America vs. Russia and China: Welcome to Cold War II

A serviceman carries a air-to-ground missile next to Sukhoi Su-25 jet fighters during a drill

The Second Cold War is a rematch among the same teams.

May-June 2018

Historians of the future may conclude that the theme connecting seemingly unrelated American policies—including the expansion of NATO, American wars of regime change in the Middle East, support for “color revolutions” and the rush to “lock in” liberal rules of global trade by mechanisms, like the WTO and multilateral treaties, that deprived nations of economic sovereignty—was a sense that the United States enjoyed only a brief window of opportunity to shape a world order to American values and interests, in the interim before the long-term rise of China and the diffusion of wealth and power from the West inevitably diminished American influence. Those who compare contemporary China to the imperial Germany of the 1900s may get the comparison backward. Contemporary China is like czarist Russia before World War I: huge, patient and gradually modernizing under authoritarian auspices. It is the United States that has in fact been acting like imperial Germany. The German elites feared that they had only a short time to achieve European hegemony before the growth of Russian wealth and power made their plans impossible. The historians of tomorrow may conclude that a similar anxiety about rising Chinese power has motivated several American administrations to launch hasty and reckless efforts to consolidate a global Pax Americana. But the would-be architects of enduring American global hegemony in the past three decades have failed, and time is running out.

MY FIRST argument, then, is that the underlying cause of Cold War II is the American bid for global hegemony that followed Cold War I and Chinese and Russian resistance to it. My second argument is that, if American victory is defined as achieving American global hegemony in the face of their resistance, particularly the resistance of China, the United States is going to be defeated in Cold War II.

To judge by the rhetoric of the new cold warriors, the goals of the United States include, among others, the following: China’s acceptance of permanent U.S. military domination of East Asia; China’s acceptance of rules for world trade drafted by the United States and its European and Asian allies, without Chinese participation; Russia’s acquiescence in a permanent U.S./NATO presence on its borders; and Russia’s return of Crimea to Ukraine.

It is not necessary to argue that these geopolitical objectives are undesirable from an American perspective, for the simple reason that these objectives, whether good or bad, are impossible for the United States to achieve. To commit a nation to projects that cannot be accomplished must result in humiliating national failure.

Let us examine each one of these objectives of mainstream American foreign policy in detail.

China’s acceptance of permanent U.S. military hegemony in East Asia. During the two decades of the Cold Peace in the 1990s and 2000s, American foreign-policy experts could sometimes be heard saying that, although the Chinese might grumble now and then, they would ultimately acquiesce in a Pax Americana in East Asia because it served their commercial interests or prevented the remilitarization of Japan.

In a Brookings roundtable on China in November, Robert Kagan summed up the China strategy of American liberal hegemonists, dropping the mask of idealism for crude Machtpolitik:

“My attitude toward China is, do well economically, but you cannot use your military to expand your power position in the region. Is that fair? No. Is there any justice to that? No. We get the Monroe Doctrine and you don’t. That’s just the way it is, I’m sorry. . . . We are containing China and the Chinese believe we are containing them.”

In 1997, it was at least possible to believe that China, like Japan and Germany, might accept the status of a protectorate of the United States and specialize as an export-oriented, civilian power. Today that belief is delusional.

U.S. military hegemony in East Asia is not possible. Given the continuing growth in Chinese power and wealth, the only realistic alternatives are a bipolar Sino-American military rivalry in the region, a concert of power including both China and the United States and perhaps other regional powers, or Chinese regional hegemony following the decline of U.S. influence in the area.

From the perspective of the United States and its allies, protracted low-level competition with China may be preferable to American acquiescence in a Chinese sphere of influence and the appeasement of China by all of its neighbors, including Japan, if the third option of a regional concert of power is not achievable. But accepting a bipolar, divided East Asia, including buffer zones in which the United States will refrain from challenging China too provocatively, would in itself mark a retreat by the United States from the optimistic post–Cold War order in which China would accept a subordinate place as a civilian trading power in an Asia and a world run by Washington.