By: James Brumbaugh
After the defeat of global fascism in World War II, the last remaining superpowers entered into an ideological struggle, a war of a kind previously unseen. The main belligerents would never meet in total warfare, instead choosing to stand at the brink of an apocalyptic conflict, ever edging closer. This nearly fifty year period of strife is known as the Cold War, and as tensions mount between the United States and Russia today, comparisons of the chilly contemporary atmosphere and the Cold War's diplomatic freeze abound.
These doomsayings, in all but one regard, fall flat when one looks at key aspects of U.S.-U.S.S.R relations dispassionately. The Enola Gay did not just leave destruction in its wake, it also opened up a new era of history: the Atomic Age, a new day that promised technology previously unimaginable. Both of the new world hegemons promptly began perfecting this new technology’s killing potential, each making the decision that if they were to fall, they would take the world with them.
One legacy of the Cold War is enormous stockpiles of bombs, more than is possible to use. The U.S. alone had over thirty-one thousand at its peak, compared with the U.S.S.R’s forty-five thousand. For many, nuclear war must have seemed an inevitability. Today is a different story. While military budgets still balloon, the number of nuclear weapons has reduced drastically, and is today a fraction of what it once was. Despite these huge military budgets, the two world powers never actually fought a war against one another, constrained as they were by the looming threat of nuclear apocalypse. Rather than destroy their own countries and threaten the continued existence of the planet, they settled with manipulating their client states like pawns, wrecking nations for the tiniest increase in relative power. From Korea to Cuba to Vietnam to Afghanistan, no opportunity was missed to start a war that would never reach the shores of either nation.
Today, the U.S. and Russia still maintain a long list of alliances, and still insinuate themselves in plenty of foreign conflicts, but both nations have been able to find common ground, as they have in the war on radical Islam. Even when the two nations have profound disagreements about policy, such as the in the Syrian conflict, they at least have common enemies. It would seem that rather than a Cold War, it is two influential nations playing at diplomacy the same way they have since the days of Bismark.
Current cooperation between NASA, America’s space agency, and Roscosmos, Russia’s equivalent agency, have reached unprecedented levels, with the two agencies planning to build a replacement for the soon to be retired International Space Station by 2024. During the Cold War, this kind of cooperation between the two nations on space exploration, at the time a hotly contested race, would have been unthinkable. Today, it is reality. Consider today’s world, where in spite of the United States’ sanctioning of Russia for its invasion of Crimea, and in spite of the competing visions laid out for the future of Syria, the United States and Russia still trade with one another, still fight a common enemy in their “War on Terror,” and still collaborate on space exploration.
The United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a zero-sum game edging nearer and nearer the brink of annihilation. Now, the Russians and Americans have meaningful disagreements about what the world of the future will look like, but in many ways the U.S. and Russia are no longer playing a zero-sum game and are not necessarily adversaries.
Despite these facts, there are still loud voices decrying the commencement of a second Cold War. This is because the Western and Russian political elite and media have created a system of imposed ignorance that propagates paranoia. Paranoia was the key to Cold War power. Paranoia sent American students cowering under their desks, it sent Russian soldiers to the Fulda Gap, and it caused the formation of separate blocs that dropped an Iron Curtain and divided the world.
Similarly, it is paranoia that causes today’s strife, an America that has taken the words you're either with us, or against us to heart, a Russia where the prime minister and former president has openly described the relationship between Russia and the U.S. as a new Cold War. Cold Wars aren’t about the relations of two nations, but about the relationship between the government and its people.
Today’s Cold War is a war against national paranoia, a war caused by only seeing an enemy instead of a potential ally, a war that defined American foreign policy for so long that the American political class and the public at large cannot let go. America and Russia are locked in a new Cold War because they think they are.