Our 'cold war' frame distorts more than just our view of China

To move around Washington now is to hear talk of “cold war” everywhere. The term increasingly seems to be the default characterization for our ever more adversarial relationship with China. Moreover, there is a growing corollary discussion about the term itself, especially as to its applicability and usefulness as a descriptor for that relationship.

It’s easy to see this spike in usage as the revival of a term that lost currency with the collapse of the Soviet Union 30 years ago. However, the fact is that the notion of cold war as a primary reference point or organizing principle for American foreign policy is not a revival — we never stopped using it. If you peruse the strategic literature of the past three decades you will find it replete with references such as “since the Cold War,” “in the wake of the Cold War,” “after the Cold War,” and, of course, the ubiquitous “post-Cold War.” 

In short, we never figured out what to call the new (i.e., post-Soviet) strategic environment, so we just continued to refer to it in terms of the former.

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Why does it matter what we call it? Well, it matters in a general sense because language influences thought. More specifically, however, it matters because of a psychological phenomenon called “framing.” 

A great example of framing can be found in a study that showed the different policy responses that participants preferred when crime was discussed as a “beast” versus a “virus.” When discussed as the former, participants in the study preferred to respond aggressively with punitive measures, but when discussed as the latter they preferred more preventative and reformative measures. In other words, the frame played a significant role in shaping their understanding of, and response to, the issue.

With that in mind, by long having framed the modern strategic environment in cold war terms, we have promoted — erroneously but powerfully — the notion that today’s strategic challenges resemble those of the Cold War. And worse, that the Cold War policy playbook — highly militarized, economically decoupled physical containment — is germane.

Sure, on the most cursory level our relationship with China might look like our relationship with the Cold War-era Soviet Union. We are indeed engaged in a strategic competition (some would say conflict) but not yet shooting at each other. The differences, however, are much more significant. In particular, China is fully enmeshed in the world — not just in the ever more expansive physical networks but also in the vast virtual networks that didn’t even exist during the Cold War.

This brings us to the real — more important — point: This is not just about China. It’s much bigger than that.

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Just as today’s China bears little resemblance to the Soviet Union, today’s broader strategic environment is nothing like that of the Cold War. The Cold War in systems parlance was complicated. It was highly bounded (the Soviet Union effectively was the strategic environment) and hierarchical (U.S.-NATO v. USSR-Warsaw Pact), making the international system’s behavioral dynamics comparatively well understood and predictable. In contrast, today’s strategic environment is complex — interconnected and interdependent. It is multi-dimensional and is so extraordinarily networked — “flat” — that its behavioral dynamics are much more volatile and unpredictable.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the generation of emergent phenomena — collective behaviors that, rather than being centrally directed from say, Beijing or Washington, grow organically out of the complex conditions. Examples span the spectrum of today’s — and tomorrow’s — most serious strategic challenges: climate change, globalization, urbanization, extremism, misinformation/disinformation, cyber/network infrastructure vulnerability, economic contagion, illiberalism and, of course, pandemics. None, of course, is amenable to the Cold War policy playbook.

But even if we just focus on China for another moment, it also should be evident that the greatest challenges China presents are more likely the globally emergent phenomena to which its behavior already contributes (see the list above) rather than its raw military power. So again, the Cold War model fails us.

In sum, it is vitally important that we stop referring to cold war — either in reference to China specifically or to the broader strategic environment more generally.

But it’s also not enough to just stop using the term “cold war.” We also need — desperately — to figure out a new term or characterization for how to better frame this extraordinarily complex strategic environment. Whatever that term or encapsulation proves to be, it must be “sticky” in that it attracts use and effectively eclipses “cold war.” Moreover, it must do a good job of capturing the essence —the unbounded, organic and emergent nature — of the strategic environment that it aims to describe.

If we get this right, however tardily, we finally can begin to see the world as it truly is. But if we don’t, we’re just going to keep seeing the world as we’ve misled ourselves to believe it is. And that, to put it mildly, can’t end well.

Josh Kerbel is a member of the research faculty at the U.S. National Intelligence University, where his primary focus is anticipatory intelligence. Prior to joining NIU, he held senior positions in the Defense Intelligence Agency; the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, including the National Intelligence Council; on the Navy staff; in the CIA; and with the Office of Naval Intelligence. The views expressed here are his alone.