Russia’s interference in Western elections and its other geopolitical provocations may make it seem like this era’s defining dynamic will be a new Cold War.
But an emerging U.S.-China “Cool War” and a warming planet — the subjects of this month’s Global Minnesota “Great Decisions” dialogue — may be more profound, according to two astute analyses released this week.
The first, from Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the political risk and advisory firm Eurasia Group, postulates that “today’s global structure is one of emerging bipolarity” between Beijing and Washington as the world enters its second such phase since 1945.
Two key criteria, Kupchan writes, are that the gap between the “senior” (U.S.) and “junior” (China) superpower is not too large and is becoming smaller, and that the gap between the junior superpower and “the rest” (Japan, India, others) is large and growing.
Stating statistics on GDP, defense spending, investment in research and development, and other economic metrics, Kupchan uses a data-driven analysis to show just how far — and fast — China has emerged as an economic superpower. But unlike the long twilight struggle between the U.S. and U.S.S.R., Kupchan believes that the Sino-American rivalry will be more mercantile than martial.
The new “Cool War,” Kupchan said in an interview, will be “much more about economic competition and considerably less about military competition, proxy wars, and the chance of a great-power war.”
In fact, Kupchan continued, “While they will be peer competitors, they have more in common, more shared interests, than the U.S. and Soviet Union did.”
One reason may be because the rivalry isn’t as ideological. Soviet superpower status was at least ostensibly in service of the global spread of communism. China, while still officially run by the Communist Party, is more about “becoming a, if not the, global economic powerhouse,” Kupchan said, adding: “This is not an ideological struggle, which is another reason why it’s less dangerous than the Cold War. It’s a struggle in the economic sphere over supremacy in advanced technology and the terms of global trade.”
Which doesn’t mean there isn’t peril; indeed, China’s multiple maritime disputes could quickly spiral into regional or global crises. And yet, Kupchan emphasized, “China is hellbent on rising slowly and carefully and not crossing the U.S. militarily, because there is a very healthy sense of U.S. military prowess and dominance, and because if they pick a fight with the United States they are going to lose all sorts of Western markets.”
Markets drive the world economy. But another fundamental force is even stronger, suggests Vinod Thomas, a former World Bank senior vice president who is now a visiting professor at the National University of Singapore. In his statistics-rich Brookings Institution commentary headlined “For growth and well-being, climate crisis overshadows all else,” Thomas writes that “the continued rise in carbon emissions is propelling a dangerous increase in global temperatures, hurting economies and people’s well-being.”
In a follow-up e-mail interview, Thomas wrote from the Philippines that, “To be sure, trading among nations is a steady source of imports of consumer goods for Americans and exports of agriculture, manufacturing and services from the U.S. And so, trade between the U.S. and China is a big factor in bilateral and global politics. But the impacts on people from the ebbs and flows of international trade resulting from tariff wars pale in comparison to their welfare losses from more carbon emissions.”
Despite the economic and ecological damage, some world leaders, citing construed costs, won’t back the Paris climate accord, which is already deemed inadequate to the challenge. “The irony is that human-made climate change is accelerated by the false assumption that climate action — say by cutting carbon emissions by switching from fossil fuels like coal and oil to renewables like solar and wind — will slow trade and growth,” Thomas wrote. Referring to catastrophes that may be exacerbated by climate change, he added: “The emerging truth is the other way around.”
This truth is too often eclipsed by other geopolitical forces, including China’s rise. “Trade wars between Beijing and Washington, and the tensions between Moscow and the West, divert attention and exacerbate climate action,” Thomas wrote.
And even when a debate on topics related to climate change, like Hurricane Dorian, the media’s lens is mostly focused on the event and not the environment. “When disasters like Hurricane Dorian strike, from CNN to Fox News, there is 24/7 coverage on every detail of the storm’s path, but not a word on climate change accentuating these extreme events,” Thomas wrote. “This neglect,” he added, “comes at a huge cost to society.”
So does neglect of world leaders.
Just look at last week’s climate-crisis narratives: In Brazil, Amazon fires, fueled by the reckless policies of President Jair Bolsonaro (“the Trump of the tropics”), raged unabated. But instead of protecting “the lungs of the world,” Bolsonaro vented his spleen at his French counterpart.
And in the Caribbean and now the Atlantic, Hurricane Dorian, which may have been exacerbated by climate change, battered the Bahamas, then deluged the Carolinas. But instead of relying on scientific consensus to rally the country to mitigate the issue, President Donald Trump altered a weather map with a Sharpie, which even by today’s dulled senses was absurd.
Forecasting foreign affairs assumes rational actors, and as Bolsonaro, Trump and a boorish Boris Johnson showed this week, that’s not always a safe assumption. But rational actors will be needed everywhere — especially in Beijing and Washington — as the Cool War and a warming planet test the geopolitical system.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.
Once a month, the theme of this column is determined by the “Great Decisions” dialogue on foreign policy, conducted in partnership with the nonprofit citizen engagement organization Global Minnesota. Want to join the conversation? Go to globalminnesota.org.