Trump, Putin And The False Definition Of A 'New Cold War'
The bipolar world of yesteryear is gone. In its place is a shifting geopolitical landscape of circumstantial alliances and ascendant authoritarianism.
PARIS — "Impossible peace, improbable war." That's how — using his way with words and talent for synthesis —French philosopher Raymond Aron defined the Cold War. Peace was impossible given what he called "the heterogeneity of the planetary system." War was improbable because of the "balance of terror" in the nuclear age.
With a little wisdom and a lot of luck, the war remained cold despite peripheral conflicts and dangerous escalations such as the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962. For all intents and purposes, the logic of the blocs functioned satisfactorily — until the fall of the Berlin Wall, of course, and its direct consequence: the collapse of the Soviet Empire.
From the early 1990s until 2014 and the forced annexation of Crimea by Putin's Russia, the world went through a much shorter second phase, which historians of tomorrow may define as a transition period between two worlds. With the fall of the USSR, peace had become "possible" again. The brutal break-up of Yugoslavia also provided immediate evidence that war was "less improbable." The years 1990-2014 were thus a period of lost illusions and recovered fears.
Since 2014 and the redrawing of Europe's borders by force, we have entered a new world. We see its perils ever more clearly but, due to a mixture of intellectual laziness and a desire to reassure ourselves, we define this moment as a new Cold War.
In reality, the world we have entered conjures up the 19th-century European balance of power — with more nuclear weapons and less strategic vision — more than it does the artificial simplicity of the Cold War world. There are no more blocs. The bipolar world is no more. Instead, there are imperfect, often circumstantial alliances in a multipolar world.
We define this moment as a new Cold War.
The Atlantic Alliance, in the time of Trump and varying versions of populism, is no longer what it was. The dialogue between Beijing and Moscow is too unbalanced in the long term to be sustainable. Wanting to prove the superiority of authoritarian systems over a decadent democratic West alone doesn't constitute a body of strategic doctrine.
At a time when brute force is being used shamelessly, how can we hide behind the idea that the war will remain cold? The Cold War pitted a revisionist bloc behind the USSR against a bloc in favor of the status quo behind the United States. In the time of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, almost everyone — with the notable exception of Europe — seems to have switched to the revisionist side.
We will know, by May 12 at the latest, whether the U.S. will denounce the nuclear deal signed with Iran in 2015. Even if Donald Trump remains totally unpredictable, most observers now believe that Washington's denunciation of the agreement is the likeliest hypothesis. And as the Syrian conflict becomes ever wider, it becomes the field of application for all abuses, if not the matrix of the coming chaos. Could it be some sort of Putinization of the world?
Erdogan's Turkey is rushing into the breach opened by Russia. Nothing beats the use of force to achieve one's ends. Ankara intends to use military force to suppress any interest not only in Kurdish independence but even limited autonomy. Since there's no arbitrator who imposes peace any longer, no forum that indicates the law, the worst becomes possible, if not probable.
A bad wind blows on the world, and it could be summarized as follows. At a time when the democratic model is increasingly contested, the belief in the virtues of diplomacy seems ever weaker. Everything is happening as if these two pillars of rationality had become the main victims of a cynical and impulsive age as if we could only react to the complexity of the world with brutality and simplism.
This is no longer a time for diplomacy, it is a time for force.
During the Cold War — the real one — the revisionist camp could always find some support among those on the status quo side thanks to the Communist ideology, which sheltered the Russian imperial cause behind the banner of Socialist revolution. Today, with the desperate quest for stability in the face of the jihadist threat, the challenge posed to democracy in an increasingly heterogeneous world that seems to benefit nobody but the rich and powerful, and the embers of anti-Americanism awakened by Washington's chaotic drift, all the conditions are being met to provide Russia and its authoritarian model with multiple fellow travelers. Except these days, the revisionists aren't drawing support despite the prevailing despotism, but because of it. Backers find the authoritarian nature "reassuring."
It's a strange world in which for too long we haven't been able to see the Russian forest for the jihadist tree. And the Russian forest itself probably hides a bigger Chinese one. How can we set limits to this existential drift? Our relationship with nuclear power itself has changed. The absolute weapon no longer has the deterrent power that it had in the aftermath of a world conflict that ended with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With the passing of time and the diversification of threats, from terrorism to cyber attacks, the absolute weapon has become more abstract.
It is true that Vladimir Putin's triumphant re-election can lead some people to dangerous conclusions. Democracy has outlived its usefulness. The Liberal West is dying right before our eyes. This is no longer a time for diplomacy, it is a time for force. We know better than to respond to the complexity of the world with simplistic reflexes. But what can we do when the bad example now comes as much from Washington as from Moscow?