Ukraine the China Challenge and the West Revival

The Cold War Never Ended | Foreign Affairs 4/11/22, 1:52 PM Page 1 of 24
!e Cold War Never Ended
Ukraine, the China Challenge, and the Revival of the
Does anyone have a right to be surprised? A gangster regime in the
Kremlin has declared that its security is threatened by a much smaller
neighborwhich, the regime claims, is not a truly sovereign country but
just a plaything of far more powerful Western states. To make itself more
secure, the Kremlin insists, it needs to bite o! some of its neighbors
territory. Negotiations between the two sides break down; Moscow invades.
“e year was 1939. “e regime in the Kremlin was led by Joseph Stalin, and
the neighboring country was Finland. Stalin had o!ered to swap territory
with the Finns: he wanted Finnish islands to use as forward military bases
in the Baltic Sea, as well as control of most of the Karelian Isthmus, the
stretch of land at the southern end of which sat Leningrad. In exchange, he
o!ered an expansive but boggy forest in Soviet Karelia, bordering Finland
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far to the north of the isthmus. To Stalins surprise, despite serial
modi#cations of his original demands, the Finns rejected the deal. Finland,
a country of around four million people with a small army, spurned the
Soviet colossus, an imperial power with 170 million people and the worlds
largest military force.
“e Soviets invaded, but Finnish #ghters stalled the poorly planned and
executed Soviet attack for months, administering a black eye to the Red
Army. “eir resistance captured imaginations in the West; British Prime
Minister Winston Churchill and other European leaders hailed gallant
Finland. But the admiration remained rhetorical: Western powers did not
send weapons, let alone intervene militarily. In the end, the Finns kept their
honor but lost a grinding war of attrition, ceding more territory than Stalin
had initially demanded. Soviet casualties exceeded those of the Finns, and
Stalin embarked on a belated top-to-bottom reorganization of the Red
Army. Adolf Hitler and the German high command concluded that the
Soviet military was not ten feet tall, after all.
Now $ash forward. A despot in the Kremlin has once again authorized an
invasion of yet another small country, expecting it to be quickly overrun. He
has been expounding about how the West is in decline and imagines that
although the decadent Americans and their stooges might whine, none of
them will come to the aid of a small, weak country. But the despot has
miscalculated. Encased in an echo chamber, surrounded by sycophants, he
has based his strategic calculations on his own propaganda. “e West, far
from shrinking from the #ght, rallies, with the United States decisively in
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the lead.
“e year was 1950. Stalin was still in power, but this time, the small country
in question was South Korea, invaded by North Korean forces after he gave
the despot in Pyongyang, Kim Il Sung, a green light. To Stalins surprise,
the United States formed an international military coalition, supported by a
UN resolution; the Soviets, boycotting the UN Security Council, had failed
to exercise their veto. UN forces landed on the southern tip of the Korean
Peninsula and drove the North Koreans all the way to the Chinese border.
Stalin, aided by Washingtons failure to heed its own intelligent reports,
e!ectively managed to shunt his blunder onto the Chinese leader Mao
Zedong. Chinas Peoples Liberation Army intervened in huge numbers,
surprising the U.S. commander, and drove the U.S.-led coalition back to the
line that had divided the North and the South before the Norths
aggression, resulting in a costly stalemate.
And now to the present. Stalin and the Soviet Union are long gone, of
course. In their place are Vladimir Putin, a far lesser despot, and Russia, a
second-rank, albeit still dangerous, power, which inherited the Soviet
Unions doomsday arsenal, UN veto, and animus toward the West. In
February, when Putin chose to invade Ukraine, dismissing its sovereignty
and disparaging the country as a pawn in the hands of Russias enemies, he
was expecting an international response like the one Stalin witnessed when
invading Finland in 1939: noise from the sidelines, disunity, inaction. So far,
however, the war in Ukraine has engendered something closer to what
happened in South Korea in 1950although this time, the Europeans
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were ahead of the Americans. Putins aggressionand, crucially, the
heroism and ingenuity of the Ukrainian people, soldiers and civilians alike,
and the resolve and savvy demonstrated by Ukraines president, Volodymyr
Zelenskyspurred a dormant West to action. “e Ukrainians, like the
Finns, have kept their honor. But this time, so has the West.
What these parallels show is not that history repeats itself or rhymes; the
point, rather, is that the history made in those earlier eras is still being
made today. Eternal Russian imperialism leaps out as the easiest
explanation, as if there were some sort of innate cultural proclivity toward
aggression. “ere is not. Conversely, however, it would also be simplistic to
see Russias invasion as a mere reaction to Western imperialism, whether in
the form of NATO or its expansion, when the pattern long predates
“ese recurring episodes of Russian aggression, for all their di!erences,
re$ect the same geopolitical trap, one that Russian rulers have set for
themselves again and again. Many Russians view their country as a
providential power, with a distinct civilization and a special mission in the
world, but Russias capabilities do not match its aspirations, and so its rulers
resort, time and again, to a hyperconcentration of power in the state in a
coercive e!ort to close the yawning gap with the West. But the drive for a
strong state does not work, invariably devolving into personalist rule. “e
combination of weakness and grandeur, in turn, drives the autocrat to
exacerbate the very problem that facilitated his appearance. After 1991,
when the gap with the West widened radically, Russias perpetual
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geopolitics endured, as I argued in these pages in 2016. It will persist until
Russian rulers make the strategic choice to abandon the impossible quest to
become a great-power equal of the West and choose instead to live
alongside it and focus on Russias internal development.
All of this explains why the original Cold Wars end was a mirage. “e
events of 198991 were consequential, just not as consequential as most
observersmyself includedtook them to be. During those years,
Germany reuni#ed within the transatlantic alliance, and Russian power
su!ered a sharp temporary reductionoutcomes that, with Moscows
subsequent withdrawal of troops, freed up small eastern European countries
to adopt democratic constitutional orders and market economies and join
the West in the EU and NATO. “ose events transformed the lives of the
people in the countries between Germany and Russia and in those two
historical frenemies themselves, but they changed the world far less. A
reuni#ed Germany largely remained a nonfactor geopolitically, at least until
the weeks after the invasion of Ukraine, when Berlin adopted a far more
assertive posture, at least for the moment. Parts of eastern Europe, such as
Hungary and Poland, which happened to be among the biggest losers in
the world wars and their peace settlements, started to show illiberal streaks
and in this way con#rmed limitations in the EUs framework. Although the
radical diminution in the size of the Russian state has mostly held (so far),
the collapse of Russian power was hardly permanent, just as it was not after
the Treaty of Versailles of 1919. “e Wests relatively brief respite from
great-power competition with Russia constituted a historical blink of an
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All the while, the Korean Peninsula remained divided, and China remained
communist and continues to insist on its claim to the self-governing
democratic island of Taiwan, including the right to forcibly unify it with
the mainland. Well beyond Asia, ideologically tinged rivalries and
resistance to American power and the Wests professed ideals persist.
Above all, the potential for nuclear Armageddon, among the Cold Wars
de#ning aspects, also persists. To argue that the Cold War ended, in other
words, is to reduce that con$ict to the existence of the Soviet state.
To be sure, far-reaching structural changes have occurred since 1991, and
not just in technology. China had been the junior partner in the antiWestern alternative order; now, Russia is in that position. More broadly, the
locus of great-power competition has shifted to the Indo-Paci#c, a change
that began gradually during the 1970s and quickened in the early years of
this century. But the foundations for that shift were laid during World
War II and built up during the Cold War.
From a geopolitical standpoint, the historical hinge of the late twentieth
century was located less in 198991 than in 1979. “at was the year that
the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping normalized relations with the United
States and began the Chinese Communist Partys acquiescence in
economic liberalization, which exponentially expanded Chinas economy
and global power. In the same year, political Islam came to power in Iran in
a revolution whose in$uence reverberated beyond that country, thanks
partly to the U.S. organization of Islamist resistance to the Soviet invasion
of Afghanistan. Around the same time, amid the depths of stag$ation and
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social anomie, the Reagan-“atcher revolution launched a renewal of the
Anglo-American sphere with an emphasis on free markets, which ignited
decades of growth and would eventually force the political left back to the
center, with the advent of Tony Blairs New Labour in the United Kingdom
and Bill Clintons New Democrats in the United States. “is remarkable
combinationa market-Leninist China, political Islam in power, and a
revived Westreshaped the globe more profoundly than anything since the
postwar transformations of Germany and Japan and the consolidation of
the U.S.-led West.
“e mistaken belief that the Cold War ended with the dissolution of the
Soviet Union spurred some fateful foreign policy choices in Washington.
Believing that the ideological contest had been settled de#nitively in their
favor, most American policymakers and thinkers shifted away from seeing
their country as the bedrock of the West, which is not a geographic location
but a concatenation of institutions and valuesindividual liberty, private
property, the rule of law, open markets, political dissentand which
encompasses not only western Europe and North America but also
Australia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and many other places, as well. In
place of the concept of the West, many American elites embraced a vision
of a U.S.-led liberal international order, which could theoretically
integrate the entire worldincluding societies that did not share Western
institutions and valuesinto a single, globalized whole.
Fever dreams of a limitless liberal order obscured the stubborn persistence
of geopolitics. “e three ancient civilizations of EurasiaChina, Iran, and
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Russiadid not suddenly vanish, and by the 1990s, their elites had clearly
demonstrated that they had no intention of participating in one-worldism
on Western terms. To the contrary, China took advantage of its integration
into the global economy without ful#lling its economic obligations, let
alone liberalizing its political system. Iran embarked on an ongoing quest to
blow up its neighborhood in the name of its own securityunwittingly
assisted by the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Russian elites chafed at the absorption
into the West of former Soviet satellites and republics, even as many
Russian government o%cials availed themselves of the money-laundering
services provided by top Western #rms. Eventually, the Kremlin rebuilt the
wherewithal to push back. And nearly two decades ago, China and Russia
began developing an anti-Western partnership of mutual grievancein
broad daylight.
“ese events precipitated a debate about whether there should or should
not be (or whether there already is) a new cold war, one that primarily pits
Washington against Beijing. Such handwringing is beside the point; this
con$ict is hardly new.
“e next iteration of the great global contest is likely to revolve around Asia
partly because, to a degree that is underappreciated by many Western
observers, the last two did, as well. Correcting that misperception, at least
when it comes to World War II, is part of the historian Richard Overys
mission in his latest book, Blood and Ruins, which seeks to shift perspectives
on the war and the postwar era by calling more attention to Asia. ”e
Asian war and its consequences, he observes, were as important to the
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creation of the post-war world as the defeat of Germany in Europe,
arguably more so.
Some of Overys arguments read like self-admonishments: the Eurocentric
chronology dating the onset of World War II to 1939 is no longer useful;
the war should be understood as a global event, rather than one con#ned
to the defeat of the European Axis states with the Paci#c War as an
appendix; the con$ict needs to be rede#ned as a number of di!erent
kinds of war, including civil wars fought alongside the major military
con$ict . . . and civilian wars, fought either as wars of liberation against an
occupying power (including the Allies) or as wars of civilian self-defence.
Less conventional for a scholar of Asian or global history is his principal
argument that the long Second World War was the last imperial war. “is
contention turns out to clash, however, with his welcome call for greater
emphasis on Asia.
Overy sets out his imperialism framework by noting the various major wars
before 1914, such as the Sino-Japanese clash of 189495, and approvingly
quotes Stalin to the e!ect that a crisis of capitalism intensi#ed [the]
struggle for markets and that extreme economic nationalism put war on
the order of the day as a means for a new redivision of the world and of
spheres of in$uence. Overy does not dwell on the fact that Stalin himself
sought to forcibly divide the world into hierarchical spheres of in$uence,
albeit ones unrelated to market access. And despite his emphasis on
imperialism and his call for a spotlight on Asia, his opening chapters
furnish a familiarly Hitler-centric picture of interwar diplomacy and the
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onset of World War II, his chief subject. He does take a run at a kind of
revisionism, recasting British appeasement as containment combined with
deterrence, even though the arms buildup carried out by London was too
slow and the supposed containment lacked credibility. He disregards the
1939 nonaggression pact between Hitler and Stalin, as if the Soviet Union
was not involved in the outbreak of the war.
In any case, for the millions of Asians caught up in the con$agration, the
war had little to do with Hitler or Stalin or British Prime Minister Neville
Chamberlain, and everything to do with Japan and its clash with the
United States, which Overy relegates to a secondary position in his
narrative. He also has di%culty demonstrating the imperial nature of the
belligerent armies. “e only country that #elded a large-scale imperial army
was the United Kingdom; the British dominions mobilized 2.6 million
soldiers, and India 2.7 million more. But they were deployed primarily
outside the main theaters.
Overys book takes $ight, however, when it turns to logistics, production,
and mechanics. Overy demonstrates, for example, that what today is called
modern warfare bears little resemblance to the mid-twentieth-century
version of industrialized con$ict. During World War II, the combatants
mostly produced weapons of relative simplicity in prodigious volume,
because they had to be operated by the more than 100 million uniformed
men and women thrown into combat with comparatively little training. In
contrast with many histories of the war, Overy eschews the drama of great
tank battles and instead conveys the stupefying loss of nearly all the tanks
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produced by the combatants. “is is a history not of generalship but of
unfathomable deprivation, atrocities, and genocide.
It is also a compelling story of organization. Overy illuminates how the
sensational initial breakthroughs that the Axis powers achieved had
inherent limitsbut also how their defeat was not foreordained. ”e Axis
states all had space rather than time, and it was space that slowed down
their advance and brought them to a halt in 1942, he writes, adding that
the Allies were no nearer invading the Japanese, German, or Italian
homelands in 1942, but they now had the time and the global reach to
work out how to reorganize and improve their military capability so that
they were in a position to do so over the last two years of war. “e slog to
victory meant learning the hard way how to #ght better and develop the
full means to do so. Overy shows how the Soviets painfully absorbed the
lessons of German tank warfare and eventually emulated the Nazis
prowess, revolutionizing standardized tank production despite a massive
loss of territory, physical infrastructure, and laborers. “e British,
meanwhile, underwent their own grind to mimic German air warfare and
overhaul their air $eet. Admittedly, Overy is less incisive on how the
Americans confronted the most confounding task of all, learning how to
#ght on oceans, while building out the worlds largest and most advanced
navy and air force. Still, he rightly concludes that Allied military
establishments became what the organizational theorist Trent Hone has
described as complex adaptive systems, in which the learning curvea
term coined in 1936could be worked through.
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Ultimately, the war was won not predominantly on the eastern front, where
the Red Army su!ered unfathomable casualties to annihilate the
Wehrmacht, but on the seas and in the air. “e United Kingdom and the
United States deliberately destroyed the ability of Germany and Japan to
produce the weapons of war and to transport them to the front. By 1944,
only a minority of the war-making potential of Germany and Japan could
even be put into battle. “e value to Japan of its vast overseas conquests,
with their prodigious natural resources, disappeared once U.S. forces wiped
out Japanese merchant shipping. In Germany, even when factories managed
to relocate their production (usually belowground), the hasty dispersals
introduced higher rates of defects and took workers away from critical
manufacturing tasks.
Rather than highlight these Allied achievements, however, Overy
emphasizes the costs of the Anglo-American denial strategy. He does note
that the Soviet Union did not have the means to engage in systematic
economic warfare and that Germanys attempted ocean blockade of the
United Kingdom sputtered, a re$ection of Germanys failure to invest
su%ciently in submarines until it was too late. But in the end, he
concludes, volume-production and the sharing of military goods proved to
be the surer economic contribution to victory. Needless to say, production
and destruction were two sides of the same coin. Overy himself highlights
the massive investments in air and naval power to control sea-lanes and
mount assaults at a distance and demonstrates the degree to which the Axis
powers launched the war to preempt the Allies attempt to deny them
access to indispensable raw materials, such as oil and rare metals, which the
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Axis powers did not control. “e leaders of Germany and Japan were
mesmerized by the unparalleled resources and interdiction capabilities of
the British Empire and the continental United States, as well as the
sprawling Soviet Union. “ey felt compelled to #ght a war in order to be
able to #ght a war.
Overys understanding of empire evinces a pronounced political hue. He
suggests, for example, that the postwar Soviet occupation of and coercive
imposition of clone regimes in eastern Europe did not constitute
imperialism and that British imperialism could be equated with Axis
conquests and plundering. As one Japanese o%cial complained, he writes,
why was it regarded as morally acceptable for Britain to dominate India,
but not for Japan to dominate China? But not all domination is alike. “e
British, for all their per#dy, including misgovernance contributing to the
1943 Bengal famine, did not obliterate Indias infrastructure, strafe and
shell Indian civilians, coerce millions of Indians into sex slavery, or carry out
gruesome scienti#c experiments on humansall of which the Japanese did
to Asians in China. Overy further implies that the United Kingdoms
single-minded aim in 1945 to recover Malaya and Hong Kong di!ered
little from Japans objective to seize and occupy them; in fact, many Asians
who rejected British rule could tell the di!erence between it and Japans
For all his focus on British imperialism, moreover, Overy fails to recount
the enormously consequential British recapture of Hong Kong, which the
United Kingdom had controlled for a century prior to Japans seizure of the
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territory in 1941. In a book purporting to shift the focus to Asia, he might
have credibly made the case that in geopolitical terms, Hong Kongs fate
was more important than that of, say, Poland. Arguably, with the exception
of the Soviet capture of Berlin in May 1945 and the stern telegram that
U.S. President Harry Truman sent to Stalin in August of that year warning
him not to invade Hokkaido (one of Japans four main islands), the physical
reoccupation of Hong Kong by the British in 1945 exceeded any other
wartime episode in its strategic implications.
When Japans surrender suddenly appeared imminent in the summer of
1945, surprising Washington, the Truman administration hastily
accelerated work on a plan for the hand-over of Japanese-occupied
territories and assigned the acceptance of Japans surrender of Hong Kong
not to the British but to Chiang Kai-sheks Chinese Nationalist
government. “e British, however, undertook furious military and political
preparations to reclaim Hong Kong for themselves. U.S. o%cials wanted to
satisfy their British allies but also allow Chiang to save face, and so they
cleverly suggested that the British could accept the surrender on behalf of
the Chinese government. But the British refused that o!er, and eventually,
Washington acquiesced. Chiang acquiesced as well, dependent as he was on
U.S. military and logistical support to reclaim other areas of China. “e
upshot was that Hong Kong passed from the Japanese back to the British
and remained that way even after 1949, when the Communists triumphed
over Chiangs Nationalists in the Chinese Civil War but shrank from
attempting to expel the British from the strategic southern port.
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Had the British acquiesced rather than the Americans and Chiang, history
would have played out very di!erently. As it was, the communist regime in
Beijing was able to take extraordinary advantage of something it would not
otherwise have possessed: a world-class international #nancial center
governed by the rule of law. During the period of Dengs reforms, British
Hong Kong ended up funneling indispensable foreign direct investment
into mainland communist Chinafrom Japan and Taiwan, especially.
People often ask why Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, when attempting
to reenergize the Soviet economy in the second half of the 1980s, did not
follow the successful Chinese approach to reforms. Beyond the immense
gulf between a highly urbanized, heavily industrialized country and a
predominantly rural, agricultural one, the Soviet Union had no Hong Kong
to attract and direct incoming investment according to market, rather than
political, considerations. No British Hong Kong, no Chinese miracle.
Hong Kong reverted to Beijings control only in 1997, under an agreement
announced by China and the United Kingdom in 1984. Under the one
country, two systems arrangement, the Chinese Communist Party agreed
to allow Hong Kong to maintain a level of autonomy, democratic rule, and
civil liberties, at least until 2047. But Chinese President Xi Jinping has
made a mockery of his countrys treaty promises. “e logic of communist
rule has spurred a vicious and self-defeating crackdown on Hong Kongs
independent sources of wealth, power, and liberty, all of which has
threatened the Communist Partys monopoly on power.
Such instances of Chinese imperialism do not #t easily into Overys end-
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of-imperialism story line. And Hong Kong is hardly the only place to have
been on the receiving end. After all, communist China inherited the Qing
dynastys multiethnic empire. In 1950 and 1951, the Communists occupied
Tibet, which had been self-governing since 1912. Stalin had supported
Muslim separatists in the predominantly Uyghur region of Xinjiang during
and after the war, but in 1949, he advised the Chinese Communists to
encourage Han settlement there. “e goal was to bring Xinjiangs ethnic
Chinese population up to 30 percent from #ve percent so as to foster
development and strengthen Chinas grip. In 2020, according to that years
census, Han Chinese made up 42 percent of Xinjiangs population. A 2018
UN report, whose #ndings have been corroborated by copious open-source
satellite imagery, indicated that Beijing has incarcerated at least one million
Uyghurs in reeducation and forced-labor camps.
Ethnic tensions were not the only di%culty that faced communist China
after its successful military occupation of and legalization of its rule over a
swath of what is known as Inner Asia, a region that spans from Tibet to
Turkmenistan. “e terrain itself was forbidding: deserts, mountains, and
high plateaus. Nor did it o!er China anything equivalent to the American
West Coast. China has no California. Today, Beijing is trying to acquire
something of an ersatz California to gain access to the Indian Ocean via
the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea by extending Chinese infrastructure
into volatile Pakistan and Myanmar. But this is no substitute for the real
thing, a second coast that provides both an immense security moat and an
invaluable commercial highway; California represents the #fth-largest
economy in the world by GDP. Lacking anything like it is by far Chinas
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biggest strategic de#cit.
Asia has cast a harsh light on a number of Americans celebrated for their
grand statesmanship in Europe and the Soviet Union: the envoy George
Marshall and his failed mission to China to reconcile Chiangs Nationalists
and Maos Communists; the diplomat George Kennan and his ignored
recommendations to abandon the Nationalists and to launch a U.S. military
invasion of Taiwan that would deny it to both the Nationalists and the
Communists; Secretary of State Dean Acheson and his exclusion of the
Korean Peninsula from the U.S. defense perimeter. Stalin, more than U.S.
policymakers, feared the competitive weight of China, which after his
death, in 1953, vied for supremacy within the communist bloc (and across
what was then called the “ird World). Many analysts blame Clinton for
naively encouraging communist Chinas accession to the World Trade
Organization without proper conditionality or reciprocity. Fair enough. But
one could just as well point the #nger at President Jimmy Carter for
restoring most favored nation status to China, a nonmarket economy with
a totalitarian regime.
In truth, the original source of the endemic U.S. fumbling over modern
China was President Franklin Roosevelt. “e wartime leader had a vague
intuition about Chinas signi#cance in the postwar world he envisioned, but
he e!ectively gave up on China, even as he elevated its status by making it
one of the four countries (eventually #ve) that wielded veto power at
the Security Council in the newly formed United Nations. Churchill was
apoplectic over Roosevelts notion that China should be a!orded the role of
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a great power (a mere a!ectation on Beijings part, in the British prime
ministers view). As Overy recalls, the United States distributed some $800
million in aid to China between 1945 and 1948 (the equivalent of more
than $10 billion in todays dollars), trained 16 divisions of the Nationalist
governments army and assisted another 20, and provided some 80 percent
of Chiangs military equipment, before disengaging from Chinas civil war.
By pursuing his communist and anti-Western convictions, Mao imposed
bellicose clarity on the confused bilateral relationship, and although
Americans debated the question, Who lost China? for decades after,
under Mao, China lost the United States. Today, more than 40 years after
the two countries normalized relations, Xi risks doing much the same.
Where the world is now, however, is not a place it has ever been. For the
#rst time in history, China and the United States are great powers
simultaneously. China had long been the worlds preeminent country when
the 13 American colonies broke free from the United Kingdom. Over the
next nearly two centuries, as the United States ascended to become the
worlds largest economy and greatest power known to history, China not
coincidentally entered a long, dark tunnel of external and especially internal
depredations. “at ended as the two countries became intertwined in
profound ways. “at process had less to do with U.S. President Richard
Nixons kowtowing to Mao, aiming at widening the wedge that Beijing had
opened with Moscow, than with Dengs historic decision to ditch the
Soviets, don a cowboy hat during a 1979 visit to Texas, and hitch Chinas
wagon to the insatiable American consumer market, following the trail that
had been so spectacularly blazed by Japan, then South Korea and Taiwan.
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In the 1990s, Chinese President Jiang Zemin recuperated a vital
relationship with a jilted Russia and its military-industrial complex, while
retaining Chinas strategic orientation toward the United States, allowing
Beijing to have its cake and eat it, too.
But regimes in Eurasia have a way of reminding the United States and its
allies, no matter how deep they have sunk into delusions, about what
matters and why. U.S. President Donald Trump exhibited strongman envy
and only wanted to cut trade deals, but his presidency spurred a remarkable
shift to a hawkish national consensus on China, which has endured the
advent of the Biden administration even though many members of
President Joe Bidens team served in the all-too-submissive Obama
administration. Putins invasion of Ukraine and Xis evident complicity, in
turn, shook Europe out of its dependence on Russian energy and its tradeabove-all complacency about China and its leader. “e view is now
widespread that Putin cannot be allowed to triumph in Ukraine not only
for the sake of Ukraine and Europe but also for the sake of the Asian
strategy that the United States is pursuing with its allies. Moscow is now a
pariah, and business as usual with Beijing is no longer tenable. Going
forward, nothing is more important than Western unity on both China and
Russia. “is is where the Biden administration has taken an important step
forward, despite its fumbles in the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the
rollout of the AUKUS security pact.
In China, the lean toward Russia is not solely Xis. Chinese nationalistsin
the broader public, among experts, and in ruling circlesardently blame
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NATO and the United States for the war in Ukraine. “ey urge China to
draw even closer to Russia. “ese hard-line Chinese want Russia to win,
because they want their country to take over Taiwan and believe that the
United States will violate any international norm in the pursuit of
dominance. Still, some Chinese elites have noted the degree to which
Western intelligence agencies have managed to penetrate Putins regime,
the ease with which Russia was severed from the global #nancial system,
and the ways that a despot in a sycophantic echo chamber can miscalculate
in shattering fashion. Maybe allowing one man to turn an authoritarian
system that was bene#ting myriad interest groups into a personalist #efdom
that risks everything isnt such a good idea, after all.
Still, whereas Stalin maneuvered to fob o! his Korean War blunder onto
Mao and the Chinese rank-and-#le cannon fodder, in the war in Ukraine,
Xi has so far allowed Putin and Russian soldiers to pay the costs of
attempting to accelerate the Wests supposed decline and what the Chinese
leader repeatedly refers to as great changes unseen in a century.
In fact, the West has rediscovered its manifold power. Transatlanticism has
been pronounced dead again and again, only to be revived again and again,
and perhaps never more forcefully than this time. Even the most
committed liberal internationalists, including some in the Biden
administration, are coming to see that enduring rivalries constitute an
ongoing cold warthat the world as it is came into being not in 198991
but in the 1940s, when the greatest sphere of in$uence in history was
deliberately formed to counter the Soviet Union and Stalin. It is
The Cold War Never Ended | Foreign Affairs 4/11/22, 1:52 PM Page 21 of 24
fundamentally a voluntary sphere of in$uence that o!ers mutual prosperity
and peace, in contrast to the closed, coercive sphere pursued by Russia in
Ukraine and by China in its region and beyond.
Just as decisive are the less tangible qualities that allow the United States to
lead not an imaginary liberal international order but rather a nongeographic West. American leaders frequently err, but they can learn from
their mistakes. “e country has corrective mechanisms in the form of free
and fair elections and a dynamic market economy. “e United States and
its allies have strong institutions, robust civil societies, and independent and
free media. “ese are the advantages a!orded by being unashamedly and
unabashedly Westernadvantages that Americans should never take for
All three of the eruptions that began in 1979 have sputtered. Political Islam
long ago revealed its bankruptcy, nowhere more starkly than in Iran. Unable
to provide for the development of its economy or the well-being of its
people, the Islamic Republic survives through domestic repression, lies, and
the emigration of its opponents. China faces demographic problems and a
severe challenge to escape the , on top of the
manifest failures and impossible contradictions of its governance system.
“e Leninist regime in Beijing has ceased to be able to tolerate the now
vast private sector, whose dynamism is so vital for economic growth and job
creation yet so threatening to the regimes existence. And in the United
States and the United Kingdom, the Reagan-“atcher synthesis ran its
course, in part because some of its downsides grew over time, but mostly
The Cold War Never Ended | Foreign Affairs 4/11/22, 1:52 PM Page 22 of 24
because its successes altered and partly eliminated the conditions in which
it arose and operated. But whereas Islamism and market-Leninism cannot
foster systems that can reinvent themselves and still remain stable, history
indicates that with leadership and vision, a far-reaching renewal of Western
rule-of-law systems is possible. What Western countriesregardless of
where they areneed now is a new synthesis of substantially expanded
opportunity and a national political consensus.
Globally, the West is both envied and resented. In recent decades, Europe
and especially the United States have managed to diminish the envy and
magnify the resentment, from Latin America to Southeast Asia and lands
in between. “at dynamic needs to be reversed, but so far, it has only been
reinforced by the Western response to Russias aggression against Ukraine,
which in the short run has put wind in the sails of detractors who seize on
the Wests interventionist hypocrisy, self-serving approach to international
law, and excessive power.
It is seductive to single out Putin and Xi and imagine that individuals rise
almost accidentally to the top of major countries and that their removal
would solve the geopolitical challenges their regimes pose. Personalities
matter, of course, but systems have a way of selecting for certain types of
leaders. Eurasian landmass empires are weaker when compared to the
modern Anglo-American archetype of surpassing sea power, free trade with
other rich nations, and comparatively limited government. “e Allies
victory in World War II enabled that model to encompass not just western
Europe but part of central Europe, as welland, over time, the #rst island
The Cold War Never Ended | Foreign Affairs 4/11/22, 1:52 PM Page 23 of 24
chain in East Asia. China, too, became a trading power, free-riding on the
security supplied by the U.S. Navy, building its own navy to protect its
position only belatedly. Yet it still su!ers from some of the debilitations of a
Eurasian power: only one coast, for one, which is largely hemmed in,
notwithstanding its seizure and conversion into military installations of
coral reefs in the South China Sea. Overbearing states and their attempts at
coercive modernization are a backhanded compliment that Eurasia pays to
the West. Access to the U.S. and European consumer markets, high-end
technology transfers, control of the seas, reserve currencies, and secure
supplies of energy and rare metals remain decisive. As Overys book shows,
a quest for just that and the formation of self-su%cient blocs underlay the
run-up to the world wars, their character, and their aftermaths. He con$ates
this with empire and avers that World War II brought the hammer down
on the entire epoch of imperialism.
But empires come and go; blocs endure. Todays China is arguably pursuing
a strategy similar to the one that Nazi Germany and imperial Japan
adopted, albeit by all means short of war: to become blockade-proof and
sanctions-proof. And now, with Putin having provoked a siege of Russia, Xi
will redouble his e!orts.
Others will continue to debate whether great-power con$ict and security
dilemmas are unending. Yet the important point here is not theoretical but
historical: the contours of the modern world established by World War II
persisted right through the great turn of 1979 and the lesser turn of 1989
91. Whether the world has now reached another greater or lesser turning
The Cold War Never Ended | Foreign Affairs 4/11/22, 1:52 PM Page 24 of 24
Copyright 2022 by the Council on Foreign Relations, Inc.
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point depends in large measure on how the war in Ukraine plays out, and
on whether the West squanders its rediscovery of itself or consolidates it
through renewal.
STEPHEN KOTKIN is John P. Birkelund 52 Professor in History and International
Affairs at Princeton University and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at
Stanford University. He is the author of the forthcoming book Stalin: Totalitarian
Superpower, 19411990s, the last in his three-volume biography.

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