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Why the U.S. should fight Cold War 2
And what it means to "fight" in this case.
So far, I’ve written about Cold War 2 — the emerging conflict between the developed democracies and the China/Russia axis — in a very analytical way, as something that’s just happening, which we have to understand and adapt to. And I’ve tried to think about the kinds of things we can do to avoid losing that conflict. What I haven’t really done is to explain, in a comprehensive way, why the U.S. should engage in such a conflict in the first place.
This has led some people to assume all kinds of motives, both for me and for writers with broadly similar opinions — that we view a U.S.-led global order as inherently good, that we’re “Sinophobic” or “Russophobic”, or that we simply have a “fetish for civilizational war”. These are all complete nonsense, of course. But they demonstrate the sad fact that if I don’t explain my overall motivation, people will make assumptions, and some of those assumptions will be bad.
What’s more, as the economic policies needed to resist China and Russia become more expensive and the military risks become greater, the U.S. government is going to have to justify those expenses and risks to its own people. In WW2, the Roosevelt administration was especially good at making its case to a reluctant populace:
With regards to the Ukraine war, I think the supporters of aid to Ukraine, and the Biden administration itself, have been somewhat successful in making their case, but anti-Ukraine voices like Tucker Carlson were much more strident and forceful, and ended up making inroads with the populace. And on China, I would argue that neither the Trump administration, nor the Biden administration, nor the media as a whole has given the U.S. public a clear explanation of what the risks are, what our objectives are, or why we should be prepared to make sacrifices. General anger against China has, so far, substituted for the need to make such a justification, but it can’t fill that gap forever, nor should it; at some point, someone needs to articulate the case.
But before we can talk about why the U.S. should fight Cold War 2, it’s important to specify what it even means to “fight” in this situation.
What does it even mean to “fight” Cold War 2?
In World War 2, “fighting” at first meant providing arms and aid to Britain and the USSR through the Lend-Lease Act — basically, the same stuff we’re doing for Ukraine right now, and which we seem prepared to do for Taiwan. Eventually, of course, it meant sending our military across the sea to battle and defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
“Fighting” Cold War 1 was very different. We never went to war with the USSR, because of the threat of nukes. But we did fight China in the Korean War, we did fight the Vietnam War, we provided aid to the USSR’s enemies (Afghanistan), and we funded and supported a lot of anti-communist proxies all over the world.
If we’re successful, Cold War 2 will look a lot more like Cold War 1 than like World War 2, because there won’t be war between the great powers. Open warfare between the U.S. and China/Russia would be incredibly destructive, even without nukes being used — and they probably would be used. I expect the U.S. and China to snipe at each other’s UAVs a fair amount, but this is low-intensity, low-stakes stuff. “Fighting” Cold War 2 really just means taking steps to restrain Chinese and Russian power without having to fight them. It’s a strategy for avoiding actual war, without also giving China and Russia everything they want.
But I also don’t think the steps we take in Cold War 2 should be (or will be) the same as those we took in Cold War 1. The opponent we face is different, as are the conditions of the global economy. And we’ve learned a lot — at least, I hope we have — from our strategic mistakes and moral errors in the first Cold War.
For example, I don’t expect us to directly engage in a war of choice against a smaller proxy of China or Russia, as we did in the Vietnam War. That experience, and the somewhat similar one in Iraq, taught us that U.S. military power is simply not suited to remaking countries in our image. Fortunately, I don’t see us repeating the Vietnam/Iraq mistake; the only scenario in which I see us going to war directly against a Chinese proxy is if North Korea invades South Korea again.
Instead, I think Ukraine will be the model for our military involvement in Cold War 2. Military technology looks like it’s shifting toward the defense — precision munitions and cheap drones can do a lot to blunt attacking armored forces — which makes it possible for small countries to resist invasions by larger ones if properly equipped. We’re already doing similar things with Taiwan. We’ve also shared intelligence with India, which helped it defeat a Chinese border incursion in 2022. And we’re strengthening defense ties with our allies Japan and the Philippines, both of whom have territory that China claims. So “helping smaller nations resist aggression by big ones” seems like it’ll be a consistent motif of Cold War 2.
Much of the competition, though, will be economic. This was also the case in Cold War 1, though we tended to ignore it in favor of the bombers and tanks. COCOM put very effective high-tech export controls on the USSR, and the U.S. helped build up our allies in Europe and Asia (including China in the 80s) by giving them access to our markets. We can already see the beginning of a version of the former strategy in the export controls and investment restrictions the Trump and Biden administrations placed on China, and the latter strategy is basically just “friend-shoring”.
What I don’t expect — and what I wouldn’t recommend — is to see the U.S. engage in a comprehensive effort to destroy China’s economic prosperity. I think a fair amount of decoupling will happen, and in fact I think much more of this pressure will come from the Chinese side (for reasons I’ll explain in another post). But I think that U.S. leaders understand that agglomeration effects would make it nigh impossible to wreck China’s economy with peacetime sanctions, even if doing so were morally acceptable. So I think the U.S.’ economic measures in Cold War 2 will be mainly limited to:
preventing China from getting a narrow range of technologies that would give it a military edge over the U.S.,
making sure that the U.S. has enough domestic production capacity to be able to survive a cutoff of Chinese imports in the event of a full-fledged military conflict, and
helping to build up the economies of countries that don’t want to be dominated by China.
So that’s basically what it’ll mean to “fight” Cold War 2. Not much of a “war” compared to WW2 or even Cold War 1, but again, that’s the entire point — to restrain Chinese and Russian power without having to actually fight them. (There’s also the question of direct U.S.-China conflict over Taiwan, but at that point we’re talking about World War 3 rather than Cold War 2.)
From the U.S.’ vantage point, it’s “fight” or “surrender”
The first thing we need to understand in order to know “why we fight” is what will happen if we don’t do the things specified in the previous section. The critics of the U.S.’ new, more confrontational policy toward China tend to assume that America has most of the agency here — that we’re the ones who chose to start Cold War 2, and that if we back off or adopt a less confrontational policy toward China, there will be no Cold War 2, and we can all go back to something approximating the status quo of 2015.
This is very wrong. First of all, China (and Russia) started Cold War 2. China’s own industrial policy, including attempts to dominate the semiconductor industry and other industries, long predates the U.S.’ milder versions. Chinese technological espionage, coordinated and assisted by the central government and the intelligence services, has been ongoing for over a decade. China’s increasing threats to conquer Taiwan and to seize pieces of the territories of India, Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam are what prompted the U.S. to step up efforts to help those countries defend themselves. Russia invaded Ukraine with either tacit or clandestine Chinese approval. Economically and militarily, China and Russia have chosen escalation and aggression on a number of fronts.
They didn’t have to do this. They could have chosen to live with the economic relationships and territorial status quo of the 2000s, in which both countries were growing at a rapid clip and Europe and Asia were almost entirely free of armed conflict. But instead, they chose to make a bid to disrupt the existing order on all fronts.
So now the U.S. and its allies are confronted with the choice of whether to accept Chinese/Russian revision of the international order or to resist it. Accepting the revisions is exactly what the critics of current U.S. policy would have us do. What they leave unsaid, though, is that if we choose to back down, it doesn’t mean going back to the world of 2015. That world is now gone forever.
If we back down militarily in Europe, Russia will conquer Ukraine, and possibly other pieces of East Europe. If we back down militarily in Asia, China will conquer Taiwan and shave off parts of the territories of other neighbors, as well as cowing and dominating them in any number of ways. If we back down economically and return to the policy of unilateral trade liberalization that we had in 2015, our remaining technological edge over China will evaporate, which will facilitate Chinese conquests and domination of neighbors. The entire global economic system will be remade in basically whatever ways China desires. Those events would have real negative consequences for both the U.S. and our allies, but critics of U.S. policy always seem to leave those consequences unspoken.
In other words, it’s a simple question of whether to “fight” Cold War 2 or “surrender” — both metaphorical words, but the analogy is accurate. Any argument between these options needs to acknowledge the risks and costs of both approaches.
Upholding the no-conquest norm
U.S. leaders often talk about helping to defend Ukraine, Taiwan, and other countries in terms of defending or upholding the “rules-based international order”. Critics rightfully point out that such an order never actually existed. But there is something important that’s sort of like it, which largely did exist up until Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014, and that’s what I call the no-conquest norm.
After World War 2, a conflagration that was caused by some states’ desire to expand their territories, the UN Charter emphasized territorial integrity. Here are some of the relevant excerpts from that charter:
The Organization [i.e, the UN] and its Members, in pursuit of the Purposes stated in Article 1, shall act in accordance with the following Principles.
1. The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members…
3. All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered.
4. All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.
The superpowers obviously violated these principles a number of times during Cold War 1 and the years that followed. The USSR used military force in Afghanistan, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia without provocation, and the U.S. did the same in Iraq, as well as in a number of smaller unprovoked invasions and interventions. That certainly endangered international peace and security and justice, and deprived states of their political independence.
What the Cold War 1 superpowers didn’t do, however, was deprive states of their long-term territorial integrity — they didn’t invade countries in order to redraw their borders, and, most crucially, they didn’t attempt to conquer pieces of other countries’ territory and absorb it into their own. The kind of imperialist conquest attempted by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, and carried out by many other countries before WW2 (including the U.S., the USSR, and China), basically vanished after that war.
This fixed-border norm, despite being much much weaker than a true “rules-based international order”, seems to have made death from interstate conflicts steadily rarer:
That makes sense, because when you can’t enlarge your territory through military means, it takes away one of the main incentives to start wars.
That doesn’t mean war vanished after WW2 — far from it. But interstate conflicts tend to be the most destructive sort of conflict. And great-power conquest is especially devastating — only the big civil wars in China and Russia can really compare with the death toll from wars like WW1 and WW2, or even earlier conquests like the Spanish and Mongol invasions. The no-conquest norm effectively brought an end to the age of imperialism — or at least, a temporary pause.
The revisionism of Russia and China threatens this norm. Ukraine didn’t provoke Russia in any way; Russia simply wanted to conquer Ukraine and incorporate its territory and population into Russia, as it has now done with the territories it managed to occupy. That’s something the USSR never did after WW2 — it invaded and dominated other countries, but left their borders nominally intact, and those countries exist independently of Russian power today in part because of that practice.
China’s leaders argue that their conquest of Taiwan would be different, because they argue that Taiwan is already part of China. They make a similar case regarding the parts of Indian, Japanese, Filipino, and Vietnamese territory that they claim. But this argument rings hollow — you can’t make a conquest not a conquest simply by voicing a claim to the territories you want to conquer! If someone else administers a territory, and you conquer it, then you expanded your territory through force. This is even true in the case of Taiwan — the People’s Republic of China has never controlled Taiwan, and the U.S. acknowledges but does not recognize Chinese claims of sovereignty over the island. For China to invade and seize the island by force wouldn’t be the completion of the civil war of 1927-49; it would be a new war.
This is the kind of thing the U.S. and its allies should seek to prevent. A world where “the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must” — where might makes right — is a dark place indeed. It’s a world where every country is incentivized to conquer or be conquered, and so interstate conflict becomes endemic again. And the countries that win those interstate conflicts, and thus end up ruling over the most people, are generally going to be the most aggressive and violent empires — the Genghis Khans and the Tamerlanes and the Adolf Hitlers of the world.
The world that the victorious powers of WW2 set up and preserved for 70 years was hardly a peaceful one, nor was it actually ruled by international law, but it was far better than the fierce jungle that had prevailed before, and which would return if today’s revisionist powers get their way. The relative stability of that postwar international order allowed globalization and trade to flourish, which in turn allowed much of the world — including, most notably, China itself — to escape dire poverty. The order certainly had its flaws and its bad actors, and many ways it could be improved. But it’s something worth building on, instead of regressing back to “might makes right”.
This is a point I think the Biden administration and other U.S. leaders should emphasize. Preventing the return of a world of wanton imperialism is both a clearer and more achievable goal than a nebulous “rules-based international order”.
U.S. interests depend on the global economy
Of course, ultimately, no power enters into a conflict for entirely altruistic reasons; its own interests have to also be involved. Americans should understand that Cold War 2 won’t be fought simply on behalf of countries like Ukraine and India; it’s also in America’s national interest, and that of our allies.
I’m not talking about competitiveness in the car industry or the chip industry or whatever. Whether that’s important for American prosperity is a question that’s independent from whether we should fight Cold War 2; it’s not worth engaging in a protracted low-level great-power struggle simply to increase jobs in Detroit or pump up Intel’s profits.
Instead, I’m talking about something far more fundamental — the integrity of the global trading system. The U.S. is a relatively closed economy, but we still depend crucially on world trade — not just to deliver us cheap imports, but for many other reasons. Our exports create revenue that gets spread around local economies — an effect called a “local multiplier”. Trade also allows us to specialize, which boosts our productivity in industries like semiconductors, wide-body aircraft, and so on.
Note that trade doesn’t mean “free trade”. South Korea’s development depended crucially on both exports and imports, but it always promoted exports and interfered with trade in other ways — often to its own benefit. The U.S. wasn’t particularly well-served by the trading system of the 00s, but we need some kind of global trading system in order to flourish as a nation.
The world China and Russia want to forge would make it harder for the U.S. to benefit from global trade. For one thing, the return of frequent interstate conflict would be economically harmful to the entire world, including China and Russia themselves. Global commerce works a lot better when you don’t have to worry if the city where your factory or office is will be bombed or conquered next year.
China and Russia also engage in a lot of practices that would be pretty detrimental to trade if they’re scaled up. For example, China’s claim over the South China Sea, if fully backed by force, would allow it to interdict any trade that the Chinese leadership didn’t like. That would allow it to choke off Japan’s or South Korea’s food and energy imports on a whim, which would basically force those countries to do whatever China told them to. That’s why the U.S. has been so aggressive about asserting freedom of the seas in that area — an action that many critics of U.S. policy claim is a provocation. In fact, i’s a defense of one of the key pieces of the global trading system.
Ultimately, if China gains control of the global economy, it will choose to use that control to weaken the U.S. Its leaders rightfully see American power as a threat to Chinese power, and would seek to use things like interdiction of seaborne trade and strategic control of resources to reduce that threat by weakening the U.S. economically. It would similarly work to economically weaken key American trading partners like Japan, South Korea, and the EU, in order to reduce their power as well; this would have negative knock-on effects for the U.S. economy.
A poorer U.S. would not be a boon for China economically, but the country’s leaders clearly don’t think in purely economic terms (nor do Russia’s, obviously). Minimizing China’s ability to strategically impoverish the U.S. is an important reason to resist Chinese power instead of simply acceding to it.
The fight against illiberalism abroad and at home
So in terms of both economic interests and existential/security interests, it makes sense for the U.S. and its allies to resist Chinese and Russian global hegemony. But what about moral factors?
The U.S.’ claim to moral superiority was strained by our actions in the Cold War — especially our support for odious proxy regimes. Only because the USSR was even worse in the moral dimension were we able to eventually declare it an “evil empire” and get most of the world on our side. Then the U.S. squandered much of what credibility we had left when we invaded Iraq without provocation.
And yet, we didn’t squander all of it. A recent global Gallup survey showed that people are not especially positive about U.S. leadership, but they’re far more negative about Chinese and Russian leadership:
This pattern repeats itself throughout all the world regions in the survey — in Asia, Latin America, Europe, and Africa. The U.S. is on thin ice after decades of unreliability and occasional aggression, but the world would still prefer its leadership to that of its rivals.
Why? In Russia’s case it’s obviously the Ukraine invasion, but China hasn’t yet undertaken any major wars of conquest in recent decades. In China’s case, some of it is the threat of military force, but for most poll respondents, it’s the country’s human rights record that’s especially problematic. China has a pretty flagrant disregard for minority rights, throwing a million Uyghurs into concentration camps and cracking down on freedom of religion for Muslims and Christians alike.
China’s application of new technological tools to old goals of social repression is particularly bizarre and terrifying. It has effectively turned Xinjiang into an open-air prison worthy of a dystopian sci-fi novel, with residents’ minutest actions under constant government surveillance and their movements limited by an apartheid-like system. And China is experimenting with ways to use the surveillance tools developed in Xinjiang more broadly throughout the country — the infamous “social credit system” is merely one such experiment. Hong Kong is another prominent example.
Most countries are never going to be subject to that sort of direct Chinese control, even in an age of Chinese hegemony. But when you think about the morality of a country that’s willing to do things like that, it’s generally not the kind of country you want in charge of your seaborne trade, or global economic institutions. Nor is it the kind of country you want to see with unchallenged, overwhelming military power.
The U.S., in contrast, remains a relative beacon of individual rights and liberty. We do have a very large prison population, but I think people understand that this is mainly because we’re an especially violent country; if you applied draconian Chinese laws to the U.S., our prison population would be many times larger than it is (or we would have untold numbers of executions). China’s repression is more like a high-tech version of all the worst things America did in the early 20th century — Jim Crow, the Japanese internment, and so on. Few people want to be dominated by a country that’s willing to do that sort of thing in the year 2023.
There’s also the issue of China’s proxies. The U.S. has been known to support a dictatorship or two (and we did it much more during the Cold War), but China has consistently and enthusiastically backed some of the world’s most aggressive imperialists (Russia) and worst human rights abusers (North Korea), in order to further the goals of Chinese hegemony and power. Everyone knows that China will be willing to support similar bad actors on their own doorstep. That’s rightfully terrifying.
In other words, there is some moral dimension to Cold War 2. I don’t think most of the world is ready to believe that the struggle is one of good vs. evil, but I do think that most countries recognize some sort of moral non-equivalence between the two sides.
And if other countries recognize it, the U.S. should too. We should strive to become a more liberal country and live up to the image of ourselves that we promulgated to the world in the 20th century. But at the same time, we should realize that most of the world wants us to be a counterbalance to powers that are even more illiberal than we are. And I think that on top of our own self-interest, we have a duty to the world. Hopefully, taking up that duty will also push us to be a better version of ourselves — as I believe Cold War 1 and WW2 both did.
In the end, the question of Cold War 2 comes down to the question of whether the U.S. and our allies could bring about a better world by bowing our heads and ceding to the rise of Chinese and Russian power, rather than standing up and resisting it. I do not think this would bring about a better world. We shouldn’t be eager for a Cold War, but all our alternatives seem clearly worse at this point. Sometimes there are simply bullies in this world, and someone has to stand up to them, even if that someone is no saint themselves.