Even a brief look through the latest scholarship will reveal that the Cold War, as period-defining topoi, is losing its traction and importance. On the one hand, this is because the Cold War historiography has expanded dramatically over the last decade or so. The number of publications has sky-rocketed and the field now covers a broader range of issues which are studied by various, often competing, methodologies. However, an unfortunate result of all these otherwise fine developments is that the core issue, the East-West rivalry, is gradually becoming lost in the complex web of global, regional, and local connections, mediated by a myriad of networks comprised of international organizations, states, pressure groups, and individuals.[1]

On the other hand, this trend is further reinforced by global and transnational history by which the forces of globalisation take a central position, while the Cold War is secondary to the main story. Locked in its self-fulfilling narrative, this scholarship sees the 1970s as a period of great transformation, thus essentially repeating what Manuel Castells and other sociologists claimed twenty years ago.[2] Yet, still very close to the horizon of events which do not surpass one’s lifetime, we still know too little about what comes next to downplay the importance of one factor in favor of the other. The ideologies are not dead, nor has history ended in quasi-global democratic order as some prophesised back in the early 1990s.

A careful eye on recent developments contradicts the overly-optimistic views, too. The frozen conflict in Ukraine, a sort-of proxy war in Syria, ongoing turmoil in Venezuela with clashing Russian and Western interests, Novichok agents on British soil, the Chinese spying on secrets of the Mar-o-Lago club, American-Chinese trade wars, Huawei cut off of the Android operation system, or, indeed, alleged use of whales for gathering intelligence. This all shows that global politics is still primarily a ruthless quest for Hobbesian power rather than a search for everlasting Kantian peace. Let’s see things straight and not be misguided by the well-intentioned, but unfulfilled, goals of the United Nations and other IO’s, or the slogans of endless NGOs and advocacy networks.

Indeed, the very hallmark of transnational cooperation, the EU, is now under hard attack from centrifugal pressures of nationalism and populism which are intensely and intentionally cultivated by Russian money and internet trolls fighting the Kremlin cyber wars.

It may well be the case that the world has entered the era of global neocolonialism in which Western countries, divided among themselves and all facing middle class decline and corresponding disillusionment in democracy, must, in the long run, compete for leadership and power clout with BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and other rising economies (e.g. Indonesia or Turkey). And, as in the case of East-West rivalry during the Cold War or preceding European imperial competition, mineral resources, cheap labour, and corrupt regimes in Africa and Asia still provide the main battleground.

Let me prove this with a particularly fitting example. Since the late nineteenth century, the mineral-rich Katanga region, today split into several provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, became a playground for foreign powers who wanted to gain access and control of it. At first, the Belgians worked with the British and Americans, who directed the daily operations of the joint Anglo-Belgian mining company called Union minière du Haut Katanga. Fearing loss of control over the area, all non-Belgians were gradually dismissed from the enterprise in the wake of the First World War. However, the United States still remained the main market for Congolese copper in the inter-war period.[3]

After the Second World War, imports expanded to include cobalt, industrial diamonds, and uranium ore. Some eighty percent of American warheads contained uranium from Katanga, explaining why Washington did its best to keep Soviet influence in any form out of the area during the Cold War.[4] But, unlike in Central and Eastern Europe, the fall of the Berlin Wall brought no good results to the locals. Today, some 40,000 children, many just over four years old, work in local mines digging cobalt for Chinese mining companies to suit Western demand for cellphones and clean electric cars. As a matter of irony, according to the latest reports, the DRC lost over 400 thousand hectares of primary forests last year. This strongly suggests that the lower-grade metals, at least to a certain extent, continue to be extracted by burning ores in hundreds of small clay furnaces using wood as fuel, resulting in massive CO2 emissions and intense deforestation. Curiously enough, even in the early 20th century the Union minière did not use this traditional technique, instead preferring advanced industrial methods such as water-jacketed and reverberatory furnaces that burn coal or a leaching-electrolysis process.[5]

Nonetheless, Beijing’s quest for ‘controlling the fuel of the future’ goes well beyond Congo. According to the latest special report conducted by Foreign Policy Analytics, over the last few years, the Chinese state-owned or sponsored enterprises have systematically attempted to gain hands on the world’s reserves of cobalt, lithium, platinum-group metals, and rare earth elements. These are essential not only for the production of smart phones, electric cars, or solar panels and wind turbines, but are also widely used in satellites, semi-conductors, airplanes, nuclear weapons, and other types of weapons. Yet, China is still lacking the expertise necessary to surpass the Western countries in the production of advanced semi-conductors, as a recent spying case of on Dutch producer ASML has revealed. However, China’s control over major stakes in the production of “life-blood” metals in the unstable or economically weak countries of Sub-Saharan Africa and South America, as well as Australia, shows two things. Not only does this pose a serious threat to Western security, but it also illustrates how extremely idealistic some historiographical conceptualisations are.[6]

While I am no prophet and may be mistaken in drawing a connection between European imperialism, Cold War competition for the global South, and what I am calling a global neo-colonialism, I am convinced that the link offers a plausible framework for interpreting and understanding many developments the world has seen over the last one hundred and fifty years. Of course, it does not explain everything, but a pitfall of totality is a trap many Cold War, global, and transnational historians tend to fall into. Yes, the things are interconnected, but it is not that simple, unfortunately. We must single out how the structures and systems work, what is the role and agency of individual actors, and what are the links between them. Cold War, contemporary and global history therefore need a proper methodological reflection and critical dialogue with nearby disciplines – pure description and naïve belief in Edward Lorenz’s butterfly effect, in my mind, won’t work any longer.


Dr. Peter Svik is the Lise Meitner Fellow at the Institute of East European History, University of Vienna.

[1] M.P. Leffler and O.A. Westad (eds.), The Cambridge History of the Cold War, vol. I-III (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); J. Suri, ‘Conflict and Co-operation in the Cold War: New Directions in Contemporary Historical Research”, Journal of Contemporary History, 46:1 (2011), 5-9; R.H. Immerman and P. Goedde (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of the Cold War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); A.M. Kalinovski and C. Daigle (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of the Cold War (London: Routledge, 2014); F. Romero, ‘Cold War Historiography at the Crossroads’, Cold War History, 14:4 (2014), 685-703.

[2] For the general idea, see: M. Castells, The Rise of the Network Society (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996); N. Ferguson, S. Ch. Maier, E. Manela and D.J. Sargent (eds.), The Shock of the Global (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010); A. Irive (ed.), Global Interdependence: The World After 1945 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press); L. Warlouzet, Governing Europe in a Globalizing World: Neoliberalism and Its Alternatives Following the 1973 Oil Crisis (London: Routledge, 2018).

[3] D. R. Headrick, The Tentacles of Progress: Technology Transfer in the Age of Imperialism, 1850-1940 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 269-76.

[4] M.P. Diogo and D. van Laak, Europeans Globalizing: Mapping, Exploiting, Exchanging (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2019), 250; S. Mazov, A Distant Front in the Cold War: The USSR in West Africa and the Congo, 1956-1964 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), 81 offers slightly different figures.

[5] Headrick, The Tentacles of Progress, 269-76; B. Jones, ‘Child Miners Aged Four Living A Hell on Earth So You Can Drive an Electric Car”, The Mail, Sunday 5 August 2017. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4764208/Child-miners-aged-four-living-hell-Earth.html?fbclid=IwAR01n8POcbdNavRhl0UkpCZuRMV9bt9ApKT6b2UhexjRlPAztphcl97m86c.

[6] Foreign Policy Analytics, ‘Mining the Future: How China is set to dominate the next Industrial Revolution’, Foreign Policy Analytics Special Report, May 2019. https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/05/01/mining-the-future-china-critical-minerals-metals.