America's Rivalry With China Is Nothing Like the Cold War

In today’s circumstances, Cold War–era policies are not only unnecessary, but likely to catalyze a destructive spiral of heightening tensions that would make the world a more dangerous place.

Anyone looking for evidence of a growing economic and ideological conflict between China and the United States will have no trouble finding something—the trade war now roiling both countries’ economies, the standoff between police and pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, Beijing’s swift retaliation against the NBA over a single Houston Rockets executive’s tweet in support of those same protesters. President Donald Trump seems to think a new cold war is at hand. His national-security strategy statement identifies China as an adversary bent on dismantling a U.S.-centered global order and forging a new one in its own favor. This point of view is catching on outside the administration, too. Earlier this year, the Committee on the Present Danger relaunched once again. First organized in the late 1940s to push for a massive military buildup and revived in the 1970s to promote a more confrontational approach toward the Soviet Union, the group now seeks to mobilize Americans for an existential struggle against China.

I am a historian who has been writing about the U.S.-Soviet Cold War for nearly three decades. However tempting the analogy might be as China’s influence and military strength grow, invoking it now is profoundly wrong. The Cold War happened not simply because there were two superpowers in the world, but because of the specific circumstances confronting the United States after 1945. The historical context in which the United States operates today, the prevailing configuration of power in the international arena, and the ideological appeal of the rival regime are all entirely different. In today’s circumstances, Cold War–era policies—starting with the containment strategy adopted in the late 1940s—are not only unnecessary, but likely to catalyze a destructive spiral of heightening tensions that would make the world a more dangerous place.

The Chinese today are not seeking to destroy Americans’ way of life, as the Soviets were said to be doing in the 1940s. Indeed, the Chinese accept fundamental aspects of our capitalist marketplace, and they have similar interests in halting climate change, fighting terrorists, and combatting pandemics. China should be regarded as a serious rival as well as a crucial partner. But despite recent tensions, the rivalry is entirely less dangerous than the one with the U.S.S.R. after World War II—and the potential partnership so much more important to the welfare of both nations and to the global commons.

When the Cold War began, the world had just endured 30 years of global conflicts and a Great Depression. More than 8 million people died during World War I. More than 60 million died during World War II. In 1945, few Americans could imagine a long era of peace between great powers, and few were confident that wartime prosperity—a by-product of military spending—would persist. Europe and Asia were wastelands. Farms had been flooded, dikes destroyed, cattle slaughtered, bridges blown up, railroad lines decimated, and factories bombed. The two continents’ great industrial powers—Germany and Japan—were devastated and occupied. Britain was almost bankrupt. France was demoralized. Around the globe, democratic capitalism was in disrepute, widely blamed for the two wars and the Great Depression. “We are living in a time of massive popular counterrevolution against liberal democracy,” wrote Walter Lippmann, America’s foremost public intellectual, in 1955. “It is a reaction to the failure of the West to cope with the miseries and anxieties of the twentieth century.”

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The United States did have two-thirds of the world’s gold reserves, three-fourths of its capital, and more than half of its manufacturing capacity. America’s GDP was three times that of the Soviet Union and five times that of Britain. Its  Air Force dominated the skies; its Navy dominated the seas. Its aircraft carriers and marine divisions enabled it to project power across the oceans. Alone, it possessed the atomic bomb. Yet even though American power was preponderant, many of the brightest minds in the foreign-policy establishment feared that it might be ephemeral.

The Soviet Union was ravaged by the war and incomparably weaker than the United States. But the Communist regime had survived and triumphed over Germany, and gained legitimacy in doing so. Surrounded by vacuums of power, Stalin saw opportunities. Consolidating his hold on Eastern Europe, he also exerted pressure on Iran and probed to gain control of the Turkish straits.

Around the world, the Soviet Union’s ideological appeal was considerable. Less than two months after the Nazi surrender, the British people voted Winston Churchill—that icon of democratic courage—out of office and replaced him with a government of socialists who campaigned for the welfare state and the nationalization of key industries. The postwar leadership of the British Labour Party hated Soviet Communism, but that was not true of voters on the left in other countries. In France and Italy, the Communist Party garnered 20 to 40 percent of the popular vote in free elections. In Yugoslavia, Tito’s partisans took control. In China, Mao was gaining control of the mainland. And among an emerging generation of revolutionary nationalists in Asia and Africa, Marxism-Leninism resonated. Communist ideology attributed their countries’ backwardness to ruthless exploitation by their colonial masters. The planned economy of Stalinist Russia seemed to promise rapid development, modernization, and military power.

The overriding strategic lesson of World War II—the strategic lesson that shaped U.S. planning throughout the Cold War—was that the United States must not allow an adversary to gain control of Europe’s and Asia’s resources. From 1937 to 1942, Nazi Germany and Japan occupied huge swaths of the two continents, along with the raw materials, industrial infrastructure, and skilled labor located within them. With those resources, the Axis nations dared to attack the United States and wage a protracted struggle. American leaders were committed to not letting this happen again, but the steps they took to avoid that outcome proved fateful.

U.S. military planners and civilian policy makers did not fear the likelihood of premeditated Soviet military aggression. The rulers of the Kremlin, they were pretty certain, felt too weak to risk war with the United States. Nonetheless, American officials worried that Stalin would exploit the socioeconomic ferment throughout the world. They believed that powerful Communist parties in France and Italy might come to power and take their nations into the Kremlin’s orbit. They thought that American public opinion would force the United States to bring all its troops home, as had happened after World War I; the Kremlin might then lure Germany and Japan into its orbit.           

The Kremlin might slowly aggregate the economic war-making capabilities that would allow it to wage a protracted struggle against the United States, should war erupt through some future miscalculation. But even in peacetime, the challenge was profound. “If communism is allowed to absorb the free nations,” President Harry Truman declared, “then we would be isolated from our sources of supply and detached from our friends. Then we would have to take defense measures which might really bankrupt our economy, and change our way of life so that we couldn’t recognize it as American any longer.” Eventually, Truman warned, we would have “to become a garrison state, and to impose upon ourselves a system of centralized regimentation unlike anything we have ever known.”

These fears led the United States to a policy of containment. Observing developments from the embassy in Moscow, George F. Kennan, the most experienced Russia expert among U.S. diplomats, wrote a telegram to Washington in February 1946 that shaped future American behavior. Kennan argued that there could be no “permanent modus vivendi” with the Soviet Union, and that the United States should contain its expansion and thereby undermine its economic and social system.

Officials in Washington were quite receptive to Kennan’s telegram. He was appointed head of the newly created Policy Planning Staff by the incoming secretary of state and former Army chief of staff, General George C. Marshall. From this perch, Kennan defined the basic architecture of containment. He believed that the key was to thwart the Soviet Union’s ability to co-opt centers of major industrial power—most important among them, West Germany, Western Europe, and Japan. Kennan’s staff provided the framework for the Marshall Plan. It aimed to rebuild the economies of the Western European democracies, erode the support for communist parties, and harness the recovery of West Germany for the good of all of Western Europe.

Kennan and his colleagues grasped that actions to rehabilitate Europe and rebuild German and Japanese economies would trigger a nasty response in Moscow. Reviving the western zones of Germany and tying them to the rest of the West portended the rebuilding of independent German power or a powerful Western bloc. Seeing a threat, the Soviets tried to stymie American and British efforts by blockading Berlin. Washington and London responded with an airlift of supplies and, later, the creation of NATO.

Outmaneuvered in Europe, Stalin turned his attention to the Far East, where he increased aid to the Chinese Communists and ensconced Kim Il Sung in power in North Korea. He coupled these initiatives with the testing of an atomic warhead in August 1949, the culmination of four years of furious effort since the Hiroshima bombing.

Worried that Soviet acquisition of atomic capabilities might stalemate future American risk-taking, U.S. policy makers decided to try developing a hydrogen bomb and create an explicit strategic blueprint for a long Cold War. The United States would build up its military capabilities; strengthen West Germany, the rest of Western Europe, and Japan; and contain Soviet expansion wherever it might be discerned in the developing world.

In just five short years, the grand alliance had disintegrated and spiraled into a nightmarish Cold War.

Reviewing the early history of the Cold War clarifies how inappropriate the Cold War analogy is for thinking about Chinese-American relations today. Present challenges come not after 30 years of global war and depression, but after 30 years of peace among the great powers, economic growth (the great recession of 2008–09 notwithstanding), and substantial poverty eradication (especially in countries like China and India). Whereas world trade contracted and tariffs proliferated during the interwar years, the past three decades have seen a significant expansion of global commerce, foreign investments, and capital flows. And unlike the Soviet leaders who segregated their economy from the capitalist West in the immediate aftermath of World War II, China has made itself the hub of an international capitalist marketplace.

When the Cold War began, there was hardly any trade with or foreign investment in the Soviet Union, so the United States had virtually nothing to lose economically from isolating its rival. In today’s context of economic interdependence, complex supply chains, and Chinese lending and dollar reserves, Cold War policies would have sharply different consequences for the international economy and the health of the capitalist system.

The configuration of geopolitical power is also different today. At the onset of the Cold War, the Soviet Union had ample opportunity to exploit power vacuums in Europe and Asia. Present-day China is surrounded by a wealthy and proud Japan, a robust and nationalist India, a Russia seething over the loss of former Soviet territories, and a vigorous, competitive South Korea. Chinese opportunities do not abound; indeed, they are circumscribed.

The Chinese know these realities. They also know that, unlike in 1945, the Americans have long-term alliances and bases throughout Asia and are not eager to go home. The collapse of European empires allowed the Kremlin to capitalize on waves of revolutionary nationalism in the early Cold War years, but the era of decolonization has long since ended.

And while the Soviet Union’s anti-capitalist message of proletarian justice and equality resonated in much of the world, China has no universalist ideology to sell. Beijing today may disparage Western democracy and tout socialism with Chinese characteristics, but all the world can see that it has embraced a capitalist mentality and a nationalist ethos. The Chinese are not champions of equality and justice, as the Soviets pretended to be, and they have little ability to exploit the discontent in neighboring nations. Aggrieved Muslims in India will not look to Beijing for inspiration.

For all these reasons, conditions today are nothing like those of the early Cold War. The Soviets seemed to be absorbing whole countries, such as Poland. Can one possibly believe that Chinese efforts to build makeshift islands in the South China Sea or to contest the Spratly Islands with the Vietnamese or the Scarborough Shoal with the Philippines in any way resemble the perceived threat posed by the Soviet Union during the early Cold War? Can anyone really believe that the Chinese are about to co-opt the resources of Asia and Europe in order to wage war against the United States?

During the Cold War, the United States took actions—such as the Marshall Plan and the reconstruction of West Germany—that could be justified on their own terms, for reasons other than containment. Policy makers went ahead because they thought the benefits of European rehabilitation outweighed the costs of alienating the Kremlin. The gamble was worth taking: U.S. officials believed their military might and atomic weapons would deter the Soviets from going to war and force them to accept American dominance.

Today, the potential gains from greater tensions with China are not proportional to the risks. The risks, in fact, are much greater because the economic costs of a falling-out with China are so much greater than they were with the Soviet Union in the 1940s. We should not want a cold war with China. And we should be careful to avoid measures that will produce one. Our goal, unlike that of containment, is not to bring about the collapse of the Chinese regime.

We should not turn our rivalry with China into a Cold War by embracing a bad analogy. To understand that China is acting like a normal state, we need only to look at our own history from the 1890s to the 1920s. In those years, the United States pushed relentlessly to force the British to make maritime and fishing concessions in North America. The U.S. insisted that London arbitrate disputed territory with Venezuela and renegotiated treaties that excluded Great Britain from a canal zone in Central America. The U.S. then intervened in places like the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua and took over their customs houses in order to prevent the British and other Europeans from intervening in nearby waters. Washington subsequently manipulated a civil war in Colombia, helped orchestrate the creation of Panama, and secured unilateral rights to build and fortify an interoceanic canal. Washington expected deference to America’s growing economic strength and mounting power.

Reflecting on this history, Americans should understand the impulses behind Chinese actions and prudently appraise them. But we should not encourage or institutionalize a zero-sum approach to international politics, as Cold War metaphors incline us to do. The United States should solidify its long-standing alliances in the western Pacific; enhance relations with India, Vietnam, and Indonesia; and thwart intellectual-property theft and Beijing’s practice of forcing Western firms to hand over proprietary technologies as a condition of entering the Chinese market. But at the same time, the United States must acknowledge and nurture a mutuality of interests in promoting open trade and freedom of navigation, fighting climate change and preparing for pandemics, and countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and terrorist organizations with global reach.

Americans must not dismiss a rivalry inherent in China’s regional ascendancy and growing global power, but the United States should also seek to avoid a spiraling era of distrust in which both sides will lose.