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The Problem With “Cold War” Comparisons

No, we're not reliving the 1960s, says Harvard historian Arne Westad.

Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

Back in the quaint days of 2017, when the Trump presidency still clocked in at under a thousand tweets, and when a person couldn’t swing a think piece without hitting a fascism reference, conventional leftist wisdom held that the world was witnessing the second coming of the 1930s. Now, the historical comparison du mois is the Cold War. The secretary general of the United Nations says it’s “back with a vengeance.” The National Interest, based on air-raid sirens in Hawaii, has declared “Cold War II.” And last Saturday’s airstrikes in Syria have renewed fears of yester-century’s proxy conflicts.

Given Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. elections, poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal with a Soviet-era nerve agent in Salisbury, and intervention in Syria on behalf of suspected war criminal Bashar al-Assad, one can’t fault anyone for nervousness. There’s no sign as of yet that the U.S. and allies’ punitive sanctions towards Russia, or 28 countries’ expulsion of some 342 diplomats in the wake of the Skripal poisonings, have settled things down. And trusting in America’s canny de-escalation tactics at this point seems naïve. But anxiety makes for bad history. And a poor understanding of the past can lead to poor policies in the present. Is the Cold War comparison actually accurate?

Disoriented in a historical re-play, as headlines would have it, that seems to have crammed the timeline from the Machtergreifung to the Truman Doctrine into a mere nine months, The New Republic called up prizewinning Cold War historian Arne Westad at the Harvard Kennedy School to get his thoughts. Over the course of a short phone call, he offered his take on proxy conflicts, Putin’s motivations, and why Russia is in a weaker position than it may seem.

For years, you’ve been arguing for a more expansive definition of the Cold War: something beyond just the end of World War II to 1989, beyond the U.S.-Russia arms race. How, at this point, would you define the Cold War?

I think the Cold War was primarily an ideological battle between capitalism and socialism. That’s the foundation for the conflict and that goes back to the beginning of the 20th century. Now, after 1945 the end of the Second World War this became what you could call an international system. You have to look at it in two parts, what created the conflict, and then the very peculiar state system that ended up being in place.

Last Friday UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said that the Cold War “is back with a vengeance.” As a historian, how useful do you find that comparison?

Why do definitions matter? They matter because they help us think more clearly about the present. I’m having trouble seeing what we’re in now as a Cold War. It’s a set of conflicts, and it’s a messy and very unruly international environment, but calling it a Cold War doesn’t make any sense, because the Cold War was a very particular kind of system. The kind of bipolarity that the Cold War led to is quite unusual in the history of international affairs. There are not many regional or global systems that are truly bipolar in the sense of two superpowers that run the show. It’s certainly not true today. Part of the reason our world seems so messy is that we have a number of claimants to power. Russia is acting within that new system that’s coming into being.

Putin is a nationalist, even a Russian chauvinist, but he’s no Communist. He’s not someone who wants to go back to the Soviet Union. That doesn’t make him less problematic to deal with. It does probably on a global scale make him less dangerous, because his aims and his capabilities are much more limited.

What about comparing Syria to Cold-War proxy conflicts?

Obviously there are some similarities in terms of proxy conflicts. But the problem with that is of course most forms of conflict have some kind of proxy framework connected to them. That was as true for Europe in the 19th century or East Asia in the 11th century as it is today. So that’s not a distinguishing feature of the Cold War. What distinguished the Cold War was that it stayed that way—only conflicts between proxies and no conflict in the direct sense.

My sense is that Russia’s involvement in Syria is mainly opportunistic. There is of course a longstanding relationship between Russia and Syria going back to the Soviet era but that’s not the main reason why Russia has intervened there now. It has intervened because it could and because it opened up an opportunity for Putin to show Russia matters in international affairs. Putin has no idea how this is going to end, I think, and there are lots of voices in Russia right now who are already worried about the Afghanistan parallel—how long Russia is going to stay in Syria and what kind of losses Russia is going to take.

So this is about sticking it to the Americans, or sticking it to the world system. If one is going to get very strategic about this, one could say that one Russian aim might be to have access to harbors, to military ports in the Mediterranean. But given the shape that Syria is going to be in over the next generation one has to question what the real use of these bases would be. I very much doubt that that’s the real reason why Putin has decided to get involved—in a relatively limited way—in the Syrian civil war.

So would your advice be for everyone to calm down?

Depends on what you’re looking at. Certainly people should not calm down about the effort to reduce the suffering of civilians in Syria. On that there is a desperate need to do more than what is being done at present. And I think exploring any kind of agreement that could be made with Russia in an international setting would be good.

But with regard to the overall picture: “We’re now heading into Cuban Missile Crisis territory”? Absolutely not. There are no indications whatsoever that we are moving toward that kind of extremely dangerous era of the Cold War. The stakes are different. That was about the survival of the United States and the survival of a closed Soviet ally, Cuba—very different from what is happening in Syria today.

The fear with that kind of thing is that it misses what is actually happening to the international system today: It’s becoming increasingly multipolar. China is a much more substantial power within that system than what Russia will be for at least another generation. Remember that Russia’s economy, with the exception of energy, is still in a free-fall. That’s not because of sanctions. It’s because of a Russian government that shows no indication of actually trying to build Russia into an international economic power.

That’s not to say this is an easy situation to handle from a U.S. perspective—we saw that during the last administration as well. But exaggerating these conflicts seems very unwise.

So in that context, how should we be thinking about the Skripal poisonings, the election interference, the diplomat expulsions, and so forth? What’s the “right” framework in which to understand these aggressive exchanges?

Much of this is Putin’s attempt in his somewhat weird way of paying the West back for having ignored Russia and even having injured Russia during the 1990s, as he sees it. Never forget that Putin comes out of that time period. He was a Soviet intelligence officer—at a pretty low level, sure, but he was someone who saw the Soviet Collapse from the inside, this whole world that he and others thought would go on forever. And I think he and many Russians have this sense that not necessarily the collapse of the Soviet Union but what happened during the 1990s was something that was imposed on Russia by Europe and by the United States. And now it’s payback time.

I think he understands that much of what he’s doing—think the Skripal poisoning—in reality serves to isolate Russia further. But in the present moment in Moscow, he and many of those closest to him simply do not care.

Same thing with the election interference. It’s possible, although I don’t really believe it, that they thought they could get away with that without being discovered. I think that’s unlikely. But either way it falls into the same category: He’s looking to make use of the opportunities that are there, exploiting weaknesses in more open political systems to tell the citizens of these countries “look you’re no better than us, we can do this, we can show that your internal systems are just as messy as you present ours as being.”

Since you brought up multipolarity earlier: Where is China in all this?

With all of this—Russian covert operations abroad, Russian involvement in Syria—what China is trying to do is keep out of it as much as it possibly can. I don’t know what kind of advice is going from Beijing to Moscow these days but it’s pretty clear that what’s been happening recently, maybe particularly the poisoning over in England, is exactly the kind of thing that China does not like. It creates great uncertainty and makes things more difficult in terms of reputation, and reputation matters a great deal in Beijing.

I like to joke with my students that China’s biggest problem with Russia is that Putin gives authoritarianism a bad name. He is someone who acts the image of what many people in Western Europe and the U.S. see authoritarianism as being. The Chinese want to emphasize that authoritarian rule can lead to stability, clarity, the kind of gradual progress that they have set up for China itself, and this doesn’t fit with that.

The Chinese also have real difficulties understanding what Russia’s endgame in Syria is. The thinking in China about Syria, or indeed all of the Middle East, is simply to get as much out of that in terms of economic advantages—and particularly of course oil supplies—as they possibly can but without getting politically, not to mention militarily, involved.

So Russia’s ambition, or aggression, is not necessarily helping them?

I don’t think it’s helping them at all with Beijing. The links are between Russia and China are of a limited, strategic nature. The Chinese know that Russia is not a rising power. In many way it’s a declining power. The Chinese are very happy to make use of that for their own purposes, such as getting oil and gas supplies at a good rate from the Russians. But to think about a kind of global strategic alliance that would manifest itself elsewhere in the world, forget about it, it’s not going to happen.

I mean, I don’t know Putin’s mind. In his mind perhaps this is going back to where Russia and China were before the collapse of the last Sino-Soviet alliance back in the 1960s, but that’s not the way it looks from a Beijing perspective.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.