Posed Between Insight and Absurdity

I found Robert D. Kaplan’s latest essay in The National Interest on the “second Cold War”, a bewildering and frustrating combination of insight and absurdity:

This second cold war, conducted on a teeming planet whose anxiety is intensified by the passions and rages of social media, is only in its beginning stages. The aim, like in the first Cold War, is negative victory: not defeating the Chinese, but waiting them out, just as we waited the Soviets out: because at some point, as its middle class matures and continues to expand, mainland China may face its own equivalent of the internal upheavals that have roiled Hong Kong, Latin America, and the Middle East.

There are fundamental differences between the two cold wars. But in order to prevail we must concentrate on the similarities: the need for open-ended dialogue and focusing on our strong suit – liberal values in the face of increasingly intrusive technologies. For this cold war could end with echoes of 1989: with one side’s domestic order proving more resilient than the other’s.

I could not disagree with his conclusion more. We didn’t win the Cold War by tenaciously waiting out the Soviets. We won with soft power. The people living under Soviet rule wanted the same things we had and the Soviet regime was not delivering it. The Soviet position became untenable.

The examples of absurdity are not difficult to find:

The benefit of a wide-ranging and confidence-building dialogue with China, of the kind pursued by Washington throughout the middle and latter parts of the Cold War with both Beijing and Moscow, is that a human rights issue like the treatment of the Uigurs can be brought up and discussed, with the possibility of some improvement in the situation that will not be seen as a concession by the Chinese, and not trumpeted as such by us.

To what end? All that run-on sentence illustrates is that Mr. Kaplan is still clinging bitterly to the belief that liberalization of trade and open discourse will impel the Chinese Communist Party to soften its hardline policies. We now know with a confidence born of experience that will not be the case.

IMO the best insight in the piece is this:

After all, globalization was never a conflict-free security order, as originally advertised, but merely a value-neutral, temporary stage of economic development.

but he fails to ask the follow-up question: if we had known globalization would be “a value-neutral, temporary stage of economic development” would it have taken the form it took? That isn’t how it was sold. It was sold not merely as a money-making scheme but as a means of democratizing and liberalizing China.

I always recognized the absurdity of that position which is why I advocated for an interaction based on reciprocity in which we maintained a discreet distance from China, considering it with a skeptical eye.

The only way we will win this second Cold War is the same way we won the first—by maintaining the vigor of our own economy and reinforcing liberal values at home. I think that will be a harder task than the first time around because so many people owe enormous fortunes to maintaining things as they are.

6 comments… add one
  • Andy Link

    I think if we had off-shored a big chunk of our manufacturing, and had a massive trade imbalance with the USSR, then the may have lasted a lot longer.

    I think that is one of several fundamental differences. China is much less ideological than the Soviets and so China is perfectly willing to use our system against through mercantilist policies – something the Soviets certainly weren’t willing to do.

  • Guarneri Link

    “The only way we will win this second Cold War is the same way we won the first—by maintaining the vigor of our own economy and reinforcing liberal values at home. I think that will be a harder task than the first time around because so many people owe enormous fortunes to maintaining things as they are.”

    Yes. And the Soviet Union was just an armed to the teeth glorified oil well. China has much more going for it.

  • TarsTarkas Link

    The Han Empire may be less formally ideologically than the SU was, but thanks to Xi it’s returning to its Maoist roots. Their never experiencing a modern economy is why they’ve reverted back to mercantilism, it’s what they remember as working before Mao smashed everything up. Mercantilism worked when you had something other people wanted but nothing you wanted from them (an attitude which led to the shameful Opium Wars). Not so much when there’s so much bilateral trade. Which is one reason for the massive amounts of intellectual theft, avoiding the expense of R&D to undersell us.

  • Not only is it less ideological, China is not millennialist as the Soviet Union was. The CCP leadership isn’t interested in conquering the world. It’s interested in controlling China.

  • steve Link

    “by maintaining the vigor of our own economy and reinforcing liberal values at home”

    Our policy is mostly written by interest groups (lobbyists) to benefit the very wealthy. That means that we either won’t be that successful with China, or the same issues will just be repeated elsewhere(s). I tend towards the latter. We are quite happy blaming our problems on another country rather than addressing our own internal issues.


  • bob sykes Link

    First, unlike the Soviets, the Chinese leadership is delivering what people want, at least the material things, and the Chinese people are prospering. That, in itself, goes a long way to keeping the CCP in power. On a PPP basis, the Chinese economy is one-third larger than ours, and it is growing two to three times faster, even in the current so-called slump. Its industrial sector (which used to be in the Rust Belt) is very much larger than ours, and their research and development programs are nearly on a par with us.

    It is really dubious that we can wait them out.

    As to Russia, in the end no one believed in communism. When the system started to unravel under Gorbachev (himself a symptom), no one would defend it. The USSR lost all its (unwilling) allies, who promptly joined NATO and the EU. Russia, itself lost half its territory and industry, and a fourth of its population. It nearly collapsed, but Putin fought off the oligarchs who were financed by Wall Street and saved the country.

    The long term prospect is that China and we end up as cohegemons. They cannot displace us, because we have the huge alliance system left over from WW II, and we have hundreds of bases around the Eurasian periphery. China has none of that, although an alliance with Russia would be a major asset. However, Putin so far has declined to make a formal alliance with Xi, and keeps China at arms length, although they are on friendly terms and cooperate in many things.

    Putin will go down as one of the greatest statesmen in world history, on a par with Bismarck or Churchill. You don’t have to like him to recognize his greatness. Xi is not Putin, thank God. If he were, we would already have lost the contest.

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