America vs. Russia and China: Welcome to Cold War II

A serviceman carries a air-to-ground missile next to Sukhoi Su-25 jet fighters during a drill

The Second Cold War is a rematch among the same teams.

May-June 2018

TODAY’S COLD War II needs to be seen in a broad historical perspective. Its predecessor, Cold War I, was the third world war of the twentieth century. It was fought indirectly by means of arms races, proxy wars, economic warfare and ideological war, because the high cost of conventional and nuclear warfare prevented direct conflict among the adversaries.

The three world wars of the twentieth century, between 1914 and 1989, originated in bids by regimes in Germany and Russia to dominate Europe. European hegemony was necessary for Berlin and Moscow to convert their countries from mere regional powers into superpowers on a scale that could compete with the United States, which, by the early twentieth century, even when its military potential was still latent, enjoyed an unprecedented combination of industry, wealth and population.

The goal of imperial Germany in World War I was a German-ruled European sphere of influence. Hitler’s more radical alternative was a gigantic, “racially pure” German nation-state, a kind of parody of the USA, with “Aryan” pioneers settled on a new agrarian heartland in eastern Europe and Russia from which Slavs, Jews and gypsies had been removed by genocide, famine or ethnic cleansing.

Following 1945, the Soviet bid to become a second superpower depended on its suzerainty over the eastern part of Europe, which the Red Army had won by conquest from Germany in World War II. Without the skilled population and industry of eastern Europe (including East Germany), Russia alone, even with the peripheral nationalities that the USSR had inherited from the czarist empire, could be only a regional power at best. The economic base of the Soviet Union could be augmented even further, if the wealthy but weak nations of western Europe, particularly West Germany, could be intimidated into neutrality, which in turn could permit western European trade and investment on Soviet terms to bolster the USSR.

While ambitious elites in Berlin and Moscow were the instigators of the first three world wars, Cold War II has been caused by the bid of the United States—the sole global power at the time—for unlimited global hegemony in the 1990s and 2000s, and China and Russia’s hostile reaction to the American power grab.

“Offensive realism,” the variant of realist international-relations theory promoted by John Mearsheimer, holds that in an anarchic world with no sovereign to provide law and order, states will tend to amass as much relative power as they can. A great power can never be too powerful and secure. “The best defense is a good offense,” the old saying goes. Or, if one prefers, there is Mae West’s observation: “Too much of a good thing is wonderful.”

The Nazi bid for superpower status was naked aggression, inseparable from demented racist conspiracy theories. But in the previous generation, German liberals like Friedrich Naumann and Max Weber supported the project of German hegemony in a central European bloc that could hold its own in the twentieth century against the Americans and the British and Russian Empires. If the alternative was the subordination of Germany and Europe to the Anglo-Saxons or Russians, German conquest of Europe could be rationalized as a form of self-defense.

We now know that Stalin did not have aggressive designs on western Europe after World War II. On the basis of Marxist-Leninist theory, he believed that the eventual recovery of Germany and Japan would spark another round of intra-capitalist wars similar to the first two world wars. The Soviet Union had to hold onto what it controlled, expand the communist bloc opportunistically and prepare to survive World War III, which would probably begin as a conflict among America, Britain, France, Germany and Japan. From this erroneous perspective, opportunistic expansion of Soviet influence was precautionary.

In the 1990s, the Clinton administration undoubtedly regarded the expansion of NATO up to the borders of shrunken, post-Soviet Russia as a prudent way of hedging America’s bets against possible future Russian revanchism. Likewise, there is no reason to doubt that officials in the Bush and Obama administrations sincerely believed that removing Saddam, Qaddafi and Assad and installing pro-American rulers in Iraq, Libya and Syria would improve American security. The same may be said of the determination of presidents of both parties that the United States, not China, would remain the undisputed military hegemon of East Asia.

What one state views as precaution, its rivals can view as aggression. In this lies what Mearsheimer calls “the tragedy of great power politics.” And it is in this tragic context that the American bid for global hegemony that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall must be viewed. Needless to say, from the perspective of Moscow and Beijing, what Washington rationalizes in terms of self-defense and world peace resembles an effort by the United States to encircle and contain Russia and China. They could dismiss Washington’s support of nonviolent “color revolutions” in support of “liberal” and “democratic” reformers in targeted countries in Asia and Europe, like Ukraine, as the cynical weaponization of democracy promotion, particularly in light of the absence of U.S.-sponsored democratic revolutions in Saudi Arabia and other pro-American autocracies.