The West’s Unilateral Cold War
Publisher's Column
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Sergei A. Karaganov

Professor Emeritus
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Academic Supervisor;
Council on Foreign and Defense Policy
Honorary Chairman of the Presidium


SPIN RSCI: 6020-9539
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ResearcherID: K-6426-2015
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Rising tensions between the United Kingdom and Russia are but further proof that Russia and the West, according to no less an authority than Richard N. Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, have entered a “Cold War II”. I tend to disagree.

Yes, Russia’s relations with the United States,  and now also with the UK, are worse than in the 1950s, and the chance of a direct conflict is higher than at any time since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Given the complexity of today’s strategic nuclear weapons and the systems designed to neutralize them, one cannot rule out the possibility that some actor on either side, or a third party, could provoke escalation.

Making matters worse, communication between US and Russian leaders is all but nonexistent, owing to the lack of trust on both sides. Among Americans, feelings toward Russia verge on something close to hatred, and many in Russia now regard Americans with ill-concealed disdain.

This psychological backdrop to the bilateral relationship truly is worse than during the Cold War. But that does not mean that today’s tensions amount to a sequel. Such a confrontation would require an ideological component that is decidedly lacking on the Russian side.

Russia has no intention of waging another Cold War. Although some degree of confrontation with the US does help President Vladimir Putin unite the public while burnishing Russian elites’ nationalist credentials, Russia is not an ideologically motivated state. What ideology it does have is based in Russian culture and civilization, which it is not interested in exporting.1

The Kremlin in fact prefers not to proselytize on Russia’s behalf. Russia’s approach to international affairs has long centered on respect for national interests and sovereignty, and the belief that all peoples and nations should have the freedom to make their own political, economic, and cultural choices. Russia also embraces universal human values such as trust in God, family, and country, as well as self-fulfillment through service to society and nation.

I dream of the possibility that even 2% of the accusations concerning Russian “interference” in the 2016 US election prove true. It would bolster my self-esteem as a Russian, while educating Americans – whose government has long interfered in other countries’ internal affairs – about the dangers of throwing stones from a glass house.

But the problem between Russia and the West is really a problem among Westerners themselves. The US establishment is using the scarecrow of Russian interference to regain its lost political control, particularly in the realm of social media, where a discontented population and maverick politicians have finally found a voice.

But even if American elites do manage to wrest back control, the deeper source of Western angst will remain. For at least the past decade, the world has been witnessing the endgame of the West’s 500-year hegemony. It started in the sixteenth century, when Europe developed better guns and warships and began its imperial expansion. In the following centuries, Europeans would use their economic, cultural, political, and especially military dominance to siphon off the world’s wealth.

For a few decades in the second half of the twentieth century, the West’s dominant position was challenged by the Soviet Union and China. But after the Soviet Union imploded, the US emerged as the sole hegemon, and the world seemed to return to its historic status quo. Soon enough, however, the US overextended itself by plunging into geopolitical misadventures like the invasion of Iraq. And then came the 2008 financial crisis, which exposed the weaknesses of twenty-first-century capitalism.

At the same time, the US has long pursued military superiority. In 2002, it unilaterally abrogated the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. And, more recently, it has embarked on a massive build-up of conventional forces and a large-scale modernization of its nuclear arsenal.

Still, Russia, China, and the rest of the world won’t allow a return to US hegemony. Putin recently made this clear by unveiling a number of new, cutting-edge strategic weapons systems, as part of what I would call a strategy of “preemptive deterrence.” The message was that the US cannot hope to regain absolute military superiority, even if it decides to bleed itself dry in an arms race, as the Soviet Union did.

Preliminary assessments that my colleagues and I recently carried outsuggest that even if the US decides to wage a unilateral Cold War, its chances against Russia, China, and other emerging powers would not be very good. The balance of military, political, economic, and moral power has simply shifted too far away from the West to be reversed.

Nonetheless, a new Cold War, even if largely one-sided, would be extremely dangerous for humanity. The world’s major powers should concentrate on strengthening international strategic stability through dialogue; reopening channels of communications between militaries; and restoring civility to their interactions. We should also consider establishing more diplomatic, legislative, academic, and educational exchanges. Most of all, though, we must stop demonizing each other.

The world is entering a dangerous period. But if we are wise, we can build a more balanced international system, one in which the major powers will deter one another while cooperating to solve global problems. Smaller countries, meanwhile, will be freer to develop according to their own political, cultural, and economic preferences.

The previous, Western-led system has collapsed. To ensure a peaceful future, we need to start working together to build a new one.

Project Syndicate