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The Cold War is over — or is it?

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This March 19, 2021, photo composite shows leaders of the world’s three super powers (from left): Chinese President Xi Jinping, U.S. President Joe Biden, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Cold War has been over for more than three decades following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the Soviet Union’s later collapse. But with the emergence of China and Russia as potential adversaries, the specter of a new cold war cannot be dismissed. This new cold war, if it materializes, would be profoundly different than the first one for several reasons.

First, it will be waged across a broader front in which so-called non-kinetic means will be far more prominent vis-a-vis trade, investment and economic competition, social media, the internet, and other forms of espionage, propaganda, disinformation and misinformation.   

Second, unlike the old Soviet Union, China is an economic superpower whose GDP may one day eclipse that of the U.S. Third, both China and Russia have formidable, highly capable militaries, in some cases with technologies equal to America’s.

Currently, U.S. National Security Strategy is based on Cold War assumptions of the 20th century, with the aims being “to contain, deter and, if war comes, defeat” a range of potential adversaries headed by China. During the Cold War, containment, deterrence and alliances were the foundations of American and global security. Containment was directed at keeping the Soviet Union from expanding beyond its borders and invading Europe.

Deterrence ultimately meant reliance on nuclear and thermonuclear weapons that became expressed in the unfortunate shorthand term called MAD, standing for mutually assured destruction. MAD meant that in a thermonuclear war, each side could annihilate the other. Hence, for the first time in history, in war, there could be no winners, only losers.

To contain the Soviet Union, a string of alliances was constructed to surround that huge country in the Atlantic, the Middle East and Asia.  NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) was the most formidable. CENTO (Central Treaty Organization) and SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization) would collapse.

Yet, no one has challenged the relevance of containment and deterrence to the 21st century environment when a new MAD involving “massive attacks of disruption” such as a pandemic or extreme weather caused by climate change cannot be deterred and could be more destructive than China or Russia. And related to China and Russia, where can both be contained and deterred and where can they not?  

Regarding China, its militarization of islets in its various seas; the building of a strong military; “wolf warrior”  highly aggressive diplomacy; its Belt and Road initiative; its use of economic power to intimidate and influence; and its theft of intellectual property and use of internet espionage have neither been contained nor deterred. 

Fortunately, China has not historically been a military aggressor; in fact, it’s been far more constrained in using force than the U.S. 

Similarly, Russia has not been contained or deterred in its use of “active measures” intervening into the domestic politics of a number of western countries, principally the U.S. It was not contained or deterred from intervening in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine six years later. And Russia continues to embrace aggressive tactics and methods with little restraint.

Last, while NATO is the centerpiece of western security, the U.S. has a number of mutual defense treaties in Asia, principally with Japan, South Korea and the Philippines as well as the more ambiguous Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 (TRA). The U.S. should review these treaties in light of 21st century realities to determine if any changes are required that do not necessitate Senate approval. While some call for making the TRA into a mutual defense treaty binding the U.S. to defend Taiwan if attacked, that would be provocative and unlikely to gain support among the public or in Congress.

It is time to reexamine the concepts of containment, deterrence and alliances to determine how and where each is suited for the 21st century and where changes and even substitutions may be required. As massive attacks of disruption (MAD) of both man and nature are becoming far more crucial to national well-being, they must be incorporated into any examination. 

Containment, deterrence and alliances have long been the bedrock of Western security, but they are 20th century constructs. What is needed now is to adapt these traditional pillars of security for the 21st century. Failure to act on making this assessment almost certainly cannot help the future safety, security and prosperity of the U.S.

Harlan Ullman, Ph.D, is United Press International’s Arnaud deBorchgrave Distinguished Columnist. His latest book, due out this year, is “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: The Tragic History of How Massive Attacks of Disruption Endangered, Infected, Engulfed and Disunited a 51% Nation and the Rest of the World.” 

Tags China Cold War Containment Military doctrines Mutual assured destruction NATO Nuclear strategy Nuclear warfare Nuclear weapon Russia Soviet Union Soviet Union–United States relations

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