Are we on the brink of a new Cold War? The United States is the sole reigning superpower, but it is being challenged by the rising power of China, much as ancient Rome was challenged by Carthage and Britain was challenged by Germany in the years before World War I. Should we therefore think of the United States and China as we once did about the United States and the Soviet Union, two gladiators doomed to an increasingly globalized combat until one side fades?
Or are we entering a new period of diversified global economic cooperation in which the very idea of old-fashioned, imperial power politics has become obsolete? Should we see the United States and China as more like France and Germany after World War II, adversaries wise enough to draw together in an increasingly close circle of cooperation that subsumes neighbors and substitutes economic exchange for geopolitical confrontation?
This is the central global question of our as-yet-unnamed historical moment. What will happen now that America's post-Cold War engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan have run their course and U.S. attention has pivoted to Asia? Can the United States continue to engage China while somehow hedging against the strategic threat it poses? Can China go on seeing the United States both as an object of emulation and also as a barrier to its rightful place on the world stage?
The answer is a paradox: the paradox of cool war.
The term cool war aims to capture two different, mutually contradictory historical developments that are taking place simultaneously. A classic struggle for power is unfolding at the same time as economic cooperation is becoming deeper and more fundamental.
The current situation differs from global power struggles of the past. The world's major power and its leading challenger are economically interdependent to an unprecedented degree. China needs the United States to continue buying its products. The United States needs China to continue lending it money. Their economic fates are, for the foreseeable future, tied together. Recognizing the overlapping combination of geostrategic conflict and economic interdependence is the key to making sense of what is coming and what options we have to affect it.
In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the major international question was the relation between Islam and democracy. In this second decade of the still-young century, the great issues of conflict and cooperation have shifted. Now U.S. leadership and Western democracy are juxtaposed with China's global aspirations and its protean, emergent governing system.
The stakes of this debate could not possibly be higher. One side argues that the United States must either accept decline or prepare for war. Only by military strength can the United States convince China that it is not worth challenging its status as the sole super-power. Projecting weakness would lead to instability and make war all the more likely. The other side counters that trying to contain China is the worst thing the United States can do. Excessive defense spending will make the United States less competitive economically. Worse, it will encourage China to become aggressive itself, leading to an arms race that neither side wants and that would itself increase the chances of violence. Much better to engage China politically and economically and encourage it to share the burdens of superpower status.