Is America Prepared for the Next Cold War?

It was once a common assumption of American foreign policy that, through open trade and good relations, the United States could integrate communist China into the peace-loving, rule-bound family of commercial nations. It was also widely thought that commerce and economic growth would help China evolve domestically to a more democratic and rights-based system. These were not crazy notions. The encouragement of international peace through commerce reprises the doux commerce thesis advanced by Montesquieu. And, indeed, most nation-states in the West began as relatively authoritarian governments and democratized as a middle class grew and saw political pluralism as necessary to protect its wealth.

But it is clear now that this policy has failed. China is not living up to its agreement in Hong Kong, but instead is moving to destroy its freedoms. It oppresses Uighurs because their religious faith and cultural identity do not fit the communist party’s demand for uniformity. It continues to threaten Taiwan and recently dropped “peaceful” from its policy of reunification with the island. It is building artificial islands in international waters in the South China Sea to project its power throughout the region. It has launched attacks on neighboring India in the Himalayas. It has engaged in industrial espionage and hacked into United States government personnel files. Domestically, it is becoming more authoritarian and less tolerant of dissent. It has entrenched the Communist Party’s power under a single leader, Xi Jinping.

It is hard to know exactly what went wrong, but the basic difference between previous historical examples of authoritarian transformation and China is that the latter is a communist regime. Domestically, the Communist Party has been in a better position to crack down on civil society than monarchs or dictators of previous ages, and a vibrant civil society may be a necessary dynamo for an evolving democracy. China also did not have as independent a corporate sector that pressed for a more quiescent foreign policy to advance economic objectives.

If the previous policy toward China failed, are we in for a new Cold War, as suggested recently by Rep. Mike Gallagher in the Wall Street Journal? The original Cold War was a great success, though fraught with peril. It helped defeat the Soviet Union and liberate subject nations under Soviet domination. Except for the imprudent intervention in Vietnam, it was fought through legal mechanisms, international institutions, military build-up, and ideological assertiveness. Ultimately, we won because we had a more prosperous and otherwise attractive society than the Soviet Union: the evil empire could no longer command even the modicum of allegiance needed to survive.

It seems sadly clear that the United States is not in nearly as good a position to wage a successful Cold War against China today. Let us begin with some of the institutions that helped win the Cold War for the United States. One was freer trade, like that constituted by the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. This institution increased economic growth and strengthened the bonds between the nations that opposed the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, however, the United States gave up on the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2017. This agreement would have created a free trade zone among nations of the Pacific, many of which are crucial allies against a rising China. Donald Trump refused to ratify the agreement, but the failure was bipartisan. During the campaign, Hilary Clinton came out against an agreement she herself had helped negotiate! The United States now cannot make important new trade agreements even when the reasons are as compellingly geopolitical as they are economic.

Immigration policy was also a powerful tool of the Cold War. Congress passed the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the Trade Act of 1974, making trade relations with the Soviet Union dependent on permitting emigration from the Soviet Union to the United States. It also granted refugee status to Jewish emigrants. Senator Henry (Scoop) Jackson thought that “if people could vote with their feet, governments would have to acknowledge that and governments would have to make for their citizens a life that would keep them there.”

Our economic growth rate has fallen. We have experienced great civil unrest. The nation is polarized into tribes. We seem more divided and internally weak than we were for most of the Cold War.

Today, one such method of ideological combat would be to offer refugee status to those fleeing Hong Kong. In addition, we could permit the many Chinese students at our universities to stay on, should they choose, so long as we scrutinized them for any possible ties to Chinese security agencies. One aspect of a modern cold war is the battle for talent. But it seems doubtful that the United States could pursue such bold immigration policies, mired as we are in debates over illegal immigration.

Control over the wireless network is another example of technological competition where the United States seems to be failing. Huawei, a company responsive to the Chinse government, is the leading contender to build 5G systems all over the world. So far, the United States has not succeeded in discouraging key allies (including, until very recently, the UK) from using the company. Incredibly, the Federal Trade Commission is pursuing an antitrust complaint against Qualcomm that our own Justice Department says will entrench Huawei’s power. In 2020 we seem unable to bring together our own agencies to pursue a coherent policy of containment, let alone pressure other nations to do so.

The United States also seems incapable of forging a geopolitical strategy to contain China. In response to the danger of the Soviet Union, Nixon made an opening to China to forge a tacit alliance of convenience. Today, a carefully deliberated modus vivendi toward Russia seems necessary on the same grounds. But neither of our political parties is moving toward this goal in a sensible way. President Trump wants to invite Russia to the G-7 and cut troop levels in Europe without demanding concessions from Russia first. The foreign policy establishment, reflected in Democratic Party policy, wants simply to crank up sanctions on Russia, not seeming to recognize that this declining nation, while no more a reliable friend than China was in the 1970s, is no longer our principal adversary.

But even these individual policy failures, as problematic as they are, do not capture how much worse the position of the United States is vis-à-vis China today than it was vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. Most importantly, China is no Soviet Union. The Soviet Union had a command-and-control economy that utterly failed to satisfy the basic needs, let alone the economic aspirations, of its people. This failure was at the root of its implosion. China is substantially open to the market with very high growth rates. Although these growth rates will slow, there is currently no prospect of economic stagnation, much less collapse.

The United States appears much more divided and internally weak than it was for most of the Cold War. Our economic growth rate has fallen. We have experienced this summer the greatest civil unrest since the 1960s. The nation is polarized into tribes. That is one of the principal reasons why we would have difficulty sustaining the kind of policies that made for winning the last cold war.

To be sure, the 1960s was also a turbulent time. But there was an optimism then that giving equal rights to all in a liberal society would move us toward social harmony. There is no such optimism today.

In short, the contest is not between a sclerotic Soviet Union and a prosperous United States confident of its founding principles of liberty. Rather, it is between a China that combines the market with despotic social control and a nation divided by the politics of identity. Deng Xiaoping famously told his comrades to act cautiously in foreign policy in the 1980s: “Hide your strength, bide your time.” Sadly, it seems to have been wise advice not only because China has become much stronger, but because America has grown substantially weaker.

Reader Discussion

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on July 23, 2020 at 10:01:52 am


This addition of Imprimis from Hillsdale addresses these concerns as the atheist materialist over population alarmist globalists continue to spread their error.

May Our Blessed Mother’s Life-affirming and Life-sustaining Immaculate Heart Triumph soon!

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on July 23, 2020 at 10:06:02 am

As to the causes of Red China's meteoric rise to its status as America's great Second Cold War adversary, Professor McGinnis says, "It is hard to know exactly what went wrong, but the basic difference between previous historical examples of authoritarian transformation and China is that the latter is a communist regime." Just for fact-check starters on the matter of McGinnis' "basic difference," I would note that the loser in the First Cold War was also a communist regime. So, no "basic difference there. And, another fact-check Pinnochio, Red China, like the Soviets, runs a command and control economy. The ChiComs simply use a different, more insidious and sophisticated, much more effective style of command and control.

But his errors of fact aside, my basic point is to dispute McGinnis' startling assertion that "It is hard to know exactly what went wrong." Eau contraire! We know precisely what went wrong. And McGinnis' laundry list of things that he says MIGHT have gone wrong omits what actually went wrong, which was admitting Red China into full status membership in the World Trade Organization and then, on top of that, granting Red special, most favored nation trade privileges with the U.S. and then opening our doors and with open arms inviting Red China into our national home, both of which opened the entire U.S. economy, all of its research universities and all of its most vital technologies and businesses to Red China's unrestrained piracy and both of which were catastrophic geo-political mistakes motivated by the financial greed of Wall Street and Silicon Valley, whose globalists leaders opportunistically exploited the incomparable diplomatic stupidity and unparalleled economic naivete while they funded the insatiable political greed of the presidents and the Congressional leadership of the Clinton, W. Bush and Obama Administrations.

Other things went awry, too. But that's really "what went wrong," really wrong; very, very wrong wrong, and America's business and political classes made it go wrong. Wall Street, Silicon Valley and Washington D.C. built Red China's Trojan Horse, placed it at the center of America's national security, gave it control of America's economic power and then watched the civic and financial damage pile up over decades across the land, as the globalists got richer, the politicians got re-elected, the working class and the middle class got savaged and Red China got stronger, and stronger and stronger, so that now Red China is an economic behemoth, a military juggernaut, a diplomatic adversary par excellence, and the gravest danger the U.S. has ever faced.

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on July 23, 2020 at 11:06:57 am

Damn. I am going to have to get up earlier if I am to beat Paladin to the Punch.
In any event, agreed on ALL Points especially on Silly-Con (man) Valley.
I would add that our Tax Laws actually incentivize the transfer of both our technology and our manufacturing prowess as research and development are treated better than is transfer to manufacturing which is quite expensive. Thus, the Bidens et al and their joint ventures with the hicomms that move technology offshore for manufacturing with the Chicomms (and elsewhere).
For those who are ideologically and unalterably opposed to an "industrial policy" - I repeat - "WE have one, ONLY we don;t know it" and it operates to our disadvantage.
I would suggest that Tax Policy be refocused to advantage manufacturing - ALL manufacturing.
Geez, I am going to have to get up before 5:00 a.m to make my cappucino, have a smoke and get here before Paladin. Ha!

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on July 23, 2020 at 11:50:12 am

Might I ask what you smoke when you "have a smoke?"
(No admissions against penal interests, please.)
If you're a true blue Fifties child and not a Boomer Brat who morphed from a gentle Jekyll of boyhood into the monster Hyde of the college Sixties, what you smoke might be "Call For Phee Lip Mor Ris!!" as seen on black and white TV. (Except they don't make those anymore.)
So, it's probably a fine cigar. Ahh, now there's a smoke with the smoke to cloud out the misery of politics and the aroma to make the stench of politics go away.

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on July 23, 2020 at 12:32:41 pm

As one who first enjoyed the pleasures of tobacco during the administration of Dwight Bloody David Eisenhower, I do recall the "Call" for Mr Morris as well as "Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco"
and have over many years sampled all of them. Now it is just a cigarette, cappucino (my own, of course) as i sit on the back pation and watch the squirrels dance and prance about seeking the goodies my wife leaves for them.
Simple pleasures and all that.

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on July 23, 2020 at 10:46:09 am

McGinnis is quite enamored of “free trade” that he fails to observe, or only nominally observes that such trade is not quite free. He also laments the failure of Free Trade to induce political changes in recalcitrant regimes such as the Chinese Communist dictatorship.
Gee, is there a connection? First, free trade as the Trans Pacific Partnership is reputed to be, is nothing but “unfree” saddled as it is with innumerable restrictions, set asides and non-economic considerations such as environmental mandates, wage minimums, etc etc.
It seems to me that a Free Trade Agreement (TPP or otherwise) ought not to exceed ONE PAGE and should simply state that no tariffs or trade barriers shall be imposed by the contracting parties (only partly facetious). When one reviews all recent trade agreements we find that there hundreds, if not thousands of carve-outs, set asides and other special considerations – most of which will be honored by the USA, and honored only in the breach by the other contracting parties.
To criticize The Trumpster for objecting to the continuance of these one-sided agreements is unfair and evidences an uncritical affection for trade at any cost. Again, this tendency to voluntarily hobble oneself, to sacrifice economic opportunity may be the result of a strong geopolitical need / conviction that trade, ANY trade may be sufficient to moderate the political and ideological propensities of our “partners”

Sadly, it has not been a successful strategy.

Moreover, the ChiComm economy is more of a command and control economy than McGinnis would have us believe. Both the Central Committee AND the Peoples Liberation Army *dictate* what areas of technology, consumer goods, etc are to be developed AND invested in and the Chinese banking system follows these directives. (Some studies, BTW, indicate that the Chinese Banking system is a house of cards and vastly overleveraged).
Additionally, as recent news indicates there is, as even McGinnis acknowledges a tendency toward deliberate, government directed / sponsored intellectual property theft along with government mandated trade agreements with individual Western corporations that DEMANDS that the Western corporation turn over its (heretofore) patent protected intellectual property. Further, the Chinese engineers hired by the Western corporations are encouraged (directed?) by the Party to *appropriate* as much intellectual property as is possible.
And in the area of academics, witness also the number of active agents deployed to American universities who have the dual objectives of harvesting as much information as they can and also “influencing” (bribing, supplementing the income of) certain academics.
This plan follows the practice of the Old Soviet Union as outlined in the book “The Spy who Changed History” which details the Soviets wildly successful espionage efforts directed against the USA starting in the early 1930’s.

Don’t we learn?
Well, apparently not. After all, we are more interested in FREE TRADE than we are in Fair Trade.
But, Yes, McGinnis is correct. We are in far worse position vis a vis the ChiComms than we were against the Soviets.
But as Don Henley of the Eagles sings in Hotel California:

“We are all just prisoners here
Of our own device.”

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on July 23, 2020 at 14:23:22 pm

I'm happy to sleep late and see what Paladin and Gabe have already offered. Good job by both.
So let point to a different angle about how this coming struggle is different from the prior Cold War. The last I checked, the population of the PRC was 94% Han Chinese. Within the 6% who are not Han, the lion's share are pretty much Sinicized: Manchu in the northeast, Mongols and Hui in the north, (where Hui are describe as "Chinese Moslems" -- pretty much the same ethnicity as Han, but with centuries of religious practice). There are some minor ethnic groups in the south, such as the Min, who are more related to Thai or other southeast Asian groups than to Han Chinese. Only in the far west are there 'troublesome' minority groups and religious practices: (Buddhist) Tibetans, and (Moslem) Uighur, Tadzhik, and other Turkic groups.
Without getting into the ongoing problems in those regions, the flip side is that everywhere else it is a very unified culture, with a strong belief in, among many other things, their own inherent superiority. It is a racism which we seldom speak of, but it is the 'glue'. Russia, the USSR and the whole Eastern Bloc were never so homogeneous as China.
Some of the differences within the Soviet realm which eventually became the fracture lines are simply not present in China, so that makes it a very different opponent. On the other hand, its neighbors all have reason to fear and distrust it. Which suggests that 'free trade', TPP, or whatever, is rather trivial, even a distraction, in the big picture of how the rest of the world can and must stand up to it. This is not, at root, a competition between different economic systems. It is about the fundamental nature of free humans in society.

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on July 23, 2020 at 14:45:48 pm

“It was once a common assumption of American foreign policy that, through open trade and good relations, the United States could integrate communist China into the peace-loving, rule-bound family of commercial nations. It was also widely thought that commerce and economic growth would help China evolve domestically to a more democratic and rights-based system. These were not crazy notions.”
Professor McGinnis,

This would be an excellent essay if you began with a strong statement on why communism cannot be reconciled with capitalism, because communism is neither a democratic or rights based system economically or politically.

Communism can never be reconciled with “open trade and good relationships”, as atheistic materialistic over population alarmism, is not Good for China or the World. Communism could never evolve into a human rights based form of government unless every element of communism is transformed through affirming the inherent Dignity of every human person from the moment of conception until natural death,
so that communism, in essence, no longer exists.

I still believe The Chinese Government should be forced to pay reparations for the physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual harm that resulted from Covid 19 being released outside the lab, even if they are able to demonstrate that the virus escaped accidentally, while providing evidence, in a Court Of Law, as to what pathogens were being studied, natural or man made, in the various Bio labs in China, and for what purpose.

Commerce and economic growth could still help China evolve domestically to a more democratic and rights-based system, if the people of China desire a government that first and foremost respects the unalienable Right to Life, to Liberty, and to The Pursuit of Happiness Endowed to every human person at the moment they were created and brought into being at conception. Chinese lives matter, because all human life matters, and because all human life matters, we must protect innocent human life, from those who desire to do us harm.

Pray for a Miracle for the innocent people of China that their unalienable Right to Life, to Liberty, and to The Pursuit of Happiness, as God Intended, will prevail.

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on July 23, 2020 at 15:17:51 pm

Good insight by CMCC re Red China's cultural homogeneity with small fracture lines of ethnicity contrasted with the giant dichotomy between us and them on conceptions of human rights, a divide that influences but does not define our economic differences. The cloud of Confucianism is used cynically as a screen to mask the fundamentally-opposed conceptions of human rights. Yet, it is interesting that the CCP is most paranoid about the risk of political disintegration via religious and ethnic heterogeneity. That says volumes about the political power of religion and ethnicity.

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on July 24, 2020 at 17:18:25 pm

Comes news today that the ChiComms have (surprise, surprise) inserted code into the software on DJI (Chicomm company doubtless supported by the government and / or the PLA) drones sold in the United States that sends back information presumably on users to Chinese servers. What and where else has such code been inserted?
Care to guess what tricks these buggers have in store for users of Huawei's 5G?

But, hey, what the heck? all in the spirit of Free Trade and enhancing shareholder value (read: increase value of Mgmt stock options).

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on July 24, 2020 at 19:03:08 pm

We are Americans. We fight back. We can come greatly to the aid of our country even by taking small steps, like boycotting all products made in Red China and by boycotting U.S. entities beholden to Red China like the NBA and Hollywood movie productions and by boycotting Nike which relies on slave labor and Google which cooperates with Red China's surveillance of its citizen and by boycotting the NFL and MLB which encourage unpatriotic, anti-American behavior by their players and by boycotting U.S. corporations which fund the un-American, revolutionary, violent, racist Black Lives Matter.

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Image of paladin
on July 29, 2020 at 05:44:05 am

Off topic: Where's Mike Rappaport? Haven't heard from him in a while. Hope all is well.

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Image of nobody.really
on August 15, 2020 at 10:05:14 am

He came out of hiding last week to whine about Chiafalo and faithless electors, so we know he's still at his cobbler's lathe making sabots to clog the works of living constitutionalism and, now, living originalism.

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