Struggle between US and China not like the cold war

US Politics: An indefinite state of martial vigilance is more than unruly US can now bear

There are hot wars that have been less exhaustively dramatised than the cold one. Thirty years after the USSR fell, I walk into one of the District of Columbia's reopened cinemas and see the Cuban missile crisis ensnare Benedict Cumberbatch in The Courier.

On screen, the cold war is fun: it offers momentous stakes without (much) bloodshed. It is when the US-Soviet clash becomes a model for our own times that the trouble starts. It has become normal to speak of "containing" China. US Republicans of some rank talk up the "free world".

If the cold war trope was just a bad historical fit, it would be a merely academic irritant. But the risk is that it is also self-fulfilling. The US might talk itself into a posture that ignores how much its own society has changed.

Enough is said of the structural difference between this superpower rift and the last one. To dispose of the obvious: as a goods trader, the owner of over $1 trillion of US debt and a source of both tourists and students, China is interwoven with America to an extent that Soviet Russia never was. Disentangling the pair would be the technical work of a whole era. After four years as US president, Donald Trump only got so far.

But the real distinction between 2021 and, say, 1951, is the internal character of the US itself. Mid-20th century America lent itself to open-ended confrontation with an external rival. It was still on the war footing that began at Pearl Harbor. Conscription was in place. Trust in government was such that even the Korean war, with its stalemate outcome and more US deaths per year than Vietnam would cause, spawned no protest movement of real size.

Churchgoing society

What the writer Irving Howe called the "Age of Conformity" was not quite that. The germ of rock 'n roll was there, and Alfred Kinsey uncovered sex lives that veered a tad from the biblical standard. In the round, though, the US was a stable, churchgoing society of low immigration and consensus politics, so militarised as to unnerve even the general-turned-president Dwight Eisenhower as he took his leave of public life.

Not one of these comments have applied to the US for at least a generation. Public confidence in the federal government is measurably low. The most recent memories of external conflict are unglorious. To most citizens, the military, made up of all volunteers since 1973, is a revered but remote thing. Republican-Democratic consensus has dissolved into probably the most vicious partisanship of any rich democracy.

America’s enemies call it decadence, but the turn to a raucous individualism has very often been for the better. It just happens to mean a country that is harder to mobilise towards a foreign policy goal over a long period.

None of this means that the US-China struggle is going to peter out. But it will in all likelihood take an unrecognisably looser form than that of the US-Soviet one. Above all, it will have to ask less of the ordinary citizen. The casual talk of "containment", a profound doctrine that transformed the US at home and abroad, and came to appal its author, the US diplomat George Kennan, is especially frivolous.

No doubt, some technical dimensions of the cold war are already back: the race to innovate, the economic courtship of allies. At the other end of the scale, a military clash over Taiwan or some other flashpoint is also dreadfully hard to dismiss. But the thing in between, an indefinite state of martial vigilance, with practical implications for most citizens, seems more than a society as unruly as the modern US can bear. In a sense, it is the "freedom" prized by China hawks that militates against the lasting confrontation they want.

Public sentiment

Foreign policy discourse too often treats the domestic realm as a sideshow. The quest to split the “high” politics of diplomacy from the “low” politics of the home front is hard enough in autocracies, most of which weigh public sentiment even if they don’t enfranchise it.

In the US, the study of foreign policies in isolation from social context makes even less sense. It was a trusting and cohesive population that first rallied against the Soviets. It was a nation liberalised by the 1960s that forced detente and the winding down of the conflict.

Track the social change to the present day, and the implications are clear. It is not his rhetorical limits that stop Joe Biden asking voters to "bear any burden" and "meet any hardship" against a common rival, as another Democratic president once did. He just knows what a fanciful demand that now is.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021