The Perilous New Cold War – Analysis


The end of the Cold War not only put an end to the world-wide struggle for influence between the global powers, it witnessed a steady rise in the influence of regional powers as they began to carve out independent roles for themselves in the absence of the Cold War constraints – ideological preferences and alliance commitments.

Several radical religious groups also emerged as powerful non-state actors in world politics. For instance, the seeds which were sown as part of the American jostle to remove the Soviet forces out of Afghanistan following the Soviet intervention in 1979 became full-fledged trees with the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. The US began to face stiff resistance from assertive regional powers once the overarching threat perceptions from either of the superpowers and their allies evaporated. The regional powers did not hesitate to put their weight behind radical religious groups with the objective of fostering their geopolitical interests and undercutting American interest in the regions under their influence.

Short-lived Unipolar Moment

The euphoria over the ‘unipolar moment’ was short-lived. Francis Fukuyama’s description of the end of the Cold War dubbing it ‘The End of History’ and Daniel Bell’s ‘The End of Ideology’ failed to appreciate the world as it is. It was believed that the American values would be universal norms through the process of globalization and the US would lead the world in the areas of liberal democracy, market economy and American-led security architecture defined by humanitarian intervention.

However, notwithstanding the growing acceptability of democracy as a universal value and market economy as a reality, the penetration of these values and practices into different countries have been affected and shaped by significant domestic variables such as religion, culture and threat perceptions.  

The powers such as Russia, China and Iran while make efforts to experiment with democratic institutions and mechanisms to deal with their citizens, they are far from western style liberal democracy. Rather, threat perceptions from the US have helped them cling to a more authoritarian form of governance.

Similarly, while these states have opened up their markets for global trade and investment, they perceive threats from the American hegemony in the economic arena – the impact of which becomes evident when these economies suffer under American sanctions. In a similar vein, the American intervention assisted by NATO in the areas of geopolitical significance such Middle East and Afghanistan with the label of humanitarian intervention has witnessed serious encroachments from contending regional powers.

Characteristics of the New Cold War

The world politics is currently undergoing a phase of a new Cold War characterized by simmering tensions, breach of international norms, proxy wars and arms race among major powers around the globe.  Lack of trust and boiling tensions in relations are evident among many major powers in various regions with geopolitical significance which keeps feeding the contending powers’ desires for an armament race.

The US is currently the only power which evidently seeks to pursue global interests with a global presence. However, unlike the Soviet Union of the Cold War era, the contenders of the new Cold War clearly lack an overarching countervailing ideology based on which they could forge alliances globally and roll back American influence. This apart, all these powers have witnessed economic integration among them over the years although faced with the frequent hazard of American sanctions.

The global aspirations of the US are facing serious challenges from regional powers in various parts of the globe. For instance, the US hegemony in the Indo-Pacific region has been breached if one considers China has not been sufficiently deterred from posing threat to free and open Indo-Pacific but it still lacks sufficient strength to override US influence in the region in the region.

Meanwhile, China has strengthened its presence in the South China Sea through artificial island-building and positioning paramilitary forces as well as expanding its missiles delivery capacities that could threaten energy security of the US allies and partners. As a result, the possibilities for enhanced militarization have grown to fill the void.

The Middle East witnessed how the confrontation between the US and Iran could be catastrophic following the assassination of the leader of Iran’s Quds Force Qassem Soleimani. While the US could further retaliate with its unmatched air capabilities and intelligence inputs along with assistance from powerful allies in the region such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, Iran could dampen American presence and interests in the region through grey zone warfare carried out by proxies like Hezbollah and Shiite militias.

Similarly, the Russian compulsion of not loosening regional grip as expressed through its assertive role in Ukraine and its extra-regional ambitions finding reverberations in the bolstering of the Assad regime of Syria led to a spiraling of tensions between the US and Russia. This has finally culminated in Moscow’s testing of its first hypersonic missile capable of bringing more precision to attacks while circumventing the American Missile Defence Systems.     

The ambitions and roles of regional powers (specifically Russia, China and Iran) are not confined to their specific regions and they are on the lookouts for extending their sway into adjacent regions. As a result, the regional powers are not only trying to undercut the American interests and presence in their respective regions, they complement and collide each other too while pursuing their interests in neighboring regions.

This complicated global scenario is markedly different from the tight bipolar order of the Cold War era when allies and partners were clearly identifiable and ideological positions were plainly noticeable.

Lack of trust has been tempered by cautiousness to avoid all-out war

The new Cold War has been aggravated by a rising level of distrust that each of these countries harbors against the other leading to slackening of international norms. The US withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty last year, lack of Iranian commitment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of which it is a signatory and Chinese violations of the law of the Sea in South China Sea indicate that the major powers lack the level of trust that is necessary to sustain international laws and norms.

This has introduced an element of uncertainty as to the military preparedness of these powers and encouraged arms-racing. While China and the US have been asserting their positions in the Indo-Pacific and adjacent regions through strategies like the Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI) and call for open and free Indo-Pacific region respectively, both appeared to have remained cautious enough to avoid a full-blown conflagration.   

The recent escalation of conflict between the US and Iran in Middle East following the assassination of the leader of Iran’s Quds Force Qassem Soleimani by US airstrike and subsequent Iranian attacks on American military presence in Iraq generated apprehensions of an all-out war between the two powers. However, leaders of each country even while blamed the other for causing the conflict, they affirmed that they did not want a full-blown war.

Avoiding the trap of all-out wars, however, does not imply that the new Cold War would not be catastrophic. Rather, the new Cold War is ridden with numerous perils that the original Cold War did not entail. More localized proxy wars, absence of soft-balancing efforts, lethality of weapons, advancement of information technology raising the increased possibilities of cyber warfare and relatively autonomous militant groups add more complexity and dangerousness to the new Cold War.    

More Localized Proxy Wars

Even though the major powers confronted primarily the challenges of civil wars and the cases of inter-state conflicts following the Cold War era reduced, this did not, however, represent a paradigm shift in world politics considering the fact that the contending powers chose a strategy of intervening in such conflicts through clients and sought to realize their war objectives in the era of a new Cold War.

The powers such as US, Russia, China and Iran have been witnessed getting involved in proxy war strategies much like the Cold War era to sustain their power ambitions. The strategies included strengthening of ruling regimes, countering regimes by encouraging democratic protesters and/or seeking secret alliances with militant groups.

The conflicts between erstwhile the contenders of the Cold War era –the US and the Soviet Union were spread across the globe and many of them were fought by allies through proxy wars which reduced the intensity of the conflict whereas any possible war-like situation between the US and China or the US and Russia or the US and Iran would be more localized and is likely to be confined to specific regions. Recent tit-for-tat offensives between the US and Iran in Iraq pointed to the localized nature of the conflagrations.

Further, in sharp contrast to the Cold War era, a greater number of contending powers as well as lack of a clear ideological thrust in their competition makes the new Cold War more complex.

Absence of Soft-balancing efforts

Evidently, no group of states is available to engage in soft-balancing in a bid to cast impact through alternative norms, discourse and solidarity and constrain militaristic impulses of great powers as the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM) used to do during the Cold War.  

Henry Kissinger, a former US politician and diplomat predicts in the context of US-China conflict: “If the conflict is permitted to run unconstrained, the outcome could be even worse than it was in Europe.” He ascribes two reasons to this eventuality. First, the US does not have a framework to deal with Beijing as a “military power” whereas a plan to reduce nuclear capacity of the US and the Soviet Union was given top priority. Second, more lethal and advanced weapon systems could add a dangerous dimension to the conflict.  

Progress in the field of Information Technology and Cyber warfare

The advancement of information technologies has made the powers not only more capable to influence civil war situations within rival countries; it has facilitated inter-state warfare through the Cyber domain. The contending powers in the new Cold War notwithstanding their attempts at undercutting rival powers’ influence by military means are also cautious players so far as they avoid engaging in direct wars. The destructive nuclear and military capabilities that each of the powers possesses vis-à-vis the other would prevent the contemporary major powers to go for all-out wars much like the Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) scenario that prevented the erstwhile superpowers from direct confrontations.

The major powers are poised to choose the cyber domain as the primary channel to realize their war objectives and other ways of confrontation such as proxy wars   would recede to a secondary place. The reasons for this shift are understandable.

First, information technology can offer contending powers the abilities to weaken the adversarial power far more effectively by targeting at critical infrastructure such as banking, energy and defence sectors than the proxy wars do.

Second, the cyber domain can provide the contending powers the avenues to operate from unknown sources, to do the damage and yet avoid military reprisals.

Third, the superior technological capabilities of the US would prompt it to sustain its hegemonic ambitions primarily through the cyber domain not only by shaping the global norms but to incapacitate the adversarial powers militarily as well. The US military utilized and benefited from the application of high technologies first in the Gulf War which inspired other powers to harness their technological abilities.

Further, the former CIA technician Edward Snowden’s revelations as to how the American authorities hacked into Chinese mobile phone companies to access millions of private text messages and reports that the US with Israeli assistance resorted to cyber attacks in a bid to cripple an Iranian uranium processing facility using a digital worm called Stuxnet point to the fact that the US would be inclined to use its technological superiority to contain the adversarial powers.

Fourth, the global presence and interests of the US would persuade Russia, China and Iran to resort to cyber war strategies to undercut American hegemonic ambitions in many parts of the globe by preventing the global discourse being dominated by the US as well as subverting and sabotaging its dominance.

For instance, Russia and China champion the idea of “national sovereignty” to prevent the US from encroaching into their sensitive military information as well as influencing their internal politics, institutions and ideas. For instance, China has been blamed for its censorship initiatives including blocking of certain websites in its bid to crack down on anti-government activities. However, the contending powers nevertheless look to digital opportunities which would allow them to shape ideas and interests in desired directions.

China has been accused of stealing US intellectual property in order to buttress its economic power and the Chinese tech giant Huawei has been indicted in the charges trade secrets theft. Further, Digital Silk Road has been considered an integral part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, through which Beijing sought to export internet infrastructure as well as surveillance technology to countries throughout Asia, in the Gulf, and across Africa.

In order to weaken the American dominance, Iran has allegedly launched cyber attacks on American dams, financial systems and government networks and Russia has been accused of targeting the Ukrainian power grid, disrupting the US drones operating in Syria to gather intelligence and meddling in American presidential elections through the cyber domain.

Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra

Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra has a PhD in International Relations from the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad. He is currently working as a Lecturer in Political Science, S.V.M. Autonomous College, Odisha, India. Previously, he worked as the Programme Coordinator, School of International Studies, Ravenshaw University, Odisha, India. He taught Theories of International Relations and India’s Foreign Policy to MA and M.Phil. students.

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