Are we in a new Cold War?

America, China, and the global system

As relations between China and the United States continue to deteriorate, it has become common to speak of a new Cold War. I am asked the question rather often myself. Are we in a new Cold War?

It is not an especially productive discussion because it focuses so much on words, but here is how I would answer:

  • Obviously the next few decades will witness intense forms of competition between the two giants. But is intense competition synonymous with a Cold War? Were the Safavids and the Ottomans engaged in a Cold War? At risk of rendering the concept functionally useless, it seems better to reserve it to particular cases - especially if, like me, you think great power rivalry is the natural state of world politics.

  • Why did we call the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union a Cold War? It seems to me that the term expressed the often neglected fact that there was a war. Yes, the strategy and tactics had to be adapted to the nuclear age, but everyone understood the conflict had to end with the destruction of the other side.

  • By destruction I mean economic, political or territorial destruction. The Soviet Union suffered a form of all three: its regime was destroyed, its territory broken apart and economic integration between its different units was discontinued.

  • The existential nature of the Cold War explains its other characteristics. It is because the two enemies understood that the end goal was the destruction of the other, that two separate political and economic spheres were quickly carved out. It would be absurd to have tens of thousands of young Russians or Ukrainians studying at American universities if the Soviet Union was committed to the destruction of the American republic. And vice versa.

  • Is the conflict between the United States and China an existential conflict? I do not think so. Not yet, at least. I see no indications that both sides cannot live with the continuing existence of the other. Quite the contrary. They want to continue benefitting from their position in the global system. The current conflict is very clearly about the shape of that system. The United States would like China to continue occupying a subordinate position in the global system. China would like to see an island America, with a more marginal role in world politics and the world economy.