The United States, the President swore, is "not seeking a new Cold War." But he is, and it didn’t have to be that way. The end of the Cold War could have been the end of the Cold War.
Russia really didn’t want a new Cold War and has only been reluctantly drawn into it. Gorbachev and Putin both hoped to create a new, cooperative post-Cold War world. Russia desired a transformed international community that transcended blocks. It took Putin a long time-about fourteen years – to give up on the dream and settle into the reality of a second Cold War. China, too, was reluctant to accept the inevitability of a second Cold War. China, for a long time, did not accept the Cold War template that the West was forcing on the world. Professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent Richard Sakwa told me in a personal correspondence that it is only now that China has accepted the forced template. "The Chinese view on . . . the Second Cold War has shifted dramatically in the recent period [from] being very skeptical and seeing it as yet another Western frame [to] Beijing accepting that frame." Sakwa says that shift happened only this year.
Though Biden says he is not seeking a new Cold War, it looks in several key ways that he is. The difference is that this time it is not an ideological battle. It is not an epic battle between communism and democracy. It is a petty and self-serving struggle for markets and for hegemony.
Cold War Rhetoric
Biden’s speeches employ the rhetoric of the Cold War. He defines the conflict with China as a generational struggle, as "a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies." Our "children or grandchildren,” he said, “are going to be doing their doctoral thesis on the issue of who succeeded, autocracy or democracy." But, of course, those doctoral theses will not contain chapters on our autocratic allies in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and beyond.
Consistent with the Cold War rhetoric is the maintaining and building of Cold War alliances. Biden says he is not seeking a world divided "into rigid blocks." But he is solidifying the first Cold War blocks and building the Second Cold War ones.
America has, Biden boasts, "prioritized rebuilding our alliances, revitalizing our partnerships, and recognizing they’re essential and central to America’s enduring security and prosperity.” America has “reaffirmed our sacred NATO Alliance to Article 5 commitment.” Article 5 is the collective defense article that means that “an attack against one Ally is considered as an attack against all Allies.” Biden promises that the US is turning its "focus to the priorities and the regions of the world, like the Indo-Pacific," and that it is doing that “with our allies and partners.”
But Biden is not just solidifying the Cold War NATO anti-Russia block, he is also building Second Cold War blocks that are knitted together specifically to fit China. In his speech to the UN, he advertised that he has "elevated the Quad partnership among Australia, India, Japan, and the United States,” a partnership whose sole purpose is to counter China. He has freshly minted the AUKUS alliance between the US, UK and Australia. The Prime Minister of Australia says that AUKUS, "a new enhanced trilateral security partnership," was "born" to meet the "challenges, to help deliver the security and stability" "here in our region, the Indo-Pacific." The Quad and AUKUS are Second Cold War military alliances against China that complement the NATO First Cold War military alliance against Russia.
The Cold Warriors: The CIA
Even the cold warriors at the CIA see the coming conflict as the Second Cold War. On October 7, CIA director William Burns unveiled The China Mission Center to facilitate effective CIA coordination on China. The CMC "will further strengthen our collective work on the most important geopolitical threat we face in the 21st century, an increasingly adversarial Chinese government". The CMC, Burns said, will allow the CIA to be "at the forefront" in this "new era of great power rivalry."
And it is not just the CIA’s rhetoric that is Cold War style. The CIA’s preparations for the rivalry with China are modeled on the First Cold War. Burns has identified reorganizing the CIA on China as a priority. And as his model of organization, he is taking the First Cold War: "How do we organize ourselves overseas? During the Cold War, both at the State Department and at CIA, we rightly forward-deployed Soviet specialists to help make sure that we could compete effectively. I think the same is true and this is one of the things that I’m exploring right now, to forward-deploy China specialists. . . ."
The Arms Race
As in the Cold War, the US is engaged in an arms race. Contrary to its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty commitment to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control,” the US is planning on acquiring more than 600 ground-based strategic deterrent intercontinental ballistic missiles. A “new weapon of mass destruction,” this massive nuclear missile will be able to travel 6,000 miles and carry “a warhead more than 20 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It will be able to kill hundreds of thousands of people in a single shot.”
Far from ceasing the nuclear arms race and disarming, the US is committed to a nuclear modernization plan that could cost as much as $2 trillion. The plan includes a new generation of nuclear-armed bombers, ballistic missile submarines, and intercontinental ballistic missiles and warheads: land, air and sea. And far from putting the brakes on the plan and the spending, Biden is stepping on the gas: in 2020, the nuclear weapons budget was $37.2 billion; in 2022 it will be $43 billion.
This nuclear modernization plan does not look like what White House press secretary Jen Psaki has called a relationship "not of conflict but of competition." It looks much more like a Second Cold War.
While all the media focus has been on Chinese planes flying in Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone – which is quite different from flying over Taiwan or even violating Taiwan’s airspace – it has been silent on America’s much more aggressive behavior. The US has sailed warships in the South China Sea and through the Taiwan Strait and conducted drills with the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the USS Nimitz and their strike groups in the South China Sea. The Chinese Defense Ministry says that Biden has increased the military activity of warships near China by 20% and of aircraft by 40%.
And it is not just the US, but also their Second Cold War allies that are behaving threateningly in China’s sphere. The UK plans to deploy two warships in the waters near China. As the aircraft Carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth and its strike group participated in military exercises with Singapore, the aircraft carrier’s commander explained that the UK’s "recent integrated review highlighted the importance of the Indo Pacific and the UK’s intent to tilt here and have an increased footprint, and much more persistent presence." In September, a member of the HMS Queen Elizabeth’s strike group infuriated China by sailing through the Taiwan Strait. The strike group also sailed through the South China Sea.
The US and UK recently raised the stakes and expanded the aggressive alliance by committing to supplying Australia with nuclear powered submarines.
A Cold War power is engaging in provocation on an island off the coast of another Cold War power. And it’s not Cuba. But the Cuban crisis of the First Cold War gives an indication of how the US would react if they were China as the US behaves more than provocatively in Taiwan.
In the first moment of his presidency, Biden used Taiwan to provoke China. In apparent violation of the 1979 agreement to withdraw US forces from Taiwan, end its defense treaty with Taiwan and maintain only low-profile, unofficial diplomatic relations, Biden began his presidency by inviting Taiwan’s representative to the US to his inauguration. He then sent an unofficial delegation of former US officials to Taiwan. On April 9, State Department spokesman Ned Price "issued new guidelines for US government interaction with Taiwan counterparts to encourage US government engagement with Taiwan that reflects our deepening unofficial relationship." It called Taiwan "an important security and economic partner" and determined to "liberalize guidance on contacts with Taiwan."
On August 4, the Biden administration announced the approval of a $750 million sale of military equipment to Taiwan.
The Cuban missile crisis gives a clear indication of how America would act if China were engaging in this way off the coast of Florida.
In 1979, the NSA concluded that there was a Soviet combat brigade in Cuba. It was not a combat brigade. It was a small, symbolic contingent of soldiers to reassure Cuba of the Soviet Union’s relationship with Cuba after Khrushchev negotiated his way out of the missile crisis and removed the units that were guarding the missiles. That was enough to end any thawing between Carter and Castro and to keep the chill on the Cold War.
On October 7, the Wall Street Journal revealed that a US special-ops unit and a contingent of marines "have been secretly operating in Taiwan to train military forces there. . . ." They have been there "for at least a year." The 1979 Soviet "combat brigade" affair shows how the US would react if they were China.
Though the US denies that it is provoking a Second Cold War, China and Russia have reluctantly accepted that they are. And Biden’s actions in his first several months in office seem to justify that interpretation. In several key ways, the Second Cold War is looking a lot like the first.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.