In the last year, talk of a second Cold War between a democratic US and nondemocratic Russia has heated up – in December 2016 then US President Barack Obama deported several Russian diplomats over election cyber attacks and last month reports revealed Russia has significantly increased its US spying. Then again, on the sidelines of last week’s G20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany, US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin apparently had “positive chemistry”, with President Trump even suggesting it’s “time to move forward”, including on a joint cyber security unit. OK, amid widespread criticism, 12 hours later he backtracked via Twitter. But the bottom line is this doesn’t feel at all like another ideological Cold War between a democratic US and nondemocratic Russia. And yet there’s still no question we are in the middle of a distinct battle of ideas in today’s post-hegemonic world. Who will win this ideological Cold War? Let’s investigate.
First, the new Cold War of ideas in our post-hegemonic world is political. There’s a global crisis of political legitimacy that’s been building since the Arab Spring began in 2010. The political status quo has been recurrently challenged by growing numbers of citizens in countries worldwide. From Venezuela to Turkey, South Africa to South Korea, the very nature of governance, democratic or nondemocratic, has been aggressively challenged by citizens through anti-government protest. Furthermore, democracy specifically – long touted as the “sole surviving source of political legitimacy” and the “end of history” by theorists like Zakaria and Fukuyama – is under threat. Democracy promotion, a major marker of US foreign policy in recent decades, does not appear to be a priority of the new government. As President Trump put it in his inaugural address back in January – “we do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone.” Yes, the EU, led by Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, will likely now take a larger role in democracy promotion globally. But it’s questionable whether citizens even want it anymore – one study suggests citizens, especially millennials, in long-standing democracies don’t care about democracy as much as previous generations. So in today’s Cold War of political ideas, which political system or idea will win? Democracy as we know it today may not make the cut, but nondemocracy may not either.
Second, the new Cold War of ideas is economic. There is a global crisis of economic legitimacy where the economic status quo has been recurrently challenged by growing numbers of citizens. Yes, most world leaders, including at Davos in January, and the recent G20, as well as international institutions like the World Bank and IMF, still promote free trade and international cooperation – key markers of globalization – as the best way forward. But the recurring anti-globalization protests, including at the G20 meeting, cannot be ignored, nor can the growing populist, anti-globalization rhetoric put forth by certain political parties (eg in EU) and leaders (eg President Trump). Then throw in the numerous predictions that many jobs will be wiped out by automation and create “more pain than happiness in the next 30 years”, according to Chinese tech billionaire Jack Ma. Are we prepared? Yes, world leaders rightly suggested at G20 that digital skills are key for our future economy; the solution might also lie in more entrepreneurship, as Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg has been saying, or in universal basic income, as he and other activist billionaires like Bill Gates are debating these days. But there is no clear policy consensus. In today’s Cold War of economic ideas, which system or idea will win? As we figure it out, the rising anti-globalization, populist trend will likely further challenge the global economy, as automation-related unemployment over time will add to social unrest.
Third, the new Cold War of ideas is social. There is a global crisis of social legitimacy where different types of identity conflicts are deepening within countries and across borders. The rise of anti-minority, xenophobic and Islamophobic sentiment globally is obviously alarming in what is clearly a collective identity crisis. It reminds us of a major question we have to answer – are we globalists or nationalists? It’s a post-hegemonic world where the US government is no longer leading the way in promoting global values. So who will help us shape our global identity? Yes, smaller states, like Canada, have taken up the mantle of promoting multiculturalism. And on occasion we hear anti-xenophobic words from public religious figures like the Dalai Lama and the Pope. But then we also have political figures who are openly xenophobic and extremist groups actively spreading their ideology of hate. So in today’s Cold War of societal ideas, which will win – globalism, nationalism or possibly extremism? Until we can definitively answer that question, the identity fissures in societies globally will deepen and evolve.
This is undoubtedly a complex battle of ideas that is part of our global crisis of geopolitical legitimacy. It is perhaps more dangerous than the first Cold War, as it involves state and non-state actors as well as three distinct political, economic and social conflicts in most countries globally. But make no mistake – this new Cold War of ideas is also an opportunity for more of us to think about what we want. What ideas should shape our politics, economy and society in our post-hegemonic world today and in the future?