The phrase “Cold War” has become a cliche with little meaning. It was used to label every case of the Russia-US confrontation since the 1990s, and it finally became very common in the 2000s. Although purists were always against using this term without a proper connotation, it was already impossible to stop it.
The cliche “Cold War” seemed to explain everything, and its loose interpretation gained more value as the international situation got more complicated. An understanding of what is going on became the most scarce and even most desired commodity of the 21st century.
Meanwhile, the Cold War is a certain model of world order connected to the second half of the 20th century (the 1945 to 1989 period to be exact), and also a set of principles inherent to the relations between the superpowers.
The first definition is not applicable to the current situation. The Cold War as an historical stage was based on bipolar confrontation: The superpowers with equal capabilities determined everything that happened in the world back then, not through cooperation but in a course of intense strategic and political-ideological rivalry.
A set of rules was established that not only restrained the different sides’ ambitions, but also could be imposed on others if necessary.
That period has left us with nuclear deterrence and guaranteed mutual destruction today, which is fundamentally important, but insufficient for restoring the 40-year-old system. The context has changed dramatically.
Much as the Kremlin and the White House want it to be, Russian-US relations are not the core of world politics that overshadows the rest, as it used to be. It is impossible now to force other countries to do what the “heavyweights” want.
The balance of equally potent superpowers is no more. The US is incomparably more powerful than others, while counteractions to US policy are becoming more asymmetrical, making centralized world governance impossible.
However, the second definition of the Cold War is still applicable in regard of goal setting in mutual relationship.
The Cold War is not meant to be a solution to a conflict. Diplomacy is required to minimize risks, to lower tensions or, speaking in military terms that reappeared in political lexicon, to de-escalate.
No more and no less.
It is believed that the Cold War ended between 1989 and 1990 when former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev agreed that unified Germany could join NATO. Thus, he refused to treat European affairs as bloc politics.
However, one year prior he proclaimed the motto of the new epoch that would succeed the confrontation.
In December 1988, when he delivered a speech at the UN General Assembly, the then-Soviet leader stressed the necessity to abandon dividing lines due to aggravating global problems that required the united efforts of all humankind. Under the circumstances of the Cold War, such an appeal was irrelevant.
Regardless of the theses of philanthropists and “people of good will,” a unified humankind did not exist. What we had were two struggling political camps dominated by their agendas and a good deal of unaligned nations that fluctuated between them.
Gorbachev’s speech at the UN heralded the following epoch when the quest for a concerted reply to global challenges became dominant in world politics.
It is pointless to speak now about whether such an approach was successful or not, to what extent it reflected US hegemony, how sincere or selfish or perhaps naive its proponents were.