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Winning the Second Cold War

Updated: Nov 15, 2021

Simulation Technology for Ecosystem Wellness through Antifragile Resource Deployment (STEWARD) blog series - part 1 of 7

Historian Niall Ferguson asks this week, "Are we now in Cold War II, with the People’s Republic of China taking the place of the Soviet Union?" - and finds that "a growing number of commentators implicitly accept this". So, what is the likely outcome, this time round?

If it's not to lose, the US may need to get its act in order. Michael Beckley is optimistic about US advantages - "Contrary to popular belief, the United States has the means to check China’s naval expansion" - but critical of its tactics:

A consensus has emerged among defense experts about how to deter China. Instead of waiting for a war to begin and then surging vulnerable aircraft carriers into East Asia, the United States could install a high-tech “minefield” in the area by prepositioning missile launchers, armed drones, and sensors at sea and on allied territory near China’s coastline. These diffuse networks of munitions would be tough for China to neutralize and would not require large bases or fancy platforms. Instead, they could be installed on almost anything that floats or flies, including converted merchant ships, barges, and aircraft.

Defense analysts have touted this approach for more than a decade. Yet the U.S. military still relies overwhelmingly on small numbers of large warships and short-range fighter aircraft operating from exposed bases — exactly the kinds of forces that China could destroy in a pre-emptive air and missile attack.

Beckley goes on to argue for a narrower focus in the military, on "identifying and axing nonessential tasks to free up military resources and focus attention on deterring China." Such a strategy might stop the US losing. But will it help the West win?

Ferguson concludes his analysis with a depressing forecast: "Just as no one can quite be sure when a cold war begins, nor can there be any certainty about the duration of such a war. Just because Cold War I lasted around forty years is no guarantee that the same will be true of Cold War II. Those making US foreign policy today must hope for the best but prepare for the worst. It may indeed be a long game."

Such an extended period of conflict is in no-one's interest. What can military strategists in the West do to shorten it? It might be worth looking back at what happened last time. Here is a helpful summary by the BBC, for schoolchildren, of Key factors that brought an end to the Cold War:

Leaving out diplomacy (Gorbachev and Reagan), Russia lost the Cold War after being crippled by drawn-out war against Islamic forces, mass populist uprising, and economic weakness. Today, does this sound more like China or the US?

However, the true underlying reason is simpler than all of this. The US economic model of the time (neoliberalism) worked better than that of Russia (centralised socialism), so the US was better able to afford an arms race and faced less unrest from citizens. Looking at the first Cold War in this way, the winning strategy in the second may come down to who has the better economic model now.

As things stand, it's pretty close. Current forecasts show that China's economy could surpass the US in total size by 2026. However, Bruce Pang, head of macro and strategy research at China Renaissance, says the “real milestone” will be when China can overtake the U.S. in terms of GDP per capita. China’s per capita GDP rose to around $11,000 in 2020, while that of the U.S. was more than five times greater at $63,200. But is this the real milestone?

Landmark studies of recent years such as that of Wilkinson and Pickett (2009) and Piketty (2013) show that the true determinant of economic success is inequality, and in that respect both the West and East are slipping back into Imperial days. Piketty's charts show how inequality in the West today is similar to that of the Belle Epoque. Wilkinson's and Pickett's show how the inequality of a nation, not its overall wealth, is what determines the wellness of its citizens - and while inequality is bad enough in the West, it may be even worse in China.

Thinking about things in this way, there is a strong argument that the weapon the West needs to develop and deploy is socio-economic: a new form of capitalism, that is like neoliberalism in being applicable anywhere, but unlike it in sustaining broad-based wellness. An enlightened form of capitalism adoptable by any community is a weapon that can win the second Cold War - and its deployment will have only victors. There will be no casualties.

Military strategists who want to win, rather than simply not lose, the second Cold War should be thinking about how to help create Supercommunities.

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