Isabelle Hupez | April 19, 2019
Responding To: Debating the Prospects of a New Cold War
Few Signs of a New Cold War
Foreign policy commentators have a tendency to exaggerate tensions in U.S.-China relations while downplaying cooperation. Surely, some parallels can be drawn between contemporary U.S.-China relations and the U.S.-USSR relations of the Cold War, but these tensions should not be chalked up to a new era of great power competition. The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was defined by sustained, overt ideological competition, nuclear brinkmanship, and proxy wars. And while the Trump Administration has taken a bellicose stance towards China, a closer analysis reveals that U.S. policy has been more closely aligned with retreat than direct conflict. This follows a wider trend of U.S. disengagement from global affairs. Furthermore, as the Trump administration has targeted provocative rhetoric at numerous leaders—allies and enemies alike—these statements must be taken with a grain of salt. Thus, I argue that the current state of bilateral relations is more indicative of a lack of meaningful competition than a U.S. grand strategy to curb the rise of China.
The Cold War strategy of containment was founded upon the idea that the liberal international order of the West was superior to the authoritarian communism of the Soviet Union. This global level of competition required coherent, coordinated policies on both sides which allowed American and Soviet allies alike to present a united front against the enemy. In an effort to recruit partners, both blocs led propaganda campaigns, showered foreign leaders with military aid, and constructed international institutions to legitimize their worldviews. In contemporary U.S.-China relations, however, this strategic and ideological competition is absent. The current American president has made known his criticisms of liberalism by ignoring human rights violations, criticizing international institutions, and favoring unilateral approaches to policy, stripping the would-be strategy of any ideological basis. China, similarly, takes an a-ideological approach by exporting its authoritarian capitalist, rather than communist, system. This absence of revolutionary ideology is significant because it was the primary contention between the Cold War powers. It was the fear of communism that led the United States to intervene in domestic affairs from Cuba to Vietnam. Without a core ideological disagreement, U.S.-China relations cannot be likened to that of the Cold War.
Another notable difference between U.S.-China and U.S.-USSR relations is the lack of a role for international institutions. During the Cold War, the World Bank, IMF, and NATO were effectively instruments used by the West in their grand strategy of containment. The first two institutions were tasked with pulling developing countries into the economic orbit of the United States while the latter combated Soviet military expansion into Western Europe. However, as a testament that President Trump’s rhetoric does not signal policy, these organizations have been all but ignored in the current U.S.-China competition. Rather than using the World Bank to provide an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the administration has moved to cripple the institution by appointing a known critic of multilateralism. And while the president has pushed NATO member states to increase their military budgets, he has failed to create a coherent policy to pivot the Organization’s attention away from Russia and towards China.
Third, the bloc identity which fueled the Cold War has not been transferred to the current U.S.-China relations. European and East Asian countries simply do not feel threatened by China in nearly the same way that the United States does. For them, China is an essential, although sometimes problematic, economic partner. Over the last decade, the United States has encountered much resistance for advocating for a decoupling of European and Asian economies from China; and now, with favorable views of the United States at an all-time low, achieving this goal would be nearly impossible. The resistance of European countries to boycott Huawei’s 5G infrastructure—even on the grounds of national security—indicate the declining ability of the current administration to recruit members to challenge China.
This lack of unity is not surprising for the United States has displayed antagonism to its traditional allies as well. Over the past two years, U.S. policy has indiscriminately strained relations from Turkey to Germany to South Korea. Tariffs, the primary signal of increasing tensions between the United States and China, are also not unique to this bilateral relationship with the 25 percent steel and aluminum tariffs, enacted on June 22, 2018, disproportionately affecting U.S. allies across Europe and Asia. When taken from this view, these seemingly escalatory actions in the U.S.-China relationship become more normal. The hard-line stance by the United States is a matter of general policy and not specific to China.
Despite warning from both Beijing and Washington of a new Cold War, the current state of bilateral relations has little in common with the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. Not only do the tensions lack an ideological foundation, but the international following is also absent. This spate of disagreements fits squarely into the current administration’s stated plan to re-balance relationships to better serve the interests of Americans. And the two nations have a long way to go before entering Cold War-style competition.
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