The Difference Between America’s 2 Cold Wars

Recent Features

Interviews | Diplomacy

The Difference Between America’s 2 Cold Wars

Insights from Alfredo Toro Hardy.

The Difference Between America’s 2 Cold Wars
Credit: Depositphotos

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy.  This conversation with Ambassador Alfredo Toro Hardy former Venezuelan ambassador to the United States, United Kingdom, Spain, Brazil, Singapore, Chile, and Ireland as well as an Associate Professor of the Simón Bolívar University in Caracas; and author of 20 books including newly published “America’s Two Cold Wars: From Hegemony to Decline?” (Palgrave Macmillan 2022) – is the 317th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

Explain the key differences between the United States’ two “Cold Wars.”

During its Cold War with the USSR, America had the wind on its back, with all the right configuration of elements supporting it. The playing field was the right one: The core underpinning element, ideology, was its biggest strength. Its support base was large: an extensive network of alliances reinforced its position. The consistency of purpose was clear cut: Both domestically and externally it followed a clear road map. The economic correlation between both superpowers clearly leaned on its behalf – it inhabited in the economic high ground. The final objective was attainable: Containment of the USSR was a reasonable and plausible strategy. These factors allowed a successful outcome.

In its emerging Cold War with China the opposite happens. The playing field does not favor the U.S. as the core underpinning element is its main weakness: efficiency. The support base is faltering, as its credibility among its allies has reached a historical low. The consistency of purpose is weak, as its political parties inhabit different foreign policy planets (and although they still exhibit a China-bashing common denominator, this falls short from an articulated foreign policy). The economic correlation puts it in a flickering place, as in a few years’ time the U.S. will be sliding into the economic lowlands in relation to China. The final objective is unattainable as containing China in its own background does not look like a reasonable proposition.

Analyze the paradigm shift from ideology to efficiency in the New Cold War.

Although multifaceted, Cold War with the USSR had ideology as its core element, something for which America was particularly well endowed. Having been the birthplace of liberal democracy and its most devoted preacher, it was easy for it to reclaim the mantle of leader of the “Free World.” Particularly so after Woodrow Wilson bequeathed its foreign policy with a missionary impulse in that direction. On the other side, the Soviet regime also embodied an ideology that aimed at global expansion. This ideological contest was not only clear cut, but unmistakably favorable to the United States. Freedom, notwithstanding the contradictions that the “Free World” notion entailed, was an arrow directed to the Achilles Heel of a totalitarian system like the Soviet one.

This emerging Cold War is not based on ideology. America’s liberal credentials have lost credibility as they are being seriously contested at home itself. Moreover, all that matters for China since Deng Xiaoping’s days is that the “cat” catches “mice.” Hence, not only has America’s liberal order become an ideological nonstarter, but what seems to matter in this rivalry is the capability to deliver shown by each. Efficiency, thus, becomes the defining element of the new Cold War.

Contrary to America’s comparative advantage in its ideological contest with the Soviets, the country is badly prepared for a competition framed in efficiency terms. America fares poorly in numerous areas in relation to other countries of the developed world, as many of its domestic problems have been left unchecked for too long. Conversely, during a bit more than four decades China has shown the most impressive historical record in providing results.

Examine the trajectory of U.S. foreign policy from hegemony to the squandering of alliances.

In the final phase of World War II or subsequently, a network of multilateral organizations, initiatives and alliances took shape under America’s auspices. Through this network, the U.S. positioned itself at the head of a potent hegemonic system where legitimacy was sustained by consensual acquiescence. The United States’ spectrum of allies was as diverse as was its capability to articulate the system on behalf of its Cold War objectives. With the collapse of the USSR, the whole community of nations had to find arrangements under this hegemonic system, which henceforward became global.

Incomprehensible under the light of common sense, George W. Bush proclaimed the futility of multilateral cooperation, which in his view constrained the freedom of action to which American power was entitled. This raw unilateralism gravely weakened a system that had served Washington exceedingly well, while eroding the country’s standing within it. Bush followed eight years later by Trump was simply too much. The latter’s “dog eat dog” approach to foreign policy ended up by shattering the trust in U.S. leadership. America’s allies are finding it exceedingly difficult to tie their future to a country so prone to zigzags and extremes. Particularly so, as in a few years’ time Washington could be inaugurating a new Trump administration.

The book could not have anticipated the reinvigoration of NATO resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, this new-found strength is still a process in the making, with many questions yet to be answered: Would it survive a long war? Would the Atlantic Alliance commitment be the same beyond the European sphere? Would it survive Trump’s possible return to power?

Compare and contrast reasonable containment in U.S. relations with China and role in the Indo-Pacific.

The United States’ most articulated Cold War strategy was its containment of Soviet expansionism. However, as Stalin understood that no new gains were possible in Europe beyond the “Iron Curtain,” Soviet expansionism and American containment moved into peripheral zones. Friction between the two superpowers were thus removed from the most geopolitical combustible region of the world. This substantially reduced the risk of a direct confrontation between them. With the notable exceptions of Berlin 1961 and Cuba 1963, both countries avoided geostrategic charged scenarios.

But is it viable to indefinitely constrain China to a secondary role in an area which is of geostrategic priority to it? Is it possible to do so when its layered defense-in-depth’s control of the area contrasts with the huge distance from the United States? How to contain a force whose main objective is precisely to deter penetration by others? Containment under those circumstances does not seem plausible.

Assess your framework of the New Cold War vis-à-vis Russia’s war in Ukraine and China-Russia relations.

Washington should have never allowed China and Russia to coalesce in the way they did. The vulnerability therein derived for it is a major one. Although this could not have been anticipated at the turn of the century, this trend became visible after 2008. That year Russia invaded Georgia, making clear that it would not accept further Western encroachments in its borders, while China’s assertiveness towards the U.S. began to manifest. Washington should have approached the lesser of the two rivals with the aim of diffusing tensions and building bridges. This is what Mao did in relation to Washington in 1972, when tensions with Moscow were running high.

As things stand, in the best-case scenario Russia will become for years to come a huge distraction in relation to America’s main rivalry: China. In the worst-case scenario, these two competitors might coordinate their actions to overflow America’s response capability.