Cold wars make for odd couples. When Joseph Stalin met Mao Tse-tung in Moscow in December 1949, it wasn’t exactly a bromance. “I have only three tasks here,” Mao complained when the Soviet leader paid him next to no attention. “The first is to eat, the second is to sleep, the third is to shit!”
In the end, Mao got the Soviet backing his new People’s Republic desperately needed. But the price ended up being to fight the Korean War on Stalin’s behalf.
That particular odd couple ended up getting a divorce. By 1960, Mao and Nikita Khrushchev were openly criticising one another. By 1969, Soviet and Chinese troops were fighting a border war.
In this new Cold War, the odd couple consists of Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. No two world leaders see one another more frequently. Xi has even called Putin his “best friend”. But compared with the 1950s, the roles have been reversed. China is now the giant, Russia the mean little sidekick. China under Xi remains strikingly faithful to the doctrine of Marx and Lenin. Russia under Putin has reverted to tsarism.
For America and its allies, this new odd couple is even more perplexing than Stalin and Mao. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, it was not difficult to discern the menace represented by Soviet power. Faced with a choice between Stalin or Harry Truman, Khrushchev or Dwight Eisenhower, most west European leaders didn’t think twice about taking the American side.
Today, however, the power of the People’s Republic of China is primarily economic rather than military. That makes it much harder to resist. Consequently, the Second Cold War has a number of features that make it quite different from the first Cold War.
The first is that America is so intertwined with China that experienced observers, such as the former Treasury secretary Hank Paulson, argue that “decoupling” is a delusion. The entanglement is not just about trade and investment. It is also cultural. This year there are close to 370,000 Chinese students at American universities. The grand total of all the Soviet citizens who came to America under the 1958 cultural agreement was about 50,000 over 30 years.
The second big difference is that America’s traditional allies are much less eager to align themselves with Washington and against Beijing. This has become most apparent over Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant, which is the world leader in 5G equipment. The US government is warning others not to buy Huawei kit. Yet only a handful of countries — step forward, Australia — have signed up for the boycott. Others, notably the British and German governments, are ducking and weaving (not least because no western competitor can match Huawei on price).
The Silicon Valley venture capitalist Marc Andreessen famously said that “software is eating the world”, meaning that the principal trend of the past 30 years has been for the programs of Microsoft, Apple and the rest to transform one sector of the economy after another.
But if software did the eating, the meal was cooked and served by hardware. Without Gordon Moore’s law — that the number of transistors on a computer microchip doubles about every two years — we should not have advanced from the crude word-processing programs, browsers and games of our 1990s desktops to the mind-blowingly powerful capabilities of our smartphones today. That is why the Second Cold War is much more a battle over hardware than anything else.
The illusion of the month is that anything significant was achieved with the signing of the “phase one” trade deal between America and China last Wednesday. In reality, the battlefield of the Second Cold War has shifted away from trade to technology.
It is not just that America is leaning on other governments to eschew Huawei’s hardware. It is also leaning on the world’s leading makers of semiconductors, such as the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, not to sell their top-of-the-range chips to the Chinese. The same goes for companies selling chip-making machines, such as Holland’s ASML.
Moreover, there are other fronts in the new Cold War besides technology. A key battle is taking shape over capital flows, for example. The US government would like to reduce American investment in China. But the Chinese government is energetically wooing western banks and asset managers.
Then there is the monetary contest I wrote about in September. On the one side, America wishes to maintain an international financial system in which the US dollar is the dominant currency for trade and reserves. On the other, the Chinese tech giants Alibaba and Tencent are rolling out electronic payment platforms superior to anything America has to offer, while the People’s Bank of China is about to launch a digital renminbi.
As the Second Cold War intensifies, the role that Russia can play is quite small. It is not a serious player in either hardware or software. And it is financially marginal: nobody wants roubles, because US sanctions have so effectively isolated the Russian economy.
What, then, does Putin bring to the table, apart from a great stockpile of mostly superannuated nuclear weapons and conventional military forces that have performed adequately but hardly brilliantly in Ukraine and Syria? The answer is an unrivalled talent for hybrid or information warfare.
Last weekend I paid my first visit to Taiwan, a fascinating island where one can see how Chinese history might have gone had the revolution of 1949 not succeeded. Spared the horrors and privations of Mao’s tyranny, the people of Taiwan have built a dynamic market economy and a vigorous liberal democracy.
Yet they are constantly menaced by Beijing, which refuses to acknowledge their de facto independence and thirsts to subordinate them to the Communist Party. The latest form this threat takes is a massive disinformation campaign on Taiwanese social media. It’s a campaign very obviously designed in Russia, assembled in China.
The Second Cold War will have more than one odd couple. If America is to succeed against China as it succeeded against the Soviet Union, Donald Trump — and his successor — must relearn the lessons of late 20th-century diplomacy. Allies matter, and frenemies are pretty good, too.
Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of Henry Kissinger’s secret flight to Beijing, which set in motion the opening of relations between America and China. It was the pivotal moment of the Cold War, exploiting the Sino-Soviet split by effectively aligning Washington and Beijing against Moscow.
The ultimate goal of American strategy in the 2020s must be to achieve a mirror image of that manoeuvre, driving Putin and Xi apart and drawing Russia into that western configuration which alone can save declining Russia from being swallowed up by rising China.
Donald and Vlad: no relationship has caused Trump more trouble. Will it ever reap a strategic reward? That might just be the Second Cold War’s crucial question.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
The aftermath of the killing of Qassem Soleimani, the mastermind of Tehran’s dirty wars, not only confirmed the weakness of the Iranian government. It also exposed the weakness of Donald Trump’s domestic opponents. The Iranians launched a barrage of ballistic missiles at two bases in Iraq that house American troops. No lives were lost because the strike appears to have been preceded by a warning to the Iraqi government. But, by mistake it seems, the Iranians also managed to shoot down a Ukrainian Boeing 737 as it took off from Tehran airport, killing all 176 people on board.
No doubt there will be more threats of retaliation. No doubt there will be more missiles fired. And no doubt there will be fewer passengers on planes to Tehran.
Meanwhile, the Democrats fired their metaphorical missiles at the president. They were no more accurate. The only difference was they did more damage to themselves than to any blameless bystanders.
“Innocent civilians are now dead because they were caught in the middle of an unnecessary and unwanted military tit for tat,” tweeted Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who is still in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Joe Biden, who remains the frontrunner in the opinion polls, was not to be outdone. “Anything that Barack [Obama] and I did, [Trump]’s determined to undo,” Biden said during a speech at a private fundraiser in California. “This is the guy who said he wanted to end endless wars in the Middle East,” he went on. But “the end result . . . is we find ourselves more vulnerable”.
Very vulnerable. During a conference with other Democrats on Wednesday, Minnesota representative Ilhan Omar said “everything that is taking place” in the Middle East made her “feel ill”. She continued: “Every time I hear about . . . conversations around war, I find myself being stricken with PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder].” She later tweeted: “Trump is on the brink of dragging us into an endless war.”
On Thursday the House of Representatives approved a resolution that Trump must seek approval from Congress before engaging in further military action against Iran. Announcing the vote, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the killing of Soleimani “provocative and disproportionate”.
The Democrats have now had three years to figure out Trump and they still haven’t got it. Of course no one could predict with certainty how the Iranians would react to Soleimani’s killing. But what could be predicted was that Trump did not intend to start an “endless war”. On the contrary. I am not sure quite how the Democrats will react when, as I think likely, Trump simply accedes to the wish of the Iraqi government to withdraw the remaining US troops from Iraq and then blithely starts negotiations with Iran. So accustomed are Pelosi and co to accusing Republicans of being warmongers that they cannot fathom how Trump could first take out Soleimani and then take out his own troops.
Yet, as Walter Russell Mead explained in The Wall Street Journal, this is a quintessentially Jacksonian foreign policy move, in the spirit of Andrew Jackson, the president whom the former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon told his old boss to make his role model. Like his supporters in red-state America, Trump has no appetite for the “endless wars” they associate with George W Bush’s administration. But he and they also believe that the United States should retaliate against attacks on Americans. (Nawres Hamid, a naturalised US citizen, was killed by an Iranian-backed militia attack while working as an interpreter near Kirkuk on December 27.)
As Mead put it in his 2001 book Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World, a Jacksonian believes “that the most important goal of the US government in both foreign and domestic policy should be the physical security and the economic wellbeing of the American people”. Neoconservative nation-building or liberal interventionism are not on the Jacksonian menu. It’s all about “Don’t tread on me” — the rattlesnake’s warning on the American Revolutionary War battle flag.
Since mid-2018 I have argued that Trump has an incentive to make Jacksonian foreign policy waves in an election year. It guarantees that he dominates the airwaves, depriving his Democratic rivals of the oxygen of media coverage. It also encourages the Democrats to sound like a bunch of wimps.
Yet there is another influence at work here, besides that of Jackson.
I am certainly not the first person to notice the influence of the Godfather films on the president. The former FBI director James Comey said in 2018 that Trump’s style gave him “a flashback to my days investigating the mafia”. Trump’s way of establishing a tie of loyalty to him, Comey has written, was “like Sammy the Bull’s Cosa Nostra induction ceremony — with Trump, in the role of the family boss, asking me if I have what it takes to be a ‘made man’.” The jailed Trump lawyer Michael Cohen once described himself as the Trump Organisation’s Tom Hagen, the consigliere played by Robert Duvall in the Godfather films. The jailed Trump adviser Roger Stone once urged an associate who was supposed to testify against him to “do a Frank Pentangeli”.
Trump himself alluded to The Godfather, for example, when he mocked CNN anchor Chris Cuomo by calling him “Fredo” — a reference to the weakest of the Corleone sons. According to CBS, The Godfather is one of the president’s top three favourite movies — after Bloodsport and Goodfellas, and just ahead of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
After the lofty foreign policy doctrines of the past — from Monroe doctrine to the Reagan doctrine — the Corleone doctrine is hardly comme il faut. It is certainly no cause for glee that the most powerful man in the world should aspire to be a mafioso. Yet in the realm of realpolitik, there may be worse figures to imitate than Vito Corleone.
At the heart of Trump’s seemingly erratic approach to international relations are the dream of making Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, an offer he can’t refuse; the fond wish to have Kim Jong-un sleep with the fishes; and the fantasy of leaving the severed head of his favourite horse in Xi Jinping’s bed. Trump’s admiration of Vladimir Putin rests on the Russian president’s distinctly Sicilian style.
I quite see why the Council on Foreign Relations deplores all this. But Democrats underestimate at their peril how well it plays in middle America. The Godfather is one of the most popular films of all time, and for good reasons. It is a tale of gangsters, of course — of crime and violence — but it is also one of the great family sagas. And, at its heart, The Godfather is about succession. We all know who the Don is: Donald. The big question is: who’s Michael?
The appearance of Donald Trump Jr’s book at the top of the New York Times bestseller list in November offered a hint. In the wake of the Iranian hit job, its title — Triggered — has a new significance.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
My response to the news that US forces had assassinated Qassem Soleimani was: “Good riddance. Now what?” No tears should be shed for Soleimani. As the mastermind of Iran’s numerous proxy wars beyond the Islamic Republic’s borders, he had the blood of countless people on his hands, including hundreds of American and coalition soldiers killed by the Shi’ite militias he helped to train and finance. Second only to the Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in personal power, Soleimani had come to personify the ruthless, bloodthirsty spirit of the regime in Tehran.
But what will the consequences be of his assassination? Let us begin by dismissing that hardy perennial, “Oh no! Reckless Donald Trump has lit the fuse for the Third World War.” At a time such as this, commentators in need of a facile historical analogy inevitably reach for the murder of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914, generally regarded as the catalyst for the First World War.
But Soleimani was no Ferdinand. First, it was Bosnian-Serb terrorists backed by Serbian military intelligence who carried out the hit on the legitimate heir to the august Austro-Hungarian imperial throne. Soleimani’s career as a sponsor of terrorism puts him closer to the Sarajevo assassin, Gavrilo Princip, than to his victim.
Second, the Middle East in January 2020 is not Europe in June 1914. The great powers then were quite evenly matched; each made the mistake of thinking that it might gain from a full-scale European war. Today, Iran’s leaders are under no illusions. They cannot risk a war with the vastly superior United States, which numbers among its allies both the richest state in the region (Saudi Arabia) and the most technologically advanced (Israel).
A better analogy might be with the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, “the man with the iron heart” (Hitler’s grim accolade), the founding head of the Nazi Sicherheitsdienst (Security Service), the creator of the genocidal Einsatzgruppen and the brutal tyrant of the dismembered Czechoslovakia, who was fatally wounded by British-trained agents of the Czech government in exile in May 1942.
The British government’s decision to train and send Heydrich’s killers was made in the full knowledge that there would be harsh reprisals. There were. In the erroneous belief that the assassins were connected to the villages of Lidice and Lezaky, Hitler ordered the execution of all their male inhabitants over 16, as well as all the women of Lezaky. More than 1,300 Czechs perished in this orgy of vengeance.
Winston Churchill, who was fond of the kind of “dirty war” waged by the Special Operations Executive, favoured further retaliation, proposing that the RAF wipe out three German villages for every Czech one destroyed. Only with difficulty did the other members of the war cabinet dissuade him.
In much the same way, Trump and his advisers knew when they took the decision to launch an airstrike on Soleimani that there would be reprisals. There will be. On Friday, Khamenei tweeted the hashtag #SevereRevenge. Stand by for attacks by Iranian forces and their Shi’ite proxies on US personnel, as well as against US allies, all over the Middle East. The question is will the benefits of killing Soleimani outweigh those costs?
Benjamin Disraeli famously observed, in response to Abraham Lincoln’s murder, that “assassination has never changed the history of the world”. He was wrong. As Benjamin Jones and Benjamin Olken show in my favourite economics paper on this subject — which covers all 298 assassination attempts on national leaders from 1875 to 2004 — successful assassinations tend to increase the intensity of small-scale conflicts. But when an autocrat is killed, the probability of a transition to democracy rises.
The downside of killing Soleimani is that Iraq will now blow up. Freed from Saddam Hussein’s tyranny by the US invasion of 2003, it is a democracy with only limited US security support. Iranian penetration of Shi’ite militias and political parties means that it is dangerously close to becoming a vassal of Tehran. Significantly, the Iraqi prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, has condemned the US strike against Soleimani. The danger is a return to civil war.
This assassination does nothing to solve the problem created by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, when he decided to liquidate the US presence in Iraq in excessive haste, squandering all that had been achieved in the “surge” that ended the last Iraqi civil war.
The upside of killing Soleimani is that the Iran regime’s bluff has been called and its vulnerability exposed for everyone in the region to see.
Iran is in dire economic straits, largely because of American sanctions, which the Trump administration tightened last year. Oil production is down by nearly half since April 2018. The International Monetary Fund estimates that the Iranian economy shrank by 9.5% last year. The Statistical Centre for Iran puts the inflation rate at 47.2%.
The country’s beleaguered rulers gambled that they could force America to relax sanctions by exerting force, in the belief that Trump would not risk war in an election year. Wrong. America may now face pandemonium in Iraq, but Iran will not necessarily be the beneficiary. There is a good deal of anti-Iranian sentiment in the country; indeed, there have been numerous anti-Iranian protests since October and many in Iraq celebrated Soleimani’s obliteration last week.
It is in the wider regional struggle for mastery, however, that Iran is most obviously at a disadvantage. Last July Israel struck Iranian targets in Iraq, where Iran is believed to have stockpiled missiles. In September it was the turn of Hezbollah, Iran’s client in Lebanon. The Israelis have also been hitting Iran’s forces in Syria. Last month Israel’s defence minister, Naftali Bennett, threatened to turn Syria into “Iran’s Vietnam”.
Aside from Qatar, the Arab states are uniformly hostile to Tehran. Not only are the Saudis still smarting from Iran’s attack on their oil facilities in September; they also bitterly resent Iranian support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Meanwhile, the Europeans are finding it harder to keep the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action alive, as Iranian violations grow ever more flagrant.
As for the other main players in the region — Russia and Turkey — they are increasingly antagonistic to Iran. With the Syrian civil war all but over, Moscow is intent on squeezing out the Iranians.
Civil war in Iraq? Quite possibly. A Third World War? Forget about it. The unanswered question is what, if anything, can be done to reverse the biggest trend of the past decade, which has been Russia — not Iran — taking over from the United States as the Middle East’s powerbroker. The assassination of Soleimani changes many things. It doesn’t change that.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
Britain has led again. In June 2016, the Brexit referendum was a leading indicator for the victory not only of Donald Trump but also of other right-wing populists, from Matteo Salvini in Italy to Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. I spent much of last week in a sleep-deprived state of anxiety, fearing that Britain might lead again in precisely the opposite direction.
My nagging, neurotic nightmare was of another hung parliament and a political (not to mention financial) crisis that would end up producing an unholy Labour-Scottish National Party-Liberal Democrat coalition, with the odious Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister. This would then have given a kind of legitimacy to the “woke” left all over the world, including America. You may recall my manic dive into social media data, all of which seemed to portend a strong Labour showing.
I was not alone in worrying. I spent Thursday night in a London restaurant jam-packed with staunch Conservatives. Wild rumours circulated. Boris Johnson was going to lose his seat, necessitating a hasty elevation to the House of Lords. Another 10 minutes of suspense and I am sure I’d have heard that the Queen had fled the country. As 10pm approached we held our collective breath. And . . . phew! No, not just phew, but hallelujah!
Yes, Britain has led again — but not in the wrong direction that I had feared. Far from a swing from populist right to Marxist left, there has been a fundamental transformation of conservatism itself. I have never been so relieved to be wrong. Dominic Cummings knew better: the social media data I was obsessing about was irrelevant.
In Britain, this is going to be seen as a win for Johnson’s version of One Nation Toryism, a rather overused phrase that dates back to Benjamin Disraeli’s novel Sybil. With his pledges to spend, spend, spend on everything from the NHS to northern infrastructure to minimum wages, Johnson will now be seen, I would guess, as rather more Disraeli than Winston Churchill.
That’s true in the sense that austerity (which Churchill certainly practised in his time as chancellor) is a dead parrot: not pining for the fjords but dead, no more, ceased to be, expired and gone to meet its maker.
However, more than a victory for One Nation, this was the triumph of something new: the national conservatism featured earlier this year at an important conference in Washington.
The key name here is Yoram Hazony, an Israeli philosopher, Bible scholar and political theorist, whose 2018 book The Virtue of Nationalism puts last week’s election into world-historical perspective.
“Nationalism,” writes Hazony, “is not some unfathomable political illness that periodically takes over countries for no good reason and to no good end, as many in America and Britain seem to think these days.
“[It] is a principled standpoint that regards the world as governed best when nations are able to chart their own independent course, cultivating their own traditions and pursuing their own interests without interference. This is opposed to imperialism, which seeks to bring peace and prosperity to the world by uniting mankind, as much as possible, under a single political regime.”
Now there is a certain type of indignant Indian intellectual — step forward Pankaj Mishra and Priyamvada Gopal — who insists ad nauseam that Brexit is an expression of nostalgia for the British Empire, if not a repressed desire to re-establish it. Nothing could be more wrong, as Hazony explains, and as anyone knows who has spent even an hour in a pub with Brexit supporters like my good friends in the Prince of Wales near Bridgend (another Labour citadel that fell last week).
True, not all national conservatives are as socially liberal as Johnson. However, my old friend Andrew Sullivan, in his penetrating portrait of Boris in New York magazine, got to the heart of the issue.
Johnson, he argued, “has done what no other conservative leader in the West has done: he has co-opted and thereby neutered the far right. The reactionary Brexit Party has all but collapsed since Boris took over. Anti-immigration fervour has calmed. The Tories have also moved back to the economic and social centre under Johnson’s leadership. And there is a strategy to this.
“What Boris is offering as an alternative is a Tory social democracy rooted in national pride and delivered with a spoonful of humour and entertainment. In some ways, his personality is part of the formula. His plummy voice and silly hair and constant jokes are deeply, even reassuringly, British even as demographic change has made Britishness seem fragile. And if you still believe in the nation state, in liberal democracy, and have qualms about the unintended consequences of neoliberal economics, it’s about as decent a conservative political blend as is on offer in the West.”
I think this is very right.
Now for a mea culpa or two. Yes, it’s true: I was against Brexit, as I thought the trouble of getting divorced from a moribund European Union would be more than it was worth. I was content with the David Cameron-George Osborne government, dreaded Theresa May and didn’t trust Boris.
However, when the referendum result came in, I took the old-fashioned approach that I had been taught at school. We lost, so clap the winning team off the pitch and come to terms with defeat. I had no time for, or patience with, the diehard remoaners, any more than with their American counterparts, the “never-Trumpers”.
I was right about May. I was wrong about Boris. As Sullivan says, the effortless superiority and unbearable lightness of BoJo — which we Scots find so difficult to appreciate — is that he takes the ingredients of populism and turns them into a much more palatable dish than his counterparts on the Continent will ever serve up.
The rise of national conservatism and the proof that it can work here in Britain sound the death knell for woke socialism all over the world. Just as Brexit begat Trump, so Boris’s victory more or less guarantees that the Democrats will be decimated next November if they nominate either Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.
It also implies the ultimate victory of national conservatives on the Continent, beginning with Salvini in Italy, whose departure from power earlier this year will be only temporary. Eventually, even in France, they will run out of ways to keep the Le Pen family out.
National conservatism on the Continent has its nasty side, no doubt. But the best thing about Boris’s win was the part played in it by the revelations of anti-semitism within the Labour Party.
For the past four years the left has tried to represent the populism that produced Brexit as racist. Yet the true racists turned out to be Corbyn and co. And working-class voters saw that. Deo gratias!
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford