In March, historic rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia announced that they had agreed to normalize relations. This news was significant because it signaled a possible change in regional order in the Middle East. But—at least for the Washington commentariat—what was more notable was that America’s fingerprints were nowhere near the deal. Instead, the rapprochement had been brokered by China, in Beijing’s latest notable turn as international negotiator. This move brought into stark relief a development that some experts have been predicting for years: the end of the post–Cold War, unipolar moment and the beginning of a new multipolar era, in which the United States must coexist with other powers.
When Biden took office, he had the chance to reorient his foreign policy for this new age. The catchphrase of Biden’s foreign policy vision on the campaign trail was “America is back”—by which he signaled an effort to reverse the perceived ills of his predecessor’s worldview. While Biden recognized the challenges posed by other powers, he pledged “to compete from a position of strength.” He intended to “begin restoring American engagement internationally and earn back our leadership position, to catalyze global action on shared challenges.” Working with other countries to confront international problems like climate change and public health was ostensibly a foundational principle of this foreign policy.
Yet, partly because of factors outside of his control—notably Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022—and partly because of an intentional shift in American national security strategy, Biden’s foreign policymaking has been defined by great power competition. In this framing, Beijing’s attempt to play peacemaker is a sign of rivalry rather than an opportunity for collaboration.
Relations with China have been spiraling downward for years, accelerated by aggressive actions taken by both powers. Donald Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric and policies toward an increasingly powerful and belligerent government in Beijing heightened tensions between the countries. In a pertinent recent example, the discovery of a Chinese-operated spy balloon flying in U.S. airspace in February led to the cancellation of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s planned trip to Beijing, and diplomatic relations were very slow to recover, although Blinken and other U.S. government representatives did eventually travel to China. Biden’s delayed response to the balloon incident in June, in which he called the episode “a great embarrassment for dictators”—referring to Xi Jinping—led to another flare-up.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brought relations with Moscow to a new low, made clear that Moscow was intent on reasserting itself as a great power, and solidified Biden’s position that this is a world marked by division rather than cooperation: pitting, in Biden’s words, democracies against autocracies.
Columbia University professor Michael Doyle tackles these global shifts in his new book, Cold Peace: Avoiding the New Cold War. He traces the domestic and international roots of these tensions, analyzes the most combustible points of potential conflict in the relationships, from economic warfare to territorial disputes in Ukraine and Taiwan, and offers thoughts on how to maintain relations and avoid the worst downsides of conflict. Like the first Cold War, a second would have disastrous consequences for the world: arms races, proxy wars, an inability to address pressing global concerns of security and inequality, and a looming risk of deterioration into a hot war.
Great power competition is not quite inevitable, and, as Doyle explains, Cold War is not a necessary outgrowth of great power competition. But over approximately the last decade, militarism and nationalism in both Washington and Beijing have increased—a trend accelerated by Presidents Xi Jinping and Donald Trump—creating a destructive spiral. Each country accuses the other of trying to recalibrate the international order against its interests and blames it for domestic problems. This cycle is particularly noticeable among the political elite, but the impulse to blame China for, say, the drug crisis or the loss of jobs in the United States eventually makes its way to the general public.
Thus far, as Doyle lays out in great detail, direct confrontation has been limited to cyber and economic policies. On economic policy, the Biden administration has largely followed the Trump playbook, adopting an aggressive stance toward Beijing, including explicitly working to counter a number of China’s trade and development initiatives, and pushing other countries to do the same, at the risk of jeopardizing their ties to the U.S. The administration has taken steps in pursuit of this goal, including prohibiting American manufacturers from selling semiconductors to any Chinese company. Washington has been sanctioning Moscow since it first annexed Crimea in 2014, but the economic pressure campaign has intensified in the year and a half since the invasion of Ukraine—an effort that the White House has repeatedly referred to as “unprecedented.” In the near term, the looming powder kegs are in Taiwan and Ukraine, where Russian and Chinese territorial ambitions have led to inflamed—if often inconsistent—responses from Washington.
Doyle lays out in detail how he would address these two issues. He points out that each side has strong reasons to reach a compromise. It is, Doyle argues, in the interest of the U.S. to keep sea lanes in the western Pacific open and protect its allies, particularly to avoid the invasion of democratic Taiwan. Meanwhile, it’s in China’s interest to avoid war, to ensure “maritime security in its region, the principle of territorial integrity, economic growth, and the national prestige of leading its region.”
Keeping these interests in mind, Doyle sees five broad areas for compromise between the two nations. They are: the continuation of strategic ambiguity (Doyle calls it “constructive ambiguity”) over Taiwan’s territorial status; the creation of certain zones barring military transit as a means to maintain maritime and aerial security and reduce the chances of inadvertent military confrontations; allowing Taiwan to acquire sufficient defensive capabilities instead of the U.S. continuing to increase its own naval forces in the Asia-Pacific; China halting its construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea, in exchange for the U.S. informing Beijing of the movement of its ships in the sea; and integrating China into more arms control treaties, such as the New START nuclear arms negotiations.
On Russia and Ukraine, Doyle offers a similar list: Residents of Crimea would be allowed to vote on which of the two countries they wish to be a part of; the Donbas would be returned to Ukraine, under the condition that “Ukraine would pledge to implement minority rights to property and education and local self-government”; the EU and the United States would agree to recognize both of these arrangements; and Ukraine and Russia would agree to a broadly defined agreement that would allow Kyiv to be incorporated into a wider security framework, perhaps in exchange for a pledge that Ukraine would not be invited to join NATO.
Neither Moscow, Kyiv, nor Washington (nor Beijing, for that matter) has to date shown a desire for some version of a land-and-neutrality-for-security type of deal like the one offered by Doyle, though it does appear most likely that the war will eventually be settled at the negotiating table. And a deeper problem with these solutions is that cooperation does not happen in a vacuum. On their own, these proposals are thoughtful and mostly reasonable, and avoiding a hot war between great powers is understandably Doyle’s overarching goal. But if all sides continue to perceive actions by the other as hostile, then they will constantly be at the precipice of a military confrontation. And adopting a Cold War–style, zero-sum framework, in which the rest of the world is forced to choose sides, only reinforces this dynamic. Instead, the sides need to create a world in which cooperative coexistence is the norm.
One of Doyle’s most consistent—and most potentially problematic—assumptions is that in the post-unipolar era, the world is divided into blocs. Led by the U.S., the West stands for elections, human rights, free markets, free speech, and other pillars of liberal democracy, while China and Russia seek a world that is “safe for autocracy,” in which these principles are optional. The rest of the world, in this division, will line up behind one of these agendas.
Yet that isn’t the way that relations have shaken out so far. Trump and Biden are the first two presidents of the post-unipolar era. Trump’s approach to the rest of the world was a strange form of assertive unilateralism, an approach that explicitly disavowed the concept of global leadership while flexing American power, especially military might. Biden’s method has been his predecessor’s awkward opposite, an attempt to re-embrace American leadership while working with other countries to confront global challenges, though acknowledging the limits of military power.
Biden has celebrated his success in rehabilitating the nation’s global standing, but evidence shows that much of the rest of the world has not bought into his vision. While Biden continues to tout the unparalleled unity with which the world has condemned Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine, much of the global south has remained unaligned during the first year of the war, choosing instead to bemoan the consequences of the war while arguing for a diplomatic solution and eschewing participation in the sanctions regime. More than 30 countries have abstained on United Nations votes condemning Moscow, and a recent study from The Economist found that “although 52 countries comprising 15% of the global population—the West and its friends—lambast and punish Russia’s actions, and just 12 countries laud Russia, some 127 states are categorised as not being clearly in either camp.”
Some of the world’s largest and most important democracies, like India and Brazil, have not taken sides in the ongoing global conflict. Brazil’s new President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in particular, has been vocal in his support to find a quick resolution to the war, and insisted that blame for the war is shared between Russia and the West.
The desire for nonalignment may be even stronger on China, which maintains strong economic ties with most of the world. Even NATO, which, to date, has stayed largely unified on the Ukraine question, may not be as solid in a confrontation with Beijing. Already, French President Emmanuel Macron has raised doubts over whether a possible crisis over Taiwan concerns his country, telling Politico, “Is it in our interest to accelerate [a crisis] on Taiwan? No. The worse thing would be to think that we Europeans must become followers on this topic and take our cue from the U.S. agenda and a Chinese overreaction.”
This reality is squarely at odds with the concept of a world divided cleanly into democratic states on the one hand and autocratic ones on the other. Doyle’s suggestions are not quite so rigid, as he emphasizes that the door to his proposed “caucus of democracies” should remain open to autocratic states on an issue-by-issue basis, as well as to any country considering a democratic transition. He nonetheless advocates that the “right response” to the growing alliance between Moscow and Beijing is “to strengthen the democratic coalition of states prepared to balance against the autocratic coalition of Russia and China and their allies.” If recent events are any indication, there is little appetite for such blocs to exist, and if they ever do, they will be defined not by regime type or ideology but by other, evolving and more narrowly conceived national interests.
Washington can often find comfort in common enemies and straightforward logic, whether that be the Soviet Union during the Cold War or “global terrorism” in the post-9/11 years. Today, as the national security establishment searches to give American power a purpose in this new age, reclaiming old thinking is appealing, such that even Doyle and many others who are clear-eyed about the dangers of a new Cold War can easily be tempted to revert to that framework. But adopting that framework, even if to warn against it, can be dangerous as it raises the stakes of the confrontation while making the conditions necessary for coexistence unlikely.
One of the stronger portions of Cold Peace comes toward the end, when Doyle makes the case that in order for the world to be safe for American democracy, American democracy must be safe for the world. In other words, domestic renewal is a key part of protecting international democracy. The “lesson of the grim politics of the past years in both Europe and the United States,” Doyle writes, is “that international security will not be achieved without first rebuilding the economic foundations of liberal democracy at home.”
In Doyle’s telling, the way to defend liberalism and
democracy is not to directly confront autocratic regimes elsewhere in the
world but rather to focus inward. “Sometimes, the best defense is a good
offense,” he argues. “But today, in response to the threats from a new cold
war, the best defense is a good defense.” Lessons from the first Cold War
indicate that arguing that everyone must be on one side or the other can have
devastating consequences on our society, from McCarthyism to the persecution of already marginalized groups.
But that solution is not enough to avoid great power conflict. So long as Washington is convinced that its task is to uphold an ill-defined international order, rather than to navigate an increasingly multipolar world, then rivalry, as opposed to cooperation, will continue to define its strategy. Unless we are willing to directly confront the root causes of democratic decay at home and hegemony abroad, we are bound to repeat the mistakes of the Cold War.