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Opinion It’s not a ‘Sputnik moment’ and we should not feed Cold War paranoia

Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, answers questions during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Sept. 28. (Patrick Semansky/Pool/AP)

Have we witnessed another Sputnik moment? The Financial Times has reported that China tested a hypersonic missile this summer, though China denies this. Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, compared the test to that pivotal event during the Cold War: “I don’t know if it’s quite a Sputnik moment,” he said, “but I think it’s very close to that.”

Milley should dust off his history books. The Chinese test has nothing in common with Sputnik, and claiming that it does feeds a dangerous paranoia growing in Washington these days.

To recall, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite to orbit the planet, on October 4, 1957. Both the United States and U.S.S.R. had been planning to launch satellites into space for years, and the fact that Moscow got there first was a huge shock to Americans. Coming in the wake of multiple powerful Soviet nuclear tests, Sputnik signaled that in the next frontier, space, the Soviets were ahead.

Sputnik was a revolution in the space race. Hypersonic missiles, on the other hand, are old news. A hypersonic missile travels at five times the speed of sound or faster. Starting in 1959, the United States and the Soviet Union have deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles that travel more than 20 times the speed of sound. Even Germany’s V-2 rockets, first launched against Paris during the last phase of World War II, flew at close to hypersonic speeds. Cameron Tracy, a Stanford University scientist and expert on the topic, has pointed out that hypersonic weapons are neither faster nor stealthier than ICBMs. Oh, and by the way, according to Financial Times reporting, the Chinese missile missed its target by about 24 miles.

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As author and journalist Fred Kaplan notes, it’s possible that the test was China’s attempt to nullify the United States’ vast missile defense system. But that system, as he points out, is an expensive white elephant that failed three of its last six tests despite the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on it to date. Perhaps that is why the Pentagon hasn’t tested the system since March 2019. Even if the system had perfect aim, it could still be rendered useless with small, asymmetrical measures, such as simply firing two missiles at the same time.

Alas, don’t expect science and facts to have much sway in this discussion. That’s because there is now a bipartisan consensus in Washington: We are coming dangerously close to a new Cold War. For the Pentagon, it’s an opportunity: Raising fears about a huge and tech-savvy enemy is a surefire way to guarantee vast new budgets that can be spent countering the enemy’s every move, real or imagined.

The mood goes beyond Washington. Foreign Affairs has published an essay by scholar and famous realist John Mearsheimer, who castigates U.S. policymakers for engaging China over the past four decades. He predicts that our active encouragement of a peer competitor will lead to a new Cold War that could get hot and even nuclear.

But realist logic gets you only so far. The high priest of realism, Kenneth Waltz, predicted that once the Cold War ended, Japan would throw off the shackles of dependence on the United States for security and acquire nuclear weapons. Mearsheimer declared that, as the Cold War ended, NATO would collapse and Europe would become a cockpit of warring states, as it had been before the Cold War. He believed that many European states, chiefly Germany, would likely acquire nuclear weapons. None of these predictions have come to pass. In fact, the European Union has grown tighter and stronger in the decades after the Cold War. And Japan’s military remains resolutely nonnuclear.

I raise this to make the point that Mearsheimer looked at only one of the great forces that motivate states in the international system — power politics. But there are others, such as economic interdependence. The world today — including China — is thoroughly enmeshed in a complex global economic system in which war would hurt the aggressor almost as much as the victim. There have been almost no land grabs since 1945 (the most notable exception being Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014). This amounts to an almost unprecedented declaration of respect for borders. In addition, nuclear deterrence has raised the stakes, making countries far more cautious about launching a great power war.

The task of U.S. foreign policy is to recognize that traditional power politics can indeed deter Chinese expansionism while also recognizing the ways in which interdependence might also constrain it. The United States should make an effort to deploy both tools. This approach will certainly prove far more complicated to implement than scaremongering and chest-thumping, but it is precisely the one that is likely to keep the world at peace and prosperity.