Why Should the World Pay Heed to the German Chancellor Scholz’s Warning about the New Cold War?

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The world experienced the suffering of two devastating world wars followed by more than four decades of tension and confrontation which is known as the Cold War between the United States and the former Soviet Union. Now, after thirty years of the fall of the Iron Curtain, the world is facing the possibility of a new Cold War once again due to the growing tension among the powerful states. Even, many experts have pointed out the fear of transforming this rivalry into a third World War given the widespread and multidimensional nature of the confrontation. In this context, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has warned world leaders about the new Cold War and called for diplomacy to avoid the mistakes of waging war like their predecessors. Nonetheless, one can expect that such a warning from a powerful leader like Olaf Scholz will create much-needed impetus for world leaders to rethink their strategy of handling each other in a much more cautious manner to avoid a new Cold War which would be devastating for the world.

German Chancellor’s Warning About the New Cold War

In a recent opinion piece for the Foreign Affairs magazine, the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz laid out his foreign policy goals and priorities for this and upcoming years. However, the most highlighting part of the piece was his warning about a new Cold War which would divide the world into competing blocs similar to the Cold war fashion. He identified the danger of ongoing US-China rivalry and Russian threats which can ultimately lead to a new Cold War. Most importantly, Scholz argued that “China’s rise does not warrant isolating Beijing or curbing cooperation. But neither does China’s growing power justify claims for hegemony in Asia and beyond.” He thinks, despite Chinese growing economic might and political assertiveness, the US will remain the decisive power in the twenty-first century. Moreover, the German Chancellor also believes that what we are experiencing is not only the return of the Cold war but also an end to the exceptional phase of globalization.

In this background, Scholz urged world leaders to pursue diplomacy to solve issues in this multipolar world. He identified China both as a systemic rival and an economic partner. In his op-ed, Scholz requested more dialogues and cooperation beyond the “democratic comfort zone” and building new partnerships “pragmatically and without ideological blinders”. He also cautioned the leaders for avoiding the temptation to divide the world into blocs once again. The world is already going through a lot of suffering due to the ongoing war in Ukraine and it would be devastating if a new Cold War erupts at this moment.

The Rationale behind the Warning

The Cold War between the US and the former USSR brought about so many miseries and sufferings to the world that have remained unprecedented. Although both great powers did not confront each other on the battlefield, they waged proxy wars in Afghanistan, Vietnam, and Korea. Security alliances like the NATO and the former Warsaw Pact were established to defend their security interests against each other. Moreover, both the US and Soviet Union invested trillions in the development of nuclear and conventional weapons to get the military the upper hand. Even, they came so close to a nuclear war in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Furthermore, their fight for technological dominance was also notable. Most importantly, the world economy got devastated due to the Cold War as countries were most interested to invest their resources in military and weapons technology rather than economic development. Nonetheless, the polarization of countries into two blocs based on ideology was the most striking phenomenon during the Cold War period which we can see resurfacing in the 21st century.

The Possibilities of a New Cold War

In today’s world, we can see the East-West division is sharpening. Instead of capitalism vs communism, the ideological fault lines this time will likely be between rival groups of asserting dominance in the world. The US and its European allies directly identify China and Russia as the major threats to democracy and rule-based international order. President Biden has framed the Russian invasion as a “battle between democracy and autocracy.” Moreover, the US has made it clear that it has embarked on a strategy of Containment 2.0 which may be modeled on the Cold War-era Containment 1.0. On the other hand, China and Russia are luring other countries into their support by giving economic and development incentives. As the US is trying to isolate China and Russia in their hemispheres, we can see that the countries no longer blindly buy into Washington’s lofty slogans of freedom and democracy. Moreover, we can also see that during the recent UN voting condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine where 35 countries abstained from voting. We can also identify some powerful countries like India and Turkey, along with some developing nations which are trying to maintain a neutral position that somehow resembles the motto of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) during the 1960s.

Besides, growing polarization, the origin of new alliances in military and security grounds like the QUAD, AUKUS, and Five Eyes are also noticeable. Most importantly, the eastward expansion of NATO, a Cold War time security alliance, has been antagonizing Russia which ultimately led the country into a bloody war against Ukraine. Here, we can also see the legacy of the proxy war which was prominent during the Cold war. Western powers are hugely supporting Ukraine through military, diplomatic, and humanitarian aid which is making the war protracted. Another very important feature that tells us about the new Cold War is the growing military budget of countries. For example, the Chinese military budget has increased from a nascent $14.6 billion in 2000 to a staggering $229 billion in 2022. Likewise, Germany and Japan are also trying to develop their military power which has been dependent on external military support since the end of WWII. Most importantly, competition over gaining technological prominence has also resurfaced strongly as we have been observing competition over drone technology, semiconductor, and 5G technology. Nonetheless, we can see the devastating impact of these rivalries on the world economy which has been facing high inflation, a deficit in the balance of payment, and rising unemployment.

With these similarities, there are also differences between the old and new Cold War as the new one will be fought in a completely different context. The US will now face challenges from two adversaries, not one. Moreover, sanction has been added to the arsenal to yield rivals without using military means. Lastly, global interconnectedness and interdependence will eventually spill down the impacts of war from developed to least developed counties. So, the new Cold War will be a lot more dangerous than the previous one.

The Danger of a New Cold War

The Ukraine war has already caused terrible human sufferings and economic decline. More than 14 million people have been displaced and around 7,000 civilians have lost their lives due to the war. The majority of the developing world population is now also facing food insecurity due to a decline in their income and disruption of the supply chains. The number reached 345 million in 2022 which was 135 in the pre-pandemic period. Moreover, the rising price of energy has been detrimental to the world economy. Countries are now fighting for securing their minimum energy requirement as the Western world put heavy sanctions on the Russian energy and financial system. Moreover, the Ukraine war has caused a global economic downturn as the global economy grew by only 2.6 percent instead of the projected 3.6 percent. Continues fighting with heavy weaponry might also cause Chornobyl-like nuclear disaster by an accident or a deliberate attack which would be catastrophic for every living being. This really shows the real danger and widespread impact of a new Cold war.

Likewise, growing tension between the US and China regarding Taiwan, the South China Sea, and Indo-Pacific are also detrimental to global peace and security. War can erupt at any point due to strategic miscalculation and continuous provocation from each other. Moreover, the risk of a nuclear war is the highest now since WWII, according to the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR). Even, the nuclear weapon states have taken nuclear modernization programs that accelerate nuclear armament. Without any mutually agreed “rules of the game,” the current standoffs mark the uncharted ground where anything dangerous can happen. Besides these, a new Cold War would hamper global cooperation to combat more imminent threats like climate change, pandemics, hunger, inequality, and poverty. Moreover, it would further hamper joint decision-making capabilities in the United Nations on different issues of humanitarian emergency. As the world is now so intertwined that a war between any two countries would have far-reaching consequences for every region which was not the case during the old Cold War.

Way Forward

The warning of the German Chancellor about the new Cold War makes sense. Even the Chinese envoy at the UN Security Council spoke about the danger of a new Cold War in August 2022. The outbreak of the Ukraine War and some other tense developments in 2022 have made the projection even more real. In this context, powerful countries which are at the center of this chaos need to overcome their differences through diplomacy and dialogue. As Scholz urged the countries to forge new partnerships based on pragmatic considerations rather than ideological dogma, these should sanity prevail in the world. Major powers should avoid following double-standards on global issues and challenges and change the way they have been dealing with each other to avoid another Cold War from its eruption.

– Muhammad Estiak Hussain is a Research Intern of the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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