THE WORLD is now in the grip of a second cold war. Like the first, this second cold war will not be short. And, as New Zealanders and the rest of the planet’s peoples are discovering, this war will not be cheap – in either blood or treasure.
Let us begin with that commodity which, even more than petrochemicals, has the power to break the world – bread.
Between them, the Russian Federation and Ukraine produce roughly a third of the world’s wheat and half of its Sunflower Oil. Much of Africa and most of the Middle-East depend upon the flour and cooking-oil produced by the two nations currently tearing apart the breadbasket of Europe. Without flour and oil, hundreds-of-thousands, swelling to millions, of blameless families will soon be experiencing the pangs of hunger.
The last time this happened in the Middle East (largely as a consequence of a poor Russian harvest and the effects of a long and devastating drought) the streets of the afflicted nations were soon filled with angry protesters demanding not only bread, but political change.
The so-called “Arab Spring” proved to be as fruitless as it was convulsive. Those states which were not hurriedly returned to the status-quo-ante, like Egypt, were, like Syria and Libya, reduced to rubble and anarchy – courtesy of the United States, the United Kingdom, France and (in Syria) the Russian Federation.
A second Arab Spring may not turn out to be as easily managed as the first. Eleven years ago, relations between Russia and the West were sufficiently settled to permit a high degree of Western intervention in the upheavals. Obviously, that will not be the case today. The Second Cold War will more-or-less require the Russian Federation to do all it can to disrupt Arab states beholden to the West – like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Indeed, it is highly likely that the Russians will turn their wheat into a potent instrument of subversion.
None of these considerations applied at the outbreak of the First Cold War. The continental United States, untouched by the hand of war, its bank vaults bulging with the world’s gold, was in a position to feed a global human population approximately one quarter the size of today’s. The bountiful harvest of America’s Great Plains was more than enough to feed the world’s hungry, which it did, to the dramatic augmentation of American “soft power” wherever “US Aid” cargoes were unloaded.
As the Second Cold War unfolds, however, the USA’s effortless domination of 1945’s world population of 2 billion is unlikely to be repeated. Feeding the 8 billion human-beings of the 2020s will be a much taller order. In the years that lie ahead, food will be much too valuable to simply give away. Indeed, it will have become one of the most powerful weapons in the economic war that has already broken out between Russia and the West.
The other huge difference between the Second Cold War and the First is, of course, that in 1945 China was a devastated country, smashed to pieces by Japanese imperialism, and wracked by civil war. In 2022, China bestrides the world: not only an economic colossus, but also a military power it would be most unwise for the West to provoke too seriously.
The severing of all ties between Russia and the West, a decision which marks the end of the Age of Globalisation (and the neoliberal economic and political systems it sustained) can only result in the evolution of a gigantic Eurasian economic and military entity dominating the geopolitical pivot points of the entire planet.
Protected on their flanks by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the United States and its Western Hemisphere “allies” will have the option of splendid isolation.
Not so Europe, above which the Eurasian super-entity will tower like an angry Goliath. The never-ending civil war in Ukraine, prosecuted by ultra-nationalist guerrillas trained and equipped by the illiberal states of Eastern Europe will, like all such wars, engender unintended political consequences.
This new world-historical conflict may have started out as a fight for democracy and freedom, but it is unlikely to remain one for long. The comfortable states of Europe may be content to defend their affluence to the last Ukrainian, but Ukraine may not.
This Second Cold War will not be a repeat of the First.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 18 March 2022.