China, Foreign Policy, Security, Spotlight, World Affairs

Do We Really Want a New Cold War?

Fear has been making some pretty foolish policy decisions in the last few months. In the US, the decision of several state governments to move patients infected with COVID-19 into nursing homes probably takes the prize, but a close runner-up would be Congress’s CARES act, which misguidedly paid the unemployed to stay unemployed. Trillions have been allocated to remediate the damage done by shuttering non-essential schools and businesses, but relatively little of that Niagara of dollars has made its way downstream to the small businesses and schools that have been most harmed by the lockdowns. As usual, our solons have been trying to crack a walnut with a sledgehammer.

Fear has been giving no wiser advice on foreign policy. Politicians and commentators left and right have been competing to march us into a new Cold War. Hold the Chinese responsible! Sue them! Impound their US bank accounts! Uproot all our supply chains that pass through China! Show China who is boss in the South China Sea! Send Chinese students back to China before they can steal all our technology and spread their diseases! The Chinese have deliberately infected the world, and they must be punished!

The last claim isn’t true. Politicians and commentators from President Trump on down continue to repeat the conspiracy theory that the Chinese government deliberately spread the virus world-wide by shutting down flights from Wuhan within China, but allowing flights to leave for the rest of the world. The Chinese government certainly made some terrible mistakes. But our new Cold Warriors fail to apply Hanlon’s razor, “never attribute to malice what is adequately explained by stupidity.” Or in this case, what can be explained by the reluctance of bureaucrats everywhere to incur responsibility and their eagerness to conceal mistakes.

True, China is rapidly becoming less subtle about playing the superpower bully. Stung by criticism from around the world, China has gone from carefully calibrated microaggressions in the South China Sea to crude threats of economic reprisals against nations like Australia that are calling for independent investigations of the Wuhan virus. It has gone from crisis management in Hong Kong to open violations of its guarantees of “one country, two systems.” But ratcheting up tensions is not going to force China to be more transparent in the future about viral outbreaks. Economic threats and sabre-rattling from America will make the Communist Party of China (CCP) more defensive, not more cooperative.

Policy elites seem all too ready to snap back into Cold War mode. Deep thinkers zooming from their think-tanks continue to invoke the “Thucydides trap,” a shallow piece of historical analysis cooked up at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. It states, as a rule of thumb, that “when one great power threatens to displace another, war is almost always the result.” The natural inference is that the logic of power will force the US to “stop” China somehow before it succeeds in snatching our place as Top Nation.

Historians who actually study Greek history know that neither Thucydides nor the Greeks made any such rule. The rule is more Machiavellian than Thucydidean. Its wisdom is in any case suspect. It assumes that great powers must compete economically and militarily, and that one power can only rise by knocking down another. But for most of world history, powers great and small have cooperated to their mutual advantage more often than they have rushed into conflict. Just because powers are great doesn’t mean they have to fight each other. When powers decline the most important causes are usually internal, not external.

This zero-sum way of thinking, the Cold War mentality, doesn’t really fit US-China relations today. We are not ideological rivals the way America and the Soviet Union were before 1991. The Chinese system, despite the label on the package, is not communist. China, like the US, has a mixed economy, heavily regulated by the state, with a partially free market. Like us, they allow an enormous amount of wealth to be held in private hands. The Chinese government is not trying to export communist ideology the way the Soviets did; it is more interested in exporting semiconductors. Professions of belief in Marxist ideals coming from Chinese leaders are no more sincere than the respect paid to the ideals of the American Founding by members of the regressive Left on US campuses. No Chinese version of Nikita Krushchev is rattling nukes at us and shouting “We will bury you!” The voices in contemporary America urging the people to revolt against their capitalist oppressors are not being funded secretly by China. The greatest threats to American freedoms and American prosperity are coming from both parties in Congress, not from the CCP.

Politicians and the commentariat keep shouting “China is not our friend!” But friendship is a good thing, the most rewarding of all human relationships. It requires effort on both sides. Let’s not give up on friendship with China. Let’s keep up and even strengthen the cultural and educational ties between our countries. When educated people are familiar with another country’s language and culture they are less likely to demonize it. They understand that governments, the main source of avoidable suffering in the world, are more often stupid than evil, and that ordinary people are usually friendlier than government bureaucracies. When we know more about each other we are less likely to play the puerile game of “Who’s Number One?” and readier to admit strengths and weaknesses on both sides. Save the gold medals for the Olympics.

We need to maintain economic ties as well. The law of comparative advantage remains no less true now than it was in the pre-COVID era. That does not mean we can abandon practical judgement in the application of that law. An economic law is not a moral principle. But it is rational to have a preference for free trade so long as our trade partners do not take advantage of us, and so long as free trade does not increase risks to our citizens of low wages or high unemployment. Free trade should also not be allowed to endanger national security, including health security. Free trade under the right conditions, however, makes all participants better off and also gives them common interests, making them more reluctant to use violence against each other.

It’s time for more rational trade policies than the ones proposed by extreme libertarians who would make unrestricted free trade into a moral imperative, or by the new Cold Warriors who want to punish China for its crimes by impoverishing both our countries. Let’s stop accusing our political opponents of being “soft on China.” Let’s be rational on China. We don’t have to like the current Chinese political system or the CCP. Like most Americans, I strongly prefer the ordered liberty of our democracy, whatever its current discontents. But we don’t need to have another Cold War. It hardens our hearts and wastes our resources. Let’s stop the war while we still can.

 

James Hankins is Professor of History at Harvard University and the author of Virtue Politics: Soulcraft and Statecraft in Renaissance Italy (Belknap, 2019).

Comments

  1. So they just made an honest mistake that destroyed the world economy. Even if this is true, how is that an argument against holding them responsible?

    Perhaps the Democrats and the Left wouldn’t be accused of being soft on China if they weren’t featured in propaganda videos from Chinese state media.

  2. What a silly article. First the author calls for avoidance of hysteria and hyperbole and then rushes to claim America is endeavoring to begin a mutual assured destruction Cold War. It seems the U.S. should never stand up for itself, protect its interest and if fails to cow tow to despots it is threatening war. Another diatribe from the Blame America First crowd.

  3. @mike33511 said it well. The difference between malice and stupidity is not as significant as the difference between guilty and not-guilty.

    And even if China’s virus-handling wasn’t malice, they are still a malevolent totalitarian state.

    But it is rational to have a preference for free trade so long as our trade partners do not take advantage of us, and so long as free trade does not increase risks to our citizens of low wages or high unemployment.

    What does this have to do with China?

    Politicians and the commentariat keep shouting “China is not our friend!” But friendship is a good thing, the most rewarding of all human relationships. It requires effort on both sides.

    The author broke his own case with that second sentence.

  4. Those who think that we can be friendly with the CCP are either blind or weak. There doesn’t seem to be another adjective. Those who think that the CCP does not view most Western powers as dangerous adversaries to be over come with cunning and patience are either weak or blind.
    The Doctrine of Weakness remains ever the same:
    ‘They didn’t REALLY mean it’
    ‘Incompetence is to blame, not malice.’
    ‘We can be friends with everyone.’

  5. What an idiotic article totally at odds with a rational understanding of cause and effect. The Chinese are responsible for the Wuhan virus, both it’s creation and it’s spread. The Chinese leadership isn’t looking to be ‘friends’, they’re searching for advantage. If Western laboratories and technology companies are ‘friendly’ and invite them in they respond by stealing intellectual property. This isn’t an accident, it’s premeditated and their original intent. The Chinese are attacking the West on a myriad of levels not least of which is their continued and increasing investment in Western media companies. They understand they can make Westerners mouthpieces for spreading their propaganda or making excuses for their clearly malign actions. It’s a myth that all cultures and peoples can ‘get along’ and be friends. Only truly naive people with little understanding of human nature believe that. https://time.com/5557951/china-interference-global-media/

  6. I don’t think we really have a choice. China is lead by a totalitarian expansionist regime. Recognizing they have a rich culture and enjoying their food is not going to make up for them taking over Hong Kong or Taiwan. We will only be able to tolerate this kind of aggression against our allies for so long.

    China has been treating the West like it’s in a Cold war for a while. Pretending nothing is wrong would be dangerously naive, except coming from a Harvard professor, I can’t imagine there aren’t financial or ideological stakes involved.

  7. True, China is rapidly becoming less subtle about playing the superpower bully.

    Okay, so China does need to be confronted.

    Stung by criticism from around the world, China has gone from carefully calibrated microaggressions in the South China Sea to crude threats of economic reprisals against nations like Australia that are calling for independent investigations of the Wuhan virus.

    Okay, so China is making serious, economic threats against our allies.

    It has gone from crisis management in Hong Kong to open violations of its guarantees of “one country, two systems.”

    Okay, so China is openly breaking treaty agreements.

    But ratcheting up tensions is not going to force China to be more transparent in the future about viral outbreaks. Economic threats and sabre-rattling from America will make the Communist Party of China (CCP) more defensive, not more cooperative.

    Okay, so despite the fact that China is a superpower bully and is making economic threats against our allies and is breaking treaty agreements, we should not say anything to hurt their feelings because …

    They might make good on their threats to hurt us.

  8. The author is a great example of one of Lenin’s useful idiots. China is intent on re-establishing it’s 19th century empire with the “lesser” countries that surround it kowtowing when told and asking permission from the emperor before taking any apparent national stance.
    (The Chinese system, despite the label on the package, is not communist.)
    that is not what the communist party of china CCP says
    (China, like the US, has a mixed economy, heavily regulated by the state, with a partially free market.)
    any company of any consequence has a communist party cell within its structure.
    (Like us, they allow an enormous amount of wealth to be held in private hands)
    As long as those “hands” are paying obeisance to the communist party. and make no fuss
    (The Chinese government is not trying to export communist ideology the way the Soviets did)
    The chinese government has multiple confucius institutes in many countries, the purpose of which is to spread the idea that their system is one true way… They also harass and threaten members of the chinese diaspora to keep them quiet.Mostly by threatening their relatives back in China.
    and any country that stands up to them is the victim of “diplomatic” threats and abuse and actual physical assault as in the South China Sea.
    The author should just open his eyes. Mat I recomend Clive Hamilton as an author who has written well on this topic.

  9. There was never any possibility that the 200,000 were not going to die.

    The only question was the length of time over which they would die.

  10. We are not ideological rivals the way America and the Soviet Union were before

    Good Lord. They are a murderous dictatorship. We should be “friends” with them why? The crap we manufacture there can be manufactured elsewhere. The huge market they supposedly represent will continue to buy their own knock offs of western technology and designs. They’re not interested in what we’re selling unless it’s food or oil, and I wouldn’t even sell them that. They should be shunned worldwide.

    Since we’ve learned that many western academics are being paid off by the chinese, we should be suspicious of articles like this.

  11. I believe we must do business with China on the terms they have set, or simply not do business with them at all.

    Same with the mafia. You do business their way, or you do no business at all.

    In both cases, submission will not bring friendship or respect.

    Whining, blaming, and acting as badly as they do just shows weakness, and does not encourage cooperation.

    I do not equate objection with whining. Nor do I equate holding China accountable for its behavior with mere blaming. Nor do I equate doing business on equal terms with “acting as badly as they do.”

    If you want to do business with a man who punches you in the face, you must first punch him in his face. Then you can talk about going forward with mutual respect.

    Or you can simply cry and beg him to stop.

  12. @oakbell states: For instance, you can plan where to go on holiday, or who to invite for supper, or which university to apply to, or borrow money to start a new business, or sell the food you have grown, or train to be an engineer and work on solar-panel installations or start a business and work on marriage guidance or go to the temple of Guan Yin and say a prayer and make an offering, etc

    What if you are an Uighar Muslim. Then you can go to a slave-laborer reeducation camp and work on an Apple or Nike contract

    And you better keep an eye on your social score

    It is not practical to immediately cut off trade with China. We should not do anything that compromises U.S. interests. But if we learn anything from this Covid-19 pandemic it is that we cannot allow them to control strategic products such as antibiotics and PPE. The sooner we eliminate our dependency on China the better

    As @MorganFoster says, it is like dealing with the mafia. China has a long term plan and it does not involve sitting around the campfire and singing Kum-by-ya. You want to do business, understand who you are dealing with. You can do business without being friends. It happens all of the time. Morgan makes another good point. If you want to do business with someone who punches you in the face, first punch them back in the face. Tit for tat diplomacy one of the most basic tenets in game theory. Our Harvard Professor would do himself some good by studying it. Perhaps he ought to read papers written by another Harvard professor - Henry Kissinger. Being friends with China is a nice idea. That was Clinton’s goal in bringing China into the WTO. It didn’t work, just like Obama’s desire to bring Iran into the civilized world didn’t work. These measures only made us look weak. Trump’s tariffs have been widely panned by both the left and the right. But they have worked.

    @Benitaconova Oakbell is not the author, but it is very likely that he works for China. China has large troll farms that comment on social media. IP addresses are easily spoofed but it would be interesting to see his real one. His long run-on sentence suggests a lack of familiarity with English grammar. How many non-Chinese know or care what the temple of Guan Yin is? Sorry Oakbell. You have been outed. I hope this does not ruin your social score :unamused::unamused:

  13. Okay, so the fact a bunch of people who are long dead colonized the world, means it’s okay to let China conquer Taiwan now? It’s exactly baizuo attitudes like this that China is exploiting. The CCP cynically plays the race card because they can count on self-absorbed, guilt-ridden western lefties being too paralyzed from navel gazing about the misdeeds of their ancestors to muster a protest over their concentration camps or forced annexations.

  14. Where did you get your education? Clearly it was inadequate. The Island of Formosa, now Taiwan, was a Japanese territory from 1895 to 1945. In 1895 it was formally ceded by the Qing Dynasty to Japan by the Treaty of Shimonoseki. In 1945, following the defeat of Japan, the ROC (Republic of China) governed both Formosa and mainland as well. In 1949, the ROC lost the Chinese civil war to Mao Tse Tung and the ROC government fled to Formosa. At that time Chung Kai-shek, the ruler of the ROC intended on retaking mainland China.

    However, with the death of Chung Kai-shek this objective was seen in Taiwan as not possible and in both the 1990’s and 2000’s the government of Taiwan formally acknowledged this. In 1991 and 2005 they rewrote their constitution to define ROC territory as limited to the island of Taiwan. The 1991 Act Governing Relations between the People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area, clearly defines ROC as limited to Formosa and associated Islands. It also states that people in Mainland China are governed by the PRC, not the ROC

    These constitutional changes were vehemently opposed by the PRC, who still sees Taiwan as part of China. They see them as precursors to a move towards Taiwanese independence and they have made clear that any such move will be met with military action. Taiwan today exists in a nether zone. Most other countries treat it as an independent state, except when the PRC objects. Note that Taiwan is excluded from WHO, despite the fact that they have done an excellent job in controlling Covid-19. Taiwan acts like an independent state. However, due to the constant threat of war from the PRC, it cannot proclaim itself as such. In Taiwan, the policy is called “mutual nondenial”

    I was educated in the United States of America. How about you? Considering your ignorance of Taiwan governmental affairs, you might want to come over here and take a few college courses.

  15. You can’t compare the China situation with Iraq. Iraq was an insignificant country that couldn’t possibly threaten the western powers in any serious way. China is one of the most powerful countries in the world. If it was worth it to fight a cold war against the Soviet communists, it’s worth it to fight one against the Chinese communists, who are more powerful right now than the Soviets ever were.

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