Illustration: Craig Stephens
Josef Gregory Mahoney
Josef Gregory Mahoney

As US-China tensions fuel our age of anxiety, we must choose a better future

  • Experts and US policymakers subscribing to a zero-sum view of international relations normalise and even goad conflict
  • The only solution is to break this cycle of violence and normalise peace and cooperation instead

In 1948, as the Cold War between the US and Soviet Union was heating up, W.H. Auden’s long poem, The Age of Anxiety, captured both the zeitgeist and a Pulitzer Prize. Its title became a trope to describe the ruins of modernity, and moved Leonard Bernstein especially.

A year later his Symphony No 2, also titled The Age of Anxiety, fixated on the poem’s central theme: the loss of faith and the realisation that only faith remains.

This dialectic was not entirely new. Søren Kierkegaard just over a century earlier had described something similar in Fear and Trembling, reflecting on the Biblical story of God ordering Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, and how Abraham resolved the anxiety this command produced by making a “leap of faith”, by preparing to do as he was told.

Although God rescinded the command at the last moment, the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas wondered whether either were actually spared. Was such a leap of faith not already an act of violence against reason, and was it not also an act of violence against Isaac especially, having felt his father’s blade against his throat, a father commanded by voices Isaac could not hear?


Coronavirus pandemic creates ‘new Cold War’ as US-China relations sink to lowest point in decades

Coronavirus pandemic creates ‘new Cold War’ as US-China relations sink to lowest point in decades

Today, as US and Chinese officials reposition themselves amid growing differences, experts signal that a new cold war is already upon us, and that war is a growing possibility. Clearly, there is already a cold war of words in the West, spinning the hyperbolic.

The alleged “cultural genocide” in Xinjiang is now simply described as “genocide”. Sober intelligence assessments that Beijing might have the ability to launch an attack against Taiwan in five years are reframed as an imminent threat.
The US, UK and Australia announced a partnership under which the former two countries will help the latter build nuclear-powered submarines. Taipei has invited Canberra to consider a military alliance. Meanwhile, US troops are already in Taiwan. The principle of American “strategic ambiguity” regarding Taiwan, long a linchpin of US-China relations, is perhaps the first casualty, along with a US nuclear submarine crashing in the South China Sea on a secret mission.
All this was inevitable, writes John Mearsheimer in an article in Foreign Affairs. A doyen of the “realist” school of international relations theory, Mearsheimer made his name excoriating what he described as “delusional” American leaders who squandered the unipolarity they acquired after “winning the first Cold War” when they were seduced by idealistic accounts like Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis, among others.

Mearsheimer writes that this saw the US getting drawn into self-destructive misadventures like unwinnable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and, until relatively recently, facilitating China’s rise instead of slowing it.

On the one hand, Mearsheimer’s criticism of US foreign policy carries water. Both Democrats and Republicans have failed to formulate strategies capable of ensuring American global hegemony.

US didn’t ‘engage’ China to make it rich and free; it profited off it

However, he doesn’t acknowledge that even if they had done so, maintaining hegemony was likely to be quixotic and, worse, undesirable, despite his insistence that international relations are always a zero-sum game, especially when great powers are involved.

On the other hand, Mearsheimer’s “realist” account ignores that the US has repeatedly deployed containment strategies against China for over two decades to slow or at least “manage” China’s rise. And he does not connect how these efforts have provoked Beijing in the South and East China seas.
He does not note that America’s mess in Central Asia contributed to difficult conditions in Xinjiang, or that its abandonment of Pakistan and embrace of India contributed to frictions between China and India.
Rather, China’s efforts to protect its borders with buffers, better defences and blue-water breakout points are reduced to the logic of a rising power seeking its own hegemony, at America’s expense. Mearsheimer also ignores Beijing’s calls for a multipolar world, instead insisting that China, like the US, desires dominance.


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Chinese hypersonic weapons test ‘has all of our attention’, US General Mark Milley says
All this huffing and puffing, whether by theorists like Mearsheimer or US policymakers, is likely to be read by Chinese leaders through a single lens: a calculated effort to flirt with Beijing’s red lines to embarrass President Xi Jinping ahead of this month’s party plenary, and the National People’s Congress in 2022, where Xi’s future as the head of China’s Communist Party, state and military apparatuses will be determined in the lead-up to the Party Congress.

The Biden administration won’t hand Xi any “wins” like reversing the trade war or de-escalating tensions in the South China Sea or Taiwan until China’s leadership question is settled.

And, above all, there will be none before Biden achieves his signature policy, the infrastructure bill, only recently passed due to factionalism in his own party, reverses his poor poll numbers and recovers from Democrats losing the Virginia governorship. To moderate now would empower Xi and weaken Biden, and by extension, he reasons, further imperil faith in America at home and abroad.
Then US vice-president Joe Biden shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on December 4, 2013. Since then, US-China relations have deteriorated. Photo: Getty Images/TNS

Kierkegaard also lived in an age of anxiety, which led throughout Europe to the Revolutions of 1848. But in Denmark, Kierkegaard’s home, the struggle between the haves and have-nots was resolved through compromise, which saw the beginning of Scandinavian socialism and the limits of absolute political authority – both of which Kierkegaard feared would erode faith and social convention, but instead led to some of the most socially just and happiest societies in human history.

Today, our age of anxiety is marked by great power competition plus climate change and a pandemic. Mearsheimer and others like him downplay these additional existential concerns. In this sense, these “realists”, who see a new cold war, or a hot one, as inevitable ignore the pressing realities we face.

Instead, they normalise and even goad conflict. This is not realism – it’s a perverse metaphysics, a leap of faith to account for the loss of the same. The only solution to our anxiety is to break this cycle of violence, repudiate zero-sum approaches, and normalise peace and cooperation.

Answering Beijing positively in this regard is not appeasement or contrary to rational thinking. And neither is choosing faith in a better future.

Josef Gregory Mahoney is professor of politics at East China Normal University in Shanghai