America’s new era of dangerous coexistence

Since the Obama administration began in 2009, presidents and Congresses have increasingly viewed China as the “pacing” threat and Russia as an adversary. These rivalries have been cast as a “Great Power Competition” (GPC). And with Russia’s unprovoked assault into Ukraine, as well as its continued interference into the domestic politics of Western powers, many believe a Cold War 2.0 has been ignited.

But both paradigms are profoundly flawed, and more accurate terminology is desperately needed. Perhaps “dangerous coexistence” suits the times. That argument follows. But it is important to explain why GPC and 2.0 should be stricken from use.

First, none of the last three administrations has precisely defined what GPC means, where it applies and where it does not. Nor has the argument been made as to why competition as opposed to other interactions is appropriate and how to measure success or failure. What is the end point of a military competition — a war, a stand-off or a permanent arms race? And what restraints are in place to prevent a repeat of the early 20th century GPC from exploding into another world war?

Second, Cold War 2.0 likewise is a misnomer. None of the conditions of the original Cold War are present today. That Cold War paradigm was based on containing and deterring the Soviet Union from expansion and aggression through a ring of military alliances, principally NATO, largely relying on military force. Thermonuclear weapons spawned the double-edged acronym MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) and the specter of global Armageddon, making war unwinable and thus deterrable.

Military power was the Soviet Union’s mainstay. China was weak and far from becoming a major military and economic power. China also was vital to “triangular politics” and gaining leverage in bringing detente between Moscow and Washington.

Today, Russia is both a military and energy superpower. China is an economic and military superpower developing a very capable nuclear as well as conventional arsenal. While history, geography and culture do not make for an ideal partnership, both countries are hostile towards the U.S. And unlike the Cold War, today’s dialogue between the U.S. and China and Russia is virtually non-existent.

Third, the combination of GPC and 2.0 have led the U.S., and to some degree its allies, to emphasize and even exaggerate the importance of military forceThe aims of U.S. defense strategy are to contain, deter and, if war comes, defeat a list of potential adversaries topped by China and Russia. Yet China has not been contained or deterred from militarizing offshore islands; engaging in so-called Wolf Warrior and aggressive diplomacy; threatening Taiwan; continuing its Belt and Road initiative; and attempting to impose its rules of the road on the international system.

The same failures to deter and contain apply to Russia. Ukraine is the most blatant current example. But so was the annexation of South Ossetia from Georgia in 2014. And Russian leaders have threatened to use nuclear weapons.

Thus, to any reasonable observer, GPC and Cold War 2.0 are no longer relevant and are potentially dangerous for the misperceptions that have been created and the absence of an off-ramp to mitigate crises. “Dangerous coexistence” is a more appropriate paradigm to describe the current and likely future international relationships. The concept of coexistence is not new and dates back to Soviet General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev’s preference for “peaceful coexistence” to define the American relationship.

Dangerous coexistence means that, left unchecked, these often divergent interests could provoke unwanted crises and conflictual situations. Conflict is in no one’s interest. Therefore, a common sensical aim must be to resolve or soften these points of collision and friction beforehand, and in the case of Ukraine ensure it survives as a free and independent state.

Dangerous coexistence must also take into account an even more threatening and potentially existential reality — a new MAD, standing for Massive Attacks of Disruption. The New MAD is caused by both man and nature. Failed government and Jan. 6-like riots reflect the former, as do cyberattacks and other forms of disruption. Natural disasters from floods and droughts to fires and pandemics threaten society at large. And so far, no governments are prepared to contain or prevent MAD with a coherent policy, strategy or resources.

The 21st century is profoundly different from the 20th. Applying 20th century ideas to today without rigorous scrutiny and analysis almost certainly will guarantee that past failures will be repeated. And underestimating the power of MAD, likewise, will consign not only future generations but those of us alive today to a far more hostile and dangerous world.

Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and the prime author of “shock and awe.” His latest  book is “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large.” Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.