Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a warning. As the New York Times described it: "If the United States deploys new intermediate-range missiles in Europe after withdrawing from a nuclear treaty prohibiting these weapons, European nations will be at risk of 'a possible counterstrike.'" It was the sort of threat that, in the previous century, would have raised the level of everyday nuclear fears in this society, too. I remember them well -- from the "duck-and-cover" experiences of schoolchildren huddling under desks that were somehow to protect them from nuclear annihilation to the vivid nightmares of my teen years. (Yes, in a dream at least, I saw and felt an atomic blast.) This was the world of the Cold War in which I grew up.
I've always believed that the last of such Cold War nuclear fears manifested themselves on September 11, 2001, when those towers in lower Manhattan collapsed amid a horrifying cloud of smoke and ash -- and the place where it all happened was promptly christened Ground Zero, a term previously reserved for the spot where a nuclear blast had gone off. Somehow, on that day, something was called back to life from those Cold War years in which newspapers regularly drew imagined concentric circles of atomic destruction from fantasy Ground Zeros in American cities, while magazines offered visions of our country as a vaporized wasteland. In the chaos and destruction of that moment, there was perhaps a subliminal feeling that the U.S., the first country to use an atomic weapon, had finally experienced some kind of payback. As Tom Brokaw, chairing NBC's nonstop news coverage, said that day, it looked "like a nuclear winter in lower Manhattan."
In Donald Trump's upside-down world, the trek of a few thousand desperate migrants, some carrying tiny children or even babies, across thousands of miles of Honduras, Guatemala, and now Mexico is treated as if it were potentially a major invasion of (if not a nuclear attack on) the United States. As the president dispatches the U.S. military to the border, claims that ISIS-like Middle Easterners lurk in that caravan, and blames the Democrats for it all, who has time to think about an actual catastrophe?
Fortunately, TomDispatch regular Michael Klare does and he has news for us. As the U.S. prepares to withdraw from a classic Cold War nuclear treaty, it's time to start ramping up those fears again. After all, we're now in a new world of expanding global rivalries and potential madness in which impoverished migrants from Honduras are the least of our problems. Tom
The New Global Tinderbox
It's Not Your Mother's Cold War
By Michael T. Klare
When it comes to relations between Donald Trump's America, Vladimir Putin's Russia, and Xi Jinping's China, observers everywhere are starting to talk about a return to an all-too-familiar past. "Now we have a new Cold War," commented Russia expert Peter Felgenhauer in Moscow after President Trump recently announced plans to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The Trump administration is "launching a new Cold War," said historian Walter Russell Mead in the Wall Street Journal, following a series of anti-Chinese measures approved by the president in October. And many others are already chiming in.- Advertisement -
Recent steps by leaders in Washington, Moscow, and Beijing may seem to lend credence to such a "new Cold War" narrative, but in this case history is no guide. Almost two decades into the twenty-first century, what we face is not some mildly updated replica of last century's Cold War, but a new and potentially even more dangerous global predicament.
The original Cold War, which lasted from the late 1940s until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, posed a colossal risk of thermonuclear annihilation. At least after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, however, it also proved a remarkably stable situation in which, despite local conflicts of many sorts, the United States and the Soviet Union both sought to avoid the kinds of direct confrontations that might have triggered a mutual catastrophe. In fact, after confronting the abyss in 1962, the leaders of both superpowers engaged in a complex series of negotiations leading to substantial reductions in their nuclear arsenals and agreements intended to reduce the risk of a future Armageddon.
What others are now calling the New Cold War -- but I prefer to think of as a new global tinderbox -- bears only the most minimal resemblance to that earlier period. As before, the United States and its rivals are engaged in an accelerating arms race, focused on nuclear and "conventional" weaponry of ever-increasing range, precision, and lethality. All three countries, in characteristic Cold War fashion, are also lining up allies in what increasingly looks like a global power struggle.
But the similarities end there. Among the differences, the first couldn't be more obvious: the U.S. now faces two determined adversaries, not one, and a far more complex global conflict map (with a corresponding increase in potential nuclear flashpoints). At the same time, the old boundaries between "peace" and "war" are rapidly disappearing as all three rivals engage in what could be thought of as combat by other means, including trade wars and cyberattacks that might set the stage for far greater violence to follow. To compound the danger, all three big powers are now engaging in provocative acts aimed at "demonstrating resolve" or intimidating rivals, including menacing U.S. and Chinese naval maneuvers off Chinese-occupied islands in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, rather than pursue the sort of arms-control agreements that tempered Cold War hostilities, the U.S. and Russia appear intent on tearing up existing accords and launching a new nuclear arms race.
These factors could already be steering the world ever closer to a new Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world came within a hairsbreadth of nuclear incineration. This one, however, could start in the South China Sea or even in the Baltic region, where U.S. and Russian planes and ships are similarly engaged in regular near-collisions.
Why are such dangers so rapidly ramping up? To answer this, it's worth exploring the factors that distinguish this moment from the original Cold War era.- Advertisement -
It's a Tripolar World, Baby
In the original Cold War, the bipolar struggle between Moscow and Washington -- the last two superpowers left on planet Earth after centuries of imperial rivalry -- seemed to determine everything that occurred on the world stage. This, of course, entailed great danger, but also enabled leaders on each side to adopt a common understanding of the need for nuclear restraint in the interest of mutual survival.
The bipolar world of the Cold War was followed by what many observers saw as a "unipolar moment," in which the United States, the "last superpower," dominated the world stage. During this period, which lasted from the collapse of the Soviet Union to the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, Washington largely set the global agenda and, when minor challengers arose -- think Iraq's Saddam Hussein -- employed overwhelming military power to crush them. Those foreign engagements, however, consumed huge sums of money and tied down American forces in remarkably unsuccessful wars across a vast arc of the planet, while Moscow and Beijing -- neither so wealthy nor so encumbered -- were able to begin their own investment in military modernization and geopolitical outreach.