Anyone looking for evidence of a growing economic and ideological conflict between China and the United States will have no trouble finding something—the trade war now roiling both countries’ economies, the standoff between police and pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, Beijing’s swift retaliation against the NBA over a single Houston Rockets executive’s tweet in support of those same protesters. President Donald Trump seems to think a new cold war is at hand. His national-security strategy statement identifies China as an adversary bent on dismantling a U.S.-centered global order and forging a new one in its own favor. This point of view is catching on outside the administration, too. Earlier this year, the Committee on the Present Danger relaunched once again. First organized in the late 1940s to push for a massive military buildup and revived in the 1970s to promote a more confrontational approach toward the Soviet Union, the group now seeks to mobilize Americans for an existential struggle against China.
I am a historian who has been writing about the U.S.-Soviet Cold War for nearly three decades. However tempting the analogy might be as China’s influence and military strength grow, invoking it now is profoundly wrong. The Cold War happened not simply because there were two superpowers in the world, but because of the specific circumstances confronting the United States after 1945. The historical context in which the United States operates today, the prevailing configuration of power in the international arena, and the ideological appeal of the rival regime are all entirely different. In today’s circumstances, Cold War–era policies—starting with the containment strategy adopted in the late 1940s—are not only unnecessary, but likely to catalyze a destructive spiral of heightening tensions that would make the world a more dangerous place.