“America is back” was President Biden’s mantra as he met earlier this month with the Group of Seven in Cornwall, NATO allies in Brussels and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva. Biden earned widespread praise for leading a return to normality after Donald Trump’s reign of error. The question is, though, America is back for what? Biden’s emphasis in the European meetings was bolstering NATO allies for a new global face-off with Russia — and increasingly China. Despite existential threats posed by catastrophic climate change and a global pandemic, Biden’s new normal seems ominously leaning to a revival of Cold War politics.
“We are committed to the rules-based international order," concludes the final communique from the NATO meetings, but “Russia’s aggressive actions constitute a threat to Euro-Atlantic security … China’s growing influence and international policies can present challenges that we need to address together as an alliance.” Much of the NATO plan addressed bolstering the alliance’s military capabilities on the Russian borders, and NATO for the first time also designated China as a “systemic challenge.”
Old Cold War tropes are being recycled. The world, we’re told, is divided between democratic and authoritarian nations. The latter are painted as repressive and rapacious, threatening their neighbors and working to disrupt a presumably benign rules-based order. China is the new “number one pacing challenge,” as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin puts it, with Russia relegated to second place. It is vital, we are told, that the United States and its NATO allies invest to maintain superiority in every domain of warfare — land, air, sea, space and cyber — and in every region from the borders of Russia to the Great China Sea.
In a Washington addled by bitter partisan divides, the call to meet the threat posed by China and Russia forges bipartisan consensus. Right-wing Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) sees China as the new Soviet Union: “Once again, America confronts a powerful totalitarian adversary that seeks to dominate Eurasia and remake the world order .” Once more the threat abroad is used to justify action at home. Republicans such as Cotton see big government as evil and industrial policy as creeping socialism but join the call for updating “America’s long-term economic, industrial and technological efforts to reflect the growing threat posed by Communist China." The same GOP senators who can’t bring themselves to back an investigation into the sacking of the Capitol rush to support research and development when framed as addressing threats posed by Chinese investments.
While dangerous, a Cold War face-off between democracies and authoritarian states, anchored by adversaries like China and Russia, is the establishment’s sweet spot. The powerful military-industrial security interests gain renewed importance. The Pentagon is gearing up new deployments, and a new array of weapons to counter growing Chinese assertiveness. NATO gets a revived mission. A bipartisan center can be reestablished, with bickering about tactics and spending anchored by an agreement on mission.
The costs of going back to the Cold War are immense, however. Sen. Bernie Sanders praises Biden for recognizing authoritarianism as a “major threat to democracy,” but wisely cautions that “the primary conflict … is taking place not between countries but within them … and if democracy is going to win out, it will do so not on a traditional battlefield but by demonstrating that democracy can actually deliver a better quality of life for people than authoritarianism can.”
It also deeply distorts the real security threats we face. As savage weather exacts an ever-greater toll in lives and resources, climate change is no longer a distant threat. No progress can be made without China, which now leads the world in fossil fuel emissions. Climate can no longer be relegated to a rhetorical statement of concern at the end of documents focused on military buildups and great power conflicts in peripheral countries.
A renewed Cold War will reinforce the nationalist and militarist factions among all the adversaries. The fearmongering around China has already contributed to the rise of hate crimes against Asian Americans in the United States that will make revitalizing our democracy even more difficult.
Biden’s meeting with Putin hopefully marks an end to the deterioration of relations that has grown increasingly dangerous. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambitions and China’s rising economic prowess and new assertiveness pose a more difficult challenge. But before “America is back” to a new Cold War, we need a far more serious discussion about the real security priorities of the American people — and the real challenges we face.