By Stephen Rutman
Murmurs of an impending “Cold War Redux” are everywhere. These claims are misleading in their oversimplification, if not altogether overblown. However, global clashes of some sort do seem to be looming on the horizon.
Gone are the days of stable-deterrent-balance and mutually-assured-destruction. The bipolar world order, in which ideological divisions could be described using the dichotomy of “East and West” has been supplanted by a far more dynamic geopolitical complex.
The “New Cold War” will not be fought by the same sides, nor by the same rules. The threat of an all-out nuclear war no longer reigns supreme in a world where chemical, biological, radiological and cyber warfare represent equally grave threats. Containment does not bear the same strategic significance on a world stage where non-state-actors play such a critical role.
Perhaps the greatest unknown in calculations for a renewed international crisis is determining what groupings of nations will constitute the opposing sides. While diplomacy may offer some insight into current global allegiances, statecraft often paints an incomplete or deceptive picture.
One intriguing metric for evaluating foreign alignments is the global arms trade—an annual market of over $50 billion worldwide. Unsurprisingly, the U.S. and Russia remain the anchors of this industry, together exporting a hair under 60 percent of all weapons transferred in 2013, according to reports from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
Arms sales were a decisive tool in foreign policy during the first iteration of the Cold War. The dueling superpowers competed for global influence by supplying countries with their military equipment. Egypt, for example, entered the Soviet sphere in 1955 in exchange for Soviet weapon systems, and then shifted its loyalty in the late 1970s when the U.S. offered a far superior arms package.
However, in contrast to weapons deals in the second half of the 20th century, contemporary arms exchanges are relatively inconsistent and challenging to decipher. Consider North Africa, where Morocco, Tunisia, Niger and Chad accept U.S. weaponry while Algeria, Libya and Sudan outfit their militaries with Russian equipment. Present day Egypt offers no clarity for the region, as it accepts over $100 million of weaponry from both the U.S. and Russia yearly. Similarly, in Southeast Asia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines evidently ally themselves with the U.S. while their neighbors, such as Vietnam, Myanmar and Malaysia maintain stronger ties with Russia. Again, the potential tiebreaker of Indonesia receives substantial shipments from each of the rival suppliers. Other noteworthy nations that receive arms from both include India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Brazil and Mexico.
Further analysis forces one to question whether the scale of trade with particular countries is commensurate with the strength of the relationship. Turkey reportedly accepted the second greatest share of U.S. weaponry in 2013—worth approximately $2.3 billion, according to Business Insider (second only to UAE, worth $3.7 billion). Does an economic and strategic arrangement of this magnitude accurately reflect the cooperation between the U.S. and Turkey? Bear in mind that a geographic rift of 6,000 miles separates the U.S. from Turkey, while Russia and Turkey are divided by fewer than 200 miles across the Black Sea. Likewise, does the $11 billion arms deal the U.S. struck with Qatar in July suggest an unprecedented symbiosis between the two countries? Especially given widespread reports of Qatar’s involvement in the illegal arms trade, which puts weapons in the hands of some of the United States’ most vicious enemies?
Of course, the U.S. is not the only party privy to inscrutable arms dealing. Russia allegedly recorded enormous arms transactions worth $13.7 billion to India and $3 billion to China. While China and India are potentially logical rivals with America, it remains unclear whether the Russian relationship with either nation extends deeper than that. Although this flow of weapons seemingly indicates a cohesive anti-American bloc, on many other levels China and India seem unlikely bedfellows for Russia.
There is a staggering lack of transparency and accountability in the Russian arms trade. It is often nearly impossible to determine the precise terms of Russian arms contracts, and it can be an even greater challenge tracking the final destination of the equipment sold. One certainty of the Russian arms market, however, is that the weaponry sold from Russia is much lower quality, less advanced and consequently much less expensive than its U.S. counterparts. This phenomenon may prove significant in the U.S. and Russia’s contest for allies.
Pakistan announced in June 2014 that it plans to divert its resources from the U.S.-made Cobra helicopters to the cheaper, inferior Russian-made Mi-35s. Developing nations, which are responsible for a majority of worldwide arms purchases, are increasingly opting for weaponry that suits their needs best, even if that entails substantial sacrifices in quality. Although this leaves the U.S. and its allies far better equipped for confrontation, it simultaneously breeds dependence on Russia across the developing world.
Americans need not sound the alarms yet. The U.S. maintains a tremendous advantage over Russia, not only in global arms sales, but also in defense spending. Nevertheless, given the precipitous geopolitical climate, the U.S. ought to carefully evaluate both who its friends are, and perhaps more importantly, who its enemies’ friends are.
However undue comparisons may be between the current global situation and the Cold War, a quick glance at the flow of weapons around the world suggests that the next round of global conflict may be more complex than the last and more nuanced than what we are prepared for.