The Financial Times reports that China has successfully launched a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile that U.S. officials worry we cannot defend against. China’s warplane incursions into Taiwan’s air defense space have continued and intensified. China’s President has publicly called for the annexation of Taiwan. Some in the United States have called for an unambiguous statement from the Biden administration that we will defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. We may be at one of those moments in history where U.S. national security decisions will shape events for the foreseeable future.
The most recent issue of Foreign Affairs includes an important article by Hal Brands, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University, and John Lewis Gaddis, perhaps the greatest historian of the Cold War and the official biographer of the American diplomat George F. Kennan. The article is entitled “The New Cold War: America, China, and the Echoes of History,” and it bears close reading and considerable contemplation.
The authors recognize that the United States is in a new Cold War with China, and they endeavor to use the “lessons” of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War — what they call “the greatest unfought war of our time” — to formulate a strategy for waging Cold War with China in the 21st century. The authors rightly focus on geography and the study of history as compasses for navigating the future. They also rightly consider the nature of the Chinese Communist regime and its current leader President Xi Jinping in attempting to understand Chinese intentions and accurately forecast Chinese actions.
Professors Brands and Gaddis recommend that the United States generally replicate the strategy of containment that they contend resulted in the successful conclusion of the first Cold War. And like many Cold War historians they invoke George F. Kennan, the director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff who outlined the containment strategy in his famous “X” article in Foreign Affairs in 1947.
The authors write that China “will remain chiefly a land power” that if it expands “is likely to overstretch its capabilities and provoke resistance from anxious neighbors.” But China has and is investing in naval power, and its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a geopolitical blueprint for both land and sea expansion, as Brands and Gaddis acknowledge. It was the great British geopolitical thinker Sir Halford Mackinder (mentioned by Brands and Gaddis) who worried that someday China could become the dominant land power in Asia and thereby add “oceanic frontage” to the resources of Eurasia and become the world’s strongest land and sea power — seeking what Brands and Gaddis call “hybrid hegemony.”
The authors seem content to note that in the past “offshore balancers” have successfully thwarted attempts at Eurasian hegemony, that Xi Jinping may be pursuing domestic policies that will undermine the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) rule (as Gorbachev did in the Soviet Union), and that Kennan’s containment strategy led not to World War III, but to a “long peace” and the break-up of the Soviet empire.
That “long peace,” of course, included fighting long and bloody wars in Korea and Vietnam. Xi Jinping’s totalitarian domestic policies have little in common with Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost. And history’s offshore balancers never had to confront a Eurasian-based power that was supreme both on land and at sea, and hopefully we won’t either.
Containment succeeded, Brands and Gaddis write, “by combining simplicity of conception with flexibility in application.” Nixon’s opening to China, they suggest, could be duplicated today with a similar opening to Russia. Arms build-ups can lead to favorable negotiations, as happened in the 1980s. Alliances like NATO can act as barriers against the “ambitions of would-be hegemons.” And, referencing Kennan, internal unity within this country can be our greatest strength in confronting adversaries abroad.
Of course, both historians know that shortly after Kennan wrote the “X” article and was subjected to criticism by Walter Lippmann, among others, Kennan began to distance himself from the more “hard power” aspects of containment. He claimed thereafter that the “X” article had been misinterpreted; that he meant “political” not military containment, perhaps forgetting that in the “X” article he had advocated “firm and vigilant containment” and the application of “counter-force” to resist Soviet encroachments. He subsequently opposed the formation of NATO and recommended that both U.S. and Soviet troops be withdrawn from Europe. He was replaced as director of the Policy Planning Staff by the more hawkish Paul Nitze who played the major role in authoring NSC-68, the secret blueprint for waging the Cold War which Kennan opposed.
Kennan also opposed the U.S. building of the hydrogen bomb and advocated the international control of atomic weapons. He spent most of the next two decades further distancing himself from his original containment strategy. “By the mid-1970s,” Gaddis wrote in his biography of Kennan, “his dismay had grown to the point of seeing his own country, not the Soviet Union, as the principal threat to international stability.” In the early 1980s, Kennan proposed a U.S. policy of “no first use” of nuclear weapons despite the huge Soviet geographical and conventional weapons advantage in Europe, and complained about the “madness” of the Reagan administration’s confrontational policies toward the Soviet Union.
Yet, it was the Reagan administration’s confrontational policies in the 1980s that led to the unraveling of the Soviet empire and the Western victory in the Cold War. And Reagan’s Cold War approach can be intellectually traced to the writings of James Burnham, especially in his book Containment or Liberation? (1952). Containment or Liberation? was both a critique of Kennan’s containment strategy and a prescription for a more offensive policy to undermine Soviet rule in Eastern Europe. We know that Reagan was an admirer of Burnham, and was an avid reader of National Review, where Burnham wrote a regular column on the Cold War for 25 years. In 1983, Reagan awarded Burnham the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Reagan’s military build-up, waging of economic and political warfare against the Soviet Union, and assistance to anti-communist forces within the Soviet empire resembled Burnham’s policy proposals in Containment or Liberation? The United States and the West won the Cold War because Ronald Reagan moved beyond containment to a strategy of liberation. Reagan’s own speeches and then-classified national security documents attest to this policy shift.
Ironically, in his memoirs Kennan called Containment and Liberation? “a well-written and persuasive book.” Kennan was right about Burnham’s book, and our strategists today would benefit more by reading Burnham’s Containment or Liberation? than Kennan’s “X” article.
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