The Second Cold War, also called Cold War II or the New Cold War, is a term used by various commentators to describe the heightened post–Cold War era political and military tensions between the United States and China. It is also used to describe such tensions between the US and Russia, a state of the former Soviet Union, which was one of major parties of the original Cold War until its dissolution in 1991. Some commentators have used the term as a comparison to the original Cold War.
Past sources, such as academics Fred Halliday, Alan M. Wald, and David S. Painter, used the interchangeable terms to refer to the 1979–1985 and/or 1985–1991 phases of the Cold War. Some other sources used similar terms to refer to the Cold War of the mid-1970s. Columnist William Safire argued in a 1975 New York Times editorial that the Nixon administration's policy of détente with the Soviet Union had failed and that "Cold War II" was now underway. Academic Gordon H. Chang in 2007 used the term "Cold War II" to refer to the Cold War period after the 1972 meeting in China between US President Richard Nixon and Chinese Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong.
In 1998, George Kennan described the US Senate vote to expand NATO to include Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic as "the beginning of a new cold war", and predicted that "the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies".
The journalist Edward Lucas wrote his 2008 book The New Cold War: How the Kremlin Menaces both Russia and the West, claiming that a new cold war between Russia and the West had begun already.
"New Cold War"
In June 2019, University of Southern California (USC) professors Steven Lamy and Robert D. English agreed that the "new Cold War" would distract political parties from bigger issues such as globalization, global warming, global poverty, increasing inequality, and right-wing populism. However, Lamy said that the new Cold War had not yet begun, while English said that it already had. English further said that China poses a far greater threat than Russia in cyberwarfare but not as much as right-wing populism does from within liberal states like the US.
The US senior defence official Jed Babbin, Yale University professor David Gelernter, Firstpost editor R. Jagannathan, Subhash Kapila of the South Asia Analysis Group, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and some other sources have used the term (occasionally using the term the Pacific Cold War) to refer to tensions between the United States and China in the 2000s and 2010s.
Talk of a "new Cold War" between a United States-led block of countries on the one hand and the putative Beijing-Moscow axis, including explicit references to it in the official PRC's media, intensified in the summer of 2016 as a result of the territorial dispute in the South China Sea, when China defied the Permanent Court of Arbitration′s ruling against China on the South China Sea dispute, and the US announcing in July 2016 it would deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in South Korea, a move resented by China as well as Russia and North Korea.
Donald Trump, who was inaugurated as US president on 20 January 2017, had repeatedly said during his presidential campaign that he considered China a threat, a stance that heightened speculations of the possibility of a "new cold war with China". Claremont McKenna College professor Minxin Pei said that Trump's election win and "ascent to the presidency" may increase chances of the possibility. In March 2017, a self-declared socialist magazine Monthly Review said, "With the rise of the Trump administration, the new Cold War with Russia has been put on hold", and also said that the Trump administration has planned to shift from Russia to China as its main competitor.
In July 2018, Michael Collins, deputy assistant director of the CIA's East Asia mission center, told the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado he believed China under paramount leader and general secretary Xi Jinping, while unwilling to go to war, was waging a "quiet kind of cold war" against the United States, seeking to replace the US as the leading global power. He further elaborated: "What they're waging against us is fundamentally a cold war — a cold war not like we saw during [the] Cold War (between the U.S. and the Soviet Union) but a cold war by definition". In October 2018, a Hong Kong's Lingnan University professor Zhang Baohui told The New York Times that a speech by United States Vice-President Mike Pence at the Hudson Institute "will look like the declaration of a new Cold War".
In January 2019, Robert D. Kaplan of the Center for a New American Security wrote that "it is nothing less than a new cold war: The constant, interminable Chinese computer hacks of American warships’ maintenance records, Pentagon personnel records, and so forth constitute war by other means. This situation will last decades and will only get worse".
In February 2019, Joshua Shifrinson, an associate professor from Boston University, criticised the concerns about tensions between China and the US as "overblown", saying that the relationship between the two countries are different from that of the US–Soviet Union relations during the original Cold War, that factors of heading to another era of bipolarity are uncertain, and that ideology play a less prominent role between China and the US.
In April 2019, economist and Yale University academic Stephen S. Roach wrote, "The US economy is weaker now than it was during [...] Cold War 1.0," and recommended that the US and China either improve their relations, particularly by resolving their trade war, or face "Cold War 2.0". Moreover, Roach predicted that "economic resilience" would occur in upcoming months in the US, while he asserted that the weakening of China's economy "could run its course by mid-year."
In June 2019, academic Stephen Wertheim called President Trump a "xenophobe" and criticised Trump's foreign policy toward China for heightening risks of a new Cold War, which Wertheim wrote "could plunge the United States back into gruesome proxy wars around the world and risk a still deadlier war among the great powers."
In the 2019, Yuan Peng of the China Institute of International Studies said that the financial crisis of 2007–2008 "initiated a shift in the global order." Yuan predicted the possibility of the new cold war between both countries and their global power competition turning "from 'superpower vs. major power' to 'No. 1 vs. No. 2'." On the other hand, scholar Zhu Feng said that their "strategic competition" would not lead to the new Cold War. Zhu said that the US–China relations have progressed positively and remained "stable", despite disputes in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait and US President Trump's aggressive approaches toward China.
In January 2020, columnist and historian Niall Ferguson opined that China is one of the major players of this Cold War, whose powers are "economic rather than military", and that Russia's role is "quite small". Ferguson also wrote:
[C]ompared 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.
Ferguson further wrote that this Cold War is different from the original Cold War because the US "is so intertwined with China" at the point where "decoupling" is as others argued "a delusion" and because "America's traditional allies are much less eager to align themselves with Washington and against Beijing." He further wrote that the new Cold War "shifted away from trade to technology" when both the US and China signed their Phase One trade deal. In a February 2020 interview with The Japan Times, Ferguson suggested that, to "contain China", the US "work intelligently with its Asian and European allies", as the US had done in the original Cold War, rather than on its own and perform something more effective than "tariffs, which are a very blunt instrument." He also said that the US under Trump has been "rather poor" at making foreign relations.
On May 24, 2020, China Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that relations with the U.S. were on the "brink of a new Cold War" after it was fuelled by tensions over the COVID-19 pandemic. In June 2020, Boston College political scientist Robert S. Ross wrote that the US and China "are destined to compete [but] not destined for violent conflict or a cold war." In the following month July, Ross said that the Trump "administration would like to fully decouple from China. No trade, no cultural exchanges, no political exchanges, no cooperation on anything that resembles common interests."
In August 2020, a La Trobe University professor Nick Bisley wrote that the US–China rivalry "will be no Cold War" but rather will "be more complex, harder to manage, and last much longer." He further wrote that comparing the old Cold War to the ongoing rivalry "is a risky endeavour."
In September 2020, the UN Secretary General António Guterres warned that the increasing tensions between the US under Trump and China under Xi were leading to "a Great Fracture" which would become costly to the world. Xi Jinping replied by saying that "China has no intention to fight either a Cold War or a hot one with any country."
In March 2021, a Columbia University professor Thomas J. Christensen wrote that the cold war between the US and China "is unlikely" in comparison to the original Cold War, citing China's prominence in the "global production chain" and absence of the authoritarianism vs. liberal democracy dynamic. Christensen further advised those concerned about the tensions between the two nations to research China's role in the global economy and its "foreign policy toward international conflicts and civil wars" between liberal and authoritarian forces. He further noted newly elected US President Joe Biden's planned different approach from predecessor Donald Trump.
Sources disagree as to whether a period of global tension analogous to the Cold War is possible in the future, while others have used the term to describe the ongoing renewed tensions, hostilities, and political rivalries that intensified dramatically in 2014 between Russia, the United States and their respective allies.
Michael Klare, a RealClearPolitics writer and an academic, in June 2013 compared tensions between Russia and the West to the ongoing proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Oxford Professor Philip N. Howard argued that a new cold war was being fought via the media, information warfare, and cyberwar. In 2014, notable figures such as Mikhail Gorbachev warned, against the backdrop of a confrontation between Russia and the West over the Ukrainian crisis, that the world was on the brink of a new cold war, or that it was already occurring. The American political scientist Robert Legvold also believes it started in 2013 during the Ukraine crisis. Others argued that the term did not accurately describe the nature of relations between Russia and the West.
Stephen F. Cohen, Robert D. Crane, and Alex Vatanka have all referred to a "US–Russian Cold War". Andrew Kuchins, an American political scientist and Kremlinologist speaking in 2016, believed the term was "unsuited to the present conflict" as it may be more dangerous than the Cold War.
While new tensions between Russia and the West have similarities with those during the Cold War, there are also major differences, such as modern Russia's increased economic ties with the outside world, which may potentially constrain Russia's actions, and provide it with new avenues for exerting influence, such as in Belarus and Central Asia, which have not seen the type of direct military action that Russia engaged in less cooperative former Soviet states like Ukraine and the Caucasus region. The term "Cold War II" has therefore been described as a misnomer.
The term "Cold War II" gained currency and relevance as tensions between Russia and the West escalated throughout the 2014 pro-Russian unrest in Ukraine followed by the Russian military intervention and especially the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July 2014. By August 2014, both sides had implemented economic, financial, and diplomatic sanctions upon each other: virtually all Western countries, led by the US and European Union, imposed punitive measures on Russia, which introduced retaliatory measures.
Some observers, including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, judged the Syrian Civil War to be a proxy war between Russia and the United States, and even a "proto-world war". In January 2016, senior UK government officials were reported to have registered their growing fears that "a new cold war" was now unfolding in Europe: "It really is a new Cold War out there. Right across the EU we are seeing alarming evidence of Russian efforts to unpick the fabric of European unity on a whole range of vital strategic issues".
In an interview with Time magazine in December 2014, Gorbachev said that the US under Barack Obama was dragging Russia into a new cold war. In February 2016, at the Munich Security Conference, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that NATO and Russia were "not in a cold-war situation but also not in the partnership that we established at the end of the Cold War", while Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, speaking of what he called NATO's "unfriendly and opaque" policy on Russia, said "One could go as far as to say that we have slid back to a new Cold War". In October 2016 and March 2017, Stoltenberg said that NATO did not seek "a new Cold War" or "a new arms race" with Russia.
In February 2016, a Higher School of Economics university academic and Harvard University visiting scholar Yuval Weber wrote on E-International Relations that "the world is not entering Cold War II", asserting that the current tensions and ideologies of both sides are not similar to those of the original Cold War, that situations in Europe and the Middle East do not destabilise other areas geographically, and that Russia "is far more integrated with the outside world than the Soviet Union ever was". In September 2016, when asked if he thought the world had entered a new cold war, Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, argued that current tensions were not comparable to the Cold War. He noted the lack of an ideological divide between the United States and Russia, saying that conflicts were no longer ideologically bipolar.
In August 2016, Daniel Larison of The American Conservative magazine wrote that tensions between Russia and the United States would not "constitute a 'new Cold War'" especially between democracy and authoritarianism, which Larison found more limited than and not as significant in 2010s as that of the Soviet-Union era.
In October 2016, John Sawers, a former MI6 chief, said he thought the world was entering an era that was possibly "more dangerous" than the Cold War, as "we do not have that focus on a strategic relationship between Moscow and Washington". Similarly, Igor Zevelev, a fellow at the Wilson Center, said that "it's not a Cold War [but] a much more dangerous and unpredictable situation". CNN opined: "It's not a new Cold War. It's not even a deep chill. It's an outright conflict".
In January 2017, a former US Government adviser Molly K. McKew said at Politico that the US would win a new cold war. The New Republic editor Jeet Heer dismissed the possibility as "equally troubling[,] reckless threat inflation, wildly overstating the extent of Russian ambitions and power in support of a costly policy", and too centred on Russia while "ignoring the rise of powers like China and India". Heer also criticised McKew for suggesting the possibility. Jeremy Shapiro, a senior fellow in the Brookings Institution, wrote in his blog post at RealClearPolitics, referring to the US–Russia relations: "A drift into a new Cold War has seemed the inevitable result".
In August 2017, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov denied claims that the US and Russia were having another cold war, despite ongoing tensions between the two countries and newer US sanctions against Russia. A University of East Anglia graduate student Oliver Steward and the Casimir Pulaski Foundation senior fellow Stanisław Koziej in 2017 attributed Zapad 2017 exercise, a military exercise by Russia, as part of the new Cold War. In March 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin told journalist Megyn Kelly in an interview: "My point of view is that the individuals that have said that a new Cold War has started are not analysts. They do propaganda." Michael Kofman, a senior research scientist at the CNA Corporation and a fellow at the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute said that the new cold war for Russia "is about its survival as a power in the international order, and also about holding on to the remnants of the Russian empire". Lyle Goldstein, a research professor at the US Naval War College claims that the situations in Georgia and Ukraine "seemed to offer the requisite storyline for new Cold War".
In March 2018, Harvard University professors Stephen Walt and then Odd Arne Westad criticised application of the term to increasing tensions between the Russia and the West as "misleading", "distract[ing]", and too simplistic to describe the more complicated contemporary international politics.
In April 2018 relations deteriorated over a potential US-led military strike in Middle East after the Douma chemical attack in Syria, which was attributed to the Syrian Army by rebel forces in Douma, and poisoning of the Skripals in the UK. The Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, told a meeting of the UN Security Council that "the Cold War was back with a vengeance". He suggested the dangers were even greater, as the safeguards that existed to manage such a crisis "no longer seem to be present". Dmitri Trenin supported Guterres' statement, but added that it began in 2014 and had been intensifying since, resulting in US-led strikes on the Syrian government on 13 April 2018.
Russian news agency TASS reported the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying "I don't think that we should talk about a new Cold War", adding that the US development of low-yield nuclear warheads (the first of which entered production in January 2019) had increased the potential for the use of nuclear weapons.
In October 2018, Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer told Deutsche Welle that the new Cold War would make the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and other Cold War-era treaties "irrelevant because they correspond to a totally different world situation." In February 2019, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that the withdrawal from the INF treaty would not lead to "a new Cold War".
Speaking to the press in Berlin on 8 November 2019, a day before the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, U.S. secretary of state Mike Pompeo warned of the dangers posed by Russia and China and specifically accused Russia, "led by a former KGB officer once stationed in Dresden", of invading its neighbours and crushing dissent. Jonathan Marcus of the BBC opined that Pompeo's words "appeared to be declaring the outbreak of a second [Cold War]".
A philosophy academic Andrew Levine wrote on CounterPunch in January 2020, "Cold War revivalism has become the Democratic Party's watchword since even before Hillary Clinton needed an excuse for losing the 2016 election." Levine criticised the Democratic Party's "dangerous and blatantly hypocritical efforts to revive the Cold War with Russia and their glorification of the liars ... in America’s intelligence community."
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