The last thing this century needs is a cold war between US and China

Joschka Fischer, Germany’s foreign minister and vice chancellor from 1998 to 2005, in this Proj Syndicate piece:

This month’s G7 summit seemed to confirm what has long been apparent: The United States and China are entering into a cold war similar to the one between the US and the Soviet Union in the second half of the twentieth century.

The West no longer views China just as a competitor and rival but as a civilizational alternative. Once again, the conflict seems to be about mutually exclusive “systems.” Amid an escalating clash of values and competing claims to global power and leadership, a military confrontation – or at least a new arms race – seems to have become a distinct possibility.

But on closer examination, the Cold War comparison is misleading. The systemic rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union was preceded by one of the most brutal and catastrophic “hot” wars in history, and reflected the frontlines of that conflict.


The situation between the West and China today is totally different. Though the Communist Party of China calls the country “socialist” to justify its political monopoly, no one takes that label seriously. China does not define its difference from the West according to its position on private property; rather, it simply does and says whatever is necessary to maintain one-party rule. Since Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in the late 1970s, China has established a hybrid model that accommodates both markets and central planning, and both state and private ownership. The CPC alone stands at the top of this “Market-Leninist” model.

So why have a cold war at all?

If today’s systemic rivalry isn’t the same as in the Cold War, what should a Cold War II really be about? Is the goal to force China to become more Western and democratic? Or is it simply to contain China’s power and isolate it technologically (or, at a minimum, slow down its ascent)? And if the West were to achieve any of these objectives, what then?

In fact, none of these objectives could ever be satisfied at a reasonable cost for the parties involved. China is home to 1.4 billion people who can see that their historic opportunity for global recognition has come. Given the scale of the Chinese market and the economic interdependencies it engenders, the idea that China can be isolated is absurd.

But perhaps the issue is more about power than economics. Who will be the twenty-first century’s hegemon? By uniting with the rest of the West, can the US really change the historical trajectory of China’s rise and the West’s relative decline? I doubt it.

The West’s recognition that China will not become more democratic by dint of its economic development and integration into the global economy is necessary and long past due. Greed kept that fantasy afloat for far too long.

But I will venture a prediction that the twenty-first century will not primarily be characterized by a return to great-power politics at all, even if that looks where things are headed now. The experience of the pandemic forces us to take a longer and wider view. COVID-19 was a mere prelude to the looming climate crisis, a global challenge that will force the great powers to embrace cooperation for the sake of humankind, regardless of who is “Number One.”

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