THE BLOG
04/02/2007 07:55 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

New Cold War for U.S. with China or Russia Not on Horizon

Too many U.S. foreign policy analysts, both in government and the media, still scan the horizon in search of America's next Cold War rival. They refuse to recognize that the forces that now generate change in the international order are fundamentally different than they were before 1990. Even China and Russia, the two prime suspects as potential counterweights to America's global influence, represent fundamentally new sorts of challenges for U.S. policymakers.

As China extends its international commercial influence to grow its economy, it increasingly shares with the United States a common interest in global stability. Competition between the two countries is not a replay of the zero-sum U.S.-Soviet battle for global influence. Each state needs the other to continue to grow and prosper for the security of its own interests.

China's strategy of locking up long-term access to the commodities that fuel its economic growth has transformed its foreign policy. Over the past decade, consensus has developed within the leadership that only economic growth and wealth generation can ensure China's longer-term domestic stability and allow the Chinese elite to escape the fate that befell the Soviet and Warsaw Pact Communist Parties.

Until recently, Beijing asserted itself on the international stage only to protect its interests in East Asia. Taiwan, the stability of the Korean peninsula and relations with rival Japan were the only issues immediate enough to draw China into the tangle of international politics. But as Chinese companies develop new commercial relationships in the former Soviet space, Africa, Latin America and the United States, the Chinese government knows it can no longer afford its traditional isolationism.

As a result, its economy is now much more vulnerable to transnational political and economic risks. Unlike the Soviet Union, China finds advantage not in some global battle with America for political and ideological dominance but in building a 21st century economic powerhouse. International instability is bad for business. In other words, China is fast becoming a status quo power.

Despite American queasiness over Chinese ownership of ever larger sums of U.S. debt, a sharp downturn in the U.S. would badly damage China's economy and could produce precisely the high levels of social unrest the Chinese leadership hopes to outgrow. A serious downturn in China, in turn, would badly damage the growing number of U.S. companies that have staked much of their long-term futures on access to Chinese markets.

Fears that "when one side sneezes, the other catches cold" gained new currency on Feb. 27 when a 9 percent sell-off in Shanghai appeared to help sink the Dow Jones Industrial average by 416 points. That interpretation of cause and effect was probably based more on fear than reality. But fear moves markets, and the perception is that market players in the two countries are watching one another more closely than ever.

This is not your father's mutually assured destruction. This is mutually assured economic destruction.

In fact, the greatest common threat facing the U.S. and Chinese governments comes from the risk of large-scale domestic unrest in China. Globalization -- the various processes by which ideas, information, goods and services cross international borders at unprecedented speed -- ensures that this threat will only grow. That's because the various wealth gaps, economic volatility and environmental damage that growth increasingly generates in China will force its authoritarian government to spend more and more time, energy and money maintaining monopoly control of China's politics and keeping a lid on domestic dissent.

In addition, the communications technology that globalization now provides for hundreds of millions of Chinese consumers enables them to better coordinate their expressions of protest. The Communist Party leadership has developed state-of-the-art means of restricting use of the Internet. But the 50,000 security troops now devoted exclusively to monitoring online traffic will find it increasingly difficult to manage the flow of ideas and information as an estimated (as of 2005) 100,000 Chinese log on for the first time every 24 hours.

In sum, U.S. officials are likely in coming years to find themselves coping not with China's international strength but with its domestic vulnerabilities. The Soviet Union never faced threats quite like these, and Soviet domestic troubles did not have damaging cascading effects on the U.S. economy.

Globalization is highly unlikely to have the same destabilizing effect on Russia, a state that sells enough oil and gas to fill state coffers, to resist the need for massive inflows of foreign investment, and to quell any near-term demand for political change. But the challenges Vladimir Putin's Kremlin now poses for U.S. policymakers will not evolve toward some new Cold War conflict, either.

True, Washington can't afford to ignore Moscow's ability to thwart U.S. foreign policy. Russia inherited the Soviet seat at a number of international tables. The Kremlin can continue, for example, to obstruct the Bush administration's ability to use the U.N. Security Council to force Iran to renounce its nuclear ambitions.

This sort of obstruction is likely to develop over other issues, as well. Relations between the two countries have reached their lowest level since the Soviet Union dissolved. U.S. officials have accused Putin's government of imposing a new authoritarianism in the country and of using its energy resources as weapons of coercive diplomacy. Russian officials accuse the Bush administration of fomenting unrest in several former Soviet states and of conducting an arrogant and destabilizing foreign policy.

But Russia's current political and economic strength continues to grow only because it no longer subsidizes the Soviet Union's unsustainable empire and is not burdened with the communist ideology that gave the Soviet-era Kremlin its global influence. Russia's clout is growing within former Soviet territory -- and even in Europe, where dependence on Russia's natural gas supplies has European governments scrambling to diversify energy sources. But it will be a long time before Russia carries Soviet-style weight in Asia, Africa or Latin America.

The transformations of China and Russia represent the two most important geopolitical changes in the post-Cold War world. But the roles they now play and the challenges they pose are entirely new. No sense in fighting the last war when the new international order poses new risks and opportunities of its own.

(Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy. He is the author of the recently published book "The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall." He can be reached via e-mail at research@eurasiagroup.net.)