To Win the “New Cold War” Forget the “First Cold War”

Seemingly overnight, “New Cold War” has become the watchword of official Washington as the foreign policy community grapples with the question of how the United States should approach the dawning period of competition with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and how best to explain the shifting geopolitical landscape to the American people. Despite the convenience afforded by a familiar term of art and the comfort inherent in hewing to a well-worn strategic concept, policymakers would do well to avoid reliance on the Cold War as the preferred historical analogy for our present moment. 

The New Cold War analogy assumes an untenable level of structural similarity between the post-World War II geopolitical environment and today. The United States is in a substantially weaker position vis-à-vis the PRC today than it was at the dawn of the Cold War, suggesting that Washington will be unable to successfully replicate its anti-Soviet strategy. In addition to differences of scale, the primary modes of competition between the United States and its major rival are inverted, with the economic dimension taking primacy over the martial in the ongoing Sino-American contest. In addition to altering the set of tools on which policymakers must rely, the high level of economic integration between the United States and the PRC paradoxically makes direct military confrontation more likely, further undermining the utility of the Cold War analogy. Ultimately, policymakers must also reckon with the untested assumptions baked into the core of the New Cold War analogy itself. Knowing how the story “ends” introduces an intractable bias into any analysis of ongoing geopolitical competition through the New Cold War lens. 

“The End of History” is Dead—Long Live the New Cold War

It has become readily apparent over the past half decade that the quiescent period of post-Cold War American hegemony is over. Beginning with the administration of President Donald Trump, policymakers began to seriously grapple with how to pivot American policy away from the Global War on Terror, the management of political and economic globalization, and other problem sets associated with the post-Cold War “end of history” era and back towards sustained competition with rival great powers—in particular, China. Commentators have been quick to mark this shift as the beginning of a New Cold War.

The administration of President Barack Obama launched the United States’ “pivot to Asia” in the early 2010s; however, discussion of sustained strategic competition with the PRC in New Cold War terms gathered steam only after he left office. The Trump administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) framed the United States’ relationship with China, Russia, and other major states in terms of a return to “great power competition,” which had previously been “dismissed [by policymakers] as a phenomenon of an earlier century.”1 The accompanying National Defense Strategy underscored the focus on “[i]nter-state strategic competition” with China and Russia as “the primary concern in U.S. national security” which would guide Department of Defense planning going forward.2 In October 2018, Vice President Mike Pence gave a landmark speech at the conservative Hudson Institute in which he argued that “as we speak, Beijing is employing a whole-of-government approach, using political, economic, and military tools, as well as propaganda, to advance its influence and benefit its interests in the United States,” and outlined the Trump administration’s approach to the increasingly frosty relationship between the American Republic and the Middle Kingdom.3 The following day, the New York Times portrayed the speech as a “Portent of ‘New Cold War’” between Washington and Beijing, characterizing Pence’s blunt, public accusations of Chinese hostility as a break from diplomatic decorum that “probably left few doubts among China’s leaders that Washington was embarking on a Cold War.”4

In the years since, the ratcheting animosity between the United States and China has birthed a cottage industry of commentary arguing whether or not this latest bout of great power competition constitutes a New Cold War—a sequel to the twilight struggle that defined the latter half of the twentieth century. Robert Kaplan of the Foreign Policy Research Institute asserts that “[t]he American military contest with China…will define the twenty-first century” and that competition constitutes “nothing less than a new cold war” against an adversary even more formidable than the Soviet Union.5 On the other hand, Nick Bisley of La Trobe University argues that the coming competition “will be no Cold War [but rather something] more complex, harder to manage and [which will] last much longer.”6 Hal Brands of the American Enterprise Institute and Yale University’s John Lewis Gaddis attempt to cut the “Gordian Knot” of geopolitical prognostication: competition with China will not be the New Cold War because the Soviet Union (USSR) and the People’s Republic are so different, but that does not save us from a New Cold War because cold wars are endemic to great power competition and in a sense “as old as history itself.”7 In an article titled “The New Cold War,” veteran Reagan-era Cold Warrior Elliott Abrams argues that the 2022 Sino-Russian “no-limits” partnership and Moscow’s subsequent invasion of Ukraine are the starting pistol for a new round of competition whose challenges “may actually be greater than those of the 20th century.”8 The list goes on.

Rhetorically, President Joseph Biden—himself a Cold War veteran of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—has attempted to differentiate his policy from that of his predecessor. Before his first meeting with the PRC’s Xi Jinping, Biden categorically declared that “there need not be a new Cold War” between China and the United States.9 However, Biden’s words are at odds with his administration’s stated policy. The NSS published in October 2022 doubled down on the perspective espoused by its Trump-era predecessor, charging the PRC with “intent to reshape the international order” and “ambitions to […] become the world’s leading power” and maintained that Beijing was actively developing the “economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it.”10 Similarly, the Biden administration has doubled down on many of the most competitive aspects of its predecessor’s China policy—especially with regard to restrictions on trade and technology exports to the PRC—giving the lie to the president’s magnanimous rhetorical sentiments. 

The very fact that Biden feels compelled to deny that the United States is embarking on a New Cold War speaks to the growing intellectual purchase the concept exercises over the political, foreign policy, and media establishments. Whether or not we actually are engaged in a New Cold War, the term has come to define how Washington thinks about, debates, and analyzes the relationship between China and the United States. This is dangerous for the simple reason that the Cold War is a bad analogy for our present circumstances. 

Differences of Scale: The Waning American Advantage

Major differences between the post-World War II international system and the present day militate against drawing strong comparisons between Soviet-American and Sino-American competition. The United States is far weaker vis-à-vis its principal geopolitical rival today than it was at the dawn of the Cold War, suggesting that our experience with great power rivalry will be more taxing this time around. At the same time, differences in scale can and do beget differences in kind; China’s superior economic and technological position as compared to the Soviet Union’s will dampen the effectiveness of many elements of our Cold War toolkit.

Following the Second World War, Washington found itself in a historically unprecedented geopolitical position. More than just the primus inter pares of the victorious Allies, economically and militarily, the United States stood head-and-shoulders over all potential challengers. As Yale University’s Paul Kennedy demonstrates in The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, “American power in 1945 was, for want of a better term, artificially high” and “the actual dimensions of its might were unprecedented in absolute terms.”11 The United States commanded fully half of total global manufacturing output and produced one third of the world’s exports—a position which easily translated into a hegemonic military posture underpinned by the only significant navy remaining on the seas and “an even more imposing” air force commanding the skies.12 Washington, therefore, embarked on the Cold War in pole position and Moscow spent much of the ensuing half-century attempting to catch up. The industrial investments the United States made to win World War II also catalyzed American dominance of the key technologies that proved critical to Cold War competition, from nuclear science and aerospace technology through to the fledgling fields of computing and telecommunications. Although perpetually dangerous, the USSR was never able to close the technological, economic, and military gap. Throughout the Cold War—from Eisenhower’s nuclear-heavy New Look defense policy to the Reagan-era emphasis on stealth, precision-guided weapons, and other cutting-edge tech—this gap enabled Washington to routinely rely on American quality to offset Soviet quantity in arms and manpower.

The United States does not enjoy the same luxury today. Compared to the commanding lead the United States had at the start of the Cold War—and largely sustained throughout the struggle—the gap between the PRC and the United States is substantially narrower and in some places close to vanishing altogether. At present, U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) accounts for approximately 24 percent of global output.13 While the Soviet economy barely reached half the size of the United States by the end of the Cold War, the PRC’s share of global production is far larger in both absolute and relative terms: about three quarters the size of the American economy or 17 percent of global GDP in 2021.14 Beneath the topline numbers, China dominates the world’s manufacturing and industrial sectors in a way that the Soviet Union never did. To cite just one example relevant to military competition: a single Chinese shipyard floats more tonnage annually than every American yard combined.15 Meanwhile, the once-mighty American “Arsenal of Democracy” has atrophied to a shadow of its former self—the result of decades of post-Cold War budget cuts and consolidation within the defense industrial base.16 In embarking on a sustained competition with China, the United States has taken on an adversary with more economic and militarily-relevant industrial resources than the Soviet Union enjoyed at the height of its power. 

At the same time, the technological advantage the United States enjoyed throughout the Cold War appears to be slipping. The United States’ command of the technological frontier afforded a sustained advantage over the USSR for decades, powering economic growth and allowing Washington to counter Soviet military power through asymmetric means. By contrast, the tech race between the United States and China today can best be described as “neck and neck.” A 2021 report from Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs argues that China “has displaced the [United States] as the world’s top high-tech manufacturer” and has “become a serious competitor in the foundational technologies of the [twenty-first] century…in some races, it has already become No. 1. In others, on current trajectories, it will overtake the U.S. within the next decade.”17 More recently, the Australia Strategic Policy Institute concluded that China has established “a sometimes stunning lead in high-impact research across a majority of critical and emerging technology domains” and now holds a dominant position in 37 of 44 key technologies ranging from aerospace, defense, biotechnology, and artificial intelligence.18

In the very best case reading of the situation, the United States maintains an economic, industrial, and technological lead over the PRC—albeit a far smaller one than it enjoyed over the Soviet Union at its strongest. As these elements are the building blocks of military power, it would be foolish to assume that we could improve our position in a long-term martial competition against the PRC without building back an advantage in one or more of these areas. Even if China never overtakes the United States as the world’s economic, technological, or military leader, this reality suggests that Sino-American competition will be a true rivalry of peers, rather than a New Cold War in which the United States is challenged for global dominance by a dangerous but altogether inferior foe.

Rather than grapple with these facts in depth and consider how the emergence of a true peer rival must shape the United States’ approach to geopolitical competition, when commentators discuss China’s economic, industrial, and technological heft, they all too often use it as shorthand to reinforce a Cold War strategic framework. China is larger and more economically vibrant than the USSR ever was, the argument goes, and therefore we are going to have to work even harder to prevail in the New Cold War. However, it does not logically follow that an increase in the scale of a threat can be adequately met by the mere amplification of the strategies that were successful against a less potent adversary. In statecraft, as in all things, differences in scale can and do beget differences in kind, necessitating a change in strategic approach. As mentioned above, American military strategy throughout the Cold War relied on overmatching larger Soviet forces through superior quality of arms, materiel, and training—it is unclear if such a strategy would be replicable today. China’s much-discussed Belt and Road Initiative is an attempt to place Beijing at the hub of a global trade and financial network in a way that Moscow could simply never contemplate. Just as greater resources and relative power create new opportunities for our adversaries, the United States will have to devise new approaches to great power competition that reflect the fact that it is less powerful—relatively speaking—than it once was. Not only is the China challenge greater than the Soviet, but competition will be conducted with different tools and in different domains than the first Cold War. 

Differences of Kind: The Challenge of Economic Competition

Just as the New Cold War misstates the scale of the challenge before the United States, the analogy also misidentifies the primary means of Sino-American competition. Whereas the Cold War was first and foremost a military standoff, in the twenty-first century, economic competition appears to be taking center stage. This not only changes the policymaker’s basic toolkit, but also complicates the international environment and muddles the creation of a counter-China coalition. Paradoxically, it may also make it harder for leaders to keep a New Cold War cold, increasing the risk for all involved. 

Throughout the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union competed with one another in the military, ideological, and economic arenas. While all three dimensions are once again at play in the Sino-American rivalry, they are reordered in importance, with economic competition replacing military at the top of the list. Much has been said about the military balance of power in the Pacific, especially regarding the acute risk of an armed showdown over the continued independence of Taiwan. This is a critical issue for policymakers to address, but it can hardly be said to match the scale of the early Cold War years, when Washington fashioned an unprecedented permanent alliance system—the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)—and consented to an open-ended deployment of tens of thousands of American troops to give teeth to its explicit promises to defend European allies from Soviet aggression. On the other side of the ledger, the United States and the PRC are economically intertwined to a degree which would have been inconceivable during the Cold War. Compared to the minimal intercourse between the United States and the USSR during the Cold War, Beijing and Washington are intimately linked by trade. Even at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the United States transacted over $615 billion USD in goods and $56 billion USD in services, making China the largest supplier of goods to the United States as well as its third largest export market.19 The scale of U.S.-China trade helps limit—for the time being at least—the value of Cold War-style military competition. Both countries have ample opportunity to inflict harm on one another without resorting to more costly and risky military means.

Started by the Republican Trump administration and expanded under the Democratic Biden presidency, economic decoupling with the PRC is becoming a bipartisan feature of Washington’s China strategy. It is likely to remain a core feature of American foreign policy for the foreseeable future, concurrent with the national security establishment’s push for a sustained military buildup. Economic tools have proven to be potent. For instance, the Biden administration decided in 2022 to implement sweeping restrictions designed to curtail China’s access to high-end semiconductors, “largely depriving the country of the computing power it needs to train artificial intelligence (AI) at scale” and “cutting off both the U.S. talent and the components that make up the tools that make [advanced computer] chips,” significantly undermining Chinese technological capabilities.20 It would be reasonable to characterize this move as more threatening to the long-term growth of PRC power than the deployment of a dozen additional warships to the Western Pacific. 

The centrality of Sino-American economic ties and the leverage they create for both sides to exercise power over the other represents a total inversion of the Cold War pattern of competition when trade was largely conducted within the NATO and Warsaw Pact blocs and military considerations took pride of place in the inter-bloc rivalry. It would not be at all surprising if the landmark heads-of-state summits of the so-called New Cold War focus more on technology transfers and trade issues than on nuclear weapons testing and missile deployments. This reality calls not only for a different mindset from policymakers, but will likely necessitate reforms to the national security and foreign policy bureaucracy, which were built to wage the Cold War and continue to privilege the military dimension of competition over the economic.

The emphasis on the economic dimension of Sino-American competition also complicates the prospect of marshalling states into a discrete counter-China bloc a la the Cold War’s alliances of “First World” states. The logic of military competition is zero-sum—a state may be able to remain neutral or play both sides of a rivalry, but it is difficult to be a member of two hostile alliance blocs at once. When the focus of competition is economic, it is easier for states to maintain relationships with both sides. Washington has thus far found it challenging to convince other states—in some cases, even its closest allies—to subordinate their economic interests to security concerns by limiting trade with the PRC. Despite NATO’s 2022 decision to label China a “challenge” for the alliance going forward, many members do not want to give up the benefits of economic engagement with a state that they do not see as a direct threat to their own security.21 A similar pattern has emerged among China’s neighbors in the Indo-Pacific region. Observes Princeton University’s G. John Ikenberry: “East Asia is increasingly marked by the emergence of two hierarchies. One is a security hierarchy dominated by the United States, and the other is an economic hierarchy dominated by China.”22 Whereas clear, relatively stable blocs emerged early in Soviet-American military competition, for the time being, at least, it appears that many states are interested in hedging between the United States and the PRC, pursuing security and economic benefits where they can best be found.

Finally, the economic focus of Sino-American competition may paradoxically make it more difficult for leaders to keep a New Cold War cold. As Dale Copeland of the University of Virginia has shown, economic interdependence alone is not a strong predictor of peace between rival states. Rather, the “critical driving force shaping the probability of war and conflict between great powers” is the level of economic interdependence coupled with each state’s expectations of future gains from trade and investment.23 When a highly interdependent economic relationship starts to deteriorate, leaders may be pushed towards war by the fear of being cut off from vital markets and raw materials or the prospect of being left dependent on an adversary that is no longer dependent on them. The effect of America’s oil embargo on Japanese strategic thinking prior to World War II is an archetypal example of this phenomenon. Policymakers should be wary—the implicit promise of any strategy of “selective decoupling” is to make the United States less dependent on the PRC while leaving China dependent on America. The Cold War offers no analogue for the pressure towards war that economic decoupling can exert on states. Indeed, Copeland notes that “U.S. decisions on trade with Russia had an often-significant [positive] impact on levels of Soviet cooperation.”24 Starting from a low baseline of bilateral trade, any increase offered the prospect of additional gains through further collaboration, exerting a stabilizing force on the relationship. As the use of economic weapons intensifies, both the PRC and the United States will perceive the risk of being left lopsidedly dependent on the other, creating a pressure to act before that happens.

The economic competition at the center of the Sino-American rivalry turns the military-centric New Cold Waranalogy on its head, privileging a different set of tools and offering a more complex diplomatic environment in which to compete. Policymakers may also be lulled into a false sense of security under the erroneous assumption that a military-centric cold war is naturally more dangerous than an economic-centric one. In both scale of threat and means of competition, the so-called New Cold Wardiffers significantly from the original, suggesting the analogy is a poor map by which to pilot the American ship of state through the uncharted waters of the twenty-first century.

Implicit Assumptions: The Problem of a Singular Analogy

The difficulties with the New Cold Waranalogy outlined above derive from differences between Cold War circumstances and those of the present day. The final error goes deeper: by framing competition with the PRC in comparison to the Cold War, policymakers introduce certain implicit assumptions into their analysis of Sino-American rivalry. The best remedy for correcting these untested assumptions is to broaden the historical horizon and temper our analysis through the thorough examination of other historical case studies.

What was the Cold War? Any shorthand sketch must include the following features: the Cold War was a competition for power and influence between two superpowers with global ambitions that never broke out into a “hot” war (third-party proxy conflicts notwithstanding) and ended peacefully with the total collapse of one superpower and the vindication of the other’s political and economic system. These things are known about the Cold War, but, except for the first feature, they are not and cannot be known about the New Cold War. For that matter, neither could the original Cold Warriors who shaped American policy towards the Soviet Union from the drawing of the Iron Curtain to the fall of the Berlin Wall know the future contours or conclusion of the twilight struggle. 

By relying on the Cold War as the primary analogy for competition with the PRC, policymakers import assumptions that can only be gleaned through hindsight into their strategic framework—namely that it is possible or likely for the New Cold War to remain cold and that it can end with a complete American victory after a finite period of competition. Most would object that this is neither their intent nor an inadvertent side effect of their arguments; however, words carry connotations, and it is in the nature of those connotations to become conventional wisdom if left unchallenged through repeated recitation. Leaving the implicit assumptions of the New Cold Waranalogy unchallenged to become conventional wisdom will inevitably flavor policymakers’ analysis of and approach to competition with China. Unless exorcised in its totality, the niggling suspicion that things will work out all right for the United States as they did in the past will preclude the United States from putting itself in the same frame of mind as previous generations of Cold Warriors who had no such assurances, thereby hindering its ability to replicate their feat in the twenty-first century.

The only solution to this problem is for policymakers to read widely and think deeply about a variety of different historical case studies of protracted great power competition and what they can teach us about the challenges we face today. Each example illuminates the problem from a different angle; it is only by combining multiple lights that one can peer into the shadows that skulk behind every untested assumption. For example, if policymakers really believe that the PRC intends to attack Taiwan before the end of the “Davidson Window” in 2027, perhaps they would do better to imagine themselves in the position of Britain vis-à-vis neutral Belgium circa 1910 than to rehash the Cuban Missile Crisis yet again.25 On the other end of the spectrum, there is no firm assurance that competition with China will last only a single lifetime as did the Cold War. Doubtless, there are still lessons to be gleaned about the nature of protracted inter-state competition through deep study of the Anglo-French, Franco-Austrian, Austro-Prussian, and other great power rivalries of the early modern era. Nothing challenges conventional wisdom to a greater degree than the study of other cultures—can the foreign policy establishment say that it has sufficiently plumbed the depths of Chinese strategic culture and the history of Asian statecraft to warrant returning to the overdrawn Cold War well? As Henry Kissinger observed: “History is not…a cookbook offering pretested recipes. It teaches by analogy, not by maxims. It can illuminate the consequences of actions in comparable situations, yet each generation must discover for itself what situations are in fact comparable.”26 The only sure way to prevent the New Cold War analogy from ossifying into a dangerous collection of rote maxims is to temper the comparison through the careful study of a constellation of other examples of historical great power competition.

None of this is to say that the Cold War offers no lessons about competition with the PRC or great power competition in general. As Hal Brands rightly observes in his thoughtful study of the lessons the Cold War offers to modern policymakers, there is only one example of how American institutions and political culture operate under conditions of great power competition: 

The Cold War can teach us about how America [emphasis added] does great-power rivalry. The Cold War is the only time America has waged a twilight struggle, across continents and decades, against an authoritarian foe. It is the only time America’s strengths and weaknesses in such a struggle have been on display. Put simply, the Cold War is the only history of sustained competition that America has. To prevent policymakers from using that history badly, scholars must help them use it well.27

Even as we temper the New Cold Waranalogy with the study of different modes and methods of great power competition, there remains room to mine American history to better understand our own strategic culture and institutions. 


The New Cold War analogy dominates Washington’s conversations about great power competition, China, and the strategic landscape of the twenty-first century. However, as a framework, it fails to accurately describe the challenges we face and introduces dangerous assumptions into our strategic analysis. PRC mouthpieces routinely admonish the United States for damaging the Sino-American relationship by engaging in zero-sum, “Cold War thinking.” It is therefore the height of irony that by freeing ourselves from overreliance on the New Cold War analogy we will refashion ourselves into eminently more potent adversaries.


Image: The U.S. and PRC flags at a meeting between commanders in their respective armies in Beijing on 21 February 2014, from Retrieved from:, used under Wikimedia Commons.

[1] National Security Strategy of the United States of America, (Washington, DC: White House, December 2017), 27,

[2] Summary of the National Defense Strategy of the United States of America, (Washington, DC: United States Department of Defense, 2018), 1,

[3] Michael R. Pence, “Vice President Mike Pence’s Remarks on the Administration’s Policy Towards China,” Hudson Institute, 4 October 2018,

[4] Jane Perlez, “Pence’s China Speech Seen as Portent of a ‘New Cold War’,” New York Times, 5 October 2018,

[5] Robert D. Kaplan, “A New Cold War Has Begun,” Foreign Policy, 7 January 2019,

[6] Nick Bisley, “The China-US Rivalry is Not a New Cold War. It is Way More Complex and Could Last Much Longer,” The Conversation, 26 August 2020,

[7] Hal Brands and John Lewis Gaddis, “The New Cold War,” Foreign Affairs, 19 October 2021,

[8] Elliott Abrams, “The New Cold War,” National Review, 3 March 2022, 

[9] “Biden Administration Dismisses ‘New Cold War’ With China,” The Hill, 14 November 2022,

[10] National Security Strategy, (Washington: DC: White House, October 2022), 23,

[11] Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (New York: Vintage Books, 1987),357.

[12] Kennedy, Rise and Fall, 358.

[13] “GDP (current US$),” The World Bank, accessed 31 December 2022,

[14] “GDP – Million 1990,” accessed 31 December 2022,; “GDP (current US$),” The World Bank.

[15] Xiaoshan Xue, “As China Expands Its Fleets, US Analysts Call for Catch-Up Efforts,” Voice of America News, 13 September 2022,

[16] Heidi M. Peters, “Defense Primer: U.S. Defense Industrial Base,” Congressional Research Service, 22 January 2021,

[17] Graham Allison, et al., “The Great Tech Rivalry: The U.S. and China,” Harvard Belfer Center for Science and International Affiars, 7 December 2021, 2,

[18] Jamie Gaida, et al., “ASPI’s Critical Technology Tracker: The Global Race for Future Power,” Australian Strategic Policy Institute, February 2023, 1,

[19] “U.S.-China Trade Facts,” Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, accessed 28 December 2022,

[20] Matt Sheehan, “Biden’s Unprecedented Semiconductor Bet,” Carnegie Endowment Reports, 27 October 2022,

[21] Lili Bayer, “NATO’s Looming Fault Line: China,” Politico, 28 November 2022,

[22] G. John Ikenberry, “Between the Eagle and the Dragon: America, China, and Middle State Strategies in East Asia,” Political Science Quarterly 131, no. 1 (spring 2016): 10.

[23] Dale Copeland, Economic Interdependence and War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 3-4.

[24] Copeland, Economic Interdependence and War, 5.

[25] Connor Pfeiffer, “The Lessons of Britain’s Commitment to Belgium for U.S. Policy in the Taiwan Strait,” Providence, 1 February 2022,

[26] Henry Kissinger, White House Years (London, 1979), 54.

[27] Hal Brands, Twilight Struggle (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022), 10-11.

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