World politics is entering a new Cold War, whose characteristics distinguish it from the original Cold War between the US and erstwhile Soviet Union. The new Cold War is characterized by simmering tensions, breach of international norms, proxy wars, and arms races among major powers around the globe.
Lack of trust and rising tensions in relations are evident among many major powers in various regions, with geopolitical significance that keeps feeding the contending powers’ desires for an arms race. Even though the major powers primarily confronted the challenges of civil wars and intra-state conflicts after the Cold War era, this did not represent a paradigm shift in world politics, considering the fact that the contending powers chose a strategy of intervening in such conflicts through clients.
The advancement of information technologies has made the powers not only more capable of influencing civil war situations within rival countries, it has facilitated inter-state warfare through the cyber domain.
The new Cold War
The US is currently the only power that evidently seeks to pursue global interests with a global presence. However, the global aspirations of the US are facing serious challenges from regional powers in various parts of the globe.
The ambitions and roles of regional powers (specifically Russia, China and Iran) are again not confined to their specific regions and they are on the lookout for ways to extend their sway into adjacent regions. As a result, the regional powers are not only trying to undercut the American interests and presence in their respective regions, they complement and collide with each other too while pursuing their interests in neighboring regions. This complicated global scenario is markedly different from the tight bipolar order of the Cold War era when allies and partners were clearly identifiable and ideological positions were plainly noticeable.
China and the US have been asserting their positions in the Indo-Pacific and adjacent regions through strategies like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the call for an open and free Indo-Pacific region respectively. Both powers are building on their military capacities but remain cautious enough to avoid a full-blown conflagration considering the devastating military potential that each could bring against the other.
Unlike the Soviet Union, China clearly lacks an overarching countervailing ideology based on which it would forge alliances globally and roll back American influence. Both the US and China have witnessed economic integration between them over the years and the accrued economic gains speak for to the values of relative peace and stability. On the other side, neither country would allow the other to become a preponderant power in the Indo-Pacific region considering its geopolitical and geo-economic significance. The region is viewed significant to sustain American global interests and presence and the Chinese desire to spread influence to various other regions.
The Russian compulsion of not loosening its regional grip as expressed through its assertive role in Ukraine and its extra-regional ambitions finding reverberations in the bolstering of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria led to a spiraling of tensions between the US and Russia. This culminated in Moscow’s testing of its first hypersonic missile capable of bringing more precision to attacks while circumventing the US missile defense systems.
The recent escalation of conflict between the US and Iran in the Middle East following the assassination of the leader of Iran’s Quds Force, General Qasem Soleimani, by a US air strike and subsequent Iranian attacks on the US military presence in Iraq generated apprehensions of an all-out war between the two powers. However, the leaders of each country, even while blaming the other for causing the conflict, affirmed that they did not want a full-blown war.
The new Cold War has been aggravated by a rising level of distrust that each of these countries harbors against its rivals, leading to a slackening of international norms. The US withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty last year, lack of Iranian commitment to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of which it is a signatory, and Chinese violations of the Law of the Sea in the South China Sea indicate that the major powers lack the level of trust that is necessary to sustain international laws and norms. This has introduced an element of uncertainty as to the military preparedness of these powers and encouraged arms races.
Additionally, these powers have been witnessed getting involved in proxy war strategies much like in the Cold War era to sustain their power ambitions. The strategies included strengthening of ruling regimes, countering regimes by encouraging democratic protesters, and/or seeking secret alliances with militant groups. However, in sharp contrast to the Cold War era, a greater number of contending powers as well as the lack of clear ideological thrust in their competition makes the new Cold War more complex.
The contending powers in the new Cold War, notwithstanding their attempts at undercutting rival powers’ influence by military means, are also cautious players insofar as they avoid engaging in direct wars. The destructive nuclear and military capabilities that each of the powers possesses vis-à-vis the other would prevent the contemporary major powers from going for all-out wars, much like the mutual assured destruction (MAD) scenario that prevented the erstwhile superpowers from direct confrontations.
The major powers are poised to choose the cyber domain as the primary channel to realize their war objectives and other ways of confrontation such as proxy wars will recede to a secondary place. The reasons for this shift are understandable.
First, information technology can offer contending powers the abilities to weaken the adversarial power far more effectively by targeting critical infrastructure such as banking, energy and defense sectors than proxy wars do.
Second, the cyber domain can provide the contending powers the avenues to operate from unknown sources, to do damage and yet avoid military reprisals.
Third, the superior technological capabilities of the US may prompt it to sustain its hegemonic ambitions primarily through the cyber domain not only by shaping global norms but to incapacitate the adversarial powers militarily as well. The US military utilized and benefited from the application of high technologies first in the Gulf War, which inspired other powers to harness their technological abilities. Further, former CIA technician Edward Snowden’s revelations as to how American authorities hacked into Chinese mobile-phone companies to access millions of private text messages and reports that the US with Israeli assistance resorted to cyberattacks in a bid to cripple an Iranian uranium-processing facility using a digital worm called Stuxnet point to the fact that the US could be inclined to use its technological superiority to contain adversarial powers.
Fourth, the global presence and interests of the US may persuade Russia, China and Iran to resort to cyberwar strategies to undercut American hegemonic ambitions in many parts of the globe by preventing the global discourse from being dominated by the US, as well as subverting and sabotaging its dominance. For instance, Russia and China champion the idea of “national sovereignty” to prevent the US from encroaching into their sensitive military information as well as influencing their internal politics, institutions and ideas.
China has been blamed for its censorship initiatives, including blocking of certain websites, in its bid to crack down on anti-government activities. However, the contending powers look to digital opportunities that allow them to shape ideas and interests in desired directions. China has been accused of stealing US intellectual property in order to buttress its economic power and the Chinese tech giant Huawei has been indicted on charges of theft of trade secrets.
Further, the Digital Silk Road has been considered an integral part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, through which Beijing sought to export Internet infrastructure as well as surveillance technology to countries throughout Asia, in the Persian Gulf region, and across Africa. In order to weaken American dominance, Iran has allegedly launched cyberattacks on US dams, financial systems and government networks, and Russia has been accused of targeting the Ukrainian power grid and meddling in US elections through the cyber domain.