The Cold War is back, or at least its rhetoric. US President Joe Biden wants to create a “democratic coalition” against the world’s “dictatorships”. The New York Times “The world is largely divided, though not ideological camps. Both China and the United States hope to attract supporters.” If this is true it will be a very disturbing development. The real danger, however, is not the new Cold War, as binary thinking approaches see complete divisions and contradictions where there is none.
It is useful for politicians to define the world through opposition; Doing so may also help a polarized society like the US unite against a perceived enemy. But, as in the US-Soviet animosity, there is a deadly disconnect with such an idea or reality. The old Cold War accelerated in the late 1940s with the help of widespread hysteria over the ‘loss’ of China to Communism. Of course, China has never lost to America. However, fear of the Domino effect tightened the American will, which eventually claimed hundreds of thousands of lives over Vietnam.
Many books have been written about how Washington’s best and brightest have been deceived by this self – perpetual stabilization. Dwight Eisenhower grew an auxiliary intellectual-industrial complex around what he called the “military-industrial complex” that specializes in dividing the world into irreparable alliances. Those who face fierce opposition between the free and the free world could not see that China and Vietnam are part of it. The big and irreversible Asian and African drive towards decolonization, self-determination and nation building. Of these, no developing country endures permanent friends or enemies.
This is confirmed by events. Mao Zedong hosted Richard Nixon in Beijing after a military confrontation with his Soviet friends and the betrayal of his chosen successor. A few years later, China invaded its former communist ally Vietnam with US approval. Recently, Vietnam moved to become a US partner.
Many hot wars of the Cold War could have been avoided if the then superpowers had recognized the practical advantage of small nations — the urgency of self-strengthening led Ho Chi Minh to reach out to U.S. diplomats early in his career. Who builds the country. Instead, Cold Warriors like US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and CII Director Allen Dulles have made the world a more dangerous place with their stubborn thinking. In a notorious act, the U.S. insulted Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nazar (a persecutor of communists, incidentally) and forced him to turn to the Soviet Union for help, canceling last-minute aid to Egypt’s Aswan Dam. The Dallas brothers also convinced themselves that India, which was inherently neutral, was in the Soviet camp. As Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru called the brothers “dal, dollar, dulles”, like all developing countries, they could not see that India was focused on pursuing its own vital interests.
It is often one superpower playing against another. As the leader of the non-Allied movement, decolonization in Asia and Africa, India was at the same time able to obtain Soviet military assistance and US development assistance. Pakistan has achieved even greater merit by increasing relations with Communist China and joining US-led security agreements against communism.
Today, one has to choose between an alliance with democracy or totalitarianism, with most countries re-electing both. They would not work otherwise. Countries such as Indonesia and Vietnam have welcomed the US presence in Asia as a resistance to China. But their economies have relied heavily on the latter to gain an effective break with Beijing. In fact, the latest bonanza awaits many commodity-rich nations if America launches a massive infrastructure design program. But countries also want the Chinese market.
It is block-thinking and strategy that violently interrupts this interaction of material interests. The big question today is not whether a new Cold War will take place. The way of thinking developed in the previous policy, and even then destructively unworthy, will again dominate political and intellectual life.
The world has changed beyond recognition since theories about the ‘domino effect’ were thought of as parrots. Communist-ruled China today is seen as the epitome of free trade, while the increasingly tariff-friendly America seeks to match China’s industrial policies. The raw division between democracy and authoritarianism does not help us to grasp such a topsy-turvy world. Although cozy and simple, such Cold War ideologies cannot really replace our messy reality.
Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg opinion columnist and author of ‘Age of Anger: A History of the Present’.