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Read an Excerpt of Noah Feldman's 'Cool War'

by frankscotty35

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Are we on the brink of a new Cold War? The United States is the sole reigning superpower,  but it is being challenged  by the rising power of  China,  much  as ancient  Rome was challenged  by Carthage and Britain  was challenged  by Germany  in the years before World War I. Should  we therefore  think  of the United States  and China as we once did about the United States and the Soviet Union, two gladiators doomed  to an increasingly globalized  combat  until one side fades?

Or are we entering a new period of diversified global economic cooperation in  which  the  very idea  of  old-fashioned,  imperial power  politics  has  become  obsolete?  Should  we see the United States  and  China  as more like France and  Germany  after  World War II, adversaries wise enough to draw together in an increasingly close circle of  cooperation that  subsumes  neighbors  and  substitutes economic exchange for geopolitical  confrontation?

This is the central  global question  of our as-yet-unnamed historical  moment. What  will happen  now that America’s  post-Cold War engagements  in Iraq  and  Afghanistan  have run  their  course and U.S. attention has pivoted to Asia? Can the United States continue to engage China while somehow hedging against the strategic threat  it poses? Can China go on seeing the United States  both as an object of emulation and also as a barrier to its rightful place on the world stage?

The answer is a paradox:  the paradox  of cool war.

The term cool war aims to capture  two different, mutually contradictory historical  developments  that are taking place simultaneously.  A classic struggle  for  power is unfolding  at  the same time as economic cooperation is becoming deeper and more fundamental.

The current situation differs from global power struggles of the past. The world’s  major  power and its leading challenger  are economically interdependent to an unprecedented  degree. China needs the United States to continue buying its products. The United States needs China  to continue  lending  it money. Their  economic  fates are, for the foreseeable future,  tied together. Recognizing the overlapping  combination of geostrategic  conflict and economic  interdependence is the key to making sense of what is coming and what options  we have to affect it.

In the first decade  of the twenty-first century, the major international question was the relation between  Islam and democracy. In this second decade of the still-young century, the great issues of conflict and cooperation have shifted. Now U.S. leadership  and Western democracy  are juxtaposed  with China’s  global aspirations and its protean, emergent governing system.

The stakes of this debate could not possibly be higher. One side argues that the United States must either accept decline or prepare for war. Only  by military  strength  can the United States convince China  that it is not worth  challenging its status  as the sole super-power. Projecting weakness would lead to instability  and make war all the more likely. The  other  side  counters  that  trying  to  contain  China  is the worst  thing  the United States  can do. Excessive defense spending will make the United States less competitive economically. Worse, it will encourage  China  to become aggressive itself, leading  to an arms race that neither side wants and that would itself increase the chances of violence. Much better to engage China politically and economically  and encourage  it to share the burdens of superpower status.

What we need, I believe, is to change the way we think and talk about  the  U.S.-China  relationship–to develop  an  alternative   to simple  images  of  inevitable  conflict  or  utopian  cooperation. We need a way to understand the new structure that draws on historical precedent  while recognizing  how things are different  this time. We need to understand where the United States and China can see eye to eye, and  where they cannot  compromise. Most  of all, we need a way forward  to help avoid the real dangers  that lie ahead.

That way lies through recognizing that we have entered a new historical period. What future historians will call the “post-Cold War” era of unquestioned U.S. global dominance is over. In this new period, the interests  of  the United States  and  China  often overlap in the realms of  trade  and economics  yet still diverge dramatically when it comes to geopolitical power and ideology. This situation of simultaneous cooperation and  conflict  needs  a new  name–cool war–to  capture  its distinctive features and new, developing rules.

We also need a more sophisticated understanding of the Chinese Communist Party. No longer ideologically communist, the leadership is pragmatic and committed to preserving its position of power. It seeks to maintain legitimacy through  continued  growth, regular transitions, and a tentative form of public accountability. It aims  to manage  deep internal  divisions  between  entitled  prince­ lings and  self-made  meritocrats via a hybrid  system  that  makes room for both types of elites.

The emerging cool war will have profound significance for countries  around  the world, for institutions that exist to keep the peace through international cooperation, for multinational corporations that  operate  everywhere-and for the future of human  rights. The  complicated  interaction between  the United States and China will shape war and peace globally and reveal whether  the dream  of  peaceful international cooperation­ embodied, albeit shakily, in the European  Union-can be extended to countries  with less in common.  It will determine  the future  of democracy as a global movement, structure the international strategies of growing powers like India and Brazil, and guide the movements  of  companies   and  capital.   It will  influence  the  United Nations, the future of international law, and the  progress or regress of human  rights. Ultimately, like the Cold War before it, this new kind  of  international engagement  will involve every country  on earth.


As of the most recent count, 194,000 Chinese students  attend U.S. universities; some 70,000 Americans live and study and work in mainland  China. We are not  in the realm  of  ping-pong  diplomacy:  we are in the world of economic and cultural  partnership. These many cooperative projects require trust, credibility, and commitment-all of which were lacking between the United States and  the Soviet Union.

In the long run, China  would like to rely less on exports  and to diversify its customer  base, and the  United  States would  prefer  a more  dispersed  ownership  of its debt But for now, each side is stuck. For the foreseeable future,  the U.S.-China economic  relationship is going to remain a tight mutual embrace.

Yet in the past, close economic  ties between rising and dominant powers have not always managed  to stave off conflict between them. The great powers of Europe traded extensively with one another in the years before World War I. Germany, which was conceived by Britons as the most significant  potential  challenger   to  their   global   position,  was  an important trading  partner of the United Kingdom.

The extent of trade  between Germany  and imperial  Britain was still substantially less than that of the United States and China today. Germany’s economy  was not dependent  upon exports.  The British economy, which was export-driven, had a highly diversified customer  base, of which Germany  was only a proportionate part.

In this same era,  the United States,  another rising power, did trade with Britain on a scale comparable to the U.S.-China trade of our time. The United States sent roughly half of its exports  to Britain between 1885 and 1895. Over the next two decades the propor­ tion declined, but it still remained at around  one-quarter on the eve of World War I and held steady during the war years. Britain, for its part,  exported  between 10 and 15 percent  of its products  to the United States during the same pre-World  War I period.

Economically, the current relationship between the United States and  China  is  even  deeper  than   was  that   between  the  United States  and  the United  Kingdom.  Governments  of earlier eras did not typically own the debts of other sovereign nations. The central banks of the United States and Britain rarely held each other’s  treasury  bonds. The idea of a sovereign wealth fund  that  would seek simultaneously to make money in capital markets  and advance its owners’ national  interests was still far in the future.

But there was no ideological  divide between the United States and the United Kingdom,  two liberal democracies  commit­ ted to capitalism  and free trade. If anything,  British imperialists saw the potential  American  empire  as a kind  of adjunct  to their own, sparing  them the expense of expanding  still further. The United States and China, however, are ideological opponents. Although the pragmatism of the Chinese Communists means that the main source of ideological conflict is the United States, the values of the rule of law, democracy, and human rights are all core elements of the Western idea of governance – and China rejects all three in practice, if not in theory. Over time, this could change. But for now, the united States could not tolerate the broader spread of the emerging Chinese model of governance around the world.

In essence, then, the argument that the United States and China will not find themselves in a struggle for global power depends on one historical  fact: never before has the dominant world power been so economically  interdependent with the rising challenger it must confront. Under these conditions, trade and debt provide overwhelming economic incentives to avoid conflict that would  be costly to all. Over time the mutual  interests  of the two countries  will outweigh any tensions that arise between them.

Appealing as this liberal internationalist argument may be, seen through the lens of realism, China’s economic rise, accompanied by America’s relative economic decline,  changes the global balance of power. It  gives China  the means, opportunity, and  motive to alter  the global  arrangement  in  which  the  United  States  is the  world’s  sole super­ power. According to the logic of realism, the two countries are therefore already at odds in a struggle for geopolitical  dominance. One is the established superpower, the other its leading challenger. Under the circumstances, a shooting war is not  unavoidable-but conflict is.

Of all the potential  flashpoints for real violent conflict between the United States and China, Taiwan is the scariest. In 2012, Tsai Ing-Wen’s Democratic Progressive Party won 47 percent of the vote on a platform  of active independence. If she or another like-minded politican were to be elected in the future, and Chinese  leaders  wanted  to shore up their legitimacy by distracting their public from a lagging economy, a hawkish Chinese leadership with close ties to the People’s Liberation Army could send a new aircraft carrier into the strait. The president  of the United States would  then face an immediate and pressing dilemma: to respond in kind, inviting war, or to hold back and compromise  sole global superpower  status in an instant. The Cuban missile crisis looked a lot like this.

Moreover, to alter the balance of power in a fundamental way, China does not need to reach military parity with the United States – and once again, Taiwan is the demonstration case. From China’s  standpoint, the optimal  strategy  toward Taiwan is to build up its military capacity and acquire Taiwan without a fight. The idea is that  the United States might be prepared  to tolerate the abandonment of its historically out of necessity, the way Britain ceded control over Hong Kong when it had no choice.

To see why this scenario is so plausible, all that is required is to ask  the  following  question:  Would  the  president  of  the  United States go to war with China over Taiwan absent some high-profile, immediate  crisis capable of mobilizing domestic support?   If the United States were to abandon Taiwan, it would have to insist-to China,   to  Japan   and  South   Korea,  and  to  its  own citizens-that Taiwan was in a basic sense different from the rest of Asia.

Failure to do so credibly would transform  capitulation on Taiwan  into  the  end  of  American  military  hegemony  in  Asia. It would represent  a reversal of the victories in the Pacific in World War II. It would put much of the world’s economic  power within China’s sphere of control,  not only its sphere of influence. In short it would mean that China was on a par with the United States as a global superpower.

That   moment  of  imagination may  already  have arrived:  although U.S. defense experts  might  think  otherwise, many  close watchers of U.S. domestic  policy can conceive of a compromise  on Taiwan that  would restore Chinese sovereignty. The future  is now. For the United States to concede Asia to China’s  domination would entail stepping down from being the world’s sole superpower  to being one of two competing superpowers.  But notice  what  this means. The only way the United States can credibly commit itself to the protection of its Asian allies is for the United States to remain committed to sole-superpower status.  China, for its part,  need only grow its military  capacity to the point where it would be big enough not to have to use it.

Military  rise takes place over decades,  not  months.  Too fast  a buildup  would spook the United States  and encourage  hawkish  anti-Chinese sentiment there. Complete secrecy with regard to such a major buildup would be impossible. The party  has done  a good  job of convincing  the Chinese public that  the nation’s rise must proceed slowly, with economic  growth first. It helps that  the party  is not subjected  to the electoral cycles of  democratic governments,  with  the  limited  time  horizon  that such a structure imposes.

Nevertheless, as most Chinese seem to realize, China’s  long-term  geopolitical  interest  lies in removing the United States from  the position  of sole global super­ power. The  reasons  are  both  psychological  and  material. Like the  United  States,  China  is a continental power  with  vast reach. It has a glorious  imperial  history, including  regional  domi­ nance of what  was, for China,  much of the known  world. In the same  way that  the  United  States  is proud  of  democracy  and  its global spread, China has its own rich civilizational ideal, Confu­ cianism. During the years of China’s ascendance, the cultures of Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam-sometimes called the Sinosphere-were deeply influenced  by Chinese ideas. Confucianism still plays a meaningful  part  in the thinking  of at least 1.7 bil­lion people.

The  Chinese  public  is deeply  nationalist, which  matters   to China’s  unelected political leadership  as much as U.S. nationalism does to American politicians. As China  becomes  the world’s  largest  economy, there is meaningful public pressure for its power status  t.o advance in parallel.  Any al­ ternative  would  be humiliating. And  as all Chinese know, China has suffered its share of humiliation in the last two centuries.

This does not mean making Japan  or South Korea into part of China. It does mean eventually replacing the existing regional security system that is designed to contain  and balance it. The increasingly  belligerent  conflicts over small islands in the East and South China Seas are products of the fact that everybody knows it.

Lee Kuan Yew, the Singaporean leader who has been a mentor  to every major Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping, was recently asked if China’s  leaders intend to displace the United States as Asia’s preeminent  power. “Of  course,” Lee replied. “Why not? … Their  reawakened  sense of  destiny  is an  overpowering force.”  Indeed,  Lee explained  bluntly, “It is China’s  intention to become the greatest power in the world.”

There is plenty of hard evidence to support this interpretation. China’s defense budget has grown by more than 10 percent for several years, rising officially to $116 billion in the most recent published reports, with actual defense spending as high as $180 billion. In  2011 China  bought  its  first  aircraft  carrier  (a refitted  Soviet model), announced plans to build several more, and openly tested its first stealth  aircraft.  In 2012, party-controlled media acknowledged more ambitious plans to develop ballistic missiles that would carry multiple warheads-and therefore be able to get around  the U.S. missile defense shield.  China  is also working  on submarine­ fired missiles that would avoid U.S. early-warning systems left over from the Cold War. It is building up its space program  on both the civilian and military sides.

Cyber war, a fast-developing new front  in global  conflict, is another facet of China’s  effort  to change its power relationship to the United States.  Cyber attacks  are not what makes the cool war “cool.” As a strategic matter they do not differ fundamentally from older tools of espionage and sabotage. (The same is true of drone strikes, which are just the latest varant on the use of air power.) But cyber attacks are just now an especially fruitful  method  from  the Chi­nese perspective. Because they do not (yet) involve traditional military  mobilization, they  exploit  a  dimension  in  which  U.S. and Chinese  power  are  more  symmetrical.  They  involve  a  certain amount  of deniability, as efforts can be made to mask the origin of attacks,  making  attribution difficult. They may have a significant economic upside, especially if they involve theft of intellectual property  from  American  firms. Cyber  war  takes place largely in secret,  unknown  to the general  public  on  both  sides. Best of  all for  China,  the  rules  for  cyber  war  are  still  very  much  in  flux. That  means public  retaliation  is still extremely unlikely, reducing the danger  of  public  embarrassment if  things  go badly. Regular cyber  attacks   are  therefore  likely  to  be  an  ongoing  facet  of  a cool war, even if they are not definitional.


The Cold War’s major strategic developments, from Soviet expansion to containment, detente, and Nixon’s opening to China, all clustered around the question of who would be aligned with whom. The cool war, too, will involve a struggle to gain and keep allies. The  meaning of alliance, however, will differ from earlier wars, in which trade between the different camps was severely constricted.  In the cool war, the protagonists are each other’s largest trading partners. Each side can try to offer security and economic partnership, but cannot  easily demand  an  exclusive relationship with potential  client states of the kind that obtained  in the Cold War. Instead  the goal will be to deepen connections  over time so that  the  targeted  ally comes to see its interests  as more  closely aligned with one side rather  than  the other. Much more than during the Cold War, key players may try to have it both ways.

The Pacific region is the first and most obvious place where the game of alliances has begun to be played – and it challenges the post-World War II “hub  and spokes” arrangement of bilateral treaties between the United States and  Japan, South Korea, Tai wan, and Australia that  guaranteed security without  joining them into  a single regional  alliance  on  the model  of  NATO.

Over the course of the last decade, China has replaced the United States as the largest trading  partner with each of these Pacific countries.  The  United States, in other words, now increasingly guarantees the capacity  of the countries  in the region to engage in a free economic  relationship with China.

In November 2012, China  joined Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand, and  the  ten  members  of  ASEAN to  announce negotiations for  what  the group   calls  a  Regional  Comprehensive   Economic   Partnership. Taken as a whole, the proposed  free-trade  group  would include a population of some three billion people with as much as $20 trillion in GDP and approximately 40 percent of the world’s trade.  It represents an alternative to an American-favored pro­ posed Trans-Pacific Partnership  that includes the United States but excludes China.

China’s long­ term interest is to supplant  and eventually replace the United States as the most important regional actor. It has benefited from U.S. security guarantees, and now sees no reason why it should be hemmed in by U.S. proxies. At the same time, it must be careful not  to frighten Japan  and South Korea so much that  they cling to the American embrace.  Creating a regional trade alliance that  includes  traditional U.S. regional  allies  but  not  the  United States  would  serve these complicated  and  slightly  contradictory goals. It would provide countries like Japan  and South Korea with the incentive to draw closer to China while framing that movement in terms of economic advantage rather  than security.

Emblematic of the contradictory new reality is that China is negotiating for free trade with Japan at precisely the moment when geopolitical tensions between them are at the highest point in decades. The conflict over the Diaoyou/Senkaku Islands went from civilian to military in a matter of months, as both sides scrambled jet fighters.  This conflict is itself logical: the product of uncertainty over the changing balance of power. Yet the economic partnership is strengthening simultaneously.

The U.S. response to the changing geostrategic situation has been to signal increasing willingness to empower its regional allies, particularly Japan. The incorporation of a Japanese admiral as the second in command  at last summer’s RIMPAC exercises was a signal that the United States viewed with favor a potential Japanese  shift  away from  pacifism and  toward  a more active regional security role.

But this regional response will not be enough. The United States also will have to broaden its base of allies using the tools of ideology. The strongest argument that can be made to countries who trade freely with china is that Chinese hegemony would threaten their democratic freedoms. Senator John McCain’s proposed league of democracies is therefore likely to be revived eventually, though probably under another name.

India is the leading candidate for membership. The inventor of non-alignment is not in the same position  as it was during  the Cold War. Now nonalignment risks letting China rise to regionally dominant status. India’s interest is to balance China in the realm of geopolitics  while urging it to respect international law, especially the laws of intellectual property  and trade. India must, of course, be careful not to push the Chinese too far. China could use border troubles with India to feed domestic nationalism. But India should be increasingly open to joining a democratic league that might have the long-term effect of  pressuring  China  toward  human  rights  and  democracy.  The natural  ground  for the alliance is democracy  and human rights-the features  that  the  United  States  and  India  share  but China lacks.

China’s great advantage in the race to find allies is its pragmatism. Unlike the United  States ,

China  typically makes no demands  that its allies comply with international norms of human  rights or other responsible behavior. China’s natural allies are, as a result, often bad international actors, as the examples of Iran and Syria make clear. China has an independent interest in opposing any form of humanitarian intervention or regime-change based on a human-rights justification. So it is natural – and so far, low-cost — for China to provide cover for such allies. Russia shares the same interests, and the once-chilly Chinese-Russian relationship has been considerably warmed by overlapping interests in the trying to limit Western regime change. Indeed, Russia may emerge as China’s most important geostrategic ally – a development signaled recently by Xi Jinping making Russia his first stop on assuming the presidency. If the United States reached out  to China in the cold War to weaken the Soviet union, China may try to use Russia similarly in the cool war.

China has also been highly effective in creating alliances with resource-rich African states.

China  became Africa’s leading trading partner in 2010. China typically opts to work with existing governments-whether they are autocratic does not matter-to build infrastructure that is sorely lacking. The Chinese tout their own expertise in rapid devel­opment;  they bring Chinese labor to do the job; and they promise to  deliver  the  benefits  of  improved  roads,  rivers,  and  revenue streams for government.

China’s pragmatic  approach  to Africa is free of the evangelical spirit and appeals frankly  to its in­ terlocutors’ naked self-interest-and the Chinese  make no  bones about the fact that they are pursuing their own self-interest as well. They  make no attempt  to reform  African governance  or African ways of life. They may condescend,  but they do not lecture. Unlike Western interactions with Africa, the Chinese encounter  does not seem plagued by bad conscience. How much this will ultimately matter to Africans remains to be seen. But a policy  of pragmatic  honesty  may confer  real advantages  when dealing with countries  and peoples who are accustomed  to being met with self-serving lies. China aims to get the benefits of resource colonization without paying the international price of being hated as a colonizer-and it has a reasonable chance of succeeding.


Extensive cooperation in economics, intense competition in geopolitics:  this  new  situation poses  extraordinary risks.  China and the United States are bound  together in a mutual  embrace of economic interdependence. They are also on a course  to conflict driven by their divergent interests and ideologies. Escalating hostility might lead not only to violence but to economic disaster.

Yet economic interdependence also poses unique opportunities for  the  peaceful  resolution  of  conflict.  What  is more,  it  creates common interests  that mitigate  the impulse to domination. Trade is the area where cooperation can have the greatest transformative effects. Today, China is an active participant in the WTO regime, which is the most effective expression of international law-as-law ever created. Nations obey the decisions of WTO tribunals out of straightforward self-interest: the cost of defection is outweighed by the benefits of staying in the international trade regime.

To manage  the cool war, we  must  always keep in mind the tremendous gains that  both the United States and China have achieved and  will continue  to experience  as a result of economic cooperation. Both sides should use the leverage of their mu­ tually beneficial economic  relationship  to make fighting less attractive. The positive benefits of trade will not render geopoliti­cal conflict obsolete.  But focusing on them can help discourage  too-rapid  recourse to violence.

The world is going to change under conditions  of cool war, and efforts to keep the war from becoming violent must take account of these changes. New networks of international alliances are emerging. International organizations like the Security Council and  the WTO  will have more power than  before, and should  be deployed  judiciously  and  creatively. International economic  law can increasingly  be enforced as a result of the mutual self-interest of the participants. Global corporations will develop new alle­ giances as part  of a cool war world-but they can also provide in­ centives to discourage violence and associated economic losses. Human  rights, long treated as a rhetorical  prop in the struggle be­ tween great powers, will still be used as a tool. But over time, respecting  rights may come to be in China’s  interests-with  major consequences for the enforcement of human  rights everywhere.

What unifies these conclusions is a willingness to embrace persistent contradiction as a fact of our world. We must be prepared to acknowledge both diverging interests and also areas of profound overlap. We must be forthright about ideological  distance, yet re­ main open to the possibility that it can gradually  be bridged. We must pay attention to the role of enduring  self-interest  while also remembering  that  what we believe our interest  to be can change what it actually is.

The United States and China really are opponents-and they really do need each other to prosper. Accepting all this requires changing some of our assumptions  about friends and enemies, al­ lies and competitors. It means acknowledging that opposed forces and  ideas do  not  always merge into  a grand  synthesis, and  that their struggle also need not issue in an epic battle to the finish.

It would be uplifting to conclude that peace is logical, that rational  people on all sides will avert conflict by acting sensibly.  But such  a conclusion  would  betray  the  analysis  that  I have tried  to develop. Instead  I offer  a more  modest  claim.  Geostrategic conflict is inevitable. But mutual economic interdependence can help manage that conflict and keep it from spiraling out of control.

We cannot project  a winner  in the cool war. If violence can  be avoided, human  well-being improved,  and human rights expanded, perhaps everybody could emerge as a winner. If, however, confrontation leads to violence, it is also possible that everyone could lose.






  • Kevin Russel
    Great post, hope to have this kind of post again tomorrow.thanks:)

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