The Age-Old Nature of the ‘New Cold War’
By Thitinan Pongsudhirak 22 November 2021
History is back with a vengeance. Contrary to what proponents of the “end of history” theory said a few decades ago, the ideological struggle of the 20th century between the “free world” versus “the socialist-communist” camp is ongoing, despite the Cold War ending over three decades ago. The struggle now features the United States-led Western alliance versus the China-centric global network of nations with authoritarian tendencies.
With the Soviet Union losing the first ideological battle, China has become the heir and successor to the Marxist-Leninist movement. Now, Beijing is locking horns with the West in the second round of this ideological pugilism. How it will pan out and conclude will depend on how China exercises its newfound power, and how the US-led alliance responds to it.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it was widely thought that history as we knew it had come to an end. Francis Fukuyama’s work, “End of History”, reflected what many had thought was taking place, that somehow the dialectical history of ideas based on how societies and economies should be organized and governed had reached its conclusion. Indeed, it seemed at the time that Western liberal democracy and market capitalism had triumphed, as the best and most self-sustaining system of government, social arrangement and economic management the world had ever known.
It defeated political totalitarianism, economic central planning, and social egalitarian pretensions espoused by the Soviet Union, because, in the end, the forces of the market, capital, liberty, and democracy were too profound and so powerful that no alternative could stand in its way.
In the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, it seemed as if the US had a “unipolar” moment to reshape the world order. The ensuing two decades were initially marked by the spread of free markets and democratization in much of the developing world. The European Union led the way in ultimate liberalization, with its integrated foreign and security policies and a common currency.
Elsewhere in the world, democratization was well on its way and market capitalism became the dominant paradigm for economic growth, development, and management. These trends prevailed despite global volatility and limited conflicts in many parts of the world, including the break-up of Yugoslavia and the transformation of former Soviet satellites into self-governing republics.
Even in the early 2000s, which saw the beginning of the US “global war on terror” against militant Islamist expansionism, liberal democracy and market capitalism continued their march.
Yet over the past decade or so, democracy and capitalism have faced numerous existential challenges. Their promise of liberty and prosperity has fallen short in many places. Capital and wealth are increasingly accumulated in the hands of a few, whereas liberty and freedom have led to societal division and political polarization.
As more people across the globe become more skeptical and disillusioned with the disappointing performance of democracy and capitalism, worsened by runaway globalization and rapid technological advancement, many are seeking alternatives. Populism and authoritarian varieties of governance attracted the suffering hordes which became resentful after being left behind in terms of income and standard of living.
Populist leaders around the democratic world connected directly with the masses and bypassed established centers of power, such as the media and entrenched political classes, thereby pitting the masses against the elite and weakening the social fabric and political effectiveness of democratic and capitalist societies.
Enter China. Its allure rests on the shortcomings of democracy and capitalism. Its model of top-down “authoritarian capitalism” is still Marxist-Leninist but with a fundamental twist — it claims to be democratic, despite being in a single-party state under the Chinese Communist Party, rather than a multi-party democracy as in the West.
China harbors centralized political control in a totalitarian fashion. Yet its economic development and management are market-consistent, if not market-driven. China thus frustrates the Western model of liberal democracy and market capitalism in ways history has not seen.
The ideological battle that Marx started has not ended with the Soviet’s demise, but in fact, continues with China’s rise and resurgence. Having just celebrated the CCP’s centenary, communism is alive and well in China but with capitalist characteristics. The inherent contradictions of political totalitarianism and market capitalism make China strong and weak at the same time. No other modern state has been able to have its cake and eat it too by imposing centralized political control at the expense of rights and freedoms while running a successful market economy that delivers better lives and standards of living for its people.
The CCP-ruled Chinese state leads and drives a capitalist economy in the same way that Japan, South Korea and Taiwan did in the 1960s-80s. The big difference is that these three Asian countries were strong US allies that became Western-style democracies. China is not, and will never be. It is trying to steer away from the West’s debilitating flaws of concentrated wealth, political polarization and societal dysfunction.
Moving forward, China’s choices on how it conducts itself as a superpower are likely to reshape the global system to its advantage. In this respect, the new Cold War is structurally age-old. It is a brand new chapter in a long rivalry that began in the last century. At issue is the nature of tensions between the US and China.
The Soviet Union confronted the US directly through proxy wars in the developing world but eventually lost because it could not keep up with the more dynamic Western-centric capitalist development. The Soviets did not lose militarily but economically.
China, on the other hand, has not been confronting the US directly in military terms, despite its huge arms build-up. China’s direct and aggressive pushback takes place by way of trade protectionism and technological innovation. This face-off between the new East and the old West is best settled through compromise and accommodation, whereby China is accorded more role and prestige that befit its global weight and pride. If denied and suppressed, China will likely feel resentful and agitated. The Soviets lost without a real fight. The Chinese are likely to put up a real fight because they will not accept losing.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak is a professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science. He earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognized for excellence in opinion writing from the Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.
This article first appeared in The Bangkok Post.
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