Will There Be a New Cold War with China? A Reply to Niall Ferguson
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Will There Be a New Cold War with China? A Reply to Niall Ferguson

Matt Johnson
Matt Johnson
8 min read

The end of the Cold War was a heady time in the West. Francis Fukuyama’s essay “The End of History?”—which argued that the world was witnessing the “unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism”—was published in the National Interest a few months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. US President George H.W. Bush and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were touting the possibility of a “peace dividend,” in which billions of dollars could be shifted from defense budgets to domestic projects. The number of nuclear weapons in the world dropped precipitously after peaking in the mid-1980s, and the threat of nuclear war seemed dimmer than it had been in decades.

There are countless ways in which the post-Cold War era hasn’t lived up to expectations. The global recession in the late 2000s and rising income inequality have undermined faith in open markets and democratic institutions, authoritarian demagogues have risen to power on both sides of the Atlantic, and as the novel coronavirus pandemic ravages the global economy, we could be heading for yet another recession with who-knows-what political consequences in the coming years. As if all this wasn’t bad enough, historian Niall Ferguson wants us to know that we’re also witnessing the start of another Cold War.

Ferguson argues that the post-Cold War era was merely an interregnum between Cold Wars. “When did Cold War II begin?” he asked last December. “Future historians will say it was in 2019.” Of course, this new Cold War isn’t with the Soviet Union—it’s with China. Ferguson has previously contended that the United States and China have a symbiotic and deeply interconnected economic relationship (what he and the economist Moritz Schularick labeled “Chimerica” in 2007), and he now believes the two countries are locked in a global struggle for economic and technological supremacy.

While Ferguson notes that Cold War II won’t be without its ideological and military dimensions—from tension over Chinese authoritarianism and human rights abuses to a potential naval confrontation in the South China Sea—he believes the conflict will primarily be over issues like trade and new technology such as quantum computing. He also believes this sort of Cold War might be a good thing: “If Cold War II confines itself to an economic and technological competition between two systems—one democratic, the other not—its benefits could very well outweigh its costs.” These benefits would include a research and development boom similar to the one that propelled the US economy in the 1950s and 1960s, and the sense of national solidarity that could develop from the perception that Americans have a common enemy abroad.

Ferguson argues that “there is no obvious reason Cold War II should feature nuclear brinkmanship or proxy wars.” Nor should we expect a major ideological battle: “The People’s Republic does not have the same approach to global expansionism as the Soviet Union,” he writes, adding that the “‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative—Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature overseas investment program—does not aim for world revolution.” The term “Cold War” conjures images of nuclear standoffs, guerrilla insurgencies, the hot wars in Vietnam and Korea, and many other episodes that don’t bear much resemblance to the tension between the United States and China today. But if the definition of “Cold War” is merely antagonism between two great powers—even if the nature of that antagonism is vastly different from one conflict to the next—is “Cold War” really the right term for it?

Consider the historical context in 1945 versus 2020. World War II had just come to an end and Soviet forces were positioned deep in the heart of Europe. Hungary, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, and East Germany were all under Soviet control, and there was stark disagreement about what post-war Europe should look like. While Churchill and Roosevelt wanted Eastern Europe to resemble the open and democratic West, Stalin wanted governments that resembled the Soviet system. He was particularly interested in maintaining control over Poland to deter future German aggression and expand his sphere of influence.

The Soviet Union was a hostile expansionist power with satellites across Eastern Europe and client states around the world. And beyond the devastating proxy wars in Korea and Vietnam, US and Soviet forces were often in terrifyingly close proximity—it’s easy to imagine scenarios in which confrontations over Germany and Cuba, for instance, could have led to war. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, an American destroyer was trying to force the nuclear-armed Soviet submarine B-59 to surface by dropping non-lethal depth charges. Believing that they were under attack, two of the submarine’s three commanders wanted to launch a nuclear missile at the US forces, but Vasili Arkhipov (whose authorization was required for the launch) refused. Arkhipov’s actions almost certainly averted the outbreak of nuclear war.

Ferguson acknowledges that the ideological confrontation with China is unlike the ideological confrontation with the Soviet Union, but it’s worth emphasizing just how different the circumstances are today. Communism was an ideology predicated on the destruction of the economic and political systems that existed in the liberal democratic West, and its adherents couldn’t just be found in Russia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America—they could also be found in Western Europe and the United States.

In one sense, Ferguson is right that the Chinese challenge to Western liberal democracy is more serious than the one posed by the Soviet Union. China has maintained an authoritarian political system alongside a dynamic market economy and managed to deliver consistently high GDP growth for decades. Unlike the Soviet Union, this makes it a long-term economic rival to the United States—as Ferguson often points out, China’s GDP surpassed the U.S. years ago in terms of purchasing power parity. However, unlike the Soviet Union, China doesn’t seek to reshape the world in its political and economic image. Like Ferguson, Francis Fukuyama observes that China is “fundamentally different from the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century … I don’t think that they are particularly interested in exporting their model. I don’t think they think that anyone can duplicate their model anywhere else.”

Fukuyama explains that the advantages of the Chinese system—such as the ability to develop and implement policies quickly by avoiding the procedural and legal constraints that exist in a country like the US—are inextricably bound up with that system’s weaknesses. While China’s centralized, undemocratic form of government is more efficient than the checks and balances in a liberal democracy, it also leaves the country vulnerable to the “bad emperor problem.” As Fukuyama explains: “If you’ve got a good authoritarian government, you’re really doing well. But there’s absolutely nothing to guarantee that you’ll have a constant supply of good leaders.” This problem was made all the more acute when the National People’s Congress voted almost unanimously to amend the Chinese Constitution and abolish term limits for President Xi Jinping, confirming him as president for life. This won’t just lead to chaotic succession struggles in the future—it will also mean China has even less recourse if another Mao comes along.

China’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic appears to demonstrate that highly coercive centralized states are better positioned to handle massive public health crises than open and democratic societies. In a February report, World Health Organisation researchers credited China with implementing “perhaps the most ambitious, agile, and aggressive disease containment effort in history.” While this is almost certainly true, the initial Chinese response has had disastrous global consequences—a fact that can also be blamed on the authoritarian nature of the regime.

For several weeks after the virus was first discovered and reported, officials who raised the alarm were silenced, medical professionals were ordered to misrepresent and suppress information, major events still took place, and millions traveled out of Wuhan (where the disease originated). Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, explains that there was “no action in Wuhan from the local health department to alert people to the threat.” Huang has seen this before—in a 2003 paper about China’s response to the SARS outbreak, he pointed to a “fatal period of hesitation regarding information-sharing and action.” He warned that this response “raised crucial questions about the capacity and dynamics of the Chinese political structure and its ability to address future outbreaks.”

China’s botched initial response to the latest coronavirus outbreak has exposed another source of instability. After the death of Li Wenliang, a doctor who was forced to sign a statement admitting to “illegal behavior” after he tried to warn his colleagues about the danger on December 30th, there was an eruption of grief and anger with the government over how he was treated. The hashtag #WeWantFreedomOfSpeech was viewed millions of times on Weibo, while state media officials, executives, and thousands of ordinary Chinese called for reform. This was a reminder—along with the Hong Kong protests and the recent election in Taiwan—that there’s growing democratic resistance to repression from Beijing.

While there’s no doubt that China presents an alternative to liberal democracy, you aren’t going to find many Western politicians or intellectuals arguing that it’s an alternative their societies should seriously consider. Ferguson disagrees: “I am more worried by America’s enemies within, who are surely much more numerous than during the Cold War.” What internal enemies is he worried about? “Those native-born Americans whose antipathy to Trump is leading them in increasingly strange directions.” Toward Chinese-style authoritarianism, in other words.

Ferguson cites a Gallup poll that shows greater support among Democrats for socialism (57 percent) than capitalism (47 percent) and points out that “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has done much to make socialism sexy on Capitol Hill.” But if antipathy to Trump is what’s driving the popularity of socialism in the United States, why did a majority of Democrats report a “positive view of socialism” to Gallup in 2016, 2012, and 2010 as well? And why does the Democratic Party look certain to nominate Joe Biden to face Trump in November rather than the socialist candidate Bernie Sanders? Those poll responses probably aren’t expressions of support for anything resembling Chinese authoritarianism—they’re more likely expressions of support for expanded public services such as paid sick and maternity leave, single-payer healthcare, and so on.

This presents another problem with discussing U.S.-China relations using Cold War rhetoric—it increases the panic and hostility that can eventually lead to phenomena like McCarthyism. Ferguson stresses the deepening concern within the U.S. government about China’s rise: “Americans have suddenly grown fearful of the growth of Chinese power. What was once the position of a few alarmists is the new orthodoxy in Washington, shared by Republicans and many Democrats, foreign policy wonks and technology nerds.” Isn’t there a risk that rhetoric about a new Cold War is contributing to the spread of that fear and orthodoxy? Ferguson has emphasized the importance of understanding the unique historical circumstances of the Cold War “before the idea of the Second Cold War gets so well established that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.” As anti-China rhetoric intensifies during the COVID-19 crisis, it’s even more important to take this concern seriously.

The most terrifying and defining reality of the Cold War was the ever-present threat of nuclear war. In his 1945 essay “You and the Atom Bomb,” George Orwell discussed the idea of living in a “state which was at once unconquerable and in a permanent state of ‘cold war’ with its neighbors.” This was probably the first use of the term to describe the condition of perpetual conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, and Orwell’s argument was built around the implications of nuclear weapons. As Ferguson acknowledges, China is vastly “inferior to the United States in nuclear weaponry,” which is another reason to question the idea that we’re entering a new Cold War.

To many intellectuals, the idea that the United States is in the early stages of Cold War II with China is becoming conventional wisdom. Walter Russell Mead recently argued that China’s expulsion of American journalists was part of its effort to “construct a new Iron Curtain to keep the world from learning what is happening within Chinese borders.” Mead says he “hoped that common economic interests would lead both countries to avoid the kind of destructive rivalry that characterized the U.S.-Soviet relationship during the Cold War. But hope is not always enough.” The title of his article is “Beijing Escalates the New Cold War.” To Mead, the reality of a New Cold War is so obvious that it should be our starting assumption.

If you already believe Cold War II is underway, every confrontation between the United States and China—from trade disputes to recriminations over the novel coronavirus—is evidence for that interpretation. But framing the relationship between the world’s two superpowers in this way could, in fact, make the new Cold War a self-fulfilling prophecy. “The Cold War ended when one side folded,” Ferguson writes. “That will not happen in our time. The democratic and authoritarian powers can fight for three or 30 years; neither side will win a definitive victory.” Perhaps this is a reason to stop using words like “war” and “victory” in the first place.

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Matt Johnson

Matt Johnson has written for many outlets and is the author of the forthcoming book, How Hitchens Can Save the Left: Rediscovering Fearless Liberalism in an Age of Counter-Enlightenment (Fall 2022)