Babylon the Great is Comfortable with Nuclear War

Some politicians seem comfortable with the idea of a new cold war. They shouldn’t

Christopher S Chivvis

Republican leaders draw on Reagan-era nostalgia to unite their party, but a 21st-century cold war would not end well for anyoneMon 27 Feb 2023 06.00 EST

Events surrounding the first year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine have had a cold war-esque feel, with America and its allies lined up on one side and China and Russia on the other. Some politicians in Washington – and perhaps Beijing – seem comfortable with this. But they should be careful. There’s no reason to believe a cold war re-run in the 21st century would turn out well for anyone, above all the US.

This past week, President Biden paid a dramatic visit to Kyiv and then addressed a crowd in Warsaw, pledging unwavering US support for Ukraine. President Putin gave a speech of his own in which he stubbornly insisted that Nato was to blame for the war and suspended Russia’s participation in a vital nuclear arms control treaty. The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, meanwhile confronted his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, in Munich, warning China not to supply Russia with weapons. Yi then flew to Moscow and stood alongside President Putin for a photo opportunity.

Dangerous currents are carrying us toward a new, and very different, cold war. This time, China and Russia would be pitted against a US-led coalition of European and close Indo-Pacific allies like Japan, South Korea and Australia. The Biden administration, and some of their Chinese counterparts, probably hope to steer out of these currents, but it’s getting harder and harder. This week’s events come against the backdrop of the crackup over China’s spy balloon, an ongoing US-China trade and technology war, and several years of deteriorating diplomatic relations between Washington and both Beijing and Moscow. Time is not on the side of those who favor detente.

In Washington, the US political system seems to be priming itself for a new cold war. Some Republican leaders, for example, are keen to use nostalgia for Ronald Reagan to unite their divided party and conjure up the memory of a prouder era in the party’s foreign policy, one before the messiness of the George W Bush and Trump years. Tellingly, Representative Mike Gallagher, who chairs the new House select committee on China, has made explicit his belief that the cold war should guide US policy toward China.

Anti-China rhetoric also plays well with a Republican party that now draws many votes from lower income, predominantly white areas, where people are down on their luck and ready to blame the Chinese for their hardships. This helps drive Republican arguments for “decoupling” the US and Chinese economies, recognizing Taiwan’s independence, and other measures that needlessly intensify the clash with Beijing. Democrats, who are already angered by China’s poor human rights record and vocal support for Putin, are reacting with more aggressive positions of their own.

Beijing’s impatient nationalism, military expansionism, and irascible diplomacy is obviously not helping. The prospect that Chinese leaders were seriously considering providing lethal assistance to Russia – as Blinken charged in Munich – is especially worrisome because it indicates that Beijing may not fully understand how deep the pool of animosity against it is in America today. Whether or not China’s autocratic leaders grasp the role of public opinion in US foreign policy is uncertain.

Superficially, a return to the bipolarity of the old east-west standoff might seem advantageous for the west. After all, the free world won the last time, and despite the Strangelovean gloom, avoided nuclear war. The cold war also had the advantage of simplifying things. At least we knew who the enemy was. It also helped keep a lid on some of the major security problems that have menaced the world since, such as failed states, terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

But a mid-21st-century cold war would be very different from its 20th-century precursor. To begin with, it is too easy to forget that American economic power then outstripped the Soviets three times over. In contrast, the Chinese economy now rivals America’s.

During the cold war America was able to use its huge economic advantage to spend heavily on defense while simultaneously building a social welfare system that soothed the inevitable strains of the liberal system. In a new cold war, America and its allies might hope their liberal economic and political model will give them the technological and economic edge that would make this possible, but China is not a command economy like the Soviet Union and will almost certainly be far more successful economically.

In the last century, the onset of the cold war also required no process of economic decoupling. But this time around, the dislocations of economic decoupling would almost certainly cause domestic political volatility. This would make both sides’ foreign policies more unpredictable, and probably more belligerent.

Meanwhile, America would have to finance an arms buildup not just in Europe, but also in Asia. This would create an even heavier fiscal burden in America, hence higher taxes and more inflationary pressure. If China divested from its massive dollar holdings, which seems likely, the fiscal situation would get even worse.

Yet another difference is that many US allies would struggle to pay their own defense bills and still maintain economic separation from China. In fact, they might not even want to. Whereas Soviet ideology called for an overthrow of their liberal political systems and the appropriation of bourgeois property, China’s ideology today poses no such threat.

Especially in the early years of a new cold war, the risk of an accidental war would be high. Early cold war crisis, for example over Berlin in 1948, almost led to war before cooler heads prevailed. There is no guarantee that a crisis today would also be resolved peaceably. Both sides’ uncertainty about military redlines and capabilities would increase the chance of misunderstandings and create incentives to take military risks, especially if communication has broken down. In this environment, defensive military measures aimed at preventing war could accidentally bring it on. The costs of war would be devastating: even conservative estimates of a standoff over Taiwan point to trillions of dollars in losses.

The United States and the Soviet Union managed to avoid global thermonuclear war in the 20th century, but this shouldn’t lull us into overconfidence about what might happen in the future. The 20th-century world had more than one brush with fate, for example, during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and the 1983 Nato “Able Archer” exercise. Creating strategic stability – a situation in which neither side has an incentive to start a nuclear war – is already going to be complicated enough in a world where China and Russia are both likely to have superpower-sized nuclear arsenals. The political and security competition of a new cold war could make it impossible.

Sometimes confrontation between world powers is necessary. It can even be constructive. But I doubt that the Biden administration is happy about the trend toward a new bipolar standoff and hope that Beijing is more concerned than it lets on. The cold war may be the model of great power competition that Washington is most comfortable with, but it’s a dangerously misleading one and should be resisted.

  • Christopher S Chivvis is the director of the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

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