Analysis & Opinions - The Washington Post

Despite Rumors of War, the U.S. and China Can Manage Their Relationship

| June 14, 2023

As the Biden administration and Congress struggle to get their heads around the challenge posed by China today, they should reflect on lessons learned in America’s success in winning the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Just because fundamental and irresolvable differences in values and interests compel the United States and China to be formidable rivals does not mean a hot war is a viable option.

Both the United States and China have nuclear arsenals capable of decimating each other in war. Yet neither one could launch such an attack without triggering a retaliatory response that would also destroy itself. The countries must therefore cooperate to prevent incidents or accidents dragging them into war.

Moreover, on a small planet in which either nation’s greenhouse gas production could make life unlivable for everyone, the two major emitters must find ways to work together to constrain emissions. Entangled in a global financial system that produces such extraordinary benefits to citizens that any government that tried to decouple from it would soon find itself out of power, they have no alternative but to manage risks in ways that sustain these benefits.

Can two great powers competing for supremacy simultaneously cooperate in building a safer world?

It has happened before. John F. Kennedy, whose 1961 inaugural address pledged to “pay any price, bear any burden … to assure the survival and the success of liberty,” was a dedicated cold warrior. Two and a half years later, in the most important foreign policy address of his career — delivered 60 years ago last week — he pivoted somewhat and declared that for the decades ahead the U.S. priority in relations with Moscow should be to “help make the world safe for diversity.”

What did that mean? Seared by the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, Kennedy understood that America’s strategy toward its deadliest adversary had to change. While he never wavered in his core commitment to a strategy of containment that sought to prevent Soviet expansion, he nonetheless argued that the United States should now live and let live in a world of diverse political systems with diametrically opposed values and ideologies. Going forward, the rivals would compete vigorously — but only peacefully — to demonstrate whose values and system of governance could best meet the needs of its citizens.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham.“Despite Rumors of War, the U.S. and China Can Manage Their Relationship.” The Washington Post, June 14, 2023.