Can Cold War History Help Stop a Disastrous US-China Conflict?Roundup
tags: Cold War, China, international relations
LI CHEN is an associate professor at the School of International Studies at Renmin University of China.
ODD ARNE WESTAD is the Elihu Professor of History and Global Affairs at Yale University.
In February 1961, at the outset of his presidency, John F. Kennedy wrote a personal letter to the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. While deploring the overall state of affairs in relations between the two countries, the new president argued that “if we could find a measure of cooperation on some of these current issues this, in itself, would be a significant contribution to the problem of insuring a peaceful and orderly world.” Kennedy went on to explain how the two leaders could achieve such cooperation:
I think we should recognize, in honesty to each other, that there are problems on which we may not be able to agree. However, I believe that while recognizing that we do not and, in all probability will not, share a common view on all of these problems, I do believe that the manner in which we approach them and, in particular, the manner in which our disagreements are handled, can be of great importance…. I believe we should make more use of diplomatic channels for quite informal discussion of these questions, not in the sense of negotiations …, but rather as a mechanism of communication which should, insofar as is possible, help to eliminate misunderstanding and unnecessary divergencies, however great the basic differences may be.
Kennedy’s approach back then helped save the peace, even during some of the darkest moments of the Cold War. Today, leaders of the United States and China must take a similar approach—as both sides seemed to acknowledge at the recent “virtual” summit. “It seems clear to me,” said U.S. President Joe Biden, “that we need to establish some common-sense guardrails.” Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed: “China and the United States need to increase communication and cooperation.”
The question of whether U.S.-Chinese competition bears much resemblance to the Soviet-American Cold War has become highly contested. When a group of American and Chinese historians of the Cold War (the two of us included) met last summer to discuss the comparison, there was considerable disagreement about both the accuracy and value of the analogy. But most agreed that it offered at least some lessons for managing tensions between the United States and China today. Given how intense and dangerous the rivalry between today’s two great powers has become, rather than fixating on disagreements about the analogy, both scholars and policymakers should consider those lessons—especially when it comes to the essential tasks of facilitating stability and reducing the risk of unnecessary conflict.
Strategic misunderstanding—of the intentions and capabilities of rivals, of the international situation, even of one’s own position—played a major role in the escalation of the Cold War. Both the United States and the Soviet Union over-emphasized the aggressive intentions of the other and stressed irreconcilable domestic political, institutional, and cultural differences as justification for massive military build-ups. Guided by grand narratives that stressed confrontation, both frequently misinterpreted the other’s motives.
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