How will history remember the next 20 years?
The Cold War, for all its danger, had the virtue of seeming definite. Once there was a well-defined enemy located across a geographically specific battlefield on the eastern edge of Western Europe. There were ritual nuclear signals between the superpowers. By contrast, the immediate future seems full of shadows. Some pundits say the world is on the threshold of Cold War II. Others despair of characterizing it at all. Perhaps the coming years will bring something totally new.
Events have a clarity in hindsight that was not obvious at the time. The term "World War I", for example, was coined only after World War II started, prior to which it was simply known as the Great War. But the past certainties are only apparent. Even the "Cold War" wasn't obviously that at the start.
CBS war correspondent Bill Downs wrote in 1951 that, "To my mind, the answer is: Yes, Korea is the beginning of World War III. The brilliant landings at Inchon and the cooperative efforts of the American armed forces with the United Nations Allies have won us a victory in Korea. But this is only the first battle in a major international struggle which now is engulfing the Far East and the entire world."
Fortunately, that wasn't true. It wasn't until later that governments began to realize they had entered a new era of limited war. While the phrase itself is variously attributed to George Orwell, Bernard Baruch or Walter Lippman, its adoption grew as its applicability became apparent. The Google Ngram Viewer, which charts the frequency of any set of terms by year, shows how the term Cold War gradually became the consensus nomenclature. It was never so widely used as right before the turn of the century, when its fame peaked and then gradually receded into memory.
So great was the relief that the Cold War stayed Cold that it is now sometimes called The Long Peace, "a term for the historical period following the end of World War II in 1945 ... marked by the absence of major wars between the great powers of the period".
Naming the future is a harder proposition. Those who have speculated on the matter frequently hazard two scenarios for the coming decades: 1) a new period of geopolitical rivalry (the so-called Cold War II) and/or 2) global catastrophic risk, a threat arising from within civilization itself.
The Cold War II theory is straightforward, essentially a sequel to familiar historical events with an updated cast of characters. This scenario has the advantage of being a known quantity and susceptible to tried methods of statecraft.
Cold War II refers to a renewed state of political and military tension between opposing geopolitical power-blocs, with one bloc typically reported as being led by Russia and/or China, and the other led by the United States or NATO ... akin to the original Cold War that saw a global confrontation between the Western Bloc led by the United States and the Eastern Bloc led by the Soviet Union, Russia's predecessor state. American political scientist Robert Legvold posits that the "new Cold War began the moment we went over the cliff, and that happened with the Ukraine crisis."