The notion of a New Cold War with Russia first arrived in 2008 with the publication of Edward Lucas’ book The New Cold War: The Future of Russia and the Threat to the West.
It received some attention at the time, but the cold war construct in its title gained little traction until the 2014. Since the Ukraine has been in crisis the phrase “a New Cold War” has become fairly commonplace in the media. Part of the reason for this is that the emotional memory of the Cold War is still strong and ‘cold war’ remains an easy, ready and convenient trope for media commentators in need of dramatic content. However, we should be concerned with more than rhetorical overreach by writers of headlines, book titles and opinion pieces.
While “a New Cold War” has not yet been adopted as an official framework for US foreign and military policy, there are many foreign and military policy-makers who will be tempted by its appeal. We should be circumspect about following them down this path.
The Cold War
The original Cold War amplified, displaced, and generalized the post-WWII tension between the USSR and its former Western allies. As it developed it infected and transformed international relations globally, undermining potentials for integration and cooperation everywhere and in every field, including commerce. It fed on itself, rendering many lesser disagreements and disputes intractable once they were sucked into the dominant framework of highly conflictual and militarized relations. From a global and historical perspective, this became an inefficient and destructive dynamic.
In terms of accountable costs:
The Cold War likely added at least a half a trillion in 2014 dollars to annual global military expenditures averaged over the course of its forty plus year span, shares disproportionately paid by Russia and the US. This translates into between one and two percent of global GDP diverted to military capabilities particular to the Cold War.
There were roughly 100,000 Americans deaths in the hot corners of the Cold War. Thirty million people died in 35 major interstate and civil wars across the globe. Many, not all, of these peripheral conflicts were encouraged and provisioned by the Cold War protagonists. To this accounting we should also add the costly mischief carried out over forty years by civilian and military operatives on both sides.