U.S. vs. China: A battle of ideas, not militaries

The real superweapon in Cold War 2 will be public image

The Soviet Union didn’t lose Cold War 1 on the battlefield. A good thing, too — both sides had such formidable nuclear forces that no one would have emerged as the victor had the two superpowers come to blows. Nor did it lose because an arms race with the U.S. forced the USSR to spend itself into oblivion. As Jose Ricón shows in this blog post, the Soviet military buildup during the 1980s was far more modest than what it had endured during WW2 (and on the U.S. side was barely detectable):

The USSR lost Cold War 1 for two reasons. The first was economic weakness; as Yegor Gaidar details in his book Collapse of an Empire, the Soviet Union became more and more of a sclerotic petrostate over the years, and couldn’t withstand the mid-80s drop in oil prices.

But the second reason was that the Soviet model of life was just not that attractive to people. Some of this was because of relative income levels, and some was about the specific economic hardships created by the Soviet system (long lines, lack of consumer imports). But some was also about culture — the perception that the Free World was, well, free, while the Eastern Bloc was socially repressive. People didn’t swarm over the Berlin Wall because they were destitute; they wanted the kind of lifestyle that West Germans enjoyed. “Blue jeans and rock & roll” became key symbols of this freedom — not because Soviets were unable to get their hands on these things, but because they seemed symbolic of an imagined West in which people were free to express themselves. Ultimately, that yearning for freedom contrasted with the obviously not-so-great conditions in the Eastern Bloc, and caused people in East Europe and Russia to become dissatisfied with the systems they were living under.

A victory in Cold War 2 — the emerging conflict with China — would almost certainly look much the same. Yes, both sides are beefing up their armaments, including (at least in China’s case) their nuclear armaments. Both sides are scurrying to cultivate allies. The possibility of a hot war is real and scary, and I expect the U.S. Military and its allies to meet that challenge and match whatever China puts in the field. But it’s a good bet that like the U.S. and the USSR last century, the U.S. and China will not be foolish enough to risk a conflict that would likely destroy both nations. And so the military situation will probably (and hopefully) remain a stalemate, with the opposing blocs eyeing each other warily for decades. This state of affairs will continue until either relations between the countries improve, or until one country suffers internal weakness too severe to allow it to continue the struggle.

In this kind of a conflict, public image will be the key. True, Cold War 2 looks likely to be less ideological than Cold War 1, because the Soviet Union was more interested than China in trying to export universalist principles. But the basic idea will be the same. If people in China think the U.S. offers a better model, they’ll be dissatisfied with the kind of system Xi Jinping is trying to force them into. If people in other countries are turned off by the kind of system they see developing in China, they’ll be more wary of being China’s ally, and so on.

But that process could easily run in the other direction. If people see America as a chaotic, ineffectual, terminally divided, deeply unequal, unfair society, they’re not going to see the U.S. as a model or trust it as an ally. And currently, the U.S. isn’t doing amazingly well in this regard.

So here are some areas I think the U.S. needs to focus on in order to win the Battle of Ideas with China over the next 20-40 years.

Liberty and justice

This is one area where China’s leaders are making an unforced error, and handing America a freebie. Before Xi Jinping’s “profound transformation”, it was fairly easy to hand-wave away China’s restrictions on personal expression and autonomy. So you couldn’t talk about Tiananmen Square…so what? China supporters consistently told us that life in China basically wasn’t that different from life in America.

Xi’s recent moves have clearly put the lie to that idea. Young people love online video games; now Chinese kids are officially restricted from playing online games more than three hours a week. Young people love pop stars and fandoms; now China is clamping down on those as well. Young people love breaking traditional gender roles; now China is enforcing traditional gender roles in popular culture, in a crackdown that smacks distinctly of homophobia:

[E]ffeminate men are now in the eye of Xi’s gathering storm…In July, Tencent Holdings Ltd. deleted dozens of LGBTQ accounts run by university students from its WeChat social media platform. Comments in favor of the shutdowns were allowed to be posted without hindrance, a sign that Beijing is willing to allow homophobic discourse to continue…

In her 2015 book “Tongzhi Living,” author and scholar Zheng Tiantian writes that a crisis of manhood is linked to a crisis of the nation-state. And in fact, that’s exactly the thesis China’s education ministry was referencing when it outlined strategies to overcome this perceived problem back in December. According to the Global Times, the ministry was responding to a proposal…that sought to “prevent the feminization of male adolescents.”

Video games, pop stars, and gay pride can be the blue jeans and rock & roll of Cold War 2 — symbols of Americans’ freedom to be themselves and express themselves without an oppressive government breathing down their necks. A few Americans will support China’s moves, imagining (as Xi clearly imagines) that they are the gateway to an imagined past of purity and heroism, and fairly obviously wishing that America could do something similar:

But overall, the people of the modern world will neither appreciate nor relish being shoved into some 20th-century conservative dream of ascetic martial manliness.

But China’s blunders don’t equal an automatic win for the United States here. The U.S.’ reputation for personal liberty is not a given. This wasn’t true in Cold War 1 either — the USSR constantly attacked the U.S. over our human rights abuses, especially racial inequality. This probably helped push the U.S. to take greater action against the racial injustices that were then written into our laws and corporate policies. We won Cold War 1 in part because we were willing to make ourselves a freer, more just nation.

But that work is hardly complete, especially when it comes to policing in America. For example, the cops in the U.S. can often pull you over and take your stuff and sell it, under the euphemistic name of “civil asset forfeiture” — literal highway robbery by the government. Police still operate with lawless impunity in many areas, despite a few high-profile successes in bringing a few offenders to justice. The Border Patrol often acts as a particularly unaccountable police force throughout much of the country.

America has made great strides in many areas of liberty in recent years — legalizing marijuana in most places, establishing rights for LGBT people, and so on. And we’re still a far more free country than China. But unless we figure out how to bring restraint and accountability to the people tasked with enforcing our laws, China’s supporters will be able to paint us as a police state. We shouldn’t abolish or defund the police, but we should make big changes to make the cops more accountable throughout the nation. We already did something like this with the FBI and the CIA in response to accountability scandals at those agencies; doing it for local police will be harder, given fragmented local control, but it must be done.

And of course, we have to crush the hell out of waves of racist violence, like the recent wave of attacks against Asian Americans.

Equality and security

In Cold War 1, the U.S. clearly outclassed the USSR in terms of the material standard of living its people enjoyed. When Nikita Khruschev visited a U.S. supermarket in 1959, he was very impressed. Today, the U.S. enjoys an equally substantial advantage in living standards (China’s per capita GDP at PPP is less than 1/3 that of America’s, and the countries have similar levels of inequality).

But the world is in general a much richer place than it was in the 1950s — the fact that Chinese people are less than 1/3 as rich as Americans doesn’t mean they’re going to miss their next meal. The world is so much richer now that differences in living standards manifest themselves in things like big houses, frequent vacations, meals at nice restaurants, dog walkers, etc. Those things are all great to have, but possibly not the kind of things you’d overthrow your government if you didn’t have.

Meanwhile, there are other qualities of an economy besides average standard of living — security, opportunity, and equality. In all three of these areas, the U.S. needs to offer something better than what we currently offer.

In terms of security, the “Great Risk Shift” has made modern economic life a terror for many Americans who would otherwise be comfortably middle-class. Our creaky health insurance system often leaves people with giant surprise medical bills — something the government is finally trying to crack down on, but which will always be there to some extent until we fix the system itself. Meanwhile, millions of Americans are evicted from their homes every year. And corporate loyalty is a thing of the past, with companies laying off workers at will.

The U.S. needs to fight this precarity if we’re going to be able to say that life in the U.S. is better than life in China. Unconditional cash benefits are are a great way of doing this, since they give people a cushion that will be there to pay surprise costs no matter what. Cracking down on abuses in the health care industry is also good, though a system of national health insurance similar to that used by Japan and South Korea would be even more effective. And a Danish-style flexicurity system would help workers get back to earning a paycheck ASAP if they got laid off — preserving economic flexibility and dynamism while taking risk off of workers’ hands.

In terms of opportunity, by now everyone has seen Raj Chetty’s famous data showing that Americans now have only a 50% chance of earning more than their parents:

This chart overstates things a bit; when you include increased government benefits and compare similar households over time, it turns out that the number is more like 3/5 or 2/3 of Americans doing better than their parents.

But that’s still…not amazing. This is an area in which China has a head start on America; since they still haven’t caught up with rich-world living standards, it’s pretty easy for them to give every new generation a better life than their parents. The U.S., as a developed country, simply has to work harder. Partly, this involves boosting economic growth, of course. And partly it involves giving the working class a leg up, by pouring more resources into lower-ranked state universities and community colleges, as well as supporting vocational education and apprenticeships like in Germany. But part of it is simply shrinking inequality.

The U.S. is among the most unequal nations in the developed world. China, of course, is similarly unequal, but that’s no excuse for us to sit on our hands. China’s leaders are currently making a big show about the need to reduce inequality, but it’s mostly smoke and mirrors — soaking a few rich people (who also happened to represent independent centers of power that the leadership wanted to crush), while at the same time making it clear that they’re against a social-democratic welfare state:

Instead of falling into the trap of this 1980s-style conservative thinking, the U.S. should realize that some forms of government assistance actually improve poor people’s job trajectories and productivity — for example, unconditional cash benefits, which give people the flexibility and breathing room to think about the long term.

In other words, China’s leaders might put on a good show when it comes to throwing billionaires in jail, but under the surface they’re just as mired in outdated scorn for the lower classes as any American politician. This gives us a chance to steal a march on China by using social-democratic style programs to take advantage of the talents and abilities of our own working class.


But to show that the U.S. system is better than China’s requires more than just showing that America is a nicer place to live. It also requires showing that U.S. institutions can get things done. And here we really have our work cut out for us. China has become known as a country where skyscrapers go up in a couple of weeks, where America takes a decade and $300 million to build a bike path. China is known as a nation whose strict lockdown and distancing measures crushed Covid, while Americans fought over masks, resisted lockdowns, delayed the approval of tests, and refused vaccines until 0.5% percent of our population (and counting) perished from the plague. China’s fastest train does 430 km/h, while America’s reaches only 240 km/h.

This gap in institutional competence is dismaying. It plays directly into the hands of people who want to resurrect the age-old argument that dictatorship gets things done while democracy dithers. That myth was put to bed in the 20th century when the democratic powers crushed their fascist rivals in WW2 and outshone communist competitors in the Cold War. But it will never truly go away, and now thanks to America complacency the idea has returned.

Of course, the situation isn’t quite as bad as my initial paragraph claimed. America did much better in terms of developing effective vaccines and distributing them quickly right out of the gate; China’s vaccines were subpar and its initial distribution was slow. China’s “Belt and Road” megaproject was also not very well-executed, building a lot of uneconomical infrastructure and angering a lot of countries who were saddled with the resulting debt. And it remains to be seen how well China will handle its own real-estate bubble. The CCP is not the smooth model of authoritarian hyper-competence that its defenders and spokespeople like to paint it as.

But nonetheless, America has allowed itself to be the land of complacency and high costs. Our failure to build enough housing for our people is reaching crisis proportions, and feeding into every other national weakness. Our medical care costs double what other countries pay, while delivering no better results. Our highways costs double what other countries pay, even though cars are our primary mode of transportation. Our trains cost several times what other countries pay. And so on. Even our realtors charge higher commissions than in other countries, for the same service.

China may have a communist flag, but America has created a system based on spreading the wealth around — not to the poor, but to the rich and the well-connected — via inefficient industries like health care, construction, and finance. This kludgeocracy has largely substituted for real redistribution, but at the cost of societal efficiency. And don’t even get me started on the crisis performance of government bureaucracies like the CDC, FDA, and financial regulators.

Doing this will require a country-wide change in mindset. No longer can we think of the U.S. as “the richest and most powerful country in the world”, which often just seems like code for “a fattened-up piece of livestock to be slaughtered up and divided first-come first-serve”. The financial crisis, the Great Recession, Covid and climate change should already have given us a burning sense of urgency and forced us to accept that our systems are going to have to change in order to become more efficient and effective. There has been some progress in that direction, but not nearly enough.

Perhaps Cold War 2 will provide the needed impetus. Unlike a financial crisis or a pandemic, an international competition will not simply pass away. During Cold War 1 we didn’t just sit there and let the Soviet Union collapse under the weight of its contradictions, nor did we rely purely on the strength of our bristling weaponry — we invested in infrastructure and education and research, we built a more equal society, we corrected many of our own injustices, and — eventually — we practiced the values of liberty that we preached to the rest of the world.

If we hadn’t done this — if we had remained the society that we were in 1945 instead of becoming the society we became by 1991 — are you so sure it would have been the Eastern Bloc that eventually lost the war of ideas and the confidence of its own people? I’m not.

If the U.S. is going to come out on top this time, our decisive weapon won’t be nuclear missiles or autonomous drones — it will be the attractiveness of our own society. And that is a weapon we have only just begun to think about how to construct. Time is growing short.