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US President Donald Trump. (Bloomberg)
US President Donald Trump. (Bloomberg)

Does America risk repeating a historic post-war error it made?

An overestimated Soviet threat may have set off the Cold War but China’s quest for hegemony is real

I started reading Daniel Yergin’s Shattered Peace during the lockdown. The book is about how and why the Cold War started. It is fascinating just to go back and read about how World War II was brought to an end. Then US President Harry Truman made a decision to drop the bomb, which was calculated to save at least 500,000 American lives. He was in office because Franklin Roosevelt had passed away within three months of being re-elected as president and after having agreed to a post-war global arrangement of “great powers" with Britain’s Churchill and Russia’s Stalin at Yalta.

Roosevelt had so personalized his conversations with the other two major powers that Truman was out of depth upon becoming president. The vice-president had been in the dark about Roosevelt’s thinking. Harry Hopkins, a foreign policy advisor who was in the know, too died in January 1946. In the absence of the architects who had tried to fashion a new super-power working arrangement, American foreign policy fell back on comfortable inter-war core beliefs and views. It is also possible that, implicitly or otherwise, Americans felt no need for its war-time allies, with Germany having been defeated and nuclear weapons at hand.

Whether it was a convenient cover for dominance or a moral imperative, or a combination of the two, Wilsonian “universalism" appealed to US state department career officials and the new president—who was initially torn between continuing with his predecessor’s policies and striking out on his own—rather than Roosevelt’s personal “spheres of influence" world view. Of course, many Americans were disgusted by Russia’s Bolsheviks and their purge in which millions were killed or died on account of a policy-induced famine. They could not therefore get themselves to believe that they could do business with Stalin, or that they should accommodate him. On top of that, fearing his own loss of influence and stature after a devastating electoral defeat and the potential eclipse of British power and dominance over world affairs, Churchill gave his famous “Iron curtain" speech that sought to draw the US closer to Britain rather than risk London being eclipsed by Washington and Moscow. The proximate consideration was a large loan that Britain wanted America to grant. The speech helped secure the loan. Stalin told the US ambassador that such a speech would not have been permitted to be made on Russian soil had it been directed at the US. These were the beginnings of the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Russia-led communist bloc.

It is difficult not to miss a certain wistfulness in Yergin’s narrative on what might have been, if only America had not made an enemy of the Soviet Union and not over-estimated its designs. In his words: “There is a general tendency in international relations to exaggerate the policy coherence of an adversary." Why is all this important now? History rhymes, if not repeats. Now that US President Donald Trump’s four-year term, which has sharply defined US attitudes towards China, is about to end, might America be repeating its mistake of the 1940s by making an enemy out of China? Well, it’s always possible to draw the wrong lessons from history.

Many US diplomats had commented on Stalin’s sense of humour. He had one. To the best of my recollection, no one has laid such a charge at the door of China’s President Xi Jinping. Second, a comment made by Stalin about China’s communists bears repetition. He is reported to have told Milovan Djilas, “When the war with Japan ended, we invited the Chinese comrades to agree on a means of reaching a modus vivendi with Chiang Kai-shek. They agreed with us in word, but in deed they did it their own way when they got home." Well, one has to acknowledge the consistency of China’s communists over time and across issues. Whether it was about keeping promises to Stalin or to the World Trade Organisation, a promise in word has not been backed in deed. In contrast, in more than one place in the book, American diplomats conceded that the Soviet Union delivered more than what it promised.

Third, post-War Soviet Union was in no position to embark on aggressive expansionism. Its economy was in tatters and Stalin had conceded America’s dominant position in the world as the chief victor of World War II. But, China seems to be under the impression that America, if not the entire West, is now history; if debt did not flatten the US, coronavirus would. The International Centre for Technology Assessment that is due to submit a report to the US Congress in September thinks that non- natural origins of the virus are highly plausible. So, unlike the war-ravaged Soviet Union, China, riding on an economic expansion that lasted nearly three decades, may reckon that it is well placed and equipped to displace America. Stalin’s foreign policy was slow and cautious, whereas China’s under Xi is being conducted through wolf warriors.

In other words, just as it’s likely that Roosevelt was right about the Soviet Union then, Trump has been right about China. Even better, Trump had made it almost a national consensus, a feat that evidently eluded the “go-it-alone" Roosevelt.

V. Anantha Nageswaran is a member of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister. These are the author’s personal views

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