There are parallels, but a key difference is that the West today doesn’t seek to bring Russia down.
Shirley Bassey reminds us all that sometimes eventually we come full circle:
The word is about, there’s something evolving
Whatever may come, the world keeps revolving
They say the next big thing is here
That the revolution’s near
But to me it seems quite clear
That it’s all just a little bit of history repeating
Tension between the United States and North Korea, Russian involvement in Western elections, talk of a nuclear arms race and the use of phrases like “disinformation” — the present day has an aura of déjà vu. Like we’ve seen it before and we’ll see it again, to paraphrase Ms Bassey.
Many are referring to our time as another Cold War. As an historian, I can’t help but wonder if this is an appropriate comparison?
Talk of a new Cold War dates back to 2014, when the Russians invaded Ukraine. Disputes between NATO and Russia over defense exercises in Eastern Europe sparked concern at the time over just how heated tensions could become.
On the surface, the parallels with the original Cold War are obvious.
The role Russia plays in the democratic processes of countries like France, the United Kingdom and the United States has the same polarizing effect as it did a generation ago.
North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, seems stuck in a time warp trying to keep his grandfather’s totalitarian, isolationist dream alive.
“Arms race” isn’t the only Cold War term to make a comeback. The live-streamed trial of former FBI director James Comey was eerily reminiscent of Joseph McCarthy’s televised attacks on alleged communist sympathizers in the 1950s.
“Disinformation” is another Cold War concept that has managed to make its way back into the mainstream. Referring to a design to mislead or misinform an audience, disinformation is a form of deception that is usually widely spread. One of the best-known examples was the Soviet campaign to convince Americans their own government created the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.
Other vestiges of the Cold War that have returned: “active measures”, to describe Russian intelligence efforts; “Nixonian”, to refer to Donald Trump’s corruption; and “proxy war” between Russia and the United States, this time in Syria.
There are also differences. The 1940s-1991 Cold War had an end goal. For the Western world, the objective was to defeat the Soviet Union and bring down communism. Today, I’m not sure what the West hopes to achieve other than reducing East-West tension.
Russia’s objectives are clearer: to divide and weaken the West and secure its own status as a superpower in the process.
When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, the United States put aside the tools and resources that enabled it to prevail. Russia, by contrast, perfected such tools as active measures and merged them with modern technologies: hacking and social media campaigns.
When the Russian role in the 2016 election was exposed, Americans were shocked. Yet despite the public outrage, and despite Europe pooling resources to push back against Russia’s political warfare, the United States seem unsure what to do.
Another difference: the world has changed. Russia has lost its empire. China has taken its place as the world’s second power. Unlike during the Cold War, when the world was divided into camps, many nations are now reluctant to take sides. The American president sees little use for NATO; Europe is more unified than it was two decades ago. If America and Russia were to fight, they might need to do so on their own.
In the early Cold War period, America’s media and government were united in their pursuit to eradicate communism from the country and ultimately the world. Today there is no such relationship. Trump’s White House is hostile to the press. The media landscape is far more diverse. Declarations of “fake news” have become so numerous that the phrase, while fairly new, already feels like a cliché.
Too soon to tell
There is a third possibility: rather than this being a Second Cold War, the period between 1991 and the early 2010s might have been a lull or détente in a long American-Russian conflict.
It’s easy to make comparisons, but it’s not hard to point out differences either. Perhaps it is too soon to tell. It could be that we are entering a new chapter in world history. Or it could be “that it’s all just a little bit of history repeating.”
Katherine Humphries is a historian who works as an educator, collections manager and assistant curator in the Washington DC metro area. She studied political warfare at the Institute of World Politics and volunteers for the Cold War Museum in Warrenton, Virginia. She is also the curator of the Facebook page Inactive Measures, which shares stories pertaining to Cold War history and propaganda.