Cold War Mark 2: Is the US the Ideologue Now?

There seems little doubt either that a new Cold War is appearing in the world, or of its ideological content. This is not to dismiss economic competition and security issues, but there needs to be a recognition of the ideological content of the contemporary antagonisms. The difference with the new Cold War is that the communist ideology of the Soviet Union is now being replaced by the ideological attachment of the US/West to an absolutist interpretation of “Enlightenment” values. The question addressed is the extent to which the proselytization of these values, especially by the US, threatens the stability of a changing world order. The comparison is made between the old cold war that ran from 1947 to 1991 and the new cold war that is replacing it, with the US and China as the principal symbolic opponents. The conclusion is that such absolutist ideological confrontations are damaging and dangerous for a world, with costs in human lives, amplified in a world where several countries possess nuclear weapons.

Cold War Mark 1

The “Cold War” ran from 1947 to 1991. The major protagonists were the US and the Soviet Union. Although there were security and economic competition dimensions, the Soviet Union was motivated by the proselytizing ideology of communism around the world. The US and its Western allies sought in Europe to contain any further Soviet Union advances beyond that accepted at the end of World War 2. It will be recalled that the map of Europe had been redrawn in the post-1945 settlement, with Soviet forces remaining in many East European countries, including East Germany.

This containment was prompted by the UK decision in 1947 to withdraw financial aid to Greece and Turkey, where both countries were facing communist uprisings. This event saw the initiation of the Truman Doctrine. Its intention was to support financially those countries, and other countries that were threatened with Soviet Union sponsored “insurrections”.

In 1948 the Soviet Union had backed a communist coup in Czechoslovakia and had launched a blockade of West Berlin, which was controlled by the three Western powers. To demonstrate a united front, the US and its allies formed a transatlantic military defence alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO. On April 4, 1949, the US, Canada, Belgium, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, and the UK. signed a treaty agreeing that “an armed attack against one or more…shall be considered an attack against them all.” The Soviet Union’s response was delayed until 1955, when following the admission of West Germany into NATO the Warsaw Pact was established This military defensive alliance included the Soviet Union, and seven “satellite” states, Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Poland, Hungary, and Romania.

The role of the US in NATO has been critical. Before Second World War the US had been seen as essentially “isolationist” and protectionist in trade terms. However, in the post-War period, with the conclusion of the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944, the growing US global economic and monetary power – accompanied the institution of the dollar-gold standard and its dominance of the new IMF – was demonstrated. Thenceforward, its unipolar hegemonic approach gradually intensified.

Given the communist ideology of the Soviet Union, the two “blocs” became ideologically opposed as the Cold War progressed, and this hostility spread across the world in the form of revolutions and counter-revolutions, some of which were anti-colonial struggles, sponsored by the Soviet Union other counter-ideological revolts were sponsored by the US. Large numbers of people, forces personnel and civilians, died in these insurrections. Invasions, and civil wars. These ideological confrontations – taking place outside the European theatre – were neither costless nor theoretical in terms of human lives, especially in Asia and South America.

A new ideological component entered the equation from the US and UK side in the early 1980s, with the advent of the Reagan/Thatcher alliance on neo-liberal political economy. How far this intensified the confrontation between the US and its Western allies towards the Soviet Union is not clear. What is clear is that this ideological thread now forms an element of the US/Western values-set in the new Cold War.

The end of the first Cold War came in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Subsequently, Russia and the US collaborated in the 1990s, signing further non-proliferation treaties and reduced nuclear arsenals. Cooperation took place on the so-called “war on terror” and on Afghanistan. However, discussions on new security arrangements in Europe in the 1990s failed to achieve a resolution which would have involved Russia. Instead, not only was NATO not dissolved, as had been the Warsaw Pact in 1991, it has been expanded. Since 1999 five expansions have occurred, involving 14 countries, almost doubling the previous membership of 16 states. Its military activities have gone beyond its European military defence remit, and some politicians and commentators have suggested the idea of a “global” NATO. Perhaps not surprisingly, Russia has seen this continuous eastward expansion of NATO, to the borders of Russia, as a security threat to Russia itself, notwithstanding assurance from NATO that it is a defensive military alliance, plainly aimed at potential Russian military aggression. 

Cold War Mark 2 : The Situation in Europe

Growing tensions about the Ukrainian situation (especially since the 2014 Russian seizure of Crimea) between NATO, the US, and Russia erupted in 2022 with the substantial troop build-up on Russian western borders, threatening Ukraine. Diplomatic discussion involving Russia and the US – essentially about a new pan-European security arrangement, including the military neutrality of Ukraine – failed to produce any agreement about resolving the situation. An unwarranted invasion of Ukraine by Russia then took place on February 24th. This action, notwithstanding that Russia may have been provoked, served to confirm the validity of the NATO 25-year concerns about potential Russian aggression. The military conflict in Ukraine continues, with NATO countries supplying arms to Ukraine, though without direct military involvement. However, the US and the majority of its Western NATO allies have imposed extremely severe financial and economic sanctions on Russia, accompanied by corporate sector sanctions, legally imposed.

The direct conflict between Russia and the Ukraine, involves a security and a nationalistic component, rather than a strictly ideological one. The wider surrogate conflict between the US plus its NATO allies and Russia, is also ostensibly non-ideological. Nonetheless, when linked with wider geopolitical tensions, especially involving China, and the frequent mention of shared values on the Western side, sets the global conflict in a wider global ideological context.

Cold War Mark 2 : The Geopolitical Situation

China, in line with its commitment to non-interferences in the affairs of other countries, has remained neutral on the Ukraine crisis, in terms of not supporting the US economic sanctions, while condemning the invasion. Indeed, this is the position of many countries around the world, such as Mexico, Brazil, and India. The “West”  is apparently much smaller than the US tends to claim! However, it is only China’s stance that has attracted public criticism from the US, with threats of extending current monetary and economic sanctions to China.

Although couched in terms of a conflict of values (a softer term than ideology, but equivalent), the US position is unequivocal, and confirms the shift from containment to challenging China, as a quotation from the above formal US document makes clear. The economic and security conflict remains, but it is now under-girded with the more recalcitrant ideological conflict

The CCP promotes globally a value proposition that challenges the bedrock American belief in the unalienable right of every person to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Under the current generation of leadership, the CCP has accelerated its efforts to portray its governance system as functioning better than those of what it refers to as “developed, western countries.” Beijing is clear that it sees itself as engaged in an ideological competition with the West. In 2013, General Secretary Xi called on the CCP to prepare for a “long-term period of cooperation and conflict” between two competing systems and declared that “capitalism is bound to die out and socialism is bound to win.”  (author’s italics)

The italicised phrase is a paraphrase of the longer sentence taken from the preamble to the US Declaration of Independence , written in 1776.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

This earlier document was a creature of its time. Thomas Jefferson drafted the above sentence, a modified version of a similar statement written almost 100 years earlier, in 1690, by the British philosopher John Locke. Using a 300-year-old dubious philosophical theory of innate natural rights – which half the world rejects – hardly constitutes a valid, modern-day political critique. There are criticisms to be made of the Chinese political system and practice, but simply sweeping aside an alternative political theoretical position is naïve and improper.

Moreover, China is not attempting to export its values-set, though its socialist market model may serve as a model to be adapted to the circumstances in other countries. This conceptualization is in direct contrast to the US militant advocacy of its own liberal-individualist, free-market capitalist set of values as a panacea for all countries.

Generalising the Ideological Conflict

If the proselytizing of the US set of values (ideology) were aimed solely at China, where one-fifth of the global population live, accompanied by military and financial belligerence, this would be major cause for concern. However, the US is seeking ideological hegemony across the whole world, as before did the Soviet Union. Absolute validity for any set of values or ideology is a chimera.

The US needs to abjure any attempt to impose one, challengeable, values-set on countries, and indeed regions of the world, that do not subscribe to what may be termed “enlightenment” values. Cultural and moral opinions are relative not universal, except for a narrow group of ethical prohibitions, covering for instance murder (of one’s own tribe), that anthropological evidence suggests are universal.

Moreover, the US use of severe and harmful monetary, trade, and economic sanctions, either as acting (often without UN agreement) as a “moral global policeman” or as a means of attempting to impose its set of values, should be construed as acts of war. This prohibition should, of course, be applied to any such similar proselytizing activity by countries other than the US. As indicated above, these non-military weapons are, nonetheless, costly in terms of human lives, both directly and unpredictably.

The apparently non-ideological (though there is use of the term “shared values”) confrontation between the US (and its NATO allies) against Russia, in the context of its proxy war over the Russian military aggression in Ukraine, may seem to be exempt from strictures. Nonetheless, the language and the actions that are being used, in the service of a similarly absolutist vision of an inviolable territorial civic nation-state structure of the world, is ideological. The general prohibition on adjusting such boundaries by force is surely a worthy global objective, clearly breached by the Russian invasion. Not that the US adheres to this position consistently, as proven by the US-NATO massive bombing of Serbia in 1998/99 to secure the independence of the statelet of Kosovo, against UN stated policy at the time.

Conclusion

The proposition being supported above is that the ideological divide in the current Cold War is one of a liberal-individualist, neo-liberal market capitalism ideology, promulgated as a world order by the US, and resisted by many countries and regions. This new global ideological confrontation has replaced the old Cold War communist ideology promoted by the Soviet Union. The new US/Western ideology, whatever its intrinsic merits, should not be advocated in an absolutist manner. The lessons from such an ideological global conflict are obvious from the first Cold War and its continuing negative aftermath, now being dangerously intensified.

There are other dimensions to the “enlightenment” model proposed by the US, relating to, principally, the rule of law, the free expression of opinion, and systems of electoral democracy for which there may be prima facie support. These issues have not been discussed and clearly there is merit in them. Inevitably, in a short essay, it has not been possible to be comprehensive in delineating these other areas of political philosophical discourse. Nonetheless, it is not unreasonable to suggest that in these areas also there is room for doubt, difference, and debate.

The main purpose has been to illustrate two issues. First, absolutist ideological confrontations are dangerous and damaging. They feed a sense of an unbridgeable division that leads to both civilian and military conflict and to both communal damage and loss of lives. These dangers are intensified in a world in which several nations possess nuclear weapons. Second, underlying, effectively intellectual/philosophical differences, should be resolved, not by political and military conflicts, but instead by dialogue and diplomacy. These are issues that should not be reserved to governmental political elites. They require to be the subject of wider and deeper discourse by the academy and by citizens.

Finally, it should be understood that there is no absolutist value set, either religious, philosophical, or political, that can be declared to be superior to others Rather is there a need for a perennial dialogue that seeks a consensus, enabling human groupings, at whatever level, to live together in relative harmony, while continually seeking acceptable compromises is all areas of societal interaction and inevitable conflicts.

About the GPI

The Global Policy Institute is a research institute on international affairs. It is based in the City of London, and draws on both a rich pool of international thinkers, academics as well as policy and business professionals. The Institute gives non-partisan guidance to policymakers and decision takers in business, government, and NGOs.

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