President Xi Jinping of China and President Vladimir Putin of Russia (Photo: US Military Academy)

What Is This Cold War II About?

Joe Buff


by Joe Buff, MS, FSA

The Pentagon recently recognized that the United States is in a “new cold war” with China and Russia. This realization/admission by our national defense officialdom was a gradual process, as was the gearing up by the various participating “near-peer competitor states” involved in the conflict itself. Some commentators, including this writer, offered the view years ago that Russia was being very aggressive in Chechnya and the Near Abroad, and China was exhibiting expansionist and militarizing behavior across Asia, and both could become ongoing trends. Those trends have indeed continued and, in fact, they have accelerated.

Russia attacked Georgia, and now has an active military presence in the Crimea and Donbass of Ukraine, and in Syria and Libya; keeping countries out of NATO, challenging NATO, fracturing NATO are clearly among Moscow’s goals. China rapidly developed an aspiring blue water, global-reach navy, and fortified many “fake islands” which could threaten heavily-trafficked international shipping lanes; then Beiing launched its expansionist, usurious Belt and Road construction-and-loan transportation infrastructure campaign spanning the whole Eastern Hemisphere; China still commits tons of espionage, intellectual-property theft, and cybersecurity intrusions; to its own people and the world Beijing calls the U.S. its enemy. Airspace incursions and incidents of naval jousting by both Russia and China abound, as does propagandistic abuse of social media, de facto hostage taking via high-visibility arrests of accused “spies,” and direct election meddling.

In consequence, America’s National Security and National Defense Strategies and Nuclear Posture went from intentionally not talking about any “adversaries,” and de-emphasizing the roles of U.S. nukes, to instead using the word “adversary” quite a lot, and being noticeably less squeamish about the need for nukes to defend us and our allies. This isn’t just because POTUS Obama was a dove and POTUS Trump is a hawk. It’s because the global threat environment truly has changed. POTUS Trump’s calls for NATO nations to pay their fair share of mutual defense costs is a reflection of the strongly renewed relevance of the Atlantic Alliance in this new long-term conflict.

Lately, various pundits have taken to saying that this Cold War Two isn’t like the First Cold War: That first one was a battle between economic systems, between capitalism and communism, and between ideologies, between personal freedom and centralized control — all this is true. Quoted in the media, they say that Cold War Two is not about economic systems or ideologies but about nationalism: Russian nationalism, Chinese nationalism, American nationalism. This is also true. Here “nationalism” means a sense of superiority and entitlement carried to damaging excess, enjoyed at other countries’ serious expense. Every nation has a right to feel good about itself, to achieve greatness in its own collective consciousness. But the positive feeling turns into unhealthy nationalism if it is overly prideful, narcissistic, morbid. Rampant nationalism has even, throughout history, sometimes become a malignancy, leading to sociopathic conduct, a railing against good world order that is ideated at torch-lit marches and then acted out by making aggressive war. Take, for instance, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

It makes sense that no two cold wars, like no two hot wars fought at different times and/or over different ground, are “the same.” The differences between the cold wars, especially as to the technologies available, are legion, and have been discussed amply elsewhere. This time there is no iconic “Extended Telegram” by a George Kennan with prophetic instructions for exactly how to eventually defeat a sole enemy superpower. Debates over whether, this time, we should use containment again, or try engagement instead, confuse the issues. That either/or Hobson’s choice misses the point; it squanders the famous power of “and.” We should contain and engage, flexibly, attentively and painstakingly, varying our tactics by country and region, by issue or challenge or problem, and over time. We should always optimize our methods so that the punishment fits the crime or the reward fits the concession — while we retain the strategic initiative by remaining unpredictable. We should incentivize good behavior and deter or dissuade all that is predatory, based on upholding agreed-to norms, rules, and laws. Above all, we should never lose sight of an important time-honored point, something that Karl von Clausewitz emphasized two hundred years ago: War is politics pursued through violent means.

In hot war, that violence is physical; the bullets and bombs are metal; people are killed and buildings destroyed. In cold war, violence is done to thoughts, beliefs, and loyalties; the ammo is information, some true and some false; ideas are killed, facts are destroyed, relationships are ruined. This is something that hasn’t changed.

Politics could be labeled, with intentional derisiveness, as humanity’s true “oldest profession.” It has almost certainly been around since cavepeople first invented language, developed multi-family social groups, and gave vent to their competitive and ego-serving ambitions. Ultimately, success in politics is about offering appealing ideas that speak to people’s selfish instincts, in order to gain their support and their vote. (Even most altruism has its selfish aspect: it typically benefits one’s associates or acquaintances and makes the actor feel good about themselves, even self-righteous; indiscriminate altruism is more akin to martyrdom, i.e., self-punishment.) What the most appealing ideas of an era happen to be to different factions is what shapes the details of current political dialogue, but pragmatically speaking, deep down and especially as next election Day nears, the professional politician cares more about the votes than about the specific ideas used to get the votes. In fact, ideas can be used as an excuse for extreme physical violence. Every violent revolution, including the Russian Revolution of 1918, used some idea to justify some elite group harnessing popular sentiments, then resorting to mass violence to seize control of a society. In Russia in 1918 it was Communism, but the idealism of this ideology was largely a subterfuge to win over oppressed workers and let a small group of high-class thugs (Trotsky, Lenin, Stalin) take over a country. It worked, and did again in 1949 when Mao took over China.

Seen this way, nationalism is just another idea that politicians use to gain power and then act out their aggressions. It gets people out of bed in the morning and off to the polls. It gets them to cheer at political rallies. It gets lots of young people to line up at military recruiting posts — or to turn up in response to draft notices, rather than flee to Canada or wherever. Nationalism is an ideology. Like any other ideology, whether it functions for good or for ill within a country and on the world stage of history depends on the details. Either way, that functioning comes from it being seized upon by political leaders for purposes of amassing power.

Democracy is an ideology that has mostly good intentions and effects. Capitalism is an economic theory that comes complete with equations and formulas, an idea, hence a group’s belief in it is an ideology, and a successful one for the most part, even when it sometimes divides society into relative winners and losers. Tyranny under a “strong man” who rules by cult of personality is also an ideology — the idea of the strong man is always idealized (pardon the pun) beyond the reality of that individual; tyrannical societies tend to be very unpleasant places to live and work for the average man or woman (or child) on the street. Communism as an economic system is also an idea — the seminal writings of Marx and Engle are rather abstract and theoretical; Communism as an economic system in the Soviet Union, lacking the pragmatic “market socialism” adjustments and exceptions followed by China, showed empirically that it was not a success.

The problem with most nationalism is that, by definition, its adherents live within a single country’s boundaries, or belong to a single ethnic group whose members may have spread across borders, sometimes across several continents. (Here I think of religious beliefs as a type of ethnicity; religions — and atheism — are most definitely ideologies.) Nationalism of a particular variety is thus not something that can be shared between diverse peoples, the same way that Communism or, say, veganism or belief in astrology can be very widely shared. Identity nationalism, the variety that involves belonging to a particular ethnic group, is divisive by nature and intent, not inclusive: It divides humanity into the in group versus any number of “others” classified as out groups — at best to be looked down upon, and exploited when convenient, at worst to be despised, and assaulted or expelled.

As such, nationalism over the centuries has given rise to more than its share of wars: wars of grudges and vengeance, wars of greed and conquest, and wars of extermination. Nowadays, the scourge of Islamic terrorism combines all three types of war, under a banner of nationalism thinly disguised as a particularly bloodthirsty, politically-concocted distortion of a traditionally peaceful mainstream religion. The fact that its radicalized adherents — both leaders and followers — believe in this faith of suicide bombers only strengthens the argument that this is ideology cum nationalism.

The First Cold War featured a contest between particular ideologies, both of which could welcome anyone as an adherent. The systems were not based within a particular country or ethnic group; in fact, their bitter competition hinged on being able to gain very varied new adherents anywhere. Cold War Two is different. While America currently has an unfortunate share of identity politics, bigotry and prejudice, its traditional, broadly embraced brand of nationalism is basically inclusive: The United States always was and still is a melting pot; everyone including Native Americans arrived via immigration from outside North America. Among our large adversaries, Russia and China, their nationalism is partly a matter of being encompassed within national borders and partly a matter of ethnic belonging, but either way it is divisive, exclusionary. You’re either Russian/Slavic/Eastern Orthodox or you’re not. You’re either Chinese, racially and culturally, or you’re not.

This suggests that as Cold War Two plays out, we will see an era of rising political cynicism and blatant manipulativeness, one already made manifest by the aggressive resorting in various quarters to fake news and alterative (pseudo-) facts. We will see, as well, that expansionist strong-man leaders like Mr. Xi Jinping and Mr. Vladimir Putin are cannily deceptive in their dealings but very unsubtle in making demands of their national neighbors and their other opponents. Bullying, not seduction, is the order of the day now. This will erode the quality and durability of international alliances on both sides of Cold War Two, a trend that once put in motion will be rather hard to reverse.

So what is the United States to do, especially given that we are being blamed — as we have always been blamed by some people — for many of the ills of the world? We need to realize, and to communicate widely to friends and enemies alike, that there really is a profound difference between our ideology, based on individual freedoms, and those of our adversaries, based on strong-man tyranny. All ideologies are not morally equivalent, and all forms and expressions of nationalism in particular are not the same. So long as we can retain focus on and build upon the diversity and inclusiveness among our citizens, and respect all the “other people” in our allies and partners — in NATO and Asia and elsewhere — and even in our peer-competitors, we will have a big strategic advantage over our Cold War Two adversaries, whose nationalist ideologies are more frankly selfish, exclusionary, repressively un-democratic, and contemptuous of outsiders. We would then be following another time-honored military maxim, one that von Clausewitz and Sun Tzu would both endorse: fight on ground of your own choosing. This second cold war is definitely about ideology, and it is within the arena of ideology that our side, who definitely are the good guys, can prevail in the end, while still scrupulously keeping and vocally upholding a good semblance of world nuclear-and-conventional peace.