Winning the new Cold War

Roberto Rabel, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington




The article was originally published in the Nov/Dec edition of New Zealand International Review, 47:6, 2022.

Rob Rabel Winning the new cold war
Roberto Rabel suggests that lessons from the old Cold War can help in dealing with intensifying geopolitical competition between the great powers

Intensified geopolitical competition between great powers has led many to suggest a new Cold War is unfolding, with unavoidable repercussions for other states and the world order. There are three key questions relating to this development: Why has a kind of new Cold War arisen? How does this Cold War 2.0 resemble and (more importantly) differ from the old one? Having ultimately prevailed in the 20th century Cold War, what lessons can democracies draw from that experience? To survive the new kind of Cold War that is taking shape and even emerge the better for it, diversity must be acknowledged and managed.

Talk of a new Cold War has been given dramatic impetus since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. Yet such a prospect has been grist to the mill for commentators on international relations for some years — albeit usually focused more on geopolitical tensions between a rising China and the United States as a fading hegemon.

A commentary in 2019 by historian Niall Ferguson was typical of the trend:

When did Cold War II begin? Future historians will say it was in 2019. Some will insist that a new Cold War had already begun — with Russia — in 2014, when Moscow sent its troops into Ukraine. But the deterioration of Russian–American relations pales in comparison to the rise in Sino-American antagonism that has unfolded over the past couple of years. And though the United States and China can probably avoid a hot war, a second Cold War is still a daunting prospect.[1] 

If the outpouring of books, articles and media coverage along similar lines is to be believed, there are far-reaching implications for all countries because of global and regional geo-strategic environments being reconfigured along Cold War lines of bipolar competition, confrontation and coercion. For New Zealand, it threatens the benign Asia–Pacific era of peace and prosperity we have thrived in over the last three decades and obliges policy-makers to prepare for navigating the stormier seas of a geopolitically contested Indo-Pacific region.

Clearly then, there is much at stake if Ferguson’s ‘daunting prospect’ is imminent or already upon us. But to assess the utility and applicability of the trending trope of a new Cold War, it is important first to recall what history tells us about the old Cold War as a way of ordering an international political system and its significance.

What ‘we now know’, as magisterially summarised in his book of that title by leading Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis, is that the Cold War was fundamentally an ideological confrontation — as shown by evidence from former communist bloc archives and underscored by the Cold War’s unexpectedly abrupt ending with very little violence.[2] An ideology collapsed. States or nations were not losers per se: the Soviet Union disappeared but not Russia; Poland endured but not the Warsaw Pact.

Contrasting visions

While the Cold War lasted, international politics were dominated by competition between two contrasting visions of world order. Washington and Moscow effectively served as corporate headquarters for competing ideological franchises locked in a 45-year struggle for greater market share. But the franchise-holders of the ‘Free World’ and the communist bloc were more diverse than General Motors or Lada dealerships. In the end, relations proved more brittle between Moscow and its satellites; but it did not always seem that way, with nationalism and national interests playing key roles on both sides of ideological divide.

Echoes of the Soviet–American confrontation reverberated regionally in different ways. The Cold War’s impact was generally more deep-seated in Europe than in the United States. It defined national political cleavages in countries like France and Italy for decades — as well as dividing a continent. In Latin America too, Cold War preoccupations intertwined with domestic politics, with the threat of communism regularly used to justify repressive regimes of right, while the opposite tack prevailed in Cuba. In Asia and Africa, the Cold War was entangled with decolonisation, especially in Vietnam, which proved disastrous for Washington’s collaborators in Saigon, though not for their counterparts in Seoul, Singapore or Jakarta. Thus, the Cold War was ideological in character, but the dynamics of that ideological contest were inflected locally.

Notwithstanding regional variants, the Cold War provided an ordering framework for international politics for almost half a century. It was essentially bipolar, with terms like ‘the Third World’ and ‘non-alignment’ referencing that bipolarity. It spilled over into culture and other aspects of national life — more in Soviet bloc countries and less in countries like New Zealand, but not without echoes even here.[3] It also provided the conceptual context for scholarly work in numerous fields from international relations and political science to history.

Since the early 1990s, we have lacked a comparable shared paradigm for analysis of the international political system. The post-Cold War era has been defined more by what it was not than what it has been, lacking the explanatory power of the Cold War.

Grand narrative

But is a new grand narrative at hand to order an unruly, globalised world? Given the pervasiveness of the New Cold War term, how well do contemporary international politics resemble the scope, scale and significance of the classic Cold War?

In fact, the patterns of current great power competition differ from the classic Cold War in numerous respects. For example, asymmetries between the United States and China and the rest of world do not reflect the magnitude of those during the Cold War, with economic heft more widely distributed in today’s globalised world. In the 1960s, the United States accounted for around 40 per cent of global GDP and the Soviet Union for around 20 per cent at market exchange rates. The United States now represents about 20 per cent and China about 16 per cent of the global total in those terms.

Moreover, the United States and China (or Russia) are not promoting alternative models for development. They are all operating within a global capitalist system, albeit with more state direction in China. (While leaders in Beijing speak of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’, their economic practices are more akin to capitalism with Chinese characteristics.) This situation differs markedly from the Cold War when the Soviet Union offered a competing model for development to that of Western capitalism for many countries.

If there is ideological conflict, it is less sharply defined. Today’s China is very different from the revolutionary state that inspired ‘Maoist’ activism from India to Peru and railed against the prevailing world order. Xi Jinping’s so-called China Dream is very much for domestic consumption, not for the world. Nor does China lead a coherent bloc of formal allies and is avowedly still non-aligned.

As for the United States, President Donald Trump’s America First vision was hardly a rallying call for the ‘free world’. Instead, his transactional approaches made it difficult to mobilise allies around shared ideals and interests. Joe Biden has a different approach but his depiction of a global dividing line between democracy and authoritarianism also misses the mark. As highlighted by the diversity of international responses to Putin’s war against Ukraine, it is hard to see how ideological divisions of the sort manifested during the old Cold War can be replicated.

Great irresponsibles

There is ample evidence of growing great power competition but, at least to date, it lacks the systemic character of the Cold War. Instead, we see inward-looking great powers, often acting as ‘the Great Irresponsibles’, to use a description coined by international relations scholar Hedley Bull. Nationalism has trumped other ideologies as the main driver of international relations, including for the two greatest powers (and Russia)

Consequently, the emerging world order is more reminiscent of the manoeuvring between European great powers before the First World War, driven by shifting national interests and capabilities rather than competition between universalist ideologies. If any form of bipolarity emerges because of pressures from the United States and China (or Russia) to ‘choose’ sides, those choices are likely to be transactional and transitory rather than transcendent, with hedging by most states rather than any hardening of blocs and alliance systems.

If the current situation is so different from the old Cold War, does the idea of a Cold War 2.0 have utility? It does in some ways. There is no question that competition between China and the United States is mounting, while co-operation is receding (on a range of issues from climate change to global public health and anti-terrorism). There is also some lessening of economic interdependence, with geo-economics (the use of economic means for political ends) and economic decoupling between China and the United States gaining some traction.

The analogy makes sense even more in underlining that a Cold War-like relationship differs from a war-like one. In an age where direct great power war seems unthinkable, the Cold War analogy offers a shorthand way of describing multi-dimensional confrontation short of war. Hence, the trending term of a new Cold War, given greater momentum by the once equally unthinkable reality of an inter-state war raging in Europe — one which has some echoes of the proxy wars that characterised key moments in the original Cold War.

Different competition

In short, the concept of a New Cold War does have some utility for our times of greater geopolitical competition. But the contexts, dynamics and implications of today’s geopolitical competition are different. It is thus important to acknowledge both what the New Cold War term obscures and what it helps clarify about those dynamics, contexts and implications of great power competition in the 21st century.

The dynamics encompass different forms of competition from the Cold War. Geo-economics, cyber-enabled competition, ‘grey zone’ activities and nationalism are all more prominent, while competition between two would-be universalising ideologies and associated blocs is absent. There is a trend toward shifting alignments on a case-by-case basis, rather than collective alliance-based unity. America First and the China Dream (or United Russia) are not attractive franchises for others, and it is difficult to see what franchise-holders would be buying into. Similarly, a suggested divide between ‘democracy versus autocracy’ is far from clear-cut.

The contexts also differ from the Cold War. Notwithstanding examples of decoupling, there continues to be much greater economic interdependence, both between China and the United States and between each of them and others, than there ever was during the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West. Economic strength is more widely dispersed, and the international system is more multipolar. There is also the wider global context of ‘complex disruptors’, which transcend great power competition, with climate change as the primary one but pandemics recently prominent.

These altered dynamics and contexts mean the likely implications of great power competition in the 21t century also differ from the Cold War. Rising tensions between great powers make for a more complicated, challenging and messy international order. There are limits to the projection of power by either China or the United States, but both have a proclivity to pursue coercive behaviour, with great power irresponsibility likely to be with us for a while (as Russia shows). Internationally co-ordinated responses to global challenges have also become less effective, as Covid-19 illustrated.

This new kind of Cold War highlights the need to enmesh power in orders based on rules, norms and institutions. For democracies like New Zealand, it also raises the question of how best to respond. How can democracies ‘win’ this very different Cold War?

Some lessons

The old Cold War offers some lessons for democracies, especially if we go back to first principles, as elegantly enunciated by George Kennan in his famous article (written under the pseudonym ‘X’) on ‘The Sources of Soviet Conduct’. [4] Published in July 1947, the article was a public version of the confidential 5000-word ‘long telegram’ that Kennan had sent to the State Department in the preceding year when he was American chargé d’affaires in Moscow. In the year of its 75th anniversary, it is worth reflecting on some contemporary lessons to be drawn from this landmark piece that would shape the ultimately successful American Cold War strategy of containment.

Lesson 1: Understand your adversaries (or competitors): Kennan’s article focused precisely on the drivers of Soviet behaviour. Democracies need to have a similar understanding today. What are the drivers and strategic objectives of China and Russia? In what ways do those drivers and objectives constitute a strategic threat — and to whom? As in Kennan’s time, much will hinge on how those questions are answered if appropriate strategies are to be devised and implemented that enable democracies to work together in addressing today’s strategic challenges.

Lesson 2: Understand the strategic environment: Just as Kennan stressed the need to understand the world of the 1940s in nuanced ways, democratic leaders must understand the different and multipolar strategic environment of the 21st century. In Kennan’s time, this meant focusing on strategic strong points in Europe and Asia; in current times it requires a broader global focus and particular attention to the Indo-Pacific region, notwithstanding the war in Ukraine. It also means not harbouring democratic delusions about a world of predominantly ‘like-minded states’, given the muted reaction of so many states to Russian aggression against Ukraine.

Lesson 3.1: Have a strategy (and not a dogma): Kennan inspired the strategy of containment, which he summarised as ‘a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies’ through ‘the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points’. It was designed to counter communism while avoiding nuclear war. Over time, containment was applied in different ways, with varying levels of success, as John Lewis Gaddis has analysed in his classic Strategies of Containment.[5] Importantly, the strategy was premised on distinguishing between peoples and regimes. It ultimately worked in the Soviet bloc, as validated by the irony of most members of the Warsaw Pact joining NATO as soon as the opportunity arose. It even had some traction in China, as student protestors’ invocation of the symbol of the Statue of Liberty in Tiananmen Square tragically illustrated in 1989. When successful, containment leveraged nationalism. Despite the debacle of the Vietnam War for the United States, containment proved to be an ultimately successful strategy, with the collapse of the Soviet Union. In effect, containment helped the United States to avoid direct war and to outlast its adversary by offering a more attractive social, political and economic model

Lesson 3.2: Have a strategy (and not a dogma): What would Containment 2.0 look like? It would include successful elements of Containment 1.0, but without ideological bipolarity, so it needs rethinking for current times. The danger of fighting the last (cold) war is illustrated by the ‘democracies vs. autocracies’ framing favoured by President Biden. Such dichotomies do not fit today’s world. They may play well in parts of Europe but not in much of Asia, Africa and Latin America. A more salient lesson from the Cold War is the distinction between regimes and peoples, as is using nationalism instead of having it used against you (as exemplified by Vietnamese–American relations today in contrast those of the 1960 to 1990s). There needs to be more emphasis on mobilising the soft power of democracies in the spheres of information and education. In general terms, ‘selective engagement’ with unlike-minded states needs to supersede ‘containment’.

Lesson 4: Be true to yourself: Kennan’s final prescription in outlining a response to the Soviet Union was about bolstering American democratic strengths domestically by measuring ‘up to its own best traditions’. An honest analysis would highlight democratic backsliding in too many so-called democracies, alongside political polarisation. There is a pressing need to ‘build back better’ in line with adherence to democratic principles, addressing social and economic challenges in ways which restore widespread social licence for democratic leaders. Democracies must once again offer a more attractive social, political and economic model. They must also be consistent in acting internationally in line with the values and principles they supposedly stand for and accepting rules-based order consistently rather than selectively.

Lesson 5: Hang together and play the long game: Kennan understood the importance of allies and of ‘strategic patience’. He had the confidence that, contrary to Marxist assumptions about capitalism, the reverse would prevail, meaning that the contradictions of communism would bring its demise. So too now, democracies must stick together and realise the more complex challenges they are facing in a multipolar order. Responses to Russian aggression in Ukraine are generally promising in this respect but it also requires democratic tolerance, especially of other democracies (such as India), including partial ones. Democracies must also keep their eyes on the prize and work out what exactly ‘winning the New Cold War’ means in an era when geo-political competition risks loss of focus on the ‘hot’ war being waged against the planet itself by the forces of climate change. 

Key requirement

The world survived 45 years of the old Cold War. It can also survive the new kind of Cold War that is taking shape and even emerge the better for it, but it means acknowledging diversity and managing it. Current challenges posed by geo-political tensions highlight the need to enmesh power in orders based on rules, norms and institutions if more conflicts of the sort raging in Ukraine are to be avoided. But these rules, norms and institutions need to be upgraded to reflect a genuinely multilateral and multipolar world that is neither Sino-centric, nor American-centric and that must encompass both like-minded and unlike-minded states. Ironically, the best way of assuring peace and stability in a world of diverse national interests remains to build a rules-based order that is often referenced but has never really existed — and certainly did not during the old Cold War.

This article was originally published in the Nov/Dec edition of New Zealand International Review, 47:6, 2022. 


 [1] Niall Ferguson, ‘The New Cold War? It’s With China, and It Has Already Begun’, New York Times, 2 Dec 2019.

[2] Roberto Rabel, ‘Rethinking the Cold War (review essay of John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History), NZ International Review, vol 23, no 3 (1998): pp.26­8.

[3] Roberto Rabel, ‘Seeing red’ (review essay of Ian McGibbon and John Crawford (eds), Seeing Red: New Zealand, the Commonwealth and the Cold War 1945–51), ibid., vol 39, no 2 (2014), pp.22–5.

[4] ‘X’ [George F. Kennan], ‘The Sources of Soviet Conduct’, Foreign Affairs, vol 25, no 4 (1947).

[5] John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy during the Cold War (New York, 1982).







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