How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Is the world entering a new cold war? Our answer is yes and no. Yes if we mean a protracted international rivalry, for cold wars in this sense are as old as history itself. Some became hot, some didn’t: no law guarantees either outcome. No if we mean the Cold War, which we capitalize because it originated and popularized the term. That struggle took place at a particular time (from 1945–47 to 1989–91), among particular adversaries (the United States, the Soviet Union, and their respective allies), and over particular issues (post–World War II power balances, ideological clashes, arms races). None of those issues looms as large now, and where parallels do exist—growing bipolarity, intensifying polemics, sharpening distinctions between autocracies and democracies—the context is quite different.
It’s no longer debatable that the United States and China, tacit allies during the last half of the last Cold War, are entering their own new cold war: Chinese President Xi Jinping has declared it, and a rare bipartisan consensus in the United States has accepted the challenge. What, then, might previous contests—the one and only Cold War and the many earlier cold wars—suggest about this one?
The future is, of course, less knowable than the past, but it’s not in all respects unknowable. Time will continue to pass, the law of gravity will still apply, and none of us will outlive our physiological term limits. Are similarly reliable knowns shaping the emerging cold war? If so, what unknowns lurk within them? Thucydides had such predictabilities and surprises in mind when he cautioned, 24 centuries ago, that the future would resemble the past but not in all respects reflect it—even as he also argued that the greatest single war of his time revealed timeless truths about all wars to come.
Our purpose here, then, is to show how the greatest unfought war of our time—the Soviet-American Cold War—as well as other prior struggles, might expand experience and enhance resilience in a Sino-American rivalry whose future, hot or cold, remains unclear. That history provides a framework within which to survive uncertainty, and possibly even thrive within it, whatever the rest of the twenty-first century throws our way.
Our first known is geography, which continental drift will in time alter, but not in our time. China will remain chiefly a land power, beset by an ancient dilemma. If, in search of strategic depth, it tries to expand its perimeters, it is likely to overstretch its capabilities and provoke resistance from anxious neighbors. If, to regain solvency, it contracts its perimeters, it risks inviting in enemies. Even behind great walls, uneasy lie the heads of those whose boundaries remain unfixed.
The United States, in contrast, benefits from boundaries that geography has determined. That’s why the United Kingdom, after 1815, chose not to contest its offspring’s primacy in North America: sustaining armies across 3,000 miles of ocean would have been too costly even for the world’s greatest naval power. Geography gave the Americans hybrid hegemony: control of a continent and unimpeded access to two vast oceans, which they quickly connected with a transcontinental railroad. That allowed them to develop the military-industrial means with which to rescue Europeans in World War I, World War II, and the Cold War from the attempted continental consolidations they confronted.
Why, though, from so safe a perch, did the Americans undertake such daunting commitments? Perhaps they looked in the mirror and feared what they saw: their own example of a country dominating a continent and its oceanic approaches. The trigger warning was Russia’s completion of its trans-Siberian railroad in 1904, a slapdash project soon overtaken by war and revolution—but not before eliciting the British geopolitician Halford Mackinder’s portentous warning that “heartland” control of Eurasian “rimlands” could empower new and globally ambitious forms of hybrid hegemony. President Woodrow Wilson had that prospect in mind when he declared war on imperial Germany in 1917, and President Franklin Roosevelt took the argument one step further in 1940–41, insisting—correctly, historians have now confirmed—that Adolf Hitler’s ultimate target was the United States itself. So when the American diplomat George Kennan, in 1947, called for “containing” an emboldened World War II ally, the Soviet Union, he had long legacies on which to draw.
Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) evokes similar concerns. The “belt” is to be a network of rail and road corridors across Eurasia. The “road” will be sea routes in the Indo-Pacific and, if global warming permits, also in the Arctic, sustained by bases and ports in states made friendly by the BRI's “benefits.” Nothing Germans or Russians ever attempted combined such ambition with such specificity: China seeks hybrid hegemony on an unprecedented scale. Which brings us to our first unknown: What might that imply for Eurasia and the world beyond?
There’s a remarkable record, over the past three centuries, of offshore balancers thwarting aspirants to onshore domination: first Great Britain against France in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, then an Anglo-American coalition against Germany twice during the first half of the twentieth century, followed by a U.S.-led coalition against the Soviet Union in the second half. It’s too easy to claim that maritime states project power without generating resistance, for if that were the case, colonialism would still thrive. But the relationship between geography and governance is clear enough to be our second known.
Continents—North America excepted—tend to nurture authoritarians: where geography fails to fix boundaries, harsh hands claim the right and duty to do so, whether as protection from external dangers or to preserve internal order. Liberty, in these situations, is decreed from the top down, not evolved from the bottom up. But that holds such regimes responsible for what happens. They can’t, as democracies regularly do, spread the blame. Autocracies that fall short—such as the Soviet Union—risk hollowing themselves out from within.
China’s post–Cold War leaders, having compulsively studied the Soviet example, sought to avoid repeating it by transforming Marxism into consumer capitalism without at the same time allowing democracy. They thereby flipped what they saw as Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s greatest error: permitting democracy without ensuring prosperity. This latest “rectification of names”—the ancient Chinese procedure of conforming names to shifting realities—seemed until recently to have succeeded. The Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s post-Mao pro-market reforms solidified support for the regime and made China a model for much of the rest of the world. Xi, on taking power, was widely expected to continue along that path.
The study of history is the best compass we have in navigating the future.
But he hasn’t. Instead, Xi is cutting off access to the outside world, defying international legal norms, and encouraging “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy, none of which seems calculated to win or retain allies. At home, he is enforcing orthodoxy, whitewashing history, and oppressing minorities in ways defunct Russian and Chinese emperors might have applauded. Most significant, he has sought to secure these reversals by abolishing his own term limits.
Hence our second unknown: Why is Xi undoing the reforms, while abandoning the diplomatic subtlety, that allowed China’s rise in the first place? Perhaps he fears the risks of his own retirement, even though these mount with each rival he imprisons or purges. Perhaps he has realized that innovation requires but may also inspire spontaneity within his country. Perhaps he worries that increasingly hostile international rivals won’t allow him unlimited time to achieve his aims. Perhaps he sees the prevailing concept of world order itself as at odds with a mandate from Heaven, Marx, or Mao.
Or it could be that Xi envisions a world order with authoritarianism at its core and with China at its center. Technology, he may expect, will make human consciousness as transparent as satellites made the earth’s surface during the Cold War. China, he may assume, will never alienate its foreign friends. Expectations within China, he may suppose, will never find reasons not to rise. And Xi, as he ages, will gain in the wisdom, energy, and attentiveness to detail that only he, as supreme leader, can trust himself to provide.
But if Xi really believes all of this, then he’s already losing sight of the gaps between promises and performance that have long been Catch-22s for authoritarian regimes. For if, like Gorbachev’s predecessors did, you ignore such fissures, they’ll only worsen. But if, like Gorbachev himself, you acknowledge them, you’ll undermine the claim to infallibility on which legitimacy in an autocracy must rest. That is why graceful exits by authoritarians have been so rare.
Democracy in America has its own gaps between promises and performance, so much so that it seems at times to suffer from Brezhnev-like paralysis. The United States differs from China, though, in that distrust of authority is constitutionally mandated. The separation of powers secures a center of gravity to which the nation can return after whatever bursts of activity crises may have demanded. The result is what evolutionary biologists call “punctuated equilibrium”: a resilience rooted in rapid recovery from unforeseen circumstances. China has it the other way around. Respect for authority permeates its culture, but stability is punctuated by protracted upheavals when authority fails. Recovery, in the absence of gravity, can require decades. Autocracies often win sprints, but smart investors put their marathon money on democracies. Our third known, then, is sharply different roots of resilience.
The pattern emerges clearly from the two costliest civil wars of the nineteenth century. The Taiping Rebellion of 1850–64 took some 20 million Chinese lives, about five percent of the population. The American Civil War of 1861–65 killed 750,000 combatants, 2.5 percent of a much less crowded country. And yet by the testimony of its current leaders, China after the Taiping Rebellion underwent decades of turmoil from which it emerged only with Mao’s proclamation of the People’s Republic in 1949. The United States, by that same account, recovered quickly enough to join the European predators victimizing China at the end of the nineteenth century and has continued doing so ever since. Leave aside issues of accuracy in this view of history. Our point is that Xi’s growing reliance on this narrative and the nationalism it stokes implies an inflammability in Chinese culture that is currently useful to the regime—but that might not be easily extinguished.
Autocracies often win sprints, but smart investors put their marathon money on democracies.
Hence our third unknown: Can Xi turn internal outrage on and off, as Mao did repeatedly during his years in power? Or is Xi locking himself into the same dependence on external hostility without which Joseph Stalin, as Kennan put it in 1946, did not know how to rule? Because nothing could reassure such a regime, Kennan insisted, only cumulative frustrations would convince Stalin or, more likely, his successors that it was in their best interests to alter their system’s worst aspects. That strategy depended, however, on neither side setting deadlines: Kennan carefully pointed out that it would never have worked with Hitler, who had a fixed timetable, dictated by his own mortality, for achieving his aims.
Mao, craftily, gave his regime 100 years to recover Taiwan. Xi has ruled out passing that problem from generation to generation, although he has not yet set a date for resolving it. Nonetheless, his increasingly aggressive rhetoric adds to the risk that the Taiwan issue could cause a Sino-American cold war to become hot, for the United States has deliberately left its own Taiwan policy unclear. All of which eerily evokes how Europe went to war in 1914: an ambiguity of great-power commitments combined with the absence of an escalation off switch.
Except that we have, in the Cold War, an intervening known to draw on: how that conflict transformed itself into a “long peace.” The first half of the twentieth century offered no support for the idea that great-power rivalries could be resolved peacefully. “A future war with Soviet Russia,” the American diplomat Joseph Grew predicted in 1945, “is as certain as anything in the world can be certain.” What allowed the Cold War superpowers to escape that prospect, and how relevant are those circumstances today?
One answer is that history itself during those years became prophecy. Given what most leaders had experienced in a second world war, few anywhere were eager to risk a third. It helped also that those in Washington and Moscow, if for different reasons, saw time as an ally: the Americans because the strategy of containment relied on time to thwart Soviet ambitions, Stalin because he expected time to produce fratricidal capitalist wars that would ensure proletarian revolutionary triumphs. Once Stalin’s successors realized the extent of his miscalculations, it was too late to reverse their effects. The Soviet Union spent the rest of the Cold War failing to catch up.
But what if determinations to avoid the next war fade with the memories of the last one? That’s how some historians have explained World War I: a century had passed without a European great war. Does it matter that three-quarters of a century now separate American and Chinese leaders from the great wars of their predecessors? Americans have had some combat experience in the “limited” and “low-intensity” conflicts in which they have been involved—with decidedly mixed results—but the Chinese, except for their brief invasion of Vietnam in 1979, haven’t fought any significant wars for more than half a century. That may be why Xi, with his “heads bashed bloody” rhetoric, seems to celebrate bellicosity: he may not know what its costs can be.
A second way in which historians have explained the “long peace” is that nuclear weapons suppressed optimism about how wars might end. There’s no way to know for sure what deterrence in the Cold War deterred: that’s a history that didn’t happen. But this in itself suggests a balanced lack of resolve, for whatever Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and U.S. President John F. Kennedy may have said publicly, neither wanted to die for Berlin. Instead, they accepted a walled city inside a partitioned country in the middle of a divided continent. No grand design could have produced such an oddity, and yet it held up until the Cold War evolved its own peaceful, if equally unexpected, end. None of this could have happened without nuclear capabilities, for only they could put lives on the line simultaneously in Washington and Moscow.
So what about Washington and Beijing? Even with recent enhancements, the Chinese deploy less than ten percent of the number of nuclear weapons the United States and Russia retain, and that number is only 15 percent of what the two superpowers had at the height of the Cold War. Does this matter? We doubt it, given what Khrushchev achieved in 1962: despite a nine-to-one disadvantage in nuclear weapons, he deterred the post–Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba that Kennedy had been planning. The United States has lived ever since with its own adjacent anomaly: a communist island in the middle of its self-proclaimed Caribbean sea of influence.
It’s even less plausible today that the United States would use nuclear weapons to defend Taiwan, for that island is more important to Beijing than Cuba or Berlin ever was to Moscow. Yet that implausibility could lead Xi to believe that he can invade Taiwan without risking a U.S. nuclear response. China’s growing cyber- and antisatellite capabilities may also encourage him, for they bring back possibilities of surprise attacks that the Cold War’s reconnaissance revolution seemed, for decades, to have diminished.
What would Xi do with Taiwan if he captured it?
But then what? What would Xi do with Taiwan if he captured it? The island is not Hong Kong, an easily controlled city. Nor is it Crimea, with a largely acquiescent population. Nor are other big islands in the region—Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, and New Zealand—teetering dominoes. Nor would the United States, with its unmatched power-projection capabilities, be likely to “sit idly by,” as the Chinese might put it: “ambiguity” means keeping options open, not ruling out any response at all.
One such response might be to exploit the overstretch that comes from China’s forcefully expanding its perimeters, the self-created problem that once plagued Moscow. Suppressing the “Prague Spring” was simple enough for the Soviet Union in 1968, until military morale plummeted when the Czechs made it clear to their occupiers that they didn’t feel “liberated.” The Brezhnev Doctrine—the commitment to act similarly wherever else “socialism” might be at risk—alarmed more than it reassured the leaders of other such states, notably Mao, who secretly began planning his 1971 “opening” to Washington. By the time the Soviet Union invoked the doctrine again, in Afghanistan in 1979, it had few allies left anywhere and none on whose reliability it could count.
Xi’s threats to Taiwan could have a similar effect in states surrounding China, which may in turn look for their own “openings” to Washington. Extravagant Chinese claims in the South China Sea have already increased anxieties in that region: witness Australia’s unexpected alignment with the Americans and the British on nuclear submarines, as well as India’s expanded cooperation with Indo-Pacific allies. Central Asians may not indefinitely ignore repressions of Tibetans and Uyghurs. Debt traps, environmental degradation, and onerous repayment terms are souring recipients on the BRI’s benefits. And Russia, the original source of early-twentieth-century concerns about the “heartland,” could now find itself surrounded by Chinese “rimlands” in Asia, eastern and southeastern Europe, and even the Arctic.
All of which raises the possibility that American unipolarity may end not with a precarious Sino-American bipolarity but with a multipolarity that restrains Beijing by making assertiveness self-defeating. Metternich and Bismarck would have approved. So would a crafty American Cold Warrior who, following their example, hoped to deploy a similar strategy. “I think it will be a safer world and a better world,” President Richard Nixon told Time magazine in 1972, “if we have a strong, healthy United States, Europe, Soviet Union, China, Japan, each balancing the other.”
Our final known is the inescapability of surprises. International systems are anarchic, theorists tell us, in that no component within them is fully in control. Strategy may reduce uncertainty but will never eliminate it: humans are fallible, and artificial intelligences will surely be also. There are, though, patterns of competition across time and space. It may be possible to derive from these—especially from the Soviet-American Cold War—categories of surprises likely to occur in the Sino-American cold war.
Existential surprises are shifts in the arenas within which great powers compete, for which neither is responsible but that endanger them both. U.S. President Ronald Reagan had this in mind when he surprised Gorbachev at their first meeting, in 1985, with the claim that a Martian invasion would force the United States and the Soviet Union to settle their differences overnight: Weren’t nuclear weapons at least as dangerous? Martians haven’t yet arrived, but we do face two new existential threats: the accelerating rate of climate change and the almost overnight outbreak, in 2020, of a global pandemic.
Neither is unprecedented. Climates have always fluctuated, which is why it used to be possible to walk from Siberia to Alaska. Thucydides described the plague that struck Athens in 430 BC. What is new is the extent to which globalization has accelerated these phenomena, raising the question of whether geopolitical rivals can collaboratively address the deep histories that are increasingly altering their own.
International systems are anarchic and no component within them is fully in control.
The Soviet-American Cold War showed that cooperation to avoid catastrophe need not be explicit: no treaty specified that nuclear weapons, after 1945, would not again be used in war. Instead, existential dangers produced tacit cooperation where negotiated formalities almost surely would have failed. Climate change may present similar opportunities in the Sino-American cold war, even if COVID-19 has so far spurred only Chinese abrasiveness. The point should be to keep landing sites for Martian equivalents open—not to welcome existential problems but to explore whether collaborative outcomes can result from them.
Intentional surprises originate in efforts by single competitors to startle, confuse, or dismay their adversaries. Surprise attacks, as on Pearl Harbor, fit this category, and intelligence failures can never be ruled out. The Cold War’s greatest surprises, however, arose from reversals of polarity, of which Mao was a master. When he leaned east, in 1949–50, he blindsided the Truman administration and opened the way for the Korean War and a communist offensive in Asia. When he leaned west, in 1970–71, he made the United States an ally while rendering the Soviet Union vulnerable on two fronts, a disadvantage from which it never recovered.
That’s why an American “opening” to Moscow might someday turn it against Beijing. The original Sino-Soviet split took two decades to develop, with the Eisenhower administration seeking to speed the process by driving Mao into a mutually repulsive relationship with Khrushchev. Xi’s BRI may be accomplishing this on its own with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has long complained about U.S. “containment” of Russia. Chinese “containment,” from the Kremlin’s perspective, may ultimately become the greater danger.
One other form of intentional surprise comes from supposed subordinates who turn out not to be. Neither Washington nor Moscow wanted the offshore island crises of 1954–55 and 1958: Chiang Kai-shek, in Taipei, and Mao, in Beijing, made them happen. The communist leader Walter Ulbricht’s warnings of an imminent East German collapse forced Khrushchev to provoke the Berlin crises of 1958–59 and 1961. Smaller powers pursuing their own agendas derailed Soviet-American détente in the 1970s: Egypt by attacking Israel in 1973; Cuba by intervening in Africa in 1975–77; and Hafizullah Amin in Afghanistan, whose reported contacts with U.S. officials triggered a self-defeating Soviet invasion in 1979. None of this, though, was unprecedented: Thucydides showed Corinth and Corcyra doing something similar to the Spartans and the Athenians 24 centuries earlier.
The potential for tails wagging dogs in the Sino-American cold war is already evident: rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait have resulted as much from changes in Taiwanese politics in recent years as from deliberate decisions in Washington or Beijing. And while China is trying, through the BRI, to create a system that maximizes its power, it may end up building, through its relationships with insecure and unstable regimes, just the sort of inverse dependency that vexed the Cold War superpowers. That can be a formula for volatility: history is full of instances in which local actors embroiled larger powers.
Finally, there are systemic surprises. The Cold War ended in a way no one at the time had expected: with the sudden collapse of a superpower and its accompanying ideology. Two visionaries who had foreseen such a possibility, however, were that doctrine’s mid-nineteenth-century founders, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Capitalism, they were sure, would eventually destroy itself by creating too great a gap between the means of production and the benefits it distributed. Kennan, a century later, turned Marx and Engels upside down. The gap between productive means and distributed benefits would instead, he insisted in 1946–47, bring about the collapse of communism within the Soviet Union and its post–World War II satellite states. Kennan didn’t welcome what finally happened in 1990–91: the implosion of the Soviet Union itself was too great a disruption in the balance of power even for him. But he did understand how stresses within societies can themselves greatly surprise.
No one can predict when some new geopolitical earthquake might occur: geological earthquakes are difficult enough to anticipate. Geologists do know, however, where to expect them: that is why California gets earthquake warnings but Connecticut does not. Does the very brittleness of authoritarian regimes—their strange belief in the immortality of top-down command structures—leave them similarly vulnerable? Or does the entrenched recalcitrance of democracies—their resistance to being commanded—pose even greater dangers to them? Only time will tell, probably sooner than we expect.
This aggregation of knowns, unknowns, and surprises leaves us with the historical equivalent of a three-body problem: given the coexistence of predictability and its opposite, we’ll know the outcome only when we’ve seen it. Strategy, however, doesn’t have that luxury. Its success requires living with uncertainties, of which the future will not be in short supply. The strategy of containment, although imperfect in its accomplishments and at times tragic in its failures, did successfully manage its own contradictions while buying the time necessary for those within the Soviet system to become obvious, even, in the end, to its own leaders.
It did this chiefly by combining simplicity of conception with flexibility in application, for even the clearest of destinations may not always, or even often, reveal the paths by which to reach them. It may be necessary, for example, to cooperate with Stalin to defeat Hitler, or with Tito to resist Stalin, or with Mao to confound Brezhnev: not all evils are equally so at all times. Nor are arms buildups always bad or negotiations always good: Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, and Reagan employed both to begin transformations of the adversaries confronting them. Kennan distrusted such elasticities in the pursuit of containment, but it was precisely this maneuverability that ensured the strategy’s safe arrival at its intended destination.
A second way in which containment succeeded was by treating spontaneity as a strength. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was as much a European as an American creation, in striking contrast to its Moscow-dominated rival, the Warsaw Pact. Nor, outside of Europe, did the United States insist on ideological uniformity among its friends. The objective instead was to make diversity a weapon against a rival bent on suppressing it: to use the resistance to uniformity embedded within distinctive histories, cultures, and faiths as a barrier against the homogenizing ambitions of would-be hegemons.
A third asset, although it didn’t always seem so at the time, was the American election cycle. Quadrennial stress tests for containment unnerved its architects, upset sympathetic pundits, and alarmed overseas allies, but they were at least safeguards against ossification. No long-term strategy can succeed if it allows aspirations to outrun its capabilities or capabilities to corrupt its aspirations. How, though, do strategists develop the self-awareness—and the self-confidence—to acknowledge that their strategies are not working? Elections are, for sure, blunt instruments. They are better, though, than having no means of reconsideration apart from the demise of aged autocrats, the timing of whose departure from this world is not given to their followers to know.
There are thus, in the United States, no exclusively foreign affairs. Because Americans proclaim their ideals so explicitly, they illustrate departures from them all the more vividly. Domestic failures such as economic inequality, racial segregation, sexual discrimination, environmental degradation, and top-level extraconstitutional excesses all go on display for the world to see. As Kennan pointed out in the most quoted article ever published in these pages, “Exhibitions of indecision, disunity and internal disintegration within this country” can “have an exhilarating effect” on external enemies. To defend its external interests, then, “the United States need only measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation.”
Easily said, not easily done, and therein lies the ultimate test for the United States in its contest with China: the patient management of internal threats to our democracy, as well as tolerance of the moral and geopolitical contradictions through which global diversity can most feasibly be defended. The study of history is the best compass we have in navigating this future—even if it turns out to be not what we’d expected and not in most respects what we’ve experienced before.
Learning the Right Lessons of the Past