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Opinion | Niall Ferguson

Cold War II

Security guards march past a shop selling Apple and Huawei phones in Beijing, China, March 6.Ng Han Guan/AP Photo/Associated Press

If you’d told me this time 30 years ago that the United States would be in another cold war with another communist superpower by 2019, I wouldn’t have believed you. If you had told me that, simultaneously, socialism would be the height of fashion with young Americans, I would have directed you to a psychiatrist.

But here we are. Almost exactly three decades ago, Francis Fukuyama published his seminal essay “The End of History?,” hailing the victory of liberal capitalism over all its ideological competitors, but especially over communism. The essay he needs to write today is “The Upend of History?”


Back in 2016, a cold war between the United States and China seemed like the febrile fantasy of Steve Bannon and a few fringe academics. Even Donald Trump’s campaign threats to impose tariffs on Chinese goods struck me as a throwback to an earlier era. I should have listened more to Graham Allison, another Harvard-trained veteran of US national security policy. When he told me he was writing a book on the US-China relationship with the title “Destined for War,” I was incredulous. Chapeau, Graham. You were right.

“When a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power,” Allison wrote in 2017, “alarm bells should sound: danger ahead. China and the United States are currently on a collision course.” It’s as if Allison’s “Thucydides trap” — derived from the ancient Greek historian’s observation that war between Athens and Sparta was unavoidable — has a magnetic force, drawing the United States and China toward it.

“What made war inevitable,” wrote Thucydides, “was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.” In the space of barely a year, Americans have suddenly grown fearful of the growth of Chinese power. What was once the position of a few alarmists is now the new orthodoxy in Washington, shared by Republicans and many Democrats, foreign policy wonks and technology nerds: We may not be destined for a hot war, but we certainly are on track for a cold one.


China-bashing is no longer about unfair trade policies and the loss of manufacturing jobs in the Midwest. The trade war that Donald Trump launched against China last year has morphed into a tech war over 5G networks, artificial intelligence, online payments, and even quantum computing. As in Cold War I, the two superpowers are ideologically divided. And, as in Cold War I, both superpowers are seeking to project their economic power overseas.

So what are the big differences? First, China is now close to matching the US in terms of gross domestic product, whereas the USSR never got close. Second, China and the US are economically intertwined in what I once called “Chimerica,” whereas US-Soviet trade was minimal. Third, there are hundreds of thousands of Chinese students in the US (350,000-400,000) and 2.3 million Chinese immigrants (half them naturalized), whereas the number of Soviet citizens in the United States was always tiny.

Is a new cold war a bad thing? Not necessarily. It’s certainly preferable to our acquiescing in a Chinese takeover of the world. And the last cold war was also characterized by massive investments in technology, which had all kinds of positive economic spin-offs.

The worst features of the last cold war were the protracted and bloody proxy wars fought in places like Southeast Asia, Central America, and Southern Africa. Right now, however, there’s not much sign of that kind of thing happening again — though watch Venezuela.


So what’s not to like? Well, one thing. It wasn’t inevitable that the West would win the last cold war. And it’s far from clear that it’s going to win this one. China seems a more formidable antagonist than the Soviet Union ever was, demographically, economically, and technologically.

But what worries me more are America’s enemies within, who are surely much more numerous than during the first cold war. I don’t mean the Chinese immigrants, though I fear they may have their loyalty called into question, like German-Americans and Japanese-Americans during the world wars. My concern is with those native-born Americans whose antipathy to President Trump is leading them in increasingly strange directions.

The vogue for socialism amongst Democratic voters is one sign of the times. According to a recent Gallup poll, 57 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents view socialism positively, as against 47 percent who view capitalism positively. (Admittedly, around 6 percent of respondents thought socialism meant “talking to people, being social, social media, getting along with people.”)

Left-wing firebrand Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has done much to make socialism sexy on Capitol Hill this year with her Green New Deal. Even more disturbing, because it is much more subtle, is the way her counterpart in the House of Representatives, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, is making Islamism acceptable. Last week she and her allies in the Democratic Party won a major victory by turning a resolution that was originally intended to condemn Omar’s recent anti-Semitic remarks into one that also condemned “anti-Muslim discrimination and bigotry against minorities” and deflected the blame for “weaponizing hate” onto “white supremacists.”


Like her supporters on the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Ilhan Omar knows that attacking Israel and accusing its American supporters of dual loyalty is an easy way to draw progressives to the Islamist side. Funny how she has nothing to say about the Chinese government’s persecution of the Uighurs, a Muslim minority in Xinjiang province, hundreds of thousands of whom are currently being held in “vocational training centers.” In the old Cold War, the Soviet equivalents were called the gulag.

So what if we reran the Cold War and half the country took the other side? It wouldn’t be the end of history. But it might be the end of liberty.

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.