Are We Seeing the Beginning of the Cool War?


It’s an interesting thought-experiment to ponder over what students will be taught in future history classes about the world today.

In my Modern History class, the lessons were dominated by the three major conflicts in the twentieth century: both the World Wars and the Cold War.

Today, it is plausible that the Global War on Terrorism could be in initiated into that list, or perhaps it will be consigned to the pages of history books very soon.

While the threat of terrorism is still a major issue in global security and policy dialogues, the so-called “war” being waged against it is wrapping up, as the end draws near in Afghanistan and the GFC has redirected the attention of American and European statesmen and citizens.

But what sets it apart from the other three is that it is not, strictly speaking, a power-change conflict. Both the Great Wars and the Cold War are such important historical spectacles because they chronicle the rise and fall of world superpowers. (Although, there are arguments to be made that the War on Terror may be responsible for bringing the US to its knees.)

Further to that, the Global War on Terror won’t be remembered as a major game-changer in the advancement of technology as much as the others were.

Yet we are undeniably at a crossroads when it comes to shifting power distributions and technological capabilities – China is continuing its rapid rise, with an ever-growing military and as the world’s main creditor throughout the GFC, while technological advances in IT and communications, among other things, are fundamentally altering states’ offensive capabilities.

So it seems we are bound to see another huge power-change conflict that may be a game changer with respect to technology. But will the history books of the future attribute the causes and origins of the next great conflict to sometime near today?

This is the idea behind recent suggestions from foreign policy analysts who are theorising we are about to enter the “Cool War”.

The Cool War as a cyber war

David Rothkopf, editor of Foreign Affairs and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment  for International Peace, wrote an article in February suggesting “we are now in the midst of what could be called the Cool War” just days after it was reported that a secretive Chinese People’s Army unit had hacked many of Washington’s public institutions.

Of course, it is difficult to attribute the authorship of cyber attacks, a problem rendered even more complex with the possibility of states being blamed for the work of cyber criminals.

Moreover, businessmen and government officials look to blame scapegoats like Chinese spies to excuse themselves of laying their internet security systems bare for run-of-the-mill hackers to freely attack.

These were common criticisms of a recent story on ABC’s Four Corners which reported China was behind supposed cyber attacks on the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (see here).

Nevertheless, cyber attacks are now being understood as a real and rapidly growing threat to global security; not least as a potential avenue for terrorism – a spectre I discussed in an article on the hacktivist group, Anonymous – but because they represent a potentially decisive weapon that can be used to directly target a country’s military infrastructure, government and communications systems, and financial markets.

The US has carried out its own cyber attacks as well, with the Stuxnet virus which infected Iran’s nuclear programme in 2009, destroying as much as 1,000 centrifuges at the underground uranium enrichment facility at Natanz in the center of the country.

cool war

The threat of cyber warfare has escalated in recent times with online attacks allegedly coming from both the Chinese and Americans. (Image courtesy of Foreign Policy)

But this so-called “Cool War” isn’t just a cyber war. Cyber-warfare capabilities are just one of the many advancements in military technology that are theorised to be wielded in this new power-change conflict.

Rothkopf describes this new cool war as a state of conflict which won’t necessarily end up being fought out on a battlefield, but is likely to be a little warmer than the Cold War in that it may include more direct offensive measures than its 20th century predecessor:

This new war is “cool” rather than “cold” for two reasons. On the one hand, it is a little warmer than cold because it seems likely to involve almost constant offensive measures that, while falling short of actual warfare, regularly seek to damage or weaken rivals or gain an edge through violations of sovereignty and penetration of defenses. And on the other, it takes on the other definition of “cool,” in that it involves the latest cutting-edge technologies in ways that are changing the paradigm of conflict to a much greater degree than any of those employed during the Cold War — which was, after all, about old-fashioned geopolitical jockeying for advantage in anticipation of potential old-school total warfare.

This new type of conflict, if indeed it plays out like Rothkopf and other foreign policy analysts are hypothesising, will drastically change the way wars are fought out – specifically, away from the battlefield. No guns. No bombs.

Instead, it will be fought out in cyber-space, between satellites and by unmanned warcrafts like drones (see here).

But ultimately, what could end up putting both the US and China in a new situation of mutually assured destruction is in what is keeping their relationship together at the moment: the global financial market.

The Cool War as an economic war

In May, Noah Feldman, author and Professor of International Law at Harvard, released a book called Cool War: The Future of Global Competition, in which he theorises how the coming power-struggle between the US and China will be as influential as the Cold War in reshaping the way global powers compete with each other.

He wrote a piece for Foreign Policy himself to foreshadow the release of his book, aptly titled, “The Unstoppable Force vs The Immovable Object: Could the United States really go to war with China?“. In it, he points to the contradictory nature of the power balancing act going on between the US and China at the moment:

The term Cool War aims to capture two different, contradictory historical developments that are taking place simultaneously: A classic struggle for power between two countries is unfolding at the same time that economic cooperation between them is becoming deeper and more fundamental.

The two countries’ economic fates are tied together; the US relies on China to keep lending it money during this time of financial crisis, while China needs the US to continue buying its products to facilitate its rise. In forcing countries to maintain relationships and co-exist in order to not lose out, the presence of complex interdependence in global markets has, to some degree at least, done what liberals said it would: stave off conflict.

Never before has a rising power been so economically interdependent with the nation challenging it. The ties go beyond the U.S.’s 25 percent market share for Chinese exports or China’s holdings of 8 percent of the outstanding U.S. national debt. They include about 200,000 Chinese studying in the U.S. and perhaps 80,000 Americans living and working in China. ~ Noah Feldman, The Coming Cool War With China (Bloomberg)

However, China has continued its impressive military growth and displayed overt aggression in trying to secure interests in its surrounding seas, while America looks to assert itself in the strategically important region of Asia, which is on the rise economically and politically.

Additionally, there remains a whole host of political differences between the two nations in terms of trade, territory and human rights that may trigger a breakdown in relations which could prove ultimately fatal.

On top of this, the situation in Taiwan, although it has seen a reprieve in recent years, may provide for a complicated flash-point for conflict between the two geopolitical rivals.

So this leaves us with an interesting prospect: If both countries are dependent on each other economically, it would be plausible for one to be able to pull the pin on the other if they come to a disagreement, by breaking off trade relations.

This could open the potential for a new kind of paranoid climate in international relations, similar to that associated with the nuclear threat of mutually assured destruction (which remains the elephant in the room in this whole predicament, mind you).

But this time the MAD comes in the form of economic interdependence and its geopolitical consequences.

Perhaps this is all just alarmism and speculation, but it’s certainly food for thought. One thing’s for sure, the way conflict plays itself out in the future will look completely different to how it does today.

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