With tensions between the United States and China on the rise, many have speculated over the possibility of war. In a recent interview with Paul Robinson of Uncommon Knowledge, Scottish historian Niall Ferguson declared that The United States and China were now engaged in ‘The Cold War 2’.
“There was a first world war. Then there was a second. They were not identical. But they were sufficiently similar for no one to argue about the nomenclature. Similarly, there was Cold War 1. And now we are in Cold War 2.” – Niall Ferguson
In this article, I have outlined how the coming crisis could play out. To do this, I have identified what happened during the last cold war and synthesised it with some of the world-changing events and technologies taking place today.
Cold War 1
When the first cold war broke out in the mid 1940s the world witnessed a dramatic series of events.
The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki demonstrated just how far weapons had come and triggered a nuclear arms race between the U.S.A and the Soviet Union. Massive military investment was undertaken by both sides and it wasn’t long before they began competing in other areas. The space race was very much a product of cold war rivalry.
It wasn’t long before many of the advancements made for defensive purposes found their way into everyday life. Integrated circuits led to consumer electronics and birthed the modern computing industry. By the 1980s and 90s, the cold war had indirectly given us modern world prophets, like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.
But for all the brilliant innovation, the cold war also led to an abundance of death, destruction and turmoil. Millions panicked as missiles were sent to Cuba and millions more sighed as their leaders were replaced. It’s quite possible that the Cold War II will reproduce as many tragedies as it will triumphs.
Cold War 2
The Drone Wars
When asked about the future of warfare by the Wall Street Journal, Elon Musk famously remarked that the next series of wars would very much be ‘the drone wars’.
By offering increased precision, targeted strikes, enhanced surveillance and data gathering, drones are thought to be the next evolution of warfare. Whilst the potential damage done by these machines is vast, the innovation raises new questions about the conduct of autonomous weapon systems.
While existing drones generally involve human operators, the future could see increased reliance on AI algorithms to execute missions independently. Questions will need to be asked about ethics, accountability, proportionality, and the potential for unintended consequences.
A new cold war would pressure both China and the United States to innovate in the field of cyberspace, both offensively and defensively. In 2016, Data Analytics company Cambridge Analytica harvested private data from social media company Facebook and used it to help the Trump campaign target viewers with ads specifically curated for them.
Since then, the algorithms have only grown stronger and now this type of targeting can be used to wage psychological warfare on one another country’s population. The issue has already raised concern about the use of TikTok in many western countries, with many pushing for the social media app to be banned.
Spheres of Interest
The first cold war saw the rise of very definite spheres of interest. The United States established ‘the free world’ by setting up institutions like the IMF and world bank and led it militarily with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Similarly, the Soviet Union countered by gathering it’s allies under the Warsaw Pact.
A new chill is emerging and already with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many western countries have redirected their spending towards defence. As typical of a rising power, China has followed suite. In March 2023, it raised it’s defence budget to 7.2%, making it the eighth consecutive year of single digit percentage point increase.
When the U.S.A and U.S.S.R engaged in the cold war one, they realised that a direct confrontation would result in the literal destruction of their own countries. As a result, they chose to fight through proxies.
Neil Ferguson compared the Russian invasion of Ukraine to the North Korean war in the sense that it is the first of many proxies to come.
Like in cold war one when the Soviets tried to deploy misses in Cuba, the cold war two may see a similar situation, only this time it’ll be the other way around. It could be that the U.S.A tries to deploy missiles in Taiwan with China being on the backfoot. Ferguson insists that the previous incident was only averted through sheer luck and strongly argued against such a provocation.
Much like how McCarthyism led to a wave of repression and conformity throughout the United States in the 1950s, similar anti-communist, or perhaps anti-Chinese investigations may be carried out again. Already there has been one case of a suspected Chinese intelligence operative by the name of Fang Fang, who has sexually targeted up and coming Californian politicians in the Bay Area and across the country. Not only this, but a senior U.S intelligence official is said to have remarked that ‘she was just one of lots of agents’.
The Cold War highlighted the economic differences between command economies (associated with communism) and market economies (associated with capitalism).
When Soviet Union imploded in 1991, Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the end of history. U.S market economics was declared an ideal which could be improved on.
But since then China has risen to prominence through a unique blend of command and liberal economics. Not only that, but it has begun investing in various countries throughout the world.
Whilst globalization has brought about greater interconnectedness between Chinese and American businesses, a new cold war could force these economies to severe their ties.
As with the case of Huawei, more and more countries seem to be having to choose between the U.S and China when it comes to goods and services and this may become a trend that only exacerbates in the years ahead.
The Cold War II will, in many ways, parallel the first cold war. Like it’s predecessor it consists of two rival nuclear superpowers, battling one another for considerable sections of the globe. But it’ll also come with differences. Unlike the Soviet Union, China’s economy is said to be on par, or by some case, outperforming the United States.
Furthermore, whilst the Soviet Union’s command style economics limited the extent of innovation, China seems to have less problems in this area and appears to be mastering the field of artificial intelligence just as readily as the United States. The looming cold war will no doubt have many unforeseen consequences. Let’s hope that one of them isn’t a nuclear fallout.