The recent negative trajectory in U.S.-China relations underscores a profoundly important question: is peaceful coexistence between the two countries still possible and achievable? Or are the United States and China destined for a hostile adversarial relationship? What purpose or objective might still be served by reviving substantive diplomacy between Beijing and Washington?
Recurring claims that a new “cold war” is emerging obviously evoke the U.S.-Soviet precedent. And although there are many differences between that historical example and the current U.S.-China relationship, there nonetheless are lessons to be learned from making the comparison. Several such lessons can be derived from scholar Frank Costigliola’s new biography of George F. Kennan, the intellectual author of the U.S. policy of containment of the Soviet Union. One of the key themes of the book—Kennan: A Life Between Worlds—is Kennan’s failure over the latter half of his life to convince his policymaking successors in Washington that containment was not intended as a military strategy, and was instead meant as a prerequisite for negotiating the terms of peaceful coexistence between the United States and the Soviet Union.
According to Costigliola, Kennan sought from almost the beginning of the Cold War to end it by “pursuing serious diplomacy” aimed at reaching “an honorable settlement that would reduce tension” between Moscow and Washington and thus preempt a costly militarized struggle. Kennan’s central proposal was military disengagement from Europe by both the United States and the Soviet Union, which in his view would have defused or obviated the most dangerous aspects of the inevitable U.S.-Soviet rivalry. Kennan was focused on what he saw as the limits of U.S. power, and the consequent need to pursue some kind of accommodation with the Soviets so that the United States could devote sufficient attention and resources to addressing America’s domestic challenges. In short, Kennan advocated a combination of “patience, sacrifice, and restraint.”
But as Costigliola shows, this approach was largely dismissed by U.S. leaders for the duration of the Cold War in favor of a militarized version of containment that sought a “rollback” of Soviet power and influence. In Kennan’s view, Washington essentially adopted the unrealistic goal of achieving Moscow’s “unconditional surrender.” But even many of Kennan’s admirers dismissed his approach as unrealistic. Most supported the consensus view that a more hard-edged containment strategy brought overall stability to U.S.-Soviet relations without requiring substantial U.S. compromises with Moscow.
All of this resonates in U.S.-China relations today. Washington is embracing an almost exclusively competitive approach to Beijing that has many of the earmarks of the militarized, zero-sum containment strategy it pursued against the Soviet Union. The goal similarly appears to be China’s unconditional surrender. Many strategists and analysts have instead advocated military restraint and serious diplomacy with China, and emphasized the increasingly apparent limits on U.S. power and leverage. Some have specifically advocated negotiations with Beijing aimed at reducing military tensions in East Asia, analogous to Kennan’s proposals for U.S.-Soviet talks on military posture in Europe. But as with Kennan, these ideas have been criticized as pollyannish or unworkable given China’s presumed untrustworthiness and aggressive intentions. The relative stability of a confrontational approach to China is deemed preferable to the risks of compromise or accommodation with Beijing, which would probably be futile if not counterproductive.
This also echoes broader observations by Kennan about the U.S. approach to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, especially its vilification of the adversary and its lack of strategic empathy. In the 1970s, Kennan discerned several assumptions that Washington was making about Moscow:
That the Soviet leadership [is] inspired by a desire, and intention, to achieve world domination…and views a military showdown with the United States as the inevitable outcome of the ideological and political conflict between the two powers…That for this reason, the Soviet armed forces serve…primarily aggressive rather than defensive purposes. Supplementing these views there seems to be an assumption…that the differences in aim and outlook between the Soviet Union and the United States are indeed of such a nature that no peaceful resolution of them is conceivable.
The same assumptions are now becoming prevalent in Washington with regard to China. Kennan elaborated further that these assumptions fueled a U.S. mindset in which “the Soviet Union appeared in a far more menacing posture” than it had previously. Among the characteristics of this mindset were:
…the sweeping militarization of the American view of East-West relations; the assumption of deadly and irreconcilable conflict; the acceptance of the likelihood, if not the inevitability of a Soviet-American war; [and] the contemptuous neglect of the more favorable scenarios…All of these assumptions and scenarios are either quite incorrect or highly improbable; but they are now so deeply and widely implanted in the public mind that in all probability nothing I could say…could eradicate them…Meanwhile, we face the fact (and it is here that the greatest danger comes in) that distortions of this nature, like all false prophecies and all false images of conflict and enmity, tend to be self-fulfilling.
Again, this seems to accurately capture the emerging American mindset about China, and the inherent dangers of that mindset. In that regard, Kennan noted the particular risks of failing to recognize how the Soviets would perceive and interpret the U.S. attitude:
What impression must all this make upon the persons charged with the ultimate powers of decision in Moscow? Are we sure we know?…It seems to me more probable that…Soviet leaders will see sinister motives behind these various phenomena—that they will conclude, in particular, that we have come to see war as inevitable and have put out of our minds all possibilities for the peaceful accommodation of our differences. If they gain this impression, then they, too, will tend to push such possibilities out of theirs.
Reinforcing this absence of strategic empathy, Kennan observed separately that Washington often failed or refused to acknowledge the extent to which assertive Soviet behavior was a response to U.S. actions. He also noted occasions when Washington had little interest in negotiating with Moscow because “Russia was already identified as the epitome of evil; and it wouldn’t look good, from the domestic political standpoint, to be negotiating and compromising with evil.”
Nearly fifty years after Kennan characterized the U.S. approach to the Soviet Union this way, it clearly is reverberating in America’s emerging approach to China. The prevailing narrative in Washington is that we are facing a “deadly and irreconcilable conflict” and “the likelihood if not the inevitability” of a U.S.-China war because China seeks “to achieve world domination.” The U.S.-China contest is portrayed as a winner-take-all struggle between democracy and autocracy. Congressman Mike Gallagher, who chairs the new House Select Committee on China, told its first hearing in February that the United States and China are engaged in “an existential struggle over what life will look like in the twenty-first century.” Moreover, much of the resistance in Washington to diplomatic engagement with Beijing appears to be driven by the domestic political risks of appearing to be “negotiating and compromising with evil.” Accordingly, it would not be surprising if Chinese leaders were in the process of concluding that Americans “have put out of our minds all possibilities for the peaceful accommodation of our differences” and, as a result, were doing the same.
Beijing, of course, shares ample responsibility for this bilateral dynamic because of its own vilification of U.S. policy toward China, lack of strategic empathy with the American perspective, and periodic resistance to engagement with Washington. But what both sides need to recognize is the symmetry of their perspectives, and the mutual distrust and recrimination that are fueling it.
If Kennan failed in his efforts to get Washington and Moscow to overcome such an interactive dynamic and to reach a diplomatic modus vivendi that might have eased or ended the Cold War, the question today is whether the opportunity still exists for Washington and Beijing to negotiate a similar modus vivendi before the competitive aspect of their relationship leads inexorably to another cold war, or worse. Kennan correctly warned that mistaken attribution of motives and false assumptions of enmity can be self-fulfilling. U.S.-China relations now appear to be on that path. If there were missed opportunities to ease U.S.-Soviet relations during the Cold War, we may now be missing opportunities to put U.S.-China relations on a less hostile and more constructive path.
Proponents of negotiation with Beijing toward that end, however, face the same obstacles and counterarguments that Kennan did. “Engagement” with China is widely characterized as an approach that has already proven a failure—because its supposed purpose was to lead Beijing to adopt Western values and support Western interests. Chinese leaders, it is argued, have betrayed those American objectives, cannot be trusted to deal with Washington in good faith, and indeed are not genuinely interested in reciprocal engagement. As a result, a confrontational U.S. approach focused on “extreme competition” and what amounts to militarized containment is considered a safer bet than seeking any accommodation with Beijing, and as probably inescapable.
It may be true that mutually beneficial relations and peaceful coexistence with China are as much of a pipe dream today as Kennan’s vision of an “honorable settlement” with the Soviet Union was thought to be fifty years ago. Given the levels of bilateral distrust and the domestic politics on both sides, strategic empathy may no longer be achievable, or even politically possible, in Washington or Beijing. Leaders on both sides may not be prepared or willing to assume the risks of pursuing mutual accommodation, especially if they have already concluded that doing so would be futile.