A historical perspective sometimes throws certain occurrences in the proper light for us to understand their significance, or lend us a better frame of reference for thinking about them. For this reason, it’s apt to compare the tension between Russia and the United States to that between Sparta and Athens during the Peloponnesian wars. The parallels are many: Athens, the democratic, cosmopolitan naval power is a good stand in for America whose power stems from it’s command of the global seas (with more than thirty aircraft carriers spread across every major water way in the world, this is the base of the US influence).
Sparta of 400 B.C.s was a hyper militaristic, oligarch dominated land based power with a tiny portion of Athen’s power at the beginning of the war. Sounds a lot like Russia.
Anyway, in case you’re not inclined to read all about Mediterranean/ Greek history, you should simply know that after the Greeks, led by Athens beat back Persia and effectively ended the Greco-Persian wars, Athens became the most powerful greek nation, spreading its navy and growing in commercial and military strength until it became the unchallenged super-power of the region. Sparta and her other allies started to worry about Athens’ power. As mistrust grew, the two nations and their respective group of allies (the Delian and Peloponnesian Leagues) started a series of political and strategic back and forths, leading up to Athens gaining a hold on Spartan sphere of influence by mediating a dispute between two Spartan allies, and siding with a group of Spartan ex-rebels. War started, ended for thirty years, sparked again, ended again, and finally, when Athens made a big push into Sicily, Sparta allied with some other nations and with support from the Persians, beat the Athenians until they surrendered. By the end of the Peloponnesian wars, Athens went from the super power to the vassal of Sparta.
You can get a detailed read of the events on MIT’s site here
Back to the Present day
America’s dominance of the world is being challenged (not for the first time) by Russia. We’ve been here before, during the Cold War, but this time, Russia is being led by Vladimir Putin who is arguably a better politician than Joseph Stalin. Also, it’s telling that China and Russia are beginning to buddy it up again, considering that their co-operation kept the Cold War alive until they suffered an ideological split. Today’s China is a completely different, more powerful beast, with the US dependent on it in a way it has never been before, and they know it. If the Eurasian league and the Chinese alternative to the US dominated banking system Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank both take off, coupled with Russia’s expanding influence in Central and Eastern Europe, and China’s growing power across the world, especially it’s economic influence in Latin America, Africa and the United States, it will embolden them to more openly challenge the U.S. And while it is true that China depends on the US markets for its exports, it’s not an insurmountable problem. They have huge internal populations, and nothing spurs domestic productivity like a war, as the US itself can attest in the aftermath of WW2.
However, due to the huge nuclear stockpile on both sides, it’s very unlikely that we’ll see a direct confrontation between the U.S. and Russia. In this regard at least, the real potential for mutual destruction continues to act as a deterrent to the open fight of the type we saw in the two world wars. That, instead of the United Nations, might be the real source of the relative global peace we’ve had since 1945. As they say, the capacity for untrammeled violence might be the biggest peacemaker there is.
What we might see, however, is the resurgence of the non-stop proxy wars that characterized the 60s. Already, we’ve seen it going on now in Ukraine, Syria and Yemen. It might get worse, as the anti-U.S. alliance grows stronger.
Worst case scenario, we could see a full scale war between the land powers (China, Russia, Iran etc) and the Sea powers and allies (US, UK, Israel), with a possible resolution on all sides to not use Nuclear weapons. With these things, you can never tell who is desperate enough, or foolhardy enough to do the unthinkable.
Let’s just keep watching for now.