Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

I Knew the Cold War. This Is No Cold War.

| Mar. 12, 2018

Everyone's favorite historical analogy makes for disastrous foreign policy today.

A lot of smart people seem to think the United States and Russia are in a "new Cold War." You can find articles on the subject in Politicothe New Yorker, and the Nation, and a quick Google search will take you to an entire website devoted to the topic, yet the more balanced views of a couple of years ago are harder to find these days. Politicians in both countries are using increasingly harsh language to describe each other and people on both sides are convinced the other is engaged in various dark plots against them. There are even signs of a new arms race, with Russian President Vladimir Putin boasting about sophisticated new nuclear weaponry and the United States preparing to launch a costly program of nuclear modernization.

The current situation is bad. But to call it a "new Cold War" is misleading more than it is enlightening. If one compares the two situations more carefully, what is happening today is a mere shadow of that earlier rivalry. Viewing today's troubles as a new Cold War downplays the role that human agency and bad policy decisions have played in bringing the United States and Russia to the current impasse, distracts us from more important challenges, and discourages us from thinking creatively about how to move beyond the present level of rancor.

To see why this is so, remember what the original Cold War was like.

For starters, the Cold War was a bipolar competition in which the United States and the Soviet Union were far and away the two most powerful countries in the world. Although other factors contributed to their rivalry (see below), each was the other’s greatest potential threat and by necessity each kept a wary eye on the other. To a large extent the Cold War was structurally determined by the global distribution of power among states, and some sort of rivalry was probably inevitable (even if other factors were involved and helped determine its intensity)....


For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

Walt, Stephen M."I Knew the Cold War. This Is No Cold War." Foreign Policy, March 12, 2018.

The Author

Stephen Walt