What’s happening with China is not a new Cold War

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Cold War II. Cold War 2.0. The New Cold War. The air in Washington is thick with terms and phrases that reflect an increasingly common belief that the United States finds itself in a titanic struggle with an evil empire that is on the march to global domination — unless America can rally the free world to first contain and then defeat the forces of Eastern malevolence. 

We’ve been here before. This was precisely the worldview that underpinned America’s grand strategy during the original Cold War, from 1947-1991. But while the parallels with America’s mid-20th century “long, twilight struggle” with the Soviet Union may seem obvious to some, the geopolitical realities of the current moment bear little resemblance to those of that era. And any effort to impose the logic of the Cold War – and its derivative strategy of containment – on Sino-American relations today is likely to end in disaster. 

The Cold War paradigm that emerged in the decades following World War II reflected – albeit in a simplified and Manichean fashion – the realities of the international system as it then existed. And what were those realities? Well, to begin with, the system was bipolar, which simply means a distribution of power in which two states predominate. In the aftermath of World War II, these two states were the United States and the Soviet Union, the two victorious allies that emerged from the war as military “superpowers” and whose rivalry defined the basic contours of world politics until one pole, the Soviet Union, disappeared in 1991. 

But bipolarity was only one, albeit important, aspect of the post-war international order. The advent of bipolarity coincided with, and was shaped by, intense ideological competition, the dawn of the nuclear age, post-war reconstruction and a period of rapid decolonization, all against the backdrop of three decades of world war and global depression.

Confronted with this complex reality, U.S. policymakers fashioned a simplified intellectual model that they used to make sense of the world. The world, they reasoned, was defined by the logic of “cold war,” a term coined by George Orwell in late 1945 that was eagerly taken up in official Washington soon thereafter. 

As a model or intellectual framework, “cold war” reduced the complexities of the post-war order to a simple struggle between two nuclear-armed “superpowers,” one of which (the USSR) was ideologically motivated to pursue world domination, while the other sought simply to preserve a world safe for democracy. Given its nuclear dimension, this struggle was largely understood to entail geopolitical rivalry in the so-called Third World rather than direct superpower military conflict. And the stakes were cast in existential terms: either Soviet totalitarianism or American democracy would prevail. The other would necessarily be consigned to the dustbin of history. 

And from that simplified but compelling model, U.S. officials derived a grand strategy that prescribed how the United States should deal with the Soviet threat: containment.

According to the strategy, first officially articulated in a 1946 cable by U.S. diplomat George F. Kennan, the United States had to do whatever was necessary to deny the Soviet regime the ability to carry out its world-historical mission of spreading communism worldwide. In practice, this meant a full-spectrum effort designed to limit the Soviet bloc’s economic contact with the global economy, frustrating Moscow’s diplomacy and blocking military efforts to expand its influence abroad. Squeezed in this way, the logic ran, the Soviet-communist regime would first “mellow” and then collapse, effectively ending the Cold War and making the world safe for American democracy.

But the post-war world is not the world we inhabit today. The United States and China are not involved in a bipolar ideological struggle for the hearts and minds of a decolonizing world; today’s highly globalized economy is not and cannot easily be divided into starkly separated blocs; and China is not an ideologically driven, messianic power like the Soviet Union of Kennan’s era. 

Given these vast differences in the objective conditions of world politics, it is difficult to see how the intellectual tools of the “Cold War” and “containment” – problematic enough in their own time – could help U.S. policymakers deal with the geopolitical challenges of today. Indeed, the opposite is likely to be the case: Applying the strategic tools of yesterday to today’s very different world is likely to prove both impossible and, to the extent it is tried anyway, downright dangerous. 

It should be obvious that containing China as if it were the Soviet Union is impossible. Where the Soviet Union was an economic basket-case with few connections to the global economy beyond its vassal state, China is an economic powerhouse fully integrated into that economy. Indeed, Beijing’s economic footprint is now ubiquitous, with all that entails for China’s power and influence. There simply is no perimeter within which it can be contained. And few allies or “non-aligned” countries are willing to comprehensively disengage from China.

That such a strategy, were it to be tried, would prove costly to the point of being counter-productive should also be obvious. Not only would the cost of radical disengagement from China’s economy be prohibitive, but the cost associated with full-spectrum containment of China in all contested domains – including the poles, space, international organizations and cyber – would be astronomical. And the cost of ideological mobilization at home and abroad against Chinese communism would also be enormous.

Finally, that such a strategy would be dangerously provocative seems beyond doubt, especially given what we know about China’s tendency to attack when it feels its enemies are closing in.

None of this is to suggest that China’s increasing assertiveness – not to say belligerence – should go unchecked. China’s bid for regional and perhaps global predominance requires an appropriate strategic response on the part of the U.S. and other powers that don’t relish the prospect of living in a world dominated by the Chinese Communist Party. Rather, it is to make the point that imposing a Cold War interpretive frame on today’s distinctive variant of great power competition is to both misdiagnose the challenge and then to prescribe the wrong remedy.

In his masterpiece, “The Twenty Years’ Crisis,” E.H. Carr lamented that the world found itself on the brink of war in 1939 because European statesmen had brought the intellectual tools of an earlier era to bear on a reality to which they were profoundly ill-suited. The result: a catastrophic world war. Let’s not repeat that mistake. Let’s instead develop a strategy suited to the realities of today’s world — not the half-remembered, half-imagined world of the Cold War.

Andrew Latham is a professor of international relations at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. 

Tags CCP China China–United States relations Cold War Cold War Containment George F. Kennan Grand strategy Nuclear warfare Polarity Soviet Union Soviet Union–United States relations Superpower USSR

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