During the Cold War we knew where we stood. The Soviet and Western blocs squared off against each other with arsenals of nuclear weapons in a balance of terror. Yet the doctrine of deterrence – and fear of Mutually Assured Destruction – meant both sides stuck by rules. Although they fought proxy wars in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, the Soviets and the West largely respected the post-Yalta status quo in Europe.

Today, there’s uncertainty. After his military intervention in Georgia and Ukraine, nobody seems to know how far Vladimir Putin will go in his drive to extend Russian power. The foreign and defence policy of the incoming US president is a mystery. Donald Trump says he admires Putin and thinks NATO is obsolete. Under his watch will the US continue to provide deterrence in Europe? The European allies look weak and divided; few come close to meeting the alliance’s defence-spending targets. Foreign policy consensus has been undermined by populist politicians, spurred on by Russian propaganda.

Adding to the unpredictability is the risk of nuclear proliferation. North Korea has nukes and the ballistic capability to deliver them; the deal to restrain Iran from developing atomic weapons looks fragile; the danger of terrorist groups or other non-state actors gaining access to weapons of mass destruction is real.

How bad have things become? Is today’s geo-political disorder more threatening than the decades of nuclear stand-off during the Cold War? What’s the future for Europe’s security in the Putin-Trump era?

We had a comment from Jan who asked if the world is safer today or more dangerous than it was during the Cold War. To get a response, we spoke to Edward Lucas, senior editor at The Economist and a senior vice-president at the Centre for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). What would he say to Jan?

edward-lucas This is the most dangerous time since the early 1980s. Clearly there were points during the Cold War, like the Berlin Crisis and the Cuban Missile Crisis, where we were very close to a nuclear conflict and it’s not as bad as that. But we have lost a lot of the security architecture which we build up during the Cold War in terms of having a clear understanding of what each side wanted and was prepared to do, and what the other side would do in return.

We are now in a much more unpredictable era with an unpredictable Russian leader and an unpredictable American leader, and NATO – which was the most important pact for stability during the Cold War – is now looking very weak, with some countries having become quasi pacifist, a lot of countries not paying their way, and the most important country of all, America, with a president-elect who doesn’t really believe in alliances.

For another perspective, we put the same question to Kevin Martin, President and Executive Director of Peace Action, a California-based pressure group. What would he say to Jan?

kevin_martinThe thing to me that’s most interesting is: who benefits from the perception of fear? Donald Trump in this country won the election – I hate to even say ‘won’ the election, he will become the president barring some unforeseen circumstance – with naked appeals to fear. We’ve seen that work in Europe and other places as well.

So, whether the world is safer or not, I could talk about certain issues: US triumphalism, NATO triumphalism, circling and isolating Russia and China, a new nuclear arms race, more countries with nuclear weapons. Those are all very dangerous things but, to me, people standing up against them saying ‘No, we want a safer world, we want a better world’ and calling out the people who are benefiting from fear, to me that’s the more interesting question than ‘Is the world safer, or less safe?’. I might say ‘less safe’ because of ongoing wars, US militarism, and the danger of a new nuclear arms race.

Picking up on the impending change of administration in Washington, we also had a question from Graça, who wondered what the global geopolitical order is going to look like under President Trump. We put her question to Edward Lucas.

edward-lucasI’m not sure we’ve got a geopolitical order anymore, because what made America great was not its GDP or its industries or even its nuclear arsenal. What really makes America great is its allies. American has more allies than any country ever had in the history of the world and that’s been the basis both for the global order in Asia and the Pacific but also for the global order in Europe.

Mr. Trump, with his very loose talk about allies, it’s clear that he doesn’t understand alliances in the way that every American president since Harry Truman, since Roosevelt, has understood them. He sees them as someone to do business with – somewhere between customers and suppliers – and he wants to drive a hard bargain. That, I think, is not a great way to run a business, and it’s a terrible way to run a superpower. So, I think we’re in an era where America’s global leadership is on the way down, perhaps irretrievably, and it’s going to be rather uncomfortable and, I think, quite dangerous while we work out what the new arrangements are going to be. I won’t call them a ‘new order’ because I’m not sure there’s going to be much order.

Finally, Clive from the UK raised an important issue about Russia. Under Putin, Russia looks resurgent… but in terms of GDP and even military spending it still lags way behind the West. Is Putin really restoring Russian power? We asked Edward Lucas for his thoughts.

edward-lucasRussia is not the Soviet Union. Russia has a GDP of about 1.5 trillion and a population of about 140 million and the West, very broadly defined, has a population of a billion and a GDP of 40 trillion. So, we are not in the sort of Cold War struggle between roughly equal forces. Russia is winning not because it’s strong, but because it’s strong-willed. We’re losing not because we’re weak but because we’re weak willed …

This is not a story of Russia becoming a real superpower, but Russia’s ability to exert its influence very strongly in any bilateral arrangements. As long as we’re in a multilateral world, then Russia is heavily outnumbered. In any bilateral relationship, except possibly with America and China, Russia has the upper hand because of its land mass, its nuclear arsenal, and so on. And Putin is willing to do things to bust these multilateral arrangements that disadvantage Russia, which we aren’t willing to do in return: he’s willing to use force, we don’t want to use force; he’s willing to take risks, we don’t want to take risks; he’s willing to accept economic pain and we don’t want to accept economic pain; he’s willing to use a propaganda machine, which we don’t really have. That’s why Putin is several laps ahead of us.

Was the world safer during the Cold War? We’re not at the stage of a direct nuclear stand-off, but is today’s uncertain world more risky? Are we already in a new Cold War? And is Russia is winning? To what extent does the lack of political will mean that Europe and the West are under threat despite their economic and military strength? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!

IMAGE CREDITS: CC / Flickr – jugbo

64 comments Post a commentComment

  1. Tarquin Farquhar


    The number of countries with nuclear weapons has increased


    the EU is led by a ‘basket of deplorables’ quintet of ideo-fascistic ‘Beurocraps’


    Islamofascism is rife throughout the world.

  2. Nando Aidos

    Which one? The previous one? Are cold wars safe? Or just money makers for arms manufacturers?
    One should not use the words “safe” and “war” in the same sentence!
    A “safe war” is an oxymoron!

  3. nando

    Which one? The previous one?
    Are cold wars safe? Or just money makers for arms manufacturers?

    One should not use the words “safe” and “war” in the same sentence! A “safe war” is an oxymoron!

    • Sopi Andrei

      About 100 million deaths in just the world wars, not counting the rest of our bloody history. No wars since the EU.

    • Tarquin Farquhar

      @Sopi Andrei
      NATO secures Europe, the EU has NO army and even if it did it would be too small, too weak and too dysfunctional to stand up to Russia without the USA.

    • Duncan

      If the EU has done such a great job of keeping peace in Europe, where is Kosovo? I thought that was in Europe? I honestly think the thing that kept peace in Europe after the end of ww2 was just exactly how many people remembered the effects of the war. Everyone knew someone or several someone’s who died in that charnel house of history and didn’t want to see it happen again. But the dangers the world faces today are not a European imperial powers going to war with each other and dragging their empires into it, the dangers are economical, they are radical groups with funding and black market wmd’s, they are through shear overpopulation resulting in more fierce competition for resources, they are from the constant changes in governments throughout the world. In many ways the political structure across the globe today is a new dark ages. Leaders/dynasties of like minded leaders are being changed too often for there to be any familiarity. Alliances are made and broken and replaced. Turkey and Russia is a good example of this, they were against each other now they are talking again. So much so in fact that also as a result of the EU/Turkey relations deteriorating, that I would feel compelled to question Turkish resolve to defend European NATO countries in light of a Russian attack, couple that with some of Trumps comments and that puts Pro defending Europe Nato troops down a significant number (maybe enough for Putin to feel he could win if it came to it). Moreover Russia was at one stage looking very friendly towards NATO, frankly it seemed on the cusp of joining it. That would have stabilised 80% of the globe, this return to unfriendly relations had the opposite effect, and for the life of me I don’t know what caused the U-turn.

  4. Julia Hadjikyriacou

    If countries are against eachother it is because 1) it is an unfair system where one is missing out, so fair rules are required, 2) greed, where the one party doesn’t want to share wealth, so the majority must insist on fair rules or 3) theft, where a leader wants what another country has and uses force to steal it, where an alliance of countries is required to not allow this to happen.

    • Tarquin Farquhar

      @António Espadaneira
      Some countries are victims of their own cultures and always seek to blame their financial weakness on everything, everyone and anything but themselves.

    • Tarquin Farquhar

      @Julia Hadjikyriacou
      1…Yes, life can be unfair BUT with hardwork and HONESTY…
      2…Obviously, the poorer party is greedy as they want FREE money from the richer party.
      3…I agree, many Club Med countries have political elites that practice theft as an art form.

  5. Bódis Kata

    The investment entities with big financial stakes in weapons manufacturing also own the media.


    • Bódis Kata

      Research media groups and their ownership structures.

  6. Bobi Dochev

    Probably yes, the stupidest thing is that then the communists were trying to have world domination – now the “democracy” is doing the same and it is even worst! Nobody learn the lessons.

    • Duncan

      That’s not accurate. The cold war was capitalism vs communism. Both side wanted to dominate and capitalism won. (China’s communist politically, but capitalist economically, Russia is now capitalist). Also, the world hasn’t been “safe” since the first use of all out war. When cities full of people are considered a valid military target for bombing and shelling the world is not safe. It got less safe with biological and chemical warfare and even less safe with nuclear weapons. The cold war had enough nuclear material made into weapons that the world could have ended several times over. Sorry let me say that again, THE WORLD COULD HAVE ENDED several times over! That’s not safe! Nor is what we have today, but it’s not less dangerous than everyone in the world could die, there is no less safe than that!

  7. Enric Mestres Girbal

    Probably, but then there were only two “sides” and wars were “controled”. Now wars and terrorism have extended all over, mainly thanks to US & EU blindness.

  8. Andrew Potts

    We are possibly in a World War already where the digital landscape has made tanks and guns outdated. The war is being fought with tactics that are economic, ideological and demographic in its nature leading to political changes that look more like conquest by another name.

  9. Jeanne Griffin

    In retrospect it was because the demarcation line was clearly and boldly drawn between the West and the Soviet Bloc. However at the time it often felt like we were living on the edge of a nuclear abyss.

  10. Yanni Sfyrides

    No it was not safer.What we had was a balance of terror then. A recent study though claims that if you have many players, then it is m0re propable to tear apart one another- that means great trouble for the world.When you have one very strong player (souper power) then you have a balance.So if USA come closer to Rusia then I ithink that we will have a better stabitilty and less danger for unexpected events.

  11. Dimitri Fiori

    It was safer… emotionally. As Dominique Moise (Geopolitic of emotions) wrote, during the cold war, we knew our ennemy. This ennemy lived in one place, was totally different and accepted to negotiate. Now, in an era of terrorism, we feel weaker at home.

  12. Maciek Gorywoda

    You know what, screw you guys. There were millions of people struggling to survive on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. Nowadays the life is much better and safer for them and their children, like me. You’re just high on memberberries.

    • Piotr Nowakowski

      You’re addressing a different issue than the one raised. Inevitably the question of global safety boils down to the likelihood of unlimited nuclear warfare. In this respect it’s rather trivial to advance the argument that the world was safer during the Cold War. Granted, we’re not yet at CMC levels but the trajectory is as ominous as it is inexorable.

    • Alfredo Freskito

      Right, we talk here about global uncertainty, not about waiting 20 years to get a Trabant or not eating bananas. I’d stick to the old bipolar world without doubt, God knows if in another 20 years we’d be able to get a car or eat a banana at all.

    • Alfredo Freskito

      Yeah, but the point is if we will have all that that you say in 20 years, it doesn’t change my point. And btw, go and talk about individual freedom to Kaczynski, Orban, Farage, Trump, the guys of ISIS, Le Pen, Putin, Duterte,…, I am extremely pessimistic about individual freedoms, so you, as young eastern european or me as southern european we might see the comeback of the worse kind of nationalism again to our continent and you,…, you might think that the trip to the EU and democracy was completely useless at the end,

    • Alfredo Freskito

      I see a big bunch of polish banners in your profile. I might not have talked about Kaczynski and nationalism to the most appropiate guy, bummer!

  13. Paul X

    Yes, because two major superpowers and the threat of MAD maintained a world order. If something was about to kick off there would have been plenty of warning because the rising rising tension between the US and USSR would nave been obvious.
    These days there are lots of unstable countries and extremist groups causing havoc in the world and if one of these ever gets hold of a WMD the chances of it being used is extremely high and it would most likely happen with very little warning

  14. Bruno J. De Cordier

    Yes, because even if there was this scare about ‘the Bomb’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A2EOSgmx-MA ) it was a quite stable and predictable world system, though now always that ‘cold’ in what was then still called the Third World. The initiative back then was also much more with states and regular defense systems, which is not the case now. Theses about ‘a new Cold War’ in Ukraine and Syria therefore don’t add up i.m.o.
    In my opinion, the Cold War pattern did not end with the demise of the Berlin Wall in 1989 but with the revolution in Iran in 1978-79. Why? Because contrary to the way things went back then, the pro-Western regime which was toppled was not replaced with a socialist or at least Soviet-aligned one, but with something totally new, Khomeiny’s Islamic republic. Iran also showed that secularization was not irreversible.

  15. Alfredo Freskito

    Western medium and working classes where far better off, so in what directly concerns me, yes, the world was better off.

  16. Sopi Andrei

    The world has never been safer than now. You just read about more conflict because you’re better connected. Every statistic shows we are better off.

    • Ian Upton

      I’ve seen stats which back this up. its safer now than the last 100 yrs.

  17. Emil Pavlovich

    No of course.Now is the same war going on but in a different way – economical and informational…oopppsss,wasn’t those the same methods used in the Cold war itself?

    • Natali Adriano

      nuclear weapons, you did forget nuclear weapons. oh, and proxy wars.

  18. corrado prizio-biroli

    Putin – frustrated from the loss of the Soviet Empire, wants to save face and be recognized as a contributor to peace making. His actions in Crimea and East Ukraine as well as in Syria , calculated risks based on the belief that the West will not intervene, aim at obtaining respect and inclusion among the Great Powers to keep the peace. If he is criticized, let alone ignored as a potential partner in world governance, he will continue to act “impredictably”. One way to break the ice might be to concede on Crimea (which was after all Russian), admit the mistake of pushing the Ukraine towards NATO (in contradiction with the Budapest understanding that its NATO membership was excluded in exchange for it renouncing to its nuclear weapons), and promote a confederation between East and West Ukraine, which would recognize a limited autonomy to the eastern part (after all it is mainly inhabited by Russians and was part of Russia until Khrushchev took what seemed at the time a decision of little relevance, transferring Ukraine East to the Kiev State government within the then Soviet Union). Trump might be the right person to try and do it, provided he is kept under control by those who understand about politics and military affairs. Unfortunately, this is not the case of his chosen candidates for the key, relevant positions, and those “who know” would probably be opposed to such a solution. America’s European partner might have been able to help (now without Britain), but has not reached the necessary integration stage in ESDP (partly due to British opposition) and requires a difficult agreement between the intergovernmental France and the federalist Germany. Like with the EDC in 1954, the biggest obstacle to a joint ESDP remains France. So, one has to enlarge the “directoire” to include countries such as Poland, Italy and Spain. The latter cannot be counted on as long as Germany imposes its austerity policy, in contradiction with IMF, OECD and common sense views, because they will end by being dominated by populist parties until the economy improves.

  19. Gordon Webster

    Read “The War State,” by Michael Swanson (on Kindle). There was no Cold War, it was an invention of the Military Industrial Complex, The State Department, and the Chiefs of Staff in Washington. It was the same persecution of Russia then as is happening today.

  20. Bill Laing

    Not if you were a Plastic Soldier by the looks of it!We’ve never been closer to Armageddon than in those days! Still too many Nukes!

  21. Laker

    The world was much safer during the Cold War. And Europe was much more unified vs USSR. Now, those squabbles between Poland against Germany are able to ruin the EU.

    Kaczyński puts Poland at odds with Germany
    These days everyone is distracted by Brexit, but as it turned out today Europe is shaking because of the growing tensions between Germany and Poland which simply can’t stay unnoticed.
    This refers to the letter supposedly written by the vice-chancellor of Germany Sigmar Gabriel to the president of the European Council Donald Tusk with an open appeal to punish Great Britain for Brexit.

    See more of this stuff here

  22. Joseph Bartolo

    Politics is not the solution to the problems we face, Politics is the Problem as many politicans mainly care for thenselves and their inner circle, while the huge majority of the people suffer many hardships, because of the greedy few million in Europe and the World.

    • Bobi Dochev

      Παυλος Χαραλαμπους Yup, you are damn right. EU army will work exactly like EU so we going to have huge army administration and eventually A soldier :) it can’t work indeed, but it will be nice to have it. :)

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