If We Fight a New Cold War, Who Are We Fighting It With?

President Biden’s words were hollow. The content had been cored because the words were empty of any real world content. On September 21, 2021, he told the UN General Assembly that the US is "not seeking a new Cold War or a world divided into rigid blocks." UN Secretary-General Antonio Gueterres disagreed, warning against the new Cold War and referring to the US and China as "superpowers."

With whom would a new Cold War be fought? Biden hinted at who the Cold War would be fought with right after saying that the Cold War wouldn’t be fought: "the United States turns our focus to the priorities and the regions of the world, like the Indo-Pacific, that are most consequential today and tomorrow."

Biden denied that the war with China is a war of aggression. White House press secretary Jen Psaki clarified that "Our relationship with China is one not of conflict but of competition." Biden referred to "a new era of relentless diplomacy." Again, words cored of content. The diplomacy is a diplomacy of provocation in Taiwan punctuated by military provocation. And diplomacy is not characterized by the US enticing Australia to cancel its order of conventional submarines that, according to Frank von Hippel, senior research physicist at Princeton University and a specialist in nuclear power, nuclear energy and nuclear arms control and proliferation, are completely adequate if your purpose is defending your maritime property against invading navies, for nuclear-powered submarines that are only preferable if your purpose is offensive attack. That’s sending a message to China, but it’s not diplomacy.

And diplomacy is not surrounding and sanctioning Russia nor is it the House Armed Services Committee asking the Secretary of Defense to enhance "the United States forward presence on NATO’s eastern periphery, to include assessments of possibilities for potential force structure enhancements at a minimum in Romania, Poland, and the Baltic states, along with options for enhanced deterrent posture in Ukraine."

At the close of the first Cold War, both Gorbachev and Putin hoped to create a new, cooperative post Cold War world. Professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent Richard Sakwa says that, at the close of the Cold War, Russia wanted to transcend the blocs and divisions, but America insisted on preserving them. Russia wanted to join a transformed international community freed of blocs and made up of equal partners who cooperated with each other; America offered Russia only an invitation to join an enlarged American led community as a defeated and subordinate member. Russia wanted to end the Cold War and transcend blocs; America wanted to maintain the Cold War and simply enlarge its bloc.

By 2012, Russia had realized that the only option America offered was losing the Cold War, not ending it. By 2014, Russia had abandoned what Sakwa calls "its last cold peace inhibitions." Russia would turn east and pivot to China and Eurasia. In a new approach to trying to transform a unipolar world in which the US used international organizations to hypocritically support its own foreign policy instead of using its foreign policy consistently to support international organizations, Russia began to spawn organizations of nations with the same concern. In addition to the Eurasian Economic Union, and most notably, Russia joined the BRICS nations and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

These organizations were never meant as new Cold War blocks. In a personal correspondence, Sakwa told me that they are even "reluctant to become ‘anti-US’." They are not, he explained, "strategic actors like NATO or EU." Rather, they "act as a voice in defense of general UN principles and international law abroad, against the so-called rules-based order – a code word for the arbitrariness of the Atlantic powers."

These organizations are important counterweights that attempt, by combining their influence, to balance the US and form a multipolar world. BRICS, an acronym for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, represents 44% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s economy. Created to magnify the influence of the emerging economies, it has evolved to provide an attempt to balance the US and midwife a multipolar world.

Most significantly, and least discussed – indeed, virtually undiscussed – in the west is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Like BRICS, its principle members are China and Russia, with the addition of India, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and, as of September 2021, Iran. The SCO embodies 43% of the world’s population, a quarter of the world’s economy, almost a quarter of the planet’s territory and four of its nuclear weapons powers.

China is spreading out its relations through the Silk Road Economic Belt. Recent attempts by the US to seduce unaligned nations in Asia to abandon China for a new Cold War block against China have largely been spurned. Even Israel is bristling at US calls for a monogamous economic relationship and is continuing to flirt with China. Israel has long enjoyed a strong relationship with Putin.

The US, since the Obama administration, has sought to isolate Russia and China. Seven years ago, Obama famously declared that "Russia stands alone." However, multipolar promoting organizations like BRICS and the SCO prompted Russian expert and professor of politics at Princeton University Stephen Cohen to ask, "Considering the size of those economies and of their populace, who is being "isolated?"

If the US fights a new cold war, it won’t be fighting it against one country: the danger is much larger. China and Russia have formed what Putin has called "a relationship that probably cannot be compared with anything in the world." China and Russia have defined the principles of that relationship in the Treaty on Good-Neighborliness, Friendship, and Cooperation, in which the two nations commit not to enter into "any alliance or be party to any bloc . . . which compromises the sovereignty, security and territorial integrity of the other. . .. " Dmitri Trenin, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center explains the relationship as one in which, though Russia and China "do not have to follow each other," they "will never go against each other." Chinese President Xi Jinping has classified China’s relationship with Russia as a "strategic partnership:" "President Putin and I both think that the China-Russia strategic partnership is mature, firm and stable."

The biggest danger in this new standoff is that the US’s inflammatory Cold War rhetoric and provocative actions have now convinced China and Russia that what they are facing is a new Cold War: something that they neither accepted nor hoped for. Putin faced that reality first, having accepted it by 2014. The most significant recent change is that China has now accepted it. Sakwa told me that "the Chinese view on . . . the Second Cold War has shifted dramatically in the recent period." The shift is from "being very skeptical and seeing it as yet another Western frame," to "Beijing [now] accepting that frame." Sakwa says 2021 is the year "that international politics . . . has crossed the Rubicon."

The US has convinced its competitors and talked itself into a Second Cold War. But this time, faced with a "strategic" partnership between China and Russia that is like no other and very large multipolar promoting organizations like the SCO, America will not be fighting a single superpower that is economically and militarily outmatched like the last time.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.