Can the US Win the New Cold War?


Minxin Pei

CLAREMONT, CALIFORNIA – US President Joe Biden has framed America’s confrontation with China and Russia as an open-ended contest between democracy and autocracy. If that is true, an American victory will depend not only on the country’s ability to outcompete its adversaries, but also on its success at safeguarding democracy at home.

Diplomatic Masterstrokes

On the former imperative, the United States is well-positioned to succeed, thanks to a series of diplomatic masterstrokes. For starters, at the recent G7 and NATO summits, Biden cemented a broad alliance spanning Europe and Asia against Russia and China. This follows the quick mobilization of Western governments to support Ukraine and punish Russian President Vladimir Putin for the war he launched there in February.

Biden has also taken advantage of Chinese aggression toward its neighbors to consolidate American alliances in East Asia. The Quad – comprising Australia, India, Japan, and the US – has been deepening its strategic cooperation. In short, the Biden administration has proved its ability to rally America’s democratic allies abroad to stand up to their autocratic adversaries.

At home, however, the pillars of America’s democratic institutions are crumbling. Despite his election defeat in 2020, Donald Trump maintains a viselike grip on the Republican Party. Some 70% of Republican voters still believe Trump’s lie that his loss was due to massive electoral fraud. Unwilling to risk losing support, nearly all congressional Republican leaders either parrot these lies or maintain a cowardly silence.

Meanwhile, Republican leaders are effectively taking a sledgehammer to the pillars of US democracy. In 2021, at least 19 states – all but two of them Republican-controlled – enacted 34 laws to restrict access to voting. And a month before the 2020 election, congressional Republicans pushed through the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, despite having refused even to hold hearings on a Supreme Court nominee during President Barack Obama’s final year as president.

Most alarming development for US democracy

This points to the most alarming recent development for US democracy: the politicization of the US Supreme Court. Now packed with far-right justices, the Court issued a series of radical rulings last month that undermine women’s rights, environmental protection, and public safety, while severely damaging its own standing as an independent institution.

As bad as things are, the crisis of American democracy may be just beginning. The Republican Party seems likely to regain control of Congress in November’s midterm elections. And there is no telling what the 2024 presidential election will bring. One cannot rule out the possibility of Trump returning to the White House – a development that would put US democracy in grave danger.

It is not hard to explain why Biden is winning the cold war abroad, but losing the fight for democracy at home. The US and its allies are still far ahead of their autocratic adversaries in critical areas, not least military and technological capabilities. Moreover, Russia and China consistently engage in the kind of aggression and bullying that drives smaller countries into the arms of the US.

Structural Obstacles

To defend American democracy, however, Biden – and US democrats more broadly – must overcome structural obstacles embedded in the country’s constitution. By design, the US system gives some voters far more influence than others. Most glaringly, while seats in the House of Representatives roughly correspond to a state’s share of the US population, all states get two seats in the Senate. Today, Republicans hold 50% of the Senate’s seats, but represent only 43% of the US population.

Americans in less populous states also have more power over the executive, because the president is elected indirectly, via the Electoral College. Trump in 2016 and George W. Bush in 2000 – both Republicans – won the presidency despite having lost the popular vote. This structural advantage means that Republicans face less pressure to temper their extremism; they can pander to a radical minority, and still wield just as much power as Democrats.

Republicans also benefit from a poisoned media environment in which firms like Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News reap massive profits by promoting lies and conspiracy theories. Here, the structural impediment to change would be relatively easy to address: pillars of the US financial establishment like BlackRock and Vanguard – two of Fox’s biggest investors – need only stop investing in firms that are systematically undermining American democracy. But there is no reason to think that they will.

None of this bodes well for America’s prospects in the new cold war. Yes, there is still a chance that the Democrats can retain enough power to defend American democracy. In this case, the US could continue to build on the positive momentum the Biden administration has generated with its recent foreign-policy maneuvers.

Clash of Global Titans

But if the Republican Party continues its assault on US democracy – a foregone conclusion, if it takes Congress and/or the White House in the coming elections – the US will, at the very least, lose its ideological appeal. It might still manage to rally its democratic allies to challenge China and Russia, but only on the basis of narrow national interests, rather than shared values. What is now an ideological struggle between democracies and autocracies could thus become an all-out clash of global titans.

That is best-case scenario. In the worst case, the consolidation of minority rule and the rise of an illiberal regime in the US could unleash civil unrest, pitting a de facto disenfranchised majority against an increasingly authoritarian minority. It is hard to imagine that a country beset by such turmoil could possibly lead a coalition of democracies on the world stage.

Minxin Pei, Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College, is a non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.

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