From 'War on Terror' to 'New Cold War': Words in search of a strategy

From 'War on Terror' to 'New Cold War': Words in search of a strategy
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In the months following the 9/11 terrorist attacks of September 2001, the language of a “war on terror” quickly took shape. By the time of President George W. Bush’s State of the Union speech in January 2002, it had rapidly escalated into a “global war on terrorism” against countries of the “Axis of Evil.” The ensuing decade was consumed by the costly occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Though President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaStephen Sondheim, legendary Broadway songwriter, dies at 91 With extreme gerrymanders locking in, Biden needs to make democracy preservation job one Republicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves MORE declared the “war on terror” over in May 2013, the war continues with a reduced presence of U.S. troops stationed across Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, and thousands of special operations forces on constant deployment worldwide. We don’t need the term “war on terror” anymore because it has become a permanent reality.


A similar sense of elevated headiness reminiscent of the early “war on terror” now animates America’s foreign policy establishment. This time the operating motto is “new Cold War.” Some say the “war on terror” was, all along, a diversion from the real strategic threat of great-power competition, while others believe China had been on a path of accommodation to a rules-based world order until the past decade, making the shift to the “new Cold War” necessary. 

Either way, the two prisms have been overlapping for a decade. Indeed, Russia’s invasions of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 prompted many to refer to a “new Cold War” with Russia before the term’s more recent application to China. In the Trump administration’s 2018 National Defense Strategy, China and Russia are lumped together and all but interchangeable at the same time.

And so we have casually, almost instinctively, slipped into a state of affairs in which two major organizing principles for America’s global military, intelligence and diplomatic posture co-exist, yet neither is meaningfully related to the other, though both are effectively open-ended and permanent in scope. It is as if we have fallen into two rabbit holes at more or less the same time. 

Unfortunately, both the “war on terror” and “new Cold War” phrases represent the ultimate conflation of ideology with analysis, of rhetoric with strategy. Analogies are made to past eras despite the differences between then and now being greater than the similarities. The desire to do something leaps ahead of deep thinking about what to do and why. Budgets drive strategy rather than the reverse, and strategies are not adequately matched with policies or resources. Yogi Berra said it best: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will get you there.”

One thing is certain: Whatever America decides to do, it will have fewer resources, domestically and internationally, at its disposal than in decades past.

The “new Cold War” isn’t waiting for America to make a fresh start, discover its Sputnik moment, and then surge to victory. America’s military is overstretched, even depleted in some areas; fiscal policy is a mess; politics and society are divided. Much as Americans got behind the “war on terror” in principle but only a tiny fraction bore any true burden, today there is a vague consensus that China seeks to undermine American primacy, but few are actually playing along.


As Cold War historian Arne Westad has pointed out, thinking about the “new Cold War” through the lens of the actual Cold War is both facile and dangerous. Containment is not an appropriate strategy for an interdependent, multipolar world. The point in time at which it could even conceivably have been tried expired in the 1990s. Today China is the world’s most connected trading power; it cannot be isolated. From Apple to GM, leading American companies actually are doubling down on China, with many more companies hoping that China’s promises to open its economy will boost their revenues there even further. And whatever business America doesn’t do with China, others will race to replace us. Witness how Europe’s Airbus and Japanese and Korean semiconductor firms are capturing American market share in the trade war.

Equally importantly, China today can inflict far more harm on the U.S. — militarily as well as economically — than America would be willing to bear compared with the contest against the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, few Americans had sympathies for their adversary. Today, there are millions of loyal, hard-working Chinese-Americans in all sectors and levels of American society, and an even greater number of Americans studying Chinese, traveling to China, doing business in China. Ours is hardly a culturally cohesive superpower committed to another epochal struggle.

Even if it were, have serious questions been logically considered and answered with feasible ideas? Militarily, Asian powers have long since awakened to China’s threat, and American assistance has been crucial to building their confidence to form regional coalitions such as the “Quad” involving India, Australia and Japan, whose members conduct joint military exercises with the U.S. but also help regional powers such as Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines build the capacity of their navies to patrol their waters. Even as China invests heavily in advanced military hardware and technologies, it cannot dominate Asia’s vast landscape of increasingly confident powers.

But in the arenas of economic and commercial policy, the U.S. fares miserably. During the Cold War, the U.S. intensified its business linkages with Asia to counter Soviet interests. Today, by not joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, America is ceding ground to high-quality commercial rivals from Canada to Japan to Australia every single day — even before the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership goes into effect later this year that will further strengthen China’s linkages across the region.

Washington also badly underestimated China’s Belt & Road Initiative, highlighting cases of Chinese debt traps of weak states rather than appreciating how dozens of countries are pining for rapid infrastructure deployment that the West has neglected to provide for nearly 70 years. This is tantamount to missing the forest for a few shrubs. Asia’s big trees — whether China itself, Japan, India, Korea, Russia or others — all favor the resurrection of the pan-Eurasian trading networks. There still is a role for nascent entities such as the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation but, by and large, America has missed the train on the new Silk Roads.

A comprehensive and multidimensional strategy for the “new Cold War” must involve an integrated view of these strategic military and economic domains, among others. Unfortunately, Washington has descended into a rhetorical abyss in which credibility rests on shrill chanting about a “new Cold War” with little time devoted to serious thinking about how to wage it.

At this stage, it isn’t clear what’s worse: the threat China poses to us, or the threat we pose to ourselves by not having a real strategy towards China. Either way, this doesn’t end well. 

Parag Khanna is a former fellow at the Brookings Institution and at New America, a think tank focused on national security, technology and other public policy issues. A former senior geopolitical adviser to U.S. Special Operations Forces, he is the author of “The Future is Asian: Commerce, Conflict, and Culture in the 21st Century” (2019).