America’s Competition with China is Not a New Cold War

American Strategy Needs to be Thawed Out

I hear a lot of people these days declaring 21st-century competition with China a new “Cold War.” Whenever I do, my eyes just about roll out of my damn head, because that sentiment reflects what is in my view a profound misunderstanding of both contemporary America and the reality of the modern world.

I suspect some commentators prefer the frankly lazy comparison because they find it comforting — we’ve been here before, they think, we know how to win this. They believe that if the nation’s leaders looked to the Cold War for guidance, they could better wrap their hands around the troubling reality of a recoiling America, a revanchist Russia, and a risen China. They hope that some nouveau George Kennan will rise from the toiling obscurity of national security staff work with a brilliant new strategy of containment in hand, or at least its 21st-century equivalent. Military commanders like it because most of them cut their teeth the Cold War-era doctrines that won them glory in the great battle against the Soviets that wasn't — 1990’s Gulf War.

These are, of course, fantasies. Our world is far more complex and interdependent than it was in 1950, or even 1990. Political and military power is far more distributed, and the United States enjoys scant few of the enormous advantages it held for the latter half of the last century, advantages that allowed it to outlast the Soviet Union through the sheer power of its economy and a good dose of global goodwill.

If anything, the Cold War cliche unduly diminishes this new era that we’re now at just the outset of — robbing it of both scale and scope. Moreover, it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of what is now an integrated global competitive space, an arena of ideas that has been wholly transformed in the last thirty years and whose conditions bear little resemblance to previous strategic epochs.

There is, of course, a surface likeness — particularly if you hold a rather cartoonish view of either of the major players as imperialist powers bent on world domination — but the truth is that modern conditions bear very little resemblance to the Cold War and that it is the distinctions that are more salient than the similarities.

To begin with, international relations in the 20th-century were much more slower-paced, having operated at the analog speed of the ambassador’s cable, the rotary telephone, and the daily newspaper. The world was less connected, and thus more easily divisible into separate issues, like the pursuit of arms control treaties for instance, and into distinct regions, such as Southeast Asia or Central America, within which the periodic conflicts that arose could be largely confined. Power, in the Cold War era, was much more concentrated and could be found most often in the hands of a relatively small number of societal elites who, in the case of the Soviet Politburo, for instance, could reasonably (though ultimately poorly) attempt to shape the destiny of entire nations. During the Cold War, states could still be convincingly described using Realist terms, that is, as unitary, sovereign, rational actors interested in military security above all else, whose leaders would be amenable to decidedly Cold War-era concepts like deterrence. Perhaps most importantly, back then the United States of America had every advantage in the world — being the world’s largest economy, its population composed the world’s largest market, and its military held undisputed qualitative conventional supremacy.

Today’s strategic environment is remarkably different. For one thing, the pace of global affairs has hastened, working now the speed of a YouTube video or a hashtag movement. Instead of unitary sovereign states that behave like the rules-following players of a board game, our world is one of overlapping webs of influence that run over, under, and through states, their institutions and political parties, and even their individual citizens — and no one is much constrained by rules anymore. The kaleidoscope of de facto and de jure macro and micro-sovereignties that overlap and penetrate states — from multinational corporations with budgets the size of some states’ GDPs to empowered individuals who can credibly plan to colonize alien planets, not to mention the sheer aggregate power of the activated masses — has created what are in effect numerous enclaves of variant political authority and overlapping allegiances that make a mockery of 20th-century nationalisms.

Today, geopolitical issues that were once separate and distinct now regularly overlap, and sometimes even converge. Today, there is no such thing as a “regional conflict,” as every conflict is now connected to the rest of the world whether through the sinews of global finance or the online battlefields of social media. This connectivity has attracted waves of foreign fighters to the wars in Syria and Ukraine, for example, and spurred the creation of “online battalions” of partisans whose virtual battles can have very real effects. Today, what were once hard borders between “foreign” and “domestic” are increasingly permeable, giving opponents broad access to one another’s domestic institutions and infrastructure, from private firms and non-governmental organizations to opinion polls and national elections. Today people everywhere, from Silicon Valley to the Ferghana Valley, are more mobile, more informed, and more connected than ever before as they strive across vast networks of shifting identities based on ideology, religious sect, ethnicity, corporate membership, or brand allegiance.

What all this means is that power is far more evenly distributed than it was in the past, and that any American strategies pulled from the tired old Cold War playbook — overmatch in arms expenditure, for example — will likely fail. Simply put, if the United States continues to struggle to preserve a status quo ante that is already gone and isn’t going to return, it will lose.

The Cold War (1890–1990) was, simply put, an argument over how to best adapt to the immense social and economic consequences of the industrial revolution. The mechanization and electrification of the world had relatively abruptly upended thousands of years of human history, creating a host of new problems that needed to be solved as humanity evolved from agrarian-based economies to those centered on production and consumption. Two great ideologies of the 19th-century offered solutions to these problems: Capitalism and Socialism. Capitalists believed that the individual’s desire to compete for their own advancement would be the driver of human progress. Socialists, on the other hand, believed that the capitalists had already wrought enough destruction pursuing their fortunes and that a more egalitarian division of spoils would produce better results. The argument was made more pressing by the acceleration of history that accompanied the spread of railroads and telegraph cables and the parallel proliferation of European-style nation-states — who all now had access to a market that was becoming truly global for the first time in human history.

The Cold War’s ideological struggle took on far more consequential economic and military aspects in the middle of the 20th-century, thanks to the unique historical circumstances that were brought about by the conclusions of that century’s two great wars. The power vacuum created by the devastation of Europe brought about the destruction of prewar empires and allowed for the principal victors — the United States and the Soviet Union — to jointly set the conditions of the postwar world. Unfortunately, each personified one of the two opposing ideologies, and when they came to odds over the structure and apportionment of postwar political and economic order, it was at the head of relatively equal geopolitical blocs that had quickly coalesced around them both. The advent of atomic weaponry, first by the United States in 1945 and quickly followed by the Soviets in 1949, only served to ratchet up the tension by illustrating the consequences of miscalculation.

The stakes of the Cold War could scarcely have been higher. But for all the notional horror of mutually assured atomic destruction, it was essentially a two-body problem, one in which the United States of America held every advantage. From demographics and economic vibrancy to conventional military forces and international credibility, the United States entered its rivalry with the Soviets at the height of its own power, even if it did not seem like it to those living through the terrible uncertainty of the early Cold War years. America’s “brand” was virtually synonymous with what it turns out are universal human values — freedom, liberty, and the agency to make individual choices. With European capitals in ruins, the United States entered the Cold War representing nearly half of global GDP all by itself.

My, how times have changed.

Today, instead of being measured in terms of conventional military might or even nuclear arms, a nation’s power is more accurately measured by its ability to foster innovation, support a knowledge-based economy, and grow its connectivity within an increasingly integrated global network. Competition between states is distributed, both temporally and physically, across various realms — the ecosphere, the datasphere, and the psychosphere, among others. Savvy competitors must be able to coordinate activities that are vastly distributed in time and space, at several overlapping scales of interaction. Middle-tiered powers, which during the Cold War were lumped into one of the two warring camps (with the exception of the non-aligned states which charted a third way) today have much greater maneuverability with which they can work with or against the great powers on issues à la carte.

China, the United States’ principal competitor, will soon be the world’s largest economic power (by some measures it already is) — something the Soviet Union could only aspire to. China is already the world’s leading trade partner. Indeed, the United States and seven of its allies make up eight of China’s top ten trading partners. Simply put, there will be no “decoupling” from a manufacturing and growing financial powerhouse that is deeply integrated into vital global production chains and is already the largest trade partner of 128 out of 190 countries. China isn't likely to be isolated diplomatically or “contained” strategically, either, as it is either a leading member or controlling party of numerous institutions of global governance.

This new era, whatever future historians eventually call it, is simply not much like the last one. Capitalism appears to have won the Cold War. Now, however, society is faced with a host of new problems in its aftermath — new central questions about which humanity can argue with itself. Questions like, what should we do about climate change, or how should human civilization adapt to the information revolution, whose profound political, social, economic, and psychological effects are just as disruptive (and harmful) as those wrought by the industrial revolution that preceded it.

If the Cold War was about how much of our collective lives should be determined by the state and how much should be left to the private sector and civil society, then this new era might be about how much of our collective lives should be subject to the force, scrutiny, and perception control of powerful digital systems that will soon encompass our every waking moment (our sleeping ones, too).

China certainly offers one model. Its signature establishment of internet censorship, public surveillance, and prototype social credit systems have been labeled as techno-authoritarianism, a form of digital dystopia that has little to recommend itself. The United States has a model, too, though its less regulated and much more open laissez-faire style of digital governance has fostered its own malignancies, the fruits of which were witnessed on January 6th.

A final point. The adversarial Cold War construct portrays a zero-sum view of global competition that is both unrealistic and ultimately, I think, unhelpful. The truth is that China is likely to remain a leading world power for decades, if not centuries to come, as is the United States. Solving the greatest challenges that face humanity in the 21st-century and beyond — climate change — will require the cooperation of both great powers, something the Cold War paradigm would seem to obviate the possibility of. The United States can oppose China’s authoritarian excesses in China and stand up for its allies and partners abroad without adopting a limiting and ultimately limited frame of reference from the last century.

Competition with China is not the Cold War — an analogy that needs to stay in the freezer.

A strategic futurist contemplating the intersection of national security, defense, and disruptive technologies with empathy, skepticism, and hopefully, insight.

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