Have you seen that Top Gun sequel yet? Squint your eyes and it’s hard to know whether it’s 1986 or 2022. And really, who cares? Aviator shades and leather bomber jackets never go out of style. Turn up the electric guitars and scramble the jets. Best not ask too many questions.
Hollywood loves a good sequel, prequel, or remake. They come with a built-in audience. The filmmaker doesn’t need a new idea. Marketers don’t have to convince an audience that said new idea is worth their time. That same kind of slothful cynicism is ever more apparent in weightier parts of life too. For past few years, and even more so in recent months, there is talk of a supposed “new” Cold War.
Foreign Policy, the Council on Foreign Relations, the National Interest and Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, among many others, have taken up this idiotic rhetoric. The cast of this real-world reboot is in constant flux. Global jihadists had a good run as America’s top international antagonist. Then it was China’s turn. When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Russia moved from understudy to the lead role. Not to be outdone, as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan a few weeks back, China again stole top billing. Perhaps, as was the case in Top Gun, it’s better to leave the enemy anonymous.
The narrative for Cold War II is also still being workshopped. One variant miscasts the United States as a model representative democracy locked in a Manichean battle with Russo-Sino authoritarianism or abstractions like illiberalism or populism. Let’s just say the script still has a few holes, but for this one to work, threats must be graded on a curve (Russia is dangerous while Saudi Arabia is merely distasteful). And don’t forget the plot twist: populism and creeping authoritarianism are always foreign—never, ever domestic—phenomena. The phone call is not coming from inside the house.
Don’t worry if you find this at all confusing. The so-called professionals do too. Back in 2012, presidential candidate Mitt Romney famously marked Russia as the United States’ “number one geopolitical foe.” After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a chorus of ex-Cold Warriors began clamoring that old Mitt might have been right—only to find the junior senator from Utah had since changed his mind. “Clearly, today,” Romney opined earlier this year, “China is a greater threat to our security and our economic vitality.”
If this were only a matter of semantics, we could all get back to our kick ass cineplex blockbusters. But projecting new problems through an old lens distorts global challenges while perpetuating the worst remnants of late Cold War folklore. It means celebrating outrageous military budgets and embracing paranoia. Freedom becomes synonymous with private enterprise and arrogant bluster. Considering these are the things that have metastasized into America’s most fundamental weaknesses, talk like this feels both consequential and self-defeating. The great Kenny Loggins might call an outlook that perceives shortcomings as strengths a highway to the danger zone.
There are few rational reasons for squeezing 21st century geopolitics into a Cold War frame. None of the major characteristics of the Cold War—a bipolar international system, a conflict truly global in scope and a coherent ideological clash—are present today’s world. Of all the historical periods one might look to for lessons, the Cold War is among the worst. Psychology has a term for an unhealthy fixation on the past—nostalgia. At extremes doctors consider it “a psychopathological condition.”
The Cold War’s bipolar world system, dominated by two superpowers, was even rarer than a good movie about fighter pilots. In the late 15th and early 16th century, England and Spain sought to dominate the high seas. In Ancient Greece, Athens and Sparta butted heads, and 11th-century China saw a bitter rivalry between the Song and Liao dynasties. Across 6,000 or so years of civilization, that’s pretty much it as far as bipolarity goes. At its height, the Roman Empire presided over a unipolar system in Europe and the near abroad, but the vast majority of great power competition is multipolar, involving a variety of players.
During the Cold War, as the eminent historian Odd Arne Westad puts it, “one set of conflicts was repeated over and over again,” forcing “all other contestants for power” to relate. Tensions ricocheted across the globe as the United States and the Soviet Union viewed something as anodyne as elections in El Salvador or Italy as cause for a zero-sum proxy battle to the death. Both sides spilled blood and treasure to score victories of scant strategic value, driven by misguided —in yet another a signature element of the actual Cold War—ideological conviction.
In 1975, President Gerald Ford argued that American failure to intervene militarily in the Angolan Civil War would have “the gravest consequences for the long-term position of the United States”—and he actually believed what he was saying. Congress blocked Ford from escalating the conflict, but similar delusions led the United States and the Soviet Union to chase one international boondoggle after another. When things went badly, in the Vietnam War for America or Afghanistan for the Soviets, they simply doubled down.
By the 1940s, in the wake of two world wars and the economic upheaval of a depression, wide swathes of the planet really sought some alternative to American-style industrialized capitalism. In the developing world, big business had spurred colonial enslavement. Nationalism had triggered World War I. The Great Depression began with a stock market crash. Right wingers, not leftists, unleashed World War II in Europe and Asia. At least two generations had good reason to doubt liberal institutions and markets. In the beginning, plenty supported communism out of choice not compulsion. By 1948, for example, in what was then still a democratic Czechoslovakia, one of every three adults had voluntarily joined the communist party. It’s easy to ignore how much genuine appeal international communism offered at one time.
In comparison with the Cold War era, the global situation in 2022 looks a lot different. While it’s possible quibble about who, or what, constitutes a global power today, it takes very creative accounting to run the numbers and end up with just two—a bipolar world system. There is the United States, China, and Russia. The European Union is the world’s largest trading bloc. Next year, democratic India will become the world’s most populous country. Today nine, yes nine, countries possess nuclear weapons. And what to make of non-state actors that transcend national boundaries? Google controls 92 percent of global search engine traffic and the operating systems on 2.5 billion smartphones—talk about unipolarity.
No doubt there are plenty of flash points between today’s competing global powers—Ukraine and Taiwan among the obvious—but these rivalries do not occur on anything close to a Cold War scale. China does not exercise political influence in France. Russia has no power in Mexico. The United States is a pretty minor player in Laos. Fake tough guys and kleptocrats do admire how Vladimir Putin rides horses topless, but no competent world leader looks at the Russian economy as a prototype for their own. Meanwhile, countries hoping to replicate China’s rapid development—Vietnam, for example—often view Beijing at least as much as a threat as a friend.
In the United States, conventional wisdom has it that the Soviet Union’s moribund economy, corrupt political class, and beleaguered citizenry led it to crumble from within. At the same time, defeating this lumbering, incompetent giant somehow served as proof of American infallibility. Capitalism and liberal democracy—with special commendation for the faith-, finance- and ammunition-backed mutation—prevailed. Better yet, it had demonstrated itself as representing the apex of human civilization. History had ended.
Though that kind of idealistic rhetoric has fallen out of fashion, the mythology maintains that massive military spending, a deregulated economy, stripped down social welfare and the grace of Almighty God are the key drives of geopolitical success. Starting with Ronald Reagan, successive American administrations cut taxes, crippled public institutions by limiting funding, and then used the resulting failures to claim those same institutions had been broken and illegitimate all along. Along with sowing distrust in government, these horror stories ate away at infrastructure, exacerbated economic inequality, and atomized society. By the 1990s even Democrats bought in. As the country cast its eyes abroad, moral certainty, a disdain for diplomacy, and an emphasis on military solutions became the new norm.
In the most frequently misappropriated aphorism of all time, philosopher George Santayana famously wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But this line is taken out of context in virtually every instance. For just a few sentences later Santayana makes it clear that he is actually advising against facile historical parallels. Older people, Santayana worried, had a particularly strong tendency to revert to an “unpractical repetition of the past.” This, he worried, often “takes the place of plasticity and fertile readaptation.”
The two most recent American presidents took office when they were older than 70. When Joe Biden was born, Franklin D. Roosevelt was president and the Cold War had not even begun. A full third of the current Senate is in their eighth decade on the planet (our confused friend Mitt Romney is 75), and 99 of 100 sitting senators were born before 1980. When they were young, during the actual Cold War, the world made sense. The fact that these senior citizens still dominate leadership goes a long way toward explaining how these “new” Cold War narratives gain traction. That noise you hear echoing across cable news all day? It isn’t shouting. In the end, as Santayana warned, “memory becomes self-repeating and degenerates into an instinctive reaction, like a bird's chirp.”
To think about history is to know it does not repeat on a loop. One can find Russia’s invasion of Ukraine abhorrent without comparing Putin to Stalin. China is a big country with global ambitions and a bad human rights record. They are not the first, but nor are they a facsimile of the last. The Cold War was a distinct historical period, notable for how much it differed from other eras. It also ended more than three decades ago. Not even Tom Cruise can bring it back.
Benjamin Cunningham is the author of The Liar: How a Double Agent in the CIA Became the Cold War’s Last Honest Man, published in August by PublicAffairs.