Is the Cold War really over? Well, Cold War II is here

Just in case nobody has noticed, Cold War II has begun.

Sometime between the start of the Arab Spring, the half-defeat of the US in its two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and its half-victory (along with Europe) against Col Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, the conditions for the creation of Cold War II have been resurrected.

But unlike Cold War I, Cold War II will bring instability, not stability.

The binary nature of Cold War I — you are either with US or USSR — gave the world clear choices for alignment. The non-aligned movement, of course, was a joke. It was the biggest aggregation of gas-bags and hypocrites who talked non-alignment and quietly aligned themselves with one of the Big Two. Even India, one of the founders of this fake movement, formally succumbed to the USSR's charms before the Bangladesh war.

But the world is multi-polar now. Which is why Cold War II will be less stable and more uncertain for everybody. It might also be less peaceable.

To understand why, let's go back to Cold War I, which began some time after World War II, with the US and USSR as the two principal power nodes of the world.

A Cold War situation arises when the principal powers are far from eager to fight directly for various reasons. It could be the fear of nuclear fallout, or merely uncertainty about the outcome – usually due to evenly matched military and/or economic might.

In this situation, the top powers try and extend their influence by backing smaller countries and forces to fight on their behalf. This way they don’t get into war themselves, but fight through proxy.

So why is a new Cold War situation now arising? Here are the reasons.

One relates to the decline of the US and the simultaneous rise of China, both economically and militarily. We will soon have a Big Two superpowers situation by the end of this decade. The Chinese economy will be as big as the US. It may not match the US militarily, but its capability to intervene elsewhere and defend itself will be as high as the US’.

Gaddafi

Libya – where the objective was to dethrone Gaddafi by arming his opponents – has shown that proxy wars are cheaper and more winnable. In short, Cold War works better than Hot War. Marcos Brindicci/Reuters

Second, even a superpower can’t win wars all by itself. This is the biggest lesson the world has learnt from three recent wars – in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. Proxy war is a better way to achieve your foreign policy objectives. The US could achieve little beyond deposing Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Afghanistan is nowhere near stable now – nor will it be when it leaves. But Libya – where the objective was to dethrone Gaddafi by arming his opponents – has shown that proxy wars are cheaper and more winnable. In short, Cold War works better than Hot War.

Third, the new Big Two (US and China) are also ideological competitors. If the US and the Soviet Union were driven by differing world views and ideologies (capitalism versus communism), the US and China face something similar. Only, it’s not about economic ideology. Both are capitalist, though China is more mercantilist than capitalist. The real conflict is about democracy versus authoritarianism.

This ideological conflict can only get sharper as the rest of the world grows more democratic and China clings to its authoritarianism as the only route to internal order and global superpowerdom. Interestingly, of the seven big nodes of power in the world today – US, Europe, Russia, Japan, India, China and Latin America – only one is autocratic: China (though Russia bids fair to be called authoritarian, but it at least holds regular elections). This ideological divide provides the right backdrop for Cold War rather than Hot War. The tyrants of the world – North Korea, Sudan, et al – will look to China for help.

Fourth, the world will get increasingly nuclear.The lesson the rest of the world has

The half-defeat of the US in its two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and its half-victory against Col Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, the conditions for the creation of Cold War II have been resurrected. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

learnt from the fall of Saddam and Gaddafi is this: to stay in power, you need to have nuclear bombs in your arsenal. This will give the superpowers cause for pause before they meddle in your affairs. Ask North Korea. Iran has got the message. Pakistan has become even more important to the US because it is a nuclear power that could share bomb-making skills to jehadi groups.

In a world that is more nuclear than before – apart from the seven declared nuclear powers and two undeclared ones (Israel and Korea), five or six more could be in the works (Iran among them, and possibly another Muslim state or two – no one can afford Hot Wars between principals. Only proxy wars are possible.

When India and Pakistan went nuclear, the latter launched Kargil and we couldn’t strike back conventionally. After 26/11, we couldn’t even launch a lightning strike against terror camps across the border because Pakistan could have responded with a tactical nuclear strike. Both of us know that once this starts, all bets are off. The arrival of more nuclear powers means more proxy wars – which are symptoms of Cold War.

Fifth, in a multi-polar situation, regional wars are more likely. When there is no surety of belonging to one of two powerful rival camps or the safety of a unipolar world ruled by one Globocop, there will be no power monopoly or duopoly at the top to rein in excess warfare on the fringes. This means there could be many more proxy wars at various regional and sub-regional levels. Unipolarity will operate at the regional rather than global level, with the big powers maintaining peace in their own neighbourhoods (especially where they don’t face other rivals of the same size).

But countries or regions that fall in the cusp between two hegemons or are outside the area of influence of any big power – West Asia, Pakistan, for example – will constantly be in conflict because no power (US and Europe in the former case, and India and China in the latter case) will be able to control them.

Sixth, the Muslim world is groping towards its own version of superpowerdom. While Osama bin Laden’s idea of a new caliphate has been buried, the big Muslim states will vie for leadership in the Islamic world. For example, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Turkey and Egypt are the other two nodes in the Islamic world that could emerge as new contenders for leadership of the Islamic world. In this struggle, there could be more wars in the making at the sub-regional level.

Cold War I gave us peace of sorts and proxy wars in the periphery. The end of the Cold War with the fall of the Berlin Wall brought us unipolarity and mega wars in the Middle East and 9/11. It lasted 20 years.

Cold War II is now upon us. It is fundamentally different from Cold War I. We will live in even more interesting — and dangerous — times.


Updated Date: Aug 24, 2011 16:16 PM

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