New Cold War, Not!

CNN. Addresing the U.N., Russian PM Medvedev equates relations with West to a ‘new Cold War’.

A few days later, (Reuters) Lucian Kim accuses the West of Munich-like behavior, where “Munich” is a synonym for capitulation.

The authors share a common assumption, the continued existence of a Bloc World. In the post World-War II era, this was most certainly true. The two world-spanning blocs have as 19th century antecedents the balance of power struggles of the continent. It can certainly be seen in the strategies of Cardinal Richilieu, the practitioner of raison d’État. But he was not the originator; the honor probably belongs to Niccolò Machiavelli, author of the infamous treatise, The Prince. Before him, more primitively, the world belonged to men with strong arms who accrued more strong arms the way we do oil patches. But while the alliances of balance of power were exercises in geography and manpower, the bloc abstraction was a 20th Century innovation. What of the British Empire? Let’s leave it to the academicians. There is also some resemblance in the vassal states of China. But there was no opposition.

The blocs had common characteristics. Each had a preeminent state, with some advantage over the lesser members. In the U.S. there were advantages of technology, human development, economies of scale, and the ability of the world’s largest economy to mint a stable currency. In the wake of World War II, the Soviets acquired the technical and intellectual remnants of countries that had been more advanced than itself. Combined with economies of scale, and backed by military might to deter doubters, the Soviets were able to pose as credible bloc leaders until the stagnation of the Brezhnev era.

The ultimate glue of these blocs was not very different from the religious variety. In the religious case, there is the desire to preserve the flock from conversion by a competing religion. This was the nature of the struggle between communism, which claimed to change the very nature of man, and the Free World, which still and probably always will have very real devils to fight. Besides free versus not-free, there was opposition on every level of organization. For example, it is not obvious that communal economics should be twinned with totalitarianism, but it was. In the world of today, there are so many mixtures of systems, it’s like an old fashioned gas pump where you could dial the octane. Who could have imagined a free-wheeling Chinese economy layered beneath an opaque ruling class? Or a Russian economy with constant intervention by hidden hands, beneath a not-so-opaque inner circle of personalities we know? Or an Iranian labyrinth that defies the specialists because the currency of power is not what we know?

The bloc structure was driven by quasi-religious fear, but it was permitted by economic conditions. In the West, the economies of smaller bloc members had been destroyed or severely damaged by war and loss of colonial possessions. The economies of the Eastern Bloc were destroyed by deliberate dismemberment. This resulted in a trade structure that had some resemblance to the triangular trade of British colonial mercantilism. But instead of raw versus finished goods, the dichotomy was one of economies of scale. Europe’s products in both blocs were highly finished goods that did not require great manufacturing scale.

In 1989, the Eastern Bloc began to fall apart big time. In 2000, Airbus surpassed Boeing for the first time. These arbitrary samples highlight that, coincidental or not, the vanishing of fear of the Soviet Bloc and vanishing of the U.S. economies of scale were contemporaneous. Can a bloc-world structure exist without the simultaneous occurrence of both ideological/political struggle and economic viability? Consider:

  • The triangular trade still exists between China and Southeast Asia. For instance, China is the largest trading partner of Vietnam, but relations are antagonistic.
  • Relations between the Western nations are harmonious. Yet these countries are cutthroat economic competitors simultaneously bridged by multinationals. A very mixed picture! The U.S. was angered when Britain leaped to join the AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.) With respect to China, the word “frenemy” is in vogue. Yet the decision to join was made in spite of the historical “special relationship between the U.S. and Britain. This is not bloc-type behavior.
  • The future viability of the Trans-Pacific Partnership , as an unanswered question, could support a yes or a no. If China’s policy in the South China Sea becomes a serious challenge to the local members, the members could develop bloc-like characteristics crystalized by “Pivot to Asia. But that presupposes that China’s future policy will be unintelligent. This is too big to suppose, so the TPP will probably just muddle along.
  • The Russian construction of the Eurasian Economic Union, and the partly overlapping CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization) uniquely lacks a competitor. The poor countries of central Asia are largely dependent on repatriations by migrants working in Russia. Their economies are too small and isolated not to advantage themselves of Russia. It may be a bloc, but the landlocked geography of the smaller states is a special condition, and it is not politically unified.

Lucian Kim’s article does not state, but implies, that we are in a new cold war with Russia. Whether the Russian elite believes this or not, Putin markets it domestically. Quoting The Guardian,Vladimir Putin has accused the west of trying to contain and subvert Russia “for decades, if not centuries”, in a fierce and uncompromising attack during his state of the nation speech. Highlighting the dichotomy between domestic and foreign propaganda, P.M. Medvedev tried to unwind it. But the result of all this verbiage, and actions, such as in Ukraine, is that both sides are positing the question of a cold war.

The last time there was a cold war, the West was faced by an adversary with Soviet ground forces so massive that, at least when tallied as orders of battle on paper, have not been seen since. This time is different. The Russia of today, composed of a people so remarkably similar that we see them in the mirror, has no such advantage. In compensation, the Russia of foreign policy is a combination of the cat that ate the canary, and the master of intimidation. Perhaps the Russian invasion of Georgia, which may have actually been justified, was the seed of this latter idea. In the case of the Baltic States, Poland, and Ukraine, it has backfired badly.

All labels carry baggage. The Cold War label carries this: We are in conflict with a powerful, implacable enemy. But it’s not true. The canary is Syria, and the cat is going to have serious indigestion.

To be continued.

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