The U.S. Needs An Endgame Before It Plunges Into the Next Cold War
China would be a tougher, longer-lasting opponent than the Soviet Union.
The U.S. government has decided it is time to confront the People’s Republic of China, leading to what some have called “a new cold war” or the more benign and official “great-power competition.” But as many have pointed out, the United States currently lacks a coherent strategy about how to confront China. Busy giving speeches and exploring new ways to hit China, U.S. officials are making the case that this confrontation is necessary to preserve freedom and democracy and that the United States must fight to win. But nobody in Washington seems to have asked the most important question: How does this end?
You never start a conflict, be it a real war or a “just” a cold one, without asking this question. The United States’ two greatest military blunders in the past century, the Vietnam War and the Iraq War, were both a consequence of not first asking this question and just assuming something can be improvised along the way. Once withdrawal agreements were finally signed, after huge human and material loses, South Vietnam ended up taken over by the communist North, and Iraq was invaded by the Islamic State—so much for victory. Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union and imperial Japan’s invasion of China and attack on Pearl Harbor (or going back even further, World War I and Napoleon’s invasion of Russia), all with catastrophic results for the initiators, were also the byproducts of shortsighted decisions that assumed quick victories, without anybody asking how these wars could really end.
In its history as a great power, the United States has confronted four great enemies: Wilhelmine Germany, Nazi Germany, imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union. The first three confrontations all took place before the advent of the nuclear era, so all were large-scale wars. Once nukes entered the scene, such wars were no longer possible, so the Cold War was a long, intense struggle.
The first confrontation technically ended with a negotiated settlement with the loser, Wilhelmine Germany, but the real fundamental problem was not addressed. Imperial Germany lost, its regime collapsed, its army was crippled, and a democratic republic was founded, which was to pay massive reparations. But Germany’s mindset, at both elite and popular levels, was never changed, setting the stage for another catastrophic war.
In World War II, the United States seemed to have learned a lesson. After Nazi Germany and imperial Japan were defeated and destroyed, they weren’t just given a piece of paper to sign and left alone. Democratic political institutions and the rule of law were consolidated, their armies were initially disbanded, and they were integrated into the U.S.-led bloc. Today, Germany and Japan are powerful countries, but peaceful and democratic, with underdeveloped armies compared to their economic might, and—most importantly—they are still U.S. allies.
Even though the United States utterly defeated and later occupied them, it never acted as an imperial overlord or as a hateful and revengeful enemy. There are people in both countries who dislike the United States and oppose the alliance with Washington, but thanks to the connection established over the decades, both elites and the public are generally friendly towards the United States. Germany and Japan teach us two vital lessons: A great power cannot be kept down forever, but will bounce back after defeat, and the real problem is not the power itself, but the mindset. Victory consists not in defeating your opponent, but in changing their mindset.
And that leads us to the United States’ ultimate confrontation—that with the Soviet Union. From the start, it was branded not as a nationalist struggle against Russia, but an ideological struggle against communism. The Unites States won the Cold War against the Soviet Union with the fall of communism in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. A huge country of almost 300 million people was instantly reduced to half its population, but, most importantly, it lost the main source of its power: its ideological appeal. The Soviet Union was a global threat not just because of its economic and military might, but especially because of its ideological appeal to revolutionary moments worldwide.
But after the United States won the Cold War, it didn’t care much about what happened to Russia. Free-market reforms were intensively promoted, with devastating economic consequences, while too little attention was paid to building strong democratic institutions, developing the rule of law and a resilient civil society, changing the old military and political guard, and addressing Russia’s regional security concerns. Russia became a democracy, but only for a decade. A mindset just doesn’t simply erase itself. A section of its unreconstructed military-security elite took over, ended Russia’s emergent democratic experiment, and brought back its aggressive foreign policy. The only reason why today Russia isn’t an existential threat to the United States anymore is because it lacks both the ideological appeal and the economic and military might of the Soviet empire. Today, its nominal gross domestic product is similar to that of South Korea. Even if it were as developed as the United States, because of its demographic size, Russia’s GDP would only be half of America’s. The Soviet Union was defeated because it lost its source of power, communism, but it was never changed into a friend of the United States. The Cold War with Russia never ended; it was only its intensity that was dialed down through the defeat of communism and dissolution of the Soviet Union.
And this leads us to the People’s Republic of China. How does this end? The current U.S. government is trying to paint this as an ideological confrontation, the enemy being not the Chinese people, but the Chinese Communist Party. This could be a good strategy, but there is also something important to keep in mind. China is powerful because of its demographic size, which translates into economic power and, ultimately, military and geopolitical power. Its authoritarian system doesn’t offer any appeal and is in fact a burden for China. This authoritarian system now fosters an aggressive foreign policy, but nationalism and militarism could live on even without it. Regime change alone won’t be enough.
The United States has never confronted a challenge like China in its entire history, because all the enemies which it confronted before were equal to it or smaller (demographically, economically, and ultimately militarily) than it was. Unlike the global threat of the Soviet Union, whose dissolution left a far smaller Russia as a regional threat, China will never go away. It can’t. Even if it were to lose territories such as Hong Kong, Tibet, or Xinjiang, it would be the same great power, with 1.35 billion people instead of 1.4 billion and an almost unchanged GDP. Its transformation into a developed economy might take decades, but one day it will overtake the U.S. economy. Because of its size and nuclear weapons, no war will ever end with China’s unconditional surrender and occupation. Any possible U.S.-China war, such as over Taiwan or in the South China Sea, will end either in nuclear Armageddon or with a negotiated settlement, which might be unfavorable to China. In the best-case scenario for the United States, China’s authoritarian system might be overturned in a popular uprising against this defeat. But that’s a risky scenario, given what happened to Germany after World War I.
So, how does this end? It’s easy to start a confrontation, but sometimes it might become impossible to stop it. It’s easy to say that because the United States won the Cold War, it will eventually win again, even if it takes decades, but that paints a false portrait of the real challenge through a bad analogy. If this isn’t thought out carefully and planned well, we’re talking about a never-ending confrontation with a country with four times the population of the United States, regardless of what happens with its political system.
Washington’s portrayal of China’s authoritarian system as the enemy leaves a door open for a future peace, but it risks remaining purely rhetorical when unmatched with action. Right now, the U.S. government seems utterly uninterested about how to engage the Chinese people, how to win over support in China, how to cultivate more liberal and friendly elements in the leadership or in the broader society, how to drive a wedge between the current party leadership and economic and intellectual elites, and how to offer positive and negative incentives to achieve certain outcomes. It prefers to pick up a hammer and try to hit China in any way it can, regardless of how much the actions hurt ordinary people in China and drive them closer to the government.
The old strategy of “engagement” that has become a popular punching bag at least imagined an endgame, even if it was a long, long way off: a peaceful, liberal China, integrated in the world order. The current confrontational approach, with or without a strategy, doesn’t imagine any endgame. The United States seems to focus only on how to confront and defeat the People’s Republic of China. That’s not the endgame. It will only end if the United States and the world can solve a far more difficult dilemma: How do you change China? If not, welcome to the real forever war and get ready for a disastrous 21st century.