Book Review of Cool War: The Future of Global Competition, by Noah Feldman


Using a breezy, didactic style, Harvard Law Professor Noah Feldman’s new book Cool War: The Future of Global Competition, discusses how China’s rise as a globally significant economic superpower has created an increasingly complex dilemma for the United States from both military and economic perspectives. Consequently, Feldman aptly coins the term “cool war,” to describe a far more complex set of cooperation, competition and tension between two foes locked in an uneasy embrace of economic interdependence.

Feldman notes that the two nations’ interrelationship is novel by historical standards. For example, during the entirety of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were clear military and political rivals, with little or no meaningful economic interactions. In contrast, communist-controlled China is currently the United States’ largest trading partner. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese students study in American universities, and the two nations have become stakeholders in a shared cultural and economic experiment.

Further, China quietly amassed a staggering amount of America’s sovereign debt. Even in the 20th century, Feldman points out that nations never invested significantly in another country’s national debt.

To act as the last remaining global superpower, Feldman correctly points out means having to spend like one. And, after several costly misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. populace is clearly in no mood to spend trillions more on a massive military buildup, especially one that is premised on borrowing from the very nation that you ostensibly seek to defend against, to finance it.

While China has not yet sought to achieve military parity with the U.S., such a strategic goal is not beyond possibility. The end result, Feldman observes, is that a shooting war is not unavoidable, but some form of ongoing conflict clearly is.

He illustrates how Taiwan’s status and independence represents a significant potential flashpoint for both nations, as Taiwan’s current diplomatic posture involves ambiguity that suits both China and American desires. On one hand, chief among Chinese ambitions is to bring Taiwan back within its own orbit. On the other hand, a visible failure to defend Taiwan in the event of a crisis with China would effectively end any semblance of American global hegemony in the Far East. This imaginative moment may actually arrive sooner than anticipated, as many experts have contemplated that the U.S. may have to realistically abandon any hope of continuing to treat Taiwan protectively, in light of larger global realities involving North Korea and other flashpoints.

China’s global ambitions are hidden in plain sight. The populous nation has already invested billions in a conventional military buildup. In practice, China’s outward activities are in line with a government intent on eventually bringing its geostrategic position in line with its economic one.

With respect to China’s weaponry, Feldman astutely notes that such empowerment occurs over decades, not in a few months. And, unlike the U.S., which confers its powers to officials after a publicly visible election in regular cycles of 2 or 4 years, Chinese military plans can be more gradual, and without the need for sudden policy shifts after a contested election.

Further, China needs only to grow its military capacity to the point where it would be large enough to not have to actually use it. China ends up winning a war without ever firing a shot, as America suddenly finds itself disinterested in waging a serious war that it could actually lose.

Feldman also correctly notes that modern acts of “cyberwarfare” are a form of asymmetrical, non-traditional combat that permit the Chinese to exploit non-traditional weaknesses in the American security infrastructure without a realistic threat of military retaliation. Furthermore, covert cyberwar permits intellectual property theft and corporate espionage, where American companies’ trade secrets and other valuable data become compromised and stolen. Feldman predicts that regular, ongoing acts of cyberwarfare arising from within China are likely to continue in this “cool war” phase.

Feldman’s book notably does not explore the prevalence of Chinese counterfeiting as a source of ongoing contention with the United States corporate world. Counterfeit products are widely seen by American corporate interests as a serious covert form of economic espionage that are causing significant harm to business interests. While human rights are most certainly an important source of Chinese criticism from the West, China’s tolerance of intellectual property theft is a sorer spot for thousands of American companies, who routinely lobby for stronger and harsher penalties against such violations of WTO rules.

Feldman also notes that nationalistic sentiment exists on both sides of the coin, with China’s citizens likely to feel pride in China’s ascent to global prominence, and Americans’ frustration with Chinese currency manipulation and a growing trade deficit, equally robust. He notes that economic interdependence does not remove this tendency toward quiet conflict.

Another interesting area that Feldman discusses is the conflict between American and Chinese ideology, such as it is. The core ideology of the Communist Party today represents an odd experimental pragmatism in economics summed up by Deng Xiaoping’s quote: “It doesn’t matter if the cat is white or black; if it catches mice, it’s a good cat.” Even the goal of maintaining the communist party’s apparatus is viewed with such hard-nosed pragmatism, putting China is a very different ideological place than Stalinist Soviet Union in the 1960’s.

China’s ideological pragmatism leads to the result that it will gladly do business with countries such as the United States, as long as the American democracy will respect the way it does things. Therefore, the ideological divide between America and China is far less a moral chasm than the disagreements that separated Kennedy and Khruschev. However, to the extent that Americans perceive China as fundamentally unwilling to compromise on Western values such as human rights and the rule of law, it is difficult to imagine how continuing ideological conflict is not inevitable.

Cool War skirts an interesting issue: Feldman notes that as long as America can preserve the rule of law for itself, it has no absolute need to export it. For example, he notes that Western investors have an interest seeing their investments in China respected, but they would still eagerly invest there if China’s legal establishment were coercion-based (or even overtly corruption-based).

The problem with this observation is that it ignores the reality that in this current state of economic and fiscal interdependence, the American rule of law must be exported elsewhere, under the weight of its own legal system. Take, for example, when an American business executive famously invests in a Chinese-managed factory to make his company’s widgets. His company is bound by, among other things, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, and a wide variety of regulatory, contract and tort-based doctrines, that would be applied in U.S. Courts against him and his company.

Assume that his Chinese-managed factory ends up hiring a few underage workers to make a few substandard widgets, which are later imported and sold to American consumers and his manager pays off a Chinese official to avoid any problems. This situation may be de rigeur in Chinese business, but in America, it can lead to that executive being terminated, sued, even prosecuted. This cultural and legal clash is not academic.

Illustrating this culture clash through diplomatic events, Feldman also discusses the anecdotal example of Wang Lijun, the Chinese police chief who sought asylum from the West after uncovering a murder case involving Bo Xilai and a dead British expat involved in a bribery scandal. The story confirmed several widely-held beliefs: first, that senior Chinese Communist Party officials engage in widespread corruption, and second, that these party officials and their family members act as though they are immune from the rule of law.

The modern twist is that the Chinese party ultimately tried to use this scandal to actually strengthen its own party apparatus, by citing the sordid affair as evidence in the alternative narrative that Chinese corruption will ultimately not stand. Whether any one actually believed the party is another matter entirely.

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