The American Interest

Managing Rivalry With China

The United States finds itself at a geostrategic crossroads. The moment is comparable to the period between the dispatch of George Kennan’s “Long Telegram” from Moscow in February 1946 suggesting a new strategy for relations with the USSR, and the announcement of the Truman Doctrine in March 1947, pledging U.S. political, military, and economic assistance to the countries threatened by Soviet aggression or Communist insurgency.

It took a year for Kennan’s analysis of Soviet motives and behavior to develop into the basis of America’s Cold War strategy. Containment was a sophisticated concept requiring decades of perseverance, from the Berlin airlift to the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the end it worked just as Kennan had predicted: it created conditions for the nonviolent implosion of the Soviet empire due to its own internal contradictions.

Four generations later, the key global issue is whether the U.S. and China can manage their relations without a war. History teaches us that major wars usually result from the confrontation between a status-quo power and a rising challenger. It’s unknown whether the Chinese can develop a worldview in which they are not the inherently superior center of the civilized world; and for the U.S. to accept that it will have to live with another, equal, and eventually possibly stronger superpower.

February 2020 marked the beginning of the current, coronavirus-induced but...

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