Geopolitical Competition Logic as Seen From U.S.-Soviet Union Differences
Under the backdrop of rising anti-globalization sentiments, the Covid-19 pandemic further deteriorates the international geopolitical environment. A prominent example of this is the U.S.- China relations that are in the danger escalating into a full-blown conflict. Ever since President Donald Trump took office, trade deficit and tariff-related issues were often cited as the reason behind China and the U.S.’ increasing frictions. In truth, what is happening is U.S. has redefined China’s strategic position. As the “National Defense Strategy Report” puts it, China is U.S.’ primary long-term strategic competitor. This is a significant change never seen before since the end of the Cold War.
How would things pan out in the future? To answer that question, we must first look back on history. If a similar historical event were to be found, it is important that we pay extra attention to it, as it allows us to better understand the logic of U.S.’ geopolitical competition.
Many people know that George Kennan was the brains behind the “Cold War” and “Containment” strategy, though in truth, there were other geo-strategists involved throughout the 45-year history Cold War too, including Zbigniew Brzezinski. Brzezinski was a well-known Polish-Jewish American geostrategic theorist whose political career was at its pinnacle when he served as President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor and was also considered the de facto manipulator of the U.S. foreign policy in the late 1970s. In 1986, he published the book “Game Plan”, which contrary to popular beliefs, did not discuss the pros and cons of the ideology or national system in U.S. and the Soviet Union, but served as a guide for the actions in geopolitical competition. It provided the U.S. with a “geostrategic framework for the conduct of the U.S.-Soviet Union contest” through a composed yet convincing rationale.
Brzezinski stated that conflicts between maritime and continental powers were often protracted, and that the U.S.- Soviet Union conflict was historical in nature. People became increasingly aware that the conflict stemmed from multiple reasons and difficult to resolve fully and quickly. For decades to come, the struggle had to be handled with the utmost patience and perseverance by both countries. Brzezinski even argued that geopolitical factors alone could push the two major post-war powers into conflict. The differences both the U.S. and Soviet Union had was greater than any pair of adversaries the history had ever seen, and it could be summed up in ten aspects:
1. The differences in their geopolitical imperatives: The relationship between the U.S. and Soviet Union was not just a classic historical conflict between two major powers, it was a struggle of two imperial systems too. It marked the first time ever in history that two countries competed for global dominance.
2. The unique historical experiences that formed both countries’ political subconsciousness: The U.S. was an open and free society composed of voluntary immigrants. Despite their varying pasts, these immigrants yearned for a common future. Meanwhile, the Soviet society fell under the state institutions and thus, was relegated to their control. The Soviet Union achieved its expansion through the conquest of organized force and punitive immigration guided by the central government.
3. Differing philosophies: Such philosophies either form the concept of nationality or are formally established through an ideology. America’s emphasis on the individual is enshrined in the Bill of Rights. The Soviet Union institutionalized the concept and practice of the individual subservient to the state.
4.Differences in political institutions and traditions determines how decisions are discussed and made: The U.S. has an open political competition system that is strengthened by the free public opinion and formalized by secret ballots, free elections, and a conscious separation of executive, legislative, and judicial powers. The Soviet Union however, concentrated these powers in a monopolistic manner, in the hands of a closed and disciplined leadership that was both self-elected and self-perpetuating.
5. Differences in the relationship between faiths and politics that define the society’s mind: The U.S. prioritizes one’s freedom to choose their religion freely and minimizes and consciously separates church and state. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union subordinated the church to the state. This was done not to inculcate orthodox religious values, but rather to promote state-sponsored atheism while limiting the scope of religious activities.
6. Different economic systems: Though far from perfect, America’s economic system provides people with opportunities and encourages individual initiative, private ownership, risk-taking, and to pursue profit. It provides a high standard of living for most people. In the Soviet Union, the political leadership directed all economic activities, the main means of production were centralized through state ownership, and free initiative and private ownership were deliberately limited against the background of persistent economic poverty and relative backwardness.
7. Different ways in pursuing self-satisfaction: The U.S. is a volatile, consumer-oriented and highly mobile society. Its mass culture, crude in certain ways, is prone to changing fashion trends and frequent artistic experiments. Social emotions there too, are prone to sudden changes. Perhaps it is due to the lack of a sense of civic duty in the U.S. that the state is unable to make formal demands on individuals. On the other hand, the Soviet Union promoted a more modest and restrictive way of survival within its culture and it allowed citizens to seek solace from deeper, perhaps closer family relationships and collective friendships than Americans could ever have. That said, most Soviet people were to obey to the massive demands of a Socialist patriotism.
8. Both systems appeal to different ideologies: The U.S. society influences the world through communication and mass media via “Americanizing” youths and creating an exaggerated image of the country, contrary to the Soviet Union who cultivated the image of a “fair society” that appeals to the poor countries of the world. It presented itself as the vanguard in world revolution, though the tactic lost its credibility when people realized the stagnation of the Soviet society, its low efficiency in economy and its political bureaucratization.
9. The two great powers had historically different cycles of in ascending and declining in power and robustness as well as prospering: The U.S. is still clearly at its peak. Its heyday may be over, but it remains a global superpower at forefront nonetheless. As long as history can remember, the Soviet Union has aspired to be the Third Rome for a long time, hence its pursuit of hegemony and its willingness to make more necessary sacrifices compared to its rival.
10. Both sides defined their historical victories differently, and that indirectly affected the setting of their respective short-term goals: The U.S. has a dim desire to pursue “world peace” and global democracy, as well as cultivate a sense of a patriotism that undoubtedly benefits itself. It wishes to lead the world by relating to the prospects of the world. The Soviet Union ’s aspirations however, were focused around “surpassing the U.S.” to become the core of a world composed of increasing Socialist countries who shared its school of thought, as well as becoming the center of Eurasia in an attempt to exclude its opponent.
Final analysis conclusion
Looking back at Brzezinski ’s analysis 34 years ago in year 2020, we can certainly infer the logic behind the U.S.’ geopolitical competition during the Cold War. Compared to the past, the U.S. has undergone great changes. It still adheres to some its past principles, though most have been done away. Some principles are just the same, though its message has changed. With that in mind, the international geopolitical competition participated by a reinvented United States could very well produce different results than those during the Cold War. Of course, any major country that “competes” with the U.S. needs to learn the lessons from the Soviet Union’s past development too, so that they don’t repeat their mistakes.