Cold War II
...and it isn't with Russia.
If nothing else a cold war certainly focuses a population without the mess of the hot variety. I spent most of the last one thinking that the Soviet Union was going to rain fiery hell from above and melt my topsiders. Mitt Romney’s quip that today’s Russia “is a gas station parading as a country” may be underselling things a bit, but demographics suggest he’s not entirely wrong either. While there is no telling it President Vladimir Putin, their population collapsed with its heroin explosion in the free-wheelin’ 90’s. Although, to be fair, dismiss a gas station with nuclear capabilities at your own risk.
China, on the other hand, is another kettle of fish. Unlike the old Soviet Empire, they were smart enough to (eventually) not take their own ideology too seriously. As a consequence, they were able to go from a 3rd world sweat shop parading as a country, past market-making competitor and onto laying the groundwork for a rival global power bloc in the same span Russia took to go to seed. China poses a larger economic threat that the U.S.S.R ever did. With its Road & Belt initiative, Beijing is doing a fair-to-middling job of replacing the vapor trails of the old American free-market system hammered out at Bretton Woods in the closing days of World War II.
To be sure, the Middle Kingdom has its systemic demographic issues that will prove problematic, but that won’t be for another generation (don’t discount the span of a generation - the 30 years spanning 1914-1944 – were pretty damned lively). China’s long-standing one child policy may have kept the population from exploding, but also threw it wildly out of kilter for a society that’s been going on about harmony for the last 3,000 years. First is an aging population in a socialist society that doesn’t have a younger generation large enough to support it as it exits the workforce. This looks to be perennial problem, as even with the repeal of the one child policy – Chinese parents are still opting to only have one child. The second issue is China’s famously out of whack sex ratio which, thanks to selective abortions during the one child years, has produced some 30 million more men in the country than women.
Given that 30 million men without a date on Saturday night get restless, China has a simple choice – put up with the instability at home, or export it abroad in the form of a large expeditionary force. They want to make the South China sea their personal lakefront, and talk about invading Taiwan. Militarily speaking, there isn’t much the US can do about it either.
So, in the face of Cold War II, what is a war-weary America in half-retreat from the world stage supposed to do? In the early hours of the last Cold War – pushed out of our bumpkin, isolationist closet – our first instincts were probably our best. In 1947, George Kennan, a diplomat writing under the pen name “X”, reflected this in an article for Foreign Affairs in which he urged a post-war policy of containment of the Soviet Union, but not much else. We didn’t have to fight them, he argued, we just needed to keep them penned in.
It bears pointing out that the United States won the last Cold War without actually fighting our great power rival, but by simply denying them market access. In fact, every-time the United States did resort to hot conflict during the cold war it ended in, at best, stalemate (Korea), humiliating retreat (Vietnam) or, worst, some damned never-ended purgatory in the Middle East.
Denial is always easier than control. Consider forcing a stubborn six-year-old to eat a plate of steamed broccoli. Depending on how stubborn the little knee-biter is, you might have to physically force him to chew and swallow: which will be both exhausting and traumatic for both parties, as well as doomed to fail. Denying to same kid a bowl of ice cream, in contrast, is much easier, more affective and your neighbors aren’t calling the department of child services (in this metaphor, that’s the UN).
Moral implications aside, the United States was never designed to be an empire – as a former colony the concept makes us uncomfortable and because we have the run of an entire continent, we don’t need one. Nor do we need conquest of the illiberal world – even for its own good. US Foreign Policy should focus on containment of the authoritarian bloc by doing what we did well in the first Cold War: Keep the markets open for those following the rules, and deny access to those who don’t. Simple because China is more economically integrated with the world, containment will be more effective than it was with the Soviet Union.
To do this, though, we need allies like Japan, the EU, and whatever were going to call the rump of the British Empire: the UK, Australia and Canada (for a start) to buy-into the system. Those relationships need to be repaired because the United States simply no longer has the economic drag to pull it off solo. To make containment effective and profitable for the Free World, we need working trade agreements and an alliances in place. We don’t have to force domination.
As foreign policy it’s hard to argue that simple, peaceful and rules-based containment doesn’t work. Our obvious missteps aside, the system worked so well during the last Cold War that after 50 years we were declaring the “end of History.”
History, though, never ends. I’m still wearing topsiders.