Cold War 2.0: trauma and nostalgia

Do you remember the Cold War? Do you remember its thirteen most dangerous 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? Do you remember the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion to overthrow the communist government of Fidel Castro? Remember the sirens that sounded frequently in New York, with young students huddled under their desks in rehearsal for a real Soviet attack?

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

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

While linear time flows steadily – 60 seconds to the minute, 60 minutes to the hour and so on – collective memory is more complicated to map. When the last US troops left Kabul in August 2021, for example, footage of helicopters carrying the last people was instantly paired with footage of helicopters carrying evacuees from downtown Saigon in April 1975. The footage from helicopters carrying the last of two failed US foreign interventions are etched in global memory. They collapse into a single performance 46 years apart.

Time may be linear, but memory is not.

It is through the collective memory that we must see the confrontation between the Russian Federation and the West. The crisis is not just about February 24, 2022 and the invasion of Ukraine, or the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, or the capture and annexation of Crimea in 2014, or Russia’s growing control over its near stranger.

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

On the other hand, the Western perception of Russia today is that of an awakening bear, the country that swept across Eastern Europe at the end of World War II, crushing the revolts in Budapest in 1956 and in Prague in 1968. Who said that Putin only wanted to control the Donbass? Even if he ends up guaranteeing that this is all he wants, the memories of Stalin’s false promises in Yalta in 1945 that would allow the peoples of Europe “to create the democratic institutions of their choice” will not be forgotten. , nor his betrayal behind the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939. “The Russians cannot be trusted” is part of the historical memory of the West.

Collective memory can be manipulated; it is not set in stone. British international relations scholar Jenny Edkins has argued that political leaders use trauma and nostalgia to maintain control over their citizens. Edkins thesis in Political trauma and memory is that “the old Newtonian way of thinking about time persists not because we haven’t had time to rethink those ideas in the light of new scientific analysis, but because linear, homogeneous time fits 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 causes wars, genocides and famines”.

Russian and 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 his trauma about the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War. Putin’s trauma led him to be nostalgic for the greatness of the Soviet Union and its leader’s position as one of two dominant figures in a bipolar world. Biden’s trauma of being a weak Democrat to Russia led him to fake 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 dominates 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 cemented his power. In the United States and the West, the conflict is portrayed as freedom versus autocracy, as in the Cold War it was communism versus capitalism. In Congress’ recent vote for cash 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 petty protest against President Biden. Few questions were asked about where the $40 billion came from or how best to use it to fix national infrastructure. While Congress quibbled over nickels and pennies in Biden’s Build Back Better, it didn’t argue over billions to defend motherhood and apple pie against the ravenous bear.

Edkins concludes his provocative book with a speculation of how states learn to better control time and memory. What we are subjected to, Edkins argues, is much deeper and more insidious than fake news or simple information warfare. According to Edkins, our memories are intertwined in today’s headlines by the state in a way that excludes opposition, serious dialogue and real politics.

Cold War 2.0 is part of the manipulation of trauma and nostalgia. Only extreme vigilance can hope to reveal the stories behind the stories. But even then, the real politics seems lost. People are dying of starvation, millions of people are being displaced by climate change as huge amounts of resources are wasted in this new Cold War, not to mention the tragic loss of life and destruction. The lessons of the first cold war have not been learned. Cold War 2.0 is different, but not better.

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