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Goodbye, Cold War, Welcome to the Cool War

Goodbye, Cold War, Welcome to the Cool War

By Toby Harnden - March 3, 2013

It is nearly a quarter of a century since the Berlin Wall fell, bringing the Cold War to a close. The triumph of liberal democracy briefly seemed to herald “the end of history” before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, triggered what the Pentagon called GWOT — the global war on terrorism — and a clash of civilisations between the West and militant Islam.

Just over a decade later, this conflict is drawing to a close. Much of al-Qaeda has been dismantled; President Barack Obama has declared that “the tide of war is receding” and it is time to conduct nation-building at home.

America’s imperial ambitions are over, for the foreseeable future at least. The world is no longer uni-polar.

Although chastened by its “hot” wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington is anxious to limit the spread of the al-Qaeda franchise and is alarmed by the rise of its strategic rival and banker, China, whose economy is growing four times as fast as America’s and is on track to overtake the former hegemon in terms of GDP by 2017.

Welcome to what is being called “the cool war”: a conflict in which death is delivered by distant drones and the undeclared battlefield with China is cyberspace, where every virtual thrust is met with a counterthrust as the two nations probe and pierce each other’s defences.

The term was coined last month by David Rothkopf, chief executive and editor-at-large of the authoritative magazine Foreign Policy. He used it to characterise a war that “is a little warmer than cold because it seems likely to involve almost constant offensive measures that, while falling short of actual warfare, regularly seek to damage or weaken rivals or gain an edge through violations of sovereignty and penetration of defences”.

The second definition of “cool” taken on by this new mode of war, Rothkopf argued, was that it involved the latest cutting-edge technologies that are changing the paradigm of conflict to a much greater degree than any of those employed during the Cold War.

Such “coolness”, he might have added, is also a quality that flows from Obama’s own sang-froid — in stark contrast to the temperament of his Texan predecessor, George W Bush, who once cited “an old poster out West” in his determination to bring Osama bin Laden to justice and announced a “crusade” against “the evildoers”.

Rothkopf’s ruminations were prompted by the revelation in The New York Times that the Chinese army’s unit 61398 was behind a wave of cyberattacks on American institutions.

The existence of such attacks was nothing new. Nearly three years ago, William Lynn, then No 2 at the Pentagon, spoke out about the threat faced by US defence networks, which he said were “scanned millions of time a day and probed thousands of times a day”.

Lynn argued that a “new technological age” was just beginning. “Essentially, in the cyberworld, it’s 1929. We are still in the era of dirigibles and biplanes,” he said.

Leon Panetta, who stepped down as US defence secretary last week, has been more specific, raising the prospect last October of a “cyber Pearl Harbor”. “An aggressor nation or extremist group could use these kinds of cybertools to gain control of critical switches,” Panetta said.

“They could derail passenger trains . . . loaded with lethal chemicals. They could contaminate the water supply in major cities or shut down the power grid across large parts of the country.” He spoke of “a pre-9/11 moment” in which there were plots for cyberattacks that “could paralyse the nation”.

Much of China’s cyberactivity is corporate espionage on an industrial scale. But its activities have also included penetrating infrastructure networks that could plunge America — or Britain — into chaos at the click of a mouse.

“We know foreign countries and companies swipe our corporate secrets,” Obama warned in his State of the Union address last month. “Now our enemies are also seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions, our air-traffic control systems. We cannot look back years from now and wonder why we did nothing.”

The Pentagon has just announced it will be quintupling its cyberwarfare workforce from 900 to about 4,500.

IF THE keyboard is China’s new weapon of choice — though no one should discount its growing conventional military power — then America’s favourite is the drone missile, which can dispatch a human target in Yemen or Pakistan to oblivion on the secret orders of Obama carried out by an air force officer operating a joystick in a trailer on a base in Nevada.

Since he came to office, Obama has approved nearly 300 drone strikes in Pakistan alone, compared with fewer than 50 during the Bush administration.

The strikes are carried out in secret with no congressional oversight and an elastic — almost Orwellian — definition of “imminent threat”.

Obama was awarded a premature Nobel peace prize in 2009 mere months into his presidency, in part because of his lofty intentions to help create “a world without nuclear weapons”.

Now into his second term, he has made only modest progress in this quest to rid the planet of the signature weapon of the 20th century, but he will always be linked to the drone, which may turn out to be the signature weapon of the 21st.

AMERICANS have long had a fondness for buzz phrases encapsulating new paradigms to approaches to war. In the 1990s, there was “full-spectrum dominance” that saw the US as having overwhelming military superiority in every sphere, and “network-centric warfare”, based on information-sharing and technological advantage.

The Gulf War of 1991 was characterised by the “smart bomb” that could guide itself down a street and supposedly turn left at a traffic light. Once “shock and awe” had been discredited, counterinsurgency — or COIN — became dominant, about the same time that the Pentagon abandoned “GWOT” and substituted it with “overseas contingency operations”.

With “COINdinistas” such as General David Petraeus and McChrystal in the ascendant, the new doctrine was to flood a war zone with troops who would interact closely with local populations, living among the people and thereby marginalising the insurgent.

It was an approach that was central to the success of the Iraq “surge” in 2007, but the results in Afghanistan have been mixed. The notion of a “cool war” is in many ways a reaction to the boots-on-the-ground philosophy of the COINdinistas.

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Toby Harnden is the Washington bureau chief of The Sunday Times. You can follow him on Twitter here.

This article originally appeared in The Sunday Times. 

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