History’s trajectory

Glyn Ford on the threat of Cold War Mk II

The US won the Cold War in the West, but not the East. Military Keynesianism drove economic growth in America and the collapse of the Soviet Empire in Eurasia. The Soviet Union was pushed into an arms race that, while underpinning the US economy, sucked the life out of the Soviet civilian sector, driving the population to drink, despair and indifference. This hollowing ultimately proved fatal as its colonies dropped like autumn leaves with the first breath of winter. Washington’s win in the West blinded it to the sleeping giant in the East.

Powers grow from the bottom up. Industry is the foundation for economic and financial strength that begets political domination and military hegemony as they seamlessly flow one after the other. They rot the same way, collapsing like dominoes to order. China is not the stumbling and stunted economic cripple US policy created in the Soviet Union. Now, two generations on, Beijing’s economy threatens American global hegemony.

The last transition between ‘Great Powers’ passed off peacefully as the British Empire died and American imperialism grew of age. Britain stepped down to subaltern from sovereign. But this was court churning within the Anglo-Saxon clan. The next passage is between civilisations. Here, racism and xenophobia will colour the presaged future ‘yellow’. Anyone with doubts should read Matt Pottinger, Trump’s deputy national security adviser, in Foreign Affairs.

China was seen casting its shadow over the US economy under Obama with his consequent ‘pivot to Asia’ – in fact, a full spectrum redeployment of US economic, political and military assets to coerce, confront and confound Beijing. Under Trump, Pottinger and others persuaded the president to step on the gas and accelerate the process. Pacific Command became Indo-Pacific Command and the ‘Quad’, a new alliance with an armed-wing of US, India, Japan and Australia, became the waiting-to-be-born NATO in Asia. Trump unilaterally renamed and repurposed the G7 as the Democratic 10 (the ‘D10’), adding, with a distinct echo, India, Australia and South Korea (Japan was already a member).

US politics at home has descended into internecine political warfare as the bridges between Republicans and Democrats have been dismantled or burnt, with the first wallowing in racism and the second impotence. Former President Donald Trump looks more likely to be beaten by biology than Biden in his attempt to be the first president since Grover Cleveland in 1892 to win a non-consecutive second term. Yet, in battling Beijing the two march in lock-step. Biden has systematically repudiated – sometimes foolishly – Trump on everything. China is the sole exception. Here, the Trump game plan, designed by Pottinger, remains fully in play.

The Quad is en route to Quad+. South Korea is being pressed to join, while subsidising the US military-industrial complex with a first aircraft carrier and a record 10% increase in its defence budget. All this forces forward Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programmes – outspent as they are by a factor of sixty by the combined military spending of Washington, Tokyo and Seoul. If Yoon Seok-youl, the conservative candidate, wins South Korea’s presidential election in March it’s close to a done deal. Today he’s ahead in the polls.

Biden’s second front was December’s 100+ Summit for Democracy that alienated as many as it pleased: Philippines not Hungary, Iraq not Thailand. But we know what the US wants to do and, at the second time of asking, ‘our bastards, not theirs’ may find a better conjunction.

Where’s Europe and the UK? Brussels is under relentless pressure from Washington, aided and abetted by the European Parliament, to change its terms of trade with China, to continue to subvert its ‘One China’ policy and sanction China – for its undoubted human rights abuses – that go unremarked amongst the US’s subordinate dictatorships in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.

In the UK there has been a creeping Tory collaboration. This collusion has gone un-noticed, or at least unremarked, by Labour. In November 2016, ‘Operation Invincible’ saw a squadron of RAF Typhoons form part of a US and South Korean ‘decapitation’ exercise on the peninsula; this was followed by US, UK and Japanese Special Forces in ‘Operation Vambrace Warrior’, launching a seaboard raid to ‘capture’ the moribund Trawsfynydd nuclear power station that just coincidentally has the same design as North Korea’s Yongbyon plant. Where Theresa May walked, Boris Johnson rushes. The UK’s new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth’s maiden deployment saw a traverse of the disputed South China Sea and sequential joint exercises with India, the US and South Korea, and Japan.

While Johnson leaps with joy, Brussels steps with caution. They have seen where blindly following Washington can lead, whether it’s the killing zones of Iraq or the flit from Afghanistan. The EU needs to look to its own interests. True, they are closer to Washington than Beijing, but they are far from being at one. To do that, though, Brussels needs to look to its own capacity. The EU is the world’s number two military spender. It just spends it badly. The EU ‘foreign minister’, Josep Borrell, is right that the EU needs its own defence capacity. For the US, every problem is a nail and it brings its military hammer. To make the mistake of equating Beijing today with Moscow in the eighties is to misread both China’s economic strength and political will. A re-run of tragedy as farce beckons. Back in Britain, Labour needs to take on Boris and challenge our being press-ganged into Cold War 2.


  1. Or how to say nothing of importance about what Russian policy towards not just Ukraine but its other European neighbours.

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