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The Great Lesson of the Cold War: Ideology Matters

President Kagame and President Xi Jinping of China Joint Press Conference | Kigali, 23 July 2018
President Kagame and President Xi Jinping of China Joint Press Conference | Kigali, 23 July 2018

The United States is in a new Cold War. But this time Washington’s chief opponent is China, with Russia currently serving as a junior partner. The U.S. and its allies would be wise to remember the greatest lesson of the last Cold War: ideology matters.

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The conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union spanned the globe and lasted nearly half a century, arguably beginning at the end of World War II in 1945, and ending on Dec. 26, 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet regime. But it was more than a contest between two nuclear armed states, punctuated by hot wars among satellite nations and allies. It was, at its roots, an ideological conflict between the capitalist West and Soviet communism.

From start to finish the Soviet Union was ruled by committed communists. Yet many in the West, from pundits to politicians, often downplayed the role and importance of ideology, preferring to cast the Cold War as purely a rivalry between two great powers.

This line of thinking offered the advantage of making differences seem less intractable and the conflict less Manichean. But it also led the U.S. and others to fundamentally misread Soviet actions. The United States and its allies shouldn’t repeat the same mistake.

As a new book makes clear, Xi Jinping, the president of China and the head of the Chinese Communist Party, is a fervent ideologue. In The Final Struggle: Inside China’s Global Strategy, author Ian Easton highlights Xi’s beliefs and documents their widespread dissemination and adaptation. Easton, a senior director at the Project 2049 Institute, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, spent years poring over source material to discern Beijing’s aims and ambitions.

It was no easy task. The CCP, he notes, “has many policies and ideas that it knows the average thinking person might consider ugly and terrifying.” Accordingly, they’ve “mastered the art of using euphemisms instead of clear language to speak to the people of China and the world.” But just as often, the CCP means what it says.

“Capitalism,” Xi has exhorted, “is bound to die out and socialism is bound to win.” Indeed, Xi and the CCP are committed communists. Xi himself has called Karl Marx “the greatest thinker in human history,” and expressed his “unshakeable belief in the scientific truth of Marxism.”

What lessons has Xi taken from his hero? Marx, Xi has proclaimed, “dedicated his entire life to overthrowing the old world and establishing a new world.” And Marxism itself was “created in order to change the destiny of human history.”

This may sound grandiose to many in the West. And indeed, it is. But so were the delusions of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and other autocrats who sought to remake their societies and export their twisted visions. Their ambitions, while audacious, were all too real. Millions died as a result.

China’s actions match Xi’s words. Beijing has embarked upon a military buildup that is unprecedented in modern history, procuring the means to project power far from its shores.

Importantly, the CCP already sees itself as being at war with the West—a fact that the latter is only belatedly recognizing.

In December 2017, the National Security Strategy of the United States acknowledged that “China…wants to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests.” Beijing, the U.S. warned, “seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor.”

Understanding “Xi Jinping Thought,” which is now broadly disseminated in China, is key to understanding the CCP—and to anticipating what it might do next.

Recent CCP policies, such as Xi’s “Zero-COVID” policy, have damaged China economically and sparked precisely what the Middle Kingdom fears most: internal unrest. For many foreign observers, “Zero-COVID” was irrational and guaranteed to weaken China. But for the CCP, which values control above all else, it is in keeping with what is a long history of disastrous decisions, from the Great Leap Forward to the Cultural Revolution—and beyond.

The CCP’s penchant for irrational decision making should trouble those who are concerned about a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Indeed, it warns that ideology is, to a great extent, inseparable from China’s ambitions; one informs the other.

Stephen Kotkin, a Stanford historian and noted biographer of Joseph Stalin, once noted that the “big story” of the Soviet archives was that “behind closed doors they said the same thing as they said in their propaganda.” He clarified: “It turns out that the communists were communists; they believed in their ideas. And it’s only by taking their ideas and their politics seriously that you can understand” them. The U.S. and its allies must take note: understanding the CCP’s ideology is essential to deterring and confronting Beijing’s aggression.

Sean Durns is a Washington DC-based foreign affairs analyst. His views are his own.

Written By

Sean Durns is a Washington D.C.-based foreign affairs analyst. His views are his own.