We Are Now in a Global Cold War

With NATO expanding its focus to China, new battle lines are being drawn.

hirsh-michael-foreign-policy-columnist
hirsh-michael-foreign-policy-columnist
Michael Hirsh
By , a columnist for Foreign Policy.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg gestures as he speaks during a press conference ahead of the NATO summit in Madrid at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on June 27.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg gestures as he speaks during a press conference ahead of the NATO summit in Madrid at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on June 27.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg gestures as he speaks during a press conference ahead of the NATO summit in Madrid at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on June 27. KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP via Getty Images

When former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill laid out the contours and stakes of the first Cold War at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, in 1946, he didn’t just talk about Europe. What people remember, of course, is this famous line: “From Stettin in the Baltic, to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” But later on in the speech, Churchill also warned of the coming “shadow” of tyranny “alike in the West and in the East.”

The nascent Cold War, in other words, was already going global—even as it was being defined for the first time. That Cold War may have ended three decades ago, but another, very different sort of cold war is beginning. And this one is also about to go global. NATO’s leaders are convening this week with an eye on the Indo-Pacific, and they are preparing to confront China as well as Russia.

And as we will see at the NATO summit in Madrid—where the leaders of Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand will join the gathering for the first time—new battle lines are being drawn that could last for generations.

When former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill laid out the contours and stakes of the first Cold War at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, in 1946, he didn’t just talk about Europe. What people remember, of course, is this famous line: “From Stettin in the Baltic, to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” But later on in the speech, Churchill also warned of the coming “shadow” of tyranny “alike in the West and in the East.”

The nascent Cold War, in other words, was already going global—even as it was being defined for the first time. That Cold War may have ended three decades ago, but another, very different sort of cold war is beginning. And this one is also about to go global. NATO’s leaders are convening this week with an eye on the Indo-Pacific, and they are preparing to confront China as well as Russia.

And as we will see at the NATO summit in Madrid—where the leaders of Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand will join the gathering for the first time—new battle lines are being drawn that could last for generations.

In contrast to the 40-year-long U.S.-Soviet confrontation, which pitted two great powers utterly isolated from each other into separate spheres, this struggle is marked by a multidimensional relationship where China and the West trade and invest with one another even as they compete and where Russia, China’s partner in authoritarianism and anti-Americanism alike, stays viable—though heavily sanctioned—by supplying oil, gas, and grain to the other side.

But neither should we deceive ourselves that the contours and stakes of a long-term confrontation aren’t coming plainly into view. A cold war is simply a raw struggle for power and the right to set the rules for global conduct; it occurs largely behind the scenes in private deal-making and covert action rather than on the battlefield. And that’s what we’re facing.

What caused this war? First, Washington has undergone a generation-long transformation from a bipartisan policy of eager engagement with China—seeking to turn Beijing into a fellow “stakeholder” in the global system, as former U.S. President George W. Bush’s deputy secretary of state, Robert Zoellick, once put it—to a bipartisan policy of unrelenting confrontation. And helped along by the shock of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Washington appears to be bringing a once-reluctant Europe along with it.

The new strategic concept for Washington grew out of a communique issued a year ago after the last NATO summit, which warned for the first time against China’s “systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to alliance security.”

At the time, European leaders were still resisting U.S. pleas to address the strategic challenge from Beijing; former German Chancellor Angela Merkel spent much of her 16 years in power cultivating ties with China. Russia’s invasion, with China’s endorsement (if not yet military support), has dramatically changed that approach. On Sunday, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, along with U.S. President Joe Biden and other G-7 leaders, announced a new $600 billion global infrastructure initiative intended to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative. And this week, NATO will launch a new “strategic concept”—a 10-year plan—that will address the threat from China for the first time.

The shift began to accelerate in the last few months when Biden and his NATO allies broadened their policy of helping to defend Ukraine against Russian aggression into a policy of undermining the power of Russia itself—or, as U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said, “to see Russia weakened.”

In a speech in late April, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss further raised the stakes when she declared that “NATO must have a global outlook” and “preempt threats in the Indo-Pacific,” ensuring “that democracies like Taiwan are able to defend themselves.”

The expansion of NATO beyond Europe has been happening for some time—first in the Middle East and then in Afghanistan, where the alliance shared miserably in the 20-year debacle of what became a U.S.-orchestrated withdrawal. But now, NATO is crossing a Rubicon in Asia.

In remarks last week at the White House on the eve of Biden’s Europe trip, U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby was careful to say “this isn’t about creating some like version of NATO in the Pacific.” But Kirby also said the new strategic concept has been “building on what has been months and months of discussions and deliberations with the allies about the threat that China poses to international security well beyond just the Indo-Pacific region.”

Kirby added: “I think it’s a reflection of our allies’ equal concerns over the effect of Chinese economic practices, use of forced labor, intellectual theft, and coercive, aggressive behavior not just in the region but elsewhere around the world.” Or as NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg put it last week in newly stark terms that echo the hardened rhetoric coming from the Biden administration: “For the first time, we will address China and the challenges it poses to our interests, security, and values.”

Meanwhile, Washington has been arming up Japan and South Korea (along with Australia) even as it invited Tokyo and Seoul to join the NATO summit as “observers.” It sure is beginning to resemble a “like version of NATO in the Pacific.”

Last week, again countering Beijing in a tit-for-tat way reminiscent of the Cold War, the Biden administration responded to China’s new military engagement in the Solomon Islands by launching Partners in the Blue Pacific. This is intended as an informal group consisting of the United States, Britain, Australia, Japan, and New Zealand aimed at reinvigorating economic and diplomatic ties with Pacific Island nations, the White House said—or to put it more bluntly, paying attention to them now that Beijing has.

Beijing, in turn, recently launched its Global Security Initiative (GSI) to oppose the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the Washington-orchestrated grouping of the United States, India, Japan, and Australia. The as-yet-undefined GSI would “oppose the wanton use of unilateral sanctions,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said, as well as “hegemonism, power politics, and bloc confrontation.”

What does it all add up to? It’s as impossible to say now—exactly, anyway—as it was for Churchill at Westminster College in March 1946. Churchill spoke at a time when Moscow hadn’t yet gotten the bomb, the Chinese communists hadn’t yet taken over, and he still held out hope that the new UNO or “United Nations Organization,” as Churchill called it, could yet be “a true temple of peace in which the shields of many nations can someday be hung up, and not merely a cockpit in a Tower of Babel.”

But plainly, the major Western powers now believe that—from Mariupol, Ukraine, on the Black Sea to Taipei, Taiwan, on the Taiwan Strait and possibly all the way to Honiara, Solomon Islands, in the South Pacific—a new sort of iron curtain is descending around the world. In front of that line on the European continent lie the newly invigorated Western European and NATO countries as well as the former Soviet bloc states that have since joined NATO or want to, including the Baltic countries and now Ukraine. “Essentially, where NATO is going is sort of back to somewhat of a Cold War posture,” said Max Bergmann, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, on June 21.

And when it comes to Asia, in front of this new curtain lies firm Western allies and democracies, such as Japan, Australia, and South Korea. On the other side are the unapologetic tyrannies of Russia, China, and a passel of states they’ve come to dominate or align with, from Belarus to Pakistan to North Korea.

More broadly, the United States and its allies may now face the formidable combination of two nuclear powers: “a resource-rich Russia partnered with a technologically and economically powerful China,” the CIA’s former chief Russia analyst, George Beebe, told FP in late April.

Again, the contours and stakes aren’t nearly as straightforward as they were during the first Cold War, even as the world has seen the rise of a new nonaligned bloc. During the Cold War period, the stark ideological clash between communism and democracy/capitalism was clear (though Washington tarnished itself by occasionally aligning with anti-communist autocrats). By contrast, most nations of the world, from the Middle East and South Asia to Latin America and Africa, aren’t buying into Biden’s attempt to frame the conflict as a global fight for freedom. A still-globalized economy—which wasn’t a factor during the Cold War—is playing a wild-card role, especially since a rising China depends so much on it for its prosperity while a weakened Russia depends so much on China for its own economic health.

As Stoltenberg put it last week: “We don’t regard China as an adversary, but we need to realize that the rise of China, the fact that they’re investing heavily in new modern military equipment—including scaling significantly their nuclear capabilities, investing in key technologies, and trying also to control critical infrastructure in Europe coming closer to us—makes it important for us also to address that.”

What we don’t know yet is how far NATO’s need to address the problem will go. Seen in retrospect, the first Cold War may have been inevitable. Churchill certainly had a presentiment of what was to come despite holding out hopes in his Fulton speech that the two “marauders” he was warning against—“war and tyranny”—could be blunted. “I repulse the idea that a new war is inevitable; still more that it is imminent. It is because I am sure that our fortunes are still in our own hands and that we hold the power to save the future that I feel the duty to speak out,” he said then.

What’s going on now may also be inevitable—in other words, Biden and his Western and Asian allies may be simply dealing with facts on the ground by accepting and confronting them. But the world could also be witnessing—as I suspect it is—a failure of imagination and political courage on the part of the U.S. president and major powers. What that would mean is a negotiated way out. This may not be possible with Russia right now, but after all, it is now the junior partner to China and depends on Beijing’s good graces. And the relationship between the West and China exists on so many different levels, including the common need to address climate change and open trade, that some sort of modus vivendi under the current international system should be possible.

By contrast, Washington is throwing up its hands. In a newly published essay in Foreign Affairs, “The Hollow Order: Rebuilding an International System That Works,” Philip Zelikow, a former senior official in the George W. Bush administration from 2005 to 2007, writes: “The need for a new world order is apparent.”

This is frankly nonsense. The so-called old world order—that is, the one designed after World War II—didn’t work out the way Churchill envisioned, especially the United Nations. But on the whole, until recently, it was still working pretty well despite many near disasters. One was Korea. Another was Vietnam. But the biggest by far was the one orchestrated by George W. Bush: the 2003 Iraq invasion.

No greater foreign-policy catastrophe has occurred in U.S. history—in terms of the indirect effects it caused throughout the world, even in possibly helping to encourage Russian President Vladimir Putin’s vicious aggression in Ukraine. In his Feb. 24 speech justifying the invasion, Putin cited alleged precedents set by Washington, saying “the example that stands apart from the above events is, of course, the invasion of Iraq without any legal grounds.”

It didn’t have to happen this way, however. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine any president other than George W. Bush, Democrat or Republican, who would have addressed a challenge that mandated the most judicious use of the international system—al Qaeda-styled terrorism—by ignoring that system. Or that any other president, Democrat or Republican, would have committed the essentially irrational act of invading Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, at a moment when the chief culprits of 9/11 were still at large and when he had won a 15-0 U.N. Security Council vote giving him complete inspection access to Iraq. When Bush invaded anyway, he opened a Pandora’s box of ills that are still tearing at the world right and left—and which directly contributed to the horrific disaster in Afghanistan.

No wars, even cold ones, are inevitable. Yes, China and Russia were probably always going to find a way to resist U.S. and Western dominance. With his murderous invasion, Putin is now beyond the pale. But that doesn’t mean that Beijing couldn’t be wooed to keep one foot in the international system. In Washington, however, the political risk of looking soft on China is almost as pervasive as the risk of looking soft on Iraq once was nearly 20 years ago. Biden, himself, succumbed to the first political temptation, ultimately backing the Iraq war to his regret. Now, hammered in the polls and facing likely setbacks at the U.S. midterm elections in November, Biden appears to be embracing the second temptation.

In his remarks in recent months, even China’s hard-line leader, Xi, has appeared to be looking for a way out. Speaking at the BRICS Business Forum, Xi declared, “We in the international community should reject zero-sum games and jointly oppose hegemonism and power politics.”

Although it comes from a dubious source, that’s still a pretty good idea on the whole. Is it naive to think that there is no way of achieving it?

Correction, June 28, 2022: An earlier version of this article stated that Philip Zelikow endorsed former U.S. President George W. Bushs 2003 invasion of Iraq. Although Zelikow authored the draft of the 2002 National Security Strategy that is widely seen as the foundation for the invasion, key portions related to preemption and weapons of mass destruction were added later to the text by other officials. Zelikow, who worked in a political role in the U.S. State Department from 2005 to 2007, was later critical of Bushs policies in Iraq and says he did not support the invasion.

Michael Hirsh is a columnist for Foreign Policy. He is the author of two books: Capital Offense: How Washington’s Wise Men Turned America’s Future Over to Wall Street and At War With Ourselves: Why America Is Squandering Its Chance to Build a Better World. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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