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I argue that there is no New Cold War at present, and there has been no New Cold War ever since the original Cold War ended when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. There are, however, two new attributes in global geopolitics: first there is a new Cold War Mentality that is exerting a powerful influence by disturbing international harmony. Secondly, there is a new competition for global leadership between the sole global superpower, the United States, and a rising superpower, China. In a nutshell, America dominates the world in military power, and China dominates in economic power.

We have been seeing a steady deterioration of China-U.S. relations under the Trump administration. But relations worsened further on October 4, 2018 when the vice-president, Mike Pence, delivered a Cold War speech singling out China as America’s main enemy and rival.[1] Pence’s comments can be compared to traditional anti-communist principles articulated in the Long Telegram of 1946 written by the U.S. diplomat, George Kennan, and the Truman Doctrine.

Pence has moved the U.S. policy on China away from the Nixon era “engagement” to disengagement and the containment of China. It is worrying that Pence’s comments declared a fundamental shift in U.S. policy toward China. The United States no longer trusts China, as Pence alleged that “Beijing is employing a whole-of-government approach, using political, economic, and military tools, as well as propaganda, to advance its influence and benefit its interests in the United States.” China is also exerting influence and interfering in the domestic policy and politics of the United States, he charged.

The Communist Party of China (CPC), Pence declared, had “used an arsenal of policies inconsistent with free and fair trade,” such as tariffs, quotas, currency manipulation, forced technology transfer, intellectual property theft, and “industrial subsidies doled out like candy,” to name a few. He reiterated the claim of the president, Donald Trump, that the United States “rebuilt China” over the last twenty-five years.

The CPC now aims to reach “the commanding heights of the twenty-first century economy,” and it had “directed its bureaucrats and businesses to obtain American intellectual property—the foundation of our economic leadership—by any means necessary.” He declared that “Beijing now requires many American businesses to hand over their trade secrets as the cost of doing business in China.” Moreover, China “also coordinates and sponsors the acquisition of American firms to gain ownership of their creations. Worst of all, Chinese security agencies have masterminded the wholesale theft of American technology—including cutting-edge military blueprints. And using that stolen technology, the Chinese Communist Party is turning plowshares into swords on a massive scale.”

Source: PriceWaterhouseCoopers.

There is a strong bipartisan consensus in the U.S. Congress to get tough with China as seen in recent anti-China bills on trade, defense, or on Taipei. One of the U.S. bills under consideration is the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act, 2018, or S2098.[2] When enacted into law, FIRRMA would emphasise the strategic threat posed by China’s continued investment in U.S. technology and intellectual property. The law, by implication, designates China as a “country of special concern,” meaning a country that poses a significant threat to the national security interests of the United States. The law aims to screen foreign investments for national security risks.

The FIRRMA erroneously uses a scattergun approach instead of targeting specific areas. It excludes entire industries and sectors of the American economy, fencing them off from foreign acquisitions, and thus it may end up hurting the U.S. technological advantage vis-à-vis the home country of the acquiring firm, and may even impair U.S. competitiveness. Instead of enshrining American worries under law, the United States and its allies should (a) engage China and push it to honour its obligations to the World Trade Organization to keep its markets open to trade and investment; and (b) urge the Chinese government to make its state-owned enterprises operate more transparently and competitively, without the support of the Chinese government. The FIRRMA stick may turn out to be both inefficient and ineffective.

The other piece of legislation of concern is the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, 2018, or S2736.[3] In section 203 on U.S.-China relations, the United States expresses grave worries over Chinese actions that seek to undermine a rules-based order in Asia, and at the same time explains that the United States is seeking to build positive and constructive relations with China. In September 2018, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee advanced the bill with an eye toward preventing China from becoming a hegemonic regional power. The bill provides more than US$ 1.5 billion over the next five years for the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development and the Pentagon to maintain a rules-based international order that the United States has created. The bill states that the money must be spent on improving the defense capacity of partner nations to “resist coercion” and to participate in bilateral and multilateral “engagements” aimed at responding to China’s “destabilizing activities” and North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programmes.

China will be concerned because the bill (a) recommits the United States to continue its arms sales to Taipei, and (b) calls on the U.S. government to encourage the travel by “high-level” U.S. officials to Taipei in order to demonstrate diplomatic support. China will also worry about another aspect of the bill that authorises the U.S. policy of “regular freedom of navigation and overflight operations in the Indo-Pacific region.” The U.S. military has recently increased its flights over international waters in the South China Sea that Beijing claims.

During the Cold War (1947-1991), both the United States and the Soviet Union created a public “Cold War” mentalité that exaggerated any real threat. The Cold War, defined as a global competition for influence between the United States and the Soviet Union, was an “imagined reality.” No actual war broke out, but whatever was fought was fought through propaganda, through both sides building alliances, and creating the reality/illusion of mass destruction in nuclear war. All of this was a constructed reality.

The study of the Cold War took a “cultural turn” about twenty years ago with an outpouring of literature on the culture of the period, when two influential books by Christian Appy and John Fousek stood out.[4] The cultural turn talks back to the failure of traditional diplomatic historians, gesturing toward their failure to look beyond the straitjacket of diplomatic documents, cables, memoranda, and the conference table. 

The cultural turn was enabled by the entry into the field of scholars of literature, sociology, anthropology, communication and media studies, and by the Cold War historians themselves taking a belated turn toward culture. The cultural turn unleashed a wave of literature on how American culture shaped (and was shaped by) the Cold War. Some of these studies examine a plethora of roles: such as those played by linguistic and visual symbols, by popular culture, by artists, writers, tourists, and filmmakers, by the new methodologies of sociology and literary criticism, by analyses of nationalism, national identity, and cultural transfer, and the role of race, class and gender in the construction of relations among nations.

Both Appy and Fousek explore the realm of “public culture,” which Fousek describes as “the arena in which social and political conflict is played out and in which consensus is forged, manufactured, and maintained or not.” Their books explore the role of language and the visual symbols out of which culture is constructed.

Appy believes that traditional historians have failed to understand that policy-making, intelligence-gathering, war-making, and mainstream politics are profoundly shaped by a cultural world that lies beyond the conference table and the battlefield, and that these historians have been “reading documents too literally and assuming that the events they describe can be understood as unmediated, objective realities rather than dynamic historical constructions.”

The Cold War, thus, was a constructed reality: both U.S. and Soviet propaganda constructed a portrait the other side as the enemy. Yet, on the ground the Korean War and the Vietnam War was all too real to Asians, not a ‘fantasy’ or ‘imagined reality’ that can be called the Cold War. 

The official cultural identity of the Soviet Union during the Cold War was shaped, for example, by the Anti-Cosmopolitan Campaign which attacked ‘kowtowing’ before capitalist culture and reinforced the self-sufficiency and superiority of Soviet civilization. The glamour of American music and movies, as well as the threatening nature, of the outside world, remained a structural feature of the Soviet post-war mentalité.[5]

The term History of Mentalities is taken from the French term histoire des mentalités, which might also be translated as “history of attitudes,” “mindsets,” or “world-views.” These tropes describes a particular manner of researching history by focusing on the mindsets of past cultural and social groups and their gradual changes over time, as opposed to the history of particular events, or economic trends.[6]

Despite U.S. victory in the Cold War, a Cold War mentalité continued to haunt post-Cold War scholarship. In other words, International Relations scholars warned of further U.S. decline, which energised the American foreign policy elites to continue to confront the communist enemy.[7]

It is against this scholarly background that China has been urging the United States to abandon its “Cold War mentality.” The mentality is actually constructed both by policymakers and propagandists. The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy announced in December 2017 confirmed the Chinese perception that there was, indeed, a Cold War mentality pervading the Trump administration. The NSS report reiterated Trump’s description of China as a rival, mentioning “China” thirty-three times. The report declared that China “seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor.” The United States must, therefore “marshal the will and capabilities to compete and prevent unfavorable shifts in the Indo-Pacific, Europe, and the Middle East.”

It is alarming that the current American thinking has remained unchanged since the end of the Cold War in 1991. The Pentagon’s “Defence Planning Guidance 1994-1999” had stated:[8] 

Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union, or elsewhere, that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union. This is a dominant consideration … and requires that we endeavour to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power. These regions include Western Europe, East Asia, the territory of the former Soviet Union, and Southwest Asia.

An alarmist assessment paved the way to the creation of the policy of “the pivot to Asia” engineered by the president, Barack Obama. There was evidence of an American drive to contain China by pushing through the Trans-Pacific Partnership in order to wall Beijing behind a U.S.-Japan alliance where the trade rules were to be written in the interests of the United States, and China was to be kept outside.

China has frequently cautioned India and other Asian countries about forming alliances against it. Beijing also asserts that Trump’s policies are unreliable and unstable. China has declared that the Quadrilateral Alliance of the United States, India, Japan, and Australia demonstrates a Cold-War mindset. The Quad, which Japan calls the Security Diamond, aims to build solidarity in order to monitor or reduce Chinese actions in the disputed South China Sea islands, and to increase the Quad’s own naval activities in the Indian Ocean.

China views the Quad as an emerging bloc and as a device to contain it.  China’s ambassador to India, Luo Zhaohui, stated that “China cannot be contained,” in remarks that followed a meeting of the Quad in November 2017. In an article in India’s Tribune newspaper, ambassador Luo called for enhancing “mutual trust and focus on cooperation, while properly managing differences, in a bid to promote China-India relations to a new level.” Referring to a meeting of the Quad officials that called for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” and a rules-based order, Luo pointed to media reports on the “Indo-Pacific Strategy” which said that the emerging multilateral cooperation was aimed at China. Luo wrote:[9]

I have a different opinion. As a saying goes, if you want to create an opponent, you will have an opponent. We should get rid of the Cold War mentality. In fact, it is in the interests of all parties and in the trend of globalization to enhance closer Indo-Pacific ties from a geographical and economic perspective. Above all, China cannot be contained. We are fully confident about it.

As the United States once again identifies China as a strategic competitor in a great power competition, the idea of a “new Cold War” is becoming a convenient conceptual framework to describe the escalatory competition between the United States and China. Since the United States remains an ambitious power that aims to prevent the rise of any challenger, it cannot abandon the Cold War mindset that has been constructed for the containment of China.

The growing economic might of China, which will become the world’s largest economy by 2030, makes it a powerful challenger to the unquestioned hegemony the United States has exercised since the end of the Second World War. If a Cold War does eventually break out, China will certainly be a more formidable rival than the Soviet Union, or present-day Russia, had ever been.

China takes a different approach in its rise to global power. The United States had imposed the Monroe Doctrine, which it defended with the threat of overwhelming military power. China defends its expanding sphere of influence through peaceful means, or through an implied suggestion of force, mediated through economic and cultural engagement. China’s ambitions already are global in scope and scale, stretching from Asia to the Arctic, as evidenced in its Silk Road projects.

Cold War Mentalité Part II         

If the US does intensify its China containment policy, it may not succeed because of the globalised linkages of China, and its vast trade and investment abroad. China has begun creating an alternative model to the American one, with its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which may compete with the U.S. dominated World Bank. At the same time, Beijing’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative aims to accelerate the emergence of a Sino-centric order by reshaping the geopolitics and economics of Eurasia.

A Cold War Mentality is very different from an actual Cold War. The Cold War is a misleading comparison for the current geopolitical competition between the United States and China. Imposing a Cold War paradigm on the relationship exaggerates their rivalry. At its most damaging, a Cold War paradigm can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. A more appropriate description is that the two countries are engaged in a fierce geopolitical competition for influence and power.

There are several differences between the Cold War and the contemporary Sino-U.S. relations. First, the Cold War was an ideological struggle between two diametrically opposed ideological systems, each of which had sought to defeat, if not exterminate, the other. Neither does China want to destroy capitalism, nor is the United States committed to bringing down the Chinese government as a step towards destroying global communism. The Cold War is an inaccurate label because both countries are part of the same global economic system, unlike the original Cold War when Washington and Moscow belonged to opposing economic systems.

Second, the militaries of China and the United States are not facing each other across a continent, as was the case between the United States and the Soviet Union in the frozen expanses of Europe. Unlike the original Cold War, there is no travel and trade ban imposed by either power.

Third, under a Cold War the United States would have to create a bloc of Asian countries against Beijing. This is impossible because of the globalised nature of the Chinese economy and its excellent diplomatic relations across Asia. The countries of Asia want to avoid a new cold war because it is counterproductive, and quite impossible to actually put in motion. Neither China nor the United States controls a bloc of countries that are opposed to each other and are willing to go to war for their cause. The United States has been unable to convince India and Australia to form a bloc against China, as both India and Australia maintain good relations with China under their strategic autonomy policy that is independent of American influence and interference.

New Type of Great Power Relations

The United States and China should seriously examine building a “new type of great power relations.” In 2012, the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, proposed the strategic idea that both countries should commit to redefining their relationship based on the principles of no conflict, no confrontation and mutual benefit. The challenge lies in addressing a deep sense of anxiety among American policymakers about the possibility of U.S. decline and China’s rise.

China’s People’s Daily has argued that Trump’s trade war was “never just about narrowing trade deficits but to contain China in much broader areas.” That view is understandable. U.S. officials increasingly point to China as their main foe. Trump recently cited China when justifying America’s requirement for a military space force by 2020. Trump’s NSS identified China as an enemy and a “revisionist” power determined to undermine American security and economic power.

The centrepiece of president Xi’s leadership has been the Chinese Dream, his promise that the country will emerge as a superpower dominant in many of the world’s advanced technologies such as robotics, artificial intelligence, high-speed trains and aerospace. The U.S. Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer, has said China’s ambitions are “bad for America.” A Cold War mentality is firmly in place.

The Yalta and Riga Axioms

Yet, there may not have been a Cold War at all in the twentieth century, or there might have been a “Cool War,” or a “Not-so-Cold War,” if the American president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the Soviet leader Josef Stalin had succeeded in creating a partnership. Roosevelt had wanted to productively engage with the Soviets as partners after the end of the Second World War.

Roosevelt himself aimed to build an alliance with Moscow under a foreign policy known as the “Yalta axioms,” named after the location of FDR’s effort to establish a post‐war agreement to work with the Soviet Union. Yalta is a resort city on the south coast of the Crimean Peninsula surrounded by the Black Sea. The Yalta axioms stated that the U.S.-Soviet cooperation in the post war period could be realised through agreements that respected the interests of both sides.

At the same time, a larger number of American diplomats believed that Washington must not befriend the Soviet Union because it was a totalitarian state. A consensus formed around the “Riga axioms,” so named for the Latvian city where American diplomats studied Soviet affairs in the 1920s. The Riga axioms emphasised the totalitarian nature of the Soviet Union.

After FDR’s death, the U.S. officials who promoted the Riga axioms gained in influence under the new president, Harry Truman, who repudiated the Yalta axioms in early 1946. The Riga axioms thus triumphed and provided the basis for U.S. foreign policy makers to oppose communism.[10] The Riga axioms had little to do with the actual nature of the Soviet Union. It actually reflected the inherent anti-communist nature of some influential American diplomats whose careers were in the ascendant.

At the present time, there are lessons still to be learned from America’s abandonment of the Yalta axioms, for which the world paid a heavy price as it sparked the Cold War. The reality is that U.S.-Russia relations are still held to a type of Riga axiom, call it Riga II, under which Washington aims to contain Russia within its borders, and it encourages the former communist countries of Eastern Europe to join the Western alliance.

The United States won the Cold War but failed to capitalise on it because of its successive and disastrous military interventions in the Middle East.

However, the scholars Richard Ned Lebow and Janice Gross Stein have argued in their book, We All Lost the Cold War, that the United States and the Soviet Union both lost the Cold War during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and the 1973 Middle East War. In the Cuban Missile Crisis, U.S. policy failed both to deter Khrushchev from deploying nuclear missiles, and also to prevent Soviet military intervention to support Sadat’s army from destruction by the Israelis.

This brings us to the question: Is there a Cold War being waged today? Most scholars believe there is no Cold War, but many policy analysts and journalists argue that we are witnessing a New Cold War.

Let us examine the standpoint of the historians who believe that there is no new Cold War: Jussi Hanhimäki, a professor of international history at the Graduate Institute Geneva, argues that people use the label of the Cold War in large part because ‘our’ era lacks a name. Indeed, the rampant use of ‘the new Cold War’ (and not only for U.S.-Russia relations, but on occasion for Sino-American relations, as well) is in part driven by a kind of nostalgia for an era that seemed straightforward and simple in contrast to the current age of uncertainty and seeming disarray.[11] Melvyn P. Leffler, the Edward R. Stettinius Jr. professor in the history department at the University of Virginia, believes that the analogy to the Cold War is unhelpful. “I think this is more of a typical geopolitical conflict.” Arne Westad, the S.T. Lee Professor of U.S.-Asia Relations at Harvard University, declares that “not all conflicts are ‘Cold Wars.’ What we are seeing today is much more reminiscent of Europe in the 19th century—different powers conflicting over power, influence, and resources in ever-changing constellations.”

Hal Brands, the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, believes that currently the “third stage” of a debate is going on, a debate about calling the present world situation a new Cold War. He explains that in the first stage after the Russian annexation of Crimea, many people looked for a familiar analogy, a metaphor, or a trope and they adopted the label of the Cold War. In the second stage of the debate people identified the ways in which the current situation is different from the original Cold War. At present, in the third stage of the debate, scholars have an opportunity to think more seriously about the similarities and the differences.

According to Stephen Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University, there may be a kind of U.S.-Russian Cold War at present. This is fuelled by perceptions that politicians in both countries are using increasingly harsh language to describe each other, amid signs of a new arms race with worrying new accumulation of nuclear power.[12]

What will be the shape of the world order in the near and long term: I argue that in the near term, within twenty years or so, the world will return to bipolarity with the United States and China holding centrestage. There is sufficient economic data to support China’s stellar economic growth, and uncertainty in the United States. Russia will become increasingly less powerful economically, and Russia may even fall behind India. Interestingly, in the long term, within the next fifty years or so, the bipolarity will be consolidated, but it will be a different world from the old Cold War which was marked by the ever-present threat of nuclear war.

What should be the way forward for scholars? Instead of imposing the Cold War onto the present world order, we should highlight the lessons of the original Cold War, and the blunders that brought the world to the edge of nuclear war, and took the two superpowers to an unnecessary and avoidable divide. The formulation of the phrase “New Cold War” is thus a lazy label that creates a crisis when none really exists.

The current world order is unsettled. But to call it a “New Cold War” is misleading because it lacks the intensity and all-pervasiveness of the earlier one.


[1] Mike Pence, Speech, Hudson Institute, October 4, 2018.

[2] “S.2098, Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act of 2018, 115th Congress (2017-2018), Library of Congress. https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-bill/2098/text/is.

[3] S.2736, Asia Reassurance Initiative Act of 2018115th Congress (2017-2018), Library of Congress. https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-bill/2736/text?format=txt.

[4] Christian G. Appy, ed., Cold War Constructions: The Political Culture of United States Imperialism, 1945-1966 (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000); and John Fousek, To Lead the Free World: American Nationalism and the Cultural Roots of the Cold War (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000).

[5] Timothy Johnston, Being Soviet: Identity, Rumor, and Everyday Life under Stalin, 1939-1953 (Oxford University Press, 2011).

[6] Georges Duby, The Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Georges Duby, “L’Histoire des mentalités,” L’Histoire et ses méthodes: Recherche, conservation et critique des témoignages, ed. Charles Samaran (Paris: Gallimard, 1961), 937-66; Michael Harsgor, “Total History: The Annales School,” Journal of Contemporary History 13, no. 1 (1978); Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013); Patrick Hutton, “The History of Mentalities: The New Map of Cultural History,” History and Theory 20,no. 3 (1981): 239; Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York: Basic Books, 1984); Philipp Arie, “L’Histoire des mentalités,” La Nouvelle histoire, ed. Jacques Le Goff et al. (Bruxelles: Editions Complexe, 1978), 402-23; Jacques Le Goff, “Mentalities: à History of Ambiguities,” Constructing the Past: Essays in Historical Methodology, ed. Jacques Le Goffand P. Nora (Cambridge and Paris: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 166-80; František Graus, Mentalitäten im Mittelalter: methodische und inhaltliche Probleme (Sigmaringen: J. Thorbecke, 1987); Ulrich Raulff and André Bruguiere, Mentalitäten: Geschichte zur historischen Rekonstruktion geistiger Prozesse (Berlin: Wagenbach, 1989); Aaron Gurevich, Historical Anthropology of the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992); and Europäische Mentalitätsgeschichte: Hauptthemen in Einzeldarstellungen, ed. Peter Dinzelbacher (Stuttgart: A. Kröner, 2008).

[7] David Martin Jones and M.L.R. Smith, Asean and East Asian International Relations: Regional Delusion (Chelthenham: Edward Elgar, 2006).

[8] “Defence Planning Guidance 1994-1999,” Pentagon, U.S. National Security Council, 16.

[9] LuoZhaohui, “A Chinese View of the New Global Order,” The Tribune, November 16, 2017.

[10] Daniel Yergin, Shattered Peace: The Origins of the Cold War and the National Security State (London: Andre Deutsch, 1978).

[11] Shane Croucher, “A New Cold War with Russia? Historians give their answer,” Newsweek, April 20, 2018.

[12] Stephen M. Walt, “I Knew the Cold War. This is no Cold War,” Foreign Policy, March 12, 2018.