• Vahram Abadjian

Cold War II

Abstract: Following a decade of euphoria that lasted from the collapse of the Soviet Union to the collapse of Twin Towers, international relations have been witnessing a new era of Cold War. The article draws parallels between the doctrine of Truman and the doctrine of Putin, opining that in both cases what triggered confrontation was the apprehension about the opposite side’s security threats stemming from expansionism. Furthermore, beneath political, military, economic components, there is a deeper crisis-generating ideological layer, which has a decisive impact on the outcome of confrontation. Just as the disintegration of the Soviet Union occurred as a result of communist ideology’s decay, liberal democracy and international rules-based order’s decay will bring about the end of Cold War II. Thereafter, one should hardly expect a new tide of international solidarity and shared values’ dominance as was the case after Cold War I. Instead, there is a high probability that China may pretend to world hegemony through its spectacular achievements and increasingly important role in world affairs, driven by its doctrine of Community of Shared Future of Mankind.


Bottom-line-up-front: While Cold War I was about confrontation between liberal democracy and communism, Cold War II is about confrontation between the “Alliance of Democracies” and the ”Alliance of Dictatorships”.


Problem statement: By transcending internationally acknowledged standards of human rights and fundamental freedoms, the modern European values have risen above the level of universal acceptability. How has this phenomenon brought about the emergence of illiberal democracies, populist leaders and extreme right political parties from within and harsh resistance from without?


So what?: There is a high probability that unlike the outcome of Cold War I, none of the major opposing powers, neither the West nor Russia, will be able to achieve victory in Cold War II. Rather, supported by increasing political, military, economic power and, more importantly, driven by coherent ideology China will have enough potential to upstage them and appear on the world’s geopolitical scene as the main protagonist.


Source: shutterstock.com/Boris15

The Decade of Euphoria


With the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, an entire historical period of harsh confrontation between the two superpowers, the US and the Soviet Union, dubbed Cold War, came to an end. The Charter of Paris for a New Europe, adopted at the Summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE, then CSCE) participating States in 1990, heralded a new era of international solidarity and harmony, promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms, commitment to establish a world free of war and conflicts.[1]


Thirty years after the adoption of the document, the overall perception is that the Cold War is no more than a phenomenon that belongs to history. Despite many turns of events: political, military, economic confrontations since then - international relations have acquired the features of multilateralism with functioning rules-based inter-governmental organizations, vibrant civil society and priority of human rights over state interests. This is in full conformity with the principles of liberal internationalism.


Indeed, the next decade seemed to justify the expectations that after two devastating world wars and the Cold War, the international community could finally speak with a single voice and find effective solutions to the most difficult situations thanks to solidarity and shared values.

That is not to say that the decade of 1990 – 2000 did not witness any wars and conflicts. Suffice to mention the bloodshed and human suffering caused by the devastating war in the aftermath of the collapse of Yugoslavia. However, the great powers, and the international community as such, were able to demonstrate mutual understanding to translate their determination into real action, sometimes even imposing their will by coercion. Thus, the American brokered Dayton agreement that put an end to the Yugoslav war enjoyed the full support of the UN Security Council.[2]


Indeed, the next decade seemed to justify the expectations that after two devastating world wars and the Cold War, the international community could finally speak with a single voice and find effective solutions to the most difficult situations thanks to solidarity and shared values.

Unfortunately, the prevailing euphoria about the unanimity and solidarity of the international community was short-lived. The proclaimed determination of world leaders to share common values based on noble principles of human dignity, development, peace and prosperity lasted roughly one decade to only give way to harsh confrontation tantamount to a new era of Cold War.


U-Turn over Atlantic and 9/11


24 March 1999 was the day when the first crack appeared on the building of shared values and international solidarity. It was the day when the Russian Prime Minister Yevgeni Primakov, having learned about the imminent airstrikes of Yugoslavia by NATO, decided to cancel his visit to America and ordered that a U-Turn be made back to Moscow right over the Atlantic Ocean. Primakov’s indignation and the brusque decision were triggered not that much by NATO airstrikes, as by the fact that Russia considered them as a breach of the norms of international law.[3]


The second considerable crack appeared on 11 September 2001 due to the terrorist attack on World Trade Center in New York. The American reaction was declaring ‘War on Terror’ followed by military interventions, first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq. The aftermath of 9/11 led to growing discord between the major protagonists to the extent that even within the EU, there was no unanimity over those American-led military interventions.[4]


A final and decisive blow to the post-Cold War world order was struck after Putin assumed power on the last day of 1999. While Putin’s predecessor Yeltsin was rather complacent in relations with the former Soviet Republics, let alone the West, Putin came up with a diametrically opposite approach. Internally, Putin was determined to consolidate his power through building up a strong control vertical. Externally, his foreign political ambitions stemmed from the idea of the gradual restoration of Russia’s influence: first, over the former Soviet Union states, then, wherever feasible, globally. As compared to Yeltsin’s policy, this was a real U-turn, a drastic strategic shift equivalent to a doctrine that has been shaping Russian foreign political principles and approaches since the beginning of the new millennium.


Internally, Putin was determined to consolidate his power through building up a strong control vertical. Externally, his foreign political ambitions stemmed from the idea of the gradual restoration of Russia’s influence: first, over the former Soviet Union states, then, wherever feasible, globally.

The Truman Doctrine


Cold War I also started with a drastic strategic shift when President Truman proclaimed cardinally new foreign political approaches in his 1947 address before a joint session of Congress. What was the incentive and driving force behind the Truman doctrine? It was the apprehension that communist ideology might have a domino effect and, as the Cold War architect, Under- then-Secretary of State Dean Acheson has said ‘like apples in a barrel infected by one rotten one, the corruption of Greece [by the communist regime] would infect Iran and all to the east. It would also carry infection to Africa through Asia Minor and Egypt, and Europe through Italy and France.’[5]


Exaggerated as it might seem from today’s standpoint, the American administration was absolutely right in its assessment of imminent danger emanating from the Soviet Union. The danger came not from the communist hegemon’s military or economic power, seriously weakened as a result of the vast human and material losses during the war, but from the potential spread of Marxist-Leninist ideology with the establishment of communist regimes in some Western European countries with a spillover effect as a consequence. The Americans were concerned not only about the possibility of communist upheaval in Greece and the Soviet Union’s pressure on Turkey over the Dardanelles Strait. This was the immediate reason for adopting a new foreign political strategy. Moreover, they were also concerned about the prominent roles and popularity that the Communist Parties enjoyed, in particular, in France and Italy, where in early post-war years they were part of the government. It seemed that Marxist globalism had never been so close to the realization of its dream of world revolution as at that particular juncture.


It is exactly in this light that one should interpret the ground-breaking strategic decisions that cemented the Euro-Atlantic political, military and economic ties, such as the Marshall plan followed by the establishment of NATO. Initiated as a bulwark to stop the spread of communism, they shored up the West’s efforts to prove its political, military and economic superiority and finally win the Cold War I. However, the disintegration of the Soviet Union can hardly be explained by the Western pressure or arms race alone, nor is it entirely due to the Soviet administrative-command system of economy or bureaucratization of state apparatus. Undoubtedly, all these factors played a role in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the communist system as a whole. Nevertheless, the underlying reason was the erosion of the communist ideology, which could not be adapted to new realities.


However, the disintegration of the Soviet Union can hardly be explained by the Western pressure or arms race alone, nor is it entirely due to the Soviet administrative-command system of economy or bureaucratization of state apparatus.

The Putin Doctrine


By the time of Putin’s assumption of power, Russia had lost much of its international standing and influence in most of the newly independent ex-Soviet republics. Internally, he inherited an economy dominated by oligarchic structures and mainly based on the export of natural resources.


Unlike his predecessor, Putin saw in the EU’s enlargement and NATO’s expansion a permanent source of tensions and danger to Russia’s territorial integrity, security and even existence. Thus, as was the case with post-war America, Putin’s strategic foreign political shift decision was based on fear and apprehension with the only difference being that the protagonists had switched sides.


In his famous 2007 Munich speech, the Russian president expressed discontent with Western attempts to build international relations on the principles of unipolarity, bypass the UN Security Council and change the OSCE balanced approaches in their favour. He reiterated Russia’s commitment to be part of global security architecture and called on the international community to unanimously face the new challenges to international peace and security.[6]


Although it is difficult to find in Putin’s speech bellicose stance and animosity, his mere criticism of unipolarity and non-respect for the UN Security Council was perceived by many politicians and pundits as the beginning of a new era of confrontation.[7] Senator McCain best formulated the quintessence of Western counter-criticism and accusation: ‘Moscow must understand that it cannot enjoy a genuine partnership with the West so long as its actions at home and abroad conflict so fundamentally with the core values of Euro-Atlantic democracies. In today’s multipolar world, there is no place for needless confrontation, and I would hope that Russian leaders understand this truth.’[8]


From that time onward, the ever-widening gap between the Euro-Atlantic Alliance and Russia exacerbated the tensions so considerably that they morphed into harsh confrontation behind which one could see the unmistakable features of a new Cold War.


‘Moscow must understand that it cannot enjoy a genuine partnership with the West so long as its actions at home and abroad conflict so fundamentally with the core values of Euro-Atlantic democracies. In today’s multipolar world, there is no place for needless confrontation, and I would hope that Russian leaders understand this truth.’

A New Cold War


The logic of confrontation became a permanent conflict-generating factor. As mentioned above, the Putin doctrine aimed at restoring Russia’s sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union countries, then regaining the status of superpower. It is true that the latest Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation underlines only the need ‘to consolidate the Russian Federation’s position as a centre of influence in today’s world’[9], and Putin has, on several occasions, stated that Russia did not have any superpower ambitions.[10] Nevertheless, its expansionist behaviour testifies to the contrary.


Whether this expansionism is due to the revival of former imperial ambitions or is a reaction to NATO’s expansion is difficult to determine. By the same token, it is hard to say whether the American determination to ‘support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation … by outside pressures’[11] was the genuine motivation of the US foreign policy formulated several decades ago by President Truman. It may also be that the strategy stemmed from a quite natural necessity of self-defence, or put it bluntly, fear that Russia might really make a breakthrough on the way of its strategic ambitions’ realization.


In any case, soon after Putin’s Munich speech, the events started unfolding in strict conformity with the Cold War logic of harsh confrontation, sometimes deteriorating into open conflict. There is plenty of evidence to that: 2008 - war between Russia and Western-backed Georgia, followed by diplomatic recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia by Russia; 2014 - war between Russia and Ukraine, followed by restoration of Russian authority over Crimea, and unresolved conflict in Donbas with a serious escalation potential; 2018 – “velvet revolution” in Armenia with an assumption of power by Western-oriented forces; 2020 – confrontation between the West and Russia over the controversial presidential election in Belarus; 2020 – Second War between Armenia and Azerbaijan; ceasefire brokered by Russia, followed by the deployment of Russian troops in Nagorno Karabakh; OSCE Minsk group upstaged by Russia and Turkey.


These events testify to the increasingly tense atmosphere of confrontation between Russia and the West, with Russia attempting to restore its influence over its former periphery, and the West trying to create a sanitary cordon around Russia to contain the latter’s ambitions.

It goes without saying that all these events have occurred, first of all, due to internal factors, such as widespread dissatisfaction by peoples of those countries with their oligarchic rulers. However, the external factor has played no less important role. The confrontation has spread over into other world regions, such as Syria and Libya, or elsewhere, over Nord Stream 2.


Far from being separate sporadic events, they stemmed from the same logic and underlying conflict-generating causes, demonstrating time and again the nefarious spirit of the Cold War.


The Opposite Poles


A major characteristic of Cold War is the existence of superpowers with conflicting ideology and geostrategic interests. Indeed, during Cold War I, the world order was based on a balance of power and deterrence between the United States and the Soviet Union. On the surface, the confrontation was about military superiority, economic growth, a struggle for spheres of influence, scientific and cultural achievements. At a deeper level, however, that was a confrontation between ideologies of liberal democracy and communism.


The question is whether the same features characterize cold War II? Whether or not superpowers are balancing and deterring each other, and if so, whether they are endowed with ideological foundation? In other words, is it possible to affirm that multipolarity/multilateralism (or unipolarity, depending on interpretation) that has dominated the world order during the decade of euphoria has given way to bipolarity?


The issue is complex and multi-layered, and the format of this paper does not allow for a comprehensive analysis. Nevertheless, an attempt should be done to substantiate its main thesis.


During the decade of euphoria (1900-2000), the international community made tremendous efforts to revitalize joint action to mitigate, if not eliminate, global security threats. The disintegration of the communist system and the triumph of liberal democracy, which seemed to be irreversible, instilled hopes about solidarity and unhindered functioning of intergovernmental, multilateral institutions. Whether multilateralism has ever functioned or was just a smokescreen to hide American hegemony should be subject to another in-depth analysis. For this paper, what matters is that the Cold War was over.


However, as argued above, with the Putin doctrine and Russia’s practical steps aimed at its implementation, the unipolar/multipolar world order was called into question. Admittedly, Russia does not seem to have reached the necessary military or economic potential to become an equally significant counterweight to the West. Furthermore, the Putin doctrine is not based on Russia’s political attractiveness but mere military force. Its economy is still oriented toward energy export and Yeltsin’s oligarchic system. Rather than being dismantled, it has been even further enhanced, the only exception being that old faces of kakistocrats have been replaced by new ones. Moreover, after the collapse of the communist ideology, the vacuum was not filled up with any other ideology, any other scale of values, leaving the Russian expansionism deprived of a powerful driving force.


Notwithstanding all these weaknesses, Russia may well be considered a geostrategic pole opposing America’s role as a world hegemon.

Not only because Russia is determined to defend its interests and has enough means to do so, but, first and foremost, because the American-led Western dominance seems to be in decline.


Alliance of Democracies vs Alliance of Dictatorships


In his inaugural address, President Biden has underlined ‘[that] we will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again’.[12] This has been interpreted by many as a clear signal that America is coming back to reinvigorate liberal world vision and provide a powerful leadership to democratic forces in their struggle against authoritarianism.[13] There are ongoing discussions on a new division of the world between liberal democracies and dictatorships, and even forming an ‘alliance of dictatorships’.[14] Doesn’t all this remind the vocabulary, the mentality and the spirit of the Cold War? Before, the confrontation lay along with the dividing line between liberal and communist systems. At present, the line goes between the alliances of democracy and dictatorship.


The question is if liberal democracy alliances need repair, and if new alliances, as we will see below, should be created to face challenges, doesn’t that signify that liberal internationalism with its rules-based order and multilateralism has been seriously weakened and may become dysfunctional?


Furthermore, two major sources have been identified and usually pointed to as significant threats to liberal democracy: externally, these are the repressive authoritarian states and, internally, the illiberal democracies. However, in both cases, the blame is put on foreign elements, as if nothing inherently wrong had happened to the idea of liberal democracy itself. Meanwhile, just as the primary reason for the Soviet Union’s collapse was the erosion of Marxist-Leninist ideology, the underlying cause of the foreseeable decline of the West is the erosion of its ideological basis, liberalism. The illiberal democracy phenomenon has not appeared from thin air in Europe to undermine the EU solidarity and concerted action from inside. Just the contrary, it is due to the erosion of liberal values that the illiberal democracies, extreme right politicians and populism have emerged. In particular, that was a reaction to liberal democracy’s attempt to transcend human rights and fundamental freedoms, as enshrined in UN international instruments, to the extent that the Western standards rose too high to be accepted universally. The attempt to project those standards worldwide has little, if any, chance of succeeding because of the gap between them and universal human rights standards acknowledged by the world community. This is, perhaps, a major, though hardly perceptible, crisis- and confrontation-generating factor.


Meanwhile, just as the primary reason for the Soviet Union’s collapse was the erosion of Marxist-Leninist ideology, the underlying cause of the foreseeable decline of the West is the erosion of its ideological basis, liberalism.

Unlike Cold War I, which ended with the victory of one of the superpowers, none of the currently opposing poles, neither the West nor Russia will prevail at the end of Cold War II. There is a high probability that another great power, China, will dominate the ensuing unipolar/multilateral world.


The Chinese Factor


Obviously, the West is seriously preoccupied with China’s impressive economic, scientific, technological progress and its increasing influence over decision-making processes in economic, trade and political questions of global importance. NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has distinguished himself with a particular zeal, indicating the imminent threats emanating from China and suggesting new initiatives to face them. Thus, in a recent interview, while stressing the military dependency of the European Union from America, he added that ‘close transatlantic alliance was essential to meet growing challenges posed by China’.[15] Stoltenberg went so far as to state that ‘the military alliance should reach out to other countries that are confronted with China’s rise, naming Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand’, and suggesting the creation of a community of like-minded democracies.[16]


That initiative attempts to project the logic of American-led Western strategy to create an “Alliance of democracies” along the periphery of Russia over another region and vis-à-vis another emerging geostrategic rival. As Jessica Chen Weiss has underlined, "In Washington, the pendulum has swung from a consensus supporting engagement with China to one calling for competition or even containment in a new Cold War, driven in part by concerns that an emboldened China is seeking to spread its own model of domestic and international order”.[17]


Indeed, China’s achievements and increasing political influence are only the visible side of its power. These factors may sweep the country to world hegemony, provided they are based on solid ideological ground. It is not by chance that the Chinese leadership has formulated such an ideology and actively propagates it. The modern Chinese ideology is a mixture of three, at first sight, contradictory components: Marxism-Leninism; economic pragmatism; and traditionalism that does not exclusively refer to Confucianism but rather to a combination of all schools of ancient Chinese thought.[18] It is from that ideological mixture that stems the doctrine of Community of Shared Future of Mankind. President of China Xi Jinping devoted his statement at the 70th session of the UN General Assembly to that doctrine, whose major elements are: building partnerships on equal footing and mutual understanding; security architecture based on shared benefits; open, innovative and inclusive development; inter-civilization exchanges and respect for differences; putting mother nature and green development first.[19]


"In Washington, the pendulum has swung from a consensus supporting engagement with China to one calling for competition or even containment in a new Cold War, driven in part by concerns that an emboldened China is seeking to spread its own model of domestic and international order”.

Another prevailing element of the Chinese approach is the importance given to the UN, international organizations, opposing the Chinese understanding of multilateralism to ‘the so-called “rules-based international order” … [which] is not clear in its meaning, as it reflects the rules of a few countries and does not represent the will of the international community’.[20]


To understand the deeply rooted causes of China’s rise, one should not gloss over the doctrine of Community of Shared Future of Mankind. Coupled with material achievements, it might have the spiritual potential of underpinning Chinese aspiration to take up leadership in world affairs to implement the doctrine’s lofty ideas and aspirations … or use them as a springboard to realize hegemonic ambitions.


Dr Vahram Abadjian is an independent international affairs analyst. Previously he has been involved with UN peacekeeping operations and UNDP, as well as OSCE, EU and NGOs in MENA, the Sahel, the Balkans, Central Asia and East Europe. His research interests include international peace and security, conflict prevention and resolution, democratization, development, dialogue of civilizations. Dr Abadjian has authored analytical articles, most recently, on the critical developments in Armenia and Belarus. The views contained in this article are the author’s alone.


[1] “Charter of Paris for a New Europe,” adopted at the meeting of the Heads of State or Government of the participating States of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE), Paris, 19-21 Nov. 1990, https://www.osce.org/files/f/documents/0/6/39516.pdf.

[2] See, for instance, UN Security Council Resolution 1026 of 30 Nov. 1995, https://undocs.org/S/RES/1026(1995).

[3] See: „Лавров заявил, что «разворот над Атлантикой» не был попыткой повысить напряженность в мире“, TASS News Agency, 28 Oct. 2019, https://tass.ru/politika/7055319.

[4] In particular, French and German governments were against the intervention, as well as the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who considered it illegal. See: “Iraq war illegal, says Annan,” BBC, 16 Sept. 2004, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3661134.stm.

[5] This is a fragment of Dean Acheson’s statement during a meeting of President Truman with leading senators and members of Congress, 27 Feb. 1947. Quotation from “Cold Warriors – Dean Acheson”, American Foreign Relations, https://www.americanforeignrelations.com/A-D/Cold-Warriors-Dean-acheson.html.

[6] Vladimir Putin, “Speech and the Following Discussion at the Munich Conference on Security Policy,” 10 Feb. 2007, Official web site of the President of the Russian Federation, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/24034.

[7] See, for instance, “Russia: Washington Reacts to Putin’s Munich Speech,” Radio Free Europe, 13 Feb.2007, https://www.rferl.org/a/1074671.html.

[8] Quotation from: Rob Watson, “Putin’s speech: Back to cold war?,” BBC, 10 Feb. 2007, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/6350847.stm.

[9] “Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation (approved by President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin on November 30, 2016),” Official web site of the President of the Russian Federation, 1 Dec. 2016, https://www.mid.ru/en/foreign_policy/official_documents/-/asset_publisher/CptICkB6BZ29/content/id/2542248.

[10] See, for instance, “Putin: Russia is not aspiring to superpower status, just wants to be respected,” Russia Today, 19 June 2015, https://www.rt.com/news/268387-putin-russia-petersburg-forum/.

[11] “Address of the President of the United States delivered before a joint session of the Senate and the House of Representatives, recommending assistance to Greece and Turkey,” 12 March 1947, https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc_large_image.php?flash=false&doc=81.

[12] “Inaugural Address by President Joseph R. Biden, Jr.,” The White House, 20 Jan. 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/01/20/inaugural-address-by-president-joseph-r-biden-jr/.

[13] See for instance, Jamie Shea, “The alliance of democracies: is it feasible? Is it sensible,” Friends of Europe, 19 Feb. 2021, https://www.friendsofeurope.org/insights/the-alliance-of-democracies-is-it-feasible-is-it-sensible/; Nicolas Tenzer, “Europe must push Joe Biden’s ‘alliance of democracies’,” The Conversation, 12 April 2021, https://theconversation.com/europe-must-push-joe-bidens-alliance-of-democracies-158735.

[14] Nicolas Tenzer, “Europe must push…”.

[15] Hans von der Burchard, “EU and US need each other to handle rise of China, says NATO’s Stoltenberg,” Politico, 7 Dec. 2020, https://www.politico.eu/article/eu-and-us-need-each-other-to-deal-with-rise-of-china-says-nato-secretary-general-jens-stoltenberg/.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Jessica Chen Weiss, “A World Safe for Autocracy? China’s Rise and the Future of Global Politics,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2019.

[18] Yan Xuetong, “Chinese Values vs. Liberalism: What Ideology Will Shape the International Normative Order?,” The Chinese Journal of International Politics, 2018, 1-22.

[19] Xi Jinping, “Working Together to Forge a New Partnership of Win-Win Cooperation and Create a Community of Shared Future for Mankind,” Statement at the UN General Debate of the 70th Session of the UN General Assembly, New York, 28 Sept. 2015, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjdt_665385/zyjh_665391/t1305051.shtml

[20] “Wang Yi holds Talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov,” Official web site of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, 23 March 2021, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/t1863858.shtml.


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