Brandon Patterson is a graduate student of International Affairs at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California San Diego. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Title: The Challenge of Abstraction: Assessing Cold War Analogies to the Present Period
Date Originally Written: December 19, 2020.
Date Originally Published: February 1, 2021.
Author and / or Article Point of View: Brandon Patterson is a graduate student of International Affairs at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California San Diego. Brandon believes that though the Cold War may be of great use in specific cases to policymakers and scholars seeking to use the past to engage with the present, it should not be the only historical instance from which they draw.
Summary: A study of history is a prerequisite to effective statesmanship and a creative policy. Scholars and statesmen are wise to look to the Cold War for insights which can be applied to our era, but it would be unwise to expect perfect correspondence. Even where the Cold War is applicable, it may not be the only relevant experience, and this is not limited to the context of relations with China.
Text: The task of studying history is to abstract from the multiplicity of experience. To derive general rules from the past presupposes accepting the significance of the range of experience. Yet history provides no self-interpreting lessons; the reader is obliged to determine what is — and is not — analogous. The Cold War was a struggle virtually made to order for American preconceptions. Victory achieved without war; an adversary converted rather than defeated, as the architects of containment earnestly sought. It is therefore understandable why American policymakers may seek to draw upon this experience today. Although examining the Cold War is valuable for a number of characteristics that define today’s era of so-called Great Power Competition, this examination does not exhaust the range of relevant experience.
As the world today is without a single, clear historical precedent, it is useful to abstract from a broader range of historical experiences. Humans do not live in a perfectly bipolar world, and China is not in every manifestation analogous to the Soviet Union (nor, for that matter, is Russia). In its narrowest interpretation, the Eastern Hemisphere could be said to be analogous to Europe after the unification of Germany.
China, like Germany, is a recently consolidated land power which seeks to construct a great navy. The United States, like Britain, is a maritime power with considerable interests on the continent. Indeed, the American role across Eurasia is, stripped to its essentials, analogous to that of Britain in Europe for several centuries. Further, China’s aggressive diplomacy, unnerving all of its neighbors (and even countries further afield) brings to mind the amateurish and power-obsessed Weltpolitik of the young and impetuous Kaiser William II — all the more unsettling for its vagueness. Russia returns to its historic patterns, torn between the requirements of equilibrium and the temptations of the Russian national spirit.
Yet this analogy alone fails to fully satisfy, for today, despite technological advances, also resembles a more antiquated era. Europe has lost its substance as a cultural and geopolitical entity and is in danger of simply becoming an appendage of the Eurasian landmass. China too operates according to its historic rhythms. Unlike a young Germany with no concept of its national interest and run by an insecure ruler, China represents an ancient civilization returning to a place of eminence whose perception of history is not fully compatible with the existing order. China’s Belt and Road Initiative represents their attempt to reorganize Eurasia according to Beijing’s perception of its historic role. Thus, China and America may become engaged in a contest over the nature of the international system, and this context is much like the Cold War.
The performances of Iran and Turkey are best understood through the prism of their imperial legacies, as each attempt to impose order on chaos through familiar modes of operation. A subtle rivalry — leavened by cooperation — persists, informed by the Ottoman-Safavid conflicts of the early-modern period. India remains a world unto itself, even as its posture from the Suez to Singapore stands as a both a vestige British rule and a function of geography. Yet New Delhi’s new-found rivalry with China — a confluence of unique evolutions — has no precedent in human history. As Robert D. Kaplan elucidates, the world of today would not be fully unfamiliar to medieval observers.
Even so, the Cold War carries profound lessons. The burgeoning age of cyber weapons strikes a rough similarity to the opening days of the nuclear era: arms control is nonexistent; doctrine regarding its implementation remains unsettled. Yet arms control in the cyber realm faces unique perils. Arms control emerged during the Cold War as a means of regulating the composition and implementation of each side’s arsenal in order to reduce the incentive for preemption. Transparency was a prerequisite, not evidence of approbation. By contrast, the age of cyberweapons reveals a predilection for opacity; stockpiling is not a factor as the rate of change breeds obsolescence after short intervals. In an age of nuclear proliferation and artificial intelligence, traditional concepts of deterrence via physical violence — products of the Cold War — will likely require fundamental reassessment.
The civil war in Syria provides a paradoxical case. The old edifice has collapsed and a multiplicity of contestant’s clash over the remains. Several revolutions are occurring simultaneously. On one level is a struggle to determine both the political evolution of the state, and whether the state is to be a secular or religious instrument, and thus, the principles and procedures by which the sovereign’s mandate is legitimized. On another level exists a contest to define which interpretation of Islam may predominate. Finally, a rebellion against the state system itself roils. Amid this blend of political and religious motivations, with external powers seizing their share of the spoils, allusions to the Thirty Years War are apt.
Yet, Syria bears striking resemblance to central Europe in another period of revolutionary struggle. In this country, the United States aligned with a revolutionary power to combat a common, apparently overriding threat. Military victory opened a vacuum which permitted the acquisitive power — Iran — to extend its reach several hundred miles to the west in each case. A policy to contain the spread of Iranian Influence was implemented thereafter, at least conceptually. Thus, Syria after 2015 may be likened to Germany after 1945. For another layer of complexity, one may note that Iran in its present condition — sterile yet ideological; sclerotic yet expansionist — is somewhat analogous to the Soviet Union during the Brezhnev era. The essence of compatibility is not duplication of circumstances, but the similarity of the problem being confronted.
The Cold War will likely remain a fount of experience from which American policymakers and scholars draw in this period. But history seldom repeats perfectly. The burden of abstraction falls on the statesman, whose mistakes are irretrievable amid a reality that is not self-interpreting. Applying historical analogies cannot be done with mathematical certainty, for statesmanship is not a science, but an art.
 Kissinger, H. (1954). A World Restored: Castlereagh, Metternich, and the Problems of Peace (p. 332).
 “National Security Council Report, NSC 68, ‘United States Objectives and Programs for National Security’,” April 14, 1950, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, US National Archives. Retrieved December 18, from http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/116191
 Alison, G. (May 30, 2017). Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? Mariner Books (pp. 55-71)
 Kaplan, R.D. (March 6, 2018), The Return of Marco Polo’s World: War, Strategy, and American Interests in the Twenty-First Century. (Chapter 1). New York: Random House.
 Kissinger, H. (April 4, 1995). Diplomacy. New York: Simon and Schuster (p. 715)
 Bracken, P. (May 19, 1999). Fire in The East: The Rise of Asian Military Power and the Second Nuclear Age. Harper.
 Kaplan, R.D. Ibid.