Conflict between USA and China. Image: iStock
Conflict between the US and China is a reality, but comparisons with the US-Soviet Cold War fall short. Image: iStock

Has the “New Cold War” already begun between the United States and China, or is there still time to prevent it? As tensions continue to escalate, especially over Hong Kong and Beijing’s desire to impose direct rule on the autonomous area, this is the question that will define our times – and which, perhaps, historians will look back upon and query our inability to see the obvious before us.

(Writing last week, Bret Stephens, a New York Times columnist, offered up some interesting historical analogies to Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong.)

Claims of a “Second Cold War” aren’t new. Some saw it coming between the US and Russia in the 2000s, while it has been spoken about as almost an assured thing between the US and China since at least 2017.

But it’s almost clichéd now to point out why “New Cold War” or “Cold War 2.0” aren’t perfect. The economies of the US and the Soviet Union were almost completely separate, whereas those of the US and China today are inseparable (despite the ambitions of some politicians). Moreover, Beijing isn’t trying to export Marxist revolution across the world today, whereas the Soviet Union was actively trying to change the world in its image. 

That doesn’t mean the historical analogy is wrong. But, perhaps, a finer appellation was the one used recently by former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, who called it “Cold War 1.5”. (“It may not yet be Cold War 2.0, but it is starting to look like Cold War 1.5,” were his exact words.) That, to me at least, offers up some level of skepticism and muddiness to the analogy, preventing it from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.  

In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Karl Marx wrote one of his most famous observations, that when history repeats itself it does so “first as tragedy, then as farce.” Oft recited, it is also typically misunderstood (like his similarly misunderstood claim that “religion is the opium of the people”).

To put aside the debate of how deterministic was Marx’s concept of historical materialism, his “first tragedy, then farce” observation was seemingly a witticism, an amusing though penetrating observation rather than a deeply philosophical view of historical teleology. (The context in which it’s written gives that away, including the preceding throw-away citation of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.)

For Marx, this historical repetition was of individuals and rhetoric, with the incarnation being a mere “caricature” of the predecessor. As Marx wrote decades earlier in an unpublished novel, “Every giant … presupposes a dwarf, every genius a hidebound philistine.”

And just as Marx saw Marc Caussidière as a caricature of Georges Danton, or Louis Blanc of Robespierre, we might say today that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is a caricature or “dwarf” of his hero Winston Churchill, or French President Emmanuel Macron a farce of his inspiration Charles de Gaulle.

Pay more attention, though, to what Marx wrote later in The Eighteenth Brumaire: “In creating something that has never yet existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis [people] anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle cries, and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honored disguise and this borrowed language.”

From this, we gather another of Marx’s notable analogies, that when someone tries speaking a new language they begin by translating back into a tongue they already know.

As such, if a historical analogy is to work, it must on some level be a caricature, a clichéd translation of what came beforehand (just as I wrote in this column in April on whether the Covid-19 pandemic was China’s “Chernobyl moment”). Put differently, it is an attempt to ground a new experience into the language of what one already knows – not exactly or precisely, yet in order for us to understand what we want to say.

Linger on this: When any of us try learning a new language, we begin by translating it directly from the grammar and syntax of a language we already know, often not making much sense. As a somewhat competent French speaker, I still find myself translating a sentence exactly how I would say it in my native English, which means I’m understood but not perfectly so – and especially not when it comes to subtly and nuance.

Similarly, when speaking about historical analogies (say, the New Cold War), we use the same terms and thoughts of what we already know, which allows us to make sense of the new situation. But it’s not a perfect translation, and often the nuance is lost.  

The danger, though, is that one can become accustomed to speaking a new language only through the grammar and syntax of your accustomed language. In other words, the new language never becomes independent of the old. You are left speaking a hybrid, a caricature, which you might think comprehensible but others don’t.

In the same way, there’s a danger that a historical analogy becomes perpetual, stuck in syntax of the past – rather than as a device to help speak of the new. As Jordan Chandler Hirsch observed recently in War on the Rocks, “It is a rare quality in world leaders to be able to make historical analogies without fully embracing them, thereby becoming trapped.”

The New Cold War analogy provides us with a language to understand the future, but we could recite it so often and unquestionably that it takes on bastardized grammar, devoid of nuance and subtlety; a language that some might understood but which others struggle to comprehend.

I, for one, now much prefer the less assured and more blurred “Cold War 1.5.” History hasn’t come full 360 degrees, but perhaps 270 degrees.  

David Hutt is a political journalist based between the Czech Republic and Britain. Between 2014 and 2019, he was based in Cambodia, covering Southeast Asian affairs. He is Southeast Asia columnist for The Diplomat and a regular contributor to Asia Times, including the column Free Thoughts. He reports on European political affairs and Europe-Asian relations.