The post-Cold War era is over. Is the Cold War back? That is a central question that animates much strategic thinking today in key Western capitals.

As Robert Gates, a former U.S. secretary of defense and CIA director, once said, “one Cold War was quite enough.” The rebuke was aimed, back in 2007, at none other than Vladimir Putin. Obviously, it didn’t stick. But can a global world divided between democracies and authoritarian populist regimes – nuclear-armed and with diminishing respect for the rules-based international order – truly avoid a descent back into the politics of across-spectrum confrontation.

The desire to avoid a return to the Cold War is evident in some Western policies. The brake on such a return will be finding targeted areas of co-operation on key transnational issues such as climate change and economic stability. But the prospects of true co-operation with authoritarian systems are doubtful. If no such mutual co-operation emerges, the world will be plunged back into a Cold War scenario of divided power blocs and persistent global antagonism.

Just in case there is any lingering nostalgia for a return to Cold War-style policies, remember that the geopolitical landscape has changed with the rise of China; with democratic regimes in decline globally and challenged at their heart; and with new technological tools available to states to engage in grey-zone or hybrid warfare, including targeting the minds of democratic societies and interfering in economic and political security.

New statements from both the U.S. administration and Canada’s deputy prime minister wrestle with these issues and propose similar policies, whose alignment cannot be an accident.

On Oct. 12, the Biden administration released its long-delayed national security strategy. This is a congressionally mandated requirement for any presidency and one that successive White House leaders have used to put a strong individual stamp on United States policy in the face of threats at home and abroad. President Biden’s signature policy may be the most consequential update since George W. Bush’s 2002 reshaping of U.S. global policy after the 9/11 attacks.

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The Biden national security strategy highlights two critical trends. It recognizes, but distinguishes between, the threats posed by China and Russia. It also juggles the realities of global competition and confrontation against the need for forms of global co-operation in the face of shared transnational challenges – above all, those posed by climate change.

On China (the “PRC”), the Biden strategy is blunt, yet makes efforts to avoid being provocative or setting the stage for a Cold War-style rematch with Beijing as its main opponent this time. China is defined as “the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to advance that objective.” Yet the strategy also emphasizes the possibility of “peaceful co-existence” with the PRC through a three-pronged approach – domestic investment in U.S. capacity; working with allies and like-minded partners; and competing “responsibly.”

The document strikes a different note on Russia, citing it as a menace to regional security in Europe but lacking the “across the spectrum capabilities” of China to be a true global disrupter. There is a subtle note about regime change in Russia, never named as such but captured by the following statement, “it is the Russian people who will determine Russia’s future as a major power capable of once more playing a constructive role in international affairs…The United States will welcome such a future.” The hoped-for future is a Russia without Putin.

But still there is some fudge and a reluctance to fully recognize that Russia is now a full-fledged rogue state. Reluctance to completely give up on the ideas of some co-operative engagement with Russia is expressed in terms of “pragmatic modes of interaction.”

As the United States pursues its new strategy, key tests will include how far it can deepen and strengthen a democratic coalition of states; how U.S. democratic leadership will be perceived globally; and ultimately whether the United States itself can heal its own democratic fissures. Successful competition with autocratic states will be determined by these factors.

Clearly, the U.S. strategy is pinning its hopes of maintaining co-operation in the global sphere in terms of shared transnational challenges on its ability to maintain a working relationship with its main challenger, China. That will be the national security strategy’s biggest test. The good news is that, at least with regard to China, there is no desire for a Cold War-style faceoff. The bad news is that U.S. strategy is dependent on China being willing to pursue a congruent strategic, with its own form of “responsible” competition.

One day prior to the release of the U.S. national security strategy, Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s deputy prime minister and finance minister, travelled to Washington and delivered her own prescription for a new global strategy. Her speech to the Brookings Institute generated lots of Canadian media attention, with some penetrating questions about the extent to which Canadian rhetoric on global security measures is likely to be met by action.

Freeland spent more time in her speech looking back on what has been lost – a three-decade-long conviction about progress towards democracy, globalized economies and peace. All of which has now been brought to a “brutal end.” Her speech pressed, as does the U.S. national security strategy, for a new approach to co-existence, one shorn of naïveté. Freeland advanced three pillars to achieve a new era of co-existence.

The first involves tightened co-operation between democratic partners, including with regard to economic co-operation (“friendshoring,” as a partial remedy to “offshoring”) – a theme that remains largely submerged in the U.S. national security strategy with its greater emphasis on restoring the strength of the U.S. economy.

A second pillar is more ambiguous, raising the question of the extent to which co-operation among democracies can be extended through efforts at trade and other relations to what Freeland calls “in-between countries” – those that might not be full democracies, might not embrace democratic norms, and might look askance at a Western-dominated global system. We have seen this at play in abstentions at the United Nations on motions censuring Russia for its war against Ukraine.

The third pillar of the deputy prime minister nostrums for global security involves the democratic West’s relationship with “the world’s autocrats.” Here, Freeland says there must be a sharp break with the past. However, what this involves in practice may be less “sharp.” Reduced economic and supply chain vulnerabilities will be one feature. Like the U.S. national security strategy, Freeland recognizes the imperatives of “working with Beijing,” even if her approach lacks the vector of “responsible competition” and fails to define what “working with Beijing” might look like.

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She goes further than the U.S. strategy in arguing for the possibility of working with authoritarian regimes to “preserve the global commons,” including co-operation on issues such as climate change, arms security, pandemic preparedness and the stability of the international financial system. While Russia under Putin’s leadership is identified as a pariah, the Freeland doctrine stops short of any hint of the need for regime change or indeed any real suggestion that the pariah must be fully treated as such.

If the Freeland doctrine becomes the foundation of future Canadian policy, it will have much in common with the U.S. approach under President Biden, and that will benefit Canada. But the Canadian outlook, for all its talk of friendshoring economic ties, deepening links between democracies, and achieving a complete break with the post-Cold War past continues to demonstrate a lingering fondness for a bygone era, with aspirations for a “global commons.”

There is a touch of that in the U.S. strategy as well, but the U.S. call for an effort to “compete responsibly,” especially with China, sounds more attuned to the times. “Compete responsibly” is set to become the new containment strategy, with its lingering echo of the Cold War. “Containment” posited long-term change in communist regimes – which came to pass. “Compete responsibly” depends on the unknowns of future responses, above all by China.

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Wesley Wark
Wesley Wark is a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and a fellow at the Balsillie School of International Affairs. He is an expert on national security and intelligence issues.

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