The new confrontation is based on the ability to produce results, be they economic, technological, military, commercial or any other kind. Thus, the determinative issue in this new cold war is efficiency.
The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was underpinned by ideology, a battle for which the United States found itself particularly well prepared. As the birthplace of modern democracy as well as its most strident proponent, the U.S. was easily able to claim the mantle as leader of the “free world,” especially in light of the fact that Soviet communism embodied a totalitarian ideology that had global repercussions. Although the rivalry between both countries proved to be multifaceted, its determinative issue was always ideology.
The emerging cold war with China has a distinct overtone. China does not so much as try to sell the merits of communism to its own citizens. On the contrary, the new confrontation is based on the ability to produce results, be they economic, technological, military, commercial or any other kind. The determinative issue in this new cold war is, therefore, efficiency.
Unlike its confrontation with the Soviet Union, the United States finds itself ill prepared for a rivalry posited in these terms. Its political system has become too dysfunctional to prevail in a test of strength based on efficiency.
In contrast, this is China’s strength. Having lifted 800 million of its citizens out of poverty and leaped from underdevelopment to the waiting room of global economic preeminence in a little over four decades, China knows how to obtain results. Its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic proves as much.
Although China’s initial lack of transparency was responsible for the spread of the pandemic to other latitudes, its domestic control of the situation is unparalleled. With a population of around 1.3 billion, China has been able to demonstrate results comparable to those of countries like Singapore or Denmark, each of which has a population of barely 6 million. Moreover, while the rest of the world is still mired in a recession, China has already resumed its economic growth.
China has a clear objective, to become “No. 1” by 2049, the centenary of the People’s Republic founded by Mao Zedong. This clear sense of purpose not only mobilizes nationalist sentiment among its population, but unifies its people under a common cause while focusing all the nation’s strength on a defined strategic course.
The United States, meanwhile, sees itself divided into two irreconcilable factions. This country has not shown such a pronounced horizontal fracture since the Civil War. Such polarization not only encompasses the more diverse end of the spectrum, it coalesces in two party identities that have lost their ability to engage in dialogue, something which not only translates into the erosion of shared social values but into institutional paralysis. Further still, there is an inevitable back-and-forth effect when the warring factions in society alternate their control of political power. Efficiency is simply not possible under these circumstances.
As it revolves around the two superpowers of our time, the cold war between China and the United States will have global repercussions. Not only will globalization lose its source of oxygen, but the global community is likely to splinter between both groups: on the one side, those who are attracted by an authoritarian model with a proven capacity to respond; on the other, those who remain loyal to a democracy that has lost this very quality.
The combination of authoritarianism and efficiency will take a significant amount of the shine off of democracy as a model. That does not pose a problem for many people. For a majority of pragmatic Asian nations, on a continent that is home to half the 20 economies undergoing the fastest economic growth on the planet, and which generates two-thirds of global economic growth, the attraction represented by efficiency is clear, particularly in the sense that China acts as an anchor economy and as a platform for innovation and connectivity in that part of the world. This convergence will make the Chinese model much more attractive to the rest of the world.
For some, such as the European Union, the choice is nonetheless difficult. The prospect of going it alone in the middle of a fractured global economy and an assertive Russia appears somewhat troublesome. However, as Angela Merkel quite rightly implied in Aachen in May 2018, Europe cannot rely on a country that is susceptible to extremes and strategic inconsistency, as is the case with the United States. Tying the future of Europe to such leadership offers increasingly scant benefits.
A strategic alliance with China could, on the other hand, pair stability for the future with the economic and infrastructural integration of the Euro-Asiatic land mass, something which would also serve as a buttress against Russia.
However, getting too close to China would legitimize an authoritarianism that is prone to undermining European political stability, and in particular, that of Germany.