Great power competition is old hat. Systemic rivals are already passe. The Second Cold War has started. China and Russia started it. It is past time to acknowledge this and start fighting back.
The Chinese regime is an existential threat to the peace and prosperity of the United States and its allies, partners, and friends. Xi Jinping’s appetites are global—from occupying democratic Taiwan to reshaping land borders with India, from redrawing maritime boundaries with its neighbors to imposing strategic dependencies on other nations and blackmailing them economically—all the while building both nuclear and conventional forces to intimidate any opposition.
Xi also greenlit Vladimir Putin’s aggressive war against Ukraine and forged a de facto alliance between China and Russia. Over the past decade, the two autocrats have held an astonishing forty one-on-one meetings—a frequency surpassing their engagements with any other foreign leader by more than twofold. While the United States and other democratic countries were isolating Putin diplomatically, Xi paid a visit to Moscow in March of this year, concluding his trip with a remarkable statement: “Right now there are changes—the likes of which we haven't seen for 100 years—and we are the ones driving these changes together.” The Russian president agreed. Russia, in short, has made itself part of the China challenge.
The thought of living in a world dominated by China and Russia is intolerable to Americans and all freedom-loving peoples. Like any war, a cold war is a contest of will between determined, committed adversaries. It is high time that the United States and its allies start fighting back. We thought long and hard for the list of indicators that would demonstrate America was serious about protecting its interest from the onslaught of aggressive forces that want to remake the world. Here is what we came up with.
Say You are Serious
The Biden administration has never communicated clearly to the American people and the world what we are up against. When it comes to China, Biden’s mantra is weak tea a decade out of date: “compete where we must, but cooperate where we can.” When it comes to Russia, Biden declares the United States will “support Ukraine as long as it takes,” without giving thought to explaining in detail what the plan to deal with Moscow as a threat in the long term. This makes our adversaries sound more like a nuisance than a threat, akin to saying that it’s not our business what Hannibal Lecter does next door, as long as we don’t go over for dinner.
That does not cut it. China has 1.4 billion people, the second-largest economy in the world by various measurements, and a nuclear arsenal that will soon rival that of the United States and Russia. They already dominate many of the world’s most critical supply chains. Beijing is a destabilizing influence on every continent. It is among the world’s worst dictatorial regimes, abusers of human rights, and polluters. Russia is a nuclear peer, meddles in every theater where the United States has vital and important interests, and has violated every norm of responsible behavior. If we can’t label them the cold war adversaries they are—we have lost before we begin.
Secure Your Own Territory
What nation leaves its borders wide open in times of cold war? This is madness. Under Biden’s presidency millions of illegal aliens from all over the world are pouring into the United States through our southern border. In 2022 alone, the Customs and Border Patrol encountered almost 100 people on the terrorist watchlist. Apprehensions of Chinese nationals, many of them men of military age, crossing into the United States illegally are up over 800 percent over the same period last fiscal year. Nobody checks their backgrounds and they are released into the United States on their own recognizance with a court date to be determined at some point in the future. Until America regains control over its open southern border, no nation in the world will believe America is serious about defending its interests.
Claim the Moral High Ground
America is in a contest with brutal dictatorships. The Biden administration must stop describing its China policy as competition, confrontation, and cooperation. This language implies an equivalence between the United States, a democratic country that respects international law, and Xi’s China, a brutal dictatorship that routinely violates key international norms, including through its support for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
The Biden administration should communicate more about America’s freedom and achievements and less about its flaws. Some of the criticism of America’s shortcomings undermines the legitimacy, cohesion, and confidence of the American polity. It simply must be stopped.
America cannot prevail unless we demonstrate the will to defend America’s interests. That’s not done by being the world’s policeman, babysitter, or any other metaphor. It is not about muscular actions like regime change or supposed “nation-building.” Nor does the United States have any inherent responsibility to protect some illusory world order. It is simply this: we must have armed forces with the capacity to protect America’s vital interests and be unafraid in our determination to safeguard them.
Grow and Protect the Economy
America can’t win without economic might. Too many Biden economic actions, from energy policies to inflation and infrastructure, have made the economy worse and ballooned our national debt. We must adopt policies that foster economic growth at home, including unleashing American energy, tax cuts to incentivize entrepreneurs, and targeted deregulation. Economic security is national security.
We must expand the safeguards that prevent China from exploiting America’s economy. We are efficient today at stopping Chinese companies that want to invest in U.S. companies in national security-sensitive sectors. We must also prevent U.S. investments in Chinese companies related in any way to the military or repression establishments in the People’s Republic.
Challenge Allies to do a Lot More
Putin’s war in Ukraine served as a global wake-up call for America’s allies. For instance, twenty countries in Europe are increasing their defense spending—but the figures ultimately amount to only about one percent in real growth over last year’s level.
The willingness to spend more on defense is not the long pole in the European tent—the big challenges are inflation, energy costs, debt servicing, and weak economies. There are serious fiscal structural challenges to Europe spending a lot more on its own defense. This is a key point because it’s not just about telling Europe to “defend yourself because the United States has to pivot to Asia.” Post the Ukraine war, Europe now agrees that it must do more for its own defense.
America’s task nowadays is to encourage Europe to overcome self-imposed constraints on economic growth. This is particularly true regarding energy, where the “green agenda” is hamstringing Europe—energy prices are so high now that there are serious concerns that European companies will move to countries with cheaper energy, resulting in the old continent deindustrializing.
Make the Case for a Freedom-Based Development Model
The unfortunate reality is that many developing countries have little interest in joining one camp or the other on the basis of ideals such as freedom. Their primary focus is on lifting the standard of living of their people. America must be very clear that our free market economic system is superior to the Chinese economic model controlled by the Chinese Communist Party and to the Russian model controlled by the kleptocracy in the Kremlin.
Contra popular notions, the China-Russia model has less to offer. In 2021, the United State’s GDP per capita was $63,670. In stark contrast, after seventy-four years of Communist Party rule and twenty-three years of Putinism, Russia’s level was $27,960. And after seventy-two years under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party, China’s was only $16,997.
America ought to partner with developing countries to help them on the path of prosperity, not write blank checks of foreign aid. Economic partnerships that encourage foreign direct investment are the better answer for development. Partnerships are the answer even on security matters: Active diplomacy, encouraging foreign direct investment, security cooperation on strategic projects, and building stronger bridges can do more than raw military force.
Check the Checklist
When Washington starts delivering policies that achieve the ends we have laid out here, it will be a sign the United States is serious about winning the new cold war. Until then, we are just a target.
Dan Negrea is the senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Freedom and Prosperity Center. He served at the U.S. Department of State in leadership positions in the Policy Planning Office and the Economic Bureau.
Dr. James Jay Carafano is a Heritage Foundation vice president, directing the think tank’s research on issues of national security and foreign relations.