Press "Enter" to skip to content

Denying Cold War II, fearing World War III 

Western leaders are deeply reluctant to acknowledge the obvious: we are already enmeshed in a new Cold War. More precisely, the authoritarian regimes in Russia, China, North Korea and Iran, along with their proxies and dependent partners, are waging Cold War II against the West. 

They have been doing so as individual states or groups against America and its allies for years, if not decades, but in recent years, the autocratic regimes have become more open about coordinating their efforts to undermine what they see as their common enemy: the U.S.-led rules-based international order. 

Just weeks before Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine for the second time in six years, he met with Xi Jinping in Beijing. They announced a Russia-China “no-limits strategic partnership” and endorsed each other’s claims on Ukraine and Taiwan, respectively. Since then, China has done all it can to support Russia’s war economy and its military-industrial base, buying unprecedented volumes of Russian oil, transferring critical dual-use technology, and supporting Russia diplomatically in international forums. At some point, Xi will call in his mutual-support chit with Putin when he makes a move against Taiwan. 

Iran and North Korea have also stepped up their weapons and technological exchanges with Russia, directly enhancing its ability to wreak death and destruction on Ukraine. Iran’s proxy, Hamas, gave Putin a birthday gift on Oct. 7 with its brutal attack on Israel, distracting Western governments and further confusing and delaying for months congressional action on funding to support Ukraine. 

While denying that a new Cold War is already upon us, Western governments are fearful that if confrontation with aggressive adversaries continues to expand, a shooting war could be triggered by miscalculation, accident or design.  

President Biden repeatedly worries that merely providing Ukraine with the weapons and support it urgently needs to defeat Russian aggression would be “World War III.” He pursues a stalemate strategy designed to hold the line against further loss of Ukrainian territory but not to eject Russia from the 20 percent of its neighbor’s land that it already occupies.  

Former President Trump is more overt about siding with Russia’s revanchism, saying he would “end the Ukraine war in 24 hours,” suggesting a total cut-off of American and Western aid to force Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to cede control of parts of his country to Russia.  

Either approach is an example for other aggressive powers to seize territorial gains from their neighbors in the expectation that they will not have to surrender them in post-conflict negotiations. Either invites the kind of “salami tactics” Nazi Germany successfully followed leading up to World War II. Emulating Adolph Hitler, Putin claimed or conjured linguistic or cultural ties and invaded parts of Georgia in 2008, Crimea and Eastern Ukraine in 2014, and additional Ukrainian territory in 2022 — with more likely to come. 

Biden’s slow-walking or total denial of many of the weapons systems Ukraine needs to defeat Russia derives from his fear that Putin will escalate his aggression either by using nuclear weapons in Ukraine or by attacking another Western nation, perhaps Poland or a Baltic country, and dragging the United States into a wider conflict. 

Similarly, in the Middle East, Biden’s claim that “America has Israel’s back” may sometimes sounds like America is holding Israel back. That was certainly the case after Iran’s massive missile and drone attack directly into Israel that could have killed hundreds if not thousands of Israelis and foreigners and destroyed strategic infrastructure and historic sites.  

Israel’s superb aerial defense systems and critical American, allied and Arab support destroyed over 90 percent of Iran’s incoming munitions. The Biden administration called on Israel to “take the win” and refrain from retaliating to avoid a further rung up the escalation ladder. Israel yielded to the pressure and conducted only a surgical, signaling strike at an Iranian military facility not far from one of its nuclear installations. But the threat from Iran and its proxies remains. Unless the mullahs in Teheran miraculously grow glands of peaceful tolerance, Washington and the West must join forces to support the Iranian people’s wishes to change the fanatical clerical regime and return to a normal relationship with the rest of the world. 

Similarly, if the West is to avoid the kind of conflagration it suffered in World War II — this time infinitely worse, with nuclear weapons — it must return to the Cold War enterprise of seeking peaceful regime change in enemy governments. That means relying chiefly on information warfare to reach the hearts and minds of oppressed populations that seek moral and political support for their liberation from tyranny.  

As history has shown repeatedly, regimes that oppress their populations soon enough threaten their neighbors and become the world’s problems as well. A vigorously waged Cold War is far preferable to the shooting kind, but when kinetic action is the only alternative, it must be conducted with victory, not stalemate, as the objective. 

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute. Follow him on X @BoscoJosephA.  

We use cookies to ensure that we provide you with the best experience. If you continue using our website, we will assume that you are happy about that.
Optimized by Optimole