The New Cold War? Overcoming The Legacies Of The 20th Century


In his 1992 State of the Union address, President George H.W. Bush stated “By the grace of God, America won the Cold War”. For many people, the Cold War had already been over for a number of years. The fall of the Berlin Wall, as well as numerous revolutions throughout the Eastern Bloc in 1989, symbolised the waning influence of the USSR and its communist ideology. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 was only a formality; the Cold War had been over since 1989. This year marks 30 years since the conflict’s end, but the world today appears to be reverting. Relations between the United States and Russia have been in decline for years; other Cold War enemies, such as Iran, have become major targets of American ire; in eastern Europe, the Russian Federation has undertaken a number of aggressive actions in attempts to expand its influence. The legacies of the Cold War continue to affect the modern world, with some commentators fearing that we are entering the ‘New Cold War’. We must acknowledge, and confront, these legacies today to prevent this from occurring.

There are three main areas in which these Cold War legacies continue to influence the world: international relations, domestic politics, and nuclear proliferation. The United States and Russia, while friendly for a brief period, have returned to an animosity similar to that which characterized their 20th century relationship. Both nations seem to have created new ‘blocs’, similar to the Western and Eastern blocs of the Cold War. The United States (typically) continues to align itself with the European Union, the member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the wider Western world. This resembles, of course, the Western Bloc of the Cold War. The Russian Federation, meanwhile, has aligned itself with some of the nations who see the United States as a threat- Venezuela, Syria, Iran- and it continues to receive various levels of support from some its key allies in eastern Europe, such as Belarus. These bipolar separations resemble the international dichotomies of Cold War politics. Many of the politicians in these leading nations spent their formative years in the Cold War, and this has undoubtedly influenced their attitudes. The presence of hard-core “Cold Warriors” in US administrations continues to push this bipolar thought process. For example, war-hawks like John Bolton push for intervention in foreign nations in order to better align them to the United States, while accusations of ‘communism’ and ‘socialism’ are often leveled at younger politicians with progressive ideas. The “Cold Warrior” archetype finds some expression in Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent who has for years pushed Russia back to the forefront of international politics. If the collapse of the Soviet Union was a blow to Russian prestige, then Putin’s reassertion of international power through the Russian annexation of Crimea can be seen as an attempt to regain this. Finally, continued nuclear proliferation by both the United States and the Russian Federation risks the re-ignition of an arms race. Withdrawal of both from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty has raised concerns, while reluctance of both the United States and the Russian Federation to disarm their nuclear arsenals provokes startling similarities to the early years of the Cold War.

A brief study of Iranian-American relations may show how these legacies continue to exert influence. Understanding the current animosity first requires a brief history of relations of the two nations. Iran was, if not friendly, at least cordial with the United States – and the rest of the ‘First World’- through the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was during this period that Iran became a major supplier of oil to foreign nations, thanks to deals made between successive governments and Western oil companies. Unfair terms eventually meant disparities between the amount of oil being exported and the amount the Iranian government was being paid for it; subsequently the Iranian governments demanded a greater share of the profits. This is an entirely understandable response; it was simply an attempt to redress the unfair terms of the original agreement. However, this was all occurring within the political atmosphere of the Cold War. When Mohammed Mossadegh was elected Prime Minister of Iran, one of his major goals had been to change Iranian relationships with the large oil companies which exerted influence in his country. His parliament later voted to nationalize Iran’s oil industry and expel foreign corporate representatives, but this was seen as unacceptable by figures within the United Kingdom and the United States. Mossadegh was subsequently ousted by a coup in 1953. American involvement was consistently denied in this event until the 21st century, but it continues to influence the relationship between the two nations today. Inherent distrust of American governments has characterized the Iranian political sphere, and contributed to the hostility with which the two nations view each other.

This event helps to highlight the issues with Cold War attitudes. The highly bipolar and aggressive nature of this approach is fundamentally unproductive. It does not create a world of nuanced diplomatic relationships, but instead one of hostility and distrust. If left unchecked, these attitudes will continue to influence the world today. While overcoming the legacies of the Cold War will be difficult, it can be done. Perhaps the best way to ensure this is to encourage the upcoming generation of politicians, and help their ideas gain traction. These are people who have grown up in a post-Cold War era. Instead of being concerned with confronting communism and the ‘Reds’, they are concerned with climate destruction and international inequalities. The Cold War attitudes of their predecessors play little, if any, role in their own outlooks. Instead, many of these politicians look at the world in a nuanced fashion, and realize that multiple perspectives characterize every possible issue. A continued fostering of international discourse will also help to mitigate the increasingly bipolar nature with which some people view the world. In doing so, it becomes important to celebrate the successes of the post-Cold War world. For example, modern concerns over nuclear proliferation have seen further progress in the field of disarmament, with the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The unification of Germany, unthinkable in the early days of the Cold War, has appeared to be successful, with the country often seen as one of the leading nations of Europe. By focusing on these positive outcomes, we can see the beginning of a world that is free of its 20th century issues.

Overcoming the legacies of the Cold War will take some time. It is extremely difficult to bring about a change in people’s perceptions and interpretations of the world, especially when this knowledge has been embedded at an early age. The rise of a new generation of political thinkers will help to achieve this, and the celebration of international successes will continue to ensure that bipolar attitudes are minimized. The Cold War is over; why should we allow its legacy to tarnish today?