The U.S. government has decided it is time to confront the People’s Republic of China, leading to what some have called “a new cold war” or the more benign and official “great-power competition.” But as many have pointed out, the United States currently lacks a coherent strategy about how to confront China. Busy giving speeches and exploring new ways to hit China, U.S. officials are making the case that this confrontation is necessary to preserve freedom and democracy and that the United States must fight to win. But nobody in Washington seems to have asked the most important question: How does this end?
You never start a conflict, be it a real war or a “just” a cold one, without asking this question. The United States’ two greatest military blunders in the past century, the Vietnam War and the Iraq War, were both a consequence of not first asking this question and just assuming something can be improvised along the way. Once withdrawal agreements were finally signed, after huge human and material loses, South Vietnam ended up taken over by the communist North, and Iraq was invaded by the Islamic State—so much for victory. Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union and imperial Japan’s invasion of China and attack on Pearl Harbor (or going back even further, World War I and Napoleon’s invasion of Russia), all with catastrophic results for the initiators, were also the byproducts of shortsighted decisions that assumed quick victories, without anybody asking how these wars could really end.
In its history as a great power, the United States has confronted four great enemies: Wilhelmine Germany, Nazi Germany, imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union. The first three confrontations all took place before the advent of the nuclear era, so all were large-scale wars. Once nukes entered the scene, such wars were no longer possible, so the Cold War was a long, intense struggle.
The first confrontation technically ended with a negotiated settlement with the loser, Wilhelmine Germany, but the real fundamental problem was not addressed. Imperial Germany lost, its regime collapsed, its army was crippled, and a democratic republic was founded, which was to pay massive reparations. But Germany’s mindset, at both elite and popular levels, was never changed, setting the stage for another catastrophic war.
In World War II, the United States seemed to have learned a lesson. After Nazi Germany and imperial Japan were defeated and destroyed, they weren’t just given a piece of paper to sign and left alone. Democratic political institutions and the rule of law were consolidated, their armies were initially disbanded, and they were integrated into the U.S.-led bloc. Today, Germany and Japan are powerful countries, but peaceful and democratic, with underdeveloped armies compared to their economic might, and—most importantly—they are still U.S. allies.
Even though the United States utterly defeated and later occupied them, it never acted as an imperial overlord or as a hateful and revengeful enemy. There are people in both countries who dislike the United States and oppose the alliance with Washington, but thanks to the connection established over the decades, both elites and the public are generally friendly towards the United States. Germany and Japan teach us two vital lessons: A great power cannot be kept down forever, but will bounce back after defeat, and the real problem is not the power itself, but the mindset. Victory consists not in defeating your opponent, but in changing their mindset.
And that leads us to the United States’ ultimate confrontation—that with the Soviet Union.
This article has been published by Andrei Lungu, President of RISAP, in Foreign Policy. You can read the full article on Foreign Policy’s website.