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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.
Strategic misunderstanding was especially evident during crises. Washington, for example, thought the outbreak of the Korean War was a prelude to a Soviet global offensive, and therefore carried out an unprecedented mobilization that militarized its Cold War strategy. Beijing, in turn, thought intervention in Korea was essential to its own survival after the United States sent naval forces into Taiwan Strait and its troops crossed the 38th parallel. In both Vietnam and Afghanistan, fear of exploitation by the other side generated costly military interventions.
The United States and China must rely on analysis from experts who know the other side well.
Today, China and the United States can both work to better understand the strategic aims of the other side. Many Americans now believe that China has a strategy to replace the United States as the predominant global power, while many Chinese think that the United States is intent on curtailing China’s rise. Such assumptions should be tested against concrete actions. Both Washington and Beijing must learn to rely on trustworthy analysis from experts who know the other side well, and to avoid interpreting any friction in terms of worst-case scenarios.
This is especially true with regard to regional rivalry. During the era of détente, the United States and the Soviet Union managed to achieve a basic level of trust when it comes to the other side’s actions in Europe. China and the United States should strive toward achieving the same in eastern Asia, even as competition between the two sides continues. While absolute strategic distrust tends to maximize and militarize competition, efforts at confidence-building help allay misunderstanding, even when these measures cannot by themselves resolve underlying conflict.
Personal diplomacy was an essential part of this effort. During the Cold War, leaders in the United States and the Soviet Union often used diplomatic means and personal contacts to convey respect of the other side as a great power, even as they worked to stymie its strategic designs. Such efforts made competition easier to manage and, ultimately, easier to resolve as ideological and political tensions began to ease. A degree of mutual respect also made it easier to pull back from the brink in some of the Cold War’s most dangerous confrontations, such as the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 or the Indo-Pakistani war of 1971.
In the case of U.S.-Chinese relations during the Cold War, the real breakthrough came when U.S. President Richard Nixon went to Beijing himself—making both him and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, revered figures in China, despite their being anti-Communists acting to advance their own country’s national interest. Nixon and Kissinger frequently stressed their high regard for their hosts, despite vast differences in worldview, as did Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, who stuck to their principles even while honoring their guests. Such mutual respect facilitated the transition of from hostility to normalization.
Technology today makes it more difficult to stick to principles while honoring guests. What leaders say in public (and often in private) is immediately available to both domestic and foreign audiences, making it all too easy to prioritize rhetoric that may satisfy one side’s public opinion while appearing disrespectful and confrontational to the other. Even if the tone of conversations behind closed doors is civil, harsh public remarks—such as those by made both sides in Anchorage last March—make any compromise difficult. On such occasions, both sides should remember the value of conveying basic respect for the others’ position as a great power, even while speaking out on matters of concern. And in planning high-level encounters—especially between the two country’s presidents—policymakers should choose both a setting and format with such objectives in mind.
In an intense rivalry, local conflicts can easily become entangled with great-power interests—as happened in, among other flashpoints, Berlin, Cuba, Korea, and the Middle East during the Cold War. It took adept crisis management, by diplomats, military officers, and political leaders, to ensure that none of these confrontations led to global war.
Such crisis management relied on a number of steps by both sides, starting with the pursuit of limited and flexible objective. During the Berlin crises, the Soviets did not try to move into West Berlin or the United States and its allies into East Berlin. In the Cuban missile crisis, the Kennedy administration focused on withdrawal of Soviet nuclear missiles rather than overthrow of Fidel Castro or the total elimination of the Soviet presence in Cuba. Both sides must also leave space for the other to de-escalate, since unilateral de-escalation rarely happens when critical interests are at stake. In the Cuban missile crisis, U.S. policymakers designed and implemented a maritime quarantine with particular caution, rather than following traditional naval blockade procedures, in order to allow Soviet de-escalation (while also promising, through back-channels, to withdraw U.S. missiles from Turkey and not to invade Cuba). The Soviets, accordingly, could accept withdrawing their missiles from Cuba as an acceptable option given the risk of nuclear war.
In such crisis situations, communication was especially important: with emotions running high and high-level meetings off the table, there must be effective lines of communications to reduce the risk of miscalculation and identify shared crisis-management objectives. Traditional diplomatic channels were often inadequate for such purposes, but back channels—such as those used during the Cuban missile crisis—must be developed before the crisis begins. They must also be supplemented by effective command and control, and by efforts to manage relations with allies, to avoid third-party escalation. All major Cold War crises involved third parties, which often pursued their own objectives incompatible with de-escalation and crisis management. The only way to manage third party policies and objectives was through direct communication between the two superpowers. The insights gained from such exchanges could also help each of them shape third party behavior.
Mutual respect made it easier to pull back from the brink.
Crisis management is always difficult and inherently risky. Cold War policymakers learned over time that their best option was to do what they could to prevent crisis from breaking out in the first place. On the strategic level, this involved dialogues, hotlines, and specific agreements on difficult issues such as Berlin. On the operational level, the two sides developed to codes of conduct to regulate military encounters. Beijing and Washington seem to have learned some of these lessons, reflected in measures such as the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) and hotlines between defense establishments. Nevertheless, neither side is doing enough to facilitate crisis prevention and communication, in particular with regard to cyber-issues and other new technologies.
During the Cold War, the potential for incremental improvement in great-power relations was often neglected in favor of the pursuit of fundamental changes. Given the intense ideological conflict and sharp regional confrontations, such neglect was understandable. Yet it meant many lost opportunities, in areas from joint research and people-to-people exchanges to agreements on non-intervention in certain regions. The focus on ideology also prevented both sides from using leadership transitions to facilitate improvements rather than introducing new risks (by giving the impression of seeking short-term gain by testing a new leader or renegotiating past understandings).
However inexact the Cold War analogy, policymakers today have a great deal to learn from this history—and from the historians who know it best.
Unfortunately, in both the United States and China, historians of international affairs interact with analysts and political leaders less frequently than they did a generation ago. Given the likelihood that relations between China and the United States are going to get worse before they can get better, it will take all the accumulated knowledge of the past to avert worst-case scenarios and find a way forward together.