IT’S fashionable to talk about there being a new Cold War between the big western powers and Russia. Certainly the weekend bombing of Syria by the US, France and Britain had more to do with sending a warning to the Kremlin than with any synthetic outrage at the use of poison gas by the Assad regime. (After all, the West did absolutely nothing when Saddam Hussein used nerve gas to kill more than 20,000 Iranians and injure 100,000 more during the Iraq-Iran war. Of course, Saddam was on “our” side then.)

However, the emerging pattern of global economic and military rivalry in the mid-21st century is no re-run of the Cold War stand-off between the capitalist West and the communist bloc. Instead, we are seeing a return to the multi-polar, political and economic competition that characterised the start of the last century and led directly to the First World War. In this new age of imperialist super-rivalry, Russia is only a bit-part player.

Moscow may have nukes but Russia’s economy is barely the size of Spain’s. Certainly, Vladimir Putin is a blow-hard gambler (like Donald Trump) and he makes up for Russia’s economic backwardness by military adventurism – in Georgia, Crimea and now Syria. Yet to suggest Moscow poses a genuine, existential threat to the West is ridiculous. Russia is now a capitalist economy, heavily integrated into the global trading system. With a limited manufacturing base, Russia relies on exporting basic raw materials.

Thus, it is vulnerable to Western economic pressure.

At the start of this month, America imposed sanctions on 12 major Russian companies, supposedly in retaliation to the Skripal poisonings. In fact, Skipral proved a convenient cover for another of Trump’s cynical moves to promote US mining and energy companies, whose interests he was elected to represent. Result: the share price of Rusal, one of the world’s largest aluminium producers, was halved. Other key Russian companies and banks suffered a similar fate. Meanwhile, the share price of American producers of aluminium sky-rocketed.

Russia is no democracy and Putin has murdered or jailed local oligarchs who tried to use their wealth to influence politics. But equally, Putin is tolerated by the ruling capitalist elite (folk like arch-oligarch Vladimir Potanin) because he has ensured internal stability, so they can make money. If Putin’s adventures start to threaten the collective wealth of the Russian oligarch class, then we can expect to see it get restive.

Why is the West talking up the threat from Russia? Partly because it needs a bogeyman in order to justify increased defence spending. Most current weapons systems in Nato countries are showing signs of age – the Franco-British Storm Shadow cruise missiles fired at Syria on Saturday were designed more than 20 years ago. With the global economy in a long, secular downturn since 2008, new investment opportunities are desperately needed. Military spending fits the bill.

The joke is that Russia is far from a military super power any longer. The British media went into hysterics when the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov sailed through the North Sea en route to Syria, in 2016. But the Kuznetsov is Russia’s only carrier and the deployment to Syria proved an embarrassing disaster. One of its jet fighters ran out of fuel and crashed while waiting for the ship’s arrestor hooks to be repaired while another ran off the deck when the arrestor wires failed. Ooops!

This explains why Putin prefers to fight proxy wars, as in eastern Ukraine or Syria, or use cyber attacks to cause a nuisance. Russia is not capable of fighting a sustained, major war with anybody. But that does not mean the world is headed for peace – the very opposite is more likely.

After neoliberalism comes the new age of imperialism, which will dominate the mid and late 21st-century. The word “imperialism” conjures up images of direct colonialism. But it really means the extension of economic power through any form of coercion or control. That is what is replacing obeisance to the doctrine of free markets, globalisation and free trade. Of course, neoliberal globalisation was a con. It was invented by post-Reagan America to force the EU to open up to trade; integrate China and the Soviet bloc into the world capitalist economy after the fall of Communism, and to give US investment banks the ability to dominate global financial flows.

But now American business faces a raft of competitors in its own image, above all China. But not just China: the rise of Donald Trump and American economic nationalism indicates the US is prepared to treat former allies during the real Cold War – France, Germany, Canada and the UK – as economic enemies.

Capital does not exist in a political vacuum. It needs a state structure to protect property (domestic and external) and keep the working class in check. In particular, finance capital needs a strong state to protect its interests on the global stage. And so the stage is set for commercial rivalry to turn into military rivalry.

Certainly, no rational capitalist or financier wants conflict to get out of hand. But once imperialist rivalry becomes endemic, accidents do happen. What we are starting to see is a rise in the number of “diplomatic” accidents – the Syrian air strikes being the latest. The West is heavily implicated in Saudi Arabia’s murderous proxy war with Iran in Yemen. There is a major military build-up in the Baltic between Nato and Russia, and looming confrontation between Beijing and the West in the South China Sea. Last week also saw rumours that China plans to establish a naval base on the tiny island state of Vanuatu, between Australia and New Zealand. While China swiftly denied the rumours, the result was a bout of war hysteria and jingoism in Australia.

At some point, sometime, somewhere in the world, someone is going to miscalculate. All it took was the assassination of an obscure archduke in Sarajevo to start a world conflict that killed 40 million people. After this weekend’s sabre-rattling in Syria, it is imperative that the mass of ordinary citizens across the globe insert themselves into the political process and demand a halt to the slide to war. Scotland can be pivotal in creating such a mass movement.

One start would be for the Scottish ParliamentSNP, Labour and Greens – to call a European Citizens’ Assembly in Edinburgh. This would discuss the removal of tactical nuclear weapons from Europe west of the Urals, military de-escalation in the Baltic, and confidence-building measures to reduce tensions throughout the region. The key would be for individuals, academics, NGOs and trades unions to share experiences and create a popular opposition to the arms race.

Last week saw the premiere in London of a feature-length documentary I executive produced with the director Samir Mehanovic, exploring the plight of Syrian refugees. None of those we filmed could come for the premiere because the UK denied them entry. The myth of our time is that we have to accept the rules of the game set down by governments. Debates at Westminster are all well and good, but it is time for the people to have their say through direct action.