Fighting the Last (Cold) War – OpEd – Eurasia Review

By David B. Kanin *

The argument goes: The United States lost the Vietnam War in 1975. Less than two decades later, the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe collapsed, and then the Soviet Union itself imploded. The United States had won the Cold War. Therefore, there is no reason to exaggerate China’s rise to power and the failures of US strategy and leadership in Syria, Afghanistan, the South China Sea and elsewhere. America can still regain its luster and reaffirm its global dominance, just as it did after 1975. Certainly the country faces serious internal divisions, but these also existed in the 1960s and 1970s. China may seem powerful, but it faces serious economic problems that will limit its ability to challenge the American hyperpower. The pessimists were wrong when they predicted that the Japan of the 1970s and 1980s would overtake the United States as a world leader in innovation, and they will now be wrong when they make the same predictions about China. The United States and democracies in general are resourceful and resilient and, with the right leadership and policies, can once again regain their balance and retain their purposive power.

From time to time, the term “cognitive dissonance” comes up in common parlance. It refers to the experience of facing information or events that upset the fundamental beliefs and self-confidence of a person or community. It is both an emotional and a rational process that leads to anxiety as well as a crisis of logic.

What is sometimes lost in the use of this concept is a companion term coined by those who first studied cognitive dissonance and necessary for its understanding. [2]. “Dissonance reduction” is the process of dismissing disturbing information or development and rationalizing the reasons and feelings that prove the uncomfortable person or conventional wisdom was right from the start. The feeling of disorientation and anxiety is alleviated and the individual or the community regains a comfortable cognitive and affective inertia.

Minimizing the challenge of China and misusing the Vietnamese analogy are examples of using dissonance reduction to quell cognitive dissonance and to avoid the anxiety of taking the structural causes of global decline seriously and of the internal weakening of the United States. Maybe I’m not the only person who finds America’s narrative turn of Vietnam’s failure as good news more than a little kinky.

So, consider the differences between the Vietnam era and current conditions. First, the global power dynamics were much more favorable to the United States then than they are today. In both periods, the United States, Russia (Soviet Union) and China were the main international actors (Europe, then like today, was more the scene of the actions of others than a credible international actor) . Whenever three is the geopolitically relevant number, two actors line up against the third. Following the Sino-Soviet split and clashes along the northern borders of those countries in 1969, the United States and China found common cause against Soviet power. Starting with the “ping-pong diplomacy” of the early 1970s and gaining momentum after Deng Xiaoping came to power, China began to absorb America’s knowledge, technology and resources while that the Soviet model turned out to be rigid, shaky and unsustainable. China perched in a winning corner of the triangle.

Now Moscow and Beijing face Washington. It doesn’t matter whether they have different goals – China and Russia agree that weakening U.S. might is a prerequisite for whatever each has in mind. Their diplomacy, their armies and – most likely – their intelligence services cooperate to undermine American interests and positions on all continents and on all subjects. China lives in a comfortable corner of the triangle. The United States does not, even taking into account its residual alliance network.

Second, the Soviet Union was a world military power and had significant human resources in science and technology, but it was never a serious economic rival to the United States. She has never threatened America’s world domination in any area other than brute force. China is clearly an economic power. Deng, unlike the Soviet leadership, successfully designed and implemented a flexible adaptation of the Communist Party government to the needs of material development. His visionary approach to surpassing the advantages of the United States through a combination of dialogue, innovation (reinforced by skillful and persistent technology theft), and military reinforcement continues to guide his successors. China’s Belt and Road Initiative is something the Soviet Union could never have dreamed of, let alone implemented.

Third, China’s current status as a largely regional rather than a global rival of the United States probably makes it more willing to confront the United States with hard power than the Soviet Union was. The Soviets and Americans clashed everywhere and at all levels but, as was proven in the two Berlin crises, no terrain or problem was considered worth the danger of what Moscow and Washington feared. be a catastrophic nuclear war. China is heading towards global power status, but its growth will not prevent it from straying from its unique goal of recapturing Taiwan and establishing command in its western Pacific backyard. A similar situation could have existed if the United States faced an existing Soviet hegemony, for example in Florida. Cuba, which was never part of the United States, was not the same.

Make no mistake – Taiwan is a Chinese national problem, not a matter of international law or an international order based on notional rules. Since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the UN and most governments – including the United States – have agreed that there is only one China and that Taiwan is part of it. The only question is whether this China is ruled by Beijing or Taipei. In the 1970s, the United States concocted a rhetorical logic as to why it could establish formal diplomatic relations with China while maintaining a security relationship with Taiwan. This arrangement was synchronously convenient for the United States, but the global recognition of a single China was and remains a diachronically powerful weapon for Beijing.

  • When it deems itself ready, China will try to take back Taiwan in one way or another. The success will mark an event that will be celebrated in China as was the fall of the Berlin Wall in the West.

Fourth, the internal disintegration of the United States is now deeper and more dangerous than was the social and racial discontent of the 1960s and 1970s. As is often noted, the United States has always suffered from serious internal divisions caused by their history of racism, economic dislocations, inequalities and regional divisions. However, for the first century and a half of the country’s existence, two oceans have protected Americans bickering with outside powers. Even his former British master realized that messing around in America wasn’t worth it. Then, as the United States rose to global power, every possible competitor – whether friend or foe – faded from the game board twice in twenty years in world wars that devastated but enriched it. an America relatively immune to physical attack. These unique conditions are gone and will not happen again. As a result, the United States no longer has the luxury of being able to engage in national street fights without suffering a hard and soft decrease in its international power.

It’s important to remember that elites on both sides of the formal political aisle continued to work together throughout and after the American adventure in Vietnam. During the Watergate hearings, Democrats and Republicans argued over whether President Richard Nixon had broken the law, but the two sides agreed on how to proceed. In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan and Democratic leaders in Congress continued to argue over major issues while cooperating to keep the American political system functioning.

That changed when Newt Gingrich and the Republican Right took control of the House of Representatives in 1995. Gingrich poisoned politics by refusing to treat political opponents with respect and humiliating any Republican willing to do so. He engineered a hasty and ill-prepared impeachment of Bill Clinton that cost Gingrich and his successor – but not Clinton – their jobs. Democrats were then shown to be equally vindictive when they embarked on a first impeachment of Donald Trump so uncredible that it undermined a second impeachment attempt based on Trump’s very real encouragement to supporters who attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6.

In short, the United States was divided but functional in the 1970s. It is fractured and dysfunctional now. In this context, the reflexive denial of decline compounds the damage done to American interests and residual power by failures abroad and hatred at home. The United States retains considerable strengths and capabilities and, with soul searching and a semblance of leadership, could lead a successful management of a global position that will continue to retreat. However, as it stands, the chances of such a constructive future are not good.

*David B. Kanin is Assistant Professor of International Relations at Johns Hopkins University and former Senior Intelligence Analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.

The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by the office of the Director of National Intelligence, the intelligence community or any other IU.S. Government agency.


  1. Discover the “new rhetoricians” of the 1950s and Robert Jervis, Perception and misperception in international politics ”, (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1976), chapter 11.

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