America's real aim in Ukraine and other former Soviet republics is to seize
control of vital
resources before China and India can challenge US dominance.
Are we on the brink of a new cold war? On both sides of the Atlantic, media
commentators see the crisis in Ukraine as comparable to the Berlin crises, involving
the US and the Soviet Union, which kept the world on tenterhooks for decades.
In this supposed drama, a resurgent Kremlin under an ex-KGB colonel is suppressing
freedom at home and encroaching on ex-Soviet republics around his country's
This terror of shadows has a track record of success. In the 1970s and early 1980s, the ailing world of Leonid Brezhnev was portrayed as a sinister superpower with its tentacles almost around Uncle Sam's throat. The US and the majority of western European nations combined behind a program of arms build-up and covert sponsorship of anti-communist dissidents.
The coincidence of dates is not often noted, but the Pentagon was inaugurated
on 11 September
1941, exactly 60 years before it took its first direct hit. In my view, its role was positive for
many years: few would regret the fall of Hitler or the deterrence of Stalin. But America's bloodless
victory in the cold war did not lead her to rest on her laurels. As early as 1992, Pentagon insiders
led by Paul Wolfowitz and sponsored by the then defense secretary, Dick Cheney (under President Bush
I), had drawn up a doctrine designed to prevent any power getting the "capacity" to challenge the US
in the future. Not only potential foes but friends were to be kept subordinate.
There was no peace dividend. Instead, US defense spending rose. Now the Pentagon
than the European Union, Russia, China and India combined. As one Pentagon friend said to me
recently: "The new arms race is between the US army today and the US army which might fight it
Yet, according to Washington's friends, Russia is on the prowl, even though
technology is ageing and Nato expansion (and with it, US bases) reaches deep inside the old Soviet
Union. In reality, the Kremlin's writ is fraying at the edges of the smaller, post-1991 Russia.
Already Chechnya is in chaos and much of the north Caucasus is simmering. If Russia poses no
military threat even to its neighbors, the divide of the first cold war era is dead.
And yet the culture of the new cold war is very different from that of the
old. For 40 years,
the west's intellectuals and media were bitterly divided over policy towards Moscow. Each side -
particularly the west - had its allies on the other side. The west's victory in 1989 was good for
the market economy but bad for intellectual pluralism. Sky News came online in 1989 but the
explosion of 24-hour news has been matched by an implosion of alternative views.
With the collapse of one-party states, any justification for western covert
elections died. Yet the methods of the old cold war have continued and even grown in scale.
Washington's power elite see the whole world as former president Reagan saw Latin America - indeed,
many Reagan administration figures are involved in current events. Cold war methods are still in
use - even more so - but now against opponents who do not merit the description "totalitarian",
whatever their faults.
In the run-up to the velvet revolutions of 1989, I was a bagman carrying tens
of thousands of
dollars to eastern European dissidents. I have a good idea of how much money and foreign input are
required to get a spontaneous "people power" revolution going. Then, however, it was the Communist
Party that blocked dissent.
Today, western intelligence agencies, the media and "the people"
crush any dissent from the
At the time of the Falklands war, Henry Kissinger said: "No great power
retreats for ever."
Maybe Russia is about to disprove his thesis, because so far Russia has retreated steadily under
Vladimir Putin's rule. If Ukraine falls into the Nato orbit, Russia will lose her access to Black
Sea naval bases and Russian oil and gas export routes will have to pass an American stranglehold.
Yet Russia is a bit player in this new global competition. The Pentagon is
really aiming at
Beijing in its grab for the old Soviet strategic space around Russia. China is booming, but energy
is her Achilles heel. Economically and technologically, China's 1.3 billion people seem poised to
assume superpower status, but China cannot risk falling out with America. Only access to Russian and
central Asian oil can liberate China from dependence on vulnerable sea-borne oil supplies, so the
real "Great Game" is between Beijing and Washington. America's real strategic fear is the rise of
China and India. Unlike Russia, they are not beset by demographic decline.
Worse still for US planners, the Chinese and Indians may want the benefits
consumerism but they do not share the cultural cringe of peoples of the former Soviet bloc: like
Gandhi, they believe that western civilization would be a very good idea.
In Latin America, too, Washington does not have everything its own way. It
is not just that
Venezuela's Hugo Chavez saw off a Ukrainian- style "people power" push, having already trounced an
old-style putsch in 2002; Brazil and Argentina are also failing to toe the Washington line. The
region's big players show signs of looking to China and south Asia for markets and investment.
If South America, south Asia and China begin to coalesce, then Washington
could find itself
confronted by an alternative axis not seen since before the Sino-Soviet split in the early 1960s.
But, whereas Mao and Brezhnev represented economic dead ends, the new China and her potential
partners have dynamism on their side. Maybe India and China are business rivals, but their old
frontier disputes in the Himalayas are frozen. Latin America has nothing to fear from either
superpower of the future, nor do Latin Americans nurse visceral resentments of Beijing or Delhi that
are in any way comparable to their deep-dyed anti-Yankee feelings.
America's drive to dominate the old Soviet Union represents a gamble by today's
to seize the highest-value chips on the table before China and India join the game. If China can add
access to post-Soviet energy to the Chinese hand, it will be game on for a real new cold war. Many
of the predictions among Washington neoconservatives about China's growing power recall the fear
among German militarists that the window of opportunity for a global role was closing by 1914.
Washington's drive to seize maximum advantage before the inevitable waning of US power recalls the
Kaiser's cry 80 years ago: "Now or never!"
Mark Almond is a lecturer in modern history at Oriel College, Oxford.