By Richard Falk
[Prefatory Note: The text below is a modified interview conducted by Daniel Falcone, and published in Counterpunch on July 9th. Even the passage of a few days has made it seem more likely that a new geopolitical confrontation could dominate the global peace and security landscape for years, with likely dire economic consequences coming on top of the dislocations arising from COVID-19 pandemic and heightened risks of war and regional tensions. One question is whether the differences in the global setting and main geopolitical actors sufficiently resemble the Cold War circumstances to make designating a U.S./China confrontation as a Second Cold War. As my responses below suggest, I have my doubt.]
Will China be the New USSR? The Future of American Geopolitics
Daniel Falcone: Do you anticipate the United States entering a new Cold War with China? What are the prospects for a new Cold War? Can you also discuss the fall of the Soviet Empire and the modern rise of China to better contextualize the present set of diplomatic tensions?
Richard Falk: I think there are grave dangers of either sliding into a new Cold War by unwitting interactions, especially with China, and possibly with Russia. More complex opposing alignments could also take shape, for instance, an alignment that features the U.S., Europe, and India on one side and China and Russia on the other. Such an encounter would likely be less ideological than the Cold War that broke out after World War II and also less preoccupied about the outbreak of an all-out nuclear war. The next cold war is likely to be more focused on economic rivalry, cyber dimensions of conflict and major regional wars involving Iran, the Korean Peninsula, India/Pakistan, or elsewhere. In this regard, what might start as a cold war has a greater prospect of producing major hot wars as there could be present less of a self-deterrent. In this altered global setting, there are distinctive risks arising from what I would call ‘nuclear complacency, underestimating the dangers and catastrophic results of nuclear war.
In the background of this look ahead is the extent to which China has spoiled the triumphalist narrative that was spun in the West after the collapse of the Soviet Union. One somewhat notorious version, associated with Francis Fukuyama ‘s claim, which seemed ludicrous when it was put forward in the early 1990s, is that after the Cold War the world had reached ‘the end of history.’ Western secular values had prevailed both with regard to state/society relations and in relation to the organization of the world economy. The future seemed, for some years, almost to vindicate this myopic interpretation, with a virtually universal endorsement of neoliberal globalization, which Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the previously left socialist leader of Brazil explained in the 1990s as ‘the only game in town.’
A cruder version of this clear vision of a victorious West was the assertions of the Tory leader in Britain, Margaret Thatcher, who aggressively shouted down the British opposition to her economic policies with the slogan ‘there is no alternative’ (to market driven economies), or simply TINA. This idea had been initially attributed to Herbert Spencer, notorious for suggesting in the 19th Century that history of society parallels human evolution in the sense of privileging ‘the survival of the fittest.’ Not surprisingly, given such an uncongenial atmosphere, progressive forces felt demoralized.
Left perspectives often adopted defeatist postures after the Soviet collapse, and were derided as having endorsed political oppression and backed economic failure. Perhaps worse for progressive prospects, was the awkward fact that the only surviving major socialist economy, post-Mao China after the ascent of Deng Xiaoping in 1978, seemed itself to be opting for joining the capitalist choir, seeking and gaining membership by in the World Trade Organization and rationalizing its active participation in the neoliberal world economy as ‘market socialism’ fooling almost no one, least of all capitalist investors and traders.
For many years, this seemed like a win/win reality. China’s economy expanded at a remarkable rate, but world trade increased and Western investors were pleased with their profits, associated with the low costs of skilled labor in China and the absence of strict environmental and safety standards. All was well as long as China stayed in its lane as ‘the factory for the world,’ but when it made the transition to a sophisticated high technology innovating economy it began to pose a new kind of geopolitical challenge to the primacy of the United States and the West, and murmurs began to be heard about stealing Western technology, unfair trade practices, and currency manipulations. In my view, although these issues were significant, they were capable of negotiated solutions, and were not the core concern. What began to bother the West was the degree to which China for all of its superficial adaptations to capitalist logic was dramatically outperforming its competitors in the West, seeming benefitting from the state management of economic activity, despite political authoritarianism, in a manner superior to what seemed possible in the developed societies of the West, especially with respect to savings, the investment of public funds, and even with regard to technological innovativeness relating to the post-industrial, digital age.
This extraordinary Chinese dynamic is brilliantly depicted for Asia as whole by the Indian economist, Deepak Nayyar, in The Asian Resurgence: Diversity in Development (2019). The book explains the overall post-colonial Asian challenge to Western ascendancy in which 14 Asian countries, led by China, produced the most remarkable record of economic growth and poverty alleviation in the past 50 years that the world has ever known. These countries achieved these remarkable results without the private sector trappings of liberal democracy, thus drawing into question the American claim that market-driven constitutionalism was the only modern arrangement of state/society relations that was both legitimate and materially successful.
With these considerations in mind, three rather distinct alternative futures for the U.S./China relationship deserve scrutiny if the objective is to avoid the onset of a lose/lose second cold war. On a preliminary basis it would seem helpful to take notice of a serious language trap that suggests misleadingly that because the words ‘cold war’ are convenient to designate a new central geopolitical confrontation, if it occurs, it would resemble in its essential features the Cold War that followed directly from the contested peace arrangements of World War II, and represented two major states that both conceived of international relations through the realist postwar prisms of hard power as complemented by adherence to rival ideologies that temporarily suspended their enmity toward each other in order to join forces to defeat fascism. There are many differences between the global settings then and now. First, there is only a rather shallow ideological difference among the leading political actors at this time, although those on the far right in the West are seeking a renewal of intense geopolitical conflict by portraying China as a Communist, socialist, even Maoist, and hence an ideological adversary of the supposedly freedom-loving West. In contrast, old style Cold War liberals are thinking more along traditional lines of geopolitical competition among principal states promoting national interests as measured by growth, military capabilities, wealth, status, and influence, with ideological differences and human rights invoked, but put situated far in the background.
With these thoughts in mind it becomes reasonable to depict three world futures that portray relations between China and the West. The first, and most evident one, arises from the kind of provocative Trump diplomacy that combines blaming the COVID pandemic on Chinese malfeasance with intensifying the divergencies relating to economic policies and in relation to the island disputes in the South China Sea. Such a conflict-generating diplomacy is best understood as a diversionary tactic to obscure the multiple and shocking failures by the Trump presidency to provide unifying leadership or science-based guidance during the unfolding of the health disaster that continues its lethal sweep across the country with undiminished fury, and should be exposed as such. If China takes the Trump bait, the world will be plunged into a new ferocious geopolitical rivalry that will divert resources and energies from an agenda or urgent global-scale challenges.
A variation on this theme is connected with the possibility that Trump thinks he faces a landslide defeat in the November election, and esscalates hostile diplomacy to stage a confrontation with China, possibly accompanied by declaring a national emergency, or by contriving Gulf of Tonkin style false incidents as a pretext for launching some sort of attack on China that is the start of a hot war, which if saner minds prevail, would be contained, and toned down to mere Cold War proportions, and likely becoming a multi-dimensional rivalry that comes to dominate international relations.
The second more subtle drift into a Cold War with China would arise from a deep state consensus reinforcing a bipartisan consensus in Congress, and further encouraged by private sector war industry pressures. The likely objective would be to challenge China militarily in the South China Sea or in the course of some regional confrontation, possibly arising from tensions on the Korean Peninsula, along the Indian border, or in the Indo-Pakistani context. It would represent a more common structural militarist response patterns to growing evidence of relative Western decline in the face of a continuing Asian rise.
The third future is even more abstract and structural, and has been influentially labeled ‘Thucydides Trap’ in a book by Graham Allison [Destined for War: Can America and China escape the Thucydides’s Trap? (2017)], who accepts the analysis of the classical Greek historian on the basis of case studies over the centuries finds that when an ascendant Great Power fears the loss of its primacy to a Rising Power, it frequently initiates war while believing it still retains a military edge, which it will not retain for long. Note that such an assessment presumes actual warfare, and should not be perceived as a sequel to the U.S./Soviet Cold War, which came close to war in several situations of bipolar, but managed to restore order in a series of tense crises without engaging in direct combat.
There is a further complication with an analysis that extrapolates from the Cold War. Unlike the Soviet Union, China’s rise and challenge is far less associated with military capabilities and threats than it is with a remarkable surge of economic growth and soft power expansionism by pursuing win/win approaches that combine infrastructure aid to foreign societies with the growth of influence. In this regard, China has not weakened its domestic society by excessive investment in a militarist geopolitics, which depends on maintaining an expensive and vast global military presence that produced a several failed interventions that cast doubts on the United States’ capacity to uphold global security. This loss of credibility with respect to global security, despite its military dominance can be traced back to the Vietnam War in which overwhelming combat superiority on the battlefield nevertheless led to a political defeat.
The United States has repeated that fundamental failure first fully exposed in Vietnam in several other military misadventures. This inability to adjust to the realities of the post-colonial era in which nationalism mobilized on behalf of self-determination often neutralizes and eventually outlasts an intervening external power despite having grossly inferior weaponry has still not been overcome by the United States as it continues to act as if its military prowess shapes contemporary history. There is a second Thucydides trap that Allison doesn’t mention, which is that Athens lost its ascendancy from internal moral and political decay more than from the challenge posed by rising Sparta, succumbing to demagogues who led Athens into imprudent military adventures that weakened its overall capabilities, and especially its political self-confidence. Such a downhill path has been traveled by the United States at least since the 9/11 attacks in 2001 in which wars and contested long occupations of hostile societies has been expensive and contributed to alienation, extremism, and unrest within the United States.
Daniel Falcone: Can you draw on specific historical comparisons to the Soviet Union and China in terms of what is at stake geopolitically?
Richard Falk: There are several important comparisons. To begin with, the Soviet Union emerged from a devastating war as a victorious military power, and soon acquired nuclear weapons, posing a direct threat, ideologically and militarily to the European heartland of the Western alliance. The Cold War unfolded out of the tensions associated with the mutual disappointments of the peace diplomacy, especially as it divided Europe, including the city of Berlin.
The other flashpoint that provoked extremely destructive and dangerous wars in Korea and Vietnam, and recurrent crises in Germany, was the problems arising from unstable compromises between the victors in the war taking the form of countries divided without the consent and against the will of their national populations, and in disregard of the right of self-determination. In the present historical situation, the only leftover divided country is Korea, which after a serious and devastating war, 1950-52, ended as it began with the division remaining along with crises, tensions, threats, and periodic diplomatic efforts to achieve normalization leading to some form of reunification. It should be noted that although China’s geopolitical profile is overwhelmingly economistic as compared to the U.S. militarist profile, China become very sensitive about threats and disputes along its borders, and has had fighting wars with both India and Vietnam, as well as a defensive engagement in defense of North Korea.
Tensions rising to confrontation levels with China would probably either derive from disputes within China’s sphere of South Asian influence with respect to Taiwan, Hong Kong, island disputes or in some way related to China’s economic rise to a position of primacy, which contrasts with the grossly inferior economic performance of the Soviet Union if compared to the U.S. and the other major world economies, including Germany and Japan. The Soviet Union was never an economic rival or mounted a challenge in the manner of China.
The Cold War also coincided with the decolonizing process in Asia and Africa, which put the West and the Soviet bloc on opposite sides in a variety of struggles. In one respect this provided a safety valve that shifted bipolar confrontations to peripheral countries while trying to keep nuclear peace and stability at the center of the world system, which both sides assumed to be Europe, as well as their relations with one another. If a prolonged geopolitical confrontation emerges with China, Europe will not likely be an important site of struggle, and Europe even might sensibly opt to be non-aligned. Asia, including the Middle East, will become the main geopolitical battlegrounds, and Africa will offer a peripheral zone of contention where a Cold War II rivalry might assume its most direct expression as escalation risks would seem lower than in the various Asian theaters of encounter.
Unquestionably, the biggest difference is between the nature of the two challengers to Western systemic hegemony. The Soviet Union was a traditional geopolitical actor relying for expanding influence on its material capabilities and ideological penetration, while China focuses its energies and resources on soft power economic growth at home that is sustained and managed by the state in a manner that attracted massive foreign investment and domestic reinvestment based on a high rate of savings, a skilled labor force, and benefitting from highly favorable trade balances. China’s expansionist energies relied on win/win forms of economic and infrastructure assistance to countries in need with minimal interference with their political independence. The Soviet Union never undertook anything remotely comparable to China’s Road and Belt extraordinarily massive infrastructure initiative, again stressing huge win/win gains for a large number of countries, including in Africa. Aside from the special case of Cuba, the Soviet Union provided only military support to its allies in the so-called ‘Soviet bloc,’ and in East Europe intervened militarily to avoid ideological deviation.
It remains to be seen whether now that China is being challenged geopolitically by the United States it will begin to adopt a hard power mode, and the resulting confrontation between the two countries will come to resemble the Cold War. It is likely that China will emerge from the COVID pandemic with a reputation for greater efficiency in controlling the spread of the disease, reviving its economy, and understanding the functional benefits of global cooperation than the Trumpist West. At the same time, the Chinese image has been badly tarnished by damaging disclosures documenting the repression of the 10 million Uighur minority in Xinjiang Province and by forcible extensions of direct control over Hong Kong.
Daniel Falcone: The Cold War featured widespread propaganda in all facets of American cultural and political life. How could the United States attempt to sell the concept of an ideological confrontation with China in these times? The Republicans and Democrats are both constructing similar policy proposals it seems.
Richard Falk: I believe there are two approaches to confrontation with China that might be followed in the coming months, depending on which leadership controls American foreign policy after the November elections. Neither is desirable in my opinion. There is the approach of provocation adopted by Trump, which blames China for the pandemic and imposes various sanctions designed to roll back their economic and technological advances coupled with Trump’s normal transactional emphasis on securing a more favorable trade deal for the U.S. tied to a promise of warmer diplomatic relation.
The second approach is more closely associated with a reenactment of the Cold War bipartisan consensus that formed after World War II, and continues to animate the national security establishment in Washington. It involves a new version of containment as focused on the South China Seas island disputes, sometimes more loosely described as ‘boxing China in’ with India playing the role that Europe played in the earlier Cold War, along with an emphasis on China’s human rights abuses to achieve liberal backing, or at least acquiescence.
This approach is more likely to be pursued by a Biden presidency reasserting U.S. global leadership, with a Carteresque revival of ideological emphasis on Western liberalism as a superior mode of governance and global leadership due to its record on human rights and democracy, proclaiming its dedication to ‘a new free world.’ It is this approach that is more usefully and accurately regarded as a successor to the first Cold War. This softer version of confrontation with China would not challenge the structural features of America’s geopolitical posture adopted during the Cold War based on militarism at home and globally, capitalism, Atlanticism, and ‘special relationships’ with Israel and, somewhat less stridently, with Saudi Arabia, India, Egypt.
At the same time, there are some strong disincentives for so engaging China in a post-pandemic setting when policy priorities should be directed at restoring the economy and addressing climate change/biodiversity, which was almost forgotten about during the health crisis. The wisest course for future American foreign policy is providing constructive global leadership with an emphasis on inter-governmental cooperation for the human interest, a receptivity to compromise and conflict resolution in dealing with economic and political disputes, a radical defunding of the military, and strong commitments to restoring the spirit and substance of the New Deal with respect to social protection and national infrastructure.
Daniel Falcone: Are there any specific human rights issues and regions that would present immediate concerns and be jeopardized in your estimation within a new Cold War framework?
Richard Falk: Neither China nor the United States are currently positioned to promote human rights in other parts of the world with any credibility. The U.S. has lost credibility due to its handling of asylum-seekers on its borders and the maintenance of sanctions against such countries as Iran and Venezuela despite widespread humanitarian appeals for temporary suspension. In addition, the worldwide surge of support for Black Lives Matter after the Floyd police murder has called attention to the ugly persistence of systemic racism in gun-toting America. With these and other concerns in mind, it is hypocritical for the U.S. to be lecturing others, complaining about human rights abuses, and imposing sanctions allegedly as punitive responses to human rights failures.
China has never treated human rights as an element of its foreign policy, and with its own failures to adhere to international standards at home it is unlikely to engage the West on these terms. At the same time, there are at least two positive sides to China’s treatment of human and humanitarian issues that are rarely acknowledges in the West. First, China has lifted tens of millions of its own people out of extreme poverty (while the U.S. has widened disparities between rich and poor, and oriented growth policies over the course of the last half century to benefit the super-rich causing dysfunctional forms of inequality and acute alienation and rage on the part of working class). The Chinese achievement could easily be interpreted as a great contribution to the realization of the economic and social rights and to some extent should balance its disappointing record with regard to civil and political rights.
Secondly, during the COVID pandemic China has displayed important contributions to human solidarity while the United States has retreated to an ‘America First’ statist outlook that is combined with very poor performance with regard to both preventive and treatment aspects of responding to the virus. China has added funding to the WHO, send doctors and supplies to many countries, and most impressive of all has pledged to place any formulas it develops for effective vaccines in the public domain, placing this vital intellectual property on the web accessible to public and private sector developers. China deserves to receive positive recognition for such acts of what is sometimes described as ‘medical solidarity,’ while the United States deserves to be shamed for its blending of capitalist greed and nationalist selfishness.
Should there be a Second Cold War, human rights would become even more than, at present, a tool of cynical propaganda, especially if the bipartisan consensus regains the upper hand in U.S. policymaking. As with the First Cold War, human rights considerations would be brought to bear on countries deemed hostile to U.S. geopolitics and ignored with respect to friends and allies. At present, such a dichotomy is evident by way of an emphasis on Turkish human rights failures while ignoring the far worse failures in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. Because the Second Cold War would be more explicitly geopolitical rather than ideological, I would expect less emphasis on ‘free world’ definitions of the core issues giving rise to the conflict.
Daniel Falcone: Although it’s a long-standing concern of strategists and planners, how do you see or anticipate China becoming an issue in the upcoming presidential election?
Richard Falk: It seems likely that Trump will campaign on a new strategic threat to the United States emanating from China, primarily aimed at its unacceptable economic manipulations to deprive the U.S, of trading benefits and jobs as well as its charging China with responsibility for American deaths due to the pandemic resulting from its refusal to release information about the virus immediately after it struck Wuhan and by way of conspiring with the WHO to conceal information about the international dangers of the COVID-19 disease. As in 2016 with its inflammatory message about immigrants, it can be anticipated that Trump will use the same techniques to cast China as an evil challenge to American greatness that only he has recognized and possesses the will and ability to crush.
I would expect that the Democratic Party election strategy would not take fundamental issue with the Trump approach, although its emphasis might seem quite different, attacking Trump for using China as a means to distract Americans from his gross failures of international and domestic leadership. A Biden campaign would also condemn China with regard to curtailing Hong Kong democracy and autonomy, as well as its abusive policies toward the maltreated Uighur minority. Biden might also agree that Chinese behavior has been unacceptable with respect to trade practices, stealing industrial secrets, including advocating militarization and confrontation in the South China Seas.
Where Biden and the Democrats would differ from Trump quite dramatically is with respect to Russia. Biden Democrats would likely make Russia enemy #1, sharply criticizing Trump for being ‘Putin’s poodle,’ and arguing that Russian expansionism and its alleged responsibility for killing Americans in Afghanistan is a more frontal threat to American interests in the Middle East and Europe than are the China challenges. Depending on the rhetoric and supporting policies being advocated there is a risk that Biden’s approach would lead to geopolitical fireworks, but probably not with China, and with less preoccupation with Europe than the First Cold War that ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Daniel Falcone: How does our ongoing and continual: medical, racial, economic and environmental pandemics help in exploiting Cold War narratives and approaches for heads of state around the world?
Richard Falk: I believe it is not yet clear whether these competing narratives will outlive the health crisis when pressures to revive the economic aspects of the ‘old normal’ will be intense. It is possible that if Trump remaining in control of the U.S. Government, there would be an opportunity for China or possibly a coalition of countries to exercise global leadership by seeking to promote a global cooperative approach to health, while also seeking common ground and shared action on climate change, global migration, food security, and extreme poverty.
If Biden becomes the U.S, president and reasserts U.S. leadership it will likely strike a balance between pushing back against Russian and Chinese challenges and learning from the pandemic to seek global cooperative solutions to urgent problems confronting humanity. This renewal of liberal internationalism would likely be signaled on Day One by rejoining the Paris Climate Change Agreement and soon thereafter restoring American participation and support for the Iran Nuclear Agreement, supplemented by such internationalizing initiatives as returning to active membership in and robust funding for the WHO and support for the UN.
In conclusion, the buildup of anti-Chinese sentiments is establishing this dual foundation for a Second Cold War. Not surprisingly, the Editorial Board of the NY Times calls on Trump to use sanctions against China in response to reports of its mistreatment of the Uighur minority and its Hong Kong moves. Such advocacy is set forth without a mention of the hypocrisy of Trump being an international advocate of human rights given his record of support for autocratic denials at home and abroad, not to mention border politics and cruelty toward those millions in the U.S. without proper residence credentials. This kind of belligerent international liberalism, if not moderated, would recall the ideological joustings that made the First Cold War such a drain on resources and destroyed hopes for a rule-governed geopolitics, anchored in respect for the UN Charter and embodying commitments to promote a more peaceful, just, and ecologically responsible world.
First published on 22 July 2020
(Professor Richard Falk is one of the world’s leading authorities on international politics. He is also a member of JUST’s International Advisory Panel.)
By Richard Falk