Regular readers of this column will not have been surprised by the outbreak of the Second Cold War. Ever since Donald Trump imposed the first tariffs on Chinese imports last year, I have argued that the trade war between the United States and China would last longer than most people expected and that it would escalate into other forms of warfare.
The tech war — exemplified by last week’s US measures against the Chinese telecoms company Huawei — is now in full swing. The passage of the destroyer USS Preble through the Taiwan Strait was a reminder that shows of military force are also part and parcel of a cold war. And the propaganda war is now well under way, too, with Chinese state television digging out old Korean War films in which the Americans are the bad guys.
If you still think peace will break out when Trump meets Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Osaka next month, you’re in for a disappointment. Zhang Yansheng, chief researcher at the China Centre for International Economic Exchanges in Beijing, predicted last week that the friction could continue at this level until 2025.
Historical analogies are powerful. More than any formal model from the social sciences, they help us make sense of contemporary events. As the former US defence secretary Ash Carter said at the recent applied-history conference at Harvard, in the corridors of power “real people talk history, not economics, political science or IR [international relations]”. The first question they ask is: what is this like? And, yes, this sudden escalation of Sino-American antagonism is a lot like the early phase of the Cold War.
But the next question the applied historian asks is: what are the differences? Before the idea of the Second Cold War gets so well established that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, it’s time to take a step back and acknowledge that 2019 isn’t 1949, not least because of the profound economic, social and cultural entanglement of America and China, which is quite unlike the almost total separation of the United States from the Soviet Union 70 years ago.
The networked world forged by decades of commercial aviation, globally integrated markets for commodities, manufactures, labour and capital and — above all — the internet is radically different from the segmented and half-ruined world that Harry Truman and Joseph Stalin carved up between them. In the late 1940s it was possible for Soviet Russia to bring down Winston Churchill’s metaphorical Iron Curtain because the limited channels of communication between eastern and western Europe were so easy to shut down. Although the phrase “digital Iron Curtain” is doing the rounds, I am frankly doubtful that such a severance of ties is possible today.
Because the internet and the smartphone have enlarged, accelerated and empowered social networks in the same way as the printing press did in the 16th and 17th centuries, today’s strategic rivalry is being played out in a near-borderless world, altogether different from the world of early John le Carré.
The 17th century had it all: climate change (the Little Ice Age that often froze the Thames), refugee crises (as Protestant zealots crossed the Atlantic), extreme views (as Catholics and Protestants sought to smear one another) and fake news (as witch-finders condemned thousands of innocent people to death). But its most familiar feature to our eyes is the erosion of state sovereignty.
Catholics and Lutherans had been given a certain amount of clarity by the Peace of Augsburg of 1555, which left it to each individual prince to decide the denomination of his realm without fear of outside interference. But that principle seemed under threat by the early 1600s. In any case, it had created an incentive for the proponents of the Counter-Reformation to replace Protestant rulers with Catholic ones. The war of religion had no respect for borders: Jesuits infiltrated Protestant England just as Russian trolls now meddle in western democracies.
The Thirty Years’ War was as much about power as it was about religion, however. Unlike the Cold War, which was waged by two superpowers, it was a multiplayer game. The Holy Roman Emperor sought to reimpose Catholicism on Bohemia. Spain wanted to bring the rebellious Dutch back under Habsburg rule. Despite being Catholic, France sought to challenge the power of both Spain and Austria. Sweden seized the moment to thrust boldly southwards. Although also Lutheran, Denmark ended up as Sweden’s foe. Although also Catholic, Portugal threw off Spanish rule.
In the same way, today’s world is not bipolar. America may tell others to boycott Huawei, but not all Europeans will comply. China is the biggest economy in Asia, but it does not control India.
The Cold War created vast tank armies and nuclear arsenals, pointed at each other but never used. The Thirty Years’ War was a time of terrorism and gruesome violence, with no clear distinction between soldiers and civilians. (Think Syria today.) Then, as now, the worst-affected areas suffered death and depopulation. There was no deterrence then, just as there is none now in cyber-warfare. Indeed, states tended to underestimate the costs of getting involved in the conflict. Both Britain and France did so — only to slide into civil war.
The implications of this analogy are not cheering. The sole consolation I can offer is that, thanks to technology, most things nowadays happen roughly 10 times faster than they did 400 years ago. So we may be heading for a Three Years’ War, rather than a Thirty Years’ War. Either way, we need to learn how to end such a conflict.
The end of the Thirty Years’ War was not brought about by one treaty, but by several, of which the most important were signed at Münster and Osnabrück in October 1648. It is these treaties that historians refer to as the Peace of Westphalia. Contrary to legend, they did not make peace, as France and Spain kept fighting for 11 more years. And they certainly did not establish a world order based on modern states.
What the Westphalian settlement did was to establish power-sharing arrangements between the emperor and the German princes, as well as between the rival religious groups, on the basis of limited and conditional rights. The peace as a whole was underpinned by mutual guarantees, as opposed to the third-party guarantees that had been the norm before.
The Cold War ended when one side folded. That will not happen in our time. The democratic and authoritarian powers can fight for three or 30 years; neither side will win a definitive victory. Sooner or later there will have to be a compromise — in particular, a self-restraining commitment not to take full advantage of modern technology to hollow out each other’s sovereignty.
Our destination is 1648, not 1989 — a Cyber-Westphalia, not the fall of the Great Firewall of China. If we have the option to get there in three years, rather than in 30, we should take it.
Niall Ferguson is Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford