From his first days in office, Joe Biden and his national security advisers seemed determined to revive America’s fading global leadership via the strategy they knew best — challenging the “revisionist powers” Russia and China with a Cold War-style aggressiveness. When it came to Beijing, the president combined the policy initiatives of his predecessors, pursuing Barack Obama’s “strategic pivot” from the Middle East to Asia, while continuing Donald Trump’s trade war with China. In the process, Biden revived the kind of bipartisan foreign policy not seen in Washington since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
Writing in the December 2021 Foreign Affairs, a group of famously disputatious diplomatic historians agreed on one thing: “Today, China and the United States are locked in what can only be called a new cold war.” Just weeks later, the present mimed the past in ways that went well beyond even that pessimistic assessment as Russia began massing 190,000 troops on the border of Ukraine. Soon, Russian President Vladimir Putin would join China’s Xi Jinping in Beijing where they would demand that the West “abandon the ideologized approaches of the Cold War” by curtailing both NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe and similar security pacts in the Pacific.
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine loomed in late February, the New York Times reported that Putin was trying “to revise the outcome of the original Cold War, even if it is at the cost of deepening a new one.” And days later, as Russian tanks began entering Ukraine, the New York Times published an editorial headlined, “Mr. Putin Launches a Sequel to the Cold War.” The Wall Street Journal seconded that view, concluding that recent “developments reflect a new cold war that Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin have initiated against the West.”
Instead of simply accepting that mainstream consensus, it couldn’t be more important right now to explore that Cold War analogy and gain a fuller understanding of how that tragic past does (and doesn’t) resonate with our embattled present.
The Geopolitics of Cold Wars
There are indeed a number of parallels between our Cold Wars, old and new. Some 70 years ago, in January 1950, Mao Zedong, the head of a Chinese People’s Republic ravaged by long years of war and revolution, met Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in Moscow as a supplicant. He was seeking a treaty of alliance and friendship that would provide much-needed aid for his fledgling communist state.
Within months, Stalin played upon this brand-new alliance by persuading Mao to send troops into the maelstrom of the Korean War, where China soon began hemorrhaging money and manpower. Until his death in 1953, Stalin kept the U.S. military bogged down in Korea, as he sought “an advantage in the global balance of power.” With Washington focused on war in Asia, Stalin consolidated his grip on seven “satellite states” in Eastern Europe — but at a cost. In those years, a newly created NATO would be transformed into a genuine military alliance, as 16 nations dispatched troops to Korea.
Last February, in a reversal of Cold War roles, Putin arrived at that Beijing summit as a supplicant, desperately seeking Chinese President Xi Jinping’s diplomatic support for his Ukrainian gambit. Proclaiming their relations “superior to political and military alliances of the Cold War era,” the two leaders asserted that their entente had “no limits… no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation.”
Soon after, the Russian president would invade Ukraine, while ominously putting his nuclear forces on high alert, a warning to the West not to meddle in his war. In a clear parallel to the old Cold War, nuclear weapons are far too dangerous for a direct superpower conflict to break out, so the U.S. and its NATO allies chose surrogate warfare in Ukraine. Just as the Soviet Union once armed North Vietnam with surface-to-air missiles and tanks to bloody the U.S. military, so Washington now began supplying Kyiv with high-tech weaponry to damage the Russian army.
As Ukrainian defenders armed with U.S.- and NATO-supplied shoulder-fired missiles destroyed 2,500 of its armored vehicles, Russia would be forced to pull back from its bid to capture the Ukrainian capital and shift to a months-long slog to seize the Russian-speaking Donbas region near its own border. This effort has, in turn, sparked an artillery duel now fast approaching the sort of strategic stalemate not seen since the Korean War (a conflict that remains unresolved nearly 70 years later).
Beneath such surface similarities between the two eras, however, lies a crucial if elusive difference: geopolitics. As I explain in my recent book, To Govern the Globe, this is essentially a method for the management of empire. At the high tide of the British Empire in 1904, English geographer Halford Mackinder published an influential article arguing that Europe, Asia, and Africa weren’t, in fact, three separate continents but a unitary landmass he dubbed “the World-Island,” whose strategic pivot lay in the “heartland” of central Eurasia. Mackinder later boiled his thinking down to a memorable maxim: “Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; Who rules the World-Island commands the World.”
Apply Mackinder’s principles to the old Cold War and you can indeed see an underlying geopolitics that lends coherence to an otherwise disparate conflict spread across four decades and five continents. In the 500 years since European exploration first brought the continents into continuous contact, the rise of every major world power has required one thing above all: dominance over Eurasia, now home to 70% of the world’s population and productivity. Those five centuries of imperial rivalry could be summarized, thanks to Mackinder, in a succinct geopolitical axiom: “The exercise of global hegemony requires control over Eurasia, and contestation over that vast continent thus determines the fate of empires and their world orders.”
By the time the Cold War ended in 1991, Washington had translated that axiom into a three-part geopolitical strategy to defeat the Soviet Union. First, it encircled Eurasia with military bases and mutual-defense pacts to contain Beijing and Moscow behind an “Iron Curtain” stretching 5,000 miles across that vast land mass. Second, the U.S. intervened, using either conventional force or CIA covert operations whenever the communists threatened to expand their power beyond that “curtain” — whether in Korea, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, or sub-Saharan Africa. Finally, Washington aggressively defended its own hemisphere from communist influence of any sort, however homegrown — whether in Cuba, Central America, or Chile.
In a magisterial sweep through a millennium of Eurasian history, Oxford scholar John Darwin found that, after World War II, Washington achieved its “colossal imperium… on an unprecedented scale” by becoming the first power ever to control the strategic axial points “at both ends of Eurasia.” Initially, Washington defended Eurasia’s western axis through the NATO defense pact signed with a dozen allies in April 1949, making the Cold War, at its outset, little more than a regional conflict over Eastern Europe.
In October 1949, however, communists surprised the world by capturing China. Moscow then forged a Sino-Soviet alliance that suddenly threatened to become the dominant force on the Eurasian land mass. In response, Washington moved quickly to counter that geopolitical challenge by forging four bilateral defense pacts, thereby developing a 5,000-mile chain of military bases along the Pacific littoral from Japan and South Korea all the way to Australia. By serving as the frontier for the defense of one continent (North America) and a springboard for its dominance of another (Eurasia), the Pacific littoral would become Washington’s key geopolitical fulcrum.
In the 1960s, the Sino-Soviet alliance would suddenly collapse into a bitter rivalry — a lucky break for Washington that left Moscow without a major ally anywhere in Eurasia. Reeling from their breach with Beijing, the Soviet leaders would spend several decades trying, unsuccessfully, to break out of their geopolitical isolation by expanding into Latin America, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, southern Africa, and, fatally, Afghanistan, catalyzing a succession of local conflicts that led to the deaths of some 20 million people between 1945 and 1990.
A New Geopolitical Balance
At the close of the Cold War, when the U.S. seemed to stand astride the globe like a Titan of Greek legend, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter and a devotee of Mackinder’s geopolitical theory, warned that Washington should take care to avoid three pitfalls that could erode its global power. It must, he warned, preserve its strategic “perch on the Western periphery” of Eurasia through NATO; it must prevent “the expulsion of America from its offshore bases” along the Pacific littoral; and it must block the rise of “an assertive single entity” in the “middle space” of that vast landmass.
Now, skip three decades and, in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO countries have worked with surprising unanimity to slap sanctions on Moscow, ship advanced weaponry to Kyiv, and even take in previously neutral Sweden and Finland as possible members. In this way, Washington seems to have forged a trans-Atlantic solidarity not seen since the Cold War and preserved, at least for now, Washington’s strategic “perch on the Western periphery” of Eurasia.
By his surprisingly blunt statement last month that the U.S. would “get involved militarily to defend Taiwan” (a key driver of the global economy through its mass production of sophisticated computer chips) and his warning that a possible Chinese attack there would be “similar to what happened in Ukraine,” President Biden has been trying to assert an ever stronger American military presence in the Pacific. China has, however, also been moving in that region, militarily, politically, and diplomatically, potentially winning over islands that were once an American preserve.
Whatever Washington has done to strengthen its “strategic perch” in Europe by rallying NATO and allies in the Pacific as well, it has clearly failed to meet Brzezinski’s critical third criteria for the preservation of its global power. Indeed, the rise of China as “an assertive single entity” in the pivotal “middle space” of Eurasia could potentially prove a fatal geopolitical blow to Washington’s global ambitions, the equivalent of the impact the Sino-Soviet split had on Moscow during the old Cold War.
As its foreign reserves reached an extraordinary $4 trillion in 2014, Beijing announced a trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) meant to build an economic bloc encompassing the whole of Mackinder’s tri-continental world island. To overcome Eurasia’s vast distances, China quickly began constructing a steel grid of rails, roads, and gas pipelines that, when integrated with Russia’s networks, would reach across the continent. Within just five years, a World Bank study found that BRI transportation projects were boosting trade among 70 nations by up to 9.7% and lifting 32 million people out of poverty. By 2027, Beijing is expected to commit $1.3 trillion to this project, which would make it the largest investment in history — more than 10 times the foreign aid Washington allocated to its famed Marshall Plan that rebuilt a ravaged Europe after World War II.
To strengthen its regional influence and weaken the U.S. grip on the Pacific littoral, China has also used the BRI to court allies in the Asia-Pacific region. In 2020, in fact, it formed a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the world’s largest trade pact with 15 Asia-Pacific nations representing 30% of global trade.
Taking a leaf out of Stalin’s geopolitical playbook, President Xi has much to gain from Vladimir Putin’s headstrong plunge into Ukraine. In the short term, Washington’s focus on Europe slows any serious strategic “pivot” to the Pacific, allowing Beijing to further consolidate its burgeoning commercial dominance there. By allying with Russia and so meeting its own food and energy needs, while maintaining ties to Europe through formal neutrality in the Ukraine war, Beijing could emerge, like Moscow after the Vietnam War, with its global influence markedly enhanced and the U.S. geopolitical position significantly weakened.
The Limits of Historical Analogy
However strong the geopolitical continuities between the two eras may be, history also spins skeins of discontinuity, making the past, at best, an imperfect guide to the present. During the 30 years after the Cold War ended, a relentless economic globalization has incorporated China as the world’s industrial workshop and Russia as a key provider of energy, minerals, and grains into the world economy.
As a result, despite recent sanctions, geopolitical “containment” of the sort once used against the old Soviet Union’s feeble command economy is no longer feasible. With the war already causing what the World Bank calls an “an enormous humanitarian crisis,” pressures are building for some way to reintegrate Russia into a global economy that is suffering badly from the ostracism of a country that ranks first in world wheat and fertilizer exports, second in gas production, and third in oil output.
By blockading Ukraine’s Black Sea ports and advancing toward its main one, Odessa, Putin has disrupted grain exports from both Russia and Ukraine, which together provide almost one third of the world’s wheat and barley and so are critical to feeding the Middle East, as well as much of Africa. With the specter of mass starvation looming for some 270 million people and, as the U.N. recently warned, political instability growing in those volatile regions, the West will, sooner or later, have to reach some understanding with Russia.
Similarly, Europe’s escalating embargo of Russia’s natural gas and oil exports is proving profoundly disruptive to global energy markets, stoking inflation in the United States and sending fuel prices soaring on the continent. Already, Putin has successfully shifted much of his country’s oil and gas exports from Europe to China and India. Within months, the European Union’s embargo will likely hit a wall as Germany finds its premature closure of nuclear power plants has created an irresolvable dependence on Russian natural gas imports.
As the conflict in Ukraine becomes a protracted military stalemate, there are signs that both sides are reaching their war-making limit and may yet be forced to seek a diplomatic resolution. Even if the flow of heavy weapons from the West continues, Ukraine’s battered army can, at best, push Russia back to the territory it held before the start of current hostilities, perhaps leaving Moscow in control of Ukraine’s southeast, much or all of the Donbas region, and the Crimea.
In contrast to the Pentagon’s triumphalist rhetoric about using the war to render Russia’s military permanently “weakened,” French President Emmanuel Macron has made the sober suggestion that “we must not humiliate Russia so… we can build an exit ramp through diplomatic means.” Although controversial, that view may yet prevail. If so, there might well be a diplomatic agreement in which Ukraine swaps bits of territory for the acceptance of a neutral status akin to Austria’s, allowing it to join the European Union, but not NATO.
By attacking Ukraine and alienating Europe, Putin has suffered a serious but not necessarily fatal geopolitical blow. Blocked from expanding westward, he is now accelerating Russia’s “pivot to the East” and rapidly integrating its economy with China’s. In doing so, he’s likely to consolidate Beijing’s geopolitical dominance over the vast Eurasian land mass, the epicenter of global power, while the United States, wallowing in domestic chaos, suffers a distinctly non-Cold War-ish decline.
In this century as in the last one, the geopolitical struggle over Eurasia has proven to be a relentless affair, one that, in the years to come, will likely contribute both to Beijing’s rise and to the ongoing erosion of Washington’s once formidable global hegemony.
Copyright 2022 Alfred W. McCoy
Alfred W. McCoy, a TomDispatch regular, is the Harrington professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power (Dispatch Books). His new book, just published, is To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change.