Jan 25, 2022 - World

What the U.S. should learn from Cold War history

Book cover image for The Twilight Struggle by Hal Brand
image: Yale University Press, 2022

The U.S. is facing another era of great power rivalry — this time with China as well as Russia. Policymakers should learn everything they can from Cold War history to avoid repeating its mistakes, an American historian writes in a new book.

Why it matters: Long-term competition can exhaust a nation and cause deadly conflict if handled poorly, but fallout can be limited and higher ideals can gain a stronger footing if competition is handled well.

Details: In "The Twilight Struggle: What the Cold War Teaches Us about Great-Power Rivalry Today" (Yale University Press, 2022), Hal Brands, a professor of global affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, puts into historical context the challenges that Russia and China present today.

  • The Cold War isn't a perfect analog to today's situation. But "put simply, the Cold War is the only history of sustained competition that America has," Brands writes. "To prevent policymakers from using that history badly, scholars must help them use it well."

Brands describes several key characteristics of long-term rivalry:

  • It happens at a "geopolitical twilight, between the sunshine of peace and the darkness of war."
  • Finite resources complicate rivalry. "Countries must tolerate weakness somewhere if they are to enjoy strength anywhere," he writes. Leading one's rival to squander resources by competing too hard in every theater is one winning strategy.
  • It is a test of both governance systems and statecraft. Decision-makers must consider not just strategic but also domestic effects of their policies. "The cardinal sin is to pursue policies — foreign or domestic — that undermine a nation's vitality," Brands writes.
  • The stakes are extremely high. "Winners of great-power rivalries receive vast influence and the opportunity to shape the world. Losers can fall into decline."

Flashback: Some of the most painful and destructive U.S. actions during the Cold War occurred on the periphery — regions that at first weren't clearly aligned with either the U.S. or the Soviet Union, such as Vietnam, Iran and several South American countries.

  • Now, he says, the world is far more stable than during the period of decolonization and radical ideology that was prevalent during the first few decades of the Cold War.
  • Great power competition is likely to spill over into other regions of the world, but there's just not as much tinder to catch a spark as there once was.

What to watch: The U.S. shouldn't overestimate the ties currently binding China and Russia in their increasingly aligned struggle against the U.S.-led West, Brands told Axios.

  • "The Russia-China relationship works best when the power differential between them isn't too pronounced, and when both are challenging the United States but neither has yet succeeded in its fight against American influence," Brands told Axios. "An axis of aggrieved, autocratic underdogs — relatively equal in stature — works well."
  • But China is clearly more powerful than Russia, and that power differential is only set to grow. That is certain to grate on Putin and his supporters.

The bottom line: "No amount of history can provide precise answers to hard policy problems," Brands writes. "History can, however, give us greater intellectual depth ahead of the coming trials."

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