Cold Wars make for odd couples. When Joseph Stalin met Mao Zedong in Moscow in December 1949, it wasn’t exactly a bromance. “I only have had three tasks here,” Mao complained when the Soviet leader paid him next to no attention. “The first was to eat, the second was to sleep, the third was to [defecate]!”
In the end, Mao got the Soviet backing his new People’s Republic of China desperately needed. But the price ended up being to fight the Korean War on Stalin’s behalf.
That particular odd couple ended up getting a divorce. By 1960 Mao and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev were openly criticizing one another. By 1969 Soviet and Chinese troops were fighting a border war.
In this new Cold War, the odd couple consists of Chinese president Xi Jinping and Russian president Vladimir Putin. No two world leaders see one another more frequently. Xi has even called Putin his “best friend.” But compared with the 1950s, the roles have been reversed. China is now the giant, Russia the mean little sidekick. China under Xi remains strikingly faithful to the doctrine of Marx and Lenin. Russia under Putin has reverted to Tsarism.
For the United States and its allies, this new odd couple is even more perplexing than Stalin and Mao. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, it was not difficult to discern the menace represented by Soviet power. Faced with a choice between Stalin or Truman, Khrushchev or Eisenhower, most West European leaders didn’t think twice about taking the American side.
Today, however, the power of the People’s Republic of China is primarily economic rather than military. That makes it much harder to resist. Consequently, Cold War II has a number of features that make it quite different from Cold War I.
The first is that the United States is so intertwined with China that many experienced observers — such as former Treasury secretary Hank Paulson — argue that “decoupling” is a delusion. The entanglement is not just about trade and investment. It is also cultural. This year there are close to 370,000 Chinese students at American universities. The grand total of all the Soviet citizens who came to the United States under the 1958 Cultural Agreement was 50,000 over 30 years.
The second big difference is that America’s traditional allies are much less eager to align themselves with Washington and against Beijing. This has become most apparent over Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant which is the world-leader in 5G equipment. The US government is warning others not to buy Huawei kits. Yet only a handful of countries — step forward, Australia — have signed up for the American boycott. Others, notably the British and German governments, are ducking and weaving (not least because no Western competitor can match Huawei on price).
The Silicon Valley venture capitalist Marc Andreessen famously said, “Software ate the world,” meaning that the principal trend of the past 30 years has been for the programs of Microsoft, Apple, and the rest to transform one sector of the economy after another.
But if software did the eating, the meal was cooked and served by hardware. Without Gordon Moore’s law (that the number of transistors in a computer microchip doubles about every two years), we should not have advanced from the crude word-processing programs, browsers, and games of our 1990s desktops to the mind-blowingly powerful capabilities of our smartphones today. That is why Cold War II is much more a battle over hardware than anything else.
The illusion of the month is that anything significant was achieved with the signing of the Phase One trade deal between the United States and China last Wednesday. In reality, the battlefield of Cold War II has already shifted away from trade to technology.
It is not just that the United States is leaning on other governments to eschew Huawei’s hardware. It is also leaning on the world’s leading manufacturers of semiconductors, such as Taiwan’s TSMC, not to sell their top-of-the-range chips to the Chinese. The same goes for companies selling chip-making machines, such as the Dutch ASML.
As Cold War II intensifies, the role that Russia can play is quite small. It is not a serious player in either hardware or software. What, then, does Putin bring to the table, apart from a great stockpile of mostly superannuated nuclear weapons and conventional military forces that have performed adequately but hardly brilliantly in Ukraine and Syria? The answer is an unrivaled talent for hybrid or information warfare.
Cold War II will have more than one odd couple. If the United States is to succeed against China as it succeeded against the Soviet Union, President Trump — and his successor — must re-learn the lessons of late 20th-century diplomacy. Allies matter, and frenemies are pretty good too.
Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of Henry Kissinger’s secret flight to Beijing, which set in motion the opening of relations between the United States and China. It was the pivotal moment of the Cold War, exploiting the Sino-Soviet split by effectively aligning Washington and Beijing against Moscow.
The ultimate goal of American strategy in the 2020s must be to achieve a mirror image of that maneuver, driving Putin and Xi apart, and drawing Russia into that Western configuration which alone can save declining Russia from being swallowed up by rising China.
Donald and Vlad: no relationship has caused Trump more trouble. Will it ever reap a strategic reward? That might just be Cold War II’s crucial question.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Follow him on Twitter @nfergus.