The U.S. Doesn’t Need Another Cold War to Improve Itself
Hal Brands urges us to look on the bright side of decades of destructive international rivalry:
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.
It is true that there was significant progress on civil rights during the Cold War, but it is quite the illogical leap to conclude that this progress happened because of the rivalry with the Soviets. There is even less reason to think that a U.S.-Chinese rivalry would lead to something similar happening in the future. It would be much more accurate to say that the U.S. made that progress in spite of the regimentation and militarism of that period. If we want to protect the civil rights and liberties of all Americans, we would do well to steer clear of anything resembling a new Cold War.
In just the last few months, we have seen how quickly hostility towards the Chinese government has encouraged a spike in attacks and derogatory language against Asian-Americans. It does not take clairvoyance to know that a sustained U.S.-Chinese rivalry will produce more of this ugliness, and it is likely to lead to many violations of civil liberties committed in the name of national security. We know very well from the last twenty years that the toxic mix of threat inflation and fear-mongering over terrorism have fueled anti-Muslim prejudice and led to discriminatory policies based solely on nationality and/or religion. Ginning up hostility towards another nation inevitably harms the minority and immigrant communities that have ties to that nation, and the hysterical nationalism that has accompanied our major international rivalries exposes diaspora communities to discrimination, surveillance, physical attacks, and arrest. In the most extreme case in WWII, it led to the mass internment of more than a hundred thousand American citizens because of their ethnicity.
The corrosive effects of four decades of U.S.-Soviet rivalry on our institutions and political culture were significant and long-lasting. Some of the worst aspects of the Cold War have continued in the post-Cold War era: an intrusive surveillance state, presidential power grabs, and illegal warfare, On top of all this, the last twenty years have seen the use of torture and the normalization of preventive war, indefinite detention, and the return of targeted assassination. On the domestic side, we have seen the expansion of intrusive, increasingly militarized agencies and the militarization of police forces in terms of both equipment and tactics. That has obviously had serious, deleterious effects on the rights and lives of Americans, and it has created strong vested interests opposed to necessary reforms of the police. Now imagine what a couple decades of a new anti-Chinese Cold War would do to our political system and society, and you can see why this would be deeply undesirable.
Brands also talks up the Cold War’s positive effects on our universities. There is more merit to this part of his argument, but there is also no reason to expect this to be repeated in a new confrontation with China. Most leading advocates of great power competition with Beijing rarely talk about investing large sums in education and research. Great power competition is mostly just their latest justification for continuing to add to a bloated military budget. We can see right now that the loudest China hawks are going out of their way to drive away international students and sabotage our research institutions. Brands acknowledges that this “reeks of counterproductive, Cold War-style paranoia,” but that seems to have no effect on the rest of his argument. There is no longer a broad consensus in favor of increased public spending on education, and Brands is kidding himself if he thinks that anti-China hard-liners will suddenly endorse this for the sake of pursuing rivalry with China. The U.S. has neglected investing in this area for thirty years. As Dan Nexon and Alexander Cooley point out in Exit from Hegemony, “the United States is essentially coasting on major investments in transportation, technology, and human capital that date from the Cold War.” In the intervening decades, public funding of education has collapsed and seems unlikely to return anytime soon. Just because a previous generation of Americans did something decades ago, it doesn’t follow at all that the U.S. is capable of doing the same things now. Just as pro-war hawks pretended that they knew how to manage a post-regime change Iraq because “we did it in Germany and Japan,” hawks today cite the example of these Cold War measures that are very unlikely to be executed competently today.
He takes for granted that a Cold War-style rivalry with China is going to happen, so we may as well make the best of it:
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.
If these are reforms that the U.S. “ought to undertake in any event,” they shouldn’t need to be yoked to a senseless, destructive rivalry with another major power. Instead of looking for excuses to pursue a policy of confrontation with China, we should ask first what vital U.S. interests would be served by that confrontation. As far as I can see, there aren’t any. Brands assumes that there is a “contest of systems” to be “won,” but it would be far wiser to make necessary improvements to our system without frittering away resources on a fruitless contest that seems guaranteed to undermine and distract from the work here at home.