When it comes to relations between Donald Trump’s America, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and Xi Jinping’s China, observers everywhere are starting to talk about a return to an all-too-familiar past. “Now we have a new Cold War,” commented Russia expert Peter Felgenhauer in Moscow after President Trump recently announced plans to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The Trump administration is “launching a new Cold War,” said historian Walter Russell Mead in the Wall Street Journal, following a series of anti-Chinese measures approved by the president in October. And many others are already chiming in.
Recent steps by leaders in Washington, Moscow, and Beijing may seem to lend credence to such a “new Cold War” narrative, but in this case history is no guide. Almost two decades into the twenty-first century, what we face is not some mildly updated replica of last century’s Cold War, but a new and potentially even more dangerous global predicament.
The original Cold War, which lasted from the late 1940s until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, posed a colossal risk of thermonuclear annihilation. At least after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, however, it also proved a remarkably stable situation in which, despite local conflicts of many sorts, the United States and the Soviet Union both sought to avoid the kinds of direct confrontations that might have triggered a mutual catastrophe. In fact, after confronting the abyss in 1962, the leaders of both superpowers engaged in a complex series of negotiations leading to substantial reductions in their nuclear arsenals and agreements intended to reduce the risk of a future Armageddon.
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