The great power rivalry involving the US, China and Russia is often referred to as a new Cold War, borrowing the metaphor which George Orwell gave to the contest between the US and the USSR, that lasted about 45 years, from 1947 to 1991.
Does this make sense? Or is it just lazy history to attach the Cold War term to the current geopolitical period? Moreover, does the original Cold War offer any lessons for the management of today’s great power rivalry?
The Cold War was a period without global military confrontation like the two world wars, but also without peace between the two main protagonists, the US and USSR. It was a long “twilight struggle” in the words of President Kennedy, in between night and day, and in between war and peace, as historian Hal Brands reminds us in his book that borrows this title. There were however local wars like those in Korea and Vietnam, and proxy wars as in Afghanistan and Nicaragua.
The new Cold War
The current period is of course different. China is a major economic power, which was never the case for the USSR. Russia is a major energy supplier to global markets. Another unusual aspect is the close intertwining of the Chinese and American economies through trade, finance and migration. The geography and personalities are also different, as is the setting. While China and Russia are upsetting the current world order, when the Cold War began in the late 1940s, there was no meaningful world order to speak of, as the world was still in postwar chaos.
At the same time, we are in a similar place today with simultaneous twilight struggles involving the US, China and Russia, as both latter countries now consider the US to be an adversary and openly contest the US-led world order that was established following World War II. While most confrontations are below the threshold of war, they are occurring in the shadow of war, as both China and Russia have undertaken major military modernisations, and of course, Putin has launched a hot war in Ukraine.
In China’s view, the US is standing in its way as China seeks to: cement the Chinese Communist Party’s rule; make China whole again by reclaiming Hong Kong, Taiwan and the South China Sea; carve out a sphere of influence in East Asia and remove the US from the region; dominate the world’s 5G telecommunications networks; and make China the world’s leading power. Particular irritations for China are US weapon sales to Taiwan, and US alliances, especially with Japan and Australia.
Although Russia will be less powerful over the longer term, we are seeing something similar, as it works to re-establish a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, thereby rolling back the post-Cold War settlement in Europe. It also wants to push NATO back and loosen US/Europe ties. In addition to invading Ukraine, Russia has been active in assassinating perceived opponents on foreign soil, cyberware, information warfare and political meddling in the West.
In sum, both China and Russia have pushed their relations with the US back into a twilight zone, mostly through actions that fall short of traditional war. Nevertheless, as Professor Brands argues, great power rivalry is not new. Indeed, through human history, such rivalry has been the normal state of affairs. Such contests go back as far as recorded history, with examples like Athens and Sparta, Napoleon and his rivals, the Anglo-Russian great game, Anglo-German competition before World War I, and the US/Soviet Cold War. Some contests went hot, some stayed cold.
The US needs strategic clarity in its new Cold War
While all great power contests are different, they each have something to teach us about great power rivalry today. What can we learn from the original Cold War?
The first and perhaps most important lesson from the Cold War is the importance of having a coherent theory of victory or success, a sense of what we are trying to achieve over the long term and how we are going to do it. George Kenan, the father of the Cold War “containment” policy, offered the US a sharp diagnosis of the Soviet challenge, and a theory of how the US could get what it wants.
But the US has not reached that point in its rivalry with China and Russia. The Trump and Biden administrations talked about competition with China. But there has been no clarity regarding what the US is seeking. Is the US trying to develop leverage to strike some grand bargain? Is it seeking to provoke the collapse of the Chinese and Russian regimes? We don’t know. It is important to set out on a geopolitical journey knowing what your desired destination is.
A second lesson would be that the balance of military power shapes risk taking and decision making. The US nuclear monopoly in the late 1940s gave the Truman administration the confidence to launch the Marshall Plan, and create NATO and the West German state, initiatives that were destined to antagonise the Soviets. The Soviet Union became more globally assertive in the 1970s when military power shifted in its direction. Then in the 1980s, Moscow sought de-escalation, as it was falling behind in the military balance.
Today, the US is facing serious erosion of conventional military power balances in both the Western Pacific and in Eastern Europe. It is now debatable as to whether the US has the capability to help Taiwan beat back an attack from China. It is thus imperative that the US and its allies strengthen their military capabilities, something that is already starting to happen in response to the Ukraine war, but something that requires greater urgency.
Cooperation, as well as competition has its role
A third lesson is that you can win bilaterally by competing multilaterally. During the Cold War, the US rehabilitated former enemies like Japan and Germany. It created military alliances with NATO, Japan, Australia and the Philippines, and also created the OECD as a successor to the Marshall Plan. It opened its markets to friendly countries recovering from war in order to facilitate their development. These initiatives were among the most effective things that the US did in its competition with the Soviets.
Today, US alliances play a critical role in great power rivalry, as evident in NATO’s strong support for Ukraine, and NATO’s partnerships with Australia, Japan, Korea and New Zealand. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, involving Australia, India, Japan, and the US, is an important new initiative, as these democratic countries work to counterbalance China. However, when it comes to trade partnerships, protectionism in the US is preventing it from being a part of agreements in the Indo-Pacific like the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. And Donald Trump’s presidency highlighted how fragile the US’ system of alliances and partnerships can be in the context of polarised politics.
A fourth lesson is that diplomacy can isolate areas of cooperation, even during great power rivalry. In 1968, amidst the Cold War, the US and the Soviets signed one of the most transformative international agreements of all time, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. The US and the Soviets also cooperated on a programme to eradicate smallpox in the late 1960s and 70s. They also negotiated arms control agreements. While the US should patiently explore potential areas of cooperation, it should not make concessions on geopolitical issues to get China’s cooperation on issues like climate change.
A fifth lesson is that it’s difficult to win a Cold War purely on the defensive. You need a broad defense with a selective offense, and the US and its allies did lots of things to increase the strains on the Soviet bloc and system itself. Today, the US should find ways to put China and Russia more on the defensive, if only because they are working very hard to do that to the US. For example, the US could unsettle the Chinese and Russian regimes by more aggressively publicising their corruption (a sore spot with their publics), hacking and undermining their digital authoritarian system, and sanctioning Chinese officials who are involved in human rights violations.
All that said, we should never forget that while the Cold War may look neat in retrospect, it was in reality a long and arduous period of history, with lots of ups and downs and disagreements. And this will likely be the case for the new Cold War. But as Brands argues, Cold Wars are better than alternatives—namely destructive, nuclear warfare, or appeasement which could destroy the American-led rules-based world order.
John West is author of the recent book, “Asian Century … on a Knife-edge,” and executive director of the Asian Century Institute. He is also adjunct professor at Tokyo’s Sophia University and contributing editor at FDI-Intelligence, a Financial Times magazine. These positions follow a long career in international economics and relations, with major stints at the Australian Treasury where he was director of balance of payments, OECD (head of public affairs and director OECD Forum) and Asian Development Bank Institute (senior consultant for capacity building and training).