“Cold War” is a flawed description of the relationship between China and the US. But it’s the best flawed description we have.
In the Cold War, the economies of the West and the East were largely segregated. Now, they are deeply integrated.
During the Cold War, profound ideological differences divided the US from the USSR, polarizing countries in between.
There is no great ideology at work in China or in the US. The Communists in China aren’t wedded to a Communist Ideal. Possibly the most significant ideology in the US in the past 30 years is the freemarket orthodoxy that paved the way for China’s economic rise.
There is no great landmass to strategize over like post-war Europe.
Likewise, there is still relatively free travel through the world. Borders, thanks to globalisation and the internet, mean much less today than in 1978.
The list of contrasts between the situation from 1945-1989 and the situation between China and US goes on and on.
In fact, the next two decades will be unrecognisable when compared to the Cold War. The technology, the demographics, the industries, the structures of economies, even the virtual realities which are generated. All of it different.
But running through all the change will be a sustained nation-defining struggle between two great powers with differing visions of the world.
And the Cold War gave the world order. As if every country, every political movement, every expression of culture was polarised and infused to a greater or lesser degree by balance of power between the East and West. There was a spectrum of meanings.
So to the term Cold War – admittedly a tongue-in-cheek choice for a blog – is useful to think about this new period we are heading into.
After the globalisation period we are exiting, huge new forces are re-ordering how people feel about democracy, civil liberties, geographies, religions, loyalties, technology.
There is another reason for using the term “Cold War” so frequently leveled by the Chinese against the US. When compared to the global wars of the 1st half of a 20th Century, the Cold War was a success.
Yes, there were proxy wars throughout the time in which millions died. Vietnam, Korea, Angola, El Salvador.
But that’s better than the tens of millions who died in World Wars I and II. The casualties of the Cold War were lower than the tens of millions that could have died in a global nuclear war. People forget: google your Herman Kahn to see what policymakers were actually contemplating.
But WWIII never came.
During the Cold War, the US and the Soviets fought each other directly only once – in the skies over Korea in the early 1950s. The Americans never told their citizens, such was the worry about an escalation in war.