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October - November 2008

Political News

Does the world need a Cold War II? Hold your breath, the war on terror is not won yet.

by Sashanka Sekhar Banerjee

In the backdrop of the current state of uncertainty in international relations the question that needs an urgent answer is: Does the world need another cold war at all or so soon after the end of the last one? Considering man’s eternal craving for money and power, his penchant for dominance over other people, his opportunistic search for territorial aggrandisement or in other words empire building, his need for acquisition of high value natural resources for sustaining economic progress and prosperity, his unquenchable thirst for controversies and his limitless capacity for creating enabling conditions of conflict for profit, the answer should be predictable: The vast majority of peace loving men and women, young and old everywhere would vociferously oppose its coming yet make no mistake, a new chapter of Cold War – let it be known as Cold War II - unfolding in the full glory of its menacing dimensions looks unavoidable. It is not IF but WHEN or how soon will it descend upon mankind once again has become a matter of widespread concern.

Consider this scenario: The world is in a state of war since September 11, 2001 when al-Qaeda’s storm troopers – the suicide bombers – had launched their monstrous terror attacks on the US. The retaliatory war on terror has turned out to be the modern world’s longest shooting war. It is already running longer than WW1 (1914-18 ) and WW2 (1939-45 ) and, if anything, it is spreading across frontiers. The War on Terror has transformed itself into a War without Frontiers. Experts have said that this war against the invisible enemy is expected to last a long time and the prospect of defeating the perpetrators of mindless violence in the foreseeable future looks uncertain.

US President George W Bush has famously said that the powerful economies of the world in order to buy peace sooner or later would have to shed their “addiction for oil“. What he failed to mention however is that there is also the need for the world’s major powers to give up their “addiction for war” which is as intoxicating as the addiction for oil.

The remarkable thing to note is that the adversaries in the new paradigm happen to be the same old incumbents as they were before namely the US, now the world’s sole superpower and a resurgent Russia, a reincarnation of the former Soviet Union.

Let us not forget however that Moscow has embraced a model of free market economy as its new economic mantra and adopted, to coin a phrase, “democracy with Russian characteristics”. In so doing there remains hardly any significant ideological difference between Washington and Moscow, except in matters of details of governance. Yet both nations feel uncomfortable and suspicious of each others growing economic strength and military power.

Washington has developed a strategic threat perception in regard to Russia as it emerged as a resurgent and a reawakened nation driven by a spirit of nationalism, overflowing with inexhaustible resources of oil and gas. Yet with all its new wealth Moscow has been careful not to overly demonstrate tendencies to challenge the super-power pole position of the US, except in self-defence. To be fair, as an act of faith Russia had unilaterally closed down its Cold War institutions namely the KGB and the Warsaw Pact Military Alliance. The US ignored these Russian gestures of goodwill and chose to retain its Cold War institutions namely NATO and CIA. Predictably Russia was not happy with this provocative turn of events.

From what little one learns about Russia is that despite all odds Moscow wants to be treated with respect and also as an equal by the West. It has volunteered to be a strategic partner of the US in its war on terror. Washington has also a lot to learn from Moscow about the manner in which Islamist radicalism and terrorist violence have been defeated in Chechnya.

Mikhael Gorbachov had declared that Europe is the natural home of Russia and progressing the idea further, Moscow later declared its intention to be a member of NATO but this request was turned down by Brussells.

Thus rejected by the West, an angry Russia decided to open up to the East projecting itself as an Asian power. A known security expert, Evegeny Primakov, when he was the Prime Minister of the Russian Federation, came up, in the eighties of the last century, with a new security doctrine for Russia. He gave it a mouthful of a name: The Grand Asian Alliance. In his conceptualisation it would be a triangular security compact comprising Russia, China and India, the three emerging giants of Asia. It was supposed to be an alliance of more than half the population of the entire planet.

Prime Minister Primakov chose to declare the contours of his Security Doctrine in New Delhi during his visit to India. It produced predictable consequences causing a great amount of nervousness in Washington. Reflecting his concerns, President George W Bush brought out a crucial security doctrine in a paper under the name of “The National Security Strategy of the USA” which was submitted to the US Congress. The document while making a reference to the proposed Triangular Grand Asian Alliance, described India as “a great democratic world power” thus making it known to the international community that from now on the US would invest its efforts to take India on board as a strategic partner of the US. Clearly Bush wanted India out of the Russian sponsored proposed security grouping ensuring that the Grand Asian Alliance failed. It was from this turn of events onwards since July 2005 that President Bush got into the act of enticing India into the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Agreement, which would help India to get out of the pariah status and step into the status of a full fledged Nuclear Weapons Power.

India on its part chose not to wholly tilt towards the US but kept its options open. New Delhi evolved a brand new foreign policy paradigm moving forward from Non Alignment to Multi Alignment.

Earlier on in an atmosphere of escalating suspicion and counter-suspicion, President Bill Clinton had made a decision to push the frontiers of NATO right up to Russia’s borders primarily riding on the back of the former Soviet satellites. This caused a great amount of anger and no less alarm in Moscow. President Bush pushed Clinton’s plan with greater determination. In this game plan, Ukraine and Georgia attracted Washington’s particular attention and has since made every effort to wean these two Republics of the former Soviet Union away from the sphere of influence of modern Russia. But it is easier said than done. Russia has special interest in both these countries. Two of the top leaders of the Soviet Union hailed from these parts. Joseph Stalin was a Georgian and Nikita Khrushchev was an Ukrainian. More than half of the population of Ukraine are ethnic Russians and two of the provinces of Georgia namely South Ossetia and Abkhazia are nearly 95 percent Russian. As the Georgian President Mikhael Shakaashvilli, reportedly with US support, under the cover of the Beijing Olympics invaded the enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russia reacted with a heavy military response launching a counter invasion and occupied these territories promptly granting them diplomatic recognition. The US remained a helpless onlooker, only French President Nicholas Sarkozy was allowed to hammer out a peace deal.

The US decision to station Strategic Missile Shields in Poland and the Czech Republic supposedly to defend the US against possible missile attacks coming from “rogue states” like Iran and North Korea was regarded by Moscow as unfriendly acts threatening Russia’s security. It will be naïve to think that Russia will allow this provocation to go un-responded. There have been media reports that Russia may consider stationing strategic missiles in Cuba and Venezuela in the backyard of the US and also in act of defiance extend assistance in civilian nuclear technology to Iran. The US can retaliate by throwing Moscow out of G-8 and prevent its membership of the WTO. There are other possibilities for causing harm to each other.

There can be any number of strategic compulsions or even incentives on both sides of the divide to re-launch a Cold War II but it can be argued that it is both self-defeating and counter-productive. What is the need for another arms race between the super-powers when vast numbers of people in the developing world are dying of poverty, hunger or malnutrition, suffering from lack of basic health facilities and education, and so on. Russia can use its vast oil wealth to improve the standards of living of its people. Is the West once again committing the same old strategic mistake as it did mid-course in its War on Terror? The Afghanistan war was not won yet and in a fit of indecent haste, Washington and London decided, mid-campaign, to open a second front in Iraq. The results are there for all to see. Militarily overstretched by a negative “teeth to tail ratio” the Western forces have been fighting the al Qaeda handicapped by under-equipment. Except for the recent surge in Iraq, the coalition forces are also faced with an unfavourable “force to task ratio” meaning that they have been mostly under-manned against the tasks at hand. The result: the war of attrition in Iraq degenerated into a security disaster of gargantuan proportions both for Iraq and the West while Afghanistan transformed itself into a security challenge where the odds are heavily stacked against the coalition forces. The West’s war in Afghanistan is not only ideological, it is also a numbers game against which winning is no easy task. If the forces of militant Islam are able to defeat the US-led Coalition Forces in the battlefields of Afghanistan as they defeated the Soviet Union in the Afghan war of 1979-89, it could spell the end of what we have so far known as Western Civilisation.

The world might see more of Islamist triumphalism across frontiers

Any serious military strategist would tell you: First win the on-going War on Terror and only then go after other enemies, real or imaginary. This is nothing but elementary military calculation. I see no complication in this line of thinking? What Washington really needs most under the circumstance is Russia’s unflinching support and partnership in bringing the middle-eastern conflict to a successful conclusion first. There is no point in creating avoidable complications in the on-going conflict by forcing Moscow into becoming an enemy.

Why then the super-powers are ignoring these basic lessons of military strategy? This is perhaps because there is always the other side of the argument.

It is apparent that both the US and post-Soviet Russia recognise and believe that they need powerful enemies and confronting them opens the doors wide open to high research and development that helps them reach out to the frontiers of science and technology. Karl Marx had said that it is conflict that drives all human progress. How right he was! Can anybody deny that it was during the period of the 45 years of the Cold War that the world saw the most unprecedented developments in science and technology, which helped producing the most remarkable progress in human condition. Make no mistake that the world had also seen great progress in the fields of science and technology in the short periods of the conflict both during WW1 ( 1914-18 ) and WW2 ( 1939-45 ).

The people who go through the devastations of war suffer enormously but their sons and daughters who survive reap the fruits of technological innovations achieved by their forbears in so short a time. The autobahns (motorways) and the Volkswagen (peoples car) in Germany – to give only two examples - were products of WW2. The fall out from the advancement of military technology on both sides of the divide have vastly augmented the comforts of life for later generations. Advances made in aviation and aeronautical engineering, automobile engineering, space sciences, computer technology and so on are examples, which are there before our eyes for all to see.

The unfortunate thing is that unduly long interregnums of peace have the hidden potential of wiping out some of the sign posts of progress – both scientific and economic – that was achieved in the preceding periods of conflicts. Peace tends to kill research and development, produces economic downturns and therefore creates roadblocks to future progress. In fact it creates conditions of regression.

I wish to conclude this piece with a note on the latent power of money and how the lack of it leads to collapse of ambition among nations. Money generates giant dollops of hubris among nations and plays a powerful role in the shaping of their aggressive security policies. As and when the in-flow of money into the coffers of the major nations of the world begins to wane, the potential for conflict also recedes along with it.

Thus in the current financial turmoil that the world is going through, both Russia and America have suffered such enormous losses that they are already showing signs of exhaustion and fatigue. As the oil prices tumbled from the peak price of $149 per barrel to just under $96, Russia is deeply caught up in a sense of doom and gloom. Vladimir Putin, the Russian Prime Minister has gone on record saying that Russia does not want the return of the Cold War.

The US too has fallen well and truly into the worst of times with the collapse of its financial systems. The nationalisation of the giant mortgage lenders Fannie May and Fredie Mac; the government bail out of the insurance giant AIG which was in fact another piece of nationalisation by the back door; the rescue of Meryl Lynch by the Bank of America was a disaster averted by the skin of ones teeth and finally the collapse of the “previously-thought-unsinkable” financial giant Lehman Brothers have together shaken and stirred America to its roots. The world is waiting with bated breath to hear from the US President George W Bush something similar to what Putin has just said. Whether he says it or not, we can be pretty much sure at least for some time to come none of the superpowers will be talking of war.

The Cold War is now well and truly confined to the Cold Storage. At least for the time being.

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