It's been said by various commentators recently that Joe Biden is in town looking for recruits for a new Cold War - against China this time, natch. I have reluctantly concluded that he's exactly right.
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Way back in the 1980s I wrote an article for a long-forgotten magazine (no, not the St Custard's School Review) lauding the upside of the then-prevailing Cold War with the Soviet Union. We in the West benefitted from the basic background discipline of potential life-and-death conflict. It kept us sharp, broadly united, unlikely to be at each others' throats over trivia; justified a capable military, resilience and general preparedness; provided a salutary reminder to our own lefties that they were essentially leaning the wrong way towards a world of patent nastiness and economic failure that we confidently rejected. FWIIW I also suggested that, were this state of affairs to end, we would lapse into a flabby state of complacency and corruption.
At the time of writing this stuff, I had no inkling it was all coming to an end quite as soon as it did. But what happened next? Not quite the End of History, of course, nor indeed the end of communism, of which more later. But, over the years, a trend that had already started in the '80s, towards economic liberalism and the dynamic globalisation of open markets, really took off in a big way. I don't think we can be quite sure whether it would have been so dramatically successful had the Sovs managed to hang on: aside from eastern Europe, their writ never ran in most of the places where markets opened; though I suppose you could argue that Cold War disciplines also suppressed animal spirits in the commercial sphere. But boy, market opening really worked.
And so, far from sitting around worrying about complacency, corruption and loss of discipline, I blasted around the world doing free-market energy business (that being my line) from Houston to Hong Kong, Stockholm to Senegal. I was never remotely motivated ideologically by "neo-liberalism" - just Better Business: you could always undercut a bloated former monopoly! Of course, there was a bit of free-market proseltysing, often tongue-in-cheek to annoy the incumbents: in France - "monsieur, vous ne comprenez pas le service publique"; in Germany - "vee don't do sings like zat here: now get back to ze airport or vee vill buy your leedle company!"; and of course the Tennessee Valley Authority - "we're Number One, and that's how it's goan stay: giddouda here, boy!" They were all wrong, and we were right. I really had a great time in that period; it was constructive, productive, win-win, profitable - and it felt right, by a range of not-particularly-ideological** criteria.
Well, none of that logic has changed (and, FWIIW, it's still rolling out into places where open markets have somehow passed by, or been resisted: the Chinese electricity sector is next. Politicians everywhere have spotted that it really works by the standards that matter: absolute efficiency and, if done right, greater resilience.) And it's not just energy, of course. But. It's hard not to agree with some on the left that Open Markets are not the last word in what makes society economically healthy for the long term. Complacency, corruption and loss of discipline are just the start. Ignore the benefits of free trade at your peril; but the more fanciful dreams of the wilder advocates of total laissez-faire are pretty juvenile. And they look even sillier when operating in the same global commercial space as the Chinese state-capitalist juggernaut, the new and very dark cloud on the horizon we haven't alluded to yet, and which wasn't really foreseen by Mr End-of-History Fukuyama. It's been clear for a while now that the challenge is not just "they produce everything much cheaper than we can" - I hardly need to go any further on the multi-dimensional threat they pose.
And such is the confidence of the CPC, they evidently ain't planning on doing anything other than doubling down in all of those dimensions, having been rewarded mightily so far and seeing no reason to anything other than put a slightly softer gloss on their official PR. Where they're at right now can barely be tolerated - although Heaven knows, unprincipled western politicians everywhere, thinking only of the $$$, will try to find reasons to do just that. And all of that doubled-down? Unless the Chinese make the most extraordinary and tangible offer to the entire world at COP-26, I can't see the status quo lasting much beyond a frosty Winter Olympics next year: something is going to break.
And it needs to. So Joe: looks like it falls to you and your supposed diplomatic skills, to circle the wagons and (switching idioms) put down some lines in the sand. That's the sand of Taiwan and many other Pacific Islands for starters, and a host of metaphoric beaches across the planet. Then settle down for the long haul. We have a precedent, 1945-1990. It wasn't entirely a happy state of affairs. It took confidence and realism and stamina. And leadership: without that, everyone starts looking at their shoes and shuffling off to make private accommodations with the new Power In The Land.
None of this is because I enjoyed being a 1970s-80s cold-war warrior in the Army (though, to be fair, I did). I really bought off on that peace dividend - I really believed we were making a go of it, and for 30 years have been enjoying that, too. Lots of us have. Remember also: the point of waging a cold war is to minimise the chances of a hot one which, in a world of bio and cyber threats, is as pressing an imperative as when it was basically only nukes that really troubled us.
Let's finish with some practical points. Joe, you and your new posse gotta rescue already-subborned New Zealand, and make Australia feel a lot more comfortable with its situation. Fast. Otherwise it'll be clear that your reach is only to those lazy countries that are a comfortable distance away from the coming action in the Far East. And even they will still be defending their precious Sino-exports and graduate-student fee income, hoping nobody will notice or mind too much.
** I realise, of course, that this can be disputed ...