The dramatic escalation in tensions between NATO and Russia that followed the West’s recognition of Kosovo’s independence from Serbia and, especially, Russia’s invasion of Georgia, have many analysts fearing a return to the bad old days of the Cold War.   Jim Townsend, the Atlantic Council’s vice president for international security programs, declared to a C-SPAN audience on August 13 that preventing “a new Cold War” must be the highest priority of both sides.

 

In today’s Guardian, Fareed Zakaria proclaims these fears “a massive overreaction.”

There has been a deep yearning for a return of history. We all miss that world of good and evil, ideological struggle and high stakes. And it’s certainly true that international life has changed. But what is new is the acceleration of global capitalism and trade, and the remarkable growth this is producing across the globe.

These are good points.  Yes, globalization has created interdependencies and norms that didn’t exist fifteen years ago.  Yes, other actors besides the US and Russia are major players on the world scene these days.   No, thermonuclear annihilation is not as plausible as it was in 1961 or even 1981.  Yes, big states have always been able to bully around smaller ones, especially in their neighborhood.  So, no, a second Cold War wouldn’t look like the first one.

Then again,  World War II wasn’t exactly the same as World War I, either. 

No one is “yearning” for a return to superpower confrontation.  While it was easier to tell the good guys from the bad guys in those days — and even to staff and equip a national security apparatus to prepare for a fight — the stakes were just too high.   But Zakaria himself identifies the fissures that make a Cold War II possible:

The forces of globalization are, in fact, producing an extraordinary degree of integration around the world. The broader challenge is that growth being produced by this globalization is everywhere producing political nationalism and assertiveness. These forces can be benign and constructive – when we like them we call them patriotism and cultural pride – but they can also be aggressive and xenophobic. The central tension of the world we live in will be between the forces of global integration on the one hand and those of nationalism on the other.

Russia has the potential to become the leader of the anti-integration forces.  As Robert Hunter, US ambassador to NATO during the Clinton administration and a member of the Atlantic Council’s board of directors, reminds us,

When President George H.W. Bush presented his vision of a “Europe whole and free and at peace,” and President Bill Clinton created the architecture to pursue that vision, two goals were uppermost: take Central Europe permanently off the geopolitical chessboard and draw Russia productively into the outside world.  These goals were intended in part to replace “spheres of influence” politics with cooperative institutions based on democracy, economic advancement, and mutual awareness that nothing was worth another European cataclysm. This is the same combination that abolished war among nations of Western Europe following World War II.

From Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin to Dmitri Medvedev, Russia’s leaders have seethed at this vision of NATO, an alliance that was, after all, formed to check the power of the Soviet Union.  They’ve decried NATO expansion into former Warsaw Pact states and worked against NATO in the Balkans but they’ve been too weak economically, militarily, and politically to do much.   With the invasion of Georgia, they’ve clearly decided that it’s time they made a stand.

Hunter is right, too, that the West needs to take this opportunity to weigh its goals.  Is NATO truly prepared for the consequences of admitting Georgia and Ukraine as members?  Is the United States, much less Europe, ready to go to war — as required by Article V of the NATO charter — to defend the territorial integrity of these states?  Or are they simply hoping that putting a country under the NATO umbrella will be enough to deter an attack?

For its part, Russia must assess its options, too.  Is asserting its claim as a major regional power worth the cost of scaring off Western investors and otherwise cutting itself off from the bounty of the global economy? 

While the future never looks like the past, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t attempt to learn from history.    Cold War II is not yet upon us nor is it inevitable.  But Cold War I wasn’t yet underway at Yalta or Potsdam, either.   This time, both sides need to read the writing on the wall and take prudent steps to stop relatively minor conflicts from hardening into something far more serious.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.