Peace according to realists is only an interval between wars. World War II followed World War I as Cold War II will be following Cold War I. While such determinist contentions look like products of facile analogizing, realists point to the recent speech by US Vice-President Mike Pence as an inflection point for the US-China relationship. Doubling down on the ideas introduced in the US National Security Strategy published earlier this year, Pence framed China as the key threat to the American way of life. As Graham Allison, the author who popularized the term “Thucydides’ Trap” recently put it “Mike Pence delivered a de facto declaration of cold war against China”.
The term “cold war” was introduced for the first time in 1947 by Bernard Baruch, a multimillionaire presidential advisor, to describe great power confrontation in the atomic age. Unlike past epochs when great powers fought total wars with massive casualties, atomic weapons made conventional war between superpowers obsolete. Realizing that a conventional war could escalate into an all-out nuclear confrontation and lead to mutually assured destruction (MAD), the United States and the Soviet Union fought proxy wars instead and engaged in a neck-and-neck competition for technological eminence. Whilst in the four decades of US-Soviet “combative coexistence,” moments of severe crisis did occur, the “nuclear taboo” kept the general peace and human civilization survived the conflict.
A new cold war between China and the United States in the 21st century will be profoundly more catastrophic and damaging for humanity than the American-Soviet Cold War of the last century. As the prime realist of the old Cold War, Henry Kissinger asserted in a recent speech: “we cannot think of a war between advanced hi-tech countries, in anything like the patterns of previous wars. They involve a level of destruction and a level of communication and impact on each other that it is safe to say that the world will never be the same again.” A Sino-US cold war would adversely affect the economy, civilian innovation, provision of global public goods, and the very strategic stability that nukes provided in the past.
First and foremost, the abrupt transition toward a new cold war will usher in an unprecedented process of “deglobalization,” unmaking global value networks. With global capital coerced by state imperatives to flow not where returns are higher but where national defense demands, the Ricardian concept of comparative advantage will be sidelined and inflation would become the new economic normal. Public welfare would suffer gravely with pensioners in particular seeing the value of their life savings evaporating. While Russia and the US in the late 40s had minimal economic interaction, today’s global value networks have tied China and the US together and any attempt towards a return to the status quo ante globalization would slow down global GDP growth and cause severe welfare strains.
What is more, there are more than twice as many people leaving on “spaceship earth” today than before. With global fossil fuel consumption rising and per capita emissions in the developing world approaching that of the United States, the “spaceship” cannot afford strategic segmentation. When cold war mentality becomes mainstream, global warming could even become a tool in the bilateral Sino-US struggle for primacy. Urged by zero-sum mentality, strategists in Beijing and Washington could spoil global negotiations and cause massive damage to human civilization. The next Dr. Strangelove could be a “cold war charged climatologist” strategizing on the next big tsunami against the enemy.
Another important aspect of a Cold War is related to the rising complexity and commercialization of military technology. The fierce competition between the United States and the Soviet Union led to the development of ground-breaking technologies - the internet being the prime example. Yet what is often forgotten is that the internet which begun as a project to back up communications in the US during a nuclear Armageddon, was commercialized only after the end of the Cold War. Innovation springing from the defense sector is commercialized after a time-lag and only when an existential conflict has ended and the threat of a peer adversary hijacking a disruptive technology or taking advantage of competitive information is reduced.
This simply means that at a moment when humanity is nearing major breakthroughs in biotechnology, neuroscience, robotics, and artificial intelligence, a new cold war could slow down the diffusion of military tech. This could be further exacerbated by the limited exchange between US and Chinese scientists and the severe regulatory strain on international scientific collaborations. Consequently, people who would have otherwise been cured and live better and longer lives would suffer pain or die early.
The impact of militarizing innovation would also complicate the “strategic balance of power”. Even with ingenious intellectuals like Thomas Schelling theorizing extensively it took the United States and the Soviet Union years to reach a shared understanding on Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), anti-missile shield capabilities, and strategic submarines. As Gideon Rose, editor of Foreign Affairs, has put it: “Nearly three-quarters of a century into the atomic age, it is sobering to consider how little we really know.”
Today as technology advances exponentially with hypersonic glide vehicles, directed energy weapons, super stealth engineering, and artificial intelligence being constantly upgraded, all concepts of strategic deterrence will demand constant reevaluation, thus complicating the “balance of terror” and increasing the probability of a catastrophic accident. And while “platitudes about caution are easy in peacetime”, this time no Stanislav Petrov could be there to abort global nuclear annihilation at the last minute.
Last but not least, a new cold war could also bring back proxy wars on a much larger scale. When US strategists decided to support the mujahideen movement in the early 80s to bleed the Soviets in Afghanistan and break even for their own tragedy in Vietnam, they did not foresee that a former mujahideen would, two decades later, mastermind a plan to crash two airplanes in New York’s twin towers, killing thousands of Americans. The realpolitik-inspired rollback of the Soviets had a catastrophic blowback.
Right after the end of WWI, John Dewey, America’s renowned pacifist educator, hailed as a second Confucius by his Chinese students at Columbia University, called for the application of intelligent idealism; that is, for states(wo)men “to utilize supreme intelligence to develop non-violent methods of conflict resolution.” American and Chinese strategists must think deeply about the repercussions of a new cold war and mobilize their strategic creativity and intelligence to find workable non-violent solutions to their ongoing bilateral disputes. A new cold war between China and the US will be orders of magnitude more catastrophic than the last one. There is no canonical justification for it unless we have a planet to spare.