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Why we are competing in a new cold war

For several years, at least since Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea in 2014, strategists have invented new terminology in an attempt to conceptualise and explain the fundamental character of the changing geopolitical environment.

To begin with, the concept ‘hybrid conflict’, which had been used to describe the character of warfare in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, gained popularity. It was borrowed and mutated to explain the way Russia had utilised clandestine military forces – so-called ‘little green men’ – to take control of Crimea, while holding its main battle force in the rear to deter Ukraine from militarily responding to the invasion. It was then broadened to describe how Russia, as well as others, were combining military and non-military instruments, such as spreading disinformation, to achieve particular ends.

Around the same time, ‘non-linear warfare’ gained traction, to account for the fact that Russia appeared to see its offensives and interventions, in Moldova, Georgia, Ukraine and Syria, as ends in themselves. The Kremlin’s objective, it was claimed, was to foment division, intervene, and then explicitly ‘freeze’ the resulting conflict indefinitely, to the extent that Russia would gain permanent geopolitical leverage over the countries in which it had intervened.

Next, in January 2018, Sir Nicholas Carter, then Chief of the General Staff, introduced the concept of ‘grey area’ (later ‘grey zone’) conflict to account for how the character of geopolitical competition appeared to be changing. He noted that an era of ‘constant competition’ was taking hold where authoritarian ‘states have become masters at exploiting the seams between peace and war’. In response, the British general argued that free and open countries needed to enhance their resilience and close off areas of their societies, without harming their fundamental nature, to defend themselves better against aggression.

Return, ‘cold war’?

But do these terms merely reinvent the wheel? After all, a more accurate, and indeed, comprehensive, concept already exists in the English lexicon: cold war. This concept was first outlined in a strategic context by George Orwell in ‘You and the Atom Bomb’ in October 1945. In this essay, published shortly after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Orwell attempted to explain how the proliferation of nuclear weapons would alter geopolitical competition between the major powers.

He did not get everything right, but Orwell did realise that although nuclear weapons provided their owners with greater destructive power than ever before, they would also, paradoxically, deter nuclear-armed states from using military force against one another. Should such countries initiate open combat, conflict would almost certainly escalate until both were reduced to radioactive ruins (later known as ‘mutual assured destruction’). At the same time, Orwell understood that the Pax Atomica would not lead to a lasting, durable peace; instead, the greatest powers would merely compete with one another in subtler ways. It would result in what Orwell described as ‘a “peace that is no peace”’ – a ‘cold war’ – where nuclear-armed powers would compete to degrade and destroy one another while avoiding the threshold of open combat.

That said, it is important to understand that this new cold war, save for the continuity of the Pax Atomica, will be very different from the last.

Does this sound familiar? What is the difference between grey zone conflict and cold war? Indeed, a cold war by its very nature cannot but occur only in the grey area – between ‘peace’ and ‘war’. Moreover, a cold war is also a hybrid conflict – in every way. The (first) Cold War between the Western democracies and the Soviet Union was waged as much in the economic, technological, political and ideological domains, as it was in the military. A cold war also involves the deployment of military power (to dissuade rivals and deter nuclear adversaries) and military force (to engage nuclear adversaries indirectly in proxy conflicts). Further, ‘cold war’, unlike grey zone conflict, also incorporates the Pax Atomica – which has not subsided – and the continued importance of, and danger posed by, nuclear weapons.

The poverty of the new terminology

So, given its inherent descriptive strength, why have strategic analysts been so unprepared to reuse the concept of cold war to account for renewed geopolitical competition? Firstly, there is undoubtedly a reluctance to dust off a term which is loaded with the historical baggage of the Western democracies’ struggle with the Soviet Union in the latter part of the 20th century. Secondly, and more significantly, many analysts appear to have shied away from using the concept because it is predicated on an explicitly political, even fatalist, understanding of geopolitical competition which runs counter to the teleological neoliberal imaginary which gained traction, particularly in Europe, in the aftermath of the (first) Cold War.

These objections, however, are misguided. Save for the concept of non-linear warfare – which may have utility in specific cases – both hybrid and grey zone conflict are problematic concepts which emphasise the instruments and character and not the absolute political nature of competition. In this sense, the attempt to develop new concepts, besides telling us more about ourselves than it tells us about our opponents or the forms of conflict they have initiated, lulls strategists into a trap. The new concepts imply that analysts from free and open countries imagine that their authoritarian counterparts think like they do: for example, many British experts and policymakers thought, even as late as last year, that authoritarian states, for all their belligerence, were largely prepared to live within the rules-based international system and would not use wars of conquest to achieve their objectives.

Some countries see their counterparts as little more than enemies and explicitly aim to corrupt or destroy them to the extent that they bear little to no resemblance to what they looked like prior to the initiation of hostilities.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. As Russia has shown with its ‘special military operation’ against Ukraine, and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) with its disregard for international law and increasing threats towards Taiwan, authoritarian powers do not see themselves as being involved in a game with clearly defined rules where the various players respect their counterparts. Rather, some countries see their counterparts as little more than enemies and explicitly aim to corrupt or destroy them to the extent that they bear little to no resemblance to what they looked like prior to the initiation of hostilities. They seek to reshape the world in their own image and repress or destroy anything which stands in their way.

Implications for the next prime minister

By introducing innovative terms such as ‘intensifying geopolitical competition’ and ‘systemic competitors’, the Integrated Review, published in March 2021, began to acknowledge just how much the world had changed since 2014. Since then, the Kremlin has shown the extent to which it is prepared to go to achieve its objectives, and the PRC is not far behind. The United Kingdom (UK) is now facing not just systemic competitors in the form of countries such as Russia and the PRC, but existential opposition. The Kremlin and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) do not hide their objectives: both wish to end openness and degrade democracy; the Kremlin seeks to corrupt and dismantle the Euro-Atlantic system; and the CCP, empowered by the growing industrial might of the PRC, seeks to restructure the entire international order. This is why the UK is now locked not in a game but in an existential cold war where its rivals, even enemies, adhere to no rules.

That said, it is important to understand that this new cold war, save for the continuity of the Pax Atomica, will be very different from the last. While the (first) Cold War was also waged in a fully-closed global system, the different parts were still relatively disconnected. The digital revolution provides new technologies which inexpensively shrink space and time to the extent that narratives and discourse can be challenged, even reshaped, within minutes. The world is now far more interconnected and easier to influence. Similarly, while the previous cold war was concentrated in a single geopolitical theatre – the Euro-Atlantic – the new one is centred also, even primarily, on the Indo-Pacific.

Moreover, there are now at least two powerful opponents (the PRC and Russia), not one (the Soviet Union), even if the Russians are considerably less capable than the Chinese. Equally, unlike in the (first) Cold War, the dominant democracies – even the United States (US) – are in relative economic decline, while the enemies of freedom and openness are growing in infrastructural, economic and technological strength. Perhaps most importantly of all, the leading competitor – the PRC – is not artificially overinflated like the Soviet Union was in 1945. The Soviets were engaged in a holding operation during the last cold war; today, the CCP is attempting to expand in power and influence, similarly to Germany in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And, although new agreements such as AUKUS and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue are being formed, there is no alliance like the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to keep the democracies safe.

Britain is not the country it was at the start of the (first) Cold War, either. Back then it possessed a vast sovereign manufacturing base, a large battlefleet and air force, and a form of political willpower which had been shaped by the failure of appeasement prior the Second World War. If the UK is to survive this new cold war, which may last many decades, it ought to prepare itself. Britain needs clearer geostrategic thinking, a greater degree of ruthlessness, a new network of empowered alliances and new partnerships, and as an island state with numerous overseas territories in geostrategically significant locations, the sovereign and green technological and economic base from which to generate extensive naval power. In protecting British interests in this new cold war, the next prime minister will have their work cut out.

James Rogers is Co-founder and Director of Research at the Council on Geostrategy.

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