The New Cold War may never arrive

An old Italian friend and a noted Sinologist based in Beijing representing a Vatican paper, Francesco Sisci wrote apropos an article I had posted on Facebook yesterday Donald Trump Meets the End of the Empire authored by Douglas Macgreggor, an ex-US Army decorated combat veteran and an author (National Interest, October 24, 2018):

“Napoleon famously said three things win a war: money, money, money. The word “soldier” comes from soldo, the pay of the soldiers in the renaissance. If the US doesn’t straighten its economy what can it do globally? And if it doesn’t soon, what will China do? With WW 2 the solution in some countries was the war that canceled all debts with massive inflation…”

To my mind, the last sentence in Sisci’s observation will be a last-ditch option for President Trump, because if it fails, that may also mean the end of the United States of America as a nation. And Trump has a rational mind, as his attitude toward Kim Jong-Un or Mohammed bin Salman would testify.

I discount World War 3 in the thermonuclear age. Rivalries will play out below the threshold of wars in which there are no winners.

(World nuclear war scenario)

That is what makes Macgregor’s article noteworthy. The signs are that Trump is already thinking in terms of cuts in budget expenditure, including the defence budget. In a pithy sentence, Macgreggor highlights the paradigm: “Get ready. “America first” in foreign and defense policy is about to begin. Defense cuts are on the way.”

Macgreggor gives food for thought for Indian pundits who are wildly ecstatic that a US-China New Cold War is about to erupt, which will provide India a historic opportunity to emerge as America’s “counterweight” to China in the Asian context. This is actually a hackneyed thesis dating back to the late K. Subrahmanyam. The George W. Bush presidency brilliantly succeeded in drilling into the mind of the wooly-headed Indians a seductive thought that the US is determined to make a first class world power out of India.

But realism dawned when it became obvious that Barack Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ was not getting anywhere. The idea became moribund when President Trump arrived in Asia in November 2016 in a watershed regional tour to explain to a stunned ASEAN and Asia-Pacific audience that he’s dead serious about America First.

Of late, Trump’s ‘tariff war’ with China has lifted the sagging morale of our pundits, many of whom are disillusioned with the Wuhan summit between Modi and Xi Jinping and  yearning for a New Cold War. They blithely assume that the logical conclusion of the ‘tariff war’ will be the New Cold War. It doesn’t occur to them that while Trump is mad, there is also a method in his madness. There’s more than a 50:50 chance that the ‘tariff war’ may end before the campaign for the US presidential election 2020 peaks – with Trump declaring ‘victory’, of course, as he did on DPRK’s denuclearization and missile capability.

At any rate, for argument’s sake, is the contemporary world situation ripe for the US to launch a New Cold War against China (or Russia for that matter)? Unlike in the Cold War era of the past century, there is no bipolar struggle on a global scale today. It is impossible to persuade most countries to come to the barricades when they are grappling with their own national priorities – and for most of them China also happens to be the main driver of growth and development, be it in Latin America or Africa or the Asia-Pacific.

The US cannot inject ideology into its competition with China. On the one hand, China is an avid globalizer and proponent of free trade and WTO and a flag carrier at the Davos World Economic Forum, while on the other hand, US’ claim to ‘exceptionalism’ no longer carries credibility with the world community. Meanwhile, the entente with Russia, the alliance with Pakistan, the interdependency with European economies, the diversified relationships in the Middle East and Africa, etc. give China so much ‘strategic depth’ that it is impossible to ‘isolate’ it.

Most important, unlike the former Soviet Union, China understands the mystique of the market and how to leverage it. By the way, a cold war also costs money. Who will step forward to finance the New Cold War? Mohammed bin Salman? No way. Trump himself is notoriously averse to opening his wallet. The Bretton Woods institutions have outlived their utility, too.

From a historical perspective, presiding over a great power in decline is a very difficult thing to handle. Trump is doing remarkably well in the given situation. His tantrums and grandstanding are expedient, diversionary steps become necessary through bluster and rhetoric, but he’s largely getting away with it. The bottom line is, Trump has not started any new war – and to my mind, he has no intentions, either. A withdrawal from Syria, drawdown in Afghanistan and an end to the carnage in Yemen – incidentally, all these were legacies of the Obama era – are on cards.

The intolerable tensions vis-à-vis North Korea (which, again, were an old festering wound) have been dying down – and Trump was willing to take a lot of flak for it in terms of personal attacks and lampooning by detractors.

In sum, Trump has been largely navigating with his America First compass. In the coming period, this can only become more explicit, especially if Trump gets through the November 6 midterm elections intact with no big shift against him in the power equilibrium in the US Congress enabling a further consolidation of his grip on the Republican Party.