‘Cool War’: The Future Of U.S.-China Competition

Conflict and co-dependence between the U.S. and China.

President Barack Obama meets with Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, Tuesday, Feb., 14, 2012, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. (Susan Walsh/AP)

In this Feb. 2012 photo, President Barack Obama meets with Xi Jinping, who was vice president of China when the photo was taken. Xi Jinping is now the president of China. (Susan Walsh/AP)

The presidents of China and the United States meet in California next week. That should be an interesting get-together.

Reports this week accuse Chinese hackers of stealing the blueprints of more than two dozen critical American weapons systems. That’s a lot of military capacity and many years and billions of dollars, effectively stolen.

At the same time, these are giant economic partners. It’s not like the Cold War. My guest calls this relationship a “cool war.” A lot to gain. A lot to lose.

Up next On Point: China, the U.S., conflict, co-dependence and “ cool war.”

— Tom Ashbrook


John Reed, national security reporter for Foreign Policy. (@ReedFP)

Noah Feldman, professor of law at Harvard University and author of “Cool War: The Future Of Global Competition.” (@NoahRFeldman)

Noah Feldman, professor of law at Harvard University and author of "Cool War" at the WBUR studios. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Noah Feldman at the WBUR studios. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

From Tom’s Reading List

Salon: How Guantanamo Affects China: Our Human Rights Hypocrisies — “The emerging historical moment is creating a new context for the rhetoric and practice of human rights. For the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States now has a major incentive to promote the international human rights agenda. So long as China continues to violate human rights, there may be no better ideological tool for the United States to gain advantage under cool war circumstances.”

Bloomberg: Feds Want to Spy on Tomorrow’s Technology — “Invent a new communications technology recently? If so, beware: the U.S. government may require you to build it in a way that will enable federal agents to eavesdrop by court order.”

Book Excerpt

You can also read Chapter One on the publisher’s website.

Excerpted from “Cool War: The Future Of Global Competition” by Noah Feldman. Published by Random House, 2013. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.


(Courtesy of Random House)

(Courtesy of Random House)

Are we on the brink of a new Cold War? The United States is the sole reigning superpower, but it is being challenged by the rising power of China, much as ancient Rome was challenged by Carthage and Britain was challenged by Germany in the years before World War I. Should we therefore think of the United States and China as we once did about the United States and the Soviet Union, two gladiators doomed to an increasingly globalized combat until one side fades?

Or are we entering a new period of diversified global economic cooperation in which the very idea of old-fashioned, imperial power politics has become obsolete? Should we see the United States and China as more like France and Germany after World War II, adversaries wise enough to draw together in an increasingly close circle of cooperation that subsumes neighbors and substitutes economic exchange for geopolitical confrontation?

This is the central global question of our as-yet-unnamed historical moment. What will happen now that America’s post– Cold War engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan have run their course and U.S. attention has pivoted to Asia? Can the United States continue to engage China while somehow hedging against the strategic threat it poses? Can China go on seeing the United States both as an object of emulation and also as a barrier to its rightful place on the world stage?

The answer is a paradox: the paradox of cool war.

The term cool war aims to capture two different, mutually contradictory historical developments that are taking place simultaneously. A classic struggle for power is unfolding at the same time as economic cooperation is becoming deeper and more fundamental.

The current situation differs from global power struggles of the past. The world’s major power and its leading challenger are economically interdependent to an unprecedented degree. China needs the United States to continue buying its products. The United States needs China to continue lending it money. Their economic fates are, for the foreseeable future, tied together. Recognizing the overlapping combination of geostrategic conflict and economic interdependence is the key to making sense of what is coming and what options we have to affect it.

This book grows out of work I did in the first decade of the twenty-first century on the opposition and synthesis of Islam and democracy. My hope then was that a nuanced understanding of the interplay between these ideas and systems might help us rethink the prevalent picture of civilizational conflict. In this second decade of the still-young century, the great issues of conflict and cooperation have shifted. Now U.S. leadership and Western democracy are juxtaposed with China’s global aspirations and its protean, emergent governing system. As before, my goal is to add complexity to the dominant conventional accounts.

The stakes of this debate could not possibly be higher. One side argues that the United States must either accept decline or prepare for war. Only by military strength can the United States convince China that it is not worth challenging its status as the sole superpower. Projecting weakness would lead to instability and make war all the more likely.

The other side counters that trying to contain China is the worst thing the United States can do. Excessive defense spending will make the United States less competitive economically. Worse, it will encourage China to become aggressive itself, leading to an arms race that neither side wants and that would itself increase the chances of violence. Much better to engage China politically and economically and encourage it to share the burdens of superpower status.

What we need, I believe, is to change the way we think and talk about the U.S.-China relationship — to develop an alternative to simple images of inevitable conflict or utopian cooperation. We need a way to understand the new structure that draws on historical precedent while recognizing how things are different this time. We need to understand where the United States and China can see eye to eye, and where they cannot compromise. Most of all, we need a way forward to help avoid the real dangers that lie ahead.

This book offers a diagnosis of our situation; an analysis of the ideas and incentives of China’s leadership; and an account of how nations, corporations, and peace-seeking institutions are likely to react to a changing world order.

In the first part of the book, I show how the interests of the United States and China often overlap in the realms of trade and economics yet still diverge dramatically when it comes to geopolitical power and ideology. This situation of simultaneous cooperation and conflict needs a new name — cool war — to capture its distinctive features.

In the book’s second part, I offer an interpretation of China’s leadership. It is not possible to understand the dynamics of a cool war unless we have a more sophisticated understanding of the Chinese Communist Party. No longer ideologically communist, the leadership is pragmatic and committed to preserving its position of power. It seeks to maintain legitimacy through continued growth, regular transitions, and a tentative form of public accountability. It aims to manage deep internal divisions between entitled princelings and self-made meritocrats via a hybrid system that makes room for both types of elites.

Finally, in the third part of the book, I consider the consequences of the emerging cool war. I evaluate the significance of the new situation for countries around the world, for institutions that exist to keep the peace through international cooperation, for multinational corporations that operate everywhere—and for the future of human rights.

The results matter. The complicated interaction between the United States and China will shape war and peace globally and reveal whether the dream of peaceful international cooperation — embodied, albeit shakily, in the European Union — can be extended to countries with less in common. It will determine the future of democracy as a global movement, structure the international strategies of growing powers like India and Brazil, and guide the movements of companies and capital. It will influence the United Nations, the future of international law, and the progress or regress of human rights. Ultimately, like the Cold War before it, this new kind of international engagement will involve every country on earth.

Wherever possible, I have avoided speaking of the American people as “us” or “we.” The ideas here should be of use in China, in the West, and elsewhere. The risk of conflict — whether triggered by leaders’ mutual misunderstanding or by accurate judgments of diverging interests — must be taken seriously.3 Reducing the grave dangers of global conflict would serve the United States but also China and the world more generally. The purpose of this book is to start figuring out how we can do so, before it is too late.

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