By James Curran*
Now that Vladimir Putin’s KGB strength mentality of thuggery is manifest in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the consensus about the advent of a new Cold War is gathering pace in world capitals.
Just as in the early 1950s, the European and Asian theatres of an assumed global ideological struggle now seemingly come together.
Then, the outbreak of the Korean War followed tensions between the two superpowers over the Marshall Plan, a divided Berlin, the formation of NATO and the Soviet Union’s acquisition of the atomic bomb.
Now the fault lines are being drawn in Kyiv and the Taiwan Strait.
President Biden, in his State of the Union address, gave familiar voice to the shape of this new, old struggle in which America once more engages in the name of freedom against tyranny. His rhetoric echoed Lyndon Johnson’s speeches in the mid-1960s and George W. Bush’s second inaugural address in January 2005.
Washington deployed a shrewd propaganda war before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in an attempt to control the narrative. That contrasted with previous intelligence failures over the collapse of communism in eastern Europe, September 11 and the 2003 Iraq War.
Nevertheless, the US under Biden has demonstrated again a ruthless recognition of the limits of its military power by not committing troops to Ukraine. It knows the danger of direct confrontation with Russia and the risk of nuclear escalation. But this caution, along with the lack of American public support for sterner action, also emerges from Washington’s over-confidence and subsequent strategic disaster of the 2003 Iraq War, as well as with the legacy of the 2008 global financial crisis.
Responding to the anxiety this present crisis provokes about its credibility, and to assuage Asian allies of its ability to keep eyes trained on both theatres, the Biden administration dispatched, first, its Secretary of State to a recent meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue in Melbourne. Now it sends a high-level official delegation to Taiwan. America wants no repeat of the tattered Obama era “pivot” to Asia. The Quad convened urgently again just last Friday.
China, after its own intelligence failure when cosying up to Russia and the almost universal horror at the Russian invasion, exhibits the authoritarian’s moral vacuity and has still refused to condemn the invasion. It now professes support for Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and concern over civilian fatalities.
China knows that its diplomatic dithering and continued economic relations with Russia intensifies the West’s opprobrium towards it. As Eurasia Group’s Neil Thomas points out in a recent report: “China will continue to trade with Russia and may boost energy and agricultural imports that enjoy sanctions carveouts.”
It may also enjoy a profit from Russia’s isolation through discounts on key commodities. But Thomas also stresses that, “in general, Beijing will not take major financial or sanctions risks to support Moscow”, preferring to remain focused on expanding its domestic economy, which relies in part on exports rather than embarking on a grand, global authoritarian crusade with Putin. Its signal through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to suspend projects in Russia and Ukraine provides some sign of this direction.
The war in Ukraine might also give some policymakers in Canberra cause for cool reflection, and much needed realism, about the bloodbath any future conflict over Taiwan might look like.
The unanimity of the European position on Russia so far must surely make China contemplate what economic damage might come its way in the event it began armed intervention towards Taiwan.
Clearly some US policymakers believe that the economic pressure applied to Russia through a suite of tough economic sanctions suggests a “playbook”, in the words of the American Enterprise Institute’s Eric Sayers, “to be deployed during a future crisis over Taiwan”.
Neil Thomas argues further that “severe economic sanctions are likely to deter Xi [Jinping] more than they did Putin, because of China’s greater integration with the global economy – although the costs to the West would be much higher as well”.
It is this question of costs, arising from the tightly woven fabric of global economic interdependence, that make this “new Cold War” totally unlike its predecessor. The use of sanctions in Asia would inflict huge costs to Japan, South Korea and Australia, and deal a harsh blow to south-east Asian economies.
The devastation, suffering and tragedy unfolding in Ukraine ought therefore to give pause to those dismissive of the catastrophic human and economic costs flowing either from a war over Taiwan or a concerted policy of sanctions against Beijing.
But just as thinking about future scenarios of this new Cold War ought to be factored into policymaking, it is imperative to understand how Western policy from the fall of the Soviet Union sought to exclude Moscow from a peaceful, prosperous and co-operative Europe, and therefore the implications if China was to be ring-fenced or contained with sanctions. China’s high levels of economic interdependence with the West are an important constraint on both sides and a powerful weapon for securing peace.
Likewise, can it be entirely forgotten that Washington’s pre-emptive strike doctrine, under which it acted alongside allies such as Australia and Britain in Iraq in 2003, and which resulted in hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and allied deaths, contributed to global disorder?
This is the flawed conceptual thinking that emerges when current events are so easily placed within a foreshortened past and when their interpretation suffers from the myopic vision of immediate experience.
Forgetting those chapters of history that tend to embarrass the present may be an option for the parochial. It is not an option for historians or serious policymakers.
*About the author: James Curran is professor of modern history at Sydney University.