: 1) Each side blames solely the other for the conflict; 2) there is no recognition of common ground; 3) the conflict is zero-sum; 4) every small moment of agreement is a one-off, not a step toward increased cooperation; and 5) the conflict subsumes all others around the world into its logic. Put simply, Russia and America have now returned to their natural state of enmity. The stakes are incredibly high. Both sides risk igniting a wider conflict that would destroy not only the US and Russia but everyone else as well. Voilà! All our past paranoias and anxieties return to the surface!

And perhaps this is the real attraction of the idea of a new Cold War. To believe that Russia and the US are locked in some renewed clash of civilizations allows everyone involved an ideal opportunity for psychological displacement. It affords the Kremlin, for instance, a way to explain away internal problems and dissent via the convenient specter of Western machinations. The most visible example of this so far came during the mass protests of 2011 and '12. Genuine protesters were frequently denounced as puppets of the US State Department or Western-funded NGOs (sound familiar?). Russia introduced draconian laws that targeted NGOs receiving funding from abroad (they now had to register as “foreign agents,” though, incidentally, a similar law passed in Israel has met with far less outcry in the US) and stretched the existing extremism law so that people could be jailed for insulting the national religion—as famously happened in the case of Pussy Riot. In the US, too, we’ve seen old fears of Russia blossom into hysteria over the 2016 election, with serious people charging that Trump has been compromised by the Russians and is their “Siberian candidate.”

Image via Business Insider.