Kings College London

Gregorio Bettiza is a member of the AHRC-funded Research Network “A New Cold War? Historical and Contemporary Ideological Competition in the International System”, PI Jonathan Leader Maynard, King’s College London

Rationale and research context

Scholars, politicians, international organizations and civil society actors have become increasingly concerned with forms of international competition linked to ‘ideologies.’ This concern often underlies rhetoric of a ‘New Cold War’,[1] but has been increasingly articulated in UK politics through the more technical notion of ‘systemic competition’. This is defined by the UK government as: a growing contest over international rules and norms; the formation of competing geopolitical and economic blocs of influence and values that cut across our security, economy and the institutions that underpin our way of life; the deliberate targeting of the vulnerabilities within democratic systems by authoritarian states and malign actors; and the testing of the boundary between war and peace...[2]

The UK government frames this competition as ‘ideological’, and other states, including the US, Russia, and China, have likewise proclaimed the increasingly ideological character of world politics. At the 2021 G7 Summit, US President Joe Biden announced: “We’re in a contest, not with China per se… with autocrats, autocratic governments around the world, as to whether or not democracies can compete with them in a rapidly changing 21st century.” Ideological divisions – between, left and right, liberals and authoritarians, nationalists and globalists, or populists and their opponents – are increasing across national boundaries and link to domestic politics and wider cultural changes.

While it may be fuelled and complicated by increased globalisation, ideological competition is not new. The Cold War was structured ideologically and intensified by links between geopolitics and domestic ideological divides. It was preceded by a ‘tripolar’ contest between liberal, fascist and communist ideologies in the interwar period. There are also many historical examples of ideological competition in specific regions, such as that between autocratic monarchies and liberal democracies in 19th Century Europe or secular nationalists and Islamists in the Middle East since the 1960s.[3]

Yet research on ideology’s role in systemic competition is limited, with work connecting contemporary developments with historical scholarship on the Cold War or other precedents especially rare. This leaves scholars and practitioners with few clear answers to many key questions, which this Research Network project will organise into three key categories:

  1. What exactly is ‘systemic competition’, and how (if at all) does it revolve around ideology? Some scholars deny that ideology is a factor in the current international system. Are they correct? What are the key mechanisms by which ideology might shape systemic competition? What are the processes by which ideological competition spreads transnationally, in history and today?
  2. How useful is the Cold War as an historical analogy for contemporary systemic competition? The UK Government itself acknowledges that: “Today’s international system cannot simply be reduced to ‘democracy versus autocracy’, or divided into binary, Cold War-style blocs.”[4] But in that case, what are the relevant contour lines that characterise past and present ideological competition? How might past precedents be misunderstood?
  3. What are the implications of greater ideological competition, based on historical precedents? What conditions make ideological competition more or less important for foreign policy? How should states and non-state actors respond? What dangers exist in doing so?

[1] E.g. Robert Legvold, “Managing the New Cold War: What Moscow and Washington Can Learn from the Last One,” Foreign Affairs 93, no. 4 (2014); Hal Brands and John Lewis Gaddis, “The New Cold War: America, China, and the Echoes of History,” Foreign Affairs 100, no. 6 (2021); Mark Jurgensmeyer, The New Cold War? Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2023).

[2] HM Government, Global Britain in a competitive age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, HM Government (London, 2021).

[3] Jaafar Aksikas, Arab Modernities: Islamism, Nationalism, and Liberalism in the Post-colonial Arab World (Bern: Peter Lang, 2009); John M. Owen, The Clash of Ideas in World Politics: Transnational Networks, States and Regime Change, 1510-2010 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), ch.7; Adeed Dawisha, “Arab Nationalism and Islamism: Competitive Past, Uncertain Future,” International Studies Review 2, no. 3 (2017).

[4] HM Government, Integrated Review Refresh: Responding to a more contested and volatile world, HM Government (London, 2023), 10.