The unnerving similarities — and key differences — between our current moment and the Cold War, explained by an expert.
When Russia invaded Ukraine last February, Vladimir Putin said the world was facing a confrontation between the civilizations of the West and Moscow. This division into two camps evoked memories of the Cold War, and, as in those days, Russian leaders again openly discussed using nuclear weapons.
There’s a major difference between today and half a century ago — Moscow looks far weaker than the former empire of Stalin and Brezhnev. Putin’s forces have failed to achieve nearly all their goals in Ukraine, and many of the USSR’s satellite states are now NATO members. Ukraine was once part of the Soviet Union, but its ties to the United States and the European Union have never been stronger.
Yet many recent trends also resemble the contours of the Cold War. Moscow and Beijing have become staunch allies — closer than even during the communist era. Chinese President Xi Jinping is pursuing his openly declared ambitions to oppose the global power of the United States. Since the invasion, meanwhile, the US and EU have made a series of moves to completely sever trade relations with Russia and to halt the development of China’s tech sector.
Is the world splitting again into two hostile blocs, just as during the Cold War? To find out, I spoke with Sergey Radchenko, a historian of the Cold War and the Wilson E. Schmidt Distinguished Professor at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
A transcript of our conversation follows, edited for length and clarity.
Observers have long said that the world is dividing into democratic and authoritarian countries. President Joe Biden has approached global politics with this frame, and many of his actions have only heightened the division; he organized a democracy summit, and he’s talked about creating a league of democracies. Xi Jinping, meanwhile, has cast China as an alternative model, more efficient than the Western one. The hostility between the bloc of mostly democratic, mostly Western countries and the Beijing-Moscow camp seems at least superficially similar to the Cold War era of two rival blocs.
How much does the global political dynamic today resemble the Cold War?
There are some similarities but also vast differences. The distinguishing feature of the Cold War was the two sides’ different conceptions of modernity and how to get there. There were different approaches to the notion of property and to the economy — central planning in the Soviet Union and China or a market-oriented economy in the West. The ideological distinction today is authoritarianism versus democracy. This is a very big difference.
But at the level of everyday life, there are a lot of similarities among Russia, China, and the West: restaurants run by private individuals, the service sector, and people everywhere have iPhones — if they can get them now in Russia.
Another interesting distinction is that the connections between Moscow and the West were not as strong during the Cold War as they are today. Even though the West has tried to expel Russia from the world economy, it is still intricately connected. Natural resources still flow out of Russia, and Russia depends on imported goods. Moscow still trades with the world — it is not an autarkic system.
Those connections are even stronger with China. If you compare China today to China during the Cold War, it’s night and day. Superficially, there are similarities between these two periods, but if you dig deeper, you see great differences.
You mention that the Cold War was also a conflict of political and economic ideologies. How would you compare the ideological dimension of global politics today to the Cold War?
If you look at Russian and Chinese ideology today, you’d have to ask, What exactly is it?
If there is a Russian ideology, it’s ethnic nationalism. China’s case is also largely nationalism. In China, nationalism began to displace communism as an ideology in the 1970s, after the Cultural Revolution. It comes from the disappointment of the population with ideological dogma and with the great promise of a communist revolution that never happened. The Chinese Communist Party was facing a legitimacy deficit, and they were looking for things to fill it — so nationalism replaced communist revolution. The same thing happened with the Soviet Union falling apart; the Russian Federation had to reinvent itself on the basis of Russian nationalism.
Nationalist ideology exists in many other places. Nationalism is not at all a new ideology, but it’s not the same as during the Cold War.
But can nationalism function as a unifying ideology for a bloc of allied countries? Iran’s theocracy, for example, also has a prominent nationalist element. But do these parochial nationalisms create limits for any alliance?
They do. And even when China and the Soviet Union had a common ideology in the 1960s, they were the worst of enemies. In 1969 they fought a border war, and the Soviets threatened to use nuclear weapons. A shared ideology is by no means a guarantee that you will not have a really nasty relationship.
Just before Russia invaded Ukraine, Putin went to Beijing, and the countries issued a joint declaration that had an ideological underpinning for the first time in recent memory. It talked about opposing an American conception of world order. I’m not sure where this ideological dimension is going.
You mentioned Iran earlier. Iran is becoming closer to Russia and supplying weapons to Russia for the war against Ukraine. Russia, China, and Iran have joint military exercises. I would call it an alignment and not an alliance. What is the basis for this alignment? They share an anti-American agenda. But beyond that, their interests don’t converge all that much.
Let’s stick with China for a moment. China today is very different from the China of the Cold War. It’s far more powerful militarily, economically, and politically. As Xi Jinping has consolidated power in China, relations between Beijing and the West have worsened. Even EU leaders such as Margrethe Vestager speak openly now of an adversarial relationship.
Is China today playing the role that the Soviet Union did in the Cold War?
China is the leader of this new alignment, but I don’t know that China has the ambition to be the new Soviet Union. The Soviet Union had the ambition to transform the world. Is China interested in preserving the international order and just improving its place in it? Or are they trying to replace the international order? Do the Chinese have a grand strategy?
We don’t have a clear view of what the Chinese are thinking, nor do I think the Chinese know what they want. They have proposed a series of stratagems such as the Belt and Road Initiative. They talk about “win-win” and a “Chinese dream.” These things are vague, and it’s not clear what they entail — and whether they entail undoing the existing structures of the international order.
From the Chinese perspective, the world is looking more chaotic, and the Chinese are trying to take advantage of this chaos. But it’s not clear that they have the same sort of single-minded pursuit of global transformation like the Soviet Union did through Marxist-Leninist ideology.
For many, the Cold War comparisons were revived when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. But Russia seems to have made a terrible mistake. It appears much weaker than a year ago — and weaker than the Soviet Union. Where does Russia stand today?
Putin obviously miscalculated. He was looking forward to a more chaotic world where he felt Western influence was declining, and he perhaps thought that he could improve Russia’s relative position by invading Ukraine. It was a very poorly thought-through idea.
This is where the Cold War connects to today: Russia has always felt that it does not get enough respect in global politics. That feeling is rooted in the Soviet past. This was a key preoccupation of Soviet leaders from Stalin to Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev, and even to Yeltsin after the fall of communism. They felt that the Soviet Union or Russia should exercise a prominent, central role in global politics, and that the United States was not willing to give it that place in the system. That’s a major continuity.
After the invasion of Ukraine, the West experienced newfound unity and moral clarity, with overwhelming condemnation of Putin and support for Kyiv. But then inflation rose to highs not seen in decades, and steeply rising energy costs have caused protests in many European countries. How does Western unity look today?
The jury is still out. Western unity has been much greater than one might have supposed back in February 2022, but Putin is playing the long game. He thinks he can outlast the West. He thinks this unity will not last once something goes wrong — an economic downturn or recession, the rise of populism in Europe, or a new president in the United States. This ability to wait and to plan for the long term underpins Russian policy at the moment.
Putin also thinks that he can create disagreements among European countries. This is a Cold War parallel; it’s a time-tested Soviet and Russian approach to international politics, in particular to Europe. During the Cold War, the Soviets’ key priorities were to push the United States out of Europe and undermine European integration.
But Russia, just as the Soviet Union did, has consistently underestimated its ability to bring Europeans and Americans together. If Russia or the Soviet Union did not do stupid stuff like invade neighboring countries, there would be a lot less unity among European countries. Stalin threatened Berlin in 1948-49, so NATO was created in 1949 as a response. Stalin threatened Turkey, so Turkey joined NATO. In 1979 and throughout the 1980s, there was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Russians try to play on the contradictions with the West, but they also pursue stupid policies that bring the West together against them.
But many powerful countries in Asia and the Middle East do not fall into either of these blocs. India, for example, has skirmished with China along their shared border, but Delhi has maintained robust trade ties with Russia. Saudi Arabia warmly welcomed Xi recently, in a visit that irritated many in Washington who saw Saudi Arabia as a longstanding US ally.
How do you see other countries approaching the new global dynamic?
I don’t think they like this at all. They like a much more multipolar world, where they can maintain their freedom of action. India never liked the idea of a divided world. That is why they pursued the policy of non-alignment since Jawaharlal Nehru became prime minister in the 1940s. It’s a time-tested tradition.
Today, the relationship among China, Russia, and India has the kind of flexibility lacking during the Cold War. During the Sino-Soviet alliance in the Cold War, if India and China had a conflict and the Soviets tried to stay neutral, the Chinese said, You’re betraying your obligations as an ally. Today, when the Chinese and the Indians have a conflict in the Himalayas, the Russians can just say, We’re sorry, but that’s your business. And China and India will accept that. The Global South would much prefer not to have a world divided strictly into a system of two blocs and alliances.
So is the world today more like the bipolar Cold War, when it was split into two camps, or is it multipolar — meaning many competing centers of power?
A lot of people say that today’s world is different from the Cold War precisely in that respect. There’s something to it, although this bipolarity was falling apart since the 1970s. China disconnected from the Soviet Union and then exited the Cold War — and was even aligned with the United States against the Soviet Union.
Today, there is a tendency toward the solidification of two blocs, as we saw with Biden’s effort to create a bloc of democracies. But I don’t think it’s going to fly, because of the economic underpinnings of the world system, the redistribution of wealth to new countries, and the emergence of new centers of power. Those are real things.
What does a more multipolar world mean?
It’s a very interesting question, because the world may become much more chaotic as new centers of power try to redefine the world in a way that suits their interests. That is what Putin was trying to do by invading Ukraine. He was thinking he could capitalize on this by acting in a rough and unexpected manner. He miscalculated with regard to Ukraine, but I don’t think he miscalculated in his interpretation of where the world is going.
We are moving more in the direction of diffuse centers of power, with many states unwilling to be drawn into either of these new blocs. I’m not even sure that China and Russia will emerge as a bloc. They will maintain their distance and their own internal contradictions, though they will probably not allow those contradictions to spill into a conflict as during the Cold War.