The Big Ideas

'There Will Not Be a New Cold War' Thomas Christensen

Foreign Affairs

Thomas J. Christensen | Columbia University
'There Will Not Be a New Cold War' Thomas Christensen
'There Will Not Be a New Cold War' Thomas Christensen
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March 24, 2021
BIG IDEA | ‘China’s vital position in the global production chain and the lack of struggle for ideological supremacy between authoritarianism and liberal democracy mean that the rise of a new Cold War is unlikely.’

For the past few years, many have argued that the U.S. and China are in a Cold War or will soon be.

  • I was a foot-soldier during the Cold War with the Soviet Union and a life-long observer of U.S.-China relations. And my take is what we have with China is not a Cold War.

My objection to calling the U.S.-China relationship a Cold War is that it is a false analogy with the competition between the U.S. and the USSR that leads to biased assessments, sloppy thinking, and bad policies.

  • So making the distinction between situations is more than just the niceties of nomenclature – here the right nomenclature makes a difference.

That’s why I was happy to see the issue, to my mind, put to rest [don't worry, I'm still not so naive as to believe the new Cold Warriors will find this persuasive.] by Columbia’s Thomas Christenson in his essay, ‘There Will Not Be a New Cold War.’

  • Here’s his argument.

‘U.S.-Chinese strategic competition, which is real and carries dangers, lacks three essential and interrelated elements of the United States’ Cold War with the Soviet Union and its allies:

  1. ‘The United States and China are not involved in a global ideological struggle for the hearts and minds of third parties;
  2. ‘Today’s highly globalized world is not and cannot easily be divided into starkly separated economic blocs; and
  3. ‘The United States and China are not leading opposing alliance systems such as those that fought bloody proxy wars in the mid-twentieth century in Korea and Vietnam and created nuclear crises in places such as Berlin and Cuba.

‘Two factors would need to change to produce something akin to the U.S.-Soviet Cold War.

  1. ‘If China were to start a conscious campaign to bolster authoritarianism and undermine democracies around the world, then U.S. and Chinese allies would quickly begin butting up against each other.
  2. ‘If Beijing were to swap out parts of the global production chain with Chinese rather than foreign producers and rely less on global markets [the professed aim expressed at the recent National People's Congress and embodied in the 'dual-circulation' economic strategy], then China might be more willing to accept the cost of an ideological struggle.

‘Until China breaks sharply from its recent past on both scores, a U.S.-Chinese cold war will not occur.’