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.
Daniel Larison is a regular columnist at Responsible Statecraft, contributing editor at Antiwar.com, and a former senior editor at The American Conservative magazine. He has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Chicago. He writes regularly for his newsletter, Eunomia, on Substack.
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any a peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.
The Russian conquest of Avdiivka is unlikely to alter the war’s basic realities. Although delays in the delivery of aid to Ukraine have raised Russian hopes, no meaningful changes on the battlefield are near. The Russians cannot drive to Kyiv; the Ukrainians cannot eject the invaders.
The first phase of the war in Ukraine is drawing to a close. Both sides are coming closer to acknowledging what has been clear to the rest of the world for quite some time: the current stalemate is unlikely to be broken in any significant way. This round of the war is going to end more-or-less along the current front lines.
The actions taken in the next few years will determine whether or not there will be a round two.
The war’s end state is now clear, even if it may take a bit more time for the combatants to accept it. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s barbaric invasion has failed, but Ukraine cannot return to the status quo ante. The only questions that remain concern the shape of the peace to come, and how best to avoid a second act in this pointless tragedy.
Loud voices in the West are already suggestingthatthe best way to avoid round two is for NATO to expand again, and bring Ukraine into the alliance. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, on Kyiv's membership to the alliance, said over the weekend, "Ukraine is now closer to NATO than ever before...it is not a question of if, but of when."
He said Nato was helping Kyiv to make its forces “more and more interoperable” with the defence alliance and would open a joint training and analysis centre in Poland. “Ukraine will join Nato. It is not a question of if, but of when,” he insisted.
If this is the path the alliance follows, future fighting is almost assured. One side’s deterrent is often the other’s provocation.
NATO expansion was a necessary condition for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. It was not sufficient, since Putin has agency and made a catastrophically bad choice, but it was necessary. Those in the West who blame the United States for the war are as myopic as those who claim that Western policies had nothing to do with it. Putin remains a cold warrior at heart, and talked about NATO obsessively in the years leading up to the invasion.
Expanding NATO further would again provide the necessary conditions for tension and conflict. Russia will not stand by while Ukraine joins the enemy camp. A second invasion – perhaps before Ukraine formally joined the alliance, or perhaps afterwards – would be extremely likely. Those who suggest that deterrence would keep the Russians in check should listen to the rambling interview Putin just gave to Tucker Carlson. Ukraine simply matters more to the Russians than it does to us. Putin would calculate that no American president would be willing to sacrifice New York for Kyiv.
Another solution exists, one that might well assure Kyiv’s security without exacerbating Russian paranoia. Ukraine should be “Finlandized.”
During the Cold War, Finland was essentially a neutral country. It took no official positions on the pressing issues of the day, and was careful not to criticize the Soviet Union. Leaders in Helsinki made it clear to those in Moscow that they had no desire to join the West. They resisted pressure to join both NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and discouraged their citizens from openly criticizing either side. Finland avoided the Soviet embrace by making it clear that it would avoid the West as well.
“Finlandization” was a forced neutrality. The term was often used in a pejorative sense during the Cold War, as a warning about what could happen to the rest of Europe if the United States was not careful. What was often overlooked at the time was just how well Finlandization worked out for the people of Finland, who managed to stay free and outside of the various Cold War crises. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that today Finns consistently rank among the world’s happiest people.
Finlandization was a recognition of geopolitical reality, and it was the best choice for a small nation with the misfortune to lie next to a superpower. Switzerland followed a similar path during the 1930s. Like the Finns, the Swiss realized that their independence and very survival depended on avoiding any perception of flirtation with the enemies of their neighbor.
Ukraine will soon find itself in a similar situation, beside an aggressive and unpredictable great power. It should make the same choice, and the United States should help it do so.
A Finlandized Ukraine would not be allowed to join the West, but neither would it come under Russia’s thumb. It would be neutral, a buffer zone between NATO and Russia, an independent state that would allow hawkish Russians to imagine that it is still part of their country. The Ukrainian people would be neutral, and therefore safe.
If Washington were to lead an effort to emphasize the enduring neutrality of Ukraine, to Finlandize it, Russia’s paranoia could be reassured rather than provoked. Finlandizing Ukraine would be the best outcome for all involved, including for the Ukrainian people. The disappointment in being excluded from NATO would be tempered by the knowledge that it puts them on their best path to peace and stability. And it would be the best way to avoid Ukrainian War Two.