Cold War 2.0 may end up saving US and China from domestic implosion
- Thousands of bridges, roads and bypasses are without funding for urgent repair across the United States, but more than 1,000 expensive US military bases and sites are maintained around the world that never lack funding. By conjuring up a common threat or enemy, those overseas bases may be what ultimately hold the country together
Civil war or another cold war? Facing the possibility of national break-up, the more powerful or influential countries of today will much prefer the latter, among which are the United States, Britain and China. Perhaps we can add a few more, say, India, Russia and the European Union? And if, in the end, the last cold war saved us from nuclear annihilation, precisely because it exposed humanity to it, maybe Cold War 2.0 will be the new emerging structure of international relations to keep nations and blocs from imploding.
A new cold war will make the great powers stand against each other and force lesser ones to pick a side. We are already seeing it today. Nothing holds a community together more effectively than having a commonly accepted threat and an identifiable enemy. Recent polls have shown ordinary Americans (and western Europeans) on one side and Chinese on the other increasingly see each other’s country as a primary threat. “Us vs them”, “with us or against us”: for all our civilisational and technological progress, such basic or primitive political realities, grounded in human nature, still dictate our behaviour.
Now, consider the centrifugal forces at work in those same societies that are pulling themselves apart because of intensifying civil strife. The failure of society is when it cannot address existential threats through established political channels and institutions. And all those countries mentioned are showing such symptoms. The failure of human civilisation will be our collective failure to address the existential threat of climate change.
The United States
The Financial Times recently ran a long provocative review of three books. The article’s headline and subheading went: “Is America heading for civil war? A clutch of books makes an alarmingly persuasive case that the warning lights are flashing redder than at any point since 1861”.
The three books cited are: How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them by Barbara F. Walter, This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden, and the Battle for America’s Future by Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, and The Next Civil War: Dispatches from the American Future by Stephen Marche.
“In 2022, America’s two parties are increasingly sorted along racial and identity lines,” the reviewer wrote. “Republicans are white, small town and rural – the party now holds just one truly urban congressional district in New York’s Staten Island. Democrats are now almost entirely urban and multi-ethnic. The habits of a normal democracy in which the losing party forms a loyal opposition are vanishing.
“More than a third of Republicans and Democrats today believe violence is justified to achieve their political ends, compared with less than a tenth apiece in 2017, the year Trump took office. His rhetoric opened the floodgates to separatist feelings. When one party loses, its voters feel as though their America is being occupied by a foreign power. America, Walter points out, has become ‘a factionalised anocracy’ – the halfway state between autocracy and democracy – that is ‘quickly approaching the open insurgency stage’.”
Consider Roe vs Wade and gun violence. They go way beyond the specificities of abortion and gun rights; they call into question the very legitimacy of the US Supreme Court and its rulings, the last branch of legitimate government on which most Americans used to agree on and respect, but now increasingly question.
The United Kingdom
The latest poll shows Scottish voters are split 50/50 on Scottish independence. The survey, released early this month, also finds that one in two Scots want another referendum vote by 2026. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is expected to launch a fresh push for independence.
The latest elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly, the devolved legislature, saw Sinn Fein, the Irish nationalist party, secure a majority for the very first time. In the 2020 elections for the lower house of the Republic of Ireland’s parliament, Sinn Fein also won more votes than all the other parties.
As the century progresses, it seems only a matter of time before Ireland is unified, and Scotland becomes independent. Will the break-up be peaceful?
When it comes to Taiwan, the difficulty begins with the vocabulary, which makes discussions even more complicated. For Beijing, the future of Taiwan lies in its return to mainland China. If this has to be achieved by force, then the conflict is, by definition, a civil war, though most likely with outside interference such as from the US.
But for many Taiwanese and their Western supporters, that will be a foreign invasion, whose aim is less unification than annexation. Regardless of how such a cross-strait conflict is defined or understood, it will have an adverse impact on Beijing’s hold on Tibet and Xinjiang with significant non-Han and separatist elements.
Cold War 2.0
If you can’t resolve your domestic problems that are inflicting mortal blows to the body politic, the surest way to avoid a societal dissolution is to rally nationalism. Nationalism in the 19th century, then a new phenomenon in Europe, was political fashion. It only became a curse word in the last century. It is making a comeback. All the talk about democracy vs authoritarianism from Washington sounds more like a desperate attempt to lend an ideological veneer to the naked power struggle between China and the West. Even if there is an ideological clash today, it is much less obvious than that between capitalism and communism during the Cold War.
And the surest way to boost nationalism is to identify an enemy; hence the constant demonisation of China in the Western media, diplomatic and political discourse. Of course, China has plenty of its own anti-Western channels. If there is one thing US Democrats and Republicans can agree on, it’s “the China threat”.
Many pundits, both in China and the West, already call their mutual and rising antagonism the new cold war. And why not? Consider this interesting fact. Across the US, there are thousands of bridges, roads and bypasses that are in urgent need of repair yet have no funding to do it. Around the world, the US maintains more than 1,000 military bases and operational sites, the vast majority of which never lack funding.
In the end, while having much less to do with homeland security than maintaining a hostile posture against any perceived threat or enemy overseas, those military bases and the defence network they form keep the US together by conjuring up a common threat.