Cold War 2.0: Trauma and Nostalgia

Remember the Cold War? Remember its most dangerous thirteen days when the world was dramatically close to a nuclear confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union over the latter’s missiles in Cuba? Remember the Bay of Pigs failed invasion to overthrow the communist Fidel Castro’s government? Remember sirens frequently blasting in New York City, with young students huddled under their desks in rehearsal for an actual Soviet attack?

If you didn’t live through these actual events and have only heard about them or read historical narratives, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 is part of the West’s collective memory. Despite the euphoria at the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the Cold War never ended. As the United States continues to send more and more upgraded weapons to Ukraine and with Sweden and Finland knocking on the door of NATO, we are fast approaching Cold War 2.0.

Collective memory should never be ignored. In 2005, Vladimir Putin said about the 1900’s: “The collapse of the Soviet Union was the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Greater than the two world wars in which tens of millions of Russians died? Evidently it was for him. In the United States, the Civil War continues, with Southern states only recently being ordered to take down their Confederate flags over 100 years after the surrender of General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House in April 1865.

While linear time goes on regularly – 60 seconds to the minute, 60 minutes to the hour and so forth – collective memory is more complicated to map. When the last American troops left Kabul in August 2021, for example, images of helicopters flying the last people out were instantly associated with images of helicopters flying evacuees out from downtown Saigon in April 1975. The pictures of helicopters flying the last people out of two United States failed foreign interventions are seared in global memory. They collapse into one representation 46 years apart.

Time may be linear, but memory is not.

It is through collective memory that the confrontation between the Russian Federation and the West must be seen. The crisis is not just about February 24, 2022, and the invasion of Ukraine, or the 2008 Russian-Georgian War, or the 2014 seizure and annexation of Crimea, or Russia’s increasing control of its Near Abroad.

The crisis is about Vladimir Putin’s vision of Ukraine’s being part of Russia, his nostalgia for the grandeur of the Soviet Union with his evident role as its prominent leader on the world stage. And, significantly, Russians keep repeating what James Baker promised Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990: “There would be no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction for forces of NATO one inch to the east.” Whether true or not, the promise is part of Russia’s historical narrative of what took place during the collapse of the Soviet Union.

On the other side, the West’s perception of today’s Russia is that of an awakening bear, the country that swept through Eastern Europe at the end of World War II, crushing revolts in Budapest in 1956 and Prague in 1968. Who says Putin only wants to control Donbass? Even if he eventually guarantees that that is all he wants, memories of Stalin’s false promises at Yalta in 1945 that would allow the people of Europe “to create democratic institutions of their own choice” will not be forgotten, nor his treachery behind the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939. “Russians can’t be trusted,” is part of the West’s historical memory.

Collective memory can be manipulated; it is not engraved in stone. The British International Relations scholar Jenny Edkins has argued that political leaders use trauma and nostalgia to keep control of their citizens. Edkins’ thesis in Trauma and the Memory of Politics is that “the old Newtonian way of thinking about time persists not because we haven’t got around to re-thinking these ideas in the light of new scientific analysis, but because linear, homogeneous time suits a particular form of power – sovereign power, the power of the modern state.” “Sovereign power,” she adds, “produces and is itself produced by trauma: it provokes wars, genocides and famines.”

Russian and the Western leaders use historical narratives to increase their sovereign power. While Putin has his trauma about the end of the Soviet Union, the West has its trauma about the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War. Putin’s trauma has led him to be nostalgic about the greatness of the Soviet Union and the position of its leader as one of two dominant figures in a bipolar world. Biden’s trauma about being a weak Democrat towards Russia has led him to simulate President John Kennedy’s actions during the tense 13 days. He sees himself as the leader of the Free World, defending democracy against tyrants by pouring arms and money into Ukraine through a proxy war with Russia that has all the elements of a Cold War 2.0.

State power is dominating in Russia and the West through a perverse nostalgia. Putin’s constant references to the past Great Patriotic War and the heroism of his people fighting previous invasions of Russia by the West have added to his power. In the United States and the West, the conflict is described as freedom against autocracy, as during the Cold War it was Communism vs. Capitalism. In the recent Congressional vote for money for Ukraine, the authorization bill passed 86-11 in the Senate and 368-57 in the House, with only Republicans voting against it as a form of small protest President Biden. Few questions were asked about where the $40 billion comes from or how it could better be used for repairing domestic infrastructure. While the Congress quibbled over nickels and dimes in Biden’s Build Back Better, it didn’t argue over billions for defending Motherhood and Apple Pie against the voracious bear.

Edkins concludes her provocative book with a speculation about how states are learning how to better control time and memory. What we are being submitted to, Edkins argues, is much deeper and more insidious than fake news or simple information warfare. According to Edkins, our memories are being interwoven into today’s headlines by the state in ways that shut out opposition, serious dialogue and real politics.

Cold War 2.0 is a part of the manipulation of trauma and nostalgia. Only extreme vigilance can hope to reveal the narratives behind the narratives. But even then, the truly political seems lost. People are dying of famine, millions are displaced because of climate change while huge amounts of resources are being wasted in this new Cold War, not to mention the tragic loss of lives and destruction. Lessons from the first Cold War have not been learned. Cold War 2.0 is different, but no better.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.