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Can America Wage a Cold War Against Russia and China?

A U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor receives fuel from a U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker assigned to the 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron, above the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility, March 14, 2022. The F-22 Raptor is a fifth-generation aircraft that combines stealth, supercruise, maneuverability, integrated avionics, and is designed to project air dominance, rapidly and at great distances, and deter regional aggressors while deployed in the USCENTCOM AOR. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Frank Rohrig)

The Insanity of a Double Cold War – How different the crisis in Ukraine could have played out if China-US ties were stronger and if the China-Russia relationship was weaker. While Beijing is not omnipotent in international affairs, it does have enormous leverage over its neighbor to the north. More than any other world leader, Xi Jinping has the power to prevail upon Vladimir Putin to stop his war of choice. It is even possible that war might have been avoided if Putin had feared a stiff rebuke from China.

Leaders in the United States are therefore right to be frustrated that their Chinese counterparts refuse to pressure Russia to shorten the war in Ukraine. However, nobody in America should be surprised by China’s unwillingness to assist the West. After all, asking Beijing to help preserve peace in Europe so that the United States and its allies might return to the more pressing task of containing Chinese influence in the Asia-Pacific was always going to be a long shot.

Sadly, however, some in the United States seem to be learning the wrong lessons from the conspicuous failure of China to respond sternly to unprovoked Russian aggression. Instead of realizing that Washington must work hard to improve its relationship with Beijing so that future crises can be defused with greater speed and efficiency, the dominant narrative is that China’s actions are yet more proof that the world’s autocracies are implacably opposed to international order and democratic values. From this view, Russia and China are both irredeemable.

This crude homogenization of America’s adversaries has echoes of the 1950s, when US officials similarly invoked the idea of a tight Moscow-Beijing axis. Back then, the purpose was to terrify political leaders at home into supporting a worldwide strategy of US forward deployments. By painting China as in league with the Soviet Union, President Truman and his advisers found that they could more easily mobilize political support for controversial foreign policies such as massive forward deployments and extensive alliance commitments in Europe and East Asia.

Analysts today might remember Truman’s division of the world into good and evil as a clear political success in the sense that it secured domestic backing for the strategy of containment. But they also recognize that the conflation of the Soviet Union and China quickly became a strategic liability for the United States. That is, it would have been far better for Washington to pursue a rapprochement with Beijing – as it ultimately did during the early 1970s – rather than continuing with uniformly hostile foreign policies that pushed its two adversaries closer together.

Today, lumping Russia and China together as inveterate wrongdoers makes even less sense than it did in the 1950s and 1960s. At least President Truman had a strategic goal in mind when he portrayed Moscow and Beijing as belonging to a monolithic bloc intent on world conquest. What is President Biden’s purpose when he describes world politics as a contest between democracy and autocracy? What grand strategy is he asking domestic actors in the United States to support?

The answer is that there is no strategic rationale for pushing Russia and China into each other’s arms at a time when the United States needs them to become more distant from one another. There is no plan for democracy to triumph over autocracy. On the contrary, Matthew Burrows and Robert Manning are right: the United States simply cannot afford to wage a “double Cold War.” If this was not obvious before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it should be abundantly clear now. The United States is just not powerful enough to coerce or even contain both of its great power rivals simultaneously.

Instead of trying to confront both of its superpower rivals at the same time, the United States should move toward a smarter approach that blends competition with adroit strategic compromise. In the short term, this almost certainly means trying to mend relations with China. Clearly, Beijing will not be browbeaten into helping resolve the crisis in Ukraine; Chinese leaders must be given positive inducements to do anything that would jeopardize their budding partnership with Moscow.

President Biden could begin by promising action on trade, clarifying (reversing) some of his most damaging remarks about Taiwan, and bolstering US-China cooperation on public health. He should also lay out the conditions under which the United States would begin to halt or even reverse its military buildup in the Indo-Pacific; even if there is no chance of a “grand bargain” with Beijing any time soon, it is still worth emphasizing that the United States is in principle willing to reduce its military footprint in East Asia contingent upon an improvement in bilateral relations.

In the longer term, however, it will also be necessary for the United States to strike bargains large and small with Russia, too. This is hard to imagine at the present moment, with newspapers and TV screens reporting on Russian artillery destroying maternity hospitals, theaters, and preschools. But it is nevertheless a foregone conclusion that, one day, US and Russian leaders will indeed be forced to sit across the table from one another to discuss issues such as arms control, European security, the lifting of economic sanctions, and – yes – China.

It may be too late for the United States to use the war in Ukraine as an occasion for turning China against Russia. But leaders in Washington should not wait until the next international crisis to drive a wedge between its two autocratic rivals. They should begin this important work now – quietly, perhaps, but with all the determination and resources that the task demands. And once they begin, they must never stop; maintaining the correct balance between competition and compromise will require constant diligence.

To advance its interests and its values in the emerging multipolar world, the United States cannot delay in exchanging habits of imperiousness for a sincere openness to self-interested compromises with its great power rivals. Competition with both Russia and China is inevitable. But a double Cold War is not – and must never become so.

Dr. Peter Harris is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Colorado State University, where his teaching and research focus on international security, International Relations theory, and US foreign policy. He is also a non-resident fellow with Defense Priorities and a 1945 Contributing Editor.

Written By

Peter Harris is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Colorado State University, where his teaching and research focus on international security, International Relations theory, and US foreign policy.



  1. linder

    March 31, 2022 at 8:40 am

    Ukraine has shown the world the true meaning of grit. Their courage on the battlefield and their tactical cunning have delivered a staggering toll on the Russian forces, including the so-called leadership in the field. Unfortunately, the Western/Democratic world is allowing them to go it alone; only Ukrainian blood is being spilled in the first chapter of World War Three. The alleged withdrawals, focus on the East and the peace talks are feints – Putin needs to take all of Ukraine. Anything short of total victory will leave him in a destitute Russia, needing draconian measures to suppress the population, while the mass-murder and the gross incompetence of his army leaks out. He will be reviled but worse – his self-construct will shatter – the indestructible paragon of manliness and bare-chested virility will be exposed as the weak and incompetent architect of a crumbling nation. He would never take another secure breath and never again enjoy his stolen wealth, palaces and yachts – waiting instead for the inevitable assassination or worse, being handed to a war-crimes tribunal. He has no intention of ending his days thusly. He will continue the pretenses, while bringing in whatever conscripts, mercenaries and cutthroats he can muster. Expect the inevitable purges of his former cronies. Most of all, wait for the false flag attack, possibly even on Moscow to justify a nuclear or chemical strike on Kyiv. He will gamble that by raising the stakes he will again cow NATO, and finally the Ukrainians if he can kill Zelensky. He’s keeping forces all over because they will need to start to roll to the next target. His only hope is to keep a war going, there is no peace to be had with this man.

  2. Peace-making nukes of US arsenal

    March 31, 2022 at 9:16 am

    There’s been never any real end to the so-called ‘Cold War’ because the US (the Iron maiden of NATO) sees the world in nazist-tinted glasses, us and them. Us meaning the uber fascist-capitalists and them, the ‘evil bogeymen’ or untermensche.

    Today, the fascist-capitalists wage proxy wars and regime change wars all over the planet.

    For the fascist-capitalists, today east europe and decrepit states, tomorrow the world.

  3. Alex

    March 31, 2022 at 9:20 am

    Yes, the whole world saw the “courage” of the Bandera Nazis. A bound prisoner is cut with a knife, and then a knife is driven into the eye and they try to continue his torment longer. This is not new, by no means. Other tortures, no less and even more cruel, can be seen in telegram channels. These scum themselves remove and spread. No one will take the bastards prisoner, the commanders of Donbass and Russia said. Thanks to social networks, punishers are found very quickly. An earthly punishment awaits everyone, and then a heavenly one. They will be very close.
    On the subject: the war has already been lost, sanctions are returning like a boomerang to the West. This is a huge loss for the US. Settlements in rubles, closer cooperation with China, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Latin American countries – this is 70-75% of the world’s population. It’s just that the US didn’t expect to collapse so quickly and so ignominiously.

  4. Eric-ji

    March 31, 2022 at 11:09 am

    The government of each nation reflects its people. Want to change the government? Change the people.

    No one knows how to do that though and instead dream up fanciful social engineering solutions. They have failed throughout history and will continue to fail.


  5. Francis Maikisch

    March 31, 2022 at 11:51 am

    Our political leaders are too compromised & corrupt to win in this scenario, IMO.

  6. Eric-ji

    March 31, 2022 at 4:06 pm

    And we elected those political leaders. What does that say about us?

  7. Eric

    March 31, 2022 at 4:37 pm

    I agree that diplomacy and soft power should be far preferable to military action, but the U.S. has retained cold war military spending even after the cold war ended (and has not maintained funding for the State department). It is obvious that we can maintain that level of funding, but such high levels of military spending come at the cost of other domestic priorities and politicians tend to over-rely on military options. Arguably, it could make just as much sense to invest in energy efficiency, renewable energy and storage. We would then be sending fewer petrodollars to the worlds autocracies for them to fund their militaries. We would have less local pollution, less global warming, and be energy independent from the world’s autocracies.

  8. Commentar

    March 31, 2022 at 5:55 pm

    It is a very hugely erroneous and misguided belief that US practises democracy. What functions as ‘democracy’ is actually the deep state’s carefully honed policy of fascist capitalism.

    Democracy can’t be practised with the business end of a gun, but that’s what is being done in the US.

    It’s called demented democracy or more specifically, fascist-capitalist democracy, or simply fascist democracy.

    That’s why you have 800 military bases and facilities around the world. And numerous forward-based active state hi-tech weapons systems. Fascism at its finest or fascism in business suit and tie. And carrying a concealed locked and loaded firearm.

    Has any US president ever been allowed to visit secret base S4 in Area 51 ? Democracy, yeah.

    Area 51’s existence was only grudgingly acknowledged in 2013, long after over 60 years being in extremely top secret use. Nothing democratic about it.

  9. Johnny

    March 31, 2022 at 6:18 pm

    This article is nonsense. Are you literally saying that it was a wise move to get closer to China in the 1970s? I mean, the rapprochement that ended up bringing so many Western companies to China and thus forming a commercial empire that today disputes the USA for the leadership of the world? Was it a good idea? I wonder if the author of the article is happy with the exponential growth that China had thanks to those western investments (which should have NEVER been carried out). And on top of that, you want Taiwan to be abandoned? disgusting.

  10. MHJ

    April 1, 2022 at 1:59 am

    Maybe Russia should wake up and understand who can be the real and only threat to them?. E.g.if China decides it wants more territory, where do you think they will find it?

    – When that happens, turning to Nato and US for assisatnace might be in vain. Good luck with you future, Russia.

  11. from Russia with love

    April 1, 2022 at 5:04 am

    “Are you literally saying that it was a wise move to get closer to China in the 1970s?”
    it was inevitable. in China in the 1970s, cheap labor. the one who will take advantage of this first will receive competitive advantages, the one who does not take advantage will lose in the competition. this is capitalism;) and yes, Taiwan is likely to be handed over as well as Ukraine. According to international law, Taiwan is Chinese territory.

  12. Michael Veritas

    April 1, 2022 at 4:22 pm

    The blog 1945 is finally admitting the truth. These sanctions against Russia will not be maintained because they’re hurting the West almost equally as Russia. Ukraine should have signed the neutrality agreement earlier. Now eastern Ukraine is lost. That gives Russia a land bridge to Crimea that’s not coming back.

  13. Johnny

    April 1, 2022 at 6:36 pm

    from Russia with love:

    Your commentary has several errors.

    First: capitalism desires cheap labor, very true, but this was not inevitable. USA could have maintained a blockade on China (“if you trade with China you don’t trade with us”) and then the entire Western and pro-Western world would not have put a single dollar into China, and thus China today would not be a shadow of what it is. Investing in China was a decision, not something that was forced. It was perfectly possible to have chosen the opposite. And in that case, USA would be unquestionably the greatest power in the world today and no one would be challenging that strength… unlike in our reality.

    Second… Ukraine has not surrendered, and has the full support of the West. They have delivered colossal amounts of high tech weaponry to it (thousands of NLAW, Javelin, Stinger…) and have banned Russia from almost all of the West in almost every way. And Ukraine has thereby caused an enormous amount of casualties and damage to the Russian forces. What else do you pretend? You literally seem to be seeing the world upside down.

    And third, what international law says or doesn’t say I don’t give a damn. A law is nothing more than an agreement between x parties, so whether it benefits China, or benefits Taiwan, that doesn’t mean it is inherently fair or beneficial to the people. Laws can be tyrannical, inadequate or even stupid. Appealing to a law, to defend something, is a fallacy of authority. I defend the right to self-determination, and therefore, I defend the right of the people of Taiwan to be free and to despise the disgusting fascist dictatorship that is China today.

  14. Alex

    April 1, 2022 at 7:18 pm

    If you despise something, take up arms against it. Or shut your rotten mouth and stay out of the affairs of other states. No nation has given you that right. Scum.

  15. Johnny

    April 1, 2022 at 7:55 pm

    “No nation has given you that right. ”

    Nations don’t give rights, Alex hahaha. There are no rights, they are just a concept in your mind: the only real thing is that I have the ability to say whatever I want, and I use that ability, whether you like it or not 😉

    And since I defend freedom, and China wants to attack others just for not wanting to be their slaves… I despise the disgusting government that holds China hostage.

    And when I read you calling me “scum”, you who are an obvious defender of fascism (a slave defending the slaveholders), it fills me with pride and satisfaction and confirms me that I am in the right direction.

  16. Stefan Stackhouse

    April 1, 2022 at 9:36 pm

    What we actually must do is to pick our turf and our battles very carefully. The idea that we can draw a line of containment around the borders of Russia and China and protect the entire rest of the world from them is insane, and doomed to catastrophic failure. However, that does not mean that we must give up and retreat into isolationism. There is a prudent middle ground, and it is there where we must focus our strategy.

    That grand strategy must be a maritime strategy. The US has the advantage of bordering both the Atlantic and Pacific, with these large oceans providing us with considerable strategic depth. We must make the most of this advantage, rather than squandering it through the pretense of thinking that we are a Eurasian land power and wasting our resources on futile interventions on the mainland. We need instead to limit ourselves to offshore operations, anchored in strong alliances with the island nations of Britain, Japan, and Australia. We can stand strong and need not fear as long as we confine ourselves to these reasonable limits. Press beyond that, and we press our luck too much.

  17. Charles B. Van Duzer

    April 1, 2022 at 10:26 pm

    The spirit of Neville Chamberlain is strong in this one. Appeasement leads to the ongoing demand for more end more appeasement.Rather than suck up to China the US should continue to oppose China’s expansion of ‘influence’. Russia has China as a neighbor and that is a worse geopolitical position than the US occupies. Soon enough Russia will learn the cost of China’s supposed friendship and realize that country’s do not have friends, they have interests. Our interest is a free and strong America.

  18. H. Fan

    April 1, 2022 at 10:40 pm

    So the author think cozying up to China will work in our favor? This is exactly what we did for most of the past 20 years, which has put us in this predicament. The smarter move – democrat screams of Russia collusion notwithstanding – would have been to enlist Russia as a counterbalance to China. Now that opportunity is lost as well. It will be a tough slog the next 20 years but at least Russia is in many ways off the table as now being anything more than a nuclear nuisance. China faces some big challenges, which we will need to deftly work to our advantage as we confront and contain them on every front, as we did the USSR. Embracing China will only lead to betrayal and disaster.

  19. Longo

    April 2, 2022 at 6:47 am

    Fast forward 6 months of brave Ukrainians with better weapons, Russia will have close to 50,000 body bags to explain their citizens. This will cause a coup d’etat, the new Ruski government will sue for peace and the privilege to be readmitted into to the world economy. De-nuclearization will be the price to pay. China will put on their best face and play nice — but everyone will know this time they don’t mean it.

  20. JSMIII

    April 2, 2022 at 5:50 pm

    We can no longer hope for National Security on the cheap. Russia clearly has ambitions to expand and China makes no secret of its desires to shape a new order in the Pacific to its exclusive advantage. They are clearly desiring of expanding eastwards and are diligently working to gain the capacity to dictate terms.
    Our task is to build up the capacity to always keep this out of their reach. We can’t assume that allies will push us over the top. We need allies but the responsibility for the defense of the US remains on the US. That means not only a super strong military but also a self sufficient industrial base. We can trade and have imports but we should never allow ourselves to be totally reliant on imports for any materials or products we need to survive and defend ourselves. No other sane nations follows a strategy of allowing itself to be nearly totally dependent upon its potential adversaries.

  21. Gerard

    April 3, 2022 at 9:17 am

    The Russian’s new “land bridge” from Rostov oblast to Crimea along the Azov Sea coast will never be given up now. This achievement alone could give Russia “victory” enough in it’s effort to thwart potential NATO expansion and punish Ukraine. The Sino-Russian cooperation will continue.

  22. Alex

    April 3, 2022 at 6:21 pm

    How it all reminds of the 30s of the last century, when mass hysteria and Russophobia began. Once again, the combined forces of the West attacked Russia and then remained silent for almost a hundred years. Apparently, it will be so until those who unleash wars are finally destroyed. It’s a pity that Russia didn’t hear the prayers of Ukrainians who asked for help in the Donbas for 8 years, because back in 2014 everything could have been finished in a couple of days.

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