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Analysis From Washington -- A Return To The Cold War?

Washington, May 10 (RFE/RL) - The appearance of red flags at Russian commemorations of the end of World War II, talk of the restoration of the "Soviet fatherland" in Belarus, expressions of concern in Ukraine about the reemergence of two military blocs in Europe, and reports about spies, Russian and otherwise, have prompted some to speak about a return to the Cold War.

Some of those making these charges, of course, are doing so to advance their own political agendas. Others are doing so out of a genuine fear of a return to the Europe of a decade ago.

But most are doing so because the Cold War formed for most adults the basic template against which all other international systems can be judged. And they are doing so because there is no universal agreement on just what the Cold War was and how it differed from more normal if more historically distant geopolitical competitions.

Like the Middle Ages, the Cold War is something everyone thinks he understands until he tries to define it. There is little agreement on when it began and even less on precisely when it ended, who caused it, and who won -- if indeed anyone did.

But most people East and West do agree on one thing: the Cold War was above all an ideological struggle between two radically incompatible systems of thought: the liberal democratic ideal of the West which supported the ideas of democracy, a pluralist society, and a free market economy, and the communist ideal of the Soviet Union which believed in a vanguard political party, a dictatorship in the name of a socialist system, and total state control of the economy.

That ideological foundation gave the Cold War its special urgency, but only in a few cases did it change the means the two sides could and did use in prosecuting their respective cases.

As before the Cold War and so too after it, countries have always engaged in espionage against each other, they have always maintained armies and formed alliances to defend themselves, and they have always attempted to advance their own interests even at the expense of others.

In the euphoria that followed the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989 and the disintegration of the U.S.S.R. in 1991, many in both East and West began to speak of the "end of history," of the appearance of a new world in which all these historically normal forms of geopolitical activity and competition would be overcome.

The reappearance of these practices now -- coupled with the reemergence of communist parties who had been declared dead and buried -- has led such people to conclude that Europe is heading back to the bad old days of the Cold War. In fact, most of what is happening is a return to the kind of international relations that have characterized European history for the last century.

And even the communists of today seem more driven by a desire to advance their own political agendas at home -- a reversal of privatization, for example -- and their respective country's historical geopolitical interests -- domination over their immediate neighbors -- rather than a worldwide agenda of revolutionary transformation.

Does the fact that there is not about to be a new Cold War anytime soon mean that there is nothing to worry about? Not at all. Instead it suggests that we must face the harsh reality of geopolitical competition without the ideological fuel that helped provide public support for it in the democratic West during the Cold War.

That could make the future more difficult for the West but not as problematic as the threats of a new Cold War might suggest.