How to Lose a Cold War
Are America and China in a new Cold War? Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has hedged by saying they’re in “the foothills” of one, but I’m more inclined to think that they are, that America is now in an intense state of hostility and rivalry with China similar to the one it shared with the Soviet Union, with both sides actively trying to undermine the other by any means short of direct military conflict, and that this is likely to intensify in the foreseeable future.
Who’s likely to win? Well, the last Cold War was lost by the Soviet Union more than it was won by the United States. Sure, by employing George Kennan’s strategy of containment, the US worked to check the Soviet Union until it fell apart from its own dysfunctions, but this would hardly have worked had it not in fact fallen apart from its own dysfunctions and imploded. As before, the country that wins this Cold War will probably just be the one that avoids losing, or rather, the one that loses least.
The two superpowers’ greatest threats, therefore, are not each other, but their own weaknesses. And since, as the Bible notes, people are better at perceiving a speck in another’s eye than a plank in their own, each country’s weaknesses are probably much more apparent from the other’s perspective. If we could peer into each country’s secret assessments of the other, what might they look like?
From: Department of State
To: President Joe Biden
Subject: China’s Weaknesses
Due to its economic strength, China is a far more formidable opponent than the Soviet Union ever was. Its economic might stems from a unique resource – Chinese people are particularly industrious, and China has 1.4 billion of them. Thankfully, China’s population is rapidly aging, the share of its population over the age of 60 is expected to rise from 18% now to 25% in 2030 and 30% in 2040. Government efforts to ameliorate this by easing birth limits have gained little traction, and China is now at serious risk of “growing old before it grows rich.”
China is also handicapped by its leadership. We have long debated whether to encourage certain elements within the Chinese Communist Party elite to depose their leader, and it’s still a tough call. On the one hand, Xi Jinping’s increasing repression at home and aggression abroad makes a coup seem attractive. From the perspective of great power competition, though, perhaps we should hope General Secretary Xi remains at the helm for as long as possible.
From the perspective of great power competition, perhaps we should hope General Secretary Xi remains at the helm for as long as possible.
Under Xi’s leadership, China’s diplomacy has been conducted so ineptly that other countries feared and distrusted it even more than the United States under Donald Trump. China’s new brand of “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy has served to alienate many countries in recent years, including Taiwan, the Philippines, India, Australia, the UK, much of Europe, and the US itself. And, even when they see how their belligerence has harmed foreign relations, rather than changing tact, China’s diplomats only double-down on it – something they would not do without Xi’s support. The most effective “ambassador” for the China story was actually the charismatic Alibaba founder Jack Ma, but instead of using him as an asset the government clipped his wings because it thought he was getting too big for his britches.
Xi is also handicapping China on the economic front. Since Deng Xiaoping’s tenure, China has enjoyed an economic miracle because Deng opened it up to the rest of the world and to market capitalism – in short, because he allowed China to become more like a normal country – thus unleashing the entrepreneurial energies of the Chinese people and dialing back the Communism that had held them back for decades. Xi, however, in his control-freakery, is reversing this and is making China more abnormal again by deemphasizing the role of the private sector in favor of inefficient state-owned enterprises. This, coupled with China’s aging population, will further slow its economic growth. Furthermore, the space for opposing, criticizing, or even questioning, these hare-brained schemes is quickly shrinking, as China has abandoned its tolerance for limited dissent and is now cracking down on even constructive criticism from patriotic Chinese citizens.
Unfortunately for China (but perhaps fortunately for us), Xi looks set to remain in power for the foreseeable future. By scrapping term-limits he has effectively made himself dictator for life (and in so doing, jeopardized the peaceful transition of power that his predecessors had upheld). Though China’s people make it strong, it is kneecapped by its incompetent officials, including an absolute leader who is enacting the kinds of policies you’d enact if you were secretly trying to sabotage the country. There’s no reason why the old containment playbook won’t work here: just check China, and let Xi’s mistakes catch up with it.
From: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs
To: General Secretary Xi Jinping
Subject: America’s Weaknesses
The United States rests on huge advantages, however, its people are undisciplined and irresponsible. As we’ve seen from its dismal record on the COVID-19 pandemic, even simple things like staying at home and wearing masks was too much for many of them, making them extremely vulnerable to future epidemics and biological warfare.
Most of all, though, the US is at risk of squandering its considerable advantages simply because there are lunatics in both Republican and Democratic parties, and these lunatics have come to set policy. On the Republican side, these lunatics are no longer a fringe, but have seized control of the party. On the Democratic side, they comprise an increasingly vocal and influential minority.
There are lunatics in both Republican and Democratic parties, and these lunatics have come to set policy.
Today, the majority of Republican voters believe that former President Donald Trump won reelection, and, as a result, the majority of congressional Republicans will probably now have to act like they believe it too. (In fact, it’s become a marker of identity amongst Republicans that they have to believe every falsehood Trump utters, no matter how ridiculous.) This will threaten political stability and the peaceful transition of power in America.
This has obvious diplomatic implications. Though President Joe Biden’s administration has been busy repairing America’s foreign relations, it will be decades at least before other countries will trust the US as they once did, since they know the country is just one election away from electing a crazy person president and/or descending into civil war. And whilst Trump terrified America’s allies and emboldened its enemies, it should be noted that the far left is just as isolationist as the far right – a president in the mold of Bernie Sanders, for example, would likely do the same.
The crazy wing of the Democratic Party has also called for packing the Supreme Court, and such is their influence that even Biden has flirted with the idea. Because of the current breakdown in Congress, we don’t expect an attempt to pack the court to be successful in the near future, but if it was, it would likely trigger a court-packing tit-for-tat between the two parties, politicize the court, and effectively destroy the rule of law in America. And, whilst we know that the Chinese Communist Party, in its wisdom, prefers the rule by law rather than the rule of law, the latter is the only thing keeping the US from descending into legal anarchy.
One tremendous advantage the US enjoys is its higher education system, which is the best in the world. (Indeed, this is why it’s such a popular choice for many Chinese students who can afford it.) However, the US seems to be in the process of squandering this advantage too. The far left has taken over many of the country’s best universities and is destroying the things that made them great. Instead of America’s prized critical thinking, students are encouraged to mindlessly accept and regurgitate far left ideology. Instead of learning to be strong and resilient, students are encouraged to fear unfamiliar ideas and to wallow in victimhood and become even softer than they already were. Instead of hiring and promoting people based on their merits, staff at universities are encouraged to do so based on their race. Nor is this confined to the humanities – this craziness has also spread to the sciences, with fields like biology being circumscribed because findings might reflect negatively on a certain sex or race. This insanity has also trickled-down into schools, where primary and secondary school students are being taught to divide the world into oppressors and oppressed based on their identity, and to despise their heritage and see their country as inherently evil, and educators debate stuff like – and we’re not making this up – whether math, standardized tests, and turning in work on time is racist. Such a system produces useless and dysfunctional graduates, whose only “skill” seems to be to whine endlessly about perceived oppression and to throw hysterical fits over trivial things. Of course, we Chinese know all too well what’s going on – America is now going through its own Cultural Revolution, and there’s no telling how much damage it’ll do before it ends!
China’s strategy, therefore, should be to try to encourage the extremists at both ends of the political spectrum – perhaps our Russian friends, with their skill at influence operations and cultivating “useful idiots,” could help with this? Particular efforts should be made to boost the crazies on the left, especially the “Squad” of young Democrats in the House of Representatives, which is basically the American equivalent of the Gang of Four. The Republican Party has already fallen to the extremists – if the Democratic Party follows suit, the US will likely plunge into a death-spiral, with both extremes feeding off and further radicalizing the other. Of course, even without our efforts, this might happen anyway.
“Football is a game of mistakes,” said the legendary football player and coach Johan Cruyff. “Whoever makes the fewest mistakes wins.”
As in football, and as in the last Cold War, victory will likely depend less on clever plans and cunning gambits, and more on the avoidance of glaringly stupid mistakes. Right now, both countries seem to be willfully hobbling themselves. The question is, which of them will manage to screw up least?