Some object to calling the current U.S.-Chinese rivalry “a new Cold War,” and they have a point. For precision, we should confine “Cold War” to the 1946–89 armed tension between the U.S. and Soviet Union. What’s happening now, a contest over who’s to lead the world, is more subtle and requires a totally different strategy.

Some claim the Cold War began with the 1918 U.S.-British interventions against Lenin’s infant Bolshevik regime. A neglected starting point: During World War II, Stalin trained East European Communists to take over their homelands. I favor 1946, the year Kennan sent his “long telegram” that instructed Washington on Soviet aims and methods. Gorbachev’s freeing of East European satellites in 1989 effectively ended the Cold War.

Not really cold, “Cold War” was coined (possibly by George Orwell) before parts of it got hot (Korea, Vietnam) and precarious (Berlin Wall, Cuban missiles). Mutual nuclear deterrence prevented the worst.

Could the Cold War have ended earlier? After Stalin died in 1953, his security chief Beria favored a peace deal, but he was arrested and shot. So no, it had to rumble on until a Soviet leader was forced to admit that his economy was so bad it needed a respite. Gorbachev tried reforms which ended up collapsing the system.

The Cold War didn’t blow up the planet and provided employment for two generations of Americans. My father worked for North American Aviation, and I worked for the U.S. Information Agency 1964–67. It was a good job: decent pay and benefits, travel and no serious work involved.

The old Cold War brought 40 years of a rigid containment doctrine, something Kennan himself soon regretted. The adversary’s every move had to be countered, no matter where. Neither side understood that Third World nationalism and neutralism were under no one’s control. We made Vietnam a must-fight war against Chinese expansionism. (It wasn’t.) We didn’t take the 1960 Sino-Soviet split seriously until Nixon, of all people, acted on it in 1972. Few grasped that the Soviet economy was failing at an accelerating rate.

The Cold War had an ideological component, now shrunk to the Marxist notion that the capitalist West must decline. The present contest is not aimed at spreading or stopping communism. Countries’ internal structures are their business. The question is who is to be the world’s greatest power.

Current Sino-U.S. rivalry is economic rather than military. Now Russia is China’s junior ally, its supplier of raw materials and hacking expertise. Beijing, with some residual Marxism, sees a declining U.S. economy: China manufactures while we trade real estate and Bitcoins. China’s military growth aims to keep the U.S. at bay, not conquer the world. Stuck in Cold War thinking, we turn reflexively to military responses, leading to endless, indecisive wars.

Several scholars claim China’s grand strategy is to displace the U.S. as the global hegemon — from the Greek “leader,” now with negative, bossy connotations. Trade deals and transportation routes will restore China as the “Middle Kingdom.” Beijing does not publicize this, but Party officials learn it. Ancient cultural nationalism, not socialism, animates China.

Economic problems may hamper China’s rise: bad investments, corruption, debt, capital flight and the RMB currency not fully convertible. Its Belt and Road Initiative has lost China money and aroused anger at “debt-trap diplomacy.” Party chief and President Xi Jinping’s one-man rule foreshadows a succession crisis.

So, what to call this new rivalry? Since it pits two hegemons against each other, how about the “Who-Leads Contest”? War is always possible — say, over Taiwan or cyber penetration — but neither side wants armed conflict, something both would lose. China foresees getting its way without war as a played-out America weakens.

Are they right? We seem intent on weakening ourselves. Politically polarized, we can’t even ensure infrastructure repair, voting rights and COVID vaccinations. Our corporations forsake resilience and redundancy for profits, leaving us wide open to hacking. Offshore tax havens pull productive investment out of our domestic economy. (China and Russia have a worse problem with no hope of getting the trillions back.)

Does the world need a leading power? For reasonable global stability, yes. Its currency is the indispensable standard for world trade. It enforces trade rules and curbs aggression and depredation. In the 19th century, Britain played this role, for most of the 20th, the U.S. did. Wanna try living under Chinese hegemony?

Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis, in his 1997 “We Now Know,” reviews and revises Cold War history. He finds it littered with mistaken perceptions and assumptions. Everything we could get wrong, we did. Luckily, it didn’t blow up. Faint consolation: The Soviets were just as bad. For the current who-leads struggle, let us be clever and agile, using more economics and less military. And remember, cyber is the new nuclear.