Are we back to 1914, 1938, 1945 or 1989?

Ten years ago, the consensus was that the Cold War was ancient history, but recent events in the Ukraine make clear that it is not as distant of a memory as it once seemed

Head, ECFR Madrid
Senior Policy Fellow

“If your article begins with ‘since the end of the Cold War’ don't bother sending it.” Thus began the instructions for potential contributors to Foreign Policy magazine as outlined in the publication a decade ago when it launched its Spanish edition. In other words, ten years ago, the consensus was that the Cold War was ancient history and that no aspect of it remained relevant for the present.

Ten years ago, the consensus was that the Cold War was ancient history and that no aspect of it remained relevant for the present.

The 19th century ended in 1914, we are told, and the 21st century began in 1989. It follows that the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 were merely confirmation that the 21st century was to be dominated by military unipolarity (with a single hegemony of the USA), economic multilateralism, with multiple countries emerging, particularly in Asia (China, India), but also in Latin America (Brasil, México). In a display of little imagination and for lack of a better name, we decided to call this situation “post-Cold War”.  

Now, a decade later, we have been debating where we are. Are we in 1914, in a prelude to a new global conflict, this time in Asia and triggered by tensions between China and its neighbours? Bolstering this perspective is a fact that we must remember: 1914 proved that economic interdependence is not always a guarantor of peace. Conversely, since the Peloponnesian Wars, we know that the rivalries and suspicions generated by the rising power of some tends to generate tensions, strategic realignments and even miscalculations that can lead to conflict that the actors do not necessarily seek deliberately. Hence, in light of the combination of nationalism, authoritarianism and irredentism in the region, the South China Sea could become the Ruhr of the 21st century.

Are we in 1914, in a prelude to a new global conflict, this time in Asia and triggered by tensions between China and its neighbours?

Others, primarily from Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltics, disagree: we are in 1938, and the problem is that we fail to recognise that it is not Crimea's strategic position that is of importance. What matters, they say, is that our failure to understand the expansionist logic of a Russia, a country left humiliated by the way in which the Cold War ended, will cause us to fail to appreciate the need to stand up to Moscow, draw a red line, and abandon appeasement. Therefore, just as a certain Hitler resentful of the Treaty of Versailles understood the cession of the Sudetenland as a green light to pursue his territorial ambitions, Putin will interpret our failings in the case of Ukraine as a sign of weakness that will permit him to restore the territory and honour of a wounded Russia. As Putin himself recently stated in a speech at the Valdai Forum in Sochi, the USSR was dissolved without a treaty even being signed that specified Russia’s position in the post-Cold War discourse.

For a third group, we are not in 1938 but in 1945, at the beginning of a new Cold War. Today we find ourselves forced to consider how best to contain Russia's imperialist ambitions, this time disguised as ethnic nationalism and heavily steeped in oil and gas, but without a resulting devastating military conflict. We must then combine sanctions and isolation with coexistence agreements and negotiations, but without giving in on key principles.

25 years after the fall of the Wall, we still do not know what world we live in.

Finally, the confusion is so marked that – imagine! – there are some that even say we are in 2014, and that 1914, 1938 or 1945 will not serve to understand anything that is happening to us. And they´re right: 25 years after the fall of the Wall, we still do not know what world we live in.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

Author

Head, ECFR Madrid
Senior Policy Fellow

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