Saturday 12 June 2021

OK: Cold War It Is - weekend essay

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.

*   *   *   *   *

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 ...


dearieme said...

It took me some time - a few days - to realise why the US leftish Powers That Be had reversed themselves on the origin of the virus. One moment the lab leak hypothesis was a xenophobic, fascist conspiracy theory. The next moment it was God's own truth.

The explanation was clearly nothing to do with the evidence - those boys don't care about evidence. It was either (i) an attempt to explain away the coming financial difficulties as being all China's fault, or (ii) a direct whipping up of pro-war (or pro-Cold War) sentiment towards China and her allies. (Iran?)

My money's on the latter though there is a marked degree of overlap.

jim said...

Too late Mr Drew, the Chinese have seen the future and how it will work.

The UK and the USA are leading the way for old western democracies but the way looks uncomfortable. We both have a parasitic upper class ripe for the traditional treatment, we both have half the middle class working hard at becoming parasitic whilst the other half is struggling to maintain decent educational, cultural and living standards.

We both have a working class beaten down by high housing cost and the difficulty of finding a decent enough job and ladder upwards. Then we both have underclasses who have their own struggles with housing and crime. There seems no model, no other country that can give us a steer. We have advanced along our developmental path further and faster than comparable nations. Even the USA gives only a hint of where we are headed but China gives a better glimpse.

The obvious problem is that we have no effective use for 50% of our population - but we can't get rid of them. Our economy and indeed the world economy has a use for the best and brightest but tends to ignore the rest. The iron law of the Bell curve is hitting up against the way we run the economy. That way must change. The old days of wide open countryside and prairies and freedom for everyone are drawing to a close. Joe knows that. Donald might try to resurrect this notion - and ultimately fail.

Solution - get rid of royalty and aristocracy. Provide good social housing and strong educational selection. Provide a 'living wage' plus strong social controls. Ensure top class cultural development. We might usefully develop better relations with the Chinese - they have seen the future. Small wonder the Tories are scared of any effective change.

Don Cox said...

"Provide good social housing"

To attract even more immigrants ? Free or near-free housing will be filled up with colonists as fast as you build it.

Don Cox

Sobers said...

The problem with the cold war ending was that it allowed the Left to go and colonise the State sector, even more than it already had, and to spread its tentacles ever wider from there. No-one tried to stop them, there was no longer a need to keep Communists out of things, their side had lost, right? So we end up being run by the likes of Comrade Susan Michie. Who 40 years ago would have been an enemy of the UK State and had her phone tapped. Now she's on the SAGE committee with her hand up Boris's arsehole.

Anonymous said...

In the last cold war, we hadn't sent all our factories to Russia.

Thanks, Economist-brandishing free marketeers!

-- EC

Don Cox said...

When the British Empire was expanding and the British industrial economy growing rapidly, Britain must have been viewed with the same anxiety and dread as is China today.

Don Cox

djm said...


E-K said...

A bit late.

China isn't post WW2 Russia but now our essential supplier and owner of much of our infrastructure and institutions.

About ten years ago I said we should have broken with them but was told that I was being harsh on 'hard working people'.

True. They are hard working people and I was being 'harsh' on them.

They owe us nothing.

Our standard of living has been propped up on their slave labour and the quid pro quo was exposure to viruses.

E-K said...

Joe Biden has chosen to weaken the USA immeasurably with wokeness and greeness.

How, exactly, is he going to lever China ?

Shouldn't we be asking Ms Harris instead ?

E-K said...


The UK empire happened almost by accident. In a Boris sort of way. A bit of piracy... a bit of gamesmanship... yes... a bit of slavery (of which we were the last in but the first to abolish.)

China is very different as ND will attest. And they are still doing slavery and genocide now.

E-K said...

A bit of levity. And I know Nick will like this. Not just sublime guitar but comedy while he's doing it.

I've played for over 40 years now - my biggest earner £200 one night in the nineties in a London pub.

Trust me.

What this guy is doing is something else !!!

E-K said...

Restrictions until Spring next year.


Told you so.

(Lanyards are NEVER questioned btw. Just as effective as any mask, apparently. They're going by the Spanish Flu rule book and I told you that as well.)

jim said...

Are we really going to get excited about a few islands in the South Seas? Far away about which we know little? Sure, a bit of sabre rattling, trot out a few tin tubs for sure. But actual shooting - never.

Then climate change conferences - purely a propaganda exercise for the big boys. Leave doing something to the little guys. Surely there is some advantage to being a big polluter - you get to use the energy and you hold a bargaining chip. The RoW might get a bit windy about sea level rise or starvation but who wants to screw up their own economy just to look good. Who will blink first?

A while back Donald threatened to cut off China's semiconductor supply. He already screwed up Huawei for them. Not likely to be forgotten. The Americans reckon they have an unassailable lead in semicon. But if China takes away a good slab of their market then investment - apart from military - will diminish. The big prize is some sort of AI chip, something that takes self driving cars and robots the last 5% - 50% of functionality to usefulness. Although the long term viability of an electric drive trains looks distinctly doubtful.

I can't see any kind of hot war being realistic between China/US. Atomic weapons were useful only once - when you would not get one back. Just see how windy the US got over North Korea. Communist Russia was destroyed by the internal impossibility of its economics - now merely an energy state. The interesting question is whether America's greed will prove to be its Achilles heel - handing away all the decent jobs whilst running a social bear garden at home. The next four years will be key.

Nick Drew said...

Reminds me of Mike Oldfield, Kev

how's the knee? ACL?

Timbo614 said...

@E-K I saw Mike Dawes live with Justin Hayward a few years back in Guildford. Very impressive and expressive.

E-K said...

Thanks for asking Nick (means a lot)

I'm bearing up well but without a private physio I would have been completely neglected by the NHS. Not even a letter to tell me I'm in the system but the physio is seriously well connected and has tracked my progress for me.

The injury itself ? Sore in the mornings, sore after sitting - motion is my lotion.

Luckily I'm already in the training habit and have adapted my fitness around it. Thank goodness for my squat rack which I can adjust to give safe limits on motion and allows me to bail and drop heavy weights if anything gives.

I have a good rapport with the physio who has a similar approach to fitness that I do - basics, sandbags and free weights. She loves working with my type of injury and my type of person as we actually do what she tells us to, we do our homework and deliver satisfying results for her. Too much of her work is managed decline or unwilling patients and having seen some of her clients I feel truly blessed to be as mobile as I am.

As for the NHS ?

I'm reluctant to have an operation but would like an MRI to know what I've done and manage my expectations. I've used a brace off piste in the Black Mountains and was OK with it. I walked a seven mile track with the dog yesterday - no probs. Can't run flat out but at least I managed to pass the Royal Marines PRMC the week before injury age *coughty* six !!!

As it is an operation could mean a five year wait so I'll put myself down for one anyway - just in case there is serious debilitation down the line.

Sorry to have been such a misery guts on this site. I can assure you that here in real life I'm making people laugh.

We were out with the post incident psychologist - the one I had to see earlier this year - and his girlfriend last night. I've made a good friend there. There may be a new career for me. He's seen something in me.


Best for the remainder of the weekend to you all.

E-K said...

Timbo - Excellent. I'm a convert. Don't normally like tapping as it makes it all sound like a laboratory experiment but this guy delivers humanity as well.

Anonymous said...

Well let's hear Biden's own words on what he thinks of China:

Elby the Beserk said...

Agree wholeheartedly.

There is a problem though.

Biden is very, very dim.

Elby the Beserk said...

jim said...

Solution - get rid of royalty and aristocracy. Provide good social housing and strong educational selection. Provide a 'living wage' plus strong social controls. Ensure top class cultural development. We might usefully develop better relations with the Chinese - they have seen the future. Small wonder the Tories are scared of any effective change.

4:15 pm

So replace a constitutional monarch with .... President Blair? I don't think so. One might also add that the most stable democracies in the world are the North European constitutional monarchies. I'll stick with a unifying symbol of the nation, not the bent b******s we have been served up as leaders for too long.

E-K said...

How long before Boris is forced to take the knee... in a mask ?

He's just admitted that it's not political so how can he answer anyone who asks him to join them in doing it ?