By William Tucker
When one era ends and a new era comes to pass, the change is not always readily apparent. It falls to historians to approximately mark the bookends of one period and the beginning of another.
With the freer flow of information throughout our global society, these era designations have not necessarily become easier. Instead, the cacophony of global news sites presents every event as important and nothing as trivial, creating new challenges in marking historical passages.
Globally, we have been living in a period often called the post-Cold War era. It’s an interesting name because it describes an event that ended but there has been no branding of any noteworthy event that came after it.
War Didn’t Disappear Entirely – It Just Became Democratic
Nonetheless, calling this time the post-Cold War era is an apt designation because the Cold War was an all-consuming standoff with a seemingly ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation. Though nuclear weapons did not go away, the diffusing of international tensions with the Soviet Union’s collapse brought the globe some relief from the threat of potential war.
War didn’t go away entirely; it just became democratic. Without the two superpowers of the U.S. and Russia directing foreign actions and without support from Moscow, smaller nations were freed to pursue their interests – sometimes aggressively – when they could.
The Global Recession and Economic Malaise
Since the Cold War ended, the West has generally marked time by heralding economic progress, which enriched numerous nations that once struggled in poverty. Much of Eastern Europe and East Asia were able to dramatically grow their respective economies. With such prosperity, national security took a back seat to economic concerns.
By 2008, however, a deep global recession set in, and nations such as Russia and China began asserting themselves militarily. Russia invaded Georgia, and China aggressively pushed its claims in the South China Sea. The global economic integration made it difficult for other nations to respond to these seemingly novel conflicts because sanctioning large countries would cause resulting pain to the global economy.
With economic malaise hitting some nations harder than others, the discord between countries that had once-friendly relations became common. This discord infected institutions such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU) – something previously unthinkable just a few years before the Great Recession set in.
The nuclear threats of the Cold War and the post-Cold War era, two eras that were really an aberration in history, has returned to our reality. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a clear demonstration of how we might face nuclear threats in our global future.
The Significance of a Cold War II
The post-Cold War era didn’t end this week with the invasion of Ukraine; instead, it likely ended with the 2008 recession. It is still difficult to pinpoint when that era broke down, but it was certainly vanishing by this point and a Cold War II was forming.
Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine may well cement the formation of a Cold War II. However, the outcome of this Russo-Ukrainian war will also influence what comes next.
Regardless of whether Russia wins this war in Ukraine or not, Russia’s ability to take on missions of this sort in the future will be degraded if the Russian military suffers significant losses. NATO would then take advantage to expand its reach and install forces closer to the Russian border in a way that Russia would be unable to match, thus undermining Putin’s declared drive for security.
A weakened Russia will be no less dangerous, however. Moscow will still have advanced military weaponry and a nuclear arsenal, creating uncertainty when it comes to areas Russia deems sensitive.
In other words, European nations not currently part of NATO will likely find membership more appealing, but security will have to come with active diplomacy too if further conflicts are to be avoided. Time will tell if international wisdom prevails and whether we’ll officially see a Cold War II.