The Cold War 2.0

June 20, 2014

For 40 years, one big contest played out in the world. It was a kind of arm-wrestling match between the Soviets and the Americans. I use the word ‘Soviets’ to distinguish one contestant from its successor of sorts: today’s Russians. Eventually, the Soviets could not keep their end of the game going and walked away from the table, into history. 


9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, New York; Statue of Liberty in foreground. Photo: U.S. National Park Service

The last decade of the century was one where there was but one superpower — and it wanted to party. The attacks on America on September 11, 2001, brought that party to a halt. It signified a new game was beginning; not one of two superpowers engaged while the rest of the world largely stayed out of the way, but one where arm-wrestling was replaced by a kind of hide-and-seek. Even so, to some who had gloried in the success of the Cold War, it was another chance to take on an opponent in a long-term contest. 

This time, the fight is not a long standoff, where both sides employed proxies, either just on one side or on both. This is a more fluid contest, perhaps like one between a Brazilian capoeira fighter and a champion boxer. The one will get a lot of licks in and will surprise, but the other will be devastating in the clinch. Like Cold War 1.0, this one will go on for decades.

Let me try and describe how this Cold War 2.0 contest is playing out by borrowing ideas from 3 important books and liberally mixing them. Don’t blame them for this stew of opinion in front of you — read them yourself and come up with something better.

First there is Ian Bremmer’s Every Nation for Itself, which posits a world where there is no single power capable of controlling the planet and therefore there is new fluidity in the international arena. Then, there is Samuel Huntington’s book, The Clash of Civilizations, where ‘the Universal Yankee Nation’, to use a term almost 200 years old, will have to make its way among resurgent and threatened civilizations that challenge its brand of universality. Finally, there is Robert Kaplan’s, The Revenge of Geography, which resurrects Sir Halford Mackinder’s and others’ ideas of a century ago about the heavy influence that geography might play in a more fluid, less controllable world, something like the one that existed before World War I.

I won’t let my academic tendencies out and cite my comments to tie them to each author. Rather, the mix made here is my take on what is happening in the 21st Century, based on them and other things acquired in my chequered past.

America, the big boxer in our story, has championed the rise of globalization and the enrichment of a number of large societies in Asia and Latin America. The country has but five per cent of the globe’s population, so it cannot effectively control nor govern this planetary economy and proto-society. All it can do is to act as a sometimes policeman in disputes and to continue to foster its global project. Doing these is no small achievement, but a Roman-style Empire is not in the cards.

The ‘civilization’ with the most to lose in this globalization is the Muslim one; not the one of believers, or people who hope to provide a better life for their children, but those whose conception of the correct Islamic society is a radical one where traditional power and hierarchy reminiscent of the ‘glory days’ of the 8th century, or even the 15th century, are restored. 

The problem to them is how to graft modern technology and a modern economy onto a very traditional society, one based on rural values and hierarchies and one that looks back and imagines what the past perfect must have been like. Even so, the activists threw down their challenge on September 11 and it has been taken up by most other civilizations in the world. Because the policeman on the beat has overwhelming force, the challengers have had to locate in places where society is still very traditional and to carry on from there. Consider eastern and southern Afghanistan, northeastern Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, the sahel south of the Sahara, the northern Caucasus and parts of western China. In almost all of these borderlands, there are fights between jihadist Sunni Muslims and others of different religious and cultural backgrounds, even within Islam. What began as an offshoot of the Sunni Wahhabi sect in Arabia has become an international movement that is gradually taking on the organizational trappings of 19th Century European and American anarchists.

In truth though, they are like mosquitoes in a tent. The real problem for the American Cold War 2.0 player is that of managing a world full of players who are both larger and more stressed than it is. The Chinese economy is second in size to that of America, but the money is more or less divided amongst 4 times as many people. And these people have a bit of a civilizational memory of being the center of the world as well. India is as big as and poorer than China and is both as helpless and as reluctant to adopt Yankee technology as this close neighbor to the northeast. Ditto for Russia. The problem is that none of these countries can go back to their yesterdays with tomorrow’s technology. The Chinese and the Japanese found in the 1600s-1800s that all technology has cultural roots.

Mackinder’s Eurasian heartland is another problem. Where he saw it as the controlling or dominating area of the world, today it is a power vacuum. Russia has managed to restore a modicum of its traditional influence there, but the trucks coming into the Fergana valley are coming from the east and are full of Chinese wares. Russia has made economic deals to sell the Chinese natural gas in large quantities. It has internal problems of a declining population and faces the continued attraction of eastern Europe for German goods and EU inclusion. The present problems in Ukraine are not unlike those that Canada might have were it hypothetically to decide to forsake American influence and proximity for closer ties to Russia, including possibly a military association. Think about it.

Cold War 2.0 is probably not close to being half over yet. Likely, it will likely end in similar fashion to the first one. The Taliban may block polio vaccinations for children in parts of Pakistan, but mothers of crippled children will hear on social media of what might have been and will become embittered. Africans will move to cities for jobs and desert the fantasies of rural dreamers. American drones will take the various arms of al-Qaeda down the same organizational paths as the British did to the IRA, from high politics into simple thuggery. Demographic shifts already underway will temper the enthusiasms of the larger countries for foreign adventures. Only America and possibly India, constitute exemptions to this particular force. The game then stops as the players lose interest and our grandkids can perhaps look for a new iteration to begin, Cold War 3.0, whatever that may look like.

Copyright © 2014 James D. McNiven

Contact: j.mcniven AT

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