The Upside of a New Cold War With China

Hal Brands

7 July 2020

The American founders believed that prolonged rivalry and conflict abroad would eventually degrade the country’s democracy at home. Today, many of the strongest warnings against a “new Cold War” with China have a similar ring.

The New York Times, the Economist and pundits such as Fareed Zakaria have all warned of a “new Red Scare.” The implication is that geopolitical dangers could again cause a narrowing of political expression, a feverish search for internal enemies and a corrosion of the liberties U.S. foreign policy is supposed to defend.

That fear is reasonable: The Cold War showed that great democracies are not immune to committing self-harm in the name of security. But the history of that struggle also teaches a more hopeful lesson — that competition can create virtuous pressures for a nation to become a better version of itself.

The thesis that strategic rivalry undermines democracy is deeply rooted in history. During the Peloponnesian War, the strains of a long struggle against Sparta debased the politics of a relatively liberal Athens. At the founding of the American republic, Alexander Hamilton warned that a “state of continual danger” might convince citizens to “run the risk of being less free.”

War and competition, the thinking goes, lead to inherently illiberal measures. Fear favors demagogues who turn insecurity to political advantage.

As the Cold War showed, this danger is not imaginary. Red-baiting became a favored electoral strategy. Political opportunists cynically used anti-communism as a weapon in domestic debates over labor rights and other issues. Tying all this together was McCarthyism, which revealed Cold War politics at their worst.

That phenomenon centered on a reckless politician who rocketed to prominence by making outrageous claims about disloyalty and subversion. But it caught fire because it capitalized on a larger popular movement. That movement responded to genuine concerns about communist spies and influence by prosecuting a punitive campaign that ruined lives, trampled on civil liberties and caused many of America’s allies to wonder whether it really believed in the values it claimed to defend.

Fortunately, this is only a very partial history of Cold War America. The fever of McCarthyism broke by the mid-1950s; the country’s institutions proved stronger than the challenge that movement posed to them. On the whole, the superpower rivalry was a force for constructive change.

Precisely because the Cold War was a fierce ideological contest over what type of system could best meet the aspirations of humanity, it created an imperative for America to live up to the image it portrayed to the world. And precisely because the contest required the U.S. to mobilize for a long, drawn-out rivalry, it led the country to invest massively in itself.

Consider the civil rights movement. Major breakthroughs against state-sponsored segregation, political exclusion and racial violence constituted some of America’s most important domestic achievements in the postwar era, and they were intimately related to the Cold War. Yes, segregationists and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI used anti-communism to assail Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders. But on balance, the Cold War was a force for equality because the reality of race relations in the U.S. was incompatible with America’s efforts to win hearts and minds in the Third World.

“The support of desperate populations of battle-ravaged countries must be won for the free way of life,” President Harry Truman declared in 1947. “We can no longer afford the luxury of a leisurely attack upon prejudice and discrimination.”

Radical discrimination, agreed Dwight Eisenhower’s Justice Department in 1954, “furnishes grist for Communist propaganda mills.” Secretary of State John Foster Dulles put it starkly in 1957: Institutionalized discrimination was “ruining our foreign policy.”

And from Truman’s decision to desegregate the armed forces, to federal intervention to bring down school segregation in the 1950s to the passage of landmark civil rights and voting rights legislation in the 1960s, the imperative of defending the American system overseas was a driving force for action to improve that system at home.

Or ask yourself why the U.S. has the world’s premier system of higher education. The Cold War led to unprecedented peacetime support for America’s universities. Especially after the Soviet Union's shocking launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, the federal government poured money into what we now call the STEM disciplines, which were essential to competing in the missile age.

Lesser known yet also vital, the federal government sponsored language training, area-studies programs, social science and other disciplines deemed necessary to exercise influence on a global stage. By 1961, 77 out of 90 academic departments at the University of Wisconsin were involved in programs paid for by federal money. Harvard University, Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other private institutions were becoming some of the world’s best. The Cold War was a golden age for the American university, because it convinced the country’s leaders that the U.S. must be an intellectual superpower to remain a military and economic superpower.

Many other aspects of America’s postwar prosperity owed a great deal to the Cold War. Major infrastructure projects, such as the St. Lawrence Seaway and the interstate highway system, had geopolitical rationales. Federal expenditures on research and development underwrote the advent of semiconductors, the internet and other technologies that would carry the U.S. into the information age. No Cold War, no Silicon Valley.

More broadly, Cold War military spending provided semi-permanent stimulus and millions of good jobs for those in the armed forces and the defense industry. The U.S. ultimately won the Cold War because its system proved more attractive than the Soviet system. And one reason the American system proved so attractive is that the Cold War continually pushed the U.S. to invest in its own dynamism.

There are positive and negative lessons for today.

The negative lesson is to guard against the sort of overreactions that have occurred periodically in American history. Congress notoriously curtailed civil liberties with the Alien and Sedition Acts as war with France loomed in 1798; warrantless federal raids marked the years after the Russian Revolution; and McCarthyism dishonored America during the early Cold War. The U.S. government should, for example, enact prudent protections to prevent China’s People’s Liberation Army from infiltrating spies into U.S. universities. But the idea of barring all Chinese students from graduate study in the scientific and technical disciplines — even though most Chinese doctoral students in sensitive areas such as artificial intelligence subsequently remain in the U.S., contributing to the American economy — reeks of counterproductive, Cold War-style paranoia.

The positive lesson is not to let a good competition go to waste. The U.S. should use the Chinese challenge as a spur to revamp immigration policies to attract more high-skilled workers, reinvest in basic research and sagging infrastructure, rebuild key components of the country’s industrial and innovation base and confront the pathologies that are pushing its politics toward deepening dysfunction. These are reforms America ought to undertake in any event, and they will be crucial to winning a new contest of systems with China.

These measures should be seen as a simple matter of self-defense. America’s authoritarian adversaries will cynically use disinformation, political meddling and other tools to exploit divisions within democratic societies. They will exploit the shortcomings of the American system to discredit it in the eyes of the world.

The key takeaway from the Cold War is that the best shield against such attacks is to build a stronger, more cohesive society — to confront the challenges that high-stakes competition makes too damaging to ignore.

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