In the ongoing rush of events, it is easy to lose track of the big picture. As tensions grow between the U.S. and China, there are occasional references to a possible new cold war. Such thoughts are not misplaced; that is exactly where we are headed but the arena will not be limited to China – it will include Russia as well.
Lest we forget, the first decade of the historical Cold War (roughly 1949-59) was a confrontation between the U.S. (supported by its NATO allies and others) on the one hand and the Soviet Union (plus the Warsaw Pact) and Communist China on the other. It was an existential clash of political values (democracy vs. totalitarianism) and vital security interests (the future of Western Europe and Southeast Asia). At the political leadership level, it pitted Truman and Eisenhower against Stalin and Mao.
To a startling degree, the global political landscape of today is beginning to echo that earlier decade. Mark Twain once observed that history may not repeat itself but “it often rhymes.” As in the 1950s, a global contest involving political values and systems plus vital economic and security interests is taking shape like a gathering storm. As before, the stakes could hardly be higher. Senior administration officials including the Secretary of State and the National Security Advisor have focused on China – painting a stark picture of two deeply incompatible nations on a collision course. But, unlike the 1950s, when the messaging and policy of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations were clear and unified, the current situation is muddled by a president who refers approvingly of China’s president, Xi Jinping, as a “very, very good friend” – one he has previously asked to help him win reelection by ordering greater Chinese purchases of American farm products. If Xi had responded to Trump’s appeal with overt support, the current White House policy might look quite different. But Xi did not – and then came the pandemic originating in Wuhan. The China hawks in the administration seized the opportunity to shape policy.
At this point, the slide toward a new cold war is probably inevitable – but it did not have to be. The case of Russia is instructive. When the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia was led first by Mikhail Gorbachev and then Boris Yeltsin. Both men genuinely wanted constructive, even close, relations with the West in general and the U.S. in particular. During the Clinton administration, Vice President Gore conversed by phone with his Russian counterpart almost daily. Only when Vladimir Putin succeeded Yeltsin did the relationship turn negative. Putin, a former KGB officer, brought to the Kremlin a burning resentment regarding the Soviet Union’s demise and a determination to exact revenge on the U.S. for its key role. Domestically, Putin has subverted Russia’s fledgling democracy and has effectively situated himself as president for life – Russia’s new czar. Reminiscent of the 1950s, we now have a Russian autocracy bent on undermining U.S. interests at every possible opportunity – including a cyber campaign to damage the American electoral system. Putin has deliberately set relations with the U.S. on a path of hostility, leaving Washington with no real option but to respond in kind. That said, here too, the waters have been muddied by the president who clearly regards Putin as his best (and perhaps only) true friend in the outside world. The White House has revealed that Trump has phoned Putin six times just since March – the puppet reaching out to the puppeteer.
Deteriorating relations with China have a less personal and more geopolitical origin. But here, again, things could have been quite different. When Deng Xiaoping succeeded Mao in 1979-80, he abandoned the ideological agendas of the past and promoted the rapid modernization of China and the transformation of relations with America. Trade shot up, U.S. businesses opened factories in China, Chinese students flocked to American universities, and pandas showed up at the National Zoo in Washington. There was a huge rush of mutual goodwill and for twenty years or so the future looked bright. But powerful developments – some foreseeable and some not – changed the outlook fundamentally. China’s economy grew spectacularly. After a long period of poverty, weakness, and internal strife, China was now a huge success story. With that came an explosion of national pride and ambition. Increasingly, China’s leaders and citizens were determined to restore The Middle Kingdom to its perceived past glory and power. As part of that agenda, China began to rapidly build a modern military, focusing on naval and air power.
From an American perspective, all of this portended stress and strain in the relationship. It’s not easy adjusting to the rise of a major new and very ambitious great power. But most U.S. officials and scholars were convinced the problems could be managed. As long as China played by the rules and did not try to force the U.S. out of Asia, Beijing and Washington could work things out. Chinese leaders in the 1990s and early 2000s seemed to accept this implicit deal. When Xi became the president of China in 2013, hopes were high that he was the sort of modern leader that America could live with. Early on, Xi met with President Obama in California and spoke of a “new model of great power relations” – while pledging to end China’s practice of widespread industrial espionage. It all sounded pretty good.
But since that day, actual events have been the proverbial cold shower. China’s campaign to steal U.S. intellectual property has been relentless, including everything from massive cyber thefts to exploiting ethnic Chinese researchers in American science labs. Whenever possible, China has tried to acquire U.S. companies with advanced, sensitive technologies. U.S. businesses are routinely pressured to provide their proprietary secrets to Chinese competitors as the price of doing business in China. In the geopolitical arena, China has tried to seize control of a vast maritime domain – the South China Sea. Inside China, Xi has tossed aside all constraints on his power and has made himself, effectively, president for life – China’s new emperor.
So here we are again – facing two huge unfriendly autocracies that do not wish us well. If the U.S. responds – as it must – with a determined defense of its own values and interests, we will be, almost by definition, in a new cold war.