A New Cold War
The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 marked the end of the Cold War, and it seemed the end of ideologically driven global conflicts. Thirty years later, there is little doubt that a new ideologically-based Cold War is appearing with the US and China as the principal symbolic opponents.
This assertion is not to dismiss the economic competition and security issues driving contemporary antagonisms but there also needs to be a clear recognition of the centrality of ideology. Not least because the ideological “driver” is now the attachment of the US/West to an absolutist interpretation of “Enlightenment” political values, rather than the communist ideology of the Soviet Union that dominated the 1947 to 1991 conflict. Indeed, since the end of the Cold War the US has sought to both extend its geopolitical influence and increasingly export this value system. With the latter coming increasingly to the fore in the brewing conflict with China and made explicit with the issuing in 2020 of the US Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China.
The ideological divide in the new Cold War is one of a liberal-individualist, neo-liberal market capitalist ideology, promulgated as a world order by the US, though resisted by many countries and regions. This ideology is intellectually challengeable, though its proponents appear incapable of appreciating this possibility.
The US/Western ideology is usually couched in terms of “values”. This phrasing in terms of values is less confrontational, though it is still ideological in content. Whatever the intrinsic merits of its political position, it is being advocated in an absolutist manner. The lessons from establishing a stark ideological global conflict are obvious from the first Cold War and its continuing negative aftermath, lives are still lost and damaged in cold wars, especially where “proxy” military wars have been fought.
There are other dimensions to the “enlightenment” model proposed by the US, relating to, principally, the rule of law, the free expression of opinion, and systems of electoral democracy for which there may be prima facie support. These issues clearly have merit. Nonetheless, it is not unreasonable to suggest that in these dimensions also there is room for doubt, difference, and debate.
There are those who want to view the growing conflicts in the world, for instance, with China, absented from issues of security and of values. This is not only a “counsel of perfection”, but is both unrealistic and dangerous, failing to tackle the root causes of the conflicts.
There are three main issues. First, the proselytization of these values, especially by the US, threatens the stability of a changing world order.
Second, absolutist ideological confrontations are dangerous and damaging. They feed a sense of an unbridgeable division that leads to both civilian and military conflict and to both communal damage and loss of lives. These dangers are intensified in a world in which several nations possess nuclear weapons.
Third, underlying, effectively intellectual/philosophical differences, should be resolved, not by political and military conflicts, but instead by dialogue and diplomacy. These are issues that should not be reserved to governmental political elites. They require to be the subject of wider and deeper discourse by the academy and by citizens.
Finally, it should be understood that there is no absolutist value set, either religious, philosophical, or political, that can be declared to be superior to others. Rather is there a need for a perennial dialogue that seeks a consensus, enabling human groupings, at whatever level, to live together in relative harmony, while continually seeking acceptable compromises is all areas of societal interaction and inevitable conflicts.
Dr Michael Lloyd is a Senior Research Fellow at the Global Policy Institute, London and co-authored a book on the Re-emergence of China, published in 2021.
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