IO – A little over 75 years ago, the American diplomat George Kennan penned the famous Long Telegram. Based in Moscow, Kennan sat at his desk in the US Embsssy on a wintry February day and outlined in his 8,000 word telegram an analysis of Soviet behavior, the threats posed by the Kremlin’s intention to widen its spheres of infuence around the world and how Washington should contain the Soviets in what he described as the
“greatest task our diplomacy has ever faced and probably the greatest it will ever have to face.”
As we know now, Kennan’s writings were extraordinarily prophetic. Over the ensuing 45 years until the end of the Cold War when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Washington and Moscow including their allies were locked into a seemingly endless arms race, proxy wars in the developing world, and ideological battles for global primacy.
The United States eventually prevailed, but for those who became ensnared in the Cold War, their memories of that long battle were harrowing. For decades, the Soviets and Americans propped up corrupt and murderous regimes. And then there were proxy wars, in places like Korea, Vietnam, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Angola and Algeria, eventually costing the lives of tens of millions of combatants and innocent civilians.
Kennan had an inkling the coming Cold War could become an ugly one. In his telegram, Kennan warned his readers in the State Department that “we must have the courage and confdence to cling to our own conceptions of human society… the greatest danger that can befall us in coping with this problem of Soviet communism is that we allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.”
Unfortunately, President Truman and those who followed in his footsteps failed to heed Kennan’s warnings. Instead of a foreign policy underpinned by moral considerations, Washington was more driven by the calculus of realpolitik. Rather than making friends with the peoples of developing nations and convincing them that the US model of liberal democracy was superior to the communist model, through its errant behavior Washington only convinced them that they were not much better than the Soviets, if at all.
Now, a new sort of Cold War is emerging, only this time between the US and a rising power that is, in many ways, superior to the Soviets of the 20th century: China.
Biden’s foreign policy team is loathe to call it a new Cold War, but it certainly has the hallmarks of a superpower competition for hegemony. Yet they are right in one sense–unlike the US-Soviet rivalry, this competition entails multiple dimensions, not only in terms of military capabilities but also in the economic sphere, cyber space, high tech such as artifcial intelligence and quantum computing, outer space and even undernearh
A modern version of Kennan’s Long Telegram is not yet written, but the Biden administration and its successors will certainly need one. Such a telegram or document, if ever written, must recognize the US-China relationship for essentially what it is: competition for infuence with nations across the world, a sort of ideological battle between the Western nations› model of liberal democracy and China›s brand of authoritarian capitalism.
Convincing the rest of the world that they should place their bets on liberal democracy will not be a straightforward exercise. But one thing is for sure: if Biden wants to win over hearts and minds, he should re-read Kennan’s
Long Telegram and his warning that “the greatest danger is that we allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.” In short, that means not falling into the trap of befriending leaders that are corrupt or fail to uphold the basic human and civil rights of their citizens. After all, if Washington wants to sell liberal democracy, then it must respect its underlying principles, not only at home but in its foreign policies. (James Van Zorge)