Early coverage of the new defense pact between the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia (AUKUS) has focused on the anger of the French government at losing its deal to sell diesel-powered submarines to Canberra. That's understandable. Paris has been loudly protesting Australia's decision to break its French deal and purchase nuclear-powered subs from the U.S. instead. Nasty quotes from government officials and stories of recalled ambassadors make for exciting headlines and copy.
But the importance of the AUKUS agreement goes well beyond a fleeting diplomatic dust up with a European ally. The new pact is a bold bid for the United States to check a rising China — and especially to deter any military move against Taiwan. As such, it represents a significant shift in the balance of power in the Asian-Pacific region.
This has everyone from the U.N. chief on down to an array of left-wing critics of American foreign policy warning about a "new Cold War" between the U.S. and China. It's certainly possible to criticize the AUKUS deal in whole or in part, but decrying it for jump-starting a new Cold War isn't a serious way to respond. The Cold War was one of a kind, it's been over for more than 30 years, and what's happening now in Sino-American relations marks a return to a form of geopolitics that pre-dates the conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States.
The Cold War arose from the very specific way the Second World War came to an end. The Soviets had invaded Nazi Germany from the east while the U.S. invaded from the west. Instead of withdrawing back across its own borders, the Soviet army stayed where it was, in part to create a buffer zone between the U.S.S.R. and perceived threats from the West.
The Americans, meanwhile, were responsible for the defense of the just-defeated war-ravaged Western European powers. Standing toe-to-toe with a rival totalitarian state so soon after fighting so hard to defeat another had a way of stiffening American spines. The resolve to take that stand was strengthened a few years later when China underwent its own communist revolution, potentially threatening Japan, another recently defeated and demilitarized power for which the U.S. had assumed responsibility.
The United States was now the most powerful nation in the world, with the Soviet Union our only serious rival. And each side was fortified in its stance by a quasi-messianic ideology — liberal democratic capitalism for the Americans and communism for the Soviets, with each side tending to presume it was destined to prevail and its system was bound to become a beacon to humanity across the globe.
This highly ideological superpower rivalry had the effect over the following decades of dividing the world into antagonistic camps. Nations were forced to choose sides, with even the supposedly "non-aligned" countries siding more or less consistently with one or the other. In such a polarized geopolitical context, the threat of a country switching allegiances, or moving more deeply into the orbit of the other, was often viewed as justifying war or other forms of covert interference. (Such proxy battles took place in Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, Chile, Nicaragua, and many other places between 1950 and the conclusion of the Cold War in 1989.)
What's happening now between the United States and China doesn't resemble this situation much at all. For one thing, America's present-day relations with its allies is very different than it was in the immediate aftermath of the military cataclysm of the Second World War, when those allies were incapable of defending themselves.
For another, China's "communism" shares little with the ideology that animated the Soviet Union. The country has developed an economically formidable blend of capitalism and authoritarianism that has fueled an impressive surge of growth in recent decades. China wants access to the largest possible markets for its products, and to exercise control over its near abroad. But there is little sign at all that the Chinese government thinks in messianic terms about itself or aspires to conquer the world.
What's happening geopolitically between the U.S. and China today is much more accurately described as a return to the great power rivalry of the 19th century — and perhaps especially to the so-called Great Game played between Great Britain and Russia from 1830 until the early 20th century. Early in the 19th century, Britain was the most powerful country in the world but faced multiple challenges, many of them involving rising rival powers, above all the United States, Germany, and Russia. In response, London decided to largely ignore the U.S. and focus first on fighting Russia to a stalemate in Central Asia and then eventually on turning Russia into an ally against Germany.
The parallel shouldn't be pushed too far. (China in the 21st century isn't imperial Russia in the 19th; the Western Pacific in our time is much more important to the global economy than Central Asia ever was; the U.S. differs from Victorian Britain in a multitude of ways; the potential use of nuclear weapons vastly inflates the stakes of any post-1945 conflict.) But the parallel holds in at least one crucial respect: A hegemonic Britain faced choices about where to act and where to refrain from acting in order to advance and defend its interests. The U.S. confronts similar choices today.
Are we going to continue devoting finite resources and attention to fighting Islamic terrorism and trying to bring liberal democracy to the Greater Middle East? Joe Biden has already answered that question with a definitive no. How about Europe? Biden still considers NATO an important alliance for addressing a range of issues, including climate change and Russian troublemaking in Eastern and Central Europe. But despite some rhetoric to the contrary last spring, Biden doesn't appear to see NATO as the best means of confronting China's rise and its challenge to American global hegemony. That is where Biden thinks we need to focus — and he wants to confront it through a new (or enhanced) Anglophone alliance with Great Britain and Australia.
That things are unfolding this way will surprise no one with a knowledge of global political history and the theory and practice of international relations. Conflict is highly likely whenever a hegemon confronts a formidable rising power. This doesn't mean war is inevitable. But it does mean that war is a serious risk unless a balance of power can be struck, with the nations peacefully negotiating their rivalry, deterring each other on some points and reaching mutually beneficial compromises on others. The new AUKUS pact is Biden's attempt to begin a new, more pointed stage in the process of balancing between the United States and China.
Having made this choice, Biden must be ready and willing to accept that countries around the world will strike their own deals with one side or the other, some staying in the American orbit, others gravitating to China, and still others attempting both at once, or neither. France will undoubtedly remain a NATO ally for the purposes of defending European security, for example. But it may now go its own way in Asia, partially upending bilateral relationships along the way.
That's yet another respect in which the current geopolitical situation resembles the 19th century far more than the Cold War. Instead of the ideologically simplified, Manichean world to which we grew accustomed after 1945, we now confront a geopolitical order marked by multifarious complexity, potentially including multiple crosscutting regional alliances, trade deals, shared technological projects, and economic rivalries and points of interdependence. (Donald Trump's decision to back out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which China now aspires to join, may well come to be remembered as the biggest strategic blunder of his presidency, since it puts us at a significant disadvantage on trade with Asia at the very moment when we would benefit from a unified front in challenging Beijing.)
Is it possible to win a Great Game? Britain did quite well at its own for several decades — until its alliance with Russia against Germany got it ensnared in a catastrophic war that ultimately precipitated the loss of its empire and its attendant decline on the world stage. In the end, no nation "wins" any geopolitical game in a permanent sense. Powers rise and then they fall. The key is to avoid disaster and arrest the inevitable for as long as possible.
Joe Biden has begun to indicate how he will attempt to do this. Whether he's going about it in the wisest way is something we will be debating for some time to come. But one thing is fairly certain already: We won't get very far if we force present events into a Cold War framework that can no longer contain them.