© Photography for Prospect by Sara Morris

How to stop a new Cold War

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine shouldn’t blind us to the fact that Russia is a second-rate power with no path back to the top. We must be wary of those looking to rehabilitate old, failed ideas about the international order
April 7, 2022

“The American-led system of internationalism needs to get itself back into gear, for the war at hand and for the struggle against authoritarianism to come,” declared the New York Times within days of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on 24th February. “We will save democracy,” Joe Biden said in his 1st March State of the Union address, in its “battle” with autocracy. With revivalist enthusiasm, our leaders preach a new age of struggle for the salvation of freedom itself. Yet the “saving democracy” slogan masks a plan to stick with the same policies that have made war the way of the world—and democracy’s challenges and disturbances endemic.

In the space of a few weeks, Putin’s despicable act has thrown a lifeline to dying ideas. Luxuriating in Cold War certainties is in fashion again. The Russian president leads a second-rate power with no path back to the top. His archaic 19th-century bid for regional influence is undoubtedly grotesque; yet its most damaging legacy may be the self-righteous return to the nostrums of a failed western-style internationalism—one that seeks to defend our flawed democracies as they are, rather than trying to improve them. 

Worse still, in retreating into the binary Cold War mindset, we risk setting up a misbegotten struggle with a far more significant country than Russia: China. Why, rather than building democracies that deserve the name—for their own citizens, and as a universal model—have we chosen to stoke confrontation? 

With his “special military operation,” Putin has not introduced war to a peaceful world. He has added insult to injury. This goes beyond his annexation of Crimea in 2014. For western countries—including the United Kingdom and the United States—have their own record of interventions, the number of which has increased since the end of the Cold War in 1989.

“Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has ended Americans’ 30-year holiday from history,” exclaimed former US defense secretary Robert Gates, dewy-eyed for the glory days of brinkmanship with Russians that defined the lives of so many grizzled veterans of western foreign policy. The truth, of course, is that while on this extended vacation, the west has initiated many special military operations of its own. Sometimes illegal interventions have been championed as “legitimate,” for example the 1999 bombings of Belgrade, cited by Putin in his speech justifying the Ukraine campaign. And that example proved the prelude to many other outrages.

Putin’s “assault on Ukraine,” wrote Boris Johnson in a bid for the moral high ground, “began with a confected pretext and a flagrant violation of international law. It is sinking further into a sordid campaign of war crimes and unthinkable violence against civilians.” That sounds familiar: it is a good description of the Iraq War, not to mention much of the broader two-decade long “war on terror.”

With nuclear anxiety in the air—itself so reminiscent of the Cold War—many have exaggerated the general threat Putin poses

As observers gaped with surprise in the days after Putin’s decision to invade, Gordon Brown rushed to propose a special tribunal for Russian aggression, modelled on the trials at Nuremberg after the Second World War. Yet Brown never hit on this necessity when commenting in 2007, as prime minister-in-waiting, that there were “lessons to be learned” from the Iraq War waged by the Blair government in which he served. His support for that conflict, with its flimsy pretext and unholy illegality, was merely an innocent mistake.

The spectacle of militarists discovering moral principle hardly means that Putin’s invasion is justified. Nor does it mean equivalence between past western acts and Putin’s. He attacked a functional democracy—though we should remember that international law prohibits aggressive war even if the state attacked is despotic. Beyond Crimea, there is some possibility of further annexation of land if Putin’s armies bounce back from their embarrassing early difficulties. If illegal conquest was Putin’s goal, it would indeed fall in a different category to recent western interventions. If it was regime change—a practice indulged in by western powers in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya—it would be depressingly familiar. 

The conduct of Putin’s military in the field could easily sink to the ghastly depths of Chechnya and Syria, and he is at ease with war crimes of a kind not countenanced in recent western interventions. His forces have committed wanton destruction with cluster munitions and directly targeted civilian buildings. On the other hand, the best casualty estimates in these early days put the number of dead at a tiny fraction of those who have perished due to western military adventurism around the world, including 200,000 people in Iraq; factoring in indirect consequences, like disorder and regional instability, makes the contrast even more startling.

The era since the Second World War, that New York Times editorial continued, has been defined by the belief that “American military might” can “create the conditions for peace.” Endless war has been more like it. And though that hardly excuses Putin’s actions, there is no getting around the fact that our great power peace following the overthrow of the Nazis was never intended to prevent aggression by the leading states. Exercising its veto in the UN Security Council, from the first Russia has merely exploited the design of the institution. 

But instead of prompting calls for a new internationalism—one less hypocritical about which states get to intervene militarily, and which leaders and soldiers are punished after the fact—the west’s commitment to Ukrainian self-defence and fears of a wider confrontation have first and foremost involved military spending. It was widely reported that Germany increased its defence budget to more than 2 per cent of gross domestic product. Meanwhile, the US Congress approved more than $13bn for Ukraine (with more to come) alongside hiking its annual military budget, already over $700bn, by more than $40bn—a whopping 4 per cent of GDP, give or take (and almost the same proportion spent by Russia).

The face-off also involves “economic war” and wider militarisation verging on direct conflict. Biden has defied blithe calls for no-fly zones to supplement the infusion of arms sent to Ukraine before and since the war began. But in addition to targeted sanctions on Putin and his network (debatable in their likely effects), the west has embarked on a determined plan to tank the Russian economy. It is a grim reprise of an old tradition that has dealt death to hundreds of thousands with economic rather than military force. 

In the avalanche of op-eds, speeches and tweets calling for moral clarity against Putin’s evil or madness—whichever is the culprit—there has been next to no talk about what it would mean to construct an internationalism that prohibits violence across the board. Even progressive parties in the west have adopted the binary of freedom and tyranny in rationalisation. Labour leader Keir Starmer has sternly warned that advocates of a more consistent peace, such as his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn, “actively give succour to authoritarian leaders who directly threaten democracies.”

Nor have our political class and commentariat ever acknowledged how the west’s hypocrisy has damaged its credibility across the global south. That Russia bloodied an already war-torn scene doesn’t excuse its act—but nor is it extenuation for failing to envision an alternative kind of international order. 

Developing such an alternative depends on properly reckoning with the consequences of the current war—starting with how big it is likely to become.

Any cross-border conflict is terrifying: the rationale for prohibiting aggression is that military intervention is unpredictable in its consequences, and usually for the worse. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s heroics in defence of his homeland deserve admiration. But with nuclear anxiety in the air—itself so reminiscent of the Cold War—many have exaggerated the general threat Putin poses.

Putin is “the Hitler of our age,” or “beholden to Stalin’s legacy,” headlines blare. Yet Putin leads an astonishingly weak great power, even apart from the fecklessness of his armies in the Ukrainian field. His nuclear weapons, of course, are very real; yet no nation has ever expanded its territory on the strength of such weaponry alone, let alone a nation with so many structural weaknesses.

Russia’s GDP is less than a tenth of America’s (or China’s). On a par with Australia and Brazil as a middle power, it is no wonder that Putin’s Russia lacks any far-flung expansionist design abroad. In per capita terms it fares even worse: the average Russian earns a fraction of what their American counterpart does. “The Stalinisation of Russia,” screamed the cover of the Economist in mid-March. Yet Russia is a shadow of its former Soviet self, its military spending less than a tenth of the sum spent by the US, or—if that is an unfair comparison, given how gargantuan America’s military budget remains—only about a fifth of what China spends. 

More importantly, Russia’s prospects for economic growth are paltry rather than petrifying. Nazi Germany’s GDP nearly doubled in the years following Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933, while the five-year plans led to an almost quadrupling of the Soviet economy under Stalin. While Putin and his henchmen have made a pretty penny from petroleum and gas exports, they have no path to world power. Putin’s Russia is hardly a supra-regional threat.

article body image Anti-tank obstacles on the streets of Odesa © Emin Ozmen/Magnum Photos

Anti-tank obstacles on the streets of Odesa © Emin Ozmen/Magnum Photos

It’s a “very 1938, 1939 feel to the world right now,” Tory MP Tobias Ellwood commented alarmingly on television in mid-February. “There are many parallels between Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939 and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022,” tweeted the former US ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul. The laughable comparison conceals the truth. In the September 1939 conquest of Poland, the Germans invaded with ten times the number of troops that the Russians have in and around Ukraine, and the Soviet Union followed suit soon after, taking its half of the country with its own giant force. And the consequences were almost unimaginably worse.

If the comparison to recent wars suggests that the west invades more often and in more places while Putin does so less humanely, the comparison to the Second World War underlines how small a threat to the international system Russia is. 

That Ukraine is trapped in a regional war by a middling power hardly means its effects on civilians don’t matter, or that the spikes in food and fuel prices globally will not do harm. But it is remarkable how gleefully Anglo-American elites are treating Putin’s assault as an occasion to reclaim old bromides—as if life were finally getting back to normal after a few tough years of malaise and uncertainty. 

A new-look Cold War was already emerging before Putin’s move. But as historian and social critic Mike Davis wrote in New Left Review, the Ukraine war opened a “nonstop séance” with “all the ghosts of Cold Wars past.” The apparitions now being summoned for the struggle against autocracy may prove to be vengeful demons.

The ideological terms of the new Cold War were minted in response to crises between 1989 and today. All along, the biggest difference it has from the old Cold War is that no foe of the west has boasted an ideology with the humongous popular appeal that communism had across the world in the 20th century. But that hasn’t stopped us from reanimating Cold War enmity, with its disastrous consequences.

But isn’t Putin a leader of “authoritarian international?” Shouldn’t we defend democracy against this enemy, just as Biden and many transatlantic commentators have insisted? It is true that Putinism draws on Russian traditions of fascism, and envy of what Soviet communism achieved is often said to motivate Putin himself. And Putin has ties to the international far right, which Russia has long funded. Unifying the various revolts against liberal democracy today by reviving antifascism or anticommunism, however, would be a perilous mistake.

Beyond the north Atlantic, many countries in the global south have shown how to denounce the Ukraine invasion without descending into Cold War melodrama—including by keeping out of the sanctions regime. But among western politicians, policymakers and pundits, a Cold War dichotomy—lionising ourselves as free and the rest of the world as unfree—has summoned the spectre of a singular autocratic enemy.

It is a binary with old roots and new flowerings. Robert Kagan, the neoconservative tribune, presented authority as the ever-present ideological alternative to American liberalism, especially if Americans foolishly retreat from “leadership.” Francis Fukuyama ascribed autocracy across time and space to the enduring desire to belong. More progressive voices, drawing on one-time antifascist traditions, posit a modern syndrome of humiliated nationalism that drives fealty to patriarchal strongmen who promise to save males and whites from women and non-whites.

Anglo-American elites are gleefully using Putin’s assault as an occasion to reclaim old certainties

The most lamentable effect of these Manichean schemes is the service they provide to the simple-minded opposition of “democracy” and “autocracy.” This re-treads the Cold War’s oppositions: freedom against slavery; liberty against tyranny. In fact, the reality is that our incomplete democracies need to make themselves more credible to more people at home, and to overcome self-imposed limitations in exporting their values. They have done very well in recent years at globalising markets and war; democracy, not so much.

The antifascist and antitotalitarian frameworks that Putin has helped crystallise can have disastrous consequences. Our failure to build democracy in the first place, in the midst of dysfunction, gridlock, inequality, racism and patriarchy, is hardly made good by frameworks that license the extreme violence it took to put past totalitarianism down—and which some are looking forward to using in the future.

“Democracy promotion,” a euphemism for spreading liberal values at the point of a gun, reflects a noble desire for improvement of the world; there are indeed worse governments than the ones in transatlantic democracies. Yet advocates of such export programmes have regularly worsened the fate of those suffering under despotic rule. 

And the Cold War itself is a reminder that the direct confrontation Biden has wisely avoided so far—while warning of a massive response should Putin move against the Cold War alliance of Nato—does not forbid devastating proxy wars and peripheral conflicts. The millions who died in the Cold War around the world, still unmourned in the capitals that fought it, are a reminder of the monstrous risks courted by glib talk of the need to “defend freedom.”

Zelensky was elected in Ukraine to come to terms with Russia, and is now in the awkward position of being more open to a deal than many of his own western backers. The question is whether western elites will support him in this quest as eagerly as they have celebrated his understandably popular resistance. Biden’s electoral prospects benefit from a wartime presidency, while Zelensky’s invocation of Churchill in the House of Commons has helped rescue Boris Johnson from partygate. But if peace is at stake in the short term, the greatest temptation in the coming years is to believe that we have set out on a fight for democracies already worthy of the name.

Authoritarians abroad are hardly a new species. And, of course, many were treated as allies during the Cold War and since. Yet leaders like Biden, Blair and Brown have systematically avoided keeping the threat they pose in perspective. They would prefer to hype Putin as exemplary of autocracy, rather than deal with the agonising challenge of building more genuine democracies
at home.

Not that these democracies have never managed to react to external foes and ideological challenges by improving themselves. It is only fair to note that transatlantic democracies like Britain and the US have sometimes radically reformed for the better. In the middle of the 20th century, this came out of the need to reward populations who sacrificed everything in the war, and then out of fear of communist and socialist politics. Unprecedented social equality resulted, and—in the US—formal desegregation of schools and other civil rights reforms.

But in every case, the Cold War as much stunted as sparked the democratisation of historically very faulty polities. And if the Cold War began as a competition over which side of the bipolar contest had the better model for nations around the world to copy, it ended in a competition to impose crippling austerity on citizens, as international relations scholar Fritz Bartel shows in a brilliant new book The Triumph of Broken Promises: The End of the Cold War and the Rise of Neoliberalism

Neoliberalism has been the rule since. After the early years of the war on terror, the catalytic moment for defending freedom against its enemies was the summer and autumn of 2016, when Brexit and Donald Trump blindsided everyone. The response has postponed any serious reckoning with why the votes went the way they did.

article body image A man waits to serve soup to militiamen at a civil defence barracks in southwestern Ukraine © William Keo/Magnum Photos

A man waits to serve soup to militiamen at a civil defence barracks in southwestern Ukraine © William Keo/Magnum Photos

Instead of diagnosing what had gone wrong to incite millions of our fellow citizens to back such causes, it was easier to pretend that democracy was on the brink and its enemies were teeming not only abroad, but also at home. For five years, abetted by the frightening “insurrection” at the US Capitol on 6th January 2021, fears that democracy would fall have swept the governing class. The truth is, of course, that democracy has always been beleaguered, compromised and partial.

Here Putin provides a convenient external scapegoat—useful to those who insist that democracies must rouse themselves to the defence of the idea of democracy itself, and who refuse to accept that many citizens no longer feel it deserves their support. Predictably, empowered centrists are almost openly celebrating the chance to reassert their policies in Washington. 

After his election as a centre-left politician, Biden was hailed as the second coming of Franklin Roosevelt. But Biden abandoned innovative and significant policy reform, including on climate. As military spending has risen, social spending has stalled, and he has given up making necessary fixes to the antique voting system that Trump exploited in his quixotic attempt at a “coup.” 

Those who cite Putin while crowing about the need to save “democracy” are in the end exhibiting a form of complacency. “Too many of those who prate about saving democracy are really interested in saving things as they were,” Roosevelt noted in 1938, in a decisive rebuke of our last five years of political discourse. “Democracy,” Roosevelt added, “should concern itself also with things as they ought to be.”

Looking to the future, the Ukrainian pretext our leaders have used to crystallise a new era of confrontation risks a pivot into a Cold War with China—a far more significant power than Russia.

China is the economic powerhouse and rising power that Russia is not, even in Putin’s wildest dreams. China’s GDP is set to surpass that of the US within the decade. Yet if China presents a threat economically, it is not really one militarily.

There has been a certain amount of sabre-rattling over small nearby islands, and Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s recent call for “reunification” with Taiwan incited a panic. But to date China has only established a single overseas military base, in Djibouti in the horn of Africa, compared to around 750 American ones across the world—including the one on the Chagos atoll that Britain leases to the US, in defiance of the 2021 ruling by a UN tribunal that the island belongs to Mauritius. Nor, unless neo-Confucianism or “Xi Jinping thought” counts, does China have a universalist ideology of emancipation that made the Soviet Union so difficult to beat.

article body image A young ?girl says goodbye to her father as a train leaves Odesa © William Keo/Magnum Photos

A young girl says goodbye to her father as a train leaves Odesa © William Keo/Magnum Photos

Even so, Trump took the west over the threshold into a new posture of confrontation against China. American liberals bewailed the coming of Trump for four years and fancied themselves in resistance to his tyranny—but have followed his lead slavishly in this respect. If Biden’s overreaction to Putin’s sideshow intensifies enmity towards China, it will open an era of fruitless contention, while doing nothing to redeem “democracy” from its own mistakes.

A multipolar world is coming no matter what the west does. But antagonising China—while “democracy” remains a euphemism for our own constant violence and market unfairness—will surely make things worse. That is why Putin’s brazen intervention does not change the world or open a new era of history so fatefully as a frenzied Cold War response to him will.

China’s rise means that democracy’s value to a global audience will have to be proved. It also means building a different internationalism than the one we have known, constructed to contain aggression (including ours). We must fuse environmental responsibility with a more global form of freedom and equality than western policy has ever put on offer.

Putin’s war has rained destruction and terror on Ukraine and its people—but also prompted an opportunistic regression back into a ruinous Cold War stance. We had slowly begun coming to our senses after the illusions of the post-1989 era. The tragedy of Ukraine is that it arrests that process—and may actually reverse it.

We were beginning to recognise that that our system of “internationalism” was a euphemism for endless war—one that makes Putin’s act, while wicked, fit a wider pattern. More and more thinkers had begun to concede that end-of-history democracy had proved instead to be a neoliberal dystopia.

Putin is dangerous to Ukraine. More dangerous to the world, however, is the west’s refusal to confront its own mistakes. The Ukraine war is Putin’s gift to our elite mismanagers, grateful for another opportunity to rehabilitate old ideas—even though they are no likelier to work second time around than they did the first.