Friday, 22 October 2021

America, China, and the Echoes of History


It’s no longer debatable that the United States and China, tacit allies during the last half of the last Cold War, are entering their own new cold war: Chinese President Xi Jinping has declared it, and a rare bipartisan consensus in the United States has accepted the challenge. What, then, might previous contests—the one and only Cold War and the many earlier cold wars—suggest about this one?

The future is, of course, less knowable than the past, but it’s not in all respects unknowable. Time will continue to pass, the law of gravity will still apply, and none of us will outlive our physiological term limits.

 China will remain chiefly a land power, beset by an ancient dilemma. If, in search of strategic depth, it tries to expand its perimeters, it is likely to overstretch its capabilities and provoke resistance from anxious neighbors. If, to regain solvency, it contracts its perimeters, it risks inviting in enemies. Even behind great walls, uneasy lie the heads of those whose boundaries remain unfixed.

The United States, in contrast, benefits from boundaries that geography has determined. That’s why the United Kingdom, after 1815, chose not to contest its offspring’s primacy in North America: sustaining armies across 3,000 miles of ocean would have been too costly even for the world’s greatest naval power.

Democracy in America has its own gaps between promises and performance, so much so that it seems at times to suffer from Brezhnev-like paralysis. The United States differs from China, though, in that distrust of authority is constitutionally mandated. The separation of powers secures a center of gravity to which the nation can return after whatever bursts of activity crises may have demanded.

Neither is unprecedented. Climates have always fluctuated, which is why it used to be possible to walk from Siberia to Alaska. Thucydides described the plague that struck Athens in 430 BC. What is new is the extent to which globalization has accelerated these phenomena, raising the question of whether geopolitical rivals can collaboratively address the deep histories that are increasingly altering their own.

The Soviet-American Cold War showed that cooperation to avoid catastrophe need not be explicit: no treaty specified that nuclear weapons, after 1945, would not again be used in war. Instead, existential dangers produced tacit cooperation where negotiated formalities almost surely would have failed. Climate change may present similar opportunities in the Sino-American cold war, even if COVID-19 has so far spurred only Chinese abrasiveness.

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