Is It Too Late to Stop a New Cold War With China?

George Orwell celebrated victory in World War II by warning that a “cold war” would soon commence. A cold war, he wrote in his 1945 essay “You and the Atomic Bomb,” was a “peace that is no peace.” Nuclear weapons would prevent direct invasions, but the superpowers would otherwise lead irreconcilable world orders, each seeking to quarantine and trounce the other. Within a few years, the United States and the Soviet Union squared off in just this fashion. The American diplomat George Kennan forged America’s Cold War consensus by counseling that Soviet power had to be contained until it collapsed.

The Soviet Union did collapse, eventually. Orwell, however, had projected that a cold war might involve a third party: “East Asia, dominated by China.” Until very recently, he looked mistaken. Since the 1970s, the United States and a rising China pursued economic enmeshment and a measure of diplomatic collaboration.

That was then. Now President Trump is escalating a trade war with China as politicians, policymakers and pundits from both parties urge him not to stop there. Senator Elizabeth Warren rejects America’s past “happy face” China policy, and Senator Marco Rubio tweets about China’s “comprehensive plan to achieve world domination.” Washington is gearing up for full-spectrum competition with the world’s No. 2 power. We may be witnessing the start of a Sino-American cold war.

If so, Mr. Trump may prove to be the next Harry Truman, who set the terms of the first Cold War in the late 1940s by pledging to “support free peoples” and creating institutions to integrate them. Mr. Trump is more severe: He vows vengeance upon those who “rape our country” and exacts it through sanctions and tariffs. That he is rallying the country bodes ill for the conflict to come, even compared with the nuclear standoffs, proxy wars and internal repression of the original Cold War. If responsible Americans would prefer a different future, now is the time to say so.


By the end of the Obama administration, officials in Washington feared China was straying from the path of liberalization and cooperation. They condemned China’s legally dubious military buildup in neighboring seas. They criticized China’s economic practices, which restricted market access for American businesses and forced them to divulge know-how. And they lamented China’s authoritarian tightening under President Xi Jinping.

To be sure, these concerns — add to them China’s human rights record, in particular its treatment of the Uighurs — are legitimate, just as were American objections to Soviet expansion and oppression in the 1940s. Still, as President Franklin Roosevelt had done toward the Soviets, President Barack Obama tried to challenge Chinese conduct more than Chinese power, and he emphasized the benefits of cooperation.

Only since Mr. Trump took office, and especially in the past year, has a Cold War-like panic seized Washington, elevating individual complaints about Chinese actions into all-encompassing opposition to Chinese power. While the president fixates on tariffs, his administration is drawing an “economic iron curtain” across the world, as the former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson put it. America is crippling the Chinese telecom giant Huawei, whether to prevent espionage or deny China leadership of high-tech industries. Every issue — security, economics, technology, human rights — is fusing together.

Beijing must wonder what can satisfy Washington’s demands, beyond changing its regime or retreating from the world. We might find out from Vice President Mike Pence, who blasted Chinese “aggression” in an influential speech last October and is planning a follow-up, or from Kiron Skinner, who holds Mr. Kennan’s old post as director of policy planning at the State Department and who says she is formulating a Kennan-esque theory of the long “fight” with China.

If a cold war is breaking out, why now? Although the United States and Soviet Union had different political and economic systems, their antagonism centered on a specific dispute: the future of postwar Germany. No single sticking point cleaves America and China today. Nor are ideological differences as acute. China no longer seeks the universal triumph of communism, and the United States is moving away from exporting democracy. Perhaps this should reassure us that relations will not descend into open conflict. Or perhaps the extent to which they already have indicates that a darker logic is at work.


The anti-China turn of the past year has been triggered more by American anxieties than by Chinese actions. The latter, by and large, are not new. What is new is President Trump, who has both introduced a distinctive animosity toward China and provoked the American political class to seek a new purpose for America’s global leadership.

Mr. Trump, a xenophobe, has for decades placed the blame for America’s problems on non-Western powers, first Japan in the 1980s and then China. His administration reflects this worldview. Ms. Skinner calls China a “really different civilization.” “This is the first time that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian,” she has said, disregarding imperial Japan and Orientalized portrayals of the Soviets. Her point is nonetheless significant: If the original Cold War pitted liberal capitalist democracy against state communism, its successor may promise brute power politics wrapped around a clash of civilizations. No wonder Steve Bannon, doyen of the alt-right and Mr. Trump’s former counselor, thunders that China poses “the greatest existential threat ever faced by the United States.”

Mr. Trump has mattered in a second way. His election caused foreign-policy mandarins to panic over “isolationism” and scramble to save American power. After banding together to defend the “liberal world order,” they have arrived at a surer solution: contain China. Beijing presents an ideal foil — a major adversary that justifies globe-spanning responses but doesn’t pose much immediate threat of war. On Capitol Hill, getting tough on China ranks among the few causes that unite Democrats and Republicans. Economic nationalists imagine jobs returning to America, free-traders think pressure will open up China, and everyone gets to sound tough on defense. Today’s climate reminds Senator Chris Coons of “the 1950s when there was no downside, politically, to being anti-Soviet.”

That is not to say that China hawks are insincere or irrational. They are right that China’s rise inherently threatens American interests — so long as America defines its interests as maintaining global dominance everywhere and forever. For advocates of the “United States-led liberal order,” what really counts is American leadership, even when supplied by Mr. Trump. In this respect, too, his presidency is clarifying.


At the moment, confrontation with China might seem to offer something for everyone, much as the anti-Soviet crusade initially promised. In the late 1940s, businesses saw an opportunity to expand trade and secure capitalism; organized labor signed on, agreeing to discipline its ranks for a slice of the economic pie. It seemed like a good bargain, at least until growth stalled and the Cold War turned out to mean dying in Vietnam.

The costs were immense then, and they could be steeper now. For one, it is no coincidence that a president who denies climate change is leading the charge against China, the top emitter of greenhouse gases. Arresting climate change requires America and China to cooperate and channel their competition into salvaging the planet rather than seizing its resources. The American people can live with an authoritarian China. They cannot live on an uninhabitable Earth.

Nor should the American people fear a Chinese military attack. Even in East Asia, Chinese forces are not about to displace American ones. The United States has time to assess China’s ambitions and encourage its neighbors to defend themselves. Unremitting hostility may prove self-fulfilling, inducing China to seek to oust the United States military from the region. Although some think containing China offers a rationale for leaving the Middle East, they should think ahead: A new cold war could plunge the United States back into gruesome proxy wars around the world and risk a still deadlier war among the great powers.

Liberal hawks will say the survival of freedom is on the line. One wishes them luck: Having proved powerless to stop Mr. Trump’s rise, they hope to control China’s and bend what follows to their will. A cold war will more likely propel than diminish the forces of illiberalism. Demagogues like Mr. Trump will find it easy to swap the “red scare” for the “yellow peril” and accumulate power to keep the nation safe.

In 1946, Henry Wallace, President Truman’s Commerce Secretary, cautioned that America should stop rearming and acquiring bases around the world. These actions would make the Soviets insecure, ensuring the conflict they meant to prevent. “To other nations,” he counseled, “our foreign policy consists not only of the principles that we advocate but of the actions we take.” Mr. Truman asked Mr. Wallace to resign, and the superpowers launched the first Cold War. Will we avoid a second?

Stephen Wertheim (@stephenwertheim) is a visiting assistant professor of history at Columbia University.

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