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The US 2020 election (3/3): The future of the US-China relationship

Revisiting George Kennan’s Containment Argument

In February 1946, George Kennan, then an American diplomat in Moscow, sent his famed “Long Telegram“, which predicted the Soviets would only respond to force and that the best way to handle them would be through a long-term strategy of containment. The content of this telegram was later published by George Kennan aka “author X” in July 1947 in the journal Foreign Affairs under the title “The sources of Soviet Conduct“. It had a tremendous influence on US foreign policy, military and strategic doctrine for the next four decades. It formed the intellectual underpinning of the Truman Doctrine announced to Congress by President Harry Truman on March 12, 1947. The first of this Doctrine which was largely shaped by Kennan’s advice and worldview was the Marshall Plan – named after then Secretary of State George Marshall – , which Kennan inspired and to whom he contributed significantly.

Indeed, the strategy of “containment” developed by Kennan transformed a potentially devastating military confrontation between the American superpower and its immediate challenger into what became known as the Cold War. Kennan’s writing style and mastery of the language are superb. As for the substance, Kennan’s analysis proved to be remarkably profound and prescient. The containment strategy he advocated allowed the United States to keep its restraint and to avoid a full-blown military confrontation with the Soviet Union, despite some ominous signs pointing in that direction as early as in 1945, in the immediate aftermath of WWII. Once the Soviet Union officially tested its first hydrogen bomb device, in 1953, the containment strategy advocated by Kennan became the only reasonable if not the only feasible option the United States had at its disposal. MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) made it even more relevant and it succeeded beyond its author’s imagination.

Kennan won two pulitzer prize awards, as part of a remarkable career as a diplomat, policy advisor and academic. He died in 2005 at the age of 101 years leaving an exceptional legacy. As acknowledged in a eulogy by Prof. Shi Yinhong, a former Director of the US Study Center at China’s Renmin University, “the genuine cream of his thinking was contained in the voluminous government reports and documents he produced when working as director of policy planning at the State Department from 1947 to 1949.” Actually Kennan not only directed but he founded this Office which up until now still bears his mark, as illustrated by the short mission statement visible on its website:

Created in 1947 by George Kennan at the request of Secretary of State George C. Marshall, the Policy Planning Staff (S/P) serves as a source of independent policy analysis and advice for the Secretary of State. The Policy Planning Staff”s mission is to take a longer term, strategic view of global trends and frame recommendations for the Secretary of State to advance U.S. interests and American values.”

In that mould-breaking essay published in Foreign Affairs, Kennan wrote that “demands on Russian policy should be put forward in such a manner as to leave the way open for a compliance not too detrimental to Russian prestige.” and that the the issue of Soviet-American relations was in essence a test of the overall worth of the United States as a nation among nations.

Lessons from the collapse of the Soviet Union

Kennan pointed out to two important factors that may hasten the decline and could eventually lead to the implosion and collapse of the Soviet Union: an economic crisis or a political crisis. The parallel that some US-based political analysts and spin doctors might be tempted to establish between the situation prevailing in Russia under the Soviet rule and the situation of China today under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party is striking. Kennan foresaw early on that the emerging unbalances, contradictions and inefficiencies within the Soviet economy – which was at the time undergoing a brutal transformation with a sharp bias toward heavy industry and capital goods at the expense of consumer goods and social welfare – would eventually lead to an entrenched economic crisis, taking into account that most Soviet citizens were already dispirited and tired of a repressive system based on fear and compulsion.

Starting from the half-hearted attempts to liberalize the Chinese economy in the early 1970s, following Richard Nixon’s visit to China in February 1972, to the more successful and lasting Opening Up strategy initiated in 1978 by Mao’s long standing comrade and successor Deng Xiao Ping, China’s Communist leaders have drawn their own conclusions from Kennan’s arguments, from a thorough study of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Leveraging on the successful post-war economic experience of Japan, Singapore and Korea, they have managed to move away from the dogma of an all-encompassing centrally planned economy toward a “market economy with socialist characteristics”, which is now dominated by the private sector although SOEs still play a major role in a few strategic sectors and industries and represent a sizeable chunk of the overall GDP.

The second cause of decay and collapse of the Soviet Union according to Kennan was the possibility of a major political crisis, as a result of succession wars and generational power struggles within the Soviet Communist Party and its affiliated power structures. He suggested that this type of crisis could also morph into an outright civil war provided it was compounded by growing dissatisfaction among the masses. So far, the CCP has prevented existing social unrest from morphing into a political crisis. The major stress test to the CCP’s grip on power came in April-May 1989 along the so-called Tien An Men Square Protests which degenerated into a civil insurrection that was severely repressed. In any case, the decision was taken following those tragic events to double-down on economic liberalization while threading much more carefully on the political front. Since the advent to power of Xi Jinping in 2012, there is a tendency to move back to more orthodox political ideas and views which are reminiscent of the Maoist era, with ideology playing again a far bigger role than it used to do in Deng’s era and under his first successors.

At a time when, China now counts a large class of urban dwellers connected to social networks and when the economy is not growing as it used to be, making social mobility harder to achieve for those at the bottom, political unity can be preserved and reinforced either through greater repression and control, – including by censoring the Internet and using modern technologies like the Great Digital Fire Wall – or by appealing to the Chinese citizens sense of patriotism or outright nationalism. The former is doomed to fail if it is not supported and supplemented by some kind of “political chemistry” which can be more easily achieved by the latter. This is where George Kennan’s containment theory meets the ideas of the German political philosopher Carl Schmitt and his concept of political identity essentially as a bi-product of the “friend/enemy” couple. The Us versus Them opposition.

In the September/October 2019 issue of Foreign Affairs, seventy years after Kennan’s “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” essay, Cold War historian Odd Arne Westad published an essay astutely titled “The Sources of Chinese Conduct” in a direct reference and tribute to Kennan’s work. Here is what she observes: “Now, more than 70 years later, the United States and its allies again face a communist rival that views the United States as an adversary and is seeking regional dominance and global influence. For many, including in Washington and Beijing, the analogy has become irresistible: there is a U.S.-Chinese cold war, and American policymakers need an updated version of Kennan’s containment.”  But she immediately adds that, “if such an inquiry starts where Kennan’s did—with an attempt to understand the other side’s basic drivers—the differences become as pronounced as the parallels. It is these differences, the contrast between the sources of Soviet conduct then and the sources of Chinese conduct now, that stand to save the world from another Cold War.”

Among the differences she points out is the fact that “The CCP is nationalist rather than internationalist in outlook.” The global balance of power has also changed since Kennan’s time. Today, the world is becoming not more bipolar but more multipolar, a world of regional hegemons, as Odd Arne Westad rightly points out. The U.S. economy is also intertwined with the Chinese economy in ways that would have been unimaginable with the Soviet economy and the rivalry with China will have to be managed within the context of continued economic interdependence. Indeed, even with the Great Digital Firewall and the rise of tech protectionism “fast-moving economic and technological changes will make a traditional containment policy impossible—information travels so much more easily than before, especially to a country like China, which does not intend to cut itself off from the world.”

Clash of civilizations or managed multipolarity?

There is no doubt that the future of the US – China relationship will define the world for the next twenty to thirty years. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the late American political scientist Samuel Huntington identified in his controversial 1993 essay, the Clash of Civilizations, two major potential adversaries for the West and henceforth for America in the XXIth century : the Islamic world and China. He also mentioned a resurgent Russia as a potential threat but with more limited impact. The threat from the Islamic world was viewed by Huntington essentially as an asymmetric one through terrorism, which as spectacular as it is can be defeated with a well targeted strategy. It comes therefore as no surprise that China’s perception in the US has evolved as early as in 2001, in the first years of the George W. Bush administration, from a “strategic partner” to a “strategic competitor”. The global financial crisis of 2008 and the COVID-19 pandemic have reinforced this perception which has also been matched by the increasingly obvious advances of Chinese tech companies abroad and the fact that “the Chinese El Dorado” proved to be an illusion. China will always remain a tough market for foreign companies. But so are Japan, India and a host of other major economies which have set restrictive rules on foreign ownership in a variety of sectors. 

From a more conventional geopolitical perspective, there is today no Islamic nation capable of challenging the United States. Iran is often portrayed as a major threat for US national security – especially if the Mollah regime manages to carry forward its nuclear programme and to put a nuke on an intercontinental ballistic missile. But in Washington’s policy circles, Iran is considered more as a nuisance and a rogue state that has to be contained and ultimately neutralized than a global adversary. Pakistan, with a population exceeding 200 million is the only Islamic nation with a nuclear deterrent force. For decades, the “land of the pure” (Paki-stan) was perceived as an unruly yet a manageable client-state which can be tamed with a handful of green bucks. The following statement can still be read on the website of the US Embassy in Pakistan: “During Pakistan’s 2019-2020 fiscal year, the United States was once again the top donor country to Pakistan of on-budget, grant-based assistance.  U.S. assistance to Pakistan is always in the form of grants, which does not add to Pakistan’s debt burden or balance of payments challenges.” The fact that Pakistan’s political-military establishment has been gearing toward Beijing and deploying increasing efforts over the last two decades to attract Chinese capital – alongside the “Belt and Road Initiative” and other projects – has not gone unnoticed in Washington. But with a GDP per capita of USD 1500 – around forty times less than US GDP per capita – Pakistan is a far cry from an economic power, let alone a geopolitical rival.

The Clash of Civilizations contains some incredibly profound insights. Huntington’s description of “the rise of the Rest” was prescient of the emergence of a post-Western world. But overall it is perhaps not the most accurate paradigm to describe the world. The concepts of Sovereignty and Multipolarity which takes its roots in the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) which organised the European continent alongside well-defined State borders has served as the organizing principle for modern international relations. Multipolarity does not lead to anarchy or to a Hobbesian war of all against all. Indeed, from a Realist perspective the world has always been multipolar, except perhaps for a few brief unipolar moments and longer but ultimately fading bipolar phases.

Hence the future of US-China relationship must be be viewed in the broader setting of a dialectic move between the tendency toward a multipolar world and the acknowledgement of interdependence between the world’s Hegemons.  Indeed, aside the United States and China, the European Union is a longstanding contender for global leadership that should not be so easily discounted. In addition, Japan, Russia, India and Brazil are all global powers in their own right, even though each of these powers has currently its own weaknesses and limitations and is dwarfed by the “Big Three” as for the size of its economy. India stands out. It is already a demographic giant and a functioning democracy. It is likely to become the next economic superpower to emerge if it continues to witness strong economic growth over the coming decades and if it manages to preserve its unity and to solve its looming economic and social challenges.

The Trump Administration has focused on China for reasons that are at least as much political as they are based on a strategic assessment of the evolving world-order. From a domestic political perspective, the trick is obvious. The German Political scientist Carl Schmitt convincingly argued in his book published in 1932 – Der Begriff des Politischen or The concept of the political -, that the whole idea of politics could be reduced to the distinction between a friend and an enemy. On the international level, as Fareed Zacharia points out in a remarkable essay published in the January/February 2020 issue of Foreign Affairs: “The Trump administration’s current approach to China runs along two distinct and contradictory tracks, at once eschewing interdependence and embracing it. On trade, Washington’s aim is, broadly speaking, integrationist: to get China to buy more from the United States, invest more in the United States, and allow Americans to sell and invest more in China. (..) In matters of technology, on the other hand, the Trump administration’s approach is decidedly disintegrationist. The strategy here is to sever ties with China and force the rest of the world to do the same—creating a world split between two camps. The Trump administration’s global campaign against Huawei has followed this logic;” The Trump administration has asked 61 countries to ban the company. So far, only three close U.S. allies have done so. 

In an essay published in the March/April 2020 issue of Foreign Affairs, Joe Biden described what his foreign policy would look like. He acknowledged that “China represent(ed) a special challenge” but he avoided framing all his foreign policy around the US-China relationship focusing instead on the need to reestablish American leadership on international issues like the fight against climate change as well as on the promotion of democracy at home and abroad. The China-US relationship will inevitably go through highs and downs. The worst case scenario is a new arms race akin to what happened during the Cold War. But if it is managed properly, increased competition between nations in a multipolar world can support increased investment in infrastructure upgrading, education and R&D that could help the world achieve its development objectives and overcome its current challenges, especially climate change. However, a fair competition should be based on transparent and accepted rules that would be negotiated on a multilateral level not on a bilateral level. In a word, multipolarity needs multilateralism.