The ‘New Cold War’

Whilst the heights of the Cold War may have become little more than a distant memory, it remains enduringly relevant even today.

Whilst the heights of the Cold War may have become little more than a distant memory, it remains enduringly relevant even today. A supernatural contest, this rivalry redefined the nature of international power struggle; ideology served as an absolute truth, and the ends always justified the means. The Cold War is not, however, simply consequential due to the manner in which it has shaped our modern world, it is consequential as it represented an unprecedented degree of ideological bipolarity. Despite the phrase ‘A New Cold War’ being used remarkably liberally throughout the decades since the fall of the Soviet Union, most notably in regards to a burgeoning US-China economic rivalry, it is abundantly clear that this degree of supernatural, spiritual, and ever present ideological bipolarity has failed to emerge within our modern political landscape. One can debate whether the world has become safer, less anxious, or more cohesive since the fall of the Soviet Union; we are unquestionably not in the throes of a Cold War sequel.

Francis Fukuyama, for all his faults, has been somewhat redeemed since the 1990s. Whilst many have, rightfully so, pointed out a dialectic reasoning in his conclusions that is painfully reminiscent of Hegel and Marx, Fukuyama must be credited with a consequential prediction; the triumph of free-market capitalism has been absolute and unquestionable. Some have been quick to identify supposed pitfalls of capitalism: wealth inequality, social instability, and the death of liberalism. The fact remains, however, that there is not a nation on earth, other than hermit nations that have abandoned any hope of autarky such as North Korea, that have not embraced the virtues of capitalism. This phenomenon is fundamentally important to understand; there can be no ‘New Cold War’, simply because the ideological bipolarity, the spiritual contrariety of the Cold War can never reappear within a world that has, with remarkably few exceptions, embraced an economic consensus.

The question remains: what would a ‘New Cold War’ even look like? The rejuvenation of a cosmic rivalry between the U.S and Russia is decidedly out of the picture. Invading Ukraine can hardly be seen as the action of a leader comfortable with his geo-political position. Even China, for all its posturing, understands the ramifications of an invasion of Taiwan. Russian war-censorship laws, likewise, are emblematic of the Kremlin’s psyche: paranoia, anxiety, and a deluded desperation to cling onto relevancy. Putin’s nuclear position will only further mold Russia into a larger, more powerful North Korea; it is abundantly clear that threats to revoke nuclear treaties, for example, are little more than misguided power plays from a man that has dug himself too deep of a hole. The funding of quran burnings in Sweden similarly reeks of desperation. Putin’s suicidal plan to one day lead a pariah state is, however, not the most consequential geo-political factor at play. Most importantly, Russia’s identity as the United States’s primary adversary has been supplanted by its long-time ally, China.

China has emerged as the single most powerful adversary to the United States throughout the last decade or so, and it is therefore only proper to discuss a hypothetical Sino-American ‘New Cold War’. A ‘Cold War’ on the basis of economic ideological bipolarity, as we have discussed, is decidedly out of the question. Communist simply in name, the CCP has embraced capitalism with open arms; China has become the largest trading nation in the world, and is, surprisingly, less equal in terms of wealth than the United States. Despite a surprising lack of political liberalization, the economic pragmatism that has grown in China since the death of Mao is remarkable. Chinese exports to the U.S prior to the misguided Trump-era tariffs totaled some $500B annually. Conversely, Cold War era trade between the U.S and the U.S.S.R struggled to reach a single percentage of total trade for either nation. This phenomenon can clearly be attributed to a singular, absolute fact: the U.S and China do not disagree on economics.

They do, however, disagree. Political fear mongering aside, Chinese human rights abuses have rightfully been condemned, as have the numerous episodes of Chinese infringement on maritime rights in the South China Sea. Herein arises a fundamental difference between the United States and China: the importance of freedom, and, conversely, the dominance of autocracy. Repression in Xinjiang, the fear of arbitrary arrest, and the degradation of freedom of expression are just some amongst a long list of horrifying abuses of power. It is, however, abundantly clear that the United States has never made a habit of playing world police without there being a substantial catch. Protection for Taiwan, for example, can be boiled down to little more than the U.S seeking dominance over global supply chains, as perfectly exemplified by the fact that the US, as an advisor has noted, ‘would destroy Taiwan’s semiconductor factories rather than letting them fall into China’s hands.’ The ‘The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act’, designed to enforce a ‘prohibition on the importation of goods into the United States manufactured wholly or in part with forced labour’ must, unfortunately, be seen cynically as little more than empty legislation.

Trump’s campaign promise to label China a currency manipulator materialized some two years after his inauguration, and lasted less than a year. There is simply no self-serving reason for the United States to strongly react to Chinese abuses; the pursuit of freedom, whilst a noble one, will never supplant economic considerations. This was true during the Cold War, and it remains true to this day. A Cold-War era ‘Crusade for Freedom’ rallied Americans behind the ideological battle against the Soviets, but was designed solely to support containment, a policy drafted in response to the economic threat of the spread of Communism. Chinese autocracy will never lead the United States to sacrifice its own economic concerns in search of global freedom, no matter what the rhetoric says. Despite the instability we see today, we are squarely not in the throes of a ‘New Cold War’, and, unless the United States has a ‘come to jesus’ moment regarding Chinese human rights abuses, we won’t be for a very long time.

Felix Ingemarsson
Felix Ingemarsson
Felix Ingemarsson is a final-year Historian at Balliol College, Oxford. He is also a Policy Fellow at the Pinsker Centre, a think-tank specialising in geo-politics, where he attends high-level talks, creates insightful podcasts, and writes articles. He is originally from Stockholm, Sweden and is looking to go into a career in law, journalism, or consulting.