As everyone alive from Montana to Moscow is well aware, relations between the United States and Russia are currently at their most tense since the days of the Cold War. But don’t be mistaken. We are not living through another Cold War. Anyone making such a claim is doing sane society a great disservice. Even though news sources ranging from the utterly balanced to the completely biased have made this incredibly bold declaration, the truth of the matter is that such a fantastical notion is purely sensationalist, and is based more on brand recognition for newspapers than any geopolitical evidence. Even though relations between the US and Russia are currently quite strained, selling the idea of Cold War II to the public is a dangerous lie that modern geopolitics simply should do without.
In reality, in the years since the end of the Cold War, we have seen the United States emerge as the sole superpower of the world, with an unprecedented amount of military and economic power to project its interests throughout the world. This is something Russians took due note of in the 1990s when the US began bombing former Soviet territory during the breakup of Yugoslavia (imagine an economically gutted 90’s America looking on as a rich, hegemonic Russia bombed Venezuela). Additionally, the US began recruiting former Soviet republics such as Poland into NATO, leaving a weak Russia feeling extremely threatened.
This time period has also brought on the economic collapse of Soviet Russia and the humiliating Yeltsin years that followed, only to see a resurgent Russian Federation under Vladimir Putin reinvigorate itself as an energy superpower. This in turn has led to more wealth in Russia, and with it an increased capacity to update its military. Russia, however, is not unique in this. China and India, among others, have also become richer and have made enough military advances in recent years to put the world on track towards a multipolar power structure rather than relive the duality of the Cold War. Still, Russia, like America, has used its advanced military capabilities to project power within its traditional spheres of influence in Eastern Europe, especially in places like Ukraine and Georgia. From the perspective of Russians, it’s not unrealistic to see the invasion of Crimea, though still a blatant disregard of international sovereignty (kind of like Iraq was), as a defensive move, and a small one when compared to the rapid expansion of NATO.
Both the US and Russia still control the overwhelming majority of the world’s nuclear weapons, but as conflicts in places like Kashmir have shown, there are other international rivalries now that have more than enough nukes to cause the world serious harm. Even if we lived in a world where the United States and Russia were the best of friends, non-government actors in for form of marauding militant groups or radicalized religious factions are also potential bringers of mass destruction. The attention demanded by issues such as global terrorism, pandemics, water shortages, agricultural blight, and rising sea levels have all done a solid amount to mitigate interstate rivalries as cooperation on global security threats become more pertinent — something many public figures have already begun pointing out.
Bill Gates Talks to VOX
Positive efforts for a more stable world with the help of human rights groups, charities, and other non-government actors have also had the historically unique opportunity to flourish since the end of the Cold War. Even at the toughest of times today, we have an unfathomable amount of international stability and oversight compared to the Cold War era. The fact that global solutions to problems are even regularly discussed is only possible because of the successful de-escalation of tensions from the Cold War.
“The misconception that aid falls straight into the hands of dictators largely stems from the Cold War era.”
There is also no more communism in Russia, or anywhere else in Eastern Europe. The emergence of capitalist economies in former Eastern Bloc countries as well as a resurgence of the East Orthodox Church make the classic ideological differences of the Cold War almost nonexistent in present times. If anything, the US and Russia have never been more similar, and have never had more aligned priorities.
We are living in a world where threats aren’t as direct as one superpower versus the other, but instead one where dangers are increasingly opaque. To face such challenges, large countries like the United States and Russia need to be cooperating instead of resorting to 20th century reductionism. Media outlets too have a responsibility to explain strains on the US-Russia relationship for what they are instead of beating the war drums in an effort to sell more content.
Without even getting into the complexities of geopolitics, sanctions and the like, another big difference from the Cold War era is that Americans and Russians are simply allowed to visit one another’s countries. Even with tensions, US and Russian officials are in contact with one another on a regular basis, with both sides saying they are committed to finding peaceful solutions. You even have leaders, at least publicly, saying activities such as international espionage can be, in some instances, wrong.
“We’re no longer in the Cold War. Eavesdropping on friends is unacceptable.”
Why is it important to remember we’re not still in the Cold War? The primary reason, although there are many, is because when there actually are serious disputes between the US and Russia to address — such as the proxy wars in Ukraine or inevitable conflicts of interest involving other countries that are likely to come in the future — there is nothing that can grind critical diplomatic dialogue to a halt faster than fired up populations with archaic Cold War attitudes. Putin, unfortunately, has had huge political successes in raising his public approval ratings by propagating the most bitter of Cold War sentiments in Russia.
Although we currently aren’t in another Cold War, it wouldn’t be the first time that self-fulfilling prophecies did irreversible damage to geopolitics. In today’s world of global dangers and global concerns, there isn’t a minute to be wasted on entertaining 20th century power dynamics. On this issue, both the United States and Russia have done wrong more than once, and both countries are guilty of having medias that stoke the fires of Cold War dogma, and in doing so make today’s conflicts harder to resolve.
In short, there is no second Cold War in our midst. Media forces may know how susceptible we all can be to an enticing sequel, but it remains critical that we keep this impulse within the confines of film franchises, and out of our politics.