Even if the United States and China are not in a global ideological competition, ideas and doctrines have weight.

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.

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John L. Harper is Kenneth H. Keller Professor of American Foreign Policy at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University, and a Contributing Editor to Survival. He is the author of The Cold War (Oxford University Press, 2011). This commentary is adapted from remarks given to an IISS workshop on the topic of ‘Avoiding a New Cold War in Asia’, held in Hangzhou, China, on 19–21 June 2017, in cooperation with the Center for One Belt and One Road Security Studies, Shanghai, and with the generous support of the Robert Bosch Stiftung

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

December 2017–January 2018

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