Does the ‘Global War on Terror’ inaugurated by George W. Bush have similarities to the Cold War?

Does the ‘Global War on Terror’ inaugurated by George W. Bush have similarities to the Cold War?

Since 2001, academics and the United States administration have continuously compared the war against terrorism to the Cold War. The confrontations that the United States and its allies experienced during the war against communism in the Cold War and, more recently, the War on Terror arguably share significant similarities. Although there is significant debate across academia, some argue that Terrorism is the new Communism which similarly seeks to challenge and overthrow Western ideas and the whole structure of the liberal democratic world order. Others, among them revisionist historians, Claim that the main similarity between the Cold War and the War on Terror is the desire of the US to benefit from conflict, capitalise and secure other countries in its economic structures for own benefit. However, even though these are significant arguments, there has been a significant rise of discourse that seeks to separate the War on Terror from other conflicts, including the Cold War, stating that it is a new kind of war which symbolises a profound social transformation in the contemporary globalised world. For the purpose of this essay I summarise the nature of the War on Terror and its prevalent similarities to the Cold War. After that I present arguments stating that the War on Terror is in fact significantly different.

After 9/11 the Bush administration urged the national policy to strengthen the core need to focus on a stronger homeland defence. The Department of Homeland Security was established as a movement toward centralisation of security at a national level. The 2002 National Security Strategy (NSS) relied on force and action to uphold international standards, unlike the previous years where leadership through co-operation was emphasised instead. Arguably that was the case because of the change of the nature of threat that was exerted on the US. Before the War on Terror the threat was to American values, whereas now the threat was a lot more serious, questioning survival. In the 1990’s the United States were involved in peace and humanitarian operations, supporting and extending American values worldwide. 2001, however, symbolised a shift in world order which directly threatened not just the United States but also its allies in Europe and elsewhere (Vrooman, 2004: 82).

The United States were faced with a new type of war: a war without an easily identifiable enemy, which was not tied to a nation-state as we would traditionally expect (NSS, 2002: 5). This posed a number of problems with deterrence: The impossibility of destroying an enemy in a single manoeuvre, difficulty of identifying the enemy, and possibility of a costly counter-attack by the enemy. Terrorist groups were thought to have the ability, with the help of modern technology, to communicate while staying in the shadow, coordinating strategies and tactics. This allowed them to be highly decentralised and elusive while at the same time have the ability to act simultaneously for greater effect. The attackers were further seen to be mobilised by a common ideational standpoint: fanatical militarism legitimised through interpretation of religious texts in a certain way. This posed a serious problem as the attackers could not be negotiated with and shared little of the ideas the ‘west’ and America had (Vrooman, 2004: 83). What we can deduct from this is that the War on Terror now had a more direct dimension, posing physical threat to the United States while at the same time being strongly ideological in nature, showing a confrontation of civilizational ideas (Stokes, 2003: 571). It also meant that, because the attackers could not be intimidated or discouraged by the cost that their attacks would incur upon themselves, that the potential magnitude of terrorist attacks was unprecedented and had to be dealt with similarly unprecedented force.

While the War on Terror has become a primary focus of the United States in the aftermath of 9/11, 2001, with the Bush doctrine, it was largely carried out as continuation of exiting struggles that the U.S. faced in the middle-east during the Cold War, particularly during Reagan’s presidency in the 1980’s. The Reagan’s administration, during that time, was also expected of reacting quickly and as a result drafted many concepts, that were later used in the Bush doctrine, such as identifying terrorism as a form of warfare and not crime, or fighting regimes that could be seen as sponsors of terror rather than inter-state or transnational organisations (Toaldo, 2012: 3, Tirman, 2006: 3). Elements of the War on Terror, including fatal terrorist strikes, were present during the Cold War. Therefore, we can expect that the experience gained by the U.S. government during the Cold War would reciprocate into the post-2001 War on Terror (Smart, 2005).

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The desire to be influential, rather than coercive through hard power, was seen as the main weakness that led to the increase of terrorist threat. In the late half of the 1980’s the secretary of state, George Shultz would actively advocate for a more aggressive stance, focusing on Libya in 1986. Scandals during the time made office officials leaning towards isolationism less inclined to act in this new manner. These ideas, however, would inspire the Bush administration in 2001 (Toaldo, 2012: 5), revolving around maintaining a physical presence of military might:

“To be safe, the US must be strong, with strength measured by readily available military might. Yet merely possessing military power does not suffice. Since perceptions shape reality, the US must leave others in no doubt as to its willingness to use power. Passivity invites aggression. Activism, if successful, enhances credibility” (A. Bacevich, 2011).

The US administration was interested in maintaining a foothold in the middle-east throughout the entire cold-war period, and the emphasis of the Bush doctrine on its importance is nothing new. The middle-east was an area of confrontation between the two superpowers of the time – The USSR and USA. The US identified the nations in the region as either violent radicals or moderate reformists, with the latter being their allies. Interestingly, the distinction originally used to categorize between areas of US and Soviet influence, saw a revival after 9/11, but this time with terrorists taking the place of the soviets. The philosophy of “with us or against us” that was so prominent during the Cold War remained a crucial factor affecting US involvement and foreign policy in the region (Harling and Malley, 2010).

What is fundamentally different with the new War on Terror, from the acts of terror that happened during the Cold War, is that it was no longer seen within the limits of being a tool in the Global Cold War, but an enemy in itself, since the threat of terrorism did not go away with USSR. The US was once again motivated to take action as soon as it saw a threat to the primacy of American ideals and its status as an absolute superpower (Toaldo, 2012: 23). The War on Terror continues the legacy that was conceived with the Cold War as there are: “affinities between terrorism and totalitarianism: both regard violence as an appropriate means to their political ends… Both reject the basic moral principles of Judeo-Christian civilization”(Jeanne Kirkpatrick in Toaldo, 2012: 24). Indeed, for the US, similarly to Middle-Eastern terrorists the ‘oriental’ Russian mind was viewed to do nothing more than pretend to be civilized and use this false image to work discretely in achieving its own ‘barbaric’ ends (Kennan, in Hutchings and Miazhevich, 2009: 4).

Larry Diamond (2002) categorizes terrorist groups that pose a threat to the US as the ‘new Bolsheviks’ due to their struggle against the same elements of leading capitalist nations that the ‘old Bolsheviks’ struggled against: corrupt, exploitative alliances and imperialism supported by the ‘West’ with US in charge. This logic is prevalent among large sections of the Muslim world, outside of terrorist groups, that was spared the benefits of post-Cold War world order led by US, because of corruption. Terrorist attack on the World Trade Center can therefore be seen as a symbol of a revolution, similar to that which happened in Russia in 1917:

“Like Hitler, Lenin and other charismatic demagogues before him (ideological enemies of the US), Osama bin Laden offers and alluring explanation: It is the fault of Jews, of the international capitalist system, and of the United States and the globalizing order it is imposing” (Diamond, 2002: 2).

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As the War on Terror developed, some academics went as far as to see its development a representation of a new Cold War, between post-Yeltsin Russia and the US-led ‘West’. Russia was blamed for its involvement in Afghanistan which resulted in formation of Al Qaeda, and the ‘West’, primarily the US, was blamed for providing the conditions necessary for terrorism to flourish through its intervention in Iraq and desire to form and maintain a form of imperialistic hegemony. In this case, terrorism, even though not under control of any of the sides, can be seen to function as a source of continuing competition and friction between the US and post-soviet Russia. (Hutchings and Miazhevich, 2009: 2).

The ‘us versus them’, shows that during the Cold War and after it with the War on Terror, there is a continuity of an ideological confrontation based on competing ideas. Some writers (revisionist historians such Chomsky, Gaddis, Stokes, J. and G. Kolko), took that further, to argue that behind the ideological confrontations which were, and still are so obvious, is hidden the true purpose of the perpetuating conflict of the US with the rest of the ‘non-Western’ world. They see the confrontation as being in place to justify broader geoeconomic interests of US capital. They argue that all along it was “not the containment of communism, but rather more directly the extension and expansion of American capitalism, according to its new economic power and needs” (Kolko J., and G., 1972: 23). Therefore, we can see the Cold War as structural feature of a much longer period of exploitative relations between advanced capitalist economies and less developed, poorer nations.

In order for the US economy to progress after the end of the Cold War confrontation between USSR and US and not stagnate, it had to find another front for its military-industrial complex which generated significant revenue and economic growth for the US. Massive military spending was once again justified when the War on Terror was brought to the table. Between the Cold War and the War on Terror there was a confrontation with Latin American countries which symbolized the continuity of economic interests as guiding foreign policy of the US. Latin America, being rich in natural resources, saw great amounts of US influence which ensured control over the area, preventing egalitarian socioeconomic reform that could potentially threaten US interests (Stokes, 2003). Us involvement in regional governments can be seen with the case of Colombia in the context of the Drug War in 2000 (Stokes, 2003: 577). Arguably we can see that ideology was not the only common theme present in the Cold War and the War on Terror, but there was also a geoeconomic rationale that was guiding US foreign policy from within in both wars. The US was not only interested in promoting democracy, but also in constructing a capitalist world order conductive to its interests (Chomsky, 1997).

War on Terror also poses some new challenges to US Foreign Policy, and it is a weakness to discuss it simply from the premise of ideological confrontation and structural, geoeconomic standpoint without giving the necessary attention to its unique nature. Indeed, some scholars do not find the link between US foreign policy during the Cold War and War on Terror convincing. The War on Terror can also be seen resulting from a completely new development in social conditions connected with globalization due to a bridge between Industrial and Information Age. Therefore the war is no longer about ideas or the economy, but against competing global structures symbolized within terrorism. Al Qaeda has become a brand resembling the corruption of Western ideas. Modern Western society now has terrorist networks within its borders with many young terrorists born within its countries fighting against it through symbols of Islam. This is, perhaps, a very important distinction between the Cold War, which was fought between two distinctive camps, and the War on Terror. US foreign policy makers understand this, as globalization and its impacts are discussed within National Security Strategy (Smart, 2005: 3).

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What is important however is that the American policy-makers still fail to understand the fact that terrorist groups are often not acting as a single organization within a centralized or decentralized structure, they act independently from each other. In Hardt and Negris Empire (2000), the multitude (or people of the modern proletariat) struggle against capitalism independently yet, at the same time, as a group. They do not communicate or organize, but pursue own small goals against the capitalist ‘empire’ system which add on to a greater picture and together represent a greater struggle. What is profoundly different about the War on Terror from the Cold War is that it pioneered this very same principle within terrorism: of many independent actors forming a greater struggle against a system (in this case the Western civilization) through their independent and autonomous actions.

Similarities can, without doubt, be seen in US foreign policy during the Cold War and the War on Terror. However these similarities are present even between the two wars, suggesting a pattern for US approach to foreign policy. Ideological, civilizational struggle, going as far as to claim it is still against Russia and America, can be used to describe the stance of US foreign policy in both conflicts just as well as structural economic and internal factors. However, reducing to these two points does not allow us to explain why the US has seen relatively low success in its fight against terrorism. It is a failure to identify the War on Terror in the same way the Cold War has been identified, since the first is fought on a new, rather obscure battleground that we do not yet fully understand against a highly decentralized enemy which is not embodied in any physical representative and works from within modern liberal society, against it. No matter how many similarities there are between the Cold War and the War on Terror, the US cannot fall into a trap of dealing with Terror the same way as it dealt with Communism as this is likely to never remove it, if not make it an even more significant threat.


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Tirman, J. (2006), “The War on Terror and the Cold War: They’re Not the Same”, The Audit of Conventional Wisdom, vol. 6 (6). Center for International Studies, MIT: MA.

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