New Cold Wars: China's Rise, Russia's Invasion, and America's Struggle to Defend the West

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Release Date: 
April 16, 2024
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This is a book about a global shock that took Washington and most of Europe by surprise: the sharp revival of superpower conflict. Sanger, national security expert at The New York Times provides an authoritative analysis—well informed, detailed yet quite readable—of the main political-military challenges facing the United States in world affairs and the dilemmas they present to US decisionmakers.

It took years and much bitter experience for many politicians and political experts to realize that, contrary to some forecasts, history did not “end” in the late 1980s. Yes, Communist ideology withered but not Russian and Chinese ambitions to weaken and displace the world’s reigning superpower and the order it had created. 

The United States and its allies welcomed first China (2001) and then post-Soviet Russia (2011) into the World Trade Organization, hoping their leaders and publics would see the advantages of cooperation in a rule-based world order. But some leaders in Beijing and Moscow looked at economic distress and domestic upheavals in the USA and Europe and calculated that conditions were ripe to push Washington off its pedestal.

Even with their structural problems, Washington and its allies were expanding NATO right up to Russia’s borders. Here was the “Thucydides trap”—the push toward war when a rising power (like Athens) challenges a long-established hegemon (like Sparta). Putin’s Russia, to be sure, is a declining power. Partnered with the GDP and dynamism of Chima, however, the world’s largest territory might someday operate as an authoritarian superpower. Skeptical realists point to deep tensions with Russia likely to rile as China becomes more powerful. But that contingency is unlikely to weaken Sino-Russian cooperation for some years. Prudence demands the West prepare for the worst.

It is only in the past few years that the erstwhile faith in the power of globalization has come to be regarded as a fantasy of early 21st century American foreign policy. It was a bipartisan assumption that the post-Cold War age would last indefinitely and that for all of America’s internal divisions and outside challenges—and despite China’s aggressive rise and Russia’s violent disruptions—American power would remain fundamentally unchallenged. “Every assumption across different administrations was wrong,” one of Biden’s closest advisers told Sanger. A lot of wishful thinking contributed to U.S. policy—that the internet would bring political liberty; that international trade would liberalize Chima and Russia, while creating high-skill jobs for Americans.

Against these high hopes, the US actions resembled a classic containment strategy—a concept imported straight from the old Cold War. Then, the idea of “containment” meant preventing other countries from becoming communist; now it meant starving American competitors of key technologies in order to maintain an edge in AI and nuclear weapons, in space, and cyberspace.

Such policies antagonized Putin as well as Xi Jinping. Sanger quotes Russian analyst Anatoly I. Utlin: “For five centuries Russia never paid tribute to anybody. Now for the first time we became a minor partner. You are boss; we are partner.”

As the war in Ukraine dragged on, Russian officials were conducting frequent conversations about reaching into the nuclear arsenal. Some were just “various forms of chatter,” one US official told Sanger. But other conversations involved the units that would be responsible for moving or deploying the weapons. The most alarming of the intercepted conversations revealed that one of the most senior Russian military commanders was explicitly discussing the logistics of detonating a weapon on the battlefield.

The Putin regime was threatening to use nuclear weapons against a state that had given up nuclear weapons on its territory nearly 30 years before and turned the weaponry over to Moscow in accordance with the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. Ukraine thought that, in return, it was receiving an assurance of protection. Instead, it got a threat of annihilation.

Russia ignored nuclear risks. Russians sent their troops through the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone—where the soil was still radioactive, and without protective gear. Many slept in the forest. In Ukraine’s southeast, a war was raging on the perimeter of a giant nuclear power plant, where six nuclear reactors were essentially being held hostage to gain battlefield advantage by occupying Russian troops.

Anyone who hoped the age of nuclear gamesmanship had ended with the collapse of the Berlin Wall discovered that the holiday from history was over. You could see it on the satellite photographs of China’s new fields of missile silos and of Iran’s new nuclear centrifuge operations. You could see it in North Korea’s expanding arsenal.

A visitor to the Kremlin marveled that Putin knew every detail about these nuclear plants. But it wasn’t all that remarkable if one thought about why Putin put his forces into the Zaporizhzhia plant to begin with. For Putin, Zaporizhzhia was not a war trophy; it was a key part of his plan for how he would exercise control over all of Ukraine—and intimidate or blackmail much of Europe.

In 2023–2024 Xi found himself in the odd position of needing to sell China as a good place to do business—something no Chinese leader for the previous 30 years had needed to do. He was, in essence, asking American business to come back, to invest and build factories and hire Chinese workers. But he did so without promising an end to the arbitrary arrests of their Chinese corporate leadership for ill-defined violations of the national security laws. There was no promise to end the harassment and technology theft making US businesses flee. He avoided talking about property-value collapses or bankruptcies or the coming labor shortages. Or the new national security law, which any company could potentially violate by gathering ordinary economic data.

The post-Cold War era, named for what it wasn’t, was marked by such exponential wealth production and technological progress that no one could imagine reverting to a pre-networked, pre-globalized age. The key to keeping it going was cooperation among the major nations that benefited most. So, whenever they seemed to row in the same direction—agreeing to slow climate change or limit the spread of nuclear weapons or contain viruses—each stroke was celebrated. Yet instead of becoming more frequent, these bursts of collaboration grew increasingly fleeting. And it took longer than it should have for Washington to realize what that decline portended.