The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists introduced the Doomsday Clock in 1947, coinciding with the beginning of the first Cold War between two superpowers — the United States and the Soviet Union. This January, the clock was set at 90 seconds before midnight, the closest ever to “global catastrophe.”

After the demise of the Soviet empire starting in 1989, followed by the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991, President George H.W. Bush proclaimed the end of the Cold War and the beginning of a “New World Order” highlighted by collective security and international cooperation.

The U.S. succeeded in its three major goals during the first Cold War: discredit communism as a viable ideology; prevent the Soviet Union from expanding its empire; and do so without a direct nuclear confrontation with Moscow. 

The two adversaries came close to face-to-face conflict in Berlin in the late 1940s, but the U.S. still had a monopoly on atomic weapons. The other close call came during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when both countries possessed large nuclear arsenals.

In hindsight, the United States enjoyed at least three major advantages during the first Cold War. The U.S. alliance system, especially NATO, was far superior to the Soviet Warsaw Pact. In fact, most of the nations in the Soviet empire did not like Moscow’s repressive control and preferred their own independence, something they welcomed starting in 1989.

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Second, the Soviet Union was a superpower in strategic weapons, but a modest economic power. For long stretches it struggled to feed its own people and provide for their general welfare beyond subsistence levels. The economic gap between the West and the Soviet Union grew steadily, and Moscow found it could no longer compete in a variety of important sectors, including overall defense preparedness.

Third, unity within the Soviet Union was quite fragile and could only be maintained through dictatorial control emanating from Russia. Stalin and Brezhnev exercised the iron hand, but a few leaders had second thoughts, especially Gorbachev. Once the empire started to crumble, constituent parts of the Soviet Union began their own quest for autonomy from what they considered a Russian-dominated system. As a result, the Soviet Union soon imploded, replaced by 15 new nation-states, including Russia and Ukraine.

Unfortunately, we are now experiencing a second Cold War far different from President Bush’s aspirations. The United States and its allies are confronting a Russia with renewed imperial ambitions and in close alliance with a third nascent superpower, China.  

Russia is still weak economically, with the 11th largest economy measured in GDP and a per capita income only a fourth the level of neighboring Finland. However, China, with 1.4 billion people, has the world’s second largest economy and harbors its own imperial dreams. It has also pledged to build up a nuclear arsenal comparable to the U.S. and Russia.

President Joe Biden from Warsaw and President Vladimir Putin from Moscow recently gave “dueling” speeches on the same day, with Biden pledging to support Ukraine through thick and thin, and Putin vowing to return Ukraine to Russian control. Washington has also warned that China may soon dispatch greater financial assistance and “lethal” weapons to Russia, and fears that what Russia is now doing in Ukraine may be replicated by China in Taiwan.

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Tragically, this new Cold War may have consequences far graver than what transpired in the first Cold War of 1947-1991. The U.S. already accounts for 38% of global spending on defense and this may increase dramatically, at a time when the Congressional Budget Office projects U.S. government debt to balloon from $31 trillion in 2022 to $52 trillion in 2033.

Worst possible scenario? The United States may face the specter of a military confrontation thousands of miles away in Russia’s own backyard, and a simultaneous second-front confrontation thousands of miles away in China’s own backyard. The potential use of nuclear weapons just adds to this nightmare and helps explain why the Doomsday Clock now ticks so close to midnight.

On a more positive note, the first Cold War ended remarkably well for the U.S. and its allies. Putin’s disastrous foray into Ukraine has resulted in perhaps 200,000 Russian casualties and he may eventually seek a face-saving armistice or even be ousted from the Kremlin, like Khruschev after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Likewise, Xi Jinping may rethink his ties to the erratic Putin if it means forfeiting China’s lucrative economic links with the U.S., Europe and Japan. Hopefully, this second Cold War will end quickly and without further dire consequences for a besieged Ukraine and the Western alliance.

Earl Fry is a professor emeritus of political science at BYU and have written several books on U.S. foreign relations.