October 7, 2021 –
When Samuel Huntington described the “clash of civilizations” in 1993, he was criticized for reinforcing a self-fulfilling prophecy. Today we face a tectonic global clash, but not necessarily of the type Huntington foresaw; clashing are two conflicting visions of the future global order. One, championed by autocratic states like China and Russia, advocates a return to “a 19th-century global order where great powers rule over their own distinct spheres of influence.” The world’s democracies want an order based on the international rule of law, democratic governance, and individual rights. How this clash evolves will be the story of the 21st century.
On October 7, 2021, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) Strategic Multilayer Assessment (SMA) program hosted a speaker session with Prof. Niall Ferguson (Milbank Family Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University & Senior Faculty Fellow, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard), as part of its SMA INSS/PRISM Speaker Series.
There is currently a global competition for political influence between two ideological world orders: the US democratic model and the Chinese authoritarian model. This geopolitical competition is now verging on a second cold war between the US and China, which he refers to as Cold War II. Prof. Ferguson commented that a cold war between the US and China is a favorable outcome for both actors when compared to a conventional, hot war. However, as the US competes geopolitically with China, it must not mirror China’s authoritarian actions. A global authoritarian shift was predicted by British author, George Orwell, who predicted that countries with large nuclear stockpiles would control the international order. He also said the authoritarian shift would occur because these countries could force others to politically comply to avoid a nuclear attack.
Furthermore, cooperation between countries is an illusion; instead, there is only a constant global competition for international influence. In fact, asymmetric interdependence is an antecedent to a state of cold war. The current competition between the US and China is occurring ideologically, economically, geopolitically, and technologically. Prof. Ferguson stated that the US should not avoid entering a second cold because it is well equipped to compete. One way the US has a distinct advantage is in its ability to research artificial intelligence and emerging technologies, which in part is bolstered by the United States graduate and post graduate educational system that attracts more international talent than other countries. The US should be able to revive the Atlantic Alliance, which should strengthen its alliances with its European allies. Also, China’s poor handling of the COVID-19 outbreak combined with its aggressive diplomacy has exposed its authoritarian tendencies and weakened its own political relationships with some countries.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a senior faculty fellow of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard. He is also a visiting professor at Tsinghua University, Beijing.