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Foreign Policy

A Cold War Misperception

Jan 07, 2022
  • Zhang Yun

    Associate Professor, National Niigata University in Japan

In December 1991, the Soviet Union fell apart, putting an end to the lengthy Cold War. Thirty years later, rhetoric of a new cold war between the United States and China is all the rage on the world stage. Those who think that a new cold war has already begun believe that the U.S. was the absolute winner of the original Cold War. Consequently, for China-U.S. ties to return to normal, we must get to the root of this mentality.

On one hand, the dissolution of the Soviet Union was not caused solely by Washington’s containment strategy or military deterrence. It was a result of the USSR’s own ideological and institutional rigidity and its moribund policy innovation. After World War II, the U.S. and UK drew down the so-called Iron Curtain, forming an ideological boundary between two worlds — “freedom” and “autocracy.” Citing autocracy as a threat to their security, they began framing a military alliance to contain what they saw as emerging global communism led by the Soviet Union, which later was dubbed the “evil empire” by U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

Confronted by military and ideological provocations, the Soviet Union failed to constrain itself. It overreacted by engaging in an arms race with the U.S., in addition to sinking itself into a swamp of ideological confrontation. In diplomatic discourse, the two countries hurled abuse at each other.

The quest for military supremacy left the Soviet Union lagging behind in socioeconomic development. It was not until the late 1980s that Moscow realized that responding to Washington tit for tat was not in its best interest. At the 19th All-Union Conference of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1988, the country’s leadership acknowledged that it had sometimes failed to grasp the opportunity to gain security by political means and instead was lured into an arms race it could not sustain.

At this point, it was too late to restore its economy and its international status. By comparison, China adopted reform and opening-up in 1978 and put forward a foreign policy of peace in 1982, a decade earlier than the Soviet Union did. So the Soviet Union collapsed mainly because of domestic problems — although Washington’s Cold War policy did play a part.

On the other hand, the U.S. was equally an exhausted superpower before the end of the Cold War. Fighting for military supremacy for decades wore down the Soviet Union but also mired the U.S. in a socioeconomic plight. After the Vietnam War, the U.S. abandoned the gold standard for dollars, a sign that its economy had started flagging.

In the 1980s, the U.S. ran both fiscal and current account deficits, while Japan, across the Pacific, was seeing a zippier economy. The U.S.-Japan trade war made America’s decline a recurring topic on the world stage. The viewpoint was implied in books such as “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” by British historian Paul Kennedy and “The Weary Titan” by Aaron Friedberg, who served as deputy assistant for national security affairs in the office of the U.S. vice president from 2003 to 2005. The term “soft power,” coined by political scientist Joseph Nye in the late 1980s, also tacitly acknowledged the decline of the powerhouse.

However, with the abrupt disintegration of the Soviet Union, the U.S. became widely recognized as the winner of the Cold War, which gradually dwarfed the American decline narrative. Concepts such as “the end of history,” the “hegemonic stability theory” and the “indispensable nation” appeared. Moreover, the 1962 Cuban missile crisis was reinterpreted as a concession by Moscow to Washington’s tough military policy, and the Soviet Union collapse was taken as a victory of democracy over autocracy.

It was on the foundation of these perceptions that the U.S. began exporting its democratic system to the rest of the world through economic sanctions and military interference — widely seen as a panacea for its success in the Cold War rivalry. Nevertheless, the wars in Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan and many other places proved that Washington’s approach didn’t work. NATO’s eastward expansion accelerated America’s decline, rather than stabilizing Europe’s security order in the post-Cold-War era.

Unfortunately, none of this has led the U.S. to recognize, or even acknowledge, that “winning” the Cold War was an illusion. China’s rise has touched the scar deep inside the U.S. Washington is looking at its relations with Beijing with a kind of psychological trauma, regretting and reflecting. For instance, some American scholars and politicians deeply regret having supported China in joining the World Trade Organization in 2001 because they think China wouldn’t be a rival had they first turned the country into what America wanted. Such nostalgia is neither meaningful nor healthy, as it is rooted in the misperception that China’s development should be attributed to the U.S. In this logic, some Americans simply fall back on their Cold War panacea. Hence the rise of the new cold war theory.

The future of China-U.S. ties rests largely on whether there will be a change or reversal in the misperception that Washington was the winner of the Cold War. This may take a long time, but it’s inevitable in the international entanglement. 

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