Not since the Berlin Wall fell has the world been cleaved so deeply by the kind of conflict that John F. Kennedy called a “long, twilight struggle.”
Joe Biden’s national-security aides were recently at work on a secret mission—how to get the President safely in and out of Ukraine’s capital, ahead of the anniversary of Russia’s invasion—when they got word of a problem closer to home: a suspected Chinese spy balloon had been spotted in U.S. airspace. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was preparing to board a flight to Beijing, called off his trip and, on February 4th, as the world watched, an F-22 shot down the balloon off the coast of South Carolina, where it sank, like a strange emblem of this precarious moment.
The United States shot down three more floating objects in the following days, then announced that there was no sign that any of them were connected to China. By that point, though, the machinery of confrontation was in full gear. In a radio interview, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, speculated that the balloon was “a test to see what the U.S. would do,” and ventured that China’s leader, Xi Jinping, is “bent on a world war.” Nikki Haley, a Republican contender for the Presidency in 2024, signalled her backing for something close to regime change, telling supporters that “Communist China will end up on the ash heap of history.” China cast the uproar as a sign of America’s decline. Its most senior diplomat, Wang Yi, described the balloon shoot-down as “borderline hysterical, and an utter misuse of military force.”
Not since the Berlin Wall fell has the world been cleaved so deeply by the kind of conflict that John F. Kennedy called a “long, twilight struggle” over the shape of its future. In broad terms, it is a schism between the realms of democracy and autocracy, pitting the U.S. and its allies against Russia and its dominant partner, China. Officials on all sides, though, downplay analogies to the past. That’s for the best; banal triumphalism about the Cold War tends to ignore both how close we came to nuclear catastrophe—a spectre that Putin revived last week, when he suspended Russia’s last arms-control deal with the U.S.—and the toll of the proxy wars fought around the globe, which the historian Paul Chamberlin estimates killed more than twenty million people.
The blocs in this new cold war are hardening. Within days of Vladimir Putin’s invasion, Germany announced a “turning point” in its long-standing relationship with Russia, which would alter its military and energy policies. A reinvigorated NATO, at a summit last summer, to which leaders of Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand were invited, voiced unprecedented concern about China’s ambitions. Meanwhile, the Biden Administration has strengthened military ties with Australia, Japan, and India; most recently, it announced plans to expand military activities in the Philippines, to bolster its ability to defend Taiwan.
But the war has also delineated the limits of U.S. influence. Despite Russia’s brutality in Ukraine, it has maintained, or reinforced, ties with a host of nations. India, which is working with the U.S. to counter China, nevertheless relies heavily on weapons and oil from Russia, and has quintupled trade with it. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, recently visited nine countries in the Middle East and Africa. But none are as vital to Russia as China: though the two nations have little fellow-feeling, Xi and Putin have forged a circumstantial bond out of hostility to Washington’s dominance. Beijing has aided Moscow by buying Russian oil and selling it commercial drones and microchips, and by abstaining from efforts in the United Nations to condemn the invasion. Xi’s government calls itself a neutral party, but, on Friday, it proposed a ceasefire in terms that echo many of Russia’s claims.
In the run-up to the anniversary, the Biden Administration accused China of weighing whether to supply weapons to support Russia’s war—a charge it denied. If China were to provide arms, it would mark a momentous turn away from the international system, suggesting that Xi feels he cannot afford to let Putin fail, regardless of the consequences for Beijing’s fragile standing in Europe. It would be a calculation recalling an earlier moment of anxiety, shortly before the Soviet collapse, when the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping said, “The problem now is not whether the banner of the Soviet Union will fall . . . but whether the banner of China will fall.”
For now, the prospects for preventing a cold war from becoming a hot one rest less on grand strategies than on urgent mechanics. Following the balloon incident, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin tried calling Wei Fenghe, China’s defense minister, and was rebuffed. In December, the U.S. said that a Chinese fighter jet had come within twenty feet of an American warplane in international airspace over the South China Sea. The U.S. offered to hold “de-confliction” talks, but Beijing declined. Before the balloon got in the way, Blinken had been expected to use his trip to re-start negotiations over the handling of those types of encounters—establishing “guardrails” that might prevent an accident from escalating into a calamity.
All too often, the onset of a great-power standoff inspires more attention to weapons than to communications. George F. Kennan, the architect of America’s “containment” policy toward the Soviets, often lamented that his theory was used to justify a military buildup rather than a sustained commitment to political and economic diplomacy. In a new biography, the historian Frank Costigliola writes that, after Kennan “spent the four years from 1944 to 1948 promoting the Cold War, he devoted the subsequent forty to undoing what he and others had wrought.” The Soviet example holds only limited lessons for today, though, because of China’s economic scale. Toward the end of the Cold War, U.S. trade with the Soviet Union was about two billion dollars a year; U.S. trade with China is now nearly two billion dollars a day.
Washington should fiercely oppose Beijing’s abuse of human rights, its militarizing of the South China Sea, and its threats to Taiwan. But, if we are to limit the worst risks of a cold war, the U.S. should also prepare for what the Nixon Administration called détente—the policy, adopted in the late nineteen-sixties, with regard to the Soviets, that Henry Kissinger later summarized as “both deterrence and coexistence, both containment and an effort to relax tensions.”
Kennan, to his final days, warned about the seductive logic of wars, both cold and hot. In 2002, at the age of ninety-eight, he campaigned against the march to war in Iraq, arguing that history suggests “you might start a war with certain things on your mind” but often end up “fighting for entirely different things that you had never thought of before.”