olitical leaders in both the United States and Europe have been making explicit what their actions had long been signaling: the West is in a new Cold War with China. Whether in Vice President Mike Pence’s landmark speech at the Hudson Institute think tank, or in the EU’s growing attention to investment restrictions, major powers on both sides of the Atlantic are suggesting that their attempts to change China and integrate it into the existing world order have failed. One influential analysis has called this realization the “China reckoning.” According to U.S. national security documents, this is now the age of “strategic competition.”
It is not yet clear, though, whether this new framework for Western policy is truly an all-encompassing grand strategy or merely a half-hearted attempt at coherence.
This new worldview necessarily carries with it serious implications. Old arrangements, remnants of a previous grand strategy, no longer suffice. Take the case of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Signed in the waning days of the original Cold War, this arms control treaty banned all Soviet and U.S. ballistic and land-based cruise missiles with striking capability within a proscribed range. Now, more than 30 years after its signing, the Trump administration has announced its intention to abandon the treaty. China, the thinking goes, was not restrained by the bilateral treaty and flouted its requirements. In an age in which Beijing poses the greatest national security risk, Washington should not be constrained by an antiquated arms control treaty.
Looking at the world through “China threat” glasses has led to previously unthinkable policies. In October, the White House threatened to pull the U.S. out the Universal Postal Union, the 144-year-old agency that coordinates global postal systems. The rationale was economic. The administration argued that international shipping rates unfairly favored shipments from China to the United States, boosting China’s exports. In some cases, international rates were even lower than intra-U.S. rates. This postal clash is instructive. If everything is about competition, every interaction can have a winner —and the United States is determined to keep winning.
Though not quite as aggressively, Europe has also made clear that it sees the world through the frame of “strategic competition.” French President Emmanuel Macron has called for a unified European army to counter not just China, but Russia and the United States as well. In September, the European Union released its new strategy, “Connecting Europe with China,” intended to counter Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (major investment in infrastructure targeting Europe, Asia and Africa) and outline the EU’s response to China’s massive spending. The EU has been actively studying investment restrictions to protect some of its key strategic sectors.
There is a neatness to the “new Cold War” scenario. The new framework ends a period in which the United States lacked a unifying mission. Post-1989 “unipolarity” saw the U.S. repeatedly intervene in far-away conflicts ostensibly to ease human suffering. The results were decidedly mixed.
But the events of September 11 opened the door to the Global War on Terror, which charged U.S. policy with a sense of purpose. Perhaps in exaggerated terms. In a recent “Foreign Affairs” survey of national security experts, most agreed the U.S. had focused too heavily on counterterrorism over the past decade.
Despite such thinking, something about the “new Cold War” paradigm is not fully convincing. As law professor Aziz Rana argued in “n+1,” the Cold War was all-encompassing. The rivalry between Moscow’s communists and Washington’s democrats led the U.S. to support friendly regimes and provide developmental assistance at a global level. It also reshaped domestic policy, helping push forward the civil rights movement, encouraging a newfound respect for the Constitution, and ensuring social peace. Just as important was what it eliminated from the domestic mainstream, primarily explicit white nationalism and radical left politics.
The new Cold War has not yet had even a remotely similar impact. Though the U.S. is by all measures locked in a major competition with Beijing, the struggle has left America’s turbulent domestic scene untouched. Instead of increasing funding for research and development or infrastructure at home, the Trump administration passed a major tax cut. Similarly, the global contest has not encouraged the goal of national cohesion by working to reduce massive inequality. While concerns about China’s investments mount, the EU has trained its eyes on making sure Italy follows its restrictive budget rules. In the process, it has forced Rome to rely even more on Chinese investments. In fact, the port of Trieste could become the western maritime end of the Belt and Road Initiative.
This is where democratic political systems must continue to play a role.
Popular consent should still accompany any decision to enter into contests such as the one with China. Leaders on both sides of the Atlantic should be trying to win.
Cutting out that political side would leave the West ill-equipped to compete with China. One thing is certain: the new Cold War is on, and it’s real.
If Americans must pay more for mail, they might as well do so in the name of a grander scheme, which is only now beginning to play out.