Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
In a series of speeches this summer, senior officials in the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump have cast the United States and China as antagonists in a new Cold War. Speaking to the Arizona Commerce Authority in June, U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien compared Chinese President Xi Jinping directly to the Soviet dictator in power when the actual Cold War began: “Let us be clear, the Chinese Communist Party is a Marxist-Leninist organization. The Party General Secretary Xi Jinping sees himself as Josef Stalin’s successor.”
A month later in California, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo gave a speech about Xi that President Harry Truman could have delivered about Stalin. “General Secretary Xi Jinping is a true believer in a bankrupt totalitarian ideology,” he said, adding that Xi’s ideology “informs his decades-long desire for global hegemony of Chinese communism.” Echoing American policymakers at the beginning of the Cold War, Pompeo framed the fight with Xi and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as one in which only one side ultimately could win: “If the free world doesn’t change . . . communist China will surely change us.” He later repeated his warning on Twitter, writing, “China is working to take down freedom all across the world.”
In fact, Truman did give a similar speech to Congress on March 12, 1947, establishing what became known as the Truman Doctrine. Warning about the communist threat, Truman declared:
At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life. The choice is too often not a free one. One way of life is based upon the will of the majority, and is distinguished by free institutions, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from political oppression. The second way of life is based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority. It relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio; fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedoms. I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.
Three years later, in April 1950, Truman approved a secret policy paper known as NSC-68, which laid out his strategy for containing communism around the world. Passages from the document sound eerily like Pompeo’s and O’Brien’s speeches:
The Soviet Union, unlike previous aspirants to hegemony, is animated by a new fanatic faith, antithetical to our own, and seeks to impose its absolute authority over the rest of the world. Conflict has, therefore, become endemic and is waged, on the part of the Soviet Union, by violent or non-violent methods in accordance with the dictates of expediency . . . The issues that face us are momentous, involving the fulfillment or destruction not only of this Republic but of civilization itself.
The Trump administration seems intent on resurrecting this spirit in its dealings with China—indeed, a string of sanctions against CCP and Hong Kong officials, bans on Chinese technology and apps, expulsions of Chinese journalists and students, and the closing of the Chinese consulate in Houston all seem designed in part to accelerate a Cold War with Beijing. To their credit, Pompeo, O’Brien, and other U.S. officials recognize that China’s rise will be the defining challenge for U.S. foreign policy in this century. They are also right to underscore that U.S.-Chinese competition is not only about power but also about ideology: the United States is a democracy (albeit an increasingly flawed one); China is a dictatorship that has grown more autocratic under Xi. And like the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, both countries use various media, economic and technological assistance, formal alliances, ties with political parties, covert operations, and in the case of the United States, sometimes even military intervention to advance their respective ideologies.
But is Xi really Stalin’s heir, as O’Brien claimed and as other U.S. officials seem to think? The basis for such a comparison is thin. Perhaps Xi and his comrades truly seek to conquer the entire world and replace all democracies with Marxist-Leninist dictatorships—I am not expert enough to judge their intentions nor currently privy to classified intelligence. Maybe Xi has given his blessing to a secret strategy, much like Truman did when he signed off on NSC-68, that elaborates a grand design to impose communist dictatorships everywhere and rule the world. But as Pompeo himself argued, Washington should “act not on the basis of what Chinese leaders say, but how they behave.” And that is where the analogy with Stalin falls apart.
Xi most closely approximates Stalin in the way he rules his country: he could well remain in power for decades and has created a cult of personality that would impress Stalin’s propagandists. The CCP under Xi runs a ruthless and oppressive dictatorship. It stifles individual freedoms, jails dissidents and rivals, and has sent countless Uighurs and other minorities to internment camps in what some experts have classified as cultural genocide. New technologies give the party surveillance and censorship tools that many Cold War communist regimes could only dream of. But “Xi-ism” is still not Stalinism. Stalin’s regime was far more totalitarian in its control over every aspect of Soviet citizens’ lives. Stalin also killed millions and imprisoned millions more, rivaled in brutality only by Hitler and Mao. Xi does not make this list.
Chinese citizens enjoy much greater autonomy over their own economic well-being than Soviet citizens did in the early days of the Cold War—a product of China’s more open, market-oriented, and globally integrated economy. On this dimension, the comparison is not even close.
Washington needs to spend less time trying to trip its opponent and more time trying to become a better athlete.
Look to foreign policy, and the analogy unravels further. Stalin openly proclaimed his desire for a global communist revolution, hoping to create a network of socialist states under Moscow’s rule—and it wasn’t just talk. In the early years of the Cold War, his Red Army soldiers, intelligence officers, and Communist Party agents aggressively imposed communism across Eastern Europe. He provided aid to Mao’s Chinese Communist Party and covert assistance to communists in Greece, encouraged proxy military forces in the Korean War, and supported coups around the world. He dissolved the Communist International, or Comintern, in 1943, when allied with the United States and Great Britain during World War II, but he replaced it with another global Communist Party alliance, the Cominform, in 1947.
Xi, by contrast, has not orchestrated the overthrow of a single regime. Hong Kong comes closest, considering Beijing’s expanding acts of repression there. (Arresting Hong Kong media owner Jimmy Lai for allegedly “colluding with foreign forces,” as Beijing did on Monday, is exactly what Stalin’s thugs in eastern Europe used to do.) But questions of sovereignty cloud the analogy. Beijing has also invested tremendous resources in propagating its ideas, most of which are antithetical to liberalism and democracy, and provided surveillance technologies and economic aid to sustain autocracies in other countries. But Xi has yet to instigate a coup, arm insurgents, or invade a democracy and install a communist regime. Little suggests that he seeks to subvert American democracy. (Russian President Vladimir Putin has been much bolder and more aggressive on that front.) And although the United Front Work Department—one of the CCP’s main agents of influence overseas—warrants close scrutiny, its efforts to export the Chinese system of government seem feeble and ineffective next to Soviet tactics. Promoting a positive image of Xi’s China or proclaiming the economic benefits of its development model is not the same as invading countries or providing AK-47s and Katyusha rocket launchers to communist guerrillas. If Xi and his comrades are actually trying to promote Marxism-Leninism-Maoism around the world, they are doing a bad job of it.
Truman and his administration justifiably responded to Soviet aggressions by mobilizing to contain communism. Guided by the belief that “a defeat of free institutions anywhere is a defeat everywhere,” as NSC-68 put it, Truman and successive Cold War presidents forged enduring alliances, constructed a liberal international order that has lasted decades, and created a network of governmental agencies and nongovernmental organizations dedicated to democracy promotion. Studying these successes could offer valuable lessons on how to deal with China today. But the United States also at times overreacted and oversimplified, seeing every leftist and national liberation movement as an enemy to be defeated. That mindset contributed to some of the worst American excesses during the Cold War, including McCarthyism, the fictitious “missile gap,” the Vietnam War, and support for brutal right-wing dictatorships, including even apartheid in South Africa. (The Trump administration’s current indifference to the communist dictatorship in Vietnam is striking.) And the Cold War was not cold; the scholars David Holloway and Stephen Stedman estimate that 20 million people died between 1945 and 1989 in 130 wars, many of them fueled by superpower rivalry. Mistaking Xi for a new Stalin could lead the United States to repeat those mistakes.
The Cold War lasted 40 years. For most of that period, victory was uncertain. For Washington to be successful in what may be an even longer contest, it must diagnose the severity of the threat precisely and calibrate efforts to contain and deter Beijing accordingly. False analogies from the Cold War hurt both of these efforts. Washington shouldn’t spend trillions on nuclear arms, missiles, and space weapons. It shouldn’t fight proxy wars. And most important, it shouldn’t stumble into a direct confrontation with China. U.S. foreign-policy makers must resist the impulse to check every Chinese move around the world, like Truman believed he had to do with Stalin. This line of thinking compelled U.S. Cold War strategists to double and triple down on the tragic, unnecessary war in Vietnam. Today, Americans know that they did not need to contain communism in Vietnam to defeat the Soviets. (And by the way, Eastern Europeans—Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, and many others—played the central role in defeating Soviet communism and ending the Cold War, not Americans.) Threat assessments, in other words, should never go unquestioned. Are freedom and democracy really under worldwide assault if Laos or Rwanda imports Chinese-made Internet equipment? Or if the Chinese develop Belt and Road Initiative projects in Ghana or Italy? Should every Chinese citizen in the United States be treated as a spy? By trying to contain the Chinese everywhere, Washington may undermine containment in areas where its vital national security interests are actually at stake. And as the Cold War showed, success will depend in no small measure on the United States’ ability to improve at home—to boost innovation and R & D and invest in education, health care, infrastructure, and democracy. Washington needs to spend less time trying to trip its opponent and more time trying to become a better athlete.
The United States must understand China “as it is,” to quote Pompeo again, not as some in Washington want it to be. The Trump administration undoubtedly would like a Stalinist leader to be in charge in Beijing, if only to better mobilize and unite Americans against him. But China “as it is” is not ruled by a new Stalin. Asserting otherwise doesn’t change that fact and gets in the way of developing a sophisticated, successful U.S. policy to contain, deter, and engage China over the long haul.
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