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 Donald Trump says he admires Putin and thinks NATO is obsolete.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?
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?
The 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.
I’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.
Russia 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!