Build­ing a world safe for di­ver­sity

China Daily (Latin America Weekly) - - Views -

The 90-day cease­fire since Dec 1 in the “tar­iff war” be­tween the United States and China pro­vides a wel­come op­por­tu­nity to pause — and to think. Trade ne­go­tia­tors are fo­cused on the search for a deal that will pre­vent a full-blown trade war. But the rest of us should be think­ing about two larger ques­tions: Where is the over­all re­la­tion­ship be­tween the two great na­tions head­ing? And what can the two sides do to avoid an out­come no one wants?

At this point, even the rosiest op­ti­mists have awak­ened to the fact that this is not just a tiff about tariffs. Ow­ing to last week’s de­ten­tion of Huawei’s chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer Meng Wanzhou, some claim the US and China are now slid­ing rapidly to­ward what could soon be­come “Cold War 2.0”.

In the orig­i­nal Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union en­gaged in war by all means short of bombs and bul­lets. This con­flict in­cluded un­lim­ited eco­nomic, po­lit­i­cal, and ide­o­log­i­cal as­saults on each other, and even “hot” proxy wars.

But be­fore the Cold War ended, it fea­tured sev­eral se­ri­ous crises in which the two ri­vals came to the brink of a nu­clear war. The most dan­ger­ous mo­ment, his­to­ri­ans agree, was the Cuban Mis­sile Cri­sis of 1962 – when for­mer US pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev stood eye­ball to eye­ball con­tem­plat­ing a con­fronta­tion Kennedy be­lieved had a one-in-three chance of end­ing in a nu­clear war that would have killed hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple.

Sobered by that ex­pe­ri­ence, JFK be­gan a se­ri­ous search for a bet­ter way for­ward. Eight months later, just be­fore he was as­sas­si­nated, in one of the most sig­nif­i­cant speeches about in­ter­na­tional af­fairs of his ca­reer, he pro­posed that hereafter, the US goal in re­la­tions with the Soviet Union should be to build “a world safe for di­ver­sity”.

hat would mean, he un­der­stood, trans­form­ing Amer­i­can think­ing about what the US re­quired of its “dead­li­est” ad­ver­sary. In a feat of rhetor­i­cal ju­jitsu, he stood for­mer US pres­i­dent Woodrow Wil­son’s call for a “world safe for democ­racy” on its head. More im­por­tantly, he rejected its Cold War ana­logue of which he had been a lead­ing ad­vo­cate. Rather than de­mand­ing that the US bury the Soviet Union, the US should now live and let live — in a world of di­verse po­lit­i­cal sys­tems with di­a­met­ri­cally op­posed val­ues and ide­olo­gies. In that fu­ture, the two ri­vals could com­pete vig­or­ously — but only peace­fully — to demon­strate whose val­ues and sys­tem of gover­nance could best meet the needs of its ci­ti­zens.

What led this hard­ened, emo­tion­ally com­mit­ted Cold War war­rior to such a dra­matic change of mind? The ex­is­ten­tial ex­pe­ri­ence of nu­clear dan­ger. To pre­vent Khrushchev from plac­ing nu­clear-tipped mis­siles 150 kilo­me­ters off the US coast in Cuba, Kennedy played a ver­sion of Rus­sian roulette.

To re­duce this risk, the Kennedy ad­min­is­tra­tion un­der­took a surge of ini­tia­tives that be­gan with the es­tab­lish­ment of a hot­line be­tween the White House and the Krem­lin to al­low di­rect, im­me­di­ate com­mu­ni­ca­tion. It stretched a uni­lat­eral mora­to­rium on at­mo­spheric tests of nu­clear weapons to the be­gin­ning of ne­go­ti­a­tions that con­cluded with the Nu­clear Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Treaty — which lim­its the num­ber of new nu­cle­ar­weapon states.

To be clear, Kennedy never wa­vered on Amer­ica’s con­tain­ment strat­egy that sought to pre­vent Soviet ex­pan­sion by the use of mil­i­tary force. But he opened his mind to the pos­si­bil­ity that the US could nonethe­less find some way to live with a com­mit­ted ad­ver­sary. As he stated clearly in his 1963 Amer­i­can Univer­sity speech, his main take­away from the mis­sile cri­sis was a cat­e­gor­i­cal im­per­a­tive: “above all, while de­fend­ing our vi­tal in­ter­ests, nu­clear pow­ers must avert con­fronta­tions that bring an ad­ver­sary to a choice of ei­ther hu­mil­i­at­ing re­treat or nu­clear war.”

How were such con­fronta­tions to be averted? Not, he an­swered, by a “Pax Amer­i­cana en­forced by Amer­i­can weapons of war”. Not by in­sist­ing that “the lead­ers of the Soviet Union adopt a more en­light­ened at­ti­tude”.

In­stead, he ar­gued that we rec­og­nize that “in the fi­nal anal­y­sis, we all in­habit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cher­ish our chil­dren’s fu­ture. And we are all mor­tal.” And thus, he con­cluded, while never “be­ing blind to our dif­fer­ences, let us also di­rect at­ten­tion to our com­mon in­ter­ests and to the means by which those dif­fer­ences can be re­solved. And if we can­not end now our dif­fer­ences, at least we can help make the world safe for di­ver­sity.”

It was a pro­found thought. It re­quired, in ef­fect, em­brac­ing si­mul­ta­ne­ously two al­most con­tra­dic­tory propo­si­tions. But over the decades that fol­lowed, the two coun­tries with fun­da­men­tally in­com­pat­i­ble po­lit­i­cal philoso­phies found ways to avoid mil­i­tary con­fronta­tions as they en­gaged in fierce but peace­ful com­pe­ti­tion.

It is in­struc­tive to con­sider the sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween Kennedy’s idea and for­mer premier Zhou En­lai’s “Five Prin­ci­ples of Peace­ful Co­ex­is­tence” en­shrined in China’s Con­sti­tu­tion: mu­tual re­spect for each other’s ter­ri­to­rial in­tegrity and sovereignty; mu­tual non-ag­gres­sion; mu­tual non­in­ter­fer­ence in each other’s in­ter­nal af­fairs; equality and co­op­er­a­tion for mu­tual ben­e­fit; and peace­ful co­ex­is­tence. Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping has af­firmed that these bedrock prin­ci­ples “con­sti­tute the cor­ner­stone of China’s for­eign pol­icy”.

Taken to­gether, these two streams of thought could in­form a joint ef­fort by US and Chi­nese lead­ers to de­velop a new strate­gic con­cept. One that chan­nels the “Thucy­didean” ri­valry to­ward a new form of peace­ful com­pe­ti­tion that pre­serves both coun­tries’ vi­tal na­tional in­ter­ests and pre­vents them from fall­ing into a war that could de­stroy what they value most.

The author is for­mer di­rec­tor of the Belfer Cen­ter for Sci­ence and In­ter­na­tional Af­fairs and Dou­glas Dil­lon pro­fes­sor of gov­ern­ment at the Har­vard Kennedy School of Gov­ern­ment, where he served as found­ing dean.

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