William Wohlforth on Lessons from the Cold War for U.S.-China Relations Today

William C. Wohlforth is the Daniel Webster Professor of Government at Dartmouth College. He has been a member of the Government Department’s faculty since 2000, and teaches and conduct research on international relations, with an emphasis on international security and foreign policy. Before coming to Hanover, he taught at Princeton and Georgetown. He is the author or editor of nine books and some 60 articles and chapters on topics ranging from the Cold War to contemporary U.S. grand strategy. He teaches courses in international politics, Russian foreign policy, leadership and grand strategy, violence & security and decision-making. At Dartmouth, he has served as chair of the Government Department, on the Committee Advisory to the President, the Committee on Instruction, and on many College level search committees. Beyond Dartmouth, he has held fellowships at the Institute of Strategic Studies at Yale, the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford, and the Hoover Institution. For six years he served as associate editor and then editor-in-chief of the journal Security Studies.
Pieter van Wingerden '24 interviewed Dr. William C. Wohlforth on April 5, 2023.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. William C. Wohlforth.

On Feb. 4, 2023, U.S. fighter jets shot down a suspected Chinese “spy balloon” off the coast of South Carolina after it flew across the United States for several days. As a result, Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed his trip to Beijing. What parallels, if any, exist between the “spy balloon” incident and the 1960 U-2 incident?

The parallels are precisely those noted in your question. Namely, the discovery of airborne espionage resulted in a shootdown of the espionage apparatus and then the cancellation of a planned high level of exchange. The differences, however, are more salient and outweigh the similarities. In the case of the U-2 incident, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower denied that the U-2 was on a spy mission. Still, Francis Gary Powers was somewhat theatrically revealed and paraded in front of the international press, embarrassing the U.S. president and revealing that this was a covert operation that the United States had attempted to deny. Moreover, this was a summit between two heads of state, not the Secretaries of State. And lastly, this was a situation in which the Cold War was already raging. It was almost the peak of the Cold War between the Khrushchev years and events like the Cuban Missile Crisis. Therefore, the U-2 incident was starkly different from today’s situation with China. With the spy balloon incident, the Chinese authorities acknowledged that the balloon was in U.S. airspace. We are also not yet in a situation quite as fraught and dangerous as the US-Soviet Union Cold War was in 1960.

After the collapse of the U.S.-USSR summit in Paris following the U-2 incident in 1960, the Cold War escalated, first with the building of the Berlin Wall and then with the Cuban Missile Ccrisis. Do you see the same dangerous dynamics at work today after the “spy balloon” incident?

There are some parallels here. Both the 1960s Soviet Union and the 2023 People’s Republic of China are not happy with the overall global order. And in particular, they are not happy with the level of U.S. influence near their borders. Khrushchev wasn’t happy with the security situation that he faced, and neither is Xi Jinping. They both would like a revision of the global situation. Both would want to see a revision to the detriment of the U.S.’s global role. Those are parallels. There are also incidents and crises, like the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban missile crisis, that reflect the widespread problem of revisionism versus the status quo over the world order. I would push back on your question in the case of the Berlin Wall. As tragic as the Berlin Wall was, it was a stabilizing feature of the Cold War. It stopped the crisis that East Germany was facing of exodus via Berlin into the Western zone. The Cuban Missile Crisis, however, was a crisis that emerged and went on to play a role in the overall clashing of the two superpowers. Fortunately, following the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviet Union and the United States began a process where they placed some guardrails on their competition. What many people want to do today is to try and reach a regulated or managed competition with China without first having to go through a scary nuclear crisis like the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Is the U.S. in a new Cold War with China? President Biden has vowed to avoid a new Cold War in spite of intense strategic rivalry with China while some Republicans say we are already in a Cold War with China. Who is right?

I hate to answer academically, but it depends on what you mean by the Cold War. The Cold War is defined as an all-encompassing struggle in a bipolar international setting between staunch geopolitical rivals. We’re not there yet for a couple of reasons. One reason is that today’s world power structure looks slightly different than during the Cold War. The United States retains advantages over China that we did not have over the Soviet Union. For example, the Soviet Union was a closer match militarily for the United States, even though the Soviet economy was much smaller vis-a-vis the U.S. economy. In addition, we thought we were losing key dimensions of the technological arms race, including missile technology and conventional arms during the Cold War. We are not quite there yet with China. Plus, the ideological competition was different. China has a Communist Party, and it believes in the rightness and legitimacy of its party’s rule over China. It rejects any questioning of its legitimacy. But I’m not seeing China trying to export this idea of communist rule as a vital element for its future or trying to support communist parties worldwide. During the Cold War, there was the competition between capitalism and communism. Finally, we have a more dispersed world power structure today than we had in the early years of the Cold War, where the U.S. and Soviet Union loomed over other countries.

Russia is different from the U.S. or China regarding its economic potential. But it’s still a big player and the second-largest nuclear power in the world. All of that makes me believe that the term Cold War is slightly misleading, despite an increasingly encompassing rivalry on the security front. One final point of distinction: the U.S. is talking about economically decoupling with China in some areas. Many discussions surrounding decoupling concern certain elements of economic interdependence, particularly the highest technology areas like microelectronics and military technology. In the Cold War, however, it was a complete economic separation between the Soviet bloc and the Western-led bloc. There was much less economic interdependence between the Soviet Union and the U.S. than there is today between the US-led alliance system and China.

How did domestic politics and regime characteristics of the USSR affect its leaders’ perception of the U.S. and response to American actions? Can Chinese leaders do better than their Soviet counterparts?

We have a lot of evidence that the Chinese leadership has studied the Cold War a lot. They study their comrades running the Soviet Union back then, looking at what went right and wrong. They seek to avoid many mistakes their Soviet comrades made during the Cold War. One of the biggest mistakes was Gorbachev trying to reform the Soviet Union, which resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union. People studying Xi Jinping tell me that he’s focused on avoiding the mistakes Gorbachev made. 

I understand the U.S. would love it if there were a regime change in China. I doubt the Chinese leadership thinks the U.S. will come after them tomorrow. Still, there is this claim by the Chinese leadership that, somehow, we are subverting China because we support democracy in Hong Kong or human rights concerns regarding China’s treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and so on. The U.S. questioning the CCP’s legitimacy is a part of the current US-China dynamics. And the Chinese leadership pushing back has parallels to the Soviet Union and the Cold War.

Pieter van Wingerden '24Student Journalist

U.S. Army photoPhoto Credit: USAMHI, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Share this:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *