Commentators worried that recent U.S. denunciations of both Russia and China mark serious deteriorations in relations. Actually, relations have been bad for years, but this rhetoric clarifies where things stand. As such, it is useful.

President Trump never blamed Putin for anything, but President Biden called him a “killer.” Trump and Biden have opposite, self-serving motives here. Both Republicans and Democrats try to use the Russia and China problems for political gain, specifically for the 2022 elections. Domestic politics often infects foreign policy, causing us to misperceive reality.

The mutual recriminations at the U.S.-China meeting seem contrived. Secretary of State Blinken needed to demonstrate that the Biden administration is plenty tough on China, which had to be just as tough on the U.S. Their private sessions afterward were described as serious and substantive.

Diplomats usually speak nicely but occasionally have to use blunt language. When interests clash, say so; the American people and Congress deserve to know. The exchanges themselves didn’t create bad relations but could mark turning points.

Debate over overseas U.S. involvement marked earlier paradigm changes, each of which took two to three years to complete. Wilson promised to keep us out of World War I but by 1917 couldn’t. FDR wanted to aid Britain but couldn’t do much until Pearl Harbor. Public opinion blocks easy change of course.

U.S. wartime policy tried to accommodate Stalin’s demands to gain his cooperation. Didn’t work. Stalin had decided early in the war to make East Europe a Soviet security shield; Washington could like it or not.

A few U.S. officials, however, concluded that Stalin was a brute who could not be trusted, charmed or appeased. Their wartime reports were largely ignored. Finally, by 1946, as the Soviets subjugated East Europe, Washington started heeding the warnings of diplomat George Kennan and intelligence officer Frank Wisner. The Cold War was on.

The Cold war was not an unfortunate misunderstanding but an inevitable collision. True, Cold War thinking soon turned dangerously rigid on both sides. After Stalin’s death in 1953, KGB chief Beria urged calling off the Cold War, but Khrushchev refused and had Beria shot. Hungary and Suez in 1956, Sputnik in 1957 and the Cuban missiles in 1962 brought scary highs. Vietnam happened after the worst of the Cold War was over.

Now, as we publicly admit serious problems with Russia and China, we are at another inflection point. Again, as during the Cold War, every side is the aggrieved party. Hostility and mistrust are hyped. Moscow claims America dismembered the Soviet Union. China claims America blocks its rise. And America claims election and hacking attacks.

We are not necessarily entering a new cold war, but it has become quite frosty. The old ideological competition is gone; communism, always defective, is no longer saleable. Russia’s weak economy now depends on fickle energy exports. Russia’s population is in long-term decline; its 147 million is now less than half America’s.

Anti-Putin sentiment grows, especially among the better educated. Putin’s control of Russia’s media, however, likely means his party will keep control of parliament in this fall’s elections. Putin, running scared, grabs anything that might reinforce his power, such as invading neighboring Georgia and Ukraine, poisoning opponents and influencing foreign elections by hacks and cash.

Putin’s fears have turned Russia into China’s junior partner. China has 10 times Russia’s population and economy and steals Russia’s former Central Asian satrapies. Many Chinese now live in Russia’s Pacific maritime region, formerly part of Manchuria taken by Russia in “unequal treaties” in 1858 and 1860. Think China won’t want it back?

Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative — the “belt” is an industrial corridor across Asia into Europe; the “road” is maritime routes — aims to make China the hub of Eurasia by commerce, investments and transportation lines. Trump dumped a Pacific trade pact; Beijing set one up. The Pentagon takes the Chinese challenge as military — and some of it is — but it’s primarily economic. We won the Cold War by economic, not military, means and can do so again.

The bad relations can’t be helped, but they can be contained. Let’s not repeat the mistakes of the Cold War in which we exaggerated our adversaries’ strength and locked ourselves into policies that changed little since the 1947 Truman Doctrine.

If someone had told Kennedy that communism is inherently defective and all we had to do was wait until it collapsed, they would have been laughed out of Washington. Yet that is what happened. In 1989, East Europe’s Communist regimes fell. In late 1991, so did Moscow’s. China and Vietnam turned into largely market economies. The chief underlying causes were economic backwardness, not military showdowns.

The Biden administration’s recent tough words indicate more clarification than deterioration. We now need a name for the emerging global system of major-power competition, one that energizes America’s economic growth.