Historian: United States engaged in 'twilight struggle' with China, Russia

Historian Hal Brands speaks with audience members
Historian and author Hal Brands addresses audience members during his lecture on Russia, China and authoritarians on September 8 at the Loosemore Auditorium on Grand Valley's Pew Grand Rapids Campus
Image credit - Bud Kibby

The Cold War may have ended more than 30 years ago, but it contains lessons the United States can carry into its current tense relationships with China and Russia, said historian and author Hal Brands, the first lecturer in this year’s speaker series presented by the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies.

Brands, the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said as strained as the relationships have become, the United States carries a significant advantage over Russia and China. 

“The best way to win a bilateral competition is by competing multilaterally. The most effective thing the U.S. did during the Cold war wasn’t something it did to the Soviet Union, it was creating a network of alliances with some of the most productive democracies,” Brands said.

During his September 8 address at the Loosemore Auditorium on the Pew Grand Rapids Campus, Brands drew parallels to the current political struggles with a metaphor coined by President John F. Kennedy, describing the Cold War as a “twilight struggle.”

“It wasn’t a hot war, but it wasn’t what Americans would have considered peace even 20 years earlier,” Brands said. “The Cold War was this weird state between normal international interactions and the sort of wars that could break the international system.”

Historian Hal Brands answers a question from an audience member.
Historian Hal Brands answers a question from an audience member during his lecture presented by the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies.
Image credit - Bud Kibby

The United States is waging two “twilight struggles,” said Brands, one against a China which seeks to become the dominant power in Asia and another against a Russia which seeks to recreate its previous Soviet sphere of influence and roll back NATO’s influence.

It is a dangerous world with a potential for conflict, but Brands sees the United States has a particular edge as it had during the Cold War — its network of allies which stretches from Europe to the Asia-Pacific region. 

“If you add up the United States plus its treaty allies in Europe and Asia-Pacific, we dramatically outstrip Russia and China put together as an economic, military and diplomatic power,” Brands said. “If these alliances hold, the U.S. and its allies will win, which is why Russia and China try so hard to create wedges between the United States and its allies.”

Listen to more from Hal Brands at the Hauenstein Center’s podcast, “Off the Stage,” available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify


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