Fighting the last (Cold) War
Don’t misuse analogy to whistle past the graveyard.
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By David B. Kanin
The argument goes as follows: The United States lost the war in Vietnam in 1975. Less than two decades later the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Empire in eastern Europe collapsed, and then the Soviet Union itself imploded. The US had won the Cold War. Therefore, there is no reason to overate China’s rise and failures of US strategy and leadership in Syria, Afghanistan, the South China Sea, and elsewhere. America still can restore its luster and reassert its global predominance, just as it did after 1975. Sure, the country faces serous internal divisions, but these also existed in the 1960s and 1970s. China may seem powerful but it faces serious economic problems that will limit its capability to challenge the American hyperpower. Pessimists were wrong when they predicted the Japan of the 1970s and 1980s would overtake the US as the world’s leading innovator and they will be wrong now when they make the same predictions about China. The US and Democracies in general are resourceful and resilient and, with the right leadership and policies, once again can regain their balance and retain their teleological power.
Every now and then, the term “cognitive dissonance” comes up in common parlance. It refers to the experience facing information or events that upend a person’s or a community’s core beliefs and self-confidence. This is an emotional as well as rational process and leads to anxiety as well as a crisis in logic.
What sometimes gets lost in the use of this concept is a companion term coined by those who first studied cognitive dissonance and necessary to its understanding . “Dissonance reduction” is the process by which one discounts the unsettling information or development and rationalizes reasons and feelings that prove the uncomfortable person or conventional wisdom has been right all along. The feeling of disorientation and anxiety is soothed and the individual or community returns to comfortable cognitive and affective inertia.
Minimizing China’s challenge and the misuse of the Vietnam analogy are examples of the use of dissonance reduction to assuage cognitive dissonance and to avoid the anxiety of taking seriously the structural causes of US global decline and internal weakening. Perhaps I am not the only person who finds the narrative spin of America’s failure in Vietnam as a good news story to be more than a little perverse.
So, consider differences between the Vietnam era and current conditions. First, global power dynamics were much more favorable to the US then than now. In both periods the US, Russia (Soviet Union), and China were the major international actors (Europe, then as now, was more a theater of others’ actions than a credible international player). Whenever three is the relevant geopolitical number two actors line up against the third. In the wake of the Sino-Soviet split and clashes along those countries’ northern borders in 1969 the US and China found common cause against Soviet power. Starting with the “Ping Pong Diplomacy” of the early 1970s and accelerating after Deng Xiaoping came to power, China began absorbing knowledge, technology, and resources from the US while the Soviet model proved rigid, rickety, and unsustainable. China perched in a winning corner of the triangle.
Now, Moscow and Beijing are lined up against Washington. That they have different goals is irrelevant – China and Russia agree that weakening American power is a prerequisite to whatever else each has in mind. Their diplomacies, militaries, and – most likely – intelligence services cooperate to undermine American interests and positions on every continent and over every issue. China inhabits a comfortable corner of the triangle. The US, does not, even taking into account its residual alliance network.
Second, the Soviet Union was a global military power and had significant human resources in science and technology, but it never was a serious economic rival to the United States It never threatened US global dominance in any area but that of brute force. China clearly is an economic powerhouse. Deng, unlike the Soviet leadership, conceived and successfully implemented flexible adaptation of Communist Party rule to the needs of material development. His visionary approach to overtaking US advantages through a combination of dialogue, innovation (buttressed by skillful, persistent technology theft), and military buildup continues to guide his successors. China’s “Belt and Road” initiative is something the Soviet Union could never have dreamed of, much less implemented.
Third, China’s current status as a largely regional rather than global rival to the United States likely makes it more willing to confront the United States with hard power than was the Soviet Union. The Soviets and Americans competed in all places and on all levels but — as proved during both Berlin crises – no piece of ground or issue was considered worth the danger of what both Moscow and Washington feared would be a catastrophic nuclear war. China is moving toward world power status but its growing might will not cause it to deviate from its single minded focus on retaking Taiwan and establishing command in its western Pacific back yard. An analogous situation might have existed if the United States faced off against an existing Soviet hegemony in, say, Florida. Cuba, which never was part of the US, was not the same thing.
Make no mistake – Taiwan is a domestic Chinese issue, not a matter of international law or of some notional rules based international order. Since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949 the UN and most governments – including the United States – have agreed that there exists one China and Taiwan is part of it. The only question has been whether that one China is governed by Beijing or Taipei. In the 1970s the US concocted rhetorical logic to explain why it could establish formal diplomatic relations with China while maintaining a security relationship with Taiwan. That arrangement was synchronically convenient for the US but global acknowledgment of one China was and remains a diachronically powerful weapon for Beijing.
- When it deems itself ready China will attempt to retake Taiwan one way or another. Success would mark an event which would be celebrated in China as was the fall of the Berlin Wall in the West.
Fourth, the internal disintegration of the United States now is deeper and more dangerous than was the social and racial discontent of the 1960s and 1970s. As is often noted, the US always has suffered from serious internal divisions caused by its history of racism, economic dislocations, inequalities, and regional divides. However, for the country’s first century and a half of existence two oceans protected squabbling Americans from outside powers. Even its former British master came to realize messing about in America was not worth the effort. Then, as the US came to global power all possible competitors – whether friends or foes – wiped themselves off the playing board twice within twenty years in world wars that were devastating to them but enriched an America relatively immune to physical attack. Those unique conditions are gone and will not reoccur. Therefore, the US no longer has the luxury of being able to engage in domestic street fighting without suffering diminution of its international hard and soft power.
It is important to remember that elites on both sides of the formal political aisle continued to work together throughout and after America’s Vietnam adventure. During the Watergate hearings Democrats and Republicans argued hard over whether President Richard Nixon broke the law, but both sides agreed on how to run the proceeding. In the 1980, President Ronald Reagan and Democratic leaders in Congress continued to dispute major issues while cooperating to keep the American political system working.
That changed when Newt Gingrich and the Republican Right took over the House of Representatives in 1995. Gingrich poisoned politics by refusing to treat political opponents with respect and shaming any Republican willing to do so. He engineered a precipitous, poorly prepared impeachment of Bill Clinton that cost Gingrich and his successor – but not Clinton – their jobs. The Democrats later proved just as vindictive when they undertook a first impeachment of Donald Trump so lacking credibility that it undermined a second impeachment effort based on Trump’s very real encouragement of supporters who attacked the US Capitol last January 6.
In short, the US was divided but functional in the 1970s. It is fractured and dysfunctional now. In this context reflexive decline denial deepens the damage done to US interests and residual power by failures abroad and hatreds at home. The United States retains considerable assets and capabilities and, with self-examination and some semblance of leadership, could conduct a successful management of a global position that is going to continue to recede. However, as things stand the odds on such a constructive future are not good.
David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.
The views expressed in this publication are the author’s and do not imply endorsement by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Intelligence Community, or any other IU.S. Government agency.
- Check out the “new rhetoricians” of the 1950s and Robert Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International Politics,” (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1976), chapter 11.
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