How America and Russia Can Avoid Cold War 2

The United States and Russia are longtime geopolitical adversaries looking for a new way forward.

How America and Russia Can Avoid Cold War 2

The Cold War between the U.S. and Russia is either over for good or a new round is about to begin. As most things today, it all depends on whom you choose to believe. You can (and should) soberly agree that Russia hacked the American Presidential election and in some part helped elect Donald Trump, who has been consistently sympathetic to Russia himself, has had business interests there, featured Russia-friendly advisors in his campaign and potentially as part of his administration, like the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, known for his close relationship with President Putin from his days running Exxon Mobile. It just makes sense Russia would prefer this kind of candidate over the antagonistic Clinton.

Or you can say that none of that happened (even though all U.S. intelligence agencies confirm Russian involvement).  Trump himself said on many occasions that he’d like to see a reset of relations between U.S and Russia, but has very much denied Russian involvement in the hacks that leaked embarrassing emails from the Democratic Party to undermine the Clinton campaign at crucial moments, causing just enough momentum shift for Trump to pull it out at the last moment. His position is that admitting to some Russian interference, whether it was asked for or not, would add an air of illegitimacy to his election. Still, however damaging the leaks, they were only a part of Clinton's problems as a Presidential candidate and even Democrats must resign themselves to the fact that no matter what happened - Trump is President.

Interestingly, some thinkers like philosopher Slavoj Žižek, considered Clinton to be the Cold War candidate as she had support from many warhawks in the establishment on both sides of the aisle, and her defeat could be seen as the defeat of a Cold War mentality.

A car rides between US tanks, in October 1961, across the famous border of the American sector in Berlin, at Checkpoint Charlie crossing point, the only one in the Berlin Wall between East (Soviet sector) and West Berlin (American sector) used only by diplomats and foreigners. (Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images)

Will Trump and Putin really be such good friends and find areas of common interest? In the lead up to Trump’s inauguration, Putin wrote a cordial letter to Trump, full of holiday greetings and sentiment desiring "to take real steps to restore the framework of bilateral cooperation”. Provided, of course, these steps are taken in a “constructive and pragmatic manner”. 

Putin did not have a good relationship with President Obama, clashing on a number of fronts, from Crimea to Syria. As spies tell us, Putin did not take to heart Obama’s admonition to “cut it out”, after Obama confronted him about the hacking all the way back in September 2016. Starting fresh with a new American President can only help. The Russian leader sees areas of common interest to be at the core of the possible cooperation.

“Serious global and regional challenges, which our countries have had to face in recent years, show that relations between Russia and the US remain an important factor in ensuring stability and security of the modern world,” said President Putin’s letter

Trump, in turn, continued the good will:

“A very nice letter from Vladimir Putin; his thoughts are so correct. I hope both sides are able to live up to these thoughts, and we do not have to travel an alternate path.”

This sentiment, however, was tempered by a Trump and Putin exchange that sounded like the beginning of a new nuclear arms race. Responding to reports of Putin vowing to bolster Russia’s nuclear missile capabilities, Trump tweeted that U.S. “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”

He followed this up by telling MSNBC’s Mike Brzezinski that he’s ok with a new arms race:

“Let it be an arms race … we will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all”.

If Trump’s comments go beyond modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal to actually expanding it, this will mark the first time in decades when policy would shift away from reducing the stockpile. As reported by the New York Times, Russia and the U.S. have curbed their arsenals significantly, from a high of 30,000 warheads sported by the Americans in mid-1960, and 40,000 warheads that the Russians had in 1980, the stockpiles were brought down to about 7,000 warheads each. Surely, that’s thousands of times more than necessary to destroy our world as we know it, but it is much less than before.

It can also potentially violate the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the 2010 New Start Treaty, the arms control treaty with Russia, causing it to respond in kind. Under the New START Treaty, both the U.S. and Russia must deploy no more than 1,550 strategic warheads by February of 2018, a limit that'll stay until 2021, when it can be extended for 5 more years.

Putin actually sought to calm down the potential escalation, saying during his annual press conference that Russia does not want an arms race. But the exchange that already occurred between him and Trump and has left many feeling that the Cold War is heating up.  

Historically, the Cold War is considered a period from just about the end of World War II, when in 1947, the Truman Doctrine was articulated seeking to halt the expanse of Soviet influence. This state of the world lasted until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The war was “cold” because the U.S. and Soviet Union did not fight each other directly, instead engaging in all manner of geopolitical gamesmanship and fighting proxy wars like the Vietnam War or the war in Afghanistan. The U.S. presumably won the Cold War, leaving it the only superpower standing.

A selection of US newspaper headlines on President Truman's announcement that Soviet Union had conducted its first nuclear weapon test, 24th September 1949. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

One point of view, however, is that for Russia the Cold War never finished. It never accepted the loss of power and territory that came with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and may be looking to expand its sphere of influence, ultimately forming another large political entity under its control like the proposed Eurasian Union. Some of Russia’s provocative actions do indeed seem to correlate to this line of thinking, like 2014’s annexation of Crimea, supporting separatist movements in other parts of Ukraine, investing into divisive far-right nationalist parties across Europe, as well as its possible designs on Baltic nations like Latvia. For its part, Russia explains its motivations to be merely defensive, pushing back against the expanse of NATO too close to its borders and fulfilling an obligation to free Russian-speaking people who want to rejoin the motherland.

What will the future hold? For all of Donald Trump’s positive intentions towards Russia at this point, it’s simply unpredictable what he will actually do as President. But as the world is clearly in a state of flux, it’s easy to conceive of scenarios where he will be pushed and tested by Putin’s actions.

On the other hand, must Putin be viewed through an adversarial prism, like a Cold War enemy? Barring further provocations, a new relationship should be possible, based on mutual interests and values. One way to achieve that is to clarify America’s vision for the world and what it will and will not do. It can be argued that under President Obama the line was often quite fuzzy. It was hard for America’s enemies or allies to know where the country stood and whom it would support. While Putin thrives on unpredictability, America's strength in the world has been its internal stability and the consistency with which it has projected and supported its values.

It should also be noted that President Obama appears to have underestimated Putin and continued to do so, portraying Russia as essentially a “weaker” junior-league country in his last press conference of 2016. With damaging email leaks via Russian involvement possibly tipping the scales in a close election, this attitude seems unrealistic.

As the U.S. and many of its western allies find themselves with divided countries, rocked by the rise of populist movements, geopolitical plays like the Russian meddling in the Presidential election process can be born and will likely go unchallenged. Maybe that can be a blessing, avoiding further conflict. What can be gained by actively opposing Russia in the international arena? Is the heart of American policy towards Russia still ideological, territorial, or just simply corporate? There probably is more money to be made together. Plunged into a soul-searching period, America has an opportunity to emerge with a revamped identity. A cautiously optimistic new vision towards Russia should be a part of it.

Cover photo: Cars pass by a billboard showing US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin placed by pro-Serbian movement in the town of Danilovgrad on November 16, 2016. (Photo credit: SAVO PRELEVIC/AFP/Getty Images)

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source:

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source:

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source:

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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