The Cold War, to use Raymond Aron’s famous definition, was a contest for supremacy in which war – all-out war – was improbable, but peace was impossible.
All-out war was improbable because of the fear that it would become a nuclear war that no one could win. Instead, the United States and the Soviet Union used means other than military force to undermine the other: economic war, propaganda and psychological war, subversion conducted by intelligence services, the arming of allies and proxies around the world, and so on.
Both sides were haunted by the fear of an attack like the one that had brought the United States into the Second World War in 1941, but this time with nuclear weapons. They were also haunted by the fear that the other side would translate military power into political leverage. The fear not only of direct attack, but of political blackmail directed at their allies and themselves, drove the effort to stay on top of the military competition in specific areas such as Europe, and to maintain a survivable retaliatory nuclear capability against the other side.
Normal relations (or peace), to take the second part of Aron’s definition, were impossible because of fundamental systemic differences. Each side defined the other as a mortal threat to its political–economic system and values. Each side believed the world was divided into two camps. Each side thought its system was destined by history to win in the end.
The most dangerous aspect of the Cold War was the contest over specific focal points. These were points on the map at which it was almost impossible to reconcile what each side saw as its legitimate interests, and where the reputation and prestige of each were on the line: the Turkish Straits, Berlin, Cuba, Taiwan.
The Cold War was conducted within limits – not just because of nuclear weapons, but because there were always pragmatists on both sides who emphasised common interests, and who favoured compromise at critical times. Throughout the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union maintained diplomatic relations, carried on some trade, concluded agreements and sat together in the United Nations.
The Cold War ended as it did because it was never an even contest in Europe, its main theatre; because the Soviet Union lost its most important ally, China, in the early 1960s; and because – as George Kennan pointed out early on – the Soviet Union contained the seeds of its own decay. There were at least three such seeds: structural economic weakness; anti-Soviet nationalism, including in the Soviet Union itself; and the new, critical thinking adopted by a new generation of leaders, who abandoned the doctrine of two camps in the course of their attempt to lower tensions with the West and reform the Soviet system.
By this definition, are the United States and China in a cold war? Although there are those who see future conflict as probable, the intense fear of attack is simply not there, at least not on the American side. We are not in the world of the early 1950s or early 1980s, when important officials and commentators seriously believed that the Soviet Union was planning preventive war or nuclear blackmail against the United States and its allies.
There are deep systemic differences between the US and China, as there were between the US and the USSR. Both sides believe in the superiority of their systems. But neither the US nor China is fundamentally driven by the belief that the world is divided into enemy camps and that one system must prevail. The view that history is headed toward the global victory of liberal democracy and capitalism – a view that both favoured and predicted regime change in China – no longer influences American policy to the extent it did 15 or 20 years ago. Some Americans continue to think that the Chinese system, like the Soviet system, is fundamentally fragile, that it contains the seeds of its own decay, and that the US should encourage those seeds to germinate. But this is not the dominant view in the United States today.
China intends to fulfil the ‘China Dream’, and to become the world’s number-one power. But does China believe that to achieve that goal, it must defeat the US and subordinate the world according to the old imperial idea of tianxia (everything under the heavens)? I may be wrong, but I don’t think so. The Belt and Road Initiative will create, and is intended to create, new political influence for China – but it is fundamentally a strategy to sustain slowing economic growth.
China and the US have $650 billion in bilateral trade per year. They have large amounts of direct investment in each other’s economies, not to mention China’s underwriting of the US federal debt. (The inflow of Chinese direct investment into the US in 2016 was $45.6bn, an increase of almost 200% over 2015.)1
There are serious tensions over trade and intellectual-property rights, but the attacks of US politicians on China cannot be compared to the days of the pro-Kuomintang China lobby, when the Chinese communists were demonised by politicians and the media. A Gallup poll from February 2017 found that 50% of Americans have a favourable or very favourable view of China – the best result for China since the Tiananmen protests of 1989.2 Public concern about China appears to be in decline in the United States today. It is in Chinese interests to keep it that way.
There are, however, some disturbing similarities to the Cold War. Indeed, the similarities stem from the original Cold War’s unfinished business: the contest to control China’s immediate neighbourhood.
Taiwan, obviously, has never ceased to be a focal point. The East China Sea and the South China Sea are more recent focal points. We are witnessing an ongoing race to translate military power into political leverage. For China, the stakes include defending its territory in depth, and not allowing a rival power to control sea lanes vital to its economy. For the United States, the stakes are more symbolic but still defined as vital: protecting the rules-based international order, including freedom of navigation, and preserving American credibility in the eyes of allies and partners.
A crucial question would seem to be: which side sees its stakes as higher in this contest, and is ready to pay a higher price? The historian Barbara Tuchman proposed the principle of uneven stakes: even if it is weaker overall, the side which sees its stakes as higher, and is ready to pay a higher price, will probably prevail in the end.
One thing is for sure: it would be very surprising if a great power in China’s position was not behaving as it is on its own doorstep. As some of us have been saying for years, the best analogy is not with the Cold War but with the United States itself, in invoking the Monroe Doctrine and flexing its muscles in the Caribbean between 1890 and 1914. The US expelled Spain and, under American pressure, Britain drew down its fleet and settled a series of disputes with the United States on American terms. It was easier for Britain to appease the US, of course, than it would be for the US to appease China, because Britain’s attention was focused elsewhere, on the threat of a rising Germany.
If there are some similarities with the Cold War, the good news is that the Cold War offers us some lessons. Firstly, even if the US and China are not in a global ideological competition, ideas and doctrines have weight. It was important that, after Stalin’s death, the Soviet leadership revised Soviet doctrine to say that war with the capitalist states was not inevitable. It was important that the US rejected a doctrine of preventive war, favoured by a number of people at the time. It was important that both sides adopted doctrines of peaceful competition. Doctrines which say that war is inevitable – and misleading historical analogies such as the Thucydides trap – can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Once you convince yourself war is inevitable, you’ll be tempted to start one before it’s too late. Such doctrines are dangerous and wrong.
The second lesson is that there is a way to avoid open conflict over the focal points: compromise. The United States and the Soviet Union compromised over Berlin and Cuba because trying to impose their preferred solutions would have led to war.
If China is patient, it may eventually be able to use a combination of political pressure and economic incentives to co-opt – the Cold War terms would be ‘Finlandise’ or ‘de-couple’ – some of America’s allies and partners, as it has begun to do with the Philippines, and even to persuade the US to concede naval supremacy in the area between the mainland and the first island chain. This will not happen soon, however, and in the meantime the way to avoid war is to compromise. The US must resist what could become a growing temptation to take preventive action to teach China a lesson, and set back its progress. The US might win the first conflict, but China would be all the more determined to win the second and the third, and it would be better not to have the Punic wars of the Pacific.
The US will have to accept that some parts of the South China Sea will be fortified by China, just as it had to accept that Cuba was communist and that Crimea today is Russian. China will have to accept that the South China Sea is an international waterway in which other navies will operate. No one will be satisfied – but better dissatisfied than dead.
A third lesson of the Cold War is that the world is too big and too diverse to be dominated by one power and one system. The end of the Cold War did not lead to real unipolarity. After all, China itself was a winner of the Cold War. To put it another way, if China does become the number-one world power, or at least the number-one Asian power, there will still be plenty of room for the United States, the EU, India, Russia and other centres of power, including Japan (albeit, in that case, a Japan probably armed with nuclear weapons of its own).
In the long run, it seems unrealistic and ahistorical to believe the US will retain its present position in the Pacific for all time. At the end of the day, the stakes are higher for China when it comes to controlling its own neighbourhood. Geography is on its side. It brings to mind something Thomas Paine wrote about America and England in 1776: there is something unnatural in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island. Today, there is something unnatural in supposing that the area on China’s doorstep will be governed permanently by a power based on the other side of the world. The implications for Asia are another matter, but for the United States, would it be a tragedy if it returned to a position in the Pacific closer to the one that it occupied before 1898? Whatever happens, the world will still be a big place.
1 Michael Evans, ‘Chinese Investment Tripled in US in 2016, Doubled in Europe’, Baker McKenzie, 6 February 2017, http://www.bakermckenzie.com/en/newsroom/2017/02/chinafdi/.
2 Lydia Saad, ‘China’s US Image the Most Positive in Three Decades’, Gallup News, 23 February 2017, http://news.gallup.com/poll/204227/china-image-positive-three-decades.aspx.