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

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

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

“Offensive realism,” the variant of realist international-relations theory promoted by John Mearsheimer, holds that in an anarchic world with no sovereign to provide law and order, states will tend to amass as much relative power as they can. A great power can never be too powerful and secure. “The best defense is a good offense,” the old saying goes. Or, if one prefers, there is Mae West’s observation: “Too much of a good thing is wonderful.”

The Nazi bid for superpower status was naked aggression, inseparable from demented racist conspiracy theories. But in the previous generation, German liberals like Friedrich Naumann and Max Weber supported the project of German hegemony in a central European bloc that could hold its own in the twentieth century against the Americans and the British and Russian Empires. If the alternative was the subordination of Germany and Europe to the Anglo-Saxons or Russians, German conquest of Europe could be rationalized as a form of self-defense.

We now know that Stalin did not have aggressive designs on western Europe after World War II. On the basis of Marxist-Leninist theory, he believed that the eventual recovery of Germany and Japan would spark another round of intra-capitalist wars similar to the first two world wars. The Soviet Union had to hold onto what it controlled, expand the communist bloc opportunistically and prepare to survive World War III, which would probably begin as a conflict among America, Britain, France, Germany and Japan. From this erroneous perspective, opportunistic expansion of Soviet influence was precautionary.

In the 1990s, the Clinton administration undoubtedly regarded the expansion of NATO up to the borders of shrunken, post-Soviet Russia as a prudent way of hedging America’s bets against possible future Russian revanchism. Likewise, there is no reason to doubt that officials in the Bush and Obama administrations sincerely believed that removing Saddam, Qaddafi and Assad and installing pro-American rulers in Iraq, Libya and Syria would improve American security. The same may be said of the determination of presidents of both parties that the United States, not China, would remain the undisputed military hegemon of East Asia.

What one state views as precaution, its rivals can view as aggression. In this lies what Mearsheimer calls “the tragedy of great power politics.” And it is in this tragic context that the American bid for global hegemony that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall must be viewed. Needless to say, from the perspective of Moscow and Beijing, what Washington rationalizes in terms of self-defense and world peace resembles an effort by the United States to encircle and contain Russia and China. They could dismiss Washington’s support of nonviolent “color revolutions” in support of “liberal” and “democratic” reformers in targeted countries in Asia and Europe, like Ukraine, as the cynical weaponization of democracy promotion, particularly in light of the absence of U.S.-sponsored democratic revolutions in Saudi Arabia and other pro-American autocracies.

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.

China’s acceptance of rules for world trade drafted by the United States and its allies without Chinese participation. Another casualty of Cold War II is the idea of a global “rules-based trading system”—at least if the rules are drafted by the United States and its allies, in a process like the TPP negotiations from which China is excluded. The Obama administration’s claim that China could be forced to play by more liberal rules in order to participate in the multinational markets that the TPP and the TTIP would create was always absurd. For one thing, the TPP’s allegedly immense trading bloc would have consisted chiefly of the United States and Japan, already deeply linked with the Chinese economy, and a collection of smaller economies that already trade heavily with China as well. As for the transatlantic TTIP, America and Europe’s hunger for access to Chinese labor, consumers or, in some cases, capital makes a mockery of claims that China would be forced to adopt liberal capitalism in order to break into a new, deeper Euro-American market.