Even as American political culture continues polarizing on most issues, the Washington elite of both parties is finding common ground hyping China as foreign enemy number one. In late February, William J. Burns, President Biden’s nominee to head the CIA, enjoyed a friendly Senate hearing when he warned that China was poised to become a bigger threat than the Soviet Union during the Cold War. “We have to buckle up for the long haul, I think, in competition with China,” he said. “This is not like the competition with the Soviet Union in the Cold War, which was primarily in security and ideological terms. This is an adversary that is extraordinarily ambitious with technology and capable in economic terms as well.”
The invocation of the Cold War is no accident, since memories of that conflict are the prism through which China policy is increasingly viewed. Live-action role playing (or LARPing, as it is popularly known) is a common enough hobby among middle-aged men. Usually, it takes the benign enough form of Civil War or World War II reenactments—or perhaps mock medieval jousts. But Washington policy-makers are engaged in a more sinister form of Cold War LARPing, one where they are actively trying to recreate a hard-line bipartisan consensus that could unleash untold misery.
In 1946, the diplomat George Kennan, donning the pseudonym Mr. X, penned one of the foundational Cold War texts, the Long Telegram he sent from Moscow to Washington urging a policy of containment. Earlier this year, another anonymous diplomat, self-consciously following in Kennan’s footsteps, issued a Longer Telegram—which wasn’t a real telegram but is unquestionably wordy—arguing, “The single most important challenge facing the United States in the twenty-first century is the rise of an increasingly authoritarian China under President and General Secretary Xi Jinping.”
Cold War nostalgia is an odd phenomenon, when one considers all the horrors the competition with the Soviet Union inflicted on many countries: bloody war and division in the two Koreas and Vietnam; the division of Germany and the installation of Soviet-supported dictatorships in half of Europe; brutal America-supported dictatorships in Chile, Guatemala, and Indonesia—without even mentioning the several occasions the world came close to nuclear annihilation.
But for the American political elite, the Cold War has much to recommend it. It was the period when the United States enjoyed the privileged spot as the leader of the free world, a coveted ally by many nations. Domestically as well, the Cold War is remembered, somewhat selectively, as a period of high bipartisan consensus.
Liberal Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne conjured up the memory of Sputnik to argue that a new hard-line consensus on China could help win bipartisan support for education and science. “Fear of falling behind an adversary has long been a powerful prod to national renewal,” Dionne argues. “Even in a hyperpartisan time, that might still be true.” Dionne also argues that “the danger China poses could fundamentally reorder U.S. attitudes toward government’s role in domestic economic growth, research and development in ways that leave the United States stronger.”
The Chinese bogeyman is seen by some as useful not just domestically but also as a tool for repairing the fraying Western alliance. Writing in The Washington Post, Seton Hall University international relations professor Sara Bjerg Moller contends that NATO, an alliance that has had a hard time justifying its existence since the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, could gain a new sense of purpose if it were used to contain China.
“Refocusing NATO to check the dangers posed by China’s rise would restore it to something closer to its original mission of safeguarding allies from strategic competitors,” Moller asserts.
On the face of it, this is a bizarre argument. After all, NATO—as the very name North Atlantic Treaty Organization suggests—is an alliance of countries that are geographically very far from China. If Chinese expansionism is a threat, itself a debatable point, the focus should be on creating or strengthening alliances with the countries most directly affected, such as India, South Korea, or Japan.
The idea that NATO has a role to play in containing China is a particularly stark example of how anti-China hawks are selling a solution in search of a problem. NATO has a continued and inexplicable existence but lacks a mission. Containing China becomes the reason.
In a like manner, American polarization makes the United States hard to govern. Containing China, then, offers itself as a convenient solution to that problem.
The United States has many legitimate issues with China ranging from trade practices to environmental management, labor rights, and human rights. But these are all matters to be settled by diplomacy. None of them call for anything comparable to a Cold War–style global struggle.
Writing in The Atlantic, Melvyn Leffler, one of America’s most respected diplomatic historians, called attention to the fact that the ideological divide that animated the Cold War no longer exists. Leffler notes that,
while the Soviet Union’s anti-capitalist message of proletarian justice and equality resonated in much of the world, China has no universalist ideology to sell. Beijing today may disparage Western democracy and tout socialism with Chinese characteristics, but all the world can see that it has embraced a capitalist mentality and a nationalist ethos. The Chinese are not champions of equality and justice, as the Soviets pretended to be, and they have little ability to exploit the discontent in neighboring nations.
In truth, in a world of Covid and climate change, China and the United States are two capitalist world powers with intertwined economies that need to work on finding common solutions to the problems that threaten all of humanity. Cold War LARPing is a dangerous distraction from that reality.