No, we're not reliving the 1960s, says Harvard historian Arne WestadHistorians in the News
tags: Cold War, Cuban Missile Crisis
... Disoriented in a historical re-play, as headlines would have it, that seems to have crammed the timeline from the Machtergreifung to the Truman Doctrine into a mere nine months, The New Republiccalled up prizewinning Cold War historian Arne Westad at the Harvard Kennedy School to get his thoughts. Over the course of a short phone call, he offered his take on proxy conflicts, Putin’s motivations, and why Russia is in a weaker position than it may seem.
For years, you’ve been arguing for a more expansive definition of the Cold War: something beyond just the end of World War II to 1989, beyond the U.S.-Russia arms race. How, at this point, would you define the Cold War?
I think the Cold War was primarily an ideological battle between capitalism and socialism. That’s the foundation for the conflict and that goes back to the beginning of the 20th century. Now, after 1945 the end of the Second World War this became what you could call an international system. You have to look at it in two parts, what created the conflict, and then the very peculiar state system that ended up being in place.
Last Friday UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said that the Cold War “is back with a vengeance.” As a historian, how useful do you find that comparison?
Why do definitions matter? They matter because they help us think more clearly about the present. I’m having trouble seeing what we’re in now as a Cold War. It’s a set of conflicts, and it’s a messy and very unruly international environment, but calling it a Cold War doesn’t make any sense, because the Cold War was a very particular kind of system. The kind of bipolarity that the Cold War led to is quite unusual in the history of international affairs. There are not many regional or global systems that are truly bipolar in the sense of two superpowers that run the show. It’s certainly not true today. Part of the reason our world seems so messy is that we have a number of claimants to power. Russia is acting within that new system that’s coming into being.
Putin is a nationalist, even a Russian chauvinist, but he’s no Communist. He’s not someone who wants to go back to the Soviet Union. That doesn’t make him less problematic to deal with. It does probably on a global scale make him less dangerous, because his aims and his capabilities are much more limited.
What about comparing Syria to Cold-War proxy conflicts?
Obviously there are some similarities in terms of proxy conflicts. But the problem with that is of course most forms of conflict have some kind of proxy framework connected to them. That was as true for Europe in the 19th century or East Asia in the 11th century as it is today. So that’s not a distinguishing feature of the Cold War. What distinguished the Cold War was that it stayed that way—only conflicts between proxies and no conflict in the direct sense.
My sense is that Russia’s involvement in Syria is mainly opportunistic. There is of course a longstanding relationship between Russia and Syria going back to the Soviet era but that’s not the main reason why Russia has intervened there now. It has intervened because it could and because it opened up an opportunity for Putin to show Russia matters in international affairs. Putin has no idea how this is going to end, I think, and there are lots of voices in Russia right now who are already worried about the Afghanistan parallel—how long Russia is going to stay in Syria and what kind of losses Russia is going to take.
Remember that Russia’s economy, with the exception of energy, is still in a free-fall.
So this is about sticking it to the Americans, or sticking it to the world system. If one is going to get very strategic about this, one could say that one Russian aim might be to have access to harbors, to military ports in the Mediterranean. But given the shape that Syria is going to be in over the next generation one has to question what the real use of these bases would be. I very much doubt that that’s the real reason why Putin has decided to get involved—in a relatively limited way—in the Syrian civil war. ...