How do cold wars begin?

The question is becoming more than academic as the Bush administration gropes its way toward a policy on China. Some voices within the administration advocate a Clintonian policy of economic engagement; others counsel a harder line, which could lead to a new cold war.

Looking back at the origins of previous cold wars, it is clear that the advantages the hawks hope to gain are outweighed by the risks they are taking.

In the years immediately following World War II, the Truman administration slipped gradually into confrontation with the Soviet Union. Disputes over reparations, Berlin and the like called for difficult decisions. No single dispute was big enough, in itself, to cast the die for or against prolonged cold war. But each one required Truman to choose between a more and a less compromising stance. The president followed no grand design. He just followed his political instincts. Most of the time, that meant rejecting compromise.

As an untested leader in an unsettled postwar world, Truman was not about to take chances. An unelected Democratic president confronting a Republican Congress by 1947, he could not risk appearing indecisive. Political wisdom dictated a tough stance. So step by step, Truman led the nation into cold war.

Of course Truman had little to gain economically by compromising with the Soviets, and that makes today’s situation with China quite different. But if the anti-China mood builds in this country, President Bush may find the political pressures for confrontation with China outweighing the economic pressures for conciliation. Like Truman, he may follow no overall game plan, but slip step by step into a situation whose outcome no one can predict, much less control.

However, cold wars do not always start in such haphazard ways. The resurgence of cold war attitudes in the 1970s was no accident. By then, many thought that the U.S.-Soviet cold war was over. But a group of influential conservatives, with Ronald Reagan at their head, led the United States into what historians have called the “second cold war.”

Some of these cold warriors feared that the United States was falling behind its rival in geopolitical power. But many were responding to a moral issue. They were convinced that the Vietnam debacle of the 1960s and 1970s had sapped the nation of its will to fight for American values. They feared that the culture of personal gratification (“If it feels good, do it”) would undermine self-control and respect for authority, leading to social chaos.

Their solution was to call the nation to cold war once again, to promote the martial virtues that would fend off moral decay. As the head of President Ford’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board put it, only “crisis, mortal danger, massive challenge” could restore the national will and end the “crisis of belief.”

George W. Bush has filled his administration with veterans of this Reaganite moral crusade. Though they claim to have won the second cold war, they still decry the lack of values they saw 25 years ago. It would hardly be surprising if the moral crusaders who whipped up the “second cold war” are now pushing the president toward a cold war with China.

If so, Bush may be sympathetic. His “compassionate conservatism” reflects a strong commitment to the social views of the Reaganites. He knows that his crucial margin of victory came from voters who agreed with Gore on the issues, but cast their vote against a ’60s-style culture of Clintonian self-gratification. And he knows that a U.S. president is unlikely to suffer politically by looking tough.

Yet Bush should also remember his father, who looked so tough after the Persian Gulf War that he was supposedly unbeatable. A popular battle against a foreign foe does not guarantee political success. Nor does it guarantee moral renewal. As the continuing lament from the Right about moral decay shows, the conservatives do not think the renewed tension and military buildup of the Reagan years resolved the moral crisis.

Today, we can see the possibility of cold war ahead; we cannot slip into it unaware. To choose it consciously, in hopes of moral renewal, would be foolhardy. The old reasons for getting into a cold war no longer hold up, especially when weighed against the consequences. We know from past experience what a cold war can bring: a renewed arms race (this time it would be in space), diversion of valuable resources to military uses, a rising federal debt that weakens the economy, the endless tension of living “on the brink,” the risk of another Vietnam.

History never repeats itself. The next cold war may turn out differently. Still, recollection of the past warns us not to head into another cold war without carefully considering our choices.