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Learning From The Cold War, Avoiding The Next One


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan with part of The National Conversation, a joint project with NPR and the Woodrow Wilson Center here in Washington. We're at the center's Joseph H. and Claire Flom Auditorium with a conversation about the lessons of history. What can we learn from the Cold War?

In a world where at least nine countries have nuclear weapons now, and China's projected to become the world's largest economy, the analogy to the old bipolar world of the Cold War may seem limited, but it's the only template we have on how to manage the competition over resources and markets and the crises that seem certain to arise.

Call us with one lesson from the Cold War that may inform leaders today, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also chime in on our website. Go to Click on TALK OF THE NATION. We'll also take questions from the audience here at the Wilson Center.

Later on in the program, we'll talk with the Wilson Center's president and CEO, Jane Harman, on how women lead differently. But we begin with Graham Allison, director and professor of government at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard. He also served as special advisor to the secretary of defense under President Reagan and assistant secretary of defense for policy and plans under President Clinton. Good to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.


CONAN: And you've described the confrontation over Iran's nuclear ambitions as a Cuban Missile Crisis in slow motion. The crisis part is pretty scary for those of us who lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis. So I guess we'll just have to be thankful for the slow motion part.

ALLISON: Well, it's hard to remember. You and I are old enough to, but many people aren't, that we just had the 50th anniversary of the missile crisis. Actually, I was here at the Woodrow Wilson Center for an event a few weeks ago. So 50 years ago in a course of 13 days, the U.S. and the Soviet Union rushed up to the nuclear precipice.

Kennedy, who was eyeball-to-eyeball with Khrushchev, estimated the likelihood that this would be a nuclear war between one and three and even. That would have killed several hundred million people. So when we remember the Cold War, we should remember it was a very frightening period, but we had a strategy, we sustained it, and we survived, and actually we won.

CONAN: Those who do remember the Cold(ph) War tend to remember the last part of it, which was relatively stable. As you suggest from your example from the Cuban Missile Crisis 50 years ago, this was not a stable situation. This was a dynamic situation dictated by crises in places like Berlin and Cuba.

ALLISON: Absolutely, and I think, again, I teach this at Harvard for students. They can't remember - what was the Cold War about? When was the Cold War? Why was it - how could it have been so dangerous? How could people have been...

CONAN: (Unintelligible) the end of the history book.

ALLISON: Yeah, thinking of going to war over - over what? For what? With 100 million or 200 million people killed? So the Cold War was a Manichean competition between what we called the free world, which it was, and the evil empire, which is what Ronald Reagan called it.

And over a period with lots of crises, of which the missile crisis was just the most dangerous, over time the parties worked out what Kennedy called after the missile crisis some precarious rules of the status quo that allowed for competition but without surprises like putting missiles in Cuba, or without major incursions into the other party's core interest area.

And I think that's an interesting analogy that we might think about applying today even if we think about Iran, but certainly about China.

CONAN: Nevertheless, it's not just the United States and the Soviet Union. It's working out arrangements so India doesn't surprise Pakistan, and Pakistan doesn't surprise China, and, well, who knows about Iran.

ALLISON: The notion of a chessboard in which you have not just two parties playing - in the Cuban Missile Crisis you had a third party that wanted very much to play, Castro, but was kept off to the side. In the case of Iran, you certainly have three parties playing because Israel is a very active player. And in the broader chessboard, as you say, you've got eight or nine parties moving at the same time.

CONAN: And forgot to mention the wildcard, Pyongyang. But any case, let's bring Cheng Li into the conversation. He's a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, director of the National Committee for U.S.-China Relations. Good to have you with us today.

CHENG LI: Thank you.

CONAN: And one of the principal themes of the Cold War was containment. The United States and its allies sought to contain the Soviet Union, prevent the expansion of communists and that form of government. The United States says it is not trying to contain China, that this is not an appropriate policy. But if you're the new Chinese president and you look east from Beijing, you see a string of American allies, from Japan and Korea and Taiwan and the Philippines and Australia and some days Vietnam, and that might look like containment to him.

LI: Well, not only Chinese leaders feel that way but also Chinese public, and the young generation also feels that way. They United States wants to put China down despite our leaders, the president and secretary of state, constant mention that it's not our China policy to contain China, we want to cooperate with China, and this is the most important bilateral relationship in the 21st century, and we welcome China's rise.

But from Chinese perspective, this is just the empty words. They see the aircraft carriers and show of muscle around the China Sea. They see these countries, Japan and South Korea and also India and Southeast Asian countries, they all kind of are very close to the United States.

Now, of course it's partly the policy problems of the previous leadership, but on the other hand, they are really put in a corner. Now, let me also mention that Chinese leadership does not want to have a confrontational policy with the United States. They don't want another round of cold war. And otherwise they would not send their children to the United States to study, they would not promote the trade with the United States.

But the situation is that you already see this kind of a tension. When you look at China's borders (unintelligible) points out - for them, for Chinese public and the leaders, they feel that another cold war with the pivotal(ph) policy by the U.S. government, really puts China into a corner.

So it's not only a danger for cold war but also real danger for hot war.

CONAN: There was another dynamic that informed the conversation between the United States and the Soviet Union, the confrontation, and that was this conflict of ideologies. We have a nominally communist government in China, with capitalist policies for sure, but certainly a Communist Party. We have the challenge of the Islamists in Tehran and elsewhere. Is ideology as dangerous a flashpoint today as it was during the Cold War?

LI: Well, it's not, but if we're talking about ideology, we also should see the economic globalization. This is a new trend. Because during the Cold War it's very much divided. There's no economic activities or globalization. Now, Einstein once said the release of the atomic bomb has changed except how you think.

The things, I think, in China - I mean today's 21st century, because of economic globalization, also changed everything except the way of thinking. People think that two major powers should be, you know, conflictual(ph). This is not right, because if the United States' economy is not doing well, China suffers. The same way, if China is not doing well, India's not doing well, United States also not doing well. So it's a really new era.

But unfortunately, people still occupy this Cold War mentality or 19thcentury world view. Now, talking about ideology, there's no confrontational ideology from China. You can see the Chinese political system, see the one party system. But this is also on the verge of major transformation, that the public demand for change of a political system is getting stronger and stronger.

Now, particularly you look at the young generation in cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, Tientsin, and that these people, they live in a similar way, a similar lifestyle. They enjoy fashion and music and the movies like "The Life of Pi," it simultaneously shows in China.

So this generation, they seem to, in a much similar way, behave much similar way than the old generation, rather than compared with the same generation in Taipei, in New York, in Tokyo. They're quite similar. So I think that cold war certainly should be avoided, and certainly we should try very hard to avoid hot war in that region.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go to a question on the mic here at the Wilson Center. Please, go ahead.

CHRISTIE BRANDLEY: Hi, my name is Christie Brandley(ph). I'm with Russia Beyond the Headlines. I recently spent a lot of time in Vladivostok, Russia. I studied international relations there. And I also had a lot of friends, the younger generation, who are studying Asian languages, specifically Chinese.

And I know, for example, the Russian Foreign Ministry has said that it's looking to develop a coherent strategy toward the rising East, which includes deepening relations with its so-called strategic partner in China. What might this mean for U.S.-Russian relations, the specific turn in U.S. - not in the U.S., in Russian policy? Might we see more conflict or more cooperation in the Asian Pacific with a stronger alliance between Russia and China? And might we see a stronger alliance in Russia - between Russia and China at all?

CONAN: Vladivostok, of course, Russia's great Pacific port. But Graham Allison, let's turn to you for that.

ALLISON: Well, it's a very interesting question, and it's very complicated because on the one hand you would think that both authoritarian regimes, or more or less authoritarian regimes, in Russia moving even back toward the China model, and China the one-party state that (unintelligible) told us about, would find themselves, particularly since the U.S. is meddling in both from their point of view, almost natural allies.

On the other hand, they share a long border where they've had a history of territorial disputes, and everything west of the - I mean east of the Urals is pretty unpopulated. It's full of resources but not very many people, and there are quite a large number of people just to the south of it.

So the Russians, I think, spend more of their time worrying about the Chinese, actually, than they do about the Americans, and I think that dynamic, which is a dynamic of territory and nationalism and resources, I would suspect it'll turn out to be more relevant than their alignment that might otherwise be possible if they didn't have to live next to each other.

So if this was Australia, I would say it would be a different story, but because of the history and the border and resources and the people, I'd suspect that China and Russia will remain very nervous about each other.

CONAN: And Cheng Li, briefly, there's a lot of Chinese people moving into that relatively unpopulated part of Russia.

LI: Well, that's true. That also creates some tension, and the bottom line is despite the strategic, you know, cooperation between China and Russia, I mean Chinese and Russians do not trust each other, for historical reasons and for many other reasons.

And so for Russians, they always think that the Chinese new generation leaders actually(ph) pro-U.S. because many of them study, you know, work in the United States. So they are very scared about that (unintelligible) U.S.-China can become closer and closer. But the reality is that certainly it's not the case.

But you do see the distrust. And also, very interesting, you know, a year ago China wants to establish Chinese version of Nobel Prize to offer to, you know, Putin, but the people in China just laugh about that, and you know, it becomes a joke. So it is interesting (unintelligible).

CONAN: We're talking about lessons from the Cold War, how they might apply today. One of the great surprises to the United States during the Cold War was that communism was not a monolith and that the Chinese and the Russians ended up fighting a war.

Graham Allison, author of "Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis"; Cheng Li, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution are our guests. We'll go on and bring in Ashley Tellis in just a moment. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan broadcasting today from the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. During the Cold War, the lines were clearly drawn, ideological divide was plain. Today that's not the case. Power is shared by a wide variety of actors, by the nine or more countries with nuclear capabilities, by the growing populations in China and India, but also by countries in control of water, food and mineral resources.

Still, the Cold War is the best example we have of how to manage the discrepancies in wealth and power and the conflicts they're bound to inspire. Tell us: What's a lesson from the Cold War you think should inform leaders today? 800-989-8255. Send us an email, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We've been talking with Graham Allison and Cheng Li about lessons from the Cold War for the new world order, and we're joined now by Ashley Tellis, a senior associate Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, previously served as senior advisor to the ambassador at the U.S. embassy in New Delhi and joins us here at the Wilson Center. And it's good of you to be with us today.


CONAN: And what role do you think nuclear weapons will play as the U.S. and other nations move ahead into these new patterns of competition?

TELLIS: I think nuclear weapons are not going to go away. I think that is the one thing we can say with certainty. If we are lucky, we will be able to bring down the size of the inventories to more stabilizing proportions. But I don't think we should pretend that we will be able to eradicate these weapons anytime soon.

So nuclear weapons will remain against - they will remain as a backdrop to all the international politics that transact themselves both in Asia and beyond.

CONAN: And you say drawing down stockpiles. Well, perhaps Russia and the United States will. Pakistan is building them as fast as it can.

TELLIS: In fact, that's going to be one of the big challenges of managing what the future nuclear regime looks like, because the established nuclear powers, especially the United States and Russia, will probably see progressive declines in their nuclear stockpiles.

But the regime that has been constructed to manage this reduction is a regime that is unlimited only to these two states. And so the challenge, I think, for the future is how do you expand this regime to bring in other nuclear powers that currently stand outside (unintelligible).

CONAN: That's - the regime is the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It's - India broke out first, then Pakistan followed suit, as it was compelled, it felt compelled to do so. Israel, of course, had nuclear weapons outside the NPT already. Now there's North Korea and the advent of Iran.

The nuclear crises between the United States and the Soviet Union over the course of - the long course of the Cold War, scary enough. These new calculations, the kinds of psychological games that people will play with their nuclear weapons, because we're not accusing anybody, but the United States and the Russians played those games for many years.

TELLIS: I think that's a reality that we simply have to live with, and there are two dimensions to it. We want to make certain that as these states continue to maintain their nuclear arsenals, those arsenals remain secure, that control over those arsenals does not break down so that weapons get into the hands of irresponsible actors. That's, I think, the first objective that we need to meet.

The second is that we need to make certain that these arsenals are essentially safe against attacks that might be mounted by others, and that is the old problem of deterrent stability that we had during the Cold War. I think if we manage a solution with respect to both security and safety, we will have done the best we can in these circumstances.

CONAN: So deterrence and mutually assured destruction - MAD, as it used to be known - these are elements of the Cold War which are, well, proliferating today but still prominent.

TELLIS: Well, they may not have - we may not have the equivalent of MAD because MAD was a very peculiar condition that grew out of the fact that the United States and the Soviet Union had huge arsenals that were capable of comprehensive societal destruction.

In the case of countries like Pakistan, India, North Korea, comprehensive societal destruction may not be at issue. But the fact is the use of any nuclear weapon would be catastrophic, and certainly by the standards of modern societies would constitute unacceptable destruction.

And therefore what deterrence essentially means is that we have to ensure that none of these weapons ever get used. That is the fundamental political objective in the second nuclear age.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation. Let's go to Eli, Eli on the line with us from St. Louis.

ELI: Hey, everybody. Neal, thank you for taking my call, it's greatly appreciated. So I've always been very interested in foreign policy. I've loved reading books when I was 14 and 15 about nations and about - on and on and on. I mean I read a ton of books. Basically, one of the things that caught my eye was that the United States during the 1950s overthrew Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran, a democratically elected leader.

And had we not done that, Iran would not be a problem to the United States today. We are the reason for Mohammad Reza Poladi(ph), and in turn Ayatollah Khomeini, being in power. That's number one. And number two, we need to remember that we propped up al-Qaida in the 1980s. We propped up bin Laden. We gave him CIA support, and not only that, we gave the Mujahedeen, who would eventually be our enemies in Afghanistan, support.

And what we need to learn is that we shouldn't prop up people in the Third World or even in the Middle East who we think are good for the United States' interests when they can just turn our back, or when they can turn their backs on us and immediately become massive threats. I mean we could have prevented all that had we just done better with our foreign policy during the Cold War, which I believe was a disaster.

CONAN: I will have to correct you on the CIA support of bin Laden. That is not correct. But your broad point is correct: The enemy of your enemy is not necessarily your friend. And this is something that came back to haunt us, as Eli suggests, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and elsewhere around the world. And Graham Allison, that stemmed from a policy of seeing the world as you're either for us or against us.

ALLISON: Well, and I think while Eli is may be one-third right, I would say about two-thirds wrong, the proposition that your actions have unintended consequences, often unanticipated, and come back around to bite you, is certainly right, and this is not only true in international affairs, it's true in life.

But I would say that if you look at the Cold War, the Soviet Union, if it had succeeded, in the same way that Hitler's Nazism, if it had succeeded, would have given us an entirely different world. We wouldn't be living in a free society, we wouldn't be living in an open economy.

So I would say we should remember that the Cold War was about some core values of the U.S., and good fortune we won.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go to Skeeter(ph), Skeeter with us from Eugene, Oregon.

SKEETER: Hi, thank you. I think that the Obama administration should really take the initiative and say to the world we are not going to modernize our weapons, and in fact we all have to cool it and back off and have the Obama administration really work toward getting everybody to back off, because I want to remind folks that the Cuban Missile Crisis also had its origins in Khrushchev and the others in the Kremlin being very concerned about the antiquated weapons that we already had in Turkey, and that that's part of the reason that - reasons that they decided to move weapons to Cuba.

And also in the early '80s, when we were putting cruise missiles and Pershing II missiles that were on a first-strike kind of, you know, computer-generated launch at the slightest little warning, I think that we're in a very scary place. A nuclear winter is going to mess up the planet like you've never imagined. So we've got to really back off.

CONAN: Well, Skeeter speaks eloquently of the dangers of nuclear warfare. But Graham Allison, as you look at those lessons of the United States and modernization of nuclear weapons, at the moment of those nine countries we know about that have nuclear weapons, there is one country that is not working actively to modernize them, and that's the United States.

ALLISON: Yes, and I think President Obama's made it plain that he intends to devalue nuclear weapons. He's been devaluing nuclear weapons since the famous Prague speech at the beginning of his administration. The new START treaty that he reached with Russia will reduce the numbers of active weapons to 1,550, and I suspect there'll be another round of negotiations.

I think the point you made earlier, that in the case of Pakistan we see a country that's expanding its arsenal and actually miniaturizing to have battlefield nuclear weapons, which become extremely dangerous.

CONAN: Cheng Li. China, how does it see its nuclear arsenal? It's in the process of modernizing some. We read reports about extensive tunnels, systems that can hide any number of missiles. Nobody really knows how many weapons China has.

LI: Well, certainly China's military modernization(ph) lacks transparency. That has been a concern in the United States and elsewhere. But having said that, and compared with the United States, the military budget and the military advantages, China is - lags far behind.

And with a country - you know, has a very strong economy, relative speaking, you can, you know - and this kind of (unintelligible) landscape and also possible containment, from their perspective, from outside world, they have to accelerate the military modernization program.

But it's interesting to know that there are some different kind of strategies. One is symmetrical weapons, the other asymmetrical weapon. They probably put more emphasize on the cyberwar, you know, this kind of methodology. This certainly makes things more complicated, so they will not purely rely on nuclear arsenal. They will also look at some other aspects of the, you know, modern warfare (unintelligible).

CONAN: Ashley Tellis, sometimes we look at it from the wrong perspective. The United States built its arsenal to balance the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union built its arsenal to balance the United States. China was balancing against the Soviet Union. India was then balancing against China. Pakistan is balancing against India. These are not, well, symmetrical enemies.

TELLIS: Right. And I think the whole history of the Cold War has been this classic example of how vertical proliferation and horizontal proliferation have intersected. I don't think that problem is going away, because if you look, for example, at India's nuclear modernization currently, it's taking its bearings very much from what it sees China doing. Pakistan, in turn, is responding to India.

Those problems are going to remain with us perennially, but there is an important difference. The new nuclear powers are more focused on having relatively small arsenals because they're not into the business of war fighting. They're not into the business of counterforce, which is what the United States and the Soviet Union were very heavily invested in.

CONAN: Are you among those who believe that the fact that both sides had nuclear weapons deterred India and Pakistan from going to war, what, five, six years ago?

TELLIS: I believe that's the case. I believe that's the case.

CONAN: Let's see. We go to the audience, Mike here at the Wilson Center.

KAREN DYCKMAN: Hi. My name is Karen Dickman(ph). Viewed from the perspective of military readiness and proxy wars, arguably we have never stood down since we joined the Second World War. From some perspective, Syria is a proxy war even today, armed by the United States, at least indirectly, and Russia - at least that's the source of the weapons - and both sides trying to leverage international influence through the U.N.

It seems the U.S. should take note of the fact that the Soviet Union dissolved under the crushing weight of its military industrial complex, and a more practical relational toolbox is in order.

CONAN: Graham Allison, is the analogy apt?

ALLISON: Well, it's an interesting - there are three or four analogies there, which are all very interesting. I think the proposition that the U.S. has a huge military establishment and that this is now going to be shrinking is correct. I think that's right.

In terms of the proxy wars, I wouldn't say that's correct. I would say in my view what we now see are lots of places where events almost seem out of control of anybody. What's happening in Syria, as I think Neal had a very good conversation about in the previous hour, is genuinely a revolution and maybe a civil war with multiple contestants.

They may buy arms from the international market, which include the Russians and the Americans. But basically the drivers are what's happening there on the ground, not in Washington or in Moscow.

CONAN: We're speaking with Graham Allison, director and professor of government at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University; Cheng Li, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution; and Ashley Tellis, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And we've been focusing on many of the crises of the Cold War. Not many would have predicted that the Soviet Union and its allies in Eastern Europe would have gone away without a shot being fired. As we look toward the end of the Cold War and what happened there, I want to turn to you, Cheng Li. What lessons do the Chinese and the Communist Party in Beijing draw from the collapse of communism in 1990 and '91?

LI: Well, certainly that if you ask different leaders or different advisers for government, they will give you different answers. But the thing is that they see the collapse of Soviet Union and it caused a lot of problems, and they still think that it's part of the Western conspiracy.

But at the same time, China certainly benefits from that - the openness, you know, when President Nixon and Henry Kissinger, you know, opened China, and that drastically changed the global landscape, and by allying, making kind of a close friendship or partnership with the United States rather than Soviet Union, make China, you know, very good shape.

But now they face some other crises - domestic demand for democracy, for a more transparent government. But at the same time, you also see the Arab Spring caused the collapse of a regime. The Chinese leaders certainly don't want to be like a Mubarak or Gadhafi.

So - and also the 2008 - the global financial crisis makes Chinese government also alert whether you should be fully engaged with the international system. So there's different messages, but ultimately they need to react to the current situation, and a one-party state faces serious problems.

CONAN: Let me just turn to Ashley Tellis on that exact point. So no glasnost equivalent for China because that causes problems. On the other hand, if you don't do that, you have a brittle, inflexible state which cannot respond to the demands that Cheng Li was just talking about, and that's a recipe for disaster.

TELLIS: Well, it just underscores the point that while reform is important, how you reform is just as important.

CONAN: So reform then, Cheng Li, takes on very cautious forms, and we've just had a new leadership elected in China. Do they study the Cold War?

LI: Well, of course they grew up during the Cold War period and that during - and they were born in 1950s and grew up in the Cultural Revolution, and they witnessed the dramatic opening of China. They went back to school after Deng Xiaoping returned to power. So certainly they are very familiar with that period. And the importance is what lesson they can learn from that. I think that this is a new generation leader. They are more cosmopolitan in terms of their worldviews. And for the same time, they also - because they have formative experience, they are determined to make China stronger and also determined to protect China's vital interest. But at the same time, they are open for this kind of further dialogue. So we have opportunity but also we will see some challenges.

CONAN: Graham Allison, just a few seconds to return back to the source, to Russia. Back to the future for Russia.

ALLISON: Well, I'd say two things. One, the Chinese have studied very well this collapse of the Soviet Union and are terrified by it, so they're very glad that Deng Xiaoping was not Gorbachev, as they say. With respect to the Russians, I think Putin says the greatest geopolitical catastrophe in the 20th century was the collapse of the Soviet Union. So that gives you a sense of his sense of the world, and I would say he's trying to move back to the Chinese model.

CONAN: Graham Allison, thank you for your time today. Cheng Li, nice to meet you. Ashley Tellis, thank you very much for joining us here at the Wilson Center. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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