Dovile Jakniunaitė: Why Prophets of the New Cold War are Wrong

Thirteen years ago, in September of 2001, a large part of the world suffered from the greatest shock after the end of the Cold War. Collapse of two skyscrapers conveyed the message that history is still happening and we still have to wait for the triumph of democracy and liberal world order. Later involvement in some more new wars convinced that vision of the new world order still has a great number of adversaries. Nonetheless, common faith in the new era has been really strong.

There were attempts to give a name to the modern times, however currently one name seems to dominate – the new Cold War. We can see old tensions revived, when the world had been divided into two antagonistic camps, because Russia openly opposes the West and tries to establish its own authority. The analogy of the Cold War (even if it is a different one) allows for a very quick and simple explanation of present events – it is something already familiar that we remember or know from history books. Only this time we are glad to be on the other side of the curtain.

Familiar analogies provide clarity – indicate the obvious reason, the culprit (Putin’s regime) and the solution (distancing or even better – the curtain). However, this kind of clarity can be just an illusion, an escape from the much more complicated political world, in which elimination of the direct menace does not always solve the problem.

This is no new Cold War: there is no new ideological battle and the world is not being divided into any new parts, there is nothing new to see altogether. And it is exactly because the present situation in Ukraine and Crimea is the best evidence of the failure to end the Cold War in a proper way. It has been ended without a “peace treaty”, triumphantly, though without clear decision what to make of its heritage. Crimea now stands as a symbol, the most important development after the Cold War that has demonstrated the difficulty to end any war.

Russia, of course, is the first heritage, whose greatest trouble is itself. Russia has survived the nineties with painful economic and social consequences. During this time and later its leaders could not provide any other strong support for their national pride except for the victory in the Second World War and soviet achievements that were destroyed by the greatest geopolitical disaster. And certainly, a habitual recollection of the enemy from the West that constantly brings pressure upon them and encircles the country.

It is the country which cannot accept that borders have shrunk and the world has changed and that soviet maps are no longer valid for understanding global changes. And that one should deserve the status of a world-power (and the desired respect) rather than demanding it.

In the West the Cold War has also never been over. There it was always clear who had been the winner and winners are always happy with the “postwar” status quo. International system appears to be stable as expected (except for a few non-systemic players) and the changes that have happened do not provoke any doubts as there has been no loss and nothing to complain about.

Victory shouldn’t have been understood as a reason to treat Russia in some special, gentle way. Besides, we can still remember the attempts of “therapy” which has been very costly. At the beginning of 1990, the USA and Germany had given so many loans to make reforms that they made almost half of the Russian GDP. So, we should search for the failure somewhere else.

Failure or ignorance lies somewhere else – in the non-reformed and still existing institutional structures of the Cold War. First of all in the United Nations Security Council, institution that is supposed to care about peace and stability, but which has been created to satisfy the world-powers, indicating their mutual distrust. Power of veto wielded by five permanent member states has made United Nations an impotent organization of collective security during the Cold War and it has remained half-capable until now.

It has been created in such a way that any internal reform becomes impossible. It cannot bring Russia to act by modern norms (to be honest – China or the USA cannot do this as well). It would not be possible for any institution based on such logic. The same applies to the world-powers that cannot make each other to change. Change in the world politics is possible only in the institutions of a different nature, those that are eager to negotiate.

We also find ourselves between these two poles. Presumably, there is no need to argue that in Lithuania we haven’t ended our Cold War either and we still are living surrounded by different fears. Russia is only one of them and it is very common, because easily identifiable and obvious, while others demand much more discomfort and openness to ourselves. We celebrate (legitimately) winning in this lottery of wars, though rarely see further our historical wounds or contemplate about the world we wish for. And what we are prepared to do for it.

The Cold War has never been over.

The article was first published in Lithuanian by Delfi, March 26, 2014.

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  1. Dr. E. Reilly |