The return of the cold war?

History of a notion. In his first speech as US president on September 21, 2021, before the United Nations General Assembly, Joe Biden wanted to be reassuring: “We don’t want a new cold war or a world divided into rigid blocks. “ Three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall and then the collapse of the Soviet Union which had marked the victory by K.-O. the Western camp, the word returns in the public debate. “The return of a certain form of cold war is a reality”, analysis Michel Duclos, advisor at the Institut Montaigne, noting that “If the first opposed the United States to a strong Soviet Union and a weak China, they must face both a very strong China and a Russia which, even weakened compared to what it was, is very aggressive ”.

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Of course, the differences between the two periods are obvious. The East-West confrontation between 1947 and 1991 was total, at the same time military, ideological, economic and structuring the whole of the international relations during forty years. Trade between the two blocs was limited. China today is asserting itself as an essential partner in a globalized economy. The major common challenges, including the fight against climate change, require common responses. Beijing nonetheless represents a threat due to the aggressiveness of its regional geopolitical ambitions. But the confrontation avoids, at least for the moment, any direct armed conflict. Hence the reference to the cold war.

“A peace that is not a peace”

The phrase first appeared from the pen of George Orwell in an article for the British left-wing weekly Tribune of October 19, 1945. He predicted that after the Americans the Soviets would also have the bomb very quickly and that a balance of terror would then be established, “A permanent state of cold war” between two or three superpowers. “This end to large-scale wars would come at the cost of prolonging a peace which is not peace”, noted the writer and journalist. The word was then taken up, in 1947, by the banker Bernard Baruch, adviser to American President Harry Truman (1945-1953), then by the journalist Walter Lippmann who, in 1947, published the book The Cold War.

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It is difficult to determine exactly when the Cold War began. “There was no surprise attack, no declaration of war, or even any rupture of diplomatic relations, but a growing feeling of insecurity at the highest level in Moscow as in Washington and London”, writes John Lewis Gaddis, professor of military and naval history at Yale in The Cold War (Les Belles Lettres, 2019), noting that, even before their common victory over Nazism, the Westerners, on the one hand, and the Soviets, on the other, were already at war “On an ideological and geopolitical level”. The Yalta and Potsdam conferences in 1945 wanted to create a system of collective security for the world and establish areas of influence for Europe. They sanctioned the division of the Old Continent into two blocs and two military alliances, NATO on one side, the Warsaw Pact on the other.

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