Is the United States about to descend into a new Cold War with China? Many think so, judging by now-common language usage. Flash conclusion: When Hegel (not my favorite dead white male) said that the only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history, he was not just whistling Dixie.
The actual answer to the question depends on what you think the phrase “Cold War” means. Sufficiently dumbed down, any great power relationship can become a “Cold War” if it means merely a competition short of outright bloodletting. But if “Cold War” still means what it meant as a standard description of U.S.-Soviet rivalry between roughly 1947 and 1989, then the answer to the question is “no.”
We have a perfectly serviceable word to describe competitive great power relationships: rivalry. So why reject a simple, accurate term in favor of more ornate but inaccurate language? And what does the ubiquity of so doing tell us about the sort of reality the American and wider Western political chatterati now inhabit?
The Cold War As It Actually Was
The coiner of the term “Cold War” was one Bernard Baruch, a legendary figure of 20th-century American politics. He did it on April 16, 1947, in a speech to the South Carolina House of Delegates, where a portrait of the great man had just been unveiled. About five months later another legendary figure of the times, Walter Lippmann, used Baruch’s locution in his New York Herald Tribune column and the rest, as they say, is history. Before long, the phrase took on the specific characteristics that were to accompany its use for the next forty-some years. Three such characteristics, beyond the obvious fact that nuclear weapons made a major “hot” U.S.-Soviet war unlikely, were key.
The first was that the Soviet Union was for practical purposes a peer-competitor of the United States. China may soon become a peer-competitor, especially if the quality and the coherence of the American state continue to decay. But it’s not there yet, despite having capabilities in certain circumscribed technological and military domains that match or exceed those of the United States.
Second, the Cold War featured an unmistakable ideological dimension. Key leaders really believed that the stakes of the competition were philosophical, if not theological, at the highest level. The Cold War was never just ideological, and the ideological aspects were sometimes exaggerated to sell the costs and sacrifices of the struggle to dubious populations, especially in the West. But the ideological dimension was real enough, on both sides.
Notwithstanding many recent claims to the contrary, no such dimension to the present U.S.-Chinese rivalry exists. There is a deep, culture-based difference between preferences for liberal democratic as opposed to autocratic styles of leadership. But Chinese political elites evince no ambition to “convert” the world at large to their form of socioeconomic organization. Chinese exceptionalism is the inverse of American exceptionalism. Ours says we’re special but others can be and ought to be like us. Chinese exceptionalism says we’re special and no one can be like us. The projected outcome of the rivalry thus lacks any pretense of cosmic creedal overtones, which is why when Mike Pompeo mutters about a supposed Chinese quest for “international domination” one doesn’t know whether to grab a wet mop or call a psychiatrist.
Third and most important, the geopolitics of Cold War competition involved blocs, not just two superpower states. This mattered for several reasons.
One power could advance in the competition by adding to its own bloc or by peeling off a member of the opposing bloc. Bloc maintenance therefore became a core policy concern of both sides. Different levels of military integration within the two blocs, as well as different third-party political motives for joining one or staying shy of both, gave the Cold War a dimensional fluidity on a scale that made it possible to conceptualize it as a global system.
Peripheral strategies, too, were both possible and “safer” than direct ones, enabling Moscow and Washington to “play” the competition without betting the entire pot on every hand. Peripheral strategies sometimes turned “hot,” as in Korea and Vietnam, but tacitly understood firebreaks between proxy wars and direct strategic engagement obviated hegemonic war.
These conditions of peripheral zone competition do not characterize the current state of U.S.-Chinese relations except to a pale degree, and the main reason is that there is not and never has been a Chinese bloc. Nor is there a Russian one anymore, even though the phrase “new Cold War” occasionally gets trotted out to (mis)characterize that rivalry, too. Russia lost all the Warsaw Pact countries as bloc members, as well as the USSR’s former fake constituent republics that now constitute its so-called Near Abroad. Its only state allies today are Syria and, to lesser and mixed degrees, countries like Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, and North Korea. China’s bloc? Cambodia? Some bloc.
The U.S. bloc has also changed dramatically. Thanks largely to the disappearance of the Soviet Cold War-era bloc, U.S. allied relationships in Europe have attenuated on every level. The hub-and-spokes nature of the U.S. alliance system in Asia has never been as tightly integrated as NATO nor as culturally aligned with the American metropole. We can’t wage a “new Cold War” against China until they get themselves a bloc and we put ours properly together. Neither condition is likely to be fulfilled anytime soon.
Finally in this regard, the two Cold War protagonists and their respective blocs were economically isolated from one another for the most part. That is not remotely true today, and even a significant post-COVID reconfiguration of the global economy will not produce the kind of stereo autarky between democratic and authoritarian states that characterized the Cold War.
New Cold War? Not like your father’s Cold War; not remotely close enough to merit the label. Far more likely than a “new Cold War,” unfortunately, is a new hot war, a real war between the United States and China, accidentally triggered by misunderstanding and hubris between two unstable leaderships.
Is Dealing with COVID-19 Like Fighting a War?
If the phrase “new Cold War” doesn’t fit the U.S.-Chinese rivalry, neither does likening the challenge of COVID-19 to fighting a war make sense either.
The meme, of course, is ubiquitous. The head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has used the “war” metaphor. So have Presidents Trump and Xi. So have Emmanuel Macron and Boris Johnson. One could go on.
Sometimes the war metaphor can be helpful if authors, for example, are trying to bestir people out of an ideologically self-induced torpor. Or if they are trying to raise morale and induce a greater degree of social unity and trust. Presumably, the misuse of the war metaphor was designed to do something of that kind in the “war on poverty,” the “war on drugs,” the “war on terror,” and all the other wayward efforts to finally fulfill William James’s 1910 charge to find the moral equivalent of war.
But most uses are as manifestly thoughtless and misleading as are casual uses of “new Cold War,” and it is easy to see why.
You win wars by wielding violence. You beat pandemics by wielding medical science, social trust, and calm reassuring leadership.
You win wars by dominating adversaries. You beat pandemics, often enough, by cooperating selectively with those who may otherwise be adversaries.
Sometimes wars do not end in complete victory but as negotiated compromises; and even battlefield victories require diplomats to render them into peace anew. There is no negotiating with a virus.
The problem with war is as much and usually more the aggressive or mad intentions of the attacker as it is the implements of violence used on a battlefield. A pandemic has no agency or intentions comparable to those of a sentient adversary; a virus doesn’t really “attack” anyone, so it cannot be fought as if it had a conscious strategy.
Above all, you can win a war by defeating discrete enemies. You can’t really beat a global pandemic until everyone beats it. It is exactly as former President George W. Bush put it recently: “We are not partisan combatants. We are human beings, equally vulnerable and equally wonderful in the sight of God. We rise or fall together.”
There may be a special reason for the misuse of language in a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic: emotional derangement. In the heat of a novel threat to life and limb many people lose their bearings. A sign of the condition is the warping of the subjective perception of time.
Those who have been enduring lockdowns of varying degrees, those experiencing the kind of waiting that Carlos Ruiz Zafón has called “the rust of the soul,” often complain that time is impossibly passing slower and faster simultaneously. Literary observations about the collision of language and time out-of-shape testify to the case. Thus David Wroblewski, in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle:
He felt he could do nothing until he had the right words, but the ones that came to mind only captured what he had been thinking, trailing his real thoughts like the tail of a meteor.
Even better is David Mitchell’s description of language vacuums in Cloud Atlas:
Sometimes the fluffy bunny of incredulity zooms round the bend so rapidly that the greyhound of language is left, agog, in the starting cage.
We get a pandemic described as a war, most likely, because the language of war is ready at hand while anything more thoughtful eludes capture in the discombobulated moment.
All this, whether concerning the misuse of the “Cold War” metaphor or the inappropriate cramming of war language into the COVID-19 portfolio, is obvious once one stops to think about it. So should we conclude, then, that those throwing around war language as if there were no tomorrow have in fact never alit upon any of the simple points just laid out? Could that be?
Well it is. Just recently Wisconsin Congressman Mike Gallagher, a former Marine intelligence officer, affirmed the Cold War language and claimed it to be a good thing. He did acknowledge that some “public intellectuals” like Richard Haass and Robert Zoellick have averred that it’s not a good thing. That level of conversation, for or against speaking of Sino-U.S. rivalry as a Cold War, simply assumes the fit of the language. It never questions whether doing so, one way or another, is accurate or useful. Does Gallagher parse the differing ideological element? No. Does he mention the bloc-like character of the Cold War, and the stark contrast with Sino-U.S. rivalry? Not a single word. Does he mention the difference in the economic relationship? Just barely. It’s good, perhaps, that Gallagher no longer works as an intelligence officer.
Language, Literacy, and Thought
The lazy use of language is the smoke that invariably indicates an underlying fire of lazy thinking. It warns of conflation, the stepchild of ignorance, over distinction, the scion of discernment. I’m no fan of Herbert Spencer, whose bicentennial was this past April 27. It’s not easy to think of another intellectual celebrity who lived so long that he was able to be harmfully wrong about so many things. Withal, when Spencer wrote, “How often misused words generate misleading thoughts,” he was dead right.
We needn’t rely only on Spencer for this insight. Ralph Waldo Emerson taught a variation on the theme: “The corruption of man is followed by the corruption of language.” In this formulation, dishonest speech invariably points to dishonest antecedent deeds, whether literal or merely intellectual. So too when Chinese historians refer to “the rectification of names” when one dynasty passes away and another takes its place, they indicate that accrued language corruption from vanity and the convenience of self-justification needs to be set straight if the future is to redeem a regretted past.
Join these warnings together and we have a dialectic that defines the problem in its fullness: Corrupt, dishonest people invariably use corrupt, dishonest language, and dishonest or merely lazy language misleads those who innocently hear it. Left to spin downward for long enough, the spiral of communicative incoherence will make clarity of thought and hence constructive collective effort of any kind impossible. Every major episode of deranged language fronting for deranged thought creates its own designer Tower of Babel suited to the occasion: Confusion and destruction ultimately follow in train.
Let me suggest an explanation for the headlong language laziness we see burgeoning around us. If you are reading this far into this essay, it means you are deep literate. You know how to engage with a text that is more than a list, a rant, or, God forbid, a legal document. You are bringing to bear on this text your own learning and experience. You are engaged in an unnatural act: a silent but intellectually active Socratic dialectic with a decontextualized author, me.
Decontextualized? Yes: Your engagement with this essay can be occurring a week, a year, or a century after I wrote it, and it can be occurring anywhere you happen to be and I am not. You are thus left with the abstraction of language, and the experience of dealing with it has at least three indirect effects on you in rough proportion to the energy and time you devote: It sharpens your capacity for inferential reasoning; it widens your theory of mind and hence deepens your reservoir of empathy; and it stimulates your imagination and thus aids your ability to plan and predict. From all that your sense of interiority deepens; your narrator, the silent you in your head, matures. Your mind gains texture, enabling you to see angles of and about relationships you would otherwise miss for lack of practiced facility with conceptual thought.
What of those who don’t deep read, or who used to but have now gotten sucked into the new screen-conditioned norm of skimming in F or Z patterns? They are the contemporary incarnation of Nietzsche’s bad readers, those who “proceed like plundering soldiers: they pick up a few things they use, soil and confuse the rest, and blaspheme the whole.”
What of those people—whether without college educations or, increasingly, with them—who really don’t read at all beyond clipped email and Twitter texts, photo captions, and lists, but instead watch television or incessantly surf the shallower pools of the internet? Their vocabularies either attenuate or never develop, their patience decays, and their capacity to slow down long enough to really understand a problem or truly feel an emotion is trivialized. They become, often enough, addicted to distraction, and when that happens it is not a stretch to conclude that, strictly speaking, they can no longer actually think, straight or otherwise.
Those unable to think often become anxious when confronted with a problem they cannot understand well enough to solve or manage. Anxiety can lead to depression, cynicism, and passivity, but it can also lead to anger, disorientation to reality, and even to violence. For some it can lead, too, to a longing for the proverbial man on the white horse to come along and make it all right again. For others it can lead to different forms of desperation and illusion, often expressed in apocalyptical religious terms.
Under such conditions, even for those who manipulate symbols for a living, concern for precision with language becomes more than many can handle. New Cold War, old Cold War, rivalry—who cares? COVID-19 a hoax, a war, an opportunity to improve a broken world—who cares?
Today’s commercial electronic media certainly pose no barrier to the decline of expression and hence thinking. Obviously, the term “Cold War” is more resonant, glitzier, and attention-arresting than the words “rivalry” or “competition.” It conjures whole boatloads of images and backlisted feelings. The fact that it is misleading does not diminish the temptation to wave it about in dumbed-down form, even if the would-be waver dimly suspects that the language is not quite right. Attracting attention in our clickbait-driven media environment always trumps—pardon the expression—precision and intellectual probity.
It would be churlish to scold emotionally afflicted people; they have enough trouble to deal with as it is. But is it really too much to ask those who have had the privilege of good educations to take better care with how they use language? It’s much too late to stop the “new Cold War” foolishness; that jackass is long since out of the barn and roams freely. But surely worse is yet to come.
So yes, of course—to quote from a certain 1933 film, “This means war—war, I tell you!” As was not the case in the film, it will be a protracted war we must fight with patience, kindness, empathy, and tact. But fight it we must, for it we fail to achieve the rectification of names, there’ll be little hope of achieving the rectification of brains. Then regrettable pasts will not be redeemed; they will be warped and, worse, their less attractive aspects repeated.