The New Cold War: Professor Clemens Navigates the Rise of China and Russia Aggression

Professor Walter Clemens analyzes the new cold wars and explains how we arrived at the new world order

by Sededin Dedovic
The New Cold War: Professor Clemens Navigates the Rise of China and Russia Aggression
© Pool / Getty Images

Three decades after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the United States and its allies have found themselves in a state of self-deception, and that period is now coming to an end, emphasizes Walter C. Clemens in an article for CEPA.

Clemens, an associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University and a professor of political science at Boston University, points to a new book by David E. Sanger, written with assistance from Mary K.

Brooks, titled "New Cold Wars: The Chinese Rise, Russian Invasion, and America's Struggle to Defend the West," which depicts the global shock that surprised the US and much of Europe: the sharp revival of superpower conflict.

Sanger, a national security expert at the New York Times, highlights the political-military challenges that the United States and its partners in global affairs are facing now and will continue to face in the coming years.

It took years and a lot of bitter experience for many politicians and political experts to realize that, contrary to some predictions, history did not "end" in the late 1980s. Yes, the communist ideology withered, but not the ambitions of Russia and China to weaken and replace the ruling world superpower and the order it established.

The United States and its allies first welcomed China (2001), and then post-Soviet Russia (2011) into the World Trade Organization, hoping that their leaders and public would see the benefits of cooperation in a rules-based global order.

But some leaders in Beijing and Moscow saw the economic problems and domestic turmoil in the US and Europe and calculated that the conditions were ripe to push Washington off the pedestal built by its victory in 1945. Putin's Russia is, of course, a declining power.

Looking at China's GDP and dynamics, however, the world's largest territory could one day act as an authoritarian superpower.

Closing Ceremony Of The 20th National Congress Of The Communist Party Of China© Kevin Frayer / Getty Images

Skeptical realists point to deep tensions with Russia that will likely cause friction as China becomes more powerful.

But it is unlikely that such an eventuality will weaken Sino-Russian cooperation for several years. Prudence requires the West to prepare for the worst. Only in the last few years has the former belief in the power of globalization begun to be seen as a fantasy of early 21st-century American foreign policy.

The assumption of both Republicans and Democrats was that the post-Cold War era would last indefinitely. But "every assumption across different administrations was wrong," one of President Biden's advisers told Sanger. Many wishes contributed to US policy that the internet would bring political freedom and that international trade would liberalize China and Russia.

In the first Cold War, "containment" meant preventing other countries from becoming communist. Now it means starving American competitors of key technologies. Such a policy has antagonized both Putin and Xi Jinping. Sanger quotes Russian analyst Anatoly I.

Utlin: "For five centuries, Russia has never paid tribute to anyone. Now, for the first time, we have become a junior partner. You are the boss, we are the partners." As the war in Ukraine dragged on, Russian officials talked about using nuclear weapons.

Some talks were just "bluster," an American official told Sanger. But intercepted communications revealed that senior Russian military commanders explicitly discussed the logistics of detonating a weapon on the battlefield.

Putin's regime threatens to use nuclear weapons against a state that renounced nuclear weapons on its territory almost 30 years ago and handed the weapons over to Moscow under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. Ukraine thought it was getting a guarantee of protection in return.

Instead, it received a threat of destruction. Russia ignored nuclear risks when it sent troops into the Chernobyl exclusion zone in 2022, where the ground was still radioactive and without protective equipment. In southeastern Ukraine, a war raged on the perimeter of a giant nuclear power plant, where Russian forces occupied six nuclear reactors to gain an advantage on the battlefield.

For Putin, Zaporizhzhia is not a war trophy; it is part of his plan to gain control over all of Ukraine and intimidate or blackmail much of Europe. Hopes for the end of history have ceased. The post-Cold War era, named for what it was not, was marked by such wealth production and technological advancement that no one could imagine returning to the pre-networked, pre-globalized age.

The key to maintaining it was cooperation among major nations. So whenever they seemed to row in the same direction – agreeing to slow climate change or limit nuclear proliferation – every stroke was celebrated.

Yet, instead of becoming more frequent, these bursts of cooperation became increasingly fleeting. It took the US a long time to realize what this decline represented, concludes Clemens.

China Russia