Monday, February 1, 2016

Barend Vlaardingerbroek: The return of the Cold War – the upside

The Cold War is back. Or maybe we could call it Cold War 2 given that CW1 was with the USSR and CW2 with the Russian Federation. Some say it (re)started with the Ukraine, some say it (re)started with Syria. Either way, it’s back.

Those who speak thus usually do so in despondent tones. But is a ‘Cold War’ such a bad thing? I’d like to put the case that it could actually be a good thing.

Let’s turn to the domestic scene for guidance. The healthiest democracies are those in which there are visible divisions in society. A country where the ruling party gets 100% of the vote and everyone is supposedly of one mind about social issues is never a very happy place to be from the perspective of liberty – North Korea is a great example. A ‘united’ people tends to be an oppressed one.

Now look at vibrant Western democracies – the last thing you see is ‘unity’. There are political parties with what may be significantly different ideologies and agendae, and they and their followers make no bones about what they think of ‘the other lot’. There are opposing lobby groups who may be at one another hammer and tongs over contentious social issues. That’s true democracy, and an ‘equality of arms’ between opposing camps is the best insurance a society can have against the overconcentration of power and the abuse thereof – recall Don Chipp’s 1980 quip about the job of the Opposition being to “keep the bastards honest”.

Many voters in liberal democracies appear to realise that an overconcentration of power is dangerous regardless of where the power lies. That’s why they may make a point of voting for ‘the other lot’ now and again after a long spell of domination by the political party they actually prefer, or in a bicameral system such as Australia they may cast their votes differently for the lower and upper houses.

In healthy democracies – in other words, societies that are openly divided over political and social issues – a middle way is usually chosen in preference to extreme courses of action. While compromises rarely satisfy anyone, neither do they raise people’s hackles as much as extremes do. People grumble about setting things to rights some day (next election, perhaps), but in the meantime they grudgingly get on with their daily business rather than plotting the violent overthrow of the government.

Getting back to the international scene, the demise of the Soviet Union brought about what some commentators referred to as a ‘unipolar world’ with just one superpower calling the shots: the USA. The shambles that is the Middle East and North Africa today came about largely because of Western, mainly American, meddling in the affairs of constituent sovereign states. As the sole power-broker on the planet (so they thought), they could treat other countries as vassals, and effect regime change to further their own interests whenever it suited.

Would the invasion of Iraq in 2003 have happened had the Cold War not ended and had a powerful and influential USSR still been in place? I for one suspect not. Not that the Soviets would have rushed the Red Army to the defence of Saddam Hussein’s regime, but the fuss they would have made at the UN and at the highest diplomatic levels would almost certainly have seen Bush and Blair out on a limb, and they would have made sure that Iraq was much better able to defend itself and thereby able to inflict unacceptably heavy losses on the invaders. The warmongers in the Pentagon would probably have desisted from advising Bush to go in.

Much the same applies to the NATO actions that removed Khaddafi and turned Libya into an anarchic shambles that is now ripe for take-over by Islamic State and/or al-Qaeda. Would they have done it had there been a significant regional Soviet presence? Again, I think not.

A ‘unipolar’ world amounts to carte blanche for the principal power-wielder. It follows that the antidote is a ‘bipolar’ world with approximate ‘equality of arms’. Now it may be argued that a bipolar world engenders dangerous proxy wars that may escalate and draw the big geopolitical players into direct conflict. But the experience of the last Cold War suggests that where such proxy wars occur, they are contained. Korea and Vietnam could have plunged the world into a devastating WW3, but they didn’t. It was in the interests of both the Western and communist blocks to ensure that they remained localised. MAD – ‘mutually assured destruction’, the acronym coined in the 1970s – is to neither side’s benefit.

Another interesting angle on this issue is in relation to so-called North-South relations in that the Cold War had discernible spin-off benefits for poorer countries. As soon as the dust from the collapse of the Iron Curtain had settled, aid flows to developing countries began to slow down. In a bipolar world, the main actors vie for the favour of the ruling cliques of third-world countries through generous aid packages. While a lot of this aid admittedly ends up lining the pockets of corrupt officials and various sharp operators, tangible benefits do accrue to the populations of the recipient countries as well.  In a ‘unipolar’ world, there is no need for the central actor to butter up the ruling classes in places that might otherwise become more amenable to approaches by ‘the other lot’, and so he cuts back on his former generosity. This increases the ‘North-South Divide’ and may drive people in those countries into the arms of dangerous extremist movements, which creates its own assortment of risks for global security.

Back to the ‘good old days’ for developing countries?

In the case of Africa, lessening aid involvement from both the West and Russia opened the door a crack for the Chinese to sneak in – something I think we’ll be hearing a lot more about, to our detriment, in years to come. We have yet to see whether the re-emergence of the Cold War will result in a boost in aid programmes that would counter this development. I suspect that is what will happen.

In sum, I do not, on reflection, regard the return of the Cold War, or the emergence of Cold War 2 if you prefer, as such a bad thing after all. The last quarter century has convinced me that the overconcentration of power at the global level is as dangerous as it is at the domestic level – more so, even. Let there be division, and let the opposing camps be well matched – that seems to be the best way to keep international as well as national affairs on a more or less even keel.

Barend Vlaardingerbroek BA, BSc, BEdSt, PGDipLaws, MAppSc, PhD is associate professor of education at the American University of Beirut and is a regular commentator on social and political issues. Feedback welcome at

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