Is Cold War II Brewing?
The Cold War was the period of hostility between the Western powers and the Soviet bloc countries from 1945 to 1990. Tensions between the USA and Russia were near boiling point. Battles between different ideologies took place across the globe. And the world teetered on the brink of nuclear destruction. Does this landscape all sound eerily familiar?
Despite US president, Donald Trump, and Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, repeatedly praising each other during the US election campaign, relationships between the two countries are “at an all-time low” according to Trump.
Once again, the source of the hostility between the two states originates elsewhere in the world. During the Cold War, countries such as Greece, Cuba, and most notably Germany, became caught in the ideological conflict between capitalism and communism waged by the USA and USSR. Today, Syria and North Korea are the main flashpoints, and those who thought nuclear war would never become a reality might soon be proven wrong.
This time the main nuclear threat comes from a third country, namely North Korea. In the 1963 Cuban Missile Crisis, it was communist Russia that threatened the USA. In 2017, it is communist North Korea’s that poses the greatest threat. This “Korean Missile Crisis” has seen a parade through the capital Pyongyang, displaying the country’s military might and a declaration that they have the capacity to respond to a nuclear attack by the USA. They have also been testing their weapons, in blatant contravention of UN resolutions, although the most recent launch failed with the missile exploding seconds after take-off.
Trump has stated his willingness to quell the North Korean threat using force if required, by attacking their weapon sites. While this may purely be an attempt to coerce China into silencing their noisy neighbour, the possibility of a US pre-emptive strike on North Korea is extremely possible.
In addition, the perennial state of tension between North and South Korea is a relic of the Cold War. Technically, the Korean War is still ongoing because only a ceasefire was agreed at the end of the fighting in 1953, and the standoff between communism and capitalism in the Far East remains. Seoul reportedly has more nuclear weapons trained on it than any other city in the world but the country once again finds itself in a vulnerable position. It seems that a Second Korean War cannot currently be written off completely.
The current world situation is also similar to that of the Cold War because of the way internal conflicts reflect the wider struggles between different ideologies. In the past, USA, Russia, and the UK were embroiled in tensions over Communism. Today the major issue is Islamism, but the threat it poses is much greater.
The frontline of the war against this ideology is being fought in Syria, yet the US and the UK are at loggerheads with Russia over the situation. Russia refused to blame Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the chemical weapons attack on the 4th April, while Trump responded to the attack by ordering an air strike on the country. Russia backs President Assad as a bastion against terrorist groups such as ISIS, while the US and the UK refuse to support a dictator accused of bringing destruction and suffering to his own people.
The fighting and deaths continue in the Middle Eastern state as relations between NATO and Russia deteriorate, evidenced by foreign secretary Boris Johnson’s cancellation of a visit to Moscow and attempts to persuade G7 countries to agree on sanctions against Russia. Moreover, the chemical weapons attacks taking place in the Syrian Crisis are an unpleasant reminder of the napalm and Agent Orange used by the USA in the Vietnam War. Now, as in the Cold War, it is always the innocent people who suffer the consequences when incompatible ideologies and powerful nations clash.
Just as the Syrian Crisis symbolises the battle against Islamism, so does the domestic politics of European nations reflect the rejection of the liberal post-war consensus in favour of a new kind of populism. Every referendum or election result is awaited with bated breath; every victory for the populist right is celebrated not just in the country of the election but across Europe. On the face of it, Italian’s referendum in December on constitutional reform, in which the electorate voted against former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s reforms, was simply a matter of internal politics.
Yet it was welcomed by French far-right presidential candidate Marine le Pen, who declared “this Italian No adds a new people to the list of those who would like to turn their backs on absurd European policies which are plunging the continent into poverty.” Meanwhile the wider importance of the Austrian presidential election in the same month to the wider European situation was highlighted by former UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s interference. His declaration on Fox News that right wing candidate Norbert Hofer would hold a European Union referendum if elected, though it did not particularly help his campaign, was a sign that populist figures across the continent are not merely focused on their own internal battles but are giving each other support to try and sweep away the EU and build the Europe they desire.
While all this is happening, Trump and Putin look in from the outside with interest. In contrast to the Cold War though, when the US and Russian leaders had opposite futures in mind for Europe, this time they will both be rubbing their hands together. Both welcomed Brexit, and both will welcome further rejections of the EU by voters.
Nuclear rearmament, dangerous ideologies, diplomatic disagreements, ground-breaking elections – all of these factors are contributing to the atmosphere of tension and uncertainty in the world at the moment, just as they did all those decades ago during the Cold War. Back then catastrophe was averted: Communism fell, and the feared nuclear war never materialised. Yet now there are new dangers to world peace in the form of North Korea and Islamism. The world is not teetering on the brink yet, but it is sliding closer to the edge.
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