Kotkin on China: Cold War 2.0, Reagan, and Stalin vs. Mao
“We want a world in which the rule of law, open society, an open, dynamic market economy, rules, reciprocity — where those are the values, those are the terms of the relationship.”
ChinaTalk coverage continues with another stream of insights from the legendary Stephen Kotkin! Today’s newsletter digs into:
The case for optimism about US-China relations, despite — or because of — the recent ratcheting up of tensions;
Why Kotkin believes a US-China Cold War is both good and necessary;
How the US can get on the diplomatic “front foot”;
Making sense of Reagan’s foreign policy — how he was both a “movement conservative” and a “dealmaking conservative.”
If Kotkin Ran America’s China Foreign Policy
Jordan Schneider: [On March 6], Xi said,
Western countries — led by the US — have implemented all-round containment, encirclement, and suppression against us, bringing unprecedentedly severe challenges to our country’s development.
Any thoughts on that as the new rhetorical space that Xi is now comfortable occupying in public?
Stephen Kotkin: It’s hurting now, isn’t it? He’s feeling it now. The changeover that we got from Secretary of State [Mike] Pompeo, and National Security Advisor [HR] McMaster and his deputy Matt Pottinger, and the Trump administration (which sometimes played out clumsily because “Trump” and “policy” are hard to put in the same sentence, and Trump was the president, but his staff was remarkable, and his cabinet officers in some cases were remarkable) — we got a turnaround in China policy.
We went from a fairytale — from an imagined China, from a China that didn’t exist in reality and an engagement policy based on a fairytale — to a better understanding of what China was doing, and where it was going in the game it was playing, and the game that we were in. That’s actually the basis for a better engagement policy, ultimately — for a better diplomacy, for a stabilized relationship.
Trying to engage in diplomacy and stabilize a relationship based upon illusions and a misunderstanding of the nature of the Chinese system and the direction it was going is not a sustainable project.
So the ratcheting up of tensions that we’re in right now is actually more promising for getting to a stabilization of the relationship — more promising because it’s more realistic, it’s more empirical, it’s more accurate; it’s a better understanding of how each side is operating, and what the strengths and weaknesses are of each side.
So I’m actually quite optimistic about the state of play right now — provided we open up the diplomatic stuff, because being strong, and being deterrent, and showing your teeth, and putting some export technology control is not an end in itself. It’s a means to an end — and that end has to be a more stable relationship.
And the Biden administration is complaining — and no doubt that this is accurate — that the Chinese are refusing to engage, they’re refusing to meet, that they don’t want to engage in diplomacy again. So I would be appearing in every single capital of the world — I would fly into all the ASEAN capitals, I would fly into all our allied capitals, and I would fly into all the Global South capitals — and I would announce, “We are ready to engage with the Chinese in diplomacy, and here are the fifteen issues that we’d like to talk about, and the Chinese won’t meet with us. So let’s meet right now — any place you want.”
So if it’s empirically true that the Chinese are not responding to the overtures of the Biden administration to engage in diplomacy again because they see the US as overly aggressive, I would say, “Let’s get on the front foot there. Let’s put the Chinese on the back foot.”
The Chinese like to say that the US is engaged in the suppression of China’s rise: that’s all we do — we’re committed 100% to holding China down. And then out of the next breath, they like to say, “Oh, nobody can hold us back. Nobody can hold China back.” And so what’s our response to that? Our response is to deny we’re trying to hold them down, that we’re trying to prevent China’s rise.
And nobody believes that response. The Chinese don’t believe it. The Global South doesn’t believe it. Some of our allies even don’t believe it — and I’m not sure how many people on our side believe it. So that’s actually not the correct response, even if the Biden people think it’s true to their word.
The correct response is, “You say that we’re trying to hold you down, and then in the next breath, you say that nobody can hold you down. So what are you afraid of? We can’t hold you down. You just said that. Why are you all bent out of shape about us trying to hold you down when you are declaring across the world that nobody can hold you down?”
And so that’s how you get on the front foot as opposed to the back foot. That’s how you win that kind of debate. That’s how you engage in the diplomatic give-and-take and say, not just to the Chinese, but to all of the others who are listening and watching how this crucial relationship for world order and stability is being managed.
And now we have Xi saying that “we’re having problems because they’re trying to hold us down.” And so my view on that is we are doing something right — because Xi’s now trying to use that as an excuse for his own ineptitude and his own failures. I’m not of the opinion (many China watchers are) that Xi Jinping is an American agent — that is to say, he is eroding Chinese power in every domain, vigorously and really across the board: he’s ruining China’s reputation; he’s undermining China’s strategic position.
The Europeans (Angela Merkel) attempted to appease China in the first instance by rushing through a trade agreement with China minutes before Joe Biden was going to be inaugurated. It was a distancing of Europe from the US on China policy. And what happened? Xi Jinping did not permit the Europeans to appease him at the expense of the Americans. He undermined the Europeans’ attempt to undercut the Biden administration before it was even in power.
And I look at that, and I say, Sure, I understand why you think [Xi] is an American agent, that he’s doing our work for us — but we can’t talk like that. We have to talk in terms of, “China is a great civilization. China has remarkable achievements. You don’t need me to explain the greatness of China. You don’t need a visit to a museum to see the greatness of China. It’s everywhere in our common civilization, so many of the innovations and the achievements — [China] is just a spectacular story, and it will continue to be so going forward.”
That’s how we talk. That’s how we talk about China. We love China. We’re impressed by China. We think China is one of the greatest civilizations that has ever existed. We want to share the planet with China.
The issue is: under what terms are we going to share the planet?
Is it going to be what happened to Lotte World inside China and the boycotts of South Korean businesses? Is it going to be the terms that they tried to impose on our friend Australia, those fourteen demands and those boycotts? Is it what they did to Hong Kong — are those the terms, with that National Security Law? Is it what’s happening in Xinjiang? Is it what’s happening in Tibet? What are the terms of sharing the planet?
And my answer to that is: we need better terms than what the Chinese have on offer — but we need to negotiate those terms. And the way you negotiate those terms: you get on the front foot; you’re not anti-China — you’re pro-China; you deconflate Xi Jinping and China; you deconflate the regime and the people, the nation and the civilization and the history — and you say, “We’re going to deal with your regime because you are the legal government of China right now. But we’re going to deal with it not on the terms that you’re trying to set. We’re going to deal with it on our terms. And if you don’t want to talk, we’re going to tell everybody that you don’t want to talk."
What are we doing shutting down Confucius Institutes — like we’re afraid of them, or like we’re the Communist regime? We opened a Confucius Institute at Stanford University — and we love-bomb Chinese culture, and ours is pluralistic, and it doesn’t eliminate certain ways of thinking, certain ideas, certain topics. In fact, Communism can be one of the topics. We can have Communist officials deliver lectures about Communism at our own Confucius Institute because we practice pluralism and we’re not afraid. And we love Chinese culture, and we love everything about their great achievements, and we do have to share the world with them.
But, we want a world in which the rule of law, open society, a dynamic market economy, rules, reciprocity — where those are the values, those are the terms of the relationship. And if we can’t get it all with China, we have to get as much of that as possible — and we have to keep both the pressure on and the diplomacy.
There’s a new biography of George Shultz, my former colleague here at the Hoover Institution. We were yesterday in his seminar room, the Annenberg Room, where he presided for decades over conversations, including China policy. Let’s remember that Shultz was a diplomat, that Shultz dedicated his whole life to dealmaking — but the issue was always the terms of those deals. That’s in our DNA; that’s something we can do.
And so this is not hawkishness for hawkishness’s sake. This is not “run China right off the globe.” We can’t do that, we shouldn’t do that, and trying to do that would ruin us. We’re in this together. But what are the terms of that deal?
And so I like the fact that Xi Jinping is now crying uncle and trying to use American pressure as an excuse to cover up his own mistakes and failures and some of the weaknesses of [his] system. It would be foolish to count the Chinese out. It would be foolish to count Xi Jinping out. It would be foolish to think that he’s an American agent, and he’s going to go on continuing to mess up. There’s only so far a superpower like the United States can go when someone else is doing the work for them. We have to do some of that work ourselves.
Reagan Masterclass: Upholding Values and Interests Simultaneously
Jordan Schneider: So we are here at the Hoover Institution. A 2006 Chinese state TV documentary about the fall of the Soviet Union cited Ronald Reagan as saying,
The ultimate determinant in the struggle that’s now going on in the world will not be bombs and rockets, but a test of wills and ideas.
Take that idea and apply it to the discussion we’ve been having.
Stephen Kotkin: Could that be truer today than it was when Reagan said it?
People have a hard time understanding Reagan. There’s so much partisanship, and he’s a complex figure. William Inboden’s book The Peacemaker on Reagan — it’s just a tremendous book, and I couldn’t recommend it more highly to your listenership.
So Reagan is two things simultaneously. It’s really important to understand. He’s a movement conservative: he believes in God; he talks about Christianity in God in his foreign policy speeches, as well as his domestic policy speeches. This is why Inboden — who wrote a previous book about the role of religion in the Cold War in our American foreign policy — is able to understand Reagan.
At the same time, he’s a dealmaker conservative — in the mold of the Shultz or the James Baker types: the people for whom free markets and open society are really important. And ultimately it’s about coming to agreements, and figuring out how to solve problems in enhancing prosperity and peace — and sometimes making some concessions, because you need to get to a better outcome. That’s what dealmaking is about. Making any concessions to a movement person is usually really hard. In fact, dealmaking for movement people is hard because your purity somehow gets … I don’t know if the word is “contaminated” — but the shine comes off a little bit in the nitty-gritty of the dealmaking.
So the beauty of Reagan — [who] once again, not everyone can grasp it because of the partisanship — is he’s a movement conservative and a dealmaking conservative simultaneously. And he’s a dealmaker because of the movement conservative side of him — because he wants a world of peace. He actually wants an end to nuclear weapons. He believes in this stuff, and he’s willing to deal as a result of those beliefs. So he’s an unusual person who combines both the dealmaking and the movement.
And so for Reagan, he can go to Moscow, and he can meet with the dissidents, including the evangelical Christians — who are the largest group of dissidents throughout Soviet history. It’s not the constitutionalists, it’s not the Western liberals who are as willing to die for their beliefs — [though] many of them are — it’s the evangelical Christians who are willing to die in order to practice their religion freely. And so Reagan will go meet with them — and then he’ll go meet with Gorbachev, the General Secretary of the Communist Party. He’ll do both.
There are members of his administration who don’t like him meeting with the dissidents and the evangelical Christians, because it could undercut his ability to make a deal with Gorbachev. And then there are the people who are the movement conservatives in Reagan’s administration who don’t want any deals with the Communists — they don’t want any negotiations, let alone deals, with the Communists; they don’t think it’s proper for a US president representing the free world to even be in dialogue with such figures. And so for Reagan, it’s completely natural to meet with the dissidents at the ambassador’s house, and then to go over to the Kremlin and to meet with Gorbachev on the same trip.
And so, lo and behold, Reagan is able — in ways that we need to recuperate — to uphold American values and American interests simultaneously. He’s not just about values and democracy promotion or freedom promotion. And he’s not just about pragmatism and nitty-gritty interests. He’s not one or the other. He’s both of those things simultaneously. He can uphold our values, and he can uphold our interests. It’s not rocket science — but it is a history that we have to return to.
You know, I hear a lot of people saying, “Oh my God, no Cold War with China. God forbid we should have a Cold War with China.” And I think to myself, “What world do these people live in?” We’re already in a Cold War with China, because China started that long before we understood that that’s what they were doing.
Would you prefer a hot war? The alternative to Cold War is capitulation — which you can imagine I’m not in favor of — or hot war.
World War II was 55 million deaths; that’s the kind of low-ball number — it depends how you count the deaths in China, which are nearly impossible to fix with any accuracy in World War II. And it’s an exponentially larger number compared to World War I. So can you imagine World War III — God forbid, the exponential number of deaths increased over 55 million from World War II — that we’d be talking about? It’s just beyond comprehension — let alone that we have these nuclear weapons now, which we didn’t have in World War II until the very, very end (and in any case, the firebombing killed many more Japanese civilians than the nuclear weapons did).
And so just to keep this point: hot war is so bad, words couldn’t describe it. “Bad” is just an absurd word to describe what World War III would look like.
And so Cold War is this fantastic other option, where you can compete without hot war — where you don’t have to capitulate and you don’t get hot war. I mean, it’s just this fantastic solution sitting on the shelf for us.
And moreover, we’re good at it. We’ve done it before. We know how to do it. We have a lot of tools in the toolkit. Some of them need to be resharpened, some of them need to be refashioned — but we have this amazing body of knowledge and experience of Cold War that we can put to work again. And we’ve learned lessons of the mistakes that we made in the Cold War: for example, I would put Vietnam near the top of that list; and so there’s a lot of stuff that we did during the Cold War that we need not repeat because we’ve learned the lessons the hard way. The Vietnamese learned the lessons even worse than we did, because they died in much bigger numbers than we did; and so we can’t forget that either — the sacrifices that other places underwent because of our mistakes or our misguided application of the Cold War.
So not everything in the Cold War was magnificent, but there’s a lot in the Cold War that’s of great value, and it can be updated. And there’s going to need to be some new tools in the toolkit.
Now we see the technology export controls from Commerce on China in the tech sphere. Where did that stuff come from? What is that about? So people who are saying they’re in favor of technology export controls but they’re against the Cold War with China — I don’t understand how they could make both of those statements and hold them, because technology export controls were one of the great successes of the Cold War.
So I’m in love with the Cold War. I’m in favor of the Cold War. The Cold War is not only a good thing — it’s a necessary thing, because we have to uphold these values and these institutions. We have to uphold (what I’m calling) the terms of the way we share the planet.
The West is just this fantastic success story. It’s not a geographical term. It’s North America, it’s Europe, and it’s an enlarged version of Europe now; and it’s that whole first island chain in the Pacific in Asia: it’s South Korea; it’s Japan; you could include Taiwan or not, depending on your point of view about the One-China Policy in the West. You could certainly include Australia. And we could go beyond that, because it’s not just even North America, western Europe, and the first island chain. [It was] a club of institutionally similar, like-minded and -value-terms countries that was the basis for the GATT (before we got into the fiasco known as the WTO). It was the basis of this open, non-hierarchical, voluntary, free sphere of influence. That’s what the West is — as opposed to hierarchical, coercive, non-voluntary sphere of influence where you impede the sovereignty of your neighbors rather than enhance their peace and prosperity in a club that they’ve willingly joined (like Ukraine is trying to do).
And so this is our strength. This is how we should go forward. And China has to be a piece of that world. There can’t be a world without China — and that goes also for the Global South and all of those countries for whom we opened up the world order to allow peace and prosperity to spread. That was our policy. Our policy was for places like China or India to rise. That was an express policy. There was opportunity at home for social mobility, and there was opportunity abroad for other countries to join this enterprise.
The problem was always the terms of joining. You could join while cheating. You could join without abiding by the rules. You could join without having to do what you promised or what you signed in a treaty to do. I wouldn’t have done it that way. I would’ve upheld people to playing by the rules of the order that they were becoming beneficiaries of.
And so we need to open up that sense of opportunity for others — but we also need to understand what the terms are for them.
Stalin’s Deepest Insecurities
Jordan Schneider: We only have time for a few more, and I have four questions, so I’m going to ask them all and let you pick:
rationales that guided Stalin’s versus Putin’s war machine, and how that compares over time;
Can we get a preview of the next volume of your Stalin biography? What the most surprising thing you’ve learned about Stalin and his relationship with Mao, or his support of the CCP, over the course of those thirty years [Ed. early 1920s to Stalin’s death in 1953];
if you saw Robert Caro’s documentary, and any thoughts you have about his way of being, and what you try to learn and take away from it;
and lastly, any feedback you have from me and the coverage I’ve been doing, and the China studies community more generally.
On Robert Caro: Master of the Senate is one of the great biographies ever written — certainly about power, and how one accumulates and exercises power, and the consequences of exercising power. It’s a North Star for all of us who do biographies and write about power. Of course, Lyndon Johnson and Joseph Stalin are very different figures — and more importantly, they’re in very different kinds of systems.
Let’s take the Mao-Stalin thing and close on that. Mao, the Chinese Revolution, and China studies are unavoidable for someone who studies Russia and the Soviet Union. It’s not like you are necessarily a China Hand — but you can’t be otherwise, in some ways, because of the subject matter, and because of how deeply intertwined Eurasian history is.
Eurasians, ancient civilizations, Iran, Russia, China — all predate the West and will never accept a Western-dictated, Western-dominated system very easily. The Japanese and the Germans didn’t want to accept it either, and they were literally crushed in a global war. And I’m not advocating that that’s how we would get others to accept it — but you can see what the problem is.
And so the histories are deeply parallel in some ways — and then deeply intertwined, because of the interaction that the shared Leninist system and the technology transfer from the Soviet Union to China with all of the expert advisors and all the history. And let’s face it: the Guomindang [KMT] comes into this picture as well — and one could go on about this forever.
One of the things you discover about Stalin and Mao — and this is really remarkable — is that Stalin was not afraid that Mao was going to do something to Stalin, but that Stalin was going to go and Mao was going to outlast him. You have this a little bit with Tito [Josip Broz]. We usually have it wrong, that Tito broke with Stalin; in fact, Stalin broke with Tito — Stalin excommunicated Tito. Tito had his own revolution in Yugoslavia; Stalin didn’t do it for him. Tito did it for himself and with his other Partisans in Yugoslavia. And so why should Tito have to be Stalin’s minion when Tito was his own revolutionary? Tito, in fact, was willing to subsume himself to Stalin’s rule to a very great extent — and it wasn’t enough for Stalin.
You have it a little bit with Tito, but you have it much more with Mao. Now, Stalin is definitely critical of the Chinese revolution in some ways, both against it and for it, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes sequentially. It’s a big story. It’s a story that’s been told successfully before, and I hope to tell it in volume three of my Stalin work. It’s a very substantial part of the Stalin work and understanding this trajectory.
And what Stalin began to realize was that there was this young, vigorous man who had his own revolution, and it’s a sort of “second Tito” — even though Mao could not have been more bootlicking in his approach to Stalin. Mao genuinely admired Stalin. Mao looked up to Stalin with stars in his eyes — literally; they were Communist stars, but they were stars in his eyes. And so Mao couldn’t have been more subservient, loyal, and obsequious than the whole opposite of how we’re going to see Mao with Khrushchev and the other pigs who succeeded Stalin. In comparison to Stalin, Mao doesn’t feel that they’re his equal — let alone that they’re his masters — the way Stalin is.
Yet Stalin doesn’t know what to do with Mao. Mao can swim lap after lap in the pool, and Stalin can barely move. In the post–World War II period, Stalin is sick; he’s very infirm. He has his first stroke, or mini-stroke, in 1945, right after the [Moscow] Victory Parade, and disappears for three months from Moscow. Then each year thereafter, he spends four to six months down south in Sochi — not in the Kremlin very much anymore. It’s not the same Stalin that we associate with the vim and vigor of the wartime leader, the one who so impressed the Western interlocutors from the US and the UK who met with Stalin during the war.
And Mao: not only is he tall — he’s unusually tall, [while] Stalin is the short guy — but Mao has his chest puffed out. Mao has the claim of legitimacy of having had his own revolution (that’s certainly the perception globally) and having the largest country by population in the world.
So if you are frail and mortal, and you’re not the young man dominating the domestic Soviet political system and the global Communist order that you were just a decade ago — and there’s this guy on the horizon, what do you do with him? And the more I began to poke into Stalin’s treatment of Mao, the more I began to see that Stalin was, at some level, fearful of Mao succeeding him as this figure, as this global leader.
Stalin was afraid of his mortality (like us all); he was afraid of being knocked off the pedestal by his successors. He said this on occasion: he denounced his successors as unworthy of being in that position of leading the regime after he was gone. And then Mao appears on the scene. And what a figure Mao was in those days. All the contradictions of Mao that we know, we still don’t have the Mao biography that he deserves — because the Chinese won’t let us write it. We have many people trying. We have many people using hearsay and the equivalent of the sushi chef [Kenji Fujimoto] that we have from the Kim dynasty — it’s actually, in Mao’s case, his doctor whom we have to rely on.
And so we don’t have the biography of Mao that’s on the scale that he deserves. But we have a lot of stuff of Mao and Stalin because of the revelations that have come from the Soviet side. So of all the Mao stories, the Mao-Stalin story is one of the ones that you can tell with the richest empiricism — and then you can also see the frailty, the mortality versus the vigor versus the future. And in many ways, as you know, China will eclipse Russia, not only as the leader of the international Communist movement, but as a global power.
And so that’s a really big story, and I hope to tell that story properly when I’m finished soon with volume three.
Jordan Schneider: We close every episode with a song. Is there a theme song in your mind for volume three that we should close this episode on?
Stephen Kotkin: Too many for me to sing right now, but you know, I love Sam Cooke: “Don’t know much about history.”
And this is the problem: when you don’t know history, everything is unprecedented. History can’t tell you where the future’s going. And bad history, junk history, poor analogies from history — “everything is Munich Appeasement 1938” — we have a lot of bad history.
But good history is unbelievably valuable for cultivating empathy, for getting you to understand the other side, for getting you to understand contingency, randomness, accident; unintended, perverse, and unintended consequences; forgetting how structures are hard to overcome — institutions don’t change so fast, so easily, so quickly as we might sometimes like.
There are so many lessons of history. Humility is one of the great lessons of history. When we complain that young people don’t know history, it’s true — but we have to look in the mirror. That’s on us. We have to teach history. We have to get them enthused about history. We have to cultivate the love for history in them that we have in ourselves, so they become lifelong learners of history, and they become humble and skeptical and empathetic and all other things analytical that history delivers.
So when Sam Cooke says, “Don’t know much about history,” that in fact is our rallying cry.
Jordan Schneider: Stephen Kotkin, what an honor. Thank you so much for being on ChinaTalk.
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It’s not that I could forget how good this conversation was - I remember I bought 2-3 books in the first 15 minutes of the podcast. I’m reading The Organizational Weapon this week as a matter of fact. But I still read this whole post because there was so much good stuff in this back half of the episode. Thanks!