A Tale of Two Cold Wars

It’s hard to pick up a foreign policy journal or even turn on the TV without encountering someone predicting, recommending, or lamenting a “new Cold War” with Russia, China, or both.

This is entirely understandable and even justifiable, if you mean a new period of strategic competition, pressure and geopolitical tension that falls short of all-out war. Such a lower-case “cold war” is already on display.

The U.S. and our allies are doing nearly everything short of declaring a “hot war” on Russia for its immoral aggression against Ukraine. Things are not so tense with China, but there’s a broad consensus, particularly among Republicans, that “containing” China—to use a Cold War term—should become central to American foreign policy. And even many who disagree believe we are entering a new “Cold War” with China whether we want one or not. After all, sometimes wars, cold or hot, are not wars of choice.

I agree that new cold wars with Russia and China are simultaneously necessary and not necessarily desirable. But I worry that the semantic confusion of the historic Cold War and this new cold war could get us into trouble. George Orwell observed in “Politics and the English Language” that “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better.”

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