Russian President Vladimir Putin applauds as Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech at the BRICS Summit in Xiamen on Sept. 4, 2017. While Russia and China have become the two greatest geopolitical foes of the U.S., they lack the ideological vision to fuel a new Cold War. (Kenzaburo Fukuhara/AFP/Getty Images)
John Owen, author of "The Clash of Ideas in World Politics," is chair of the department of politics at the University of Virginia and a senior fellow at the Miller Center of Public Affairs.

The serial expulsions of Russian diplomats and spies by Western countries, and Russia’s retaliation, have triggered media speculation about a new Cold War. That speculation has followed conjecture about another coming Cold War, this one between China and the United States, set off by threats of a trade war and ongoing tension between the two countries over maritime rights in Southeast Asia.

But for all the hand-wringing about a new Cold War, there simply aren’t the right ingredients for a renewed form of that long-term, existential struggle.

To be sure, relations between each of these countries and the United States have grown increasingly tense in the past few years. Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has seized the sovereign territory of a neighbor, solidified its influence in the Middle East and proceeded with a long-term project to fragment the Western alliance. Under Xi Jinping, China has expanded its military presence in the international waters of the South China Sea and made increasingly menacing noises about Taiwan. The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy of last December names great-power competition, not terrorism, as America’s main threat, and the first powers it mentions are China and Russia.

But those who lie awake at night worrying about an emerging long twilight struggle that endangers the world should get some sleep — for now. The Soviet-American Cold War, which stretched from 1947 to 1989, was prolonged and dangerous not only because the two sides had serious conflicts of interest and giant nuclear arsenals. Each side also had a well-articulated ideology with both broad and deep followings among elites in countries all over the world. Today, by contrast, neither China nor Russia has the soft power that would transform the world into an ideological battleground.

Communists and fellow travelers in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America tended to lean toward the Soviet Union, admiring its rapid industrialization and defiance of Western imperialism. Capitalists and liberal democrats in these regions favored the United States, seeking to emulate its wealth and individual freedom. Certainly, there were prominent exceptions, and many “communists” and “democrats” in the Third World were simply cynical power-seekers seeking foreign patrons. But each superpower found irresistible the temptation to aid and exploit its cohort of admirers across the world, and that in turn spread Soviet-American competition across the entire globe.

The Cold War began over the superpowers’ contest for influence in Europe. It spread to the Third World as European empires shrank and left power vacuums in Asia and Africa. It quieted in the 1970s as Washington and Moscow agreed to moderate the competition. But detente failed at the end of that decade when the Soviet Union sharply raised its support of communists in Africa, Afghanistan and Central America, triggering an equal and opposite response from the United States and a renewed Cold War.

Today, both Russia and China have made clear that they regard liberal democracy as their chief ideological enemy. Moscow and Beijing have developed pointed critiques of the West’s defining social system, some of which — including critiques of its polarization and political paralysis — draw blood. But neither China nor Russia has yet been able to formulate a coherent plan of its own for economic growth, political stability and national strength that has global appeal.

What Russia calls “sovereign democracy” — its alternative to liberal democracy — seems to consist of the Putin personality cult, a particularly sour variety of social conservatism and valorization of Russian nationalism and the Russian Orthodox Church. Only the first two elements enjoy significant international followings, and neither is really a sustainable element of a global ideology. Many social conservatives outside of Russia admire Putin’s regime, but many others find it repulsive. While Putin himself has his foreign imitators and sycophants, and can deliver resentful stemwinders about Western arrogance, he has not developed a body of thought along the lines of Mao or Lenin. Eventually Putin will go, and with him will go the potency of Putinism.

Similarly, in the 1960s and 1970s, the Chinese Communist Party had Mao Zedong Thought (the Chinese name for Maoism) to inspire millions of anti-Westerners around the world. But in recent years, the Party has tried, without success, to replace Maoism with a revived Confucianism as a source of soft power.

Beijing’s newest attempt at a positive, comprehensive ideology is Xi Jinping Thought. It is still early, but so far Xi Jinping Thought seems to entail a drive to Make China Great Again and to buttress the supremacy of the Party and Xi himself. It is not at all clear why this nascent model should attract a devoted worldwide following — as in Russia, the nationalist focus and centrality of a cult of personality lacks a broader vision to draw allies and acolytes.

The fundamental problem facing the rulers of these two aspiring great powers, China and Russia, is that they know what they are against but not what they are for. They are determined to fend off liberal democracy, which is both a threat to their rule and a carrier of Western — ultimately, American — power. But they lack what their communist predecessors had: a road map for society that has a plausible claim to universal validity, a plan that inspires elites in dozens of other countries.

Simultaneously, distracted by deep internal rifts, the West isn’t working to export its ideology, either. The global stock price of liberal democracy today is low, and the United States has a president little interested in raising it.

Thus, in 2018, the world has what Donald Trump seems to want — and, ironically, what Xi and Putin likely want as well: not an intense worldwide struggle for hearts and minds, but selective contests, sometimes dangerous, for material resources and territory; not zero-sum competition between rigid blocs of states, but relatively flexible alliances and rivalries; not a new Cold War, in other words, but old-fashioned great-power politics.