Remember the Cold War? We basically spent half a century on the precipice of worldwide nuclear annihilation. Well, like it or not, the Cold War is back. In fact, it never really ended.
Russia is invading old Soviet countries. China has put a robot on the moon. North Korea is the prime suspect in an enormous theft of documents over an American movie that ridicules its leader. Space Espionage! Military provocation! It’s like the world’s most terrifying episode of That 70s Show.
That’s not news; the New Cold War even has its own Wikipedia page now. People are hosting international conferences with names “The Second Cold War: Heating Up?” But what’s interesting to me is how many parallels exist between the first Cold War and the one we’re in now.
In reality, that’s largely because the first Cold War never actually ended. It might have adopted some shiny new technologies, different borders, and a slightly different cast, but it’s definitely a show we’ve seen in some version before.
Below, a look at some of the similarities to Cold War I, and what that might mean for Cold War II. Best case scenario: We don’t blow up the entire world this time, either.
We’re still fighting proxy wars (at least in words)
The common wisdom about the Cold War is that the United States and the Soviet Union never actually attacked each other. But that’s not exactly true. The first Cold War was all about proxy wars. Sometimes very hot proxy wars, like the ones in Korea and Vietnam. There were also countless smaller proxy wars in Hungary, the Philippines, Cuba and Ghana, just to name a few.
The US hasn’t officially gone after Russian interests directly, aside from some sanctions that were imposed after Putin took Crimea. But our allies certainly are making their displeasure known publicly. For example, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper told Putin at the G20: “I guess I’ll shake your hand, but I have only one thing to say to you: you need to get out of Ukraine.”
The new battle lines are being drawn, with countries like China, Syria, North Korea, and Iran aligning with Russia. Meanwhile countries like Australia, Japan, Germany, South Korea, Canada and the UK have aligned with the United States.
There’s been a real human cost as well; downing of a Malaysia Airlines jet over Ukraine this past July killed 298 people, showing how messy the New Cold War could become if things get hot again. And just last month Russia conducted a surprise military readiness drill, mobilising about 9,000 troops and over 600 vehicles. These weren’t some run of the mill exercises either. They came baring nukes.
South Korea has also ramped up its military strength in preparation, purchasing RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance drones for $US657 million in December. And today the US and South Koreans are conducting anti-submarine warfare drills off South Korea’s coast.
So no, our New Cold War hasn’t yet turned very hot. But that could change pretty quickly. While the US and Russia will continue to throw their weight around with bluster, the best barometer for Cold War preparedness might be to watch the allies arm up.
Sputnik 2.0: Satellites, mysterious and otherwise
Remember that aeroplane that vanished without a trace back in March, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370? Nine months later, we still haven’t found the plane. But it did prove one thing about the New Cold Warriors: Its participants have plenty of all-seeing eyes in the sky.
It may seem incidental, but the MH370 tragedy gave New Cold War states on both sides a unique opportunity to show off a bit. For over two weeks, China repeatedly released images of debris in the ocean that turned out to be nothing. Australia followed suit, releasing satellite images of suspected plane debris way before it had been verified as anything related to the crash.
They never found that plane, but both countries (real economic up and comers in the New Cold War) did prove that they possessed sophisticated technology that could see random shit from space.
Satellites are as vital as ever. And even consumer-focused technologies that depend on satellites, like GPS and earth mapping software, have their origins in American intelligence and defence agencies. Google Earth, for example, was funded by the CIA from its earliest days.
Satellites were also an absolutely crucial element of the first Cold War. Back in 1957 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, unofficially kicking off the second decade of the Cold War with a tiny beeping satellite. Americans were terrified that this new capability meant that the Soviets could soon see, hear, and bomb anywhere in US territory. Nowhere was safe. And instilling that feeling in the enemy was precisely the point of the first Cold War space race.
That’s not so different from mysterious Russian satellites and strange American space planes landing after two years in orbit, which keep that heightened tension alive. We are watching, and we are being watched.
There’s a new space race. Kind of.
Just as New Cold War has entered the national lexicon, New Space Race has become an emerging term. The Americans are cutting their dependance on Russian rockets to get to the International Space Station, awarding contracts to American companies like Boeing and SpaceX.
NASA keeps talking about putting humans back on the moon. Russia wants cosmonauts there by the 2020s. NASA raises the ante by hyping manned Mars missions. And so on. But there are plenty of new actors in the Cold War II space race redux.
Take North Korea, as one example. Sure, its space agency logo is a direct rip-off of NASA. And when I posted about their space program readers thought it was an April Fool’s joke. But the country has real ambitions to make a name for itself in outer space. Or at least, a better one.
China even landed on the moon last year! Sure, the Jade Rabbit rover may not have been as impressive as the robots Americans are putting on Mars. But it’s a whole new world of space exploration, and the battle lines are being drawn up in the sky as much as they are here on Earth.
Everybody’s deporting spies, but we can’t call them spies
Last month, the United States released Cuban spies captured in Florida in exchange for an American spy who has been held for almost twenty years. Another American, Alan Gross, was supposedly released incidentally; the US government claims he was just an innocent man trying to bring internet equipment to Cuba. The American media doesn’t want to call Gross a spy, but if the roles were reversed and he were a Cuban in the US, we’d call him exactly that.
And thus goes the tricky world of New Cold War espionage. Every news organisation has to dance around the language of their own country’s spies getting caught in the act. And normalised relations with Cuba are doing little more than bringing diplomacy to the level we have with nearly every other Cold War adversary like China and Russia.
Meanwhile, America is also deporting Russian spies, which makes Russia none too happy. don’t think we’re special; Germany and Sweden have noticed an uptick in covert intelligence gathering by Russian agents ever since the Ukrainian crisis began. Deportation is also far from a new thing; Back in 2010 a Russian spy ring was discovered in the United States, resulting in the deportation of eleven spies, who went on to receive top government honours when they returned to Russia.
Spy exchanges like this were a big deal during the first Cold War. And we couldn’t call them spies back then either. They were always innocent teachers or students just trying to learn about the Soviet Union.
The weird thing about spies is that they operate under a certain amount of complicity under the government that they’re spying on. Often times the country being spied on will opt not to reveal that they know about spies in order to simply assess what kind of access the spies can gain. Look for a lot more spies getting caught on both sides of the New Cold War in the coming decade.
The propaganda machine is fully functional
The Soviets had a saying during the first Cold War to refute any American claim to greater freedoms in the United States: “And you are lynching Negroes.”
It was a constant refrain in the Soviet popular press and on the street. Different variations of “and you are lynching negroes” spread throughout the Soviet Union. One way that American media combated this attack was by making Soviet agents in American movies always racist and anti-semitic.
What’s today’s version? Take your pick. But much of it still has to do with race relations in the United States. And, in the other direction, Russia’s brutal oppression of its gay community. But there are plenty of other fights being instigated by other players.
North Korea chided the US after a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri failed to indict the police officer who shot and killed an unarmed black teenager. North Korea is even calling on the UN Security Council to investigate the CIA’s torture programs.
Americans, of course, can point to North Korea’s myriad human rights violations, Russia’s atrocious treatment of homosexuals, and China’s suppression of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and elsewhere — though the Americans are certainly less apt to directly call out large trade partners like China. Which is again, why countries like Canada and Australia are such important proxies.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott publicly stated that he was going to “shirtfront” Vladimir Putin (a word in Australian Rules Football for a rough tackle) when he met him at the G20 in Australia. How did Putin respond? By bringing warships and parking them off the Australian coast. Needless to say, Abbott didn’t shirtfront Putin.
“Are we in the middle of a new Cold War? Indeed we are,” former head of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev told Time magazine recently. “It’s as if a time of great troubles has arrived. The world is roiling,” he would say later. He would know.
Perhaps our absolute best case scenario is that this war at least stays more cold than hot. If not, we’ll all be back hiding under our desks in no time — one button-push away from total annihilation.
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