Are the world’s big powers heading for a second Cold War?

Ground crew checking up before a Glen Martin takes off on a raid, Jan. 4, 1941. (AP Photo)

Recent confrontations in Ukraine, Syria and the South China Sea suggest that the general alignment of big power interests and values that was celebrated after the Cold War, and through much of the post-9/11 era, is giving way to something less harmonious. In foreign and security policies, there’s renewed talk of proxy wars, spy-swaps, deterrence and coercive spheres of influence. Added to that, sanctions and other politically driven controls on economic activity are again being imposed as a tool of world order.

Are we moving back to a future of great-power rivalry? If so, should we dust off the Cold War playbook, or rewrite it altogether?

International relations after the Cold War

There are important differences between international relations of the Cold War era and today. Most obviously, ideological competition plays little or no role in driving today’s great-power competition. Capitalism won and free trade replaced autocracy. Borders opened to allow free movement of peoples, goods, investment and information. Military capabilities – both conventional and nuclear – were drawn down as peacekeeping and counter-insurgency operations, rather than great-power conflict, guided the new security doctrine, training and procurement. Technological innovation has changed and will continue to change the character of war, including how and where they are fought. For those of us too young to remember mutually assured destruction, it is hard to imagine any kind of political competition that would justify taking on the risks and commitments demanded of previous generations by the logic of collective defence.

If those dark days are behind us, why are so many of the rising economies increasing their military spending? And why is so much of that spending going on material designed for use against a great-power rival? If we’ve abandoned a world of empires, self-contained economic blocs and administrative controls, in favour of a system of global free trade, why has power moved from the World Trade Organization to regional institutions? Why is free expression via digital media increasingly threatened by state-sponsored programming, censorship, hacking and surveillance? If the answer to these questions is “security”, we should see to it that the application of such controls neither undermines the security benefits of interdependence nor produces new security dilemmas.

Aspects of today’s strategic competition resemble Cold War patterns, but there are one or two important differences. First, our world is now more multi-layered than multi-polar. The year 2014 has been described as an annus horribilis, with a convergence of events subjecting the global system to a very public stress test.

In hindsight, it can also be seen as the year we had to face up to the power and leadership vacuum for dealing with issues that have been growing over time and coalesced in 2014, perhaps amplified by technological innovation. The migration and refugee crisis is a clear testament to the loss of state control and the frailty of intergovernmental structures. State structure is challenged not just from outside, but also from below, aided by social media campaigns and a new hashtag-style democracy. Omnidirectional pressure on the state encourages leaders to delay dealing with some of the risks coming out of the current reconfiguration of international relations. As a more diverse distribution of power is changing the relationship between great powers, strong powers that show weak commitment find themselves challenged by materially weaker powers with stronger will.

The second difference is the loss of confidence in an assumption – which was at the heart of the Cold War – that shared values provide a basis for alliance. In a process that is accelerated and amplified by the pace of technological and digital innovation, globalization has undermined the notion that “common” values provide the coherence needed for collective security action. Mutual dependence in terms of deficit finance, energy and shared challenges like climate change make a strategy of containment difficult, but a lack of shared values is preventing a more coordinated approach.

A global paradox

The world’s most powerful fleets manoeuver ever closer in the Pacific, accompanied by the shrill rhetoric of sovereignty and international law, but the interdependence of the world’s economies erodes any gains to be made from a shooting war. The disconnect between this growing economic interdependence and the bellicosity being displayed by some has been termed the Asian Paradox, but it may apply more broadly. Europe, having largely disarmed itself over the past two and a half decades, struggles to deploy sanctions in response to Russian moves because links in energy and finance sectors are too strong.

The search for an alternative to armed conflict may intensify the geo-economic consequences of renewed great-power rivalry, as the logic of mutually assured destruction forces us to adopt other forms of coercion. Sanctions and blocs will obstruct the flows of trade, technology transfer and innovation, calling into question the reliability of global supply chains, industrial partnerships and cross-holdings. Broadening the range of strategic commodities and dual-use technologies as a means of political control poses new risks for industries that rely on the free market for global access to materials and customers. Meanwhile, an arms race in the R&D-intensive emerging technology field could draw budgets and brains away from other areas of innovation, public spending and private investment. Under the sponsorship of proxy interests, localized conflicts could burn hotter, last longer and spread in unexpected ways to endanger investments across a wide region.

Despite indications that we may be moving in this direction, fears of what it would cost – in terms of both economic progress and conflict escalation – are curtailing this trend, for now. However, history shows how the world can drift into conflict on a naïve faith in the momentum of peace and a mirror-image of opponents’ “rational” calculations. A general economic slowdown prompts protectionist measures, but geographic blocs prove an insufficient substitute for global market mechanisms, triggering a lawless scramble for cheap resources and captive markets, as seen in the 1930s. Regardless of our desire to avoid a repetition of history, risk-taking remains a rational response to shifts in actual or perceived balances of power. On the one hand, status quo powers have a logical incentive to act early to head off the emergence of a rival. On the other hand, rising powers have an equally logical incentive to be the first mover into the space left by a fading hegemon. In either case, miscalculation can prove fatal. Taken together, these risks compound one another.

Preparing for this new world order

Well-structured and informed discussions about perceptions of values and intentions reduces the chance of strategic and tactical miscalculation. Public-private dialogue and cooperation can highlight the risks and costs of structured rivalry and political complacency, and yield insights that help decision-makers better prepare and avoid traps and missteps.

When we recall how often self-destructive conflicts were undertaken with the delusion they would be “short and sharp”, it is clear that an ongoing discussion bringing together business with political and military stakeholders is the best insurance against sleepwalking into another catastrophic confrontation.

Raising awareness is therefore necessary, but not sufficient. The multi-stakeholder discussions have to bring an agenda to the institutions that are empowered to take measures to defuse existing and emerging conflicts, and build confidence across a broad range of actors that drive policy and deliver on a global scale. This kind of transparency and cooperation can help policy-makers and other specialists who operate in narrow channels to raise their gaze and steer away from another cold – or even hot – war.

This article was first published on the WEF Agenda Blog on Nov. 6, 2015.


Anja Kaspersen, Head of International Security and Member of the Executive Board, World Economic Forum; Philip Shetler-Jones, Consultant in the peace and security sector, and Honorary Research Fellow, University of Sheffield, UK.

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 12:05 - GMT 09:05