Analysis & Opinions - The New Republic

The Problem With “Cold War” Comparisons

| Apr. 17, 2018

No, we're not reliving the 1960s, says Harvard historian Arne Westad.

The New Republic's Heather Souvaine Horn interviewed Arne Westad about his thoughts on the U.S.-Russia relationship and whether we're experiencing a new "Cold War."

Back in the quaint days of 2017, when the Trump presidency still clocked in at under a thousand tweets, and when a person couldn’t swing a think piece without hitting a fascism reference, conventional leftist wisdom held that the world was witnessing the second coming of the 1930s. Now, the historical comparison du mois is the Cold War. The secretary general of the United Nations says it’s “back with a vengeance.” The National Interest, based on air-raid sirens in Hawaii, has declared “Cold War II.” And last Saturday’s airstrikes in Syria have renewed fears of yester-century’s proxy conflicts.

Given Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. elections,poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal with a Soviet-era nerve agent in Salisbury, and intervention in Syria on behalf of suspected war criminal Bashar al-Assad, one can’t fault anyone for nervousness. There’s no sign as of yet that the U.S. and allies’ punitive sanctions towards Russia, or 28 countries’ expulsion of some 342 diplomats in the wake of the Skripal poisonings, have settled things down. And trusting in America’s canny de-escalation tactics at this point seems naïve. But anxiety makes for bad history. And a poor understanding of the past can lead to poor policies in the present. Is the Cold War comparison actually accurate?

Disoriented in a historical re-play, as headlines would have it, that seems to have crammed the timeline from the Machtergreifung to the Truman Doctrine into a mere nine months, The New Republic called up prizewinning Cold War historian Arne Westad at the Harvard Kennedy School to get his thoughts. Over the course of a short phone call, he offered his take on proxy conflicts, Putin’s motivations, and why Russia is in a weaker position than it may seem.

For years, you’ve been arguing for a more expansive definition of the Cold War: something beyond just the end of World War II to 1989, beyond the U.S.-Russia arms race. How, at this point, would you define the Cold War?

I think the Cold War was primarily an ideological battle between capitalism and socialism. That’s the foundation for the conflict and that goes back to the beginning of the 20th century. Now, after 1945 the end of the Second World War this became what you could call an international system. You have to look at it in two parts, what created the conflict, and then the very peculiar state system that ended up being in place.

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For Academic Citation:The Problem With “Cold War” Comparisons.” The New Republic, April 17, 2018.

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