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Opinion | Niall Ferguson

The outbreak of the second Cold War

A man looked at his smartphone as he walked past an electronics shop advertising phones from Huawei and Apple in Beijing. Mark Schiefelbein/AP/Associated Press

Regular readers of this column will not have been surprised by the outbreak of the Second Cold War. Ever since President Trump imposed the first tariffs on Chinese imports last year, I have argued that the trade war between the United States and China would last longer than most people expected and that it would escalate into other forms of warfare.

The tech war — exemplified by last week’s measures by the United States against the Chinese telecom company Huawei — is now in full swing. If you still think peace will break out when Trump meets Xi Jinping at the G20 meeting in Osaka next month, you’re in for a disappointment.


Historical analogies are powerful. As the former US defense secretary Ash Carter said at a recent conference at Harvard, in the corridors of power “real people talk history, not economics, political science or IR [international relations].” The first question they ask is: What is this like? And yes, this sudden escalation of Sino-American antagonism is a lot like the early phase of the Cold War.

But the next question the applied historian needs to ask is: What are the differences? Before the idea of the Second Cold War gets so well established that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, it’s time to take a step back and acknowledge that 2019 isn’t 1949, not least because of the profound economic, social, and cultural entanglement of the United States and China, which is quite unlike the almost total separation of the United States from the Soviet Union 70 years ago.

In the late 1940s it was possible for the Soviets to bring down Churchill’s metaphorical Iron Curtain because the limited channels of communication between Eastern and Western Europe were so easy to shut down. Though the phrase “digital iron curtain” is now doing the rounds, I am frankly doubtful that such a severance of ties is possible today.


Because the Internet and smartphones have enlarged, accelerated, and empowered social networks in the same way that the printing press did in the 16th and 17th centuries, today’s strategic rivalry is being played out in a near-borderless world, altogether different from the world of early John le Carré.

The 17th century had it all: climate change (the Little Ice Age that regularly froze the Thames), refugee crises (as Protestant zealots crossed the Atlantic), extreme views (as Catholics and Protestants sought to smear one another), and fake news (as witch-finders condemned hundreds of innocent women to death). But its most familiar feature to our eyes was the erosion of state sovereignty. The war of religion had no respect for borders: Jesuits infiltrated Protestant England just as Russian trolls now meddle in Western democracies.

The Thirty Years’ War was as much about power as it was about religion, however. Unlike the Cold War, which was waged by two superpowers, the Thirty Years’ War was a multiplayer game. The Holy Roman Emperor sought to reimpose Catholicism on Bohemia. Spain wanted to bring the rebellious Dutch back under Habsburg rule. Despite being Catholic, France sought to challenge the power of both Spain and Austria.

In the same way, today’s world is not bipolar. The United States may tell others to boycott Huawei, but not all Europeans will comply. China is the biggest economy in Asia, but it does not control India.


The Cold War created vast tank armies and nuclear arsenals, pointed at each other but never used. The Thirty Years’ War was quite different. It was a time of terrorism and gruesome violence, with no clear distinction between soldiers and civilians. (Think Syria.) Then, as now, the worst-affected areas suffered death and depopulation. There was no deterrence then, just as there is none now in cyberwarfare. Indeed, states tended to underestimate the costs of getting involved in the conflict. Both Britain and France did so — only to slide into civil war themselves.

The implications of this analogy are not cheering. The sole consolation I can offer is that, thanks to technology, most things nowadays happen roughly 10 times faster than they did 400 years ago. So we may be heading for a Three Years’ War rather than a Thirty Years’ War. Either way, we need to learn how to end such a war.

The end of the Thirty Years’ War was not brought about by one treaty, but by several, which historians refer to as “the Peace of Westphalia.” Contrary to legend, they did not make peace, as France and Spain kept fighting for another 11 years. And they certainly did not establish a world order based on modern states.

What the Westphalian settlement did was to establish power-sharing arrangements between the emperor and the German princes, as well as between the rival religious groups, on the basis of limited and conditional rights and mutual guarantees.


The Cold War ended when one side folded. That will not happen in our time. The democratic and authoritarian powers can fight for three or 30 years; neither side will win a definitive victory. Sooner or later there will have to be a compromise — in particular, a self-restraining commitment not to take full advantage of modern technology to hollow out each other’s sovereignty.

1648, not 1989, is our destination: a Cyber Westphalia, not the fall of the Great Firewall of China. If we have the option to get there in three years, rather than in 30, we should take it.

Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.