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Don't call this "Cold War II"
News of China's hypersonic missile tests is frightening. That doesn't mean we're in a "new cold war" -- it means we need a better name for what this really is.
With the news that China has conducted at least one hypersonic missile test and the peculiar response from the White House spokesperson that "We welcome stiff competition, but [...] we do not want that competition to veer into conflict", the punditry game of the hour is to ask "Are we entering a new cold war?".
■ A fixation on framing the problem in the convenient frameworks of the past is no way to seek the answers to the challenges of the present. This is not to say that history is of no use -- it most certainly is. But as Winston Churchill put it, "Past experience carries with its advantages the drawback that things never happen the same way again. Otherwise I suppose life would be too easy."
■ Just as it was a misnomer to classify World War II as a sequel to World War I, it would be a mistake to classify the power conflict between the United States and China as a mere repeat of the Cold War that defined half of the 21st Century. We need a different language altogether for what is already quite evidently underway: A low-grade, long-term, multi-dimensional class of friction between two powerful countries.
■ Dwight Eisenhower once recited what he called an "old truism" (attributed to Carl von Clausewitz) that "war is a mere continuation of political policy in the field of force." The Cold War indeed involved the "field of force" -- almost to the exclusion of any other effects that linger in memory today. The conflicts of the Cold War involved U-2 spyplanes and naval blockades, proxy wars and an Iron Curtain. The Soviet Union was thought to have spent 15% of its GDP on the military in the 1980s.
■ That conflict was big, and it was existential. It's why the mythical "red phone" offered a hotline from capital to capital. But this time, some things are different.
■ There are certainly hard-power, field-of-force aspects to the relationship between the United States and China. That's why freedom of navigation exercises near Taiwan matter, and why calls made by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to China captured so much attention. It would be stupid to discount the potential for any number of discrete conflicts (like the disposition of Taiwan) to lead to a "hot war".
■ But unlike the Cold War, the present conflict involves ordinary users of apps like TikTok, NBA players with opinions on Tibet, and cable TV channels beaming propaganda into 30 million American homes. It extends from hacking millions of US government worker identities to debt financing for infrastructure around the world.
■ Economic supply chains are deeply interdependent, the Internet is global (despite the Great Firewall), biological contagions can achieve pandemic status in days, space junk can rain down anywhere, and climate change is a universally shared risk that no country can solve alone. For all of these reasons, and many others, the tactics of conflict between powerful countries are substantially different than those of the past.
■ That doesn't mean we should abandon a well-informed, historically-literate approach to a grand strategy about how to see it through. Human nature is, after all, pretty much the same as it always was. But it does mean that labeling this as some kind of "Cold War II" is bound to give the public a vastly wrong impression about how it will affect them, what commitments they will be asked to make, and what their expectations ought to be for a tidy outcome.
■ There is no convenient metaphor, and thus it requires a new name altogether. Just as Churchill -- he of "things never happen the same way again" -- was the first to label the Iron Curtain, someone is overdue to name what this is today. A monster with no name is doubly frightening.