Does ‘new Cold War’ discourse serve a strategic purpose?
Towards the climax of the acrimonious opening encounters between top Chinese and US diplomats this March in Anchorage, Foreign Minister Wang Yi could no longer contain his frustration: “What we need to do is to abandon the Cold War mentality and the zero-sum game approach.”
This, he explained, entailed nothing less than “a new type of international relations.” By all accounts, the summit was a gloves-off encounter. But it also felt like a soap opera. Offended sensibilities, canned rebukes––mostly recriminations. After stern opening remarks from the US, Yi said: “This is no way to treat your guests.” With an embarrassed grin, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged the cameras to stick around for his one-liner: “It’s never a good bet to bet against America.” There was nothing unscripted about Anchorage.
Since the Obama administration issued its National Military Strategy in 2015, mutterings of the “renewal” of great power competition have proliferated in policy circles. Predicting a new Cold War is now a cottage industry. Every day, articles with titles such as “There Will Not be a New Cold War” and “The Cold War Is Being Rebooted and Rebranded” vie for attention. Historians rightly caution that such analogizing, no matter how expedient, is vulnerable to the logical fallacy of false equivalence that beguiles grand strategists. But this cottage industry shows no sign of abating. Instead, we consider what ulterior motives and underlying calculations are driving policymakers and their speechwriters. Does the Cold War 2.0 script serve some pragmatic purpose? Reading between the lines reveals this decade’s most daring rhetorical gambit.
Invoking Cold War 2.0 is meant to function like a multi-purpose tool for resetting relations with China from a position of strength.
First, the Cold War 2.0 discourse constitutes a kind of ideological holding pattern for an administration inheriting an extremely turbulent domestic political landscape and, abroad, an ongoing identity crisis for the liberal order. Rather than reflexively driving America to a foreign policy ‘reset’ as the liberal internationalist he is too often painted to be, Biden has surrounded himself with figures looking to find a pragmatic new approach to this domestic-foreign nexus.
Floating the mere idea of Cold War 2.0 is one way of ‘healing the nation.’ Biden and Blinken are ruthless consensus-builders. Watch how the Cold War narrative helps draw together more ideological pole-stars like Senators Schumer (NY) and Todd Young (IN) into cosponsoring legislation. But will translating Trumpian anti-globalist protectionism into a restorative politics of ‘building back better’ work? Biden needs to sell Ohio on his version of “tough on China” before 2024. For a sneak peek of how this might happen, one can turn to a 2018 Carnegie report from the State Department’s new Director of Policy Planning, Salman Ahmed.
Second, and more directly, the debate serves as a catalyst for America, its NATO allies, and the “Quad” grouping (India, Australia, Japan, America) to rethink the strategic focus of their partnerships. The debate especially ratchets up pressure for a coordinated China policy from EU partners, who continue to emphasize “strategic autonomy.” Both the Quad and the EU find themselves between a rock and a hard place. China is their largest trading partner.
If macroeconomic realpolitik holds sway, and reciprocal appetites for Bordeaux and 5G network infrastructure appear too good to pass up, the EU will find itself shifting ever closer to being exclusively a customs union (many argue it already is after 2008), and not the poster child of social justice and human rights the European Commission touts. If this happens, the EU will relinquish considerable soft power, and offer the US an opportunity to regain the public diplomacy high ground it spectacularly lost after 2003. Either way, the Cold War frame of bipolarity narrows the EU’s options––especially given the Biden administration’s embrace of the distinction between “techno-democracy” and “techno-autocracy”––and forecloses the ‘muddling through’ approach EU leaders would prefer.
Domestic consensus building, and housekeeping abroad: these are the two veiled goals of Blinken and Biden’s great rhetorical gambit. Success will depend on the extent to which their script is ultimately written by foreign policy leaders in charge, or by populist political actors and 24-hour cable news pundits. Expect more Telemundo summits like Anchorage on the horizon. But also watch how the Cold War narrative spills over into policy areas that only partially straddle China. It will prove hard to contain.
The “AI Arms Race” and the “digital iron curtain” are already popular phrases to visualize the new competition between the US and China. As Palantir Technologies CEO Alex Karp argues: “Military AI is a zero-sum thing … The country that wins the AI battles of the future will set the international order.” Others disagree; AI simply can’t be ‘stored’ in any arsenal, they argue.
The new administration has so far been able to control the narrative through bipartisan congressional bills like the Endless Frontier Act and the American Foundries Act beefing up spending on critical technologies, and saber-rattling louder than GOP rivals. On trade, Biden can pursue “targeted disentanglement” from sensitive supply chains in national security terms, and continue aggressive pushback on Chinese ‘whole-of-nation’ industrial espionage. Yet industry analysts are quite clear that any US strategy to ‘bleed China dry’ in technological terms is doomed to fail. Many will also remain wary of reproducing Chinese-style “military-civil fusion” wholesale. Expect Chinese accusations of a new techno-nationalist military-industrial complex in Silicon Valley to intensify, and 2024 hopefuls to shift the Cold War conversation onto their own terrain: migration, deregulation, and protectionism.
For his part, Mister Blinken has been relatively clear in his view that America can only engage with China after it has “reestablished a relative strength in the relationship.” The alarmist drumroll of a new Cold War is calculated to make this happen. As a fierce advocate for Syrian intervention under Obama, Blinken first got attention with his line “superpowers don’t bluff.” But rest assured, Blinken knows that rhetorical strategies are the bread and butter of diplomacy.
Invoking Cold War 2.0 is meant to function like a multi-purpose tool for resetting relations with China from a position of strength. As Blinken said in a recent virtual fireside chat, “Whether it’s the adversarial piece, whether it’s the competitive piece, whether it’s the cooperative piece,” this position of strength is the “common denominator” of the administration’s game plan.