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Cold War with China and the Thucydides Trap: a Conversation with Richard Falk

Photograph Source: user:shakko – CC BY-SA 3.0


Should there be a Second Cold War an alleged US concern for human rights would indeed become another ongoing tool of propaganda. In this interview, International Relations scholar Richard Falk breaks down the grave dangers and prospects for a New Cold with China. Falk worries that tensions and rivalries both regionally and economically could result in a series of hot war conflicts set off by nuclear complacent countries that fail to recognize the catastrophic risks at stake.

In retracing the collapse of the Soviet Union and China’s entrance into the World Trade Organization, Falk analyses the origins of US resentment towards China’s remarkable market growth that is absent of liberal democratic structures. Aside from commenting on how ‘cold war’ with China, an economic rival, is different from 20th century Russian tension, which was largely militaristic and ideological, Falk suggests additional motivations for an escalation on the part of Trump and the possibly forthcoming bi-partisan consensus.

Daniel Falcone: Do you anticipate the United States entering a new Cold War with China? What are the prospects for a new Cold War? Can you also discuss the fall of the Soviet Empire and the modern rise of China to better contextualize the present set of diplomatic tensions?

Richard Falk: I think there are grave dangers of either sliding into a new Cold War by unwitting interactions, especially with China, and possibly with Russia. More complex opposing alignments could also take shape, for instance, an alignment that features the U.S. and India on one side and China and Russia on the other. Such an encounter would likely be less ideological than the Cold War that broke out after World War II and also less preoccupied about the outbreak of an all-out nuclear war. The next cold war is likely to be more focused on economic rivalry, cyber dimensions of conflict and major regional wars involving Iran, the Korean Peninsula, or India/Pakistan. In this regard, what might start as a cold war has a greater prospect of producing major hot wars as there could be present less of a self-deterrent. In this altered global setting, there are risks arising from what I would call ‘nuclear complacency, underestimating the risks and catastrophic results of nuclear war.

In the background of this look ahead is the extent to which China has spoiled the triumphalist narrative that was spun in the West after the collapse of the Soviet Union. One prominent version, associated with Francis Fukuyama claim, which seemed ludicrous when put forward in the early 1990s, is that after the Cold War the world had reached ‘the end of history.’ Western secular values had prevailed both with regard to state/society relations and in relation to the organization of the world economy. The future seemed, for some years, almost to follow this kind of interpretation, with a virtually universal endorsement of neoliberal globalization, which Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the previously left socialist leader of Brazil explained as ‘the only game in town.’

A cruder version of this clear vision of a victorious West was the assertions of the Tory leader in Britain, Margaret Thatcher, who aggressively shouted down the British opposition to her economic policies with the slogan ‘there is no alternative’ (to market driven economies), or simply TINA. This idea had been initially attributed to Herbert Spencer, notorious for suggesting in the 19th Century that history of society parallels human evolution in the sense of privileging ‘the survival of the fittest.’ Not surprisingly, given such an atmosphere, progressive forces felt demoralized. Left perspectives often adopted defeatist postures after the Soviet collapse, and were derided as having endorsed political oppression and backed economic failure. Perhaps worse for progressive prospects, was the awkward fact that the only surviving major socialist economy, China, seemed itself to be opting for joining the capitalist choir, seeking and gaining membership by in the World Trade Organization and rationalizing their active participation in the neoliberal world economy as ‘market socialism’ fooling almost no one, least of all investors and traders.

For many years, this seemed like a win/win reality. China’s economy expanded at a remarkable rate, but world trade increased and Western investors were pleased with the low costs of skilled labor in China and the absence of strict environmental and safety standards. All was well as long as China stayed in its lane as ‘the factory for the world,’ but when it made the transition to a sophisticated high technology economy it began to pose a new kind of geopolitical challenge to the ascendancy of the United States and the West, and murmurs began to be heard about stealing Western technology, unfair trade practices, and currency manipulations. In my view, these issues were significant, not the core concern. What began to bother the West was the degree to which China for all of its superficial adaptations to capitalist logic was dramatically outperforming its competitors in the West, seeming benefitting from the state management of economic activity, despite political authoritarianism, in a manner superior to what seemed possible in the developed societies of the West, especially with respect to savings and the investment of public funds.

This dynamic is brilliantly depicted for Asia as  whole by the Indian economist, Deepak Nayyar, in The Asian Resurgence: Diversity in Development (2019), which suggested an overall post-colonial Asian challenge to Western ascendancy in which 14 Asian countries, led by China, produced the most remarkable record of economic growth and poverty alleviation in the past 50 years that the world has ever known, and these countries achieved these remarkable results without the trappings of liberal democracy, thus drawing into question the American claim that market-driven constitutionalism was the only arrangement of state/society relations that was legitimate and materially successful.

With these considerations in mind, three rather distinct alternative futures for the U.S./China relationship deserve scrutiny if the objective is to avoid the onset of a second cold war. On a preliminary basis it would seem helpful to take notice of a serious language trap that suggests misleadingly that  because the words ‘cold war’ are convenient to designate a new geopolitical confrontation, if it occurs, it would resemble in its essential features the Cold War that followed directly from the contested peace arrangement of World War II, and represented two major states that both conceived of international relations through the realist postwar prisms of hard power as complemented by adherence to rival ideologies that suspended their enmity toward each other in order to join forces to defeat fascism.

There are many differences between the global settings then and now. First, there is only a rather shallow ideological difference among the leading political actors at this time, although those on the far right in the West are seeking a renewal of intense geopolitical conflict by portraying China as a Communist, socialist, even Maoist, and hence an ideological adversary of the supposedly freedom-loving West. In contrast, old style Cold War liberals are thinking more along traditional lines of geopolitical competition among principal states promoting national interests as measured by growth, military capabilities, wealth, status, and influence, with ideological differences mentioned, but put far in the background.

With these thoughts in mind it becomes reasonable to depict three world futures that portray relations between China and the West. The first, and most evident one, arises from the kind of provocative Trump diplomacy that combines blaming the COVID pandemic on Chinese malfeasance. Such a conflict-generating diplomacy should be understood and opposed as a diversionary tactic to obscure the multiple and shocking failures by the Trump presidency to provide unifying leadership or science-based guidance during the unfolding of the health disaster that continues its lethal sweep across the country with undiminished fury. If China takes the bait, the world will be plunged into a new ferocious geopolitical rivalry that will divert resources and energies from an agenda or urgent global-scale challenges.

A variation on this theme is connected with the possibility that Trump thinks he faces a landslide defeat in the November election, and foregoes hostile diplomacy to stage a confrontation with China, possibly accompanied by declaring a national emergency, or by staging Gulf of Tonkin style false incidents to create a pretext for launching some sort of attack on China that is the start of a hot war, which if saner minds prevail, is toned down to a mere Cold War, that is, a multi-dimensional rivalry that comes to dominate international relations.

The second more subtle drift into a Cold War with China would arise from a deep state, bipartisan consensus, reinforced by private sector war industry pressures to challenge China militarily in the South China Sea or in the course of some regional confrontation, possibly arising from tensions on the Korean Peninsula, along the Indian border, or in the Indo-Pakistani context. It would represent a more common structural militarist response patterns to growing evidence of Western decline, Asian rise.

The third future is even more abstract and structural, and has been influentially labeled ‘Thucydides Trap’ in a book by Graham Allison [Destined for War: Can America and China escape the Thucydides’s Trap? (2017), who accepts the analysis of the classical Greek historian on the basis of case studies over the centuries finds that when an ascendant Great Power fears the loss of its primacy to a Rising Power, it frequently initiates war while believing it still retains a military edge. Note that such an assessment presumes actual warfare, and should not be perceived as a sequel to the U.S./Soviet Cold War, which came close to war in several situations of bipolar, but managed to restore order without direct combat.

There is a further complication with an analysis that extrapolates from the Cold War. Unlike the Soviet Union, China’s rise and challenge is far less associated with military capabilities and threats than it is with a remarkable surge of economic growth and soft power expansionism by pursuing win/win approaches that combine infrastructure aid with the growth of influence. In this regard, China has not weakened its domestic society by excessive investment in a militarist geopolitics, which has produced a series of costly failures for the United States, which can be traced back to the Vietnam War in which overwhelming military superiority on the battlefield led to a political defeat.

The United States has repeated that fundamental failure to adjust to the realities of the post-colonial era in which nationalism mobilized on behalf of self-determination neutralizes and eventually outlasts an intervening external power despite having grossly inferior weaponry. There is a second Thucydides trap that Allison doesn’t mention, which is that Athens lost its ascendancy from internal moral and political decay more than from the challenge posed by rising Sparta, succumbing to demagogues who led Athens into costly military adventures that weakened its overall capabilities. Such a path has been traveled by the United States at least since the 9/11 attacks in 2001 in which wars and contested long occupations has been expensive and contributed to alienation, extremism, and unrest within the United States.

Daniel Falcone: Can you draw on specific historical comparisons to the Soviet Union and China in terms of what is at stake geopolitically?

Richard Falk: There are several important comparisons. To begin with, the Soviet Union emerged from a devastating war as a victorious military power, which soon acquired nuclear weapons, and posed a direct threat, ideologically and militarily to the European heartland of the Western alliance. The Cold War unfolded out of the tensions associated with the mutual disappointments of the peace diplomacy, especially as it divided Europe, including the city of Berlin.

The other flashpoint that provoked extremely destructive and dangerous wars in Korea and Vietnam, and recurrent crises in Germany, was the problems arising from unstable compromises in the form of countries divided without the consent of the national population, and in disregard of the right of self-determination. In the present historical situation, the only leftover divided country is Korea, which after a serious and devastating war, 1950-52, ended as it began with the division remaining along with tensions, threats, and periodic diplomatic efforts. It should be noted that although China’s geopolitical profile is overwhelmingly economistic as compared to the U.S. militarist profile, China become very sensitive about threats and disputes along its borders, and has had fighting wars with both India and China.

Tensions rising to confrontation levels with China would probably either derive from disputes within China’s sphere of South Asian influence with respect to island disputes or in some way related to China’s economic rise to a position of primacy, which contrasts with the inferior economic performance of the Soviet Union as compared to the U.S. and the other major world economies, including Germany and Japan. The Soviet Union was never an economic rival or challenge in the way that China has become.

The Cold War also coincided with the decolonizing process in Asia and Africa, which put the West and the Soviet bloc were on opposite sides. In one respect this provided a safety valve that shifted bipolar confrontations to peripheral countries while trying to keep nuclear peace at the center of the world system, which both sides assumed to be Europe, as well as their relations with one another. If a Cold War emerges with China Europe will not be an important site of struggle, and might opt to be non-aligned. Asia, including the Middle East, will become the main geopolitical battlegrounds, and Africa will offer a peripheral zone of contention where the Cold War II rivalry might assume its most direct expression as escalation risks would seem lower than in the various Asian theaters of encounter.

Unquestionably, the biggest difference is that the Soviet Union was a traditional geopolitical actor relying for expanding influence on its material capabilities and ideological penetration, while China focused its energies and resources on soft power economic growth at home that is sustained and managed by the state in a manner that attracted massive foreign investment and domestic reinvestment based on a high rate of savings and benefitting from highly favorable trade balances. China’s expansionist energies relied on win/win forms of economic and infrastructure assistance to countries in need with minimal interference with their political independence. The Soviet Union never undertook anything remotely comparable to China’s Road and Belt extraordinarily massive infrastructure initiative, again stressing huge win/win gains for a wide number of countries, including in Africa. Aside from the special case of Cuba, the Soviet Union provided only military support to its allies, and in East Europe intervened militarily to avoid ideological deviation.

It remains to be seen whether now that China is being challenged geopolitically by the United States it will begin to adopt a hard power mode, and the resulting confrontation between the two countries will come to resemble the Cold War. It may be that China will emerge from the COVID pandemic with a reputation for greater efficiency in controlling the spread of the disease, reviving its economy, and understanding the functional benefits of global cooperation than the Trumpist West. At the same time, the Chinese image has been badly tarnished by damaging disclosures documenting the repression of the 10 million Uighur minority in Xinjiang Province and by forcible extensions of direct control over Hong Kong.

Daniel Falcone: The Cold War featured widespread propaganda in all facets of American cultural and political life. How could the United States attempt to sell the concept of an ideological confrontation with China in these times? The Republicans and Democrats are both constructing similar policy proposals it seems.

Richard Falk: I believe there are two approaches to confrontation with China that might be followed in the coming months, depending on which leadership controls American foreign policy after the November elections. Neither is desirable in my opinion. There is the approach of provocation adopted by Trump, which blames China for the pandemic and imposes various sanctions designed to roll back their economic and technological advances coupled with Trump’s normal transactional emphasis on securing a more favorable trade deal for the U.S. tied to a promise of warm diplomatic relation.

The second approach is more closely associated with a reenactment of the Cold War bipartisan consensus that formed after World War II, and continues to animate the national security establishment in Washington. It involves a new version of containment as focused on the South China Seas island disputes, sometimes more loosely described as ‘boxing China in’ with India playing the role that Europe played in the earlier Cold War, along with an emphasis on China’s human rights abuses to achieve liberal backing.

This approach is more likely to be pursued by a Biden presidency would reassert U.S. global leadership, with a Carteresque revival of ideological emphasis on Western liberalism as a superior mode of governance and global leadership due to its record on human right and democracy, proclaiming ‘a new free world.’ It is this approach that is more usefully and accurately regarded as a successor to the first Cold War.

At the same time, there are some strong disincentives for so engaging China in a post-pandemic setting when policy priorities should be directed at restoring the economy and addressing climate change, which was almost forgotten about during the health crisis. The wisest course for future American foreign policy is providing constructive global leadership with an emphasis on inter-governmental cooperation for the human interest and a receptivity to compromise and conflict resolution in dealing with economic and political disputes.

Daniel Falcone: Are there any specific human rights issues and regions that would present immediate concerns and be jeopardized in your estimation within a new Cold War framework?

Richard Falk: Neither China nor the United States are currently positioned to promote human rights in other parts of the world. The U.S. has lost credibility due to its handling of asylum-seekers on its borders and the maintenance of sanctions against such countries as Iran and Venezuela despite widespread humanitarian appeals for temporary suspension. In addition, the worldwide surge of support for Black Lives Matter after the Floyd police murder has called attention to the depths of systemic racism in America. With these and other concerns in mind, it is hypocritical for the U.S. to be lecturing others and complaining about their human rights abuses.

China has never treated human rights as an element of its foreign policy, and with its own failures to adhere to international standards it is unlikely to engage the West on these terms. At the same time, there are at least two positive sides to China’s treatment of human and humanitarian issues that are rarely acknowledges in the West. First, China has lifted millions of its own people out of extreme poverty (while the U.S. has widened disparities between rich and poor, and oriented growth policies over the course of the last half century to benefit the super-rich causing dysfunctional forms of inequality and acute alienation and rage on the part of working class).

The Chinese achievement could easily be interpreted as a great contribution to the realization of the economic and social rights and to some extent should balance its disappointing record with regard to civil and political rights. Secondly, during the COVID pandemic China has displayed important contributions to human solidarity while the United States has retreated to an ‘America First’ statist outlook that is combined with very poor performance with regard to both preventive and treatment aspects of responding to the virus.

China has added funding to the WHO, send doctors and supplies to many countries, and most impressive of all has pledged to place any formulas for the development of effective vaccines in the public domain, placing its intellectual property on the web accessible to public and private sector developers, and deserves to receive credit for such acts of what is sometimes described as ‘medical solidarity.’

Should there be a Second Cold War, human rights would become even more than at present a tool of propaganda, especially if the bipartisan consensus regains the upper hand in policymaking. As with the earlier Cold War human rights considerations would be brought to bear on countries deemed hostile to U.S. geopolitics and ignored with respect to friends and allies. At present, such a dichotomy is evident in focusing on Turkish human rights failures while ignoring the far worse failures in EgyptSaudi Arabia, and Israel. Because the Second Cold War would be more manifestly geopolitical rather than ideological, I would expect less emphasis on ‘free world’ definitions of the conflict.

Daniel Falcone: Although it’s a long-standing concern of strategists and planners, how do you see or anticipate China becoming an issue in the upcoming presidential election?

Richard Falk: It seems likely that Trump will campaign on a new strategic threat to the United States emanating from China, primarily aimed at its unacceptable economic manipulations to deprive the U.S,  of trading benefits and jobs as well as its charging China with responsibility for American deaths due to the pandemic resulting from its refusal to release information about the virus immediately after it struck Wuhan and by way of conspiring with the WHO to conceal information about the dangers of the COVID-19 disease. As in 2016 with its inflammatory message about immigrants, it can be anticipated that Trump will use the same techniques to cast China as an evil threat to American greatness.

I would expect that the Democratic Party election strategy would not take fundamental issue with the Trump approach, although the emphasis might be different, and attack Trump for using China as a means to distract Americans from his gross failures of international and domestic leadership. A Biden campaign would also condemn China with regard to curtailing Hong Kong democracy and autonomy, as well as its abusive policies toward the Uighurs. Biden might also agree that Chinese behavior has been unacceptable with respect to trade practices, stealing industrial secrets, and pushing toward militarization and confrontation in the South China Seas.

Where Biden and the Democrats would differ from Trump quite dramatically is with respect to Russia. Biden Democrats would likely make Russia enemy #1, sharply criticizing Trump for being ‘Putin’s poodle,’ and arguing that Russian expansionism and its alleged responsibility for killing Americans in Afghanistan is a more frontal threat to American interests in the Middle East and Europe than are the China challenges. Depending on the rhetoric and supporting policies being advocated there is a risk that Biden’s approach would lead to a new cold war, but probably not with China, and with more of a geopolitical tone than the First Cold War that ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Daniel Falcone: How does our ongoing and continual: medical, racial, economic and environmental pandemics help in exploiting Cold War narratives and approaches for heads of state around the world?

Richard Falk: I believe it is not yet clear whether these competing narratives will outlive the health crisis when pressures to revive the economic aspects of the ‘old normal’ will be intense. It is possible that if Trump remaining in control of the U.S. Government, there would be an opportunity for China or possibly a coalition of countries to exercise global leadership by seeking to promote a global cooperative approach to health, while also seeking common ground and shared action on climate change, global migration, food security, and extreme poverty.

If Biden becomes the U.S, president and reasserts U.S. leadership it will likely strike a balance between pushing back against Chinese challenges and learning from the pandemic to seek global cooperative solutions to urgent problems confronting humanity. Such an approach might start by rejoining the Paris Climate Change Agreement and renewing American participation and support for the Iran Nuclear Agreement, supplemented by such internationalizing initiatives as returning to active membership in and robust funding for the WHO.

In conclusion, the buildup of anti-Chinese sentiments is establishing this dual foundation for a Second Cold War. Not surprisingly, the Editorial Board of the NY Times calls on Trump to use sanctions against China in response to reports of its mistreatment of the Uighur minority and its Hong Kong moves. Such advocacy is set forth without a mention of the hypocrisy of Trump being an international advocate of human rights given his record of support for autocratic denials at home and abroad. This kind of belligerent international liberalism does recall the ideological atmosphere that made the First Cold War such a drain on resources and on the possibilities for promoting a rule-governed geopolitics anchored in respect for the UN Charter.

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