News & Analysis

From New Cold War to New World War?

01 May 2022
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By Dave Stockon

Putin’s invasion and war of occupation against Ukraine and the US-led sanctions against Russia have intensified the new Cold War in Europe. Sanctions on such a scale, initiated and coordinated by one imperialist power (the USA and its subordinates) against another (Russia), can develop into a real war if they drive the latter to break out of their vice-like grip with the only means by which they can match their rival: ever more lethal forms of conventional warfare and scarcely veiled threats of nuclear weapons.

Certainly, the ‘red lines’, ‘spheres of influence’, etc. which all imperialist powers assert as their right have no claim on the support of the working classes and oppressed peoples of the world. Against either ‘camp’ our answer is that the main enemy is our own ruling class. We must expose and reject Putin’s impudent claim that Ukraine is not a real nation and has no right to state sovereignty. Russia has no right to seize Crimea, Donbas or parts like Mariupol or even Odessa because of its needs as a ‘great power’.

We also need to recognise that ‘democratic’ America has long claimed the right to occupy Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, and for the CIA to organise the overthrow of left wing governments in Latin America, from Chile in the 1970s to Bolivia and Venezuela (unsuccessfully) in the last decade. If Russia is guilty of bloody wars in Chechnya and helping Assad in the same fashion in Syria, the US and its allies, including Britain, have a similar bloody record in the Middle East.

The new Cold War in Europe could expand further across the globe if, as Joe Biden has threatened, it is extended to China. As part of Nato’s counterattack against Russia, Germany and the USA have announced hugely increased arms budgets and troop deployments. The new alliance between Australia, the UK and the USA (AUKUS) to equip Canberra with nuclear submarines is not only aimed at China but was a slap down for France’s Emmanuel Macron, a key advocate of increasing European military capacity, independent of Nato.

Thus two enormous dangers are lodged in this developing situation – a major disruption and collapse of the world economy triggered by the sanctions and the potential of a Russian military response to them, and a European or even possibly a World War if Nato forces intervene directly against Russian forces in Ukraine.

End of Globalisation

In any case these events are likely to accelerate the reshaping of the world economic order. Under the name of globalisation, which began in the 1990s and continued into the first years of the 21st century, both China and Russia became new imperialist powers albeit by very different routes. The former did it by becoming the manufacturing centre for multinational corporations, at first producing cheap consumer goods; the latter did it on the basis of huge rentier profits from its energy and raw materials fuelling the booms of the late 1990s and 2000s.

The Great Recession of 2008 ended the synergy of US-China trade in manufactured goods and investment, especially that involving the ‘high tech revolution’. This had seemed to offer limitless possibilities for an integrated capitalist world economy and a utopia of world peace. Yet following 9/11 the world hegemon has been engaging in the asymmetric war against ‘international terrorism’.

At first Washington could mobilise the support of all the other great powers, including Russia, against this bogeyman. The US used this ‘goodwill’ to attack and occupy not just Afghanistan, where Bin Laden was holed up, but Iraq which had nothing to do with ‘Islamist terrorism.’ Rather, it was an oil rich prize which had already been subjected to a US invasion by George Bush Snr, after Saddam’s failed attempt to seize Kuwait. These conflicts led to excess child mortality of some 500,000 and represented an abhorrent crime against humanity.

Meanwhile China had advanced towards ever more technologically sophisticated products, becoming ‘the workshop of the world’ for these products too and in the process developing a military capacity that would give it the power to defend its interests without US permission. Panic began in the US commentariat that, after all the talk of a second American century, the 21st might prove to be China’s rather than America’s. When he was selected in 2013 Xi Jinping proclaimed ‘the greatest Chinese dream is the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,’ an equivalent to Trump’s Make America Great Again or Biden’s America is Back.

From 2013 Beijing has expressed growing political assertiveness, increased military and naval spending and established projects in over 60 countries, as part of the ambitious Belt and Road policy, building railways, ports and manufacturing zones in Sri Lanka, East Africa and the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). China has been attracting the support of military Bonapartist and right-wing populist leaders and authoritarian regimes across the world.

Already by 2010, before Xi’s advent, Barack Obama was talking of the threat posed by the rise of China, no longer because of its ‘communism’ but because of its capitalism. Its lack of Western-style democracy, and ‘the rule of law’ had been virtually ignored for decades as long as the two countries’ economic synergy was paramount. Once it proved to be both a dangerous economic rival and (along with Russia) a disrupter or outright obstructer of the USA’s many strong-arm interventions around the globe, the narrative rapidly began to change.

Of course, the real loser of the globalisation period was the industrial working class of the old imperialist metropolises and in the semi-colonial world, subjected to structural adjustment programmes dictated by the US dominated International Monetary Fund (IMF). In the US, politicians from Donald Trump to Bernie Sanders began to point to ‘offshoring’ of blue-collar jobs and the ‘China price’ as undercutting home produced goods. Blaming China for the decline of America’s rust belt states ignores the fact that American capital with state and federal assistance has long been moving US industrial plants, first to the non-unionised Southern states, and then to the Maquiladora belt in Mexico.

In the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, Nato – which for 50 years had been the means of projecting US power into Europe and thereby keeping its imperialist (and former colonial) powers under control via its supposed protection of them against the USSR – far from being dissolved, expanded across Eastern Europe. In the process the alliance hugely increased its weaponry, logistics and command structure, centred in Norfolk, Virginia. It now has over 40 major bases. In short, the US Supreme Allied Command–Europe operates a protection racket that subordinates Britain, France, Germany, Canada and all other Nato states.

Russia’s revival under Putin from 2000 to 2008 was based on the rent from oil and gas, plus various other raw materials vital for high tech products. Their prices rose during the globalisation boom. However, Putin did not really emerge as a major threat to the West until the mid-2010s when his interventions in Syria and then, in 2014, in Ukraine began to expose the fractures and weaknesses between the US and Nato.

Then came the ‘colour’ or ‘flower revolutions’ in which right wing US politicians and ‘democracy and human rights’ NGOs happily intervened. Of course these revolutions were not simply US creations. The corrupt police regimes across Eastern Europe certainly had given their citizens plenty to protest about, but they did not have leaderships emerging organically from their youthful followers and were easily co-opted by local pro-western politicians as a result.

The Rose Revolution in Georgia (2003-04), the Orange Revolution in Ukraine (2004-05) and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan (2005) clearly presented a danger to Putin as they placed pro-western regimes on the border of Russia and might have inspired his people to rise up in a similar fashion. Putin’s return to the presidency in 2010, the tightening of media control, police repression of protests and the effects of the Great Recession and ensuing stagnation brought an end to the boom, creating the conditions for major street mobilisations in Russia in 2011 and 2014.

Another source of Putin’s pushback against the West was his military response to the threat of the loss of Russian assets, naval and military bases, in Syria, if Assad were overthrown. Then there was the 2014 Euromaidan coup in Ukraine, in which the democratically elected pro-Russian president Yanukovych was overthrown and replaced with a pro-western government.

Cold War Expands

If China gets sucked into the new Cold War, we could see the global tendency of low growth tending towards stagnation, which marked the last decade, transformed into a major depression, including the long-term decline of the global productive forces. China’s economy is already showing signs of facing a serious recession and Xi is cautious of provoking the US by overtly backing Putin as a result.

However, the US, with its Pivot to Asia, is determined to slow the pace of China’s economic growth, frustrate its expansion within the world markets via the Belt and Road project and hem it in with military alliances and naval bases, just as it has surrounded Russia. This callous policy presents the greatest danger – when would-be great powers see themselves being backed into a corner economically and militarily, they are tempted to gamble on breaking out by the use of force. There is therefore the ever-present danger of the new Cold War being transformed into a World War.

The greatest problem we face is that the international working class movement, its supposed ‘leadership’ in particular, seems to be paralysed by the challenges posed by a new period of inter-imperialist economic and geostrategic rivalry akin to the decades before 1914 or 1939, one which is liquidating the period of globalisation. To those used to the atrocities of US imperialism, Putin’s invasion has caused some confusion. Some have sought to paint Russia as the innocent victim of Nato encirclement and ignored the atrocities inflicted by Putin on the citizens of Ukraine, while others, larger in number, have been fooled by Russian atrocities into ignoring the crimes and motives of Nato in stoking the present conflict and thereby inadvertently aligned themselves with the forces of Western imperialism.

In fact the Chinese/Russian and US/EU camps are equally imperialist rivals, though the former are newer and hungrier imperialisms seeking to expand their share of semi-colonial exploitation. For this reason, a major reorientation of the working class and the left is urgently needed, one which rejects being recruited into either camp and instead sets out to assemble a revolutionary workers’ International, as it has in previous periods of capitalist crisis, particularly when faced with the approach of inter-imperialist war.

We must learn the lessons of the successes and failures of the four that have already existed, within which worked Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, V.I. Lenin, and Leon Trotsky. To combat today’s destructive regional wars, the expansion of the new Cold War and the increasing number of flashpoints between the great powers, we need to build a new international revolutionary party of the working class – a Fifth International.

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