Obama: Not to Worry, America, No Cold War Is Brewing

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At the end of a Tuesday press conference on the escalating political crisis in Eastern Europe, a reporter asked President Barack Obama if the situation was slowly evolving into “a new Cold War.”

Through a “pretty steady flow of heavy weapons including tanks, artillery pieces, ground-to-ground rocket launchers,” the Russian government has supported “separatists fueling the conflict in eastern Ukraine” as a means of expanding the country’s geopolitical power, Seven Pifer, director of Brookings’ Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative, wrote in a recent paper.

Those separatists have been accused of shooting down a civilian aircraft earlier this month with sophisticated surface-to-air missiles provided by Russia, leading to greater tension between Western democracies and the country. Given the sizable evidence that Russian-supported rebels were responsible for the crash, both the European Union and the United States have implemented further sanctions against Russia’s banking, energy, and defense sectors, with Obama announcing the fourth round of economic restrictions in a Tuesday speech clothed in rhetoric that would not have been out of place in Cold War-era America.

“Today is a reminder that the United States means what it says and we will rally the international community in standing up for the rights and freedom of people around the world,” Obama said from the South Lawn of the White House. These sanctions are the harshest imposed on Russia since the Cold War ended in 1991.

Despite Russia’s intentions to extend the country’s geopolitical sphere and its belligerency, and even though the United States and Russia have been unable to normalize relations after Russian forces seized control of Crimea, unfolding events should not be characterized as a renewal of the Cold War.

Shouldn’t We Expect A Second Cold War?

“No, it’s not a new Cold War. What it is, is a very specific issue related to Russia’s unwillingness to recognize that Ukraine can chart its own path,” the president said on Tuesday. “And I think that if you listen to President Poroshenko [of Ukraine], if you listen to the Ukrainian people, they’ve consistently said they seek good relations with Russia. What they can’t accept is Russia arming separatists who are carrying out terribly destructive activities inside of Ukraine, thereby undermining the ability of Ukraine to govern itself peacefully. That’s something that no country should have to accept.”

Russia’s proxy involvement in Ukraine brings up Cold War-era memories of spheres of influence, as well as questions of whether a regional superpower has the right to influence the politics of countries on its borders. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unwillingness to allow Ukraine to “chart its own path” could be seen as throwback to Soviet-style behavior.

The main actors in the current crisis in Eastern Europe are the same as during the Cold War: a United States worried about the sovereignty of nations in the region, a Russia eager to use Eastern European countries for security, and an Eastern Europe falling under the political power of its larger neighbor. The August 4 edition of Time boasts a red cover and the headline “Cold War II,” featuring an article titled “In Russia, Crime Without Punishment” by Simon Shuster.

“His increasingly overt goal is to splinter Europe, rip up the NATO umbrella and restore Russian influence around the world,” Shuster wrote of Putin. “He hopes the conflict on Russia’s western flank will create divisions within Europe that shrink American influence. His vision — which he referred to on April 17, at the peak of Russia’s euphoria over the conquest of Crimea — is the creation of a ‘greater Europe’ that would stretch from Portugal to Russia’s Pacific Coast, with Moscow as one of its centers of influence.”

If Not a Cold War, Is Another Conflict at Hand?

The Atlantic’s Roger Cohen outlines a plausible future in “Yes, It Could Happen Again,” “it” being an all-encompassing conflict on the European continent. He, too, cites Russian nationalism as a concern.“It is already clear that the nationalist fervor unleashed by Putin after a quarter century of Russia’s perceived post-Cold War decline is far from exhausted,” Cohen writes. “Russians are sure that the dignity of their nation has been trampled by an American and European strategic advance to their border dressed up in talk of democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. Whether this is true is irrelevant; they believe it. National humiliation, real or not, is a tremendous catalyst for war.”

He cites Moscow-backed separatists taking control of government buildings in eastern Ukraine and proclaiming an independent Donetsk People’s Republic as evidence of the “virulence of Russian irredentism,” or the country’s pan-Slavic desires.

Cohen then proceeds to explain a scenario for how a third world war could begin. However, world events are less likely to escalate as they did in times past. He claims in The Atlantic that “peace, if not outright pacifism, is now bred in the bones of Europeans, who contemplate war with revulsion.” Europe is also now both a political and economic entity.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is war weary. That sentiment has to an extent defined the president’s approach to foreign policy — the steps he has taken on the international stage have made it clear he believes the bar to use military force must be set very high.

The world’s balance of power is increasingly complex. The United States’ influence is not the deterrent it once was; China is seeking to establish greater hegemony in its surrounding regions; Russia, with its authoritarian tendencies, is fueled by a renewed nationalism, and the European Union is facing its own troubles.

International relations expert John Mearsheimer wrote in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics that “Unbalanced multipolar systems feature the most dangerous distribution of power, mainly because potential hegemons are likely to get into wars with all of the other great powers in the system.” That analysis would suggest American weakness is dangerous.

And according to Ian Bremmer, a U.S. foreign policy expert, the reason another Cold War is not beginning is simple.

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