New Cold Wars review: China, Russia and Biden’s daunting task

<span>Joe Biden Meets with Xi Jinping at the Filoli Estate in Woodside, California last November.</span><span>Photograph: Doug Mills/AP</span>
Joe Biden Meets with Xi Jinping at the Filoli Estate in Woodside, California last November.Photograph: Doug Mills/AP

Russia bombards Ukraine. Israel and Hamas are locked in a danse macabre. The threat of outright war between Jerusalem and Tehran grows daily. Beijing and Washington snarl. In a moment like this, David Sanger’s latest book, subtitled China’s Rise, Russia’s Invasion, and America’s Struggle to Defend the West, is a must-read. Painstakingly researched, New Cold Wars brims with on-record interviews and observations by thinly veiled sources.

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Officials closest to the president talk with an eye on posterity. The words of the CIA director, Bill Burns, repeatedly appear on the page. Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, and Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, surface throughout the book. Sanger, White House and national security correspondent for the New York Times, fuses access, authority and curiosity to deliver an alarming message: US dominance is no longer axiomatic.

In the third decade of the 21st century, China and Russia defy Washington, endeavoring to shatter the status quo while reaching for past glories. Vladimir Putin sees himself as the second coming of Peter the Great, “a dictator … consumed by restoring the old Russian empire and addressing old grievances”, in Sanger’s words.

The possibility of nuclear war is no longer purely theoretical. “In 2021 Biden, [Gen Mark] Milley, and the new White House national security team discovered that America’s nuclear holiday was over,” Sanger writes. “They were plunging into a new era that was far more complicated than the cold war had ever been.”

As Russia’s war on Ukraine faltered, Putin and the Kremlin raised the specter of nuclear deployment against Kyiv.

“The threat that Russia might use a nuclear weapon against its non-nuclear-armed foe surfaced and resurfaced every few months,” Sanger recalls.

The world was no longer “flat”. Rather, “the other side began to look more like a security threat and less like a lucrative market”. Unfettered free trade and interdependence had yielded prosperity and growth for some but birthed anger and displacement among many. Nafta – the North American Free Trade Agreement – became a figurative four-letter word. In the US, counties that lost jobs to China and Mexico went for Trump in 2016.

Biden and the Democrats realized China never was and never would be America’s friend. “‘I think it’s fair to say that just about every assumption across different administrations was wrong,” one of Biden’s “closest advisers” tells Sanger.

“‘The internet would bring political liberty. Trade would liberalize the regime’ while creating high-skill jobs for Americans. The list went on. A lot of it was just wishful thinking.”

Sanger also captures the despondency that surrounded the botched US withdrawal from Afghanistan. A suicide bombing at the Kabul airport left 13 US soldiers and 170 civilians dead. The event still haunts.

“The president came into the room shortly thereafter, and at that point Gen [Kenneth] McKenzie informed him of the attack and also the fact that there had been at least several American military casualties, fatalities in the attack,” Burns recalls. “I remember the president just paused for at least 30 seconds or so and put his head down because he was absorbing the sadness of the moment and the sense of loss as well.”

Almost three years later, Biden’s political standing has not recovered. “The bitter American experience in Afghanistan and Iraq seemed to underscore the dangers of imperial overreach,” Sanger writes. With Iran on the front burner and the Middle East mired in turmoil, what comes next is unclear.

A coda: a recent supplemental review conducted by the Pentagon determined that a sole Isis member carried out the Kabul bombing. The review also found that the attack was tactically unpreventable.

Sanger also summarizes a tense exchange between Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, over the Gaza war.

“Hadn’t the US firebombed Tokyo during world war two? Netanyahu demanded. “Hadn’t it unleashed two atom bombs? What about the thousands who died in Mosul, as the US sought to wipe out Isis?”

On Thursday, the US vetoed a resolution to confer full UN membership on the “State of Palestine”. Hours later, Standard & Poor’s downgraded Israel’s credit rating and Israel retaliated against Iran.


New Cold Wars does contain lighter notes. For example, Sanger catches Donald Trump whining to Randall Stephenson, then CEO of AT&T, about his (self-inflicted) problems with women. The 45th president invited Stephenson to the Oval Office, to discuss China and telecommunications. Things did not quite work out that way.

“Trump burned up the first 45 minutes of the meeting by riffing on how men got into trouble,” Sanger writes. “It was all about women. Then he went into a long diatribe about Stormy Daniels.”

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Stephenson later recalled: “It was ‘all part of the same stand-up comedy act’ … and ‘we were left with 15 minutes to talk about Chinese infrastructure’.”

Trump wasn’t interested. Stephenson “could see that the president’s mind was elsewhere. ‘This is really boring,’ Trump finally said.”

On Thursday, in Trump’s hush-money case in New York, the parties picked a jury. Daniels is slated to be a prosecution witness.

Sanger ends his book on a note of nostalgia – and trepidation.

“For all the present risks, it is worth remembering that one of the most remarkable and little-discussed accomplishments of the old cold war was that the great powers never escalated their differences into a direct conflict. That is an eight-decade-long streak we cannot afford to break.”