Russia, China, and Our Endless Cold (And Hot) Wars


“So you think there are no problems with Russia then?”

As someone who has dared to question the ‘peace-ensuring’ quality of NATO troops in Lithuania, I’ve received this question more than once.

To me personally, witnessing military vehicles pass my mom’s tiny Toyota does not bring me a sudden sense of safety, no.

Yet what this above-mentioned question really does is three things.

  • One, it shows how Cold War rhetoric is still alive decades after the first Cold War’s official end.
  • Two, it reminds us of an old trope—and a familiar paradox we have been sold for so long—that militarization brings peace.
  • Three, it points to a logically false dichotomy that is dangerous to any discussion: how questioning A automatically means approving B.

If this Cold War rhetoric remained a fixture of the past, observed by one single person in Lithuania, perhaps it wouldn’t seem so concerning. Yet it is truly frightening to see it being used again in 2021, by the West, this time with China.

It is not an exaggeration that the West, in particular the United States, is escalating a new Cold War, or hybrid war, with China. In fact, it is quite the opposite: to not acknowledge or warn against it would be taking a completely ahistorical position.

“Did I spend years of history at school for nothing? Will the next generation be learning about TWO Cold Wars now? C’mon!”

How the Old Cold War Informs the New Cold War


As an era in itself with different stages, the Cold War allows for various summaries, definitions, and analyses. These depend on the ideological stance of the person describing it, especially when it comes to deconstructing the very rhetoric that was used to both define and justify the war. Three features of the Cold War narrative, constructed primarily by the U.S., give an overview of what will sound painfully familiar today.

First, a need is manufactured to “protect” people from a systemic threat. The U.S. government’s policy to protect people, regardless of what country they happen to be in, from the alleged Communist threat was and remains at the core of its foreign policy. Communism was not presented as just a threat on its own; it is always framed in opposition to “Western values,” a strategy that leaves no room for compromise or even coexistence. If that had been possible, we wouldn’t have seen a debilitating U.S. embargo placed on Cuba in the name of anti-communism.

Second, military actions are presented as a response to this threat. It is the other who is provoking; “our side” are the ones who are protecting. Although one might associate the concept of containment with the earlier stages of the Cold War, the idea remained the same throughout its later years: it is the spread of Communism that the West was responding to. The U.S. would say there was no other agenda, and even if certain policies were presented as preemptive, the object of these preemptive measures is always Communism’s existence and its potential expansion. The established rhetoric is that there are no offensive U.S. military actions; instead, they are all portrayed as being solely defensive in nature.

Third, following this same logic, militarization becomes a prerequisite to ensure peace. Troops are sent to foreign lands to fight for peace (Vietnam); bombs are dropped onto villages to help the country (Cambodia and Laos); murderous right-wing dictatorships are supported to protect the people from the oppression of the Left (Latin America). And, on the other side of the Iron Curtain, a lingering military occupation is what ‘liberation’ looks like (the Baltic States). The narrative that it is military alliances and ongoing militarization that keep us safe is normalized.

A New Enemy, An Old Narrative

Now, it is not difficult to spot the same rhetoric used by the U.S. government to both describe and justify its hybrid war on China.

First, is the U.S. desire to protect Taiwan – a country whose legal status the U.S. has refused to clearly define until this day – from the “lurking threat” of China. The old “we must protect people regardless of where they are” or “World’s Policeman” rhetoric is recycled, only applied to certain regimes and certain people. Women’s rights activists and journalists from Saudi Arabia have never been on that list, nor have the children of Gaza.

China is no Soviet Union, of course: the economic ties alone between the Soviet Union and the U.S. were very different compared to U.S. trade relations with China. But the so-called “threat” of China is still exploitable due to China’s systemic “otherness”: more specifically, its Communist Party. The inflated threat of China arises simply by China’s existence, by its audacity to create an alternative to the system that would prefer to allow only one hegemon. And if we add the “China the polluter” threat (polluter in its production, which supplies 18.6% of consumption goods to the U.S.; the carbon footprint of people’s consumption would show a different picture; the carbon footprint of the U.S. military shows an even more overlooked contribution to global climate breakdown), and a growing economy that can surpass the U.S.’, it is easy to portray it as a threat from which people need to be protected.

Second, the U.S. military claims everything that it is doing near China is defense, not provocation, and that it is China that is engaging in provocation. I invite you to consider the reverse scenario to what the U.S. is claiming, which is, “we can’t let China increase its influence in …. Asia.” Imagine this scenario flipped: China is sending its navy to surround American shores, in the name of preventing the U.S. from strengthening its influence in…North America.

However you view what China is doing in the region, it is difficult to identify China’s activities as purely provocation when we know that the U.S. military might is literally unmatched. More importantly, it is the U.S. that has approximately 750 offshore military bases, including in East and Southeast Asia, which is at least three times more than all other countries combined.

When my mom’s Toyota is overtaken by a military vehicle in Lithuania, we aren’t permitted to question why these vehicles are here in the first place. While military exercises on “the other” side – that is, outside – of the EU and NATO are always called provocations, what happens on the inside are always simply ‘exercises’, enacted for protection – never aggression. And it’s a narrative that is tempting to embrace without deeper reflection! It’s supported by the third pillar we’re also seeing in the new Cold War with China.

That pillar is militarization for the sake of “protecting the peace.” Militarization is never acknowledged as a reason why wars happen; instead, it becomes both the answer to war and even a prerequisite for peace.

The newly formed AUKUS alliance and the narrative surrounding it claims exactly that, that this nuclear and military partnership will help maintain “regional stability” in the Asia-Pacific through countering China. And although there are studies on military alliances, what they point to is rather that member states within the same alliance are less likely to fight each other; the very formation of alliances doesn’t ensure peace between opposing alliances. So if you were concerned about a war breaking out between the U.S., the U.K. and Australia, you can be calm now!

The Not-So-Cold War

One thing that we should not forget—or allow language to obstruct—is that the Cold War was never truly ‘cold’. In many places, the ideas of what is often called an ideological war materialized into something much more tangible and scarring.

There were 2 million (10% of the peninsula’s population) killed in the civil war in Korea; one million Vietnamese dead; tens of thousands murdered, tortured and disappeared by the C.I.A.-backed Operation Condor that successfully installed right-wing military dictatorships throughout South America, just to name a few painful examples.

The result was mass civilian casualties, generational trauma, infrastructure devastation, and decades of healing that is still ongoing. If the “old” Cold War was never cold, why would we expect the new one to be different? And why would we not campaign against it for the survival of our planet and people?

Reject Orientalism, Oxymorons, and False Dichotomies

There is so much to actively reject in the U.S. war-mongering that is unfolding before our eyes, particularly when it comes to the war on China.

First, we must reject Orientalism, the dangerous and specific manifestation of racism directed at Asia. That is, the “us vs. them” narrative, the language of the Righteous West, and the Dangerous Other. “Righteous” is an interesting choice of words recently used by a U.S. general to describe a U.S. drone strike that killed 10 civilians, including 7 children, in Afghanistan. This language, just like the racist narrative it has the power to create, is very much alive and has deadly consequences.

Second, we must reject the oxymoron that equates militarism to peace. You might have heard expressions like “humanitarian war” or even “humanitarian imperialism”. If they seem strange, that’s because they simply do not go together. They might exist in Orwell’s double-speak; let’s not allow for them to take root in English or any other language.

Lastly and perhaps most importantly, we have to reject false dichotomies that, when left unquestioned, can push us up against an imaginary wall. We have to remind ourselves that in rejecting militarism and the U.S.’ hybrid war on China, we can also reject “choosing sides.” We can reject AUKUS without glorifying Chinese domestic and foreign policy. We can criticize NATO without applauding what Vladimir Putin is doing domestically and abroad. We can say NO to endless cold and hot wars without saying who the righteous one is in this story.

In his UN speech on September 21, 2021, Joe Biden used an interesting expression that seemed like yet another concept from double-speak: he said we should move from “relentless war” to “relentless diplomacy.”

If there is one thing we should be doing relentlessly, it is to reject this narrative completely and to instead embrace a rhetoric of peace and coexistence that the world needs so much.

***

“So you think there are no problems with China then?” This is the question you might expect to receive if you challenge U.S militarism in the region.

Now we know that rather than a question that deserves an answer, it is part of a dangerous, fallacious rhetoric that needs deconstructing.


You can find my article and actionable items related to it at CODEPINK.

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