Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Brantly Womack column: How to lose a cold war
U.S.-China Rivalry

Brantly Womack column: How to lose a cold war

  • 10

One of the few certainties facing President-elect Joe Biden is the prospect of an enduring rivalry with China, and casting the task as a new cold war has a certain allure. After all, the old one unified us and our allies for a noble purpose — and the communists lost. But could we be the losers this time? Of course, in nuclear war all would lose, but what were the strategic mistakes of the Soviet Union that put it on the losing side? What did they do wrong, and what was President Donald Trump doing that is similar?

Run scared.

  • Proud as Josef Stalin was of Russia’s decisive contribution in defeating Adolf Hitler, Stalin was afraid of the consequences of peace. He needn’t have been. Russian prestige was at an all-time high after the war, and not just among the various communist parties around the world. But Stalin’s self-centered commitment to making (only) Russia great again defaulted the opportunity of global leadership to the United States. We are blessed with a heritage of global institutions and responsibilities, but by abandoning them, Trump was creating a vacuum for others to fill.

Dominate allies.

  • Stalin plundered Eastern Europe and by 1947 he had installed his puppets. He respected neither the autonomy of allies nor their interests, thus surrounding himself with resentful peoples under illegitimate governments while scaring the rest of Europe. In today’s globalized world, our Asian allies do not want to choose between us and China, and to the extent that we — or China — force them to choose, we push them to the other side.

Decouple your economy.

  • The Soviets closed not only their own economy, but also those of Eastern European countries that had become dependent on Germany during the interwar years. The Iron Curtain made our task of containment easier. They built the Berlin Wall; we didn’t have to. They missed out on the advantages of international contact and competition. At the time, we thought that decoupling was a natural corollary of communism, but China and Vietnam have proved otherwise. Trump’s decoupling is aimed at China, but isolation will hurt us as well.


  • The Soviet Union militarized its own economy as well as its relations with other countries. In the 1980s, as its economy stagnated, Soviet military expenditures per capita grew to three times those of the U.S. with one-third of our gross national product. But militarization simply did not take a larger share. The Soviet security state pervaded all of society, stifling innovation. The Soviet Union demonstrated that militarization itself can become a security threat.

While Soviet militarization stemmed from wartime mobilization and the presence of a stronger opponent, our temptation originated from the opposite circumstances. In the triumphalism of the early 1990s, our standard of security shifted from staying ahead of the Soviets to maintaining the capacity to do anything, anywhere, without serious risk to ourselves. Hillary Clinton recently has argued for greater efficiency in military spending, but a more basic rethink is needed. With the rise of China, unilateral invulnerability is an increasingly desperate goal. According to Scientific American, our military budget is on autopilot. It is three times the size of China’s and greater than the next 10 countries combined. Beyond the economic displacement, Trump’s “whole of government” securitization against real and imagined Chinese threats discourages innovation by exaggerating risk. It is hard to move forward while ducking and covering.

Postpone reform.

  • The structural reforms of glasnost and perestroika that Mikhail Gorbachev implemented in the 1980s first had been proposed in the 1960s but suppressed for reasons of national security. The moderate socialism of the 1968 Prague Spring also was suppressed. The pervasive fear created by Stalin became institutionalized as a cautious bureaucratic oligarchy. By the time Gorbachev turned to reform, it was too late for the sclerotic Soviet system. The flip side of national solidarity in the face of an enemy is that reform can be dismissed as unpatriotic. As Biden sets his reform agenda, fear of China should not distract him from domestic challenges. Distraction and delay will make those challenges more difficult.

China will be our rival, but a new cold war is not inevitable. Indeed, if we behave more like our old selves, a cold war would not be necessary. If we supported the global institutions that we founded, respected our allies, encouraged global openness, moderated our defense budget and took seriously our challenges of economic and political infrastructure, we would be better able to cope and China would have more reason to cooperate. After all, China is not the Soviet Union, and it has flourished within the existing global structure. Rivalry is not necessarily zero-sum, and there are many challenges such as global warming that demand our coordinated leadership.

Brantly Womack, an expert on China, holds the C. K. Yen Chair at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. Contact him at:

Related to this story

Most Popular

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


Breaking News