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The Mimetic Origins of the Cold War

Washington-Moscow: still two rival powers?

January 2015 | #55

by: Claudio Lanza
pp: 59
ISSN: 2038-632X

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New “cold” winds seem to come back in international relations (Baker, 2014). Because of the events of Ukraine, relations between the United States (US) and Russia have been rapidly deteriorating. A new, modern, American containment policy against Moscow, based on economic sanctions, now affects the relations between West and Moscow. Economic sanctions ordered by Washington supported by its Western allies, Brussels and the European Member States (MS), since March 2014 (CCTV America, 2014). A framework that seems to find its explanation in what has been called “Cold War logic”.
Is a new Cold War just a media fascination? In fact, the return of this logic seems to be an indisputable fact of contemporary international relations, at least between Washington and Moscow. Although there is no longer a bipolar division in two spheres of influence, US-Russia relations still have implications that go beyond the interests of their respective nations. For example, the lack of Russian support for the United Nations’ (UN) intervention in Syria, by its veto in the Security Council, is emblematic. Although downgraded by the super power rate, Moscow is demonstrating that it never buried the rivalry that characterized East-West relations during the Cold War years. In other words, it still opposes itself to the spread of what is perceived as the liberal order promotion by Washington and Bruxelles. Exacerbated by the "question Ukraine", this antagonism is still able of having global influences within international politics (Buras et al., 2014).
The debate between rationalists and constructivists has gained new vigour over the reasons linked to this renewed antagonism. Realists claim that the opposition between Vladimir Putin on the one hand, and Barack Obama, Angela Merkel and François Hollande on the other, on the fate of Ukraine, has a solid rational basis. Firstly, because Washington, Brussels (Paris and Berlin) and NATO have sought to expand their influence in Eastern Europe and wrest the control of Ukraine from Russia. In return, Moscow has responded by defending its vital national security interest, occupying Crimea and trying to annex the eastern part of Ukraine. These divergent interests, plus the West indirect intervention in the conflict – sending weapons to the Ukrainian government – has created a military escalation that led to the current situation. It was not an ideological confrontation, but a divergence of power interests that has led to a military escalation because it encompassed a vital national security interest of the Russians. 
Constructivists argue that this thesis is full of contradictions. According to them, in fact, realists’ argument does not explain the absence of any empirical evidence about Western strategic interest above
Ukraine since its “birth” in 1991. Secondly, given that NATO is only a “paper tiger” now,  Moscow’s perceptions and reactions against NATO’s influence in Ukraine cannot be explained by logics of power. Thirdly, from a geopolitical point of view, Russian’s interest for Ukraine cannot be explained by avoiding any cultural, religious and historical factor. Moreover, the fear of further disproportional military escalation by Moscow – which often has driven the adoption of new sanctions – it is based on pseudo-psychological analysis of Putin’s way of thinking (Motyl, 2015).
According to this paper, the debate between realists and constructivists is misleading. In fact, if there is no doubt that Ukraine has acquired a greater symbolic value than its intrinsic real value. It is also true that the actors involved take their decisions based on this altered perception of reality and, because of that, according to their points of view, their actions are very rational. Then, according to this paper, the right answer is the third. It is the rivalry, still present between the two powers, which has altered their perceptions of reality, leading them to consider rational what actually did not appear. Thus, the ideological aspect of the conflict would be an endogenous product of US-Russia rivalry. A latent rivalry that would result every time one of the actors’ behaviour is driven by a particular desire.
In order to investigate the dynamics that led to the emergence of an ideological confrontation between US-Russia, this paper suggests a new model of analysis of international rivalry, based on a cognitive approach to international relations (IR) as well as an individual level of analysis. This paper’s goal is to investigate the origins of the Cold War providing a better understanding on the emergence of those dynamics. The expected results are new useful insights to understand in depth the reasons for the US-Russia contemporary tough confrontation. The question that this paper seeks to answer are: is the Cold War a unique and unrepeatable moment in the history of international relations? If not, can it re-emerge, in different ways, driven by certain dynamics?
The first part of this paper is based on the theoretical analysis of US-Soviet Union (URSS) rivalry.  Their relations will be analysed from the theoretical perspective. In particular, it will be offered a brief summary of the approaches used to understand international rivalry. Furthermore, a critique of these approaches will be offered. This critique has a twofold implication. On the one hand, it highlights how the various rivalry definitions proposed have strong explanatory limits due to the lack of understanding on those factors triggering the rivalry itself, before an open conflict occurs. Additionally, it stresses out the need for a cognitive-psychological approach to churn out a new definition of rivalry as well as a model of analysis provided with explanatory and predictive abilities to grasp the emergence-phase of an international rivalry.
In the second part, a new model of international rivalry analysis, based on a cognitive approach, will be designed. The aim is to provide a deeper understanding of how decision-makers grasp the surrounding environment, that is, how they internalize, interpret and react by external stimuli. A new definition of rivalry will be proposed, in order to identify those dynamics and factors that lie under the rivalry emergence, taking into account the political, economic and psychological dimensions of dyad inner relations. This new definition of rivalry, called mimetic rivalry, will be based on René Girard’s   theory of mimetic desire application to international politics. 
In the third part, the mimetic rivalry model will be used to identify three phases of US-URSS emergence of rivalry. Firstly, the relations between Washington and Moscow at the ending of WWI, during the years of a new world order reconstruction, will be re-framed. Secondly, the post-WWII period will be analysed. Particular attention will be driven to the peace conferences, held by Allies, with the aim to define the new structure of the post-WWII world order. Finally, this chapter will focus on the stage that preceded and led to the Cold War formal outbreak: the Korean War.
In conclusion, we will try to answer the following questions: are we facing a new - potential - "Cold War" between Washington and Moscow? Is the Cold War a unique and unrepeatable moment in the IR history? Can Cold War re-emerges in different ways, though?  The hypothesis advanced by this paper is that the constructivist and realist arguments are flawed because they cannot provide a full understanding of those dynamics that lie under US-URSS rivalry emergence. The reason is due to their strict linkage with the actors’ altered point of view within the rivalry. In fact, rivalry traces are to be found elsewhere, namely in the mimetic origins of actors’ ideological behaviour.


Table of contents

Theory of international rivalry
Enduring rivalry
Strategic rivalry
Cognitive approach between psychology and “folk psychology”
Theory of mimetic desire
Mimesis, violence and conflict. Construction of a model of analysis
Operationalization of the mimetic rivalry model
Origins of the cold war
US - USSR: destined to collide?
FDR and Stalin: pragmatic cooperation with the “evil”
Outbreak of the rivalry – Truman’s administration

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