Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary General, announced on Friday that the Cold War is “back with a vengeance”. Although the US and Russia are squaring off militarily in a way that has not been seen for decades, Guterres is wrong. This is not a return to the Cold War. This is something new.
His error is partly a challenge of vocabulary. It may appear pedantic in the context of rapidly escalating geopolitical tensions, but naming a phenomenon is intimately linked to our ability to understand it, and to recognise it as a reality.
When Tolstoy came up with the title Voyna i Mir, War and Peace, for his vast 1869 Napoleonic and Tsarist epic, he – like his contemporaries – worked on the assumption that the two words, together, are all-encompassing. War and peace are like a binary computer code: zero or one, on or off.
In English, at least from a linguistic perspective, he was right. War may be many things, but peace is, by definition, the absence of war. Logically, we can only be in one state or the other.
However, as theoretical physicists know, realities – and our understandings of them – are neither permanent nor finite. Quantum mechanics now defies what were assumed to be immutable Newtonian laws. In a similar way – equally challenging to accepted wisdom – the current security situation threatens the simple binary of war and peace. What we are living through is neither war nor peace in their traditional senses.
Antonio Guterres’s pronouncement that the Cold War is back is wrong because history is not repeating itself.
The phrase “the Cold War” was coined in 1945 by George Orwell in his essay “You and the Atom Bomb”, and was swiftly taken up in the USA to describe the evolving and increasingly glacial nuclear tension between the West and the USSR.
The Cold War lasted for almost 50 years, from the end of World War Two to the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1991, and it had two main features. The first was a tense ideological confrontation between capitalism and communism, embodied by the USA and the USSR as the world’s leading superpowers. The second was the explicit threat from both sides that any military confrontation would go nuclear.
Neither of these elements are present today. The USSR is gone, Russia has abandoned communism, and the world is not divided along ideological lines into allegiance to two superpowers. From a military perspective, the threats have also changed. Although they have escalated and proliferated, they are no longer framed in terms of nuclear armageddon.
Antonio Guterres is wrong to refer to the Cold War because today’s geopolitical instability comes from an entirely different place. Although it is nationalistic, it is not ideological. Rather, it is a throwback to the conflicts that have filled human history from the Bronze Age to the twentieth century. Today’s hostilities are about influence.
Another striking difference between the current situation and the Cold War is purpose. From Egypt’s victory at the battle of Megiddo in the fifteenth century BC (the first human battle recorded in any real detail) to the Iraq War of 2003 (one could select other engagements), war has always been, at root, a military contest aimed at forcing a political change, The Cold War was a textbook example, although unusually it managed to observe Sun Tzu’s ancient maxim that true military excellence lies in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.
Current global tension is therefore far from a return to the Cold War. It is something new and quintessentially twenty-first century. The phrase Antonio Guterres could have used more accurately would have been that we are now in a Grey War.
It is grey because it is indirect, unattributable, ambiguous, unacknowledged, without defined edges, and lacking clear purpose. It is the inevitable successor to the set-piece warfare of the twentieth century, whose rulebooks and international conventions on the laws of war have spurred states like Russia to focus their energies on developing skill and expertise outside and beyond, in places where there are few, or no, rules.
Today’s conflicts are also grey because there is no clarity around what is an act of war and what is not. Many events feel simultaneously like both or neither. When there is no rule book, it is hard to know where the line is. If official Russian media and state-sponsored social media sock puppet accounts assert – as they do – that Britain’s secret services staged the chemical attack in Douma, how do we classify that?
It is no accident that Grey Warfare has developed now, this decade, as its single largest enabler has been cyber technology, which has opened up unprecedented avenues for a wide range of hostile activities. The interconnectedness of the world’s electronic platforms has provided undreamed of opportunities for electronic destabilisation, from hacking and weaponising sensitive data to strategically crippling targeted infrastructure.
Internet technology has also given birth to the information space – a parallel universe in which all manner of realities can be created on websites, social media, chat boards, and in darkened corners where few tread.
Not long ago it was thought the internet offered the promise of life-enhancing resources for work, education, and relaxation. While it does, we now find it is also a vector for saturating the globe with fake news and disinformation that challenge even the most basic empirical facts, leaving every statement open to question, doubt, and revision until truth and falsehood become mere opinions.
Manipulating this information environment has become a key focus for many states, including Russia, China, and North Korea. This is a calculated act, as in this information war there are clear winners and losers. Authoritarian states which control the internet in their countries are able to shape and filter the information their populations receive. In contrast, democracies that value freedom of information are left vulnerable and disorientated by a confused mosaic of opposing narratives.
The cyber information domain is so strategically crucial that militaries the world over are developing “hybrid” or “full-spectrum” capabilities. This is now a necessity, as any conflict today has two parallel battlefields: a physical one and a cyber one.
Grey warfare is not, however, restricted to cyber space. Another factor making modern conflict grey is its amorphous nature. In the past year, Russian submarines have inspected data and power cables in the waters off Britain, and Russian frigates, cruisers, and an aircraft carrier have sailed down the Channel. Are these hostile acts? It is not easy to say. Are they part of a seemingly random ensemble of military and state sponsored acts in a campaign of Grey Warfare? Certainly.
The most interesting aspect to today’s Grey Warfare is to assess where it is going, and what its end state is. If all warfare aims to change a political situation, then we need to assess where the many strands of current global hostility are leading. The answer to that question, too, is unclear. In a word: it is grey.
Dominic Selwood is a journalist and historian