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Knight Takes Rook in Cold War II

The new global conflict with Russia and China is playing out like a game of 3D chess, with the U.S. up in some areas but losing in others

Michael Lind
March 14, 2023
Michael Lind
Michael Lind chronicles civilizational shifts and national trends, writing about American politics and culture with a deep understanding of history and appreciation for America's highest ideals.
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Ezra Acayan/Getty Images
Airfields, buildings, and structures on the artificial islands built by China in, from top, Mischief Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, and Hughes Reef, in the Spratly Islands, South China Sea, in October 2022Ezra Acayan/Getty Images
Ezra Acayan/Getty Images
Airfields, buildings, and structures on the artificial islands built by China in, from top, Mischief Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, and Hughes Reef, in the Spratly Islands, South China Sea, in October 2022Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

Global power politics takes place in multiple dimensions, much like a game of 3D chess. Different players compete on different levels, though some are playing on every board.

Consider the war in Ukraine. This conflict, comparable to the proxy wars in Korea and Vietnam during the original Cold War, can be understood as the first proxy war in the current Cold War between the U.S. and post-Soviet Russia. It can be analyzed on three levels: regional, continental, and global.

At the regional level, the war is a struggle between Ukraine, which seeks to maintain its territorial integrity, and the Russian regime of Vladimir Putin, whose initial war aims failed, and who has since been reduced to trying to break off and annex the regions of eastern Ukraine with Russian-speaking majorities while terrorizing civilians and destroying civilian infrastructure. Ukraine fits into a larger regional pattern for Putin, who openly laments the dissolution of the USSR, and has long engaged in efforts to dominate buffer states around the borders of the post-Soviet Russian Federation. There was Chechnya (whose independence movement was brutally suppressed), South Ossetia (broken off from Georgia in a brief war in 2008), Crimea (which Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred to the Soviet Republic of Ukraine in 1954, and which Putin seized from Ukraine in 2014 and later annexed to Russia), and Ukraine itself, where Russia has been aiding and financing a war in the eastern provinces of the country since 2014. Belarus, another former Soviet republic, remains nominally independent but is closely allied with Russia under its president, Alexander Lukashenko.

Putin seems to have believed that a brief, successful assault on Ukraine would allow him to install a friendly government in Kyiv, while detaching the eastern portions of the country. Instead, the Russian invasion met massive resistance from the Ukrainian government of Volodymyr Zelensky, backed up by military aid from the U.S. and its NATO allies, which also levied harsh economic sanctions on Russia.

But countries waging campaigns of war have often overrun their initial budgets of blood and treasure yet emerged victorious at the end. If the Ukraine war ends with Russia indefinitely controlling portions of eastern Ukraine as well as Crimea, then Putin will have achieved his regional strategic goal, if only at a high price.

The next level on the 3D chess board is the continent of Europe and NATO. Here there are five major powers, each with its own strategic goals: Russia, France, Germany, Britain, and the United States.

At the European level, the Ukraine war has disastrously backfired against Russia. It has driven European countries back into the sheltering arms of the United States, and it has frightened Russia’s neighbors Sweden and Finland into seeking admission to NATO. When the Cold War ended peacefully, Mikhail Gorbachev promoted the idea of a “common European home” that would unite Western and Eastern Europe with Russia in a shared institutional framework—and would exclude the United States. This possibility was foreclosed by the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe over Russian objections, and now the backlash against the Russian invasion of Ukraine may have made Russia a pariah state in the eyes of most Europeans—though not necessarily in non-European eyes—for years or decades to come.

The Ukraine war, by underscoring Europe’s security dependence on the United States, has also reduced France’s influence in the region. Regardless of domestic politics, the French foreign policy establishment since de Gaulle has usually sought to build up a tightly integrated European bloc under French and German leadership with a high degree of independence from the U.S. and China. But while some Americans would welcome more European self-sufficiency in defense, the Ukraine war is likely to drive an expansion of the U.S.-led NATO alliance in the near future.

Germany is another loser as a result of the war in Ukraine. Since its post-Cold War reunification, Germany has tried to be a chamber of commerce disguised as a country. The Germans imported cheap oil and gas from Russia to power factories exporting goods to China and the rest of the world, all while free-riding on U.S. defense spending. Thanks to sanctions against Russian imports and the destruction of the Nord Stream gas pipelines, Germany’s energy supply base has been violently reoriented to North America, with a growing percentage of its natural gas now coming over the Atlantic to replace former Russian supplies. Germany has been resisting American pressure to decouple economically from China, but over time Berlin may submit to Washington. In the 2030s Germany may be more of a subordinate American satellite than it has been since the beginnings of Ostpolitik in the 1960s.

In the European theater of power politics, the U.S. has emerged for the time being as the winner. U.S. victory has come at the expense of Russian relations with Europe, French dreams of an autonomous Europe, and German hopes to be simultaneously on good terms with Russia, China, and the U.S. The first secretary general of NATO, Lord Ismay, is often quoted as saying that the purpose of NATO was to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” For the foreseeable future, NATO, which integrates the U.S. into European security policymaking, will expand in membership and resources. Meanwhile, the European Union has lost the United Kingdom as a result of Brexit and is considered illegitimate by many nationalists in Eastern Europe and many populists in Western Europe. If Cold War II continues, American hegemony over most of Europe is likely to deepen, as the influence of the civilian EU diminishes. And Britain, America’s closest European partner and an ardent supporter of Ukraine, may be counted as a winner in the geopolitics of the Ukraine war as well.

What about the global level of the 3D chess game? Here there are only two major players: the U.S. and China.

China’s per capita income, like that of the late Soviet Union, is below that of the U.S. and its major allies. But by any reasonable definition, China is a superpower like the U.S. or, to use military jargon, a “peer competitor.” Unlike the Soviet Union, China is a superpower in multiple dimensions: economic, military, and diplomatic.

In purchasing power parity (PPP), China has already surpassed the U.S. as the world’s largest economy, and will almost certainly surpass it soon by the other important measure, market exchange rates. Nor is the size of China’s economy merely a reflection of a large population, as in the case of India. China is catching up in silicon chip technology, rivals the West in quantum computing and supercomputing, and has its own artificial intelligence and space programs.

Firms of Chinese origin like TikTok and Huawei have gone global, while a single Chinese firm, DJI, manufactures a majority of the civilian drones sold worldwide—and a majority of those used in American state and local law enforcement. After the COVID-19 epidemic originated in China, possibly leaking from a Chinese virology laboratory, the U.S. and other countries discovered how utterly dependent they were on Chinese factories and facilities manufacturing drugs and drug precursors and personal protective equipment (PPE). It may be a matter of time before Chinese firms compete in the aerospace and automobile industries. And China produces more steel than all other countries in the world combined.

What about China’s military? In 2016, President Barack Obama boasted: “We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined.”

But this was misleading, because it was based on market exchange rates, a less accurate measure than purchasing power parity—according to which American defense spending is only equal to that of China and Russia combined. And even purchasing power parity measures may be overestimating American military strength. The French scholar Jacques Sapir has argued that American economic statistics inflate “paper” sectors like finance and real estate, and disguise areas important for national strategy in which the U.S. is at a disadvantage compared to China or Russia, like manufacturing and mining.

In diplomacy, too, China is now the second superpower. In the last generation the Beijing regime has systematically built a parallel set of global institutions that exclude the U.S. from membership. One is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), founded in 2001 by China, Russia, and four former Soviet republics: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. This pact, excluding the U.S., has grown to include India and Iran.

Then there is the Chinese-led Pacific trade organization, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which excludes the U.S. but includes American allies Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand, among other countries. By its own choice the U.S. is not represented in another Chinese creation, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which now has 106 member nations, including Britain and numerous other countries in Europe. Step by step, China is creating global organizations that exclude the U.S. as a member.

In the European theater of power politics, the U.S. has emerged for the time being as the winner.

During the first Cold War, India and other countries belonged to the “nonaligned” group, seeking to maintain their independence from the communist bloc and the American-led “free world” (which included many dictatorships and autocracies in the Middle East, Latin America and Asia). The return of bipolarity to the international system—this time, based on Sino-American rather than Soviet-American rivalry—has been followed by a reemergence of something like the nonaligned cluster of countries. When the U.S. called for harsh sanctions against Russia following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, America’s close allies cooperated, but most countries in the world conspicuously refused to punish Russia. Notably, the list of countries bucking the U.S. calls to punish Moscow included populous democracies like India, Mexico, Brazil, and South Africa. Their refusal to take part in the anti-Russian sanctions undermines the claim, made repeatedly by President Biden, that the dividing line in the conflict is between democracies and autocracies.

The Ukraine war has reinforced the accelerating division of the world between a U.S.-led alliance system, an informal Chinese-led bloc in which Russia is the junior partner, and a majority of countries which seek to be on good terms with both sides. On the global level, China is in a better position in Cold War II than the U.S. Despite Trump’s and Biden’s best efforts, the U.S. remains dangerously dependent on Chinese manufacturing. China is modernizing its military, while the U.S. military has been drained by a generation of futile “forever wars” in Afghanistan and the Middle East. The Chinese regime can sit back and let the U.S. and Russia—its chief adversary and its “frenemy”—exhaust each other’s arsenals in Ukraine while it presents itself to the rest of humanity as a benign civilian trading power and benevolent international aid donor.

None of this means that China will replace the U.S. as a global hegemon. The gradual rise of India, and the industrial development of Africa, may cause the relative military and economic power of both the U.S. and China to decline at the same time. And a Chinese collapse or political transformation that would alter the balance of power cannot be ruled out.

For now, however, this is the status of the 3D chess game centered around Ukraine. Unless Ukraine, armed by the U.S. and NATO, can recapture its eastern territories and drive Russia out of Crimea, Russia is likely to achieve some if not all of its territorial goals in the former Soviet republic, as it did in Chechnya, Georgia, and Crimea. At the level of European diplomacy, Russia is out, the Germans are down, the French are sidelined—and America is back, with Britain at its side.

At the global level, however, China for now is in a better position than the U.S., which cannot run its own economy without Chinese imports. As Cold War II grinds on, America may deepen its hold over Europe, but that may turn out to be a consolation prize for the loss of American global hegemony.

Michael Lind is a Tablet columnist, a fellow at New America, and author of Hell to Pay: How the Suppression of Wages Is Destroying America.