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

American Strategy Needs to be Thawed Out

Zachery Tyson Brown
9 min readApr 13, 2021


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…