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Cold War inevitability: Be careful what you wish for

It could mean all the destructive things created by the War on Terror — increased by several orders of magnitude.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

Are China and the United States doomed to engage in a Cold War-like rivalry? There is a growing belief in the U.S. that a second Cold War is inevitable whether we want one or not, but it is not yet too late to choose a different path for Washington that steers clear of a contest for supremacy in East Asia that we do not need to have.

It is the embrace of this imagined “inevitability” that is fueling the rivalry and leading both countries towards an avoidable conflict. 

Just as shooting wars are not inevitable, neither are cold war rivalries. In fact, it is the assumption that a conflict is inevitable that frequently paves the way for that conflict and makes it much more likely to happen than it otherwise would be. Once we have conceded the inevitability of a new Cold War, all our attention becomes focused on how to prepare for it rather than looking for alternative courses of action to be taken. As a result, we risk consigning future generations of Americans to living with the same kind of costly and dangerous rivalry that defined the second half of the twentieth century, and the next time we may not be so fortunate in having a rival that will simply collapse and disappear. 

George Kennan studied this question of the inevitability of conflict closely in his history of the creation of the Franco-Russian alliance before WWI, The Fateful Alliance. As he put it, “The assumption of the inevitability of a war is allowed to rest exclusively on the fact that 'we' and 'they' are both preparing so intensively for it. No other reason is needed for the acceptance of its necessity.” 

Kennan wrote these words in the shadow of U.S.-Soviet rivalry and the possibility of nuclear war, and he was concerned that another great power conflagration would be far more catastrophic than the world wars. Luckily, the first Cold War ended without that disaster unfolding, but it was this good luck that has blinded us to the dangers of courting new great power conflict through rivalry with another nuclear-armed state. Having avoided a war with the Soviets that was also once believed to be inevitable, the U.S. is in danger of rushing into a contest with China that likewise risks potentially devastating armed conflict.

Kennan wrote The Fateful Alliance almost forty years after he defined the original containment doctrine at the start of the Cold War with the USSR. Over the course of those decades, he saw how his limited and defensive doctrine was turned into something much more ambitious, militaristic, and reckless than he had envisioned. Now that talk of “containing” China is all the rage, we should be extremely wary of how that could be used as a springboard for more aggressive policies that go beyond defending existing allies. Who can guess what unnecessary war in some distant corner of the world will be sold to the public in the name of “containing” Chinese power? If we would avoid those wars, we would do well to avoid the Cold War to which they will belong. 

Some analysts and pundits already accept a Cold War with China as a given. For them, there is no longer any question of avoiding it, and it now falls to the U.S. to outcompete the other side. Hal Brands and John Lewis Gaddis have said as much in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs: “It’s no longer debatable that the United States and China, tacit allies during the last half of the last Cold War, are entering their own new cold war: Chinese President Xi Jinping has declared it, and a rare bipartisan consensus in the United States has accepted the challenge.” It is convenient for hawks to announce that the debate was over before it had even barely begun, but it’s not obvious that the U.S. is necessarily locked into following the path of confrontation that they would have us travel. As it happens, Xi Jinping did not declare a new cold war, but instead warned against one. To the extent that there is a bipartisan consensus in Congress on this question, that is hardly an endorsement of its wisdom considering the many other debacles that have enjoyed broad bipartisan support. 

A new Cold War does not simply mean rising tensions and general hostility with China. It will in short order mean an escalating, expensive arms race, the increased likelihood of direct conflict, the eruption of proxy wars in other countries, the enabling of “reliable” dictators to keep them on “our” side, the violent overthrow of “unreliable” elected leaders to keep their countries out of China’s orbit, and the costs from lack of cooperation on other issues of global importance.

 A new Cold War means many decades more of militarism and further expansion of the national security state, diminished liberties, more executive power grabs, and increasingly toxic nationalism. It means all the destructive things that have been created by the war on terror but increased by several orders of magnitude. In the worst-case scenario, it would mean open war with the most populous country on the planet and the attendant risk of a nuclear exchange that could inflict greater losses than our country has suffered in all our previous wars combined. 

Kennan closed his book with a warning: “If, today, governments are still unable to recognize that modern nationalism and modern militarism are, in combination, self-destructive forces, and totally so; if they are incapable of looking clearly at those forces, discerning their true nature, and bringing them under some sort of control; if they continue, whether for reasons of fear or of ambition, to cultivate those forces and to try to use them as instruments for self-serving competitive purposes—if they do these things, they will be preparing, this time, a catastrophe from which they can be no recovery and no return.” Accepting a new Cold War with China amounts to failing Kennan’s test. 

The U.S. can choose to manage the relationship with China without falling back on a strategy that prizes dominance and in so doing courts disaster. As The Quincy Institute’s Ethan Paul has pointed out in his review of Rush Doshi’s The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order, “Washington does indeed need a new long game of its own, not to counter, contain, and “mellow” Chinese power, but to find ways of mitigating and ultimately bringing to an end this unsustainable, self-perpetuating struggle in its entirety.” Preserving American dominance is not the same as securing U.S. vital interests, and the truth is that chasing after the former puts the latter in jeopardy. 

There should be no illusions that the U.S. must embark on a Cold War with China to protect itself or even its treaty allies. If the U.S. goes down this route, it will be for the purpose of suppressing Chinese power and boxing them in at considerable expense and risk. It is current U.S. strategy that drives the U.S. to seek dominance when it does not need it. If the U.S. adopted a less ambitious strategy, it could afford a less militarized foreign policy and a less confrontational policy towards China.

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