Is China today a greater threat to the United States than the Soviet Union was during the height of the Cold War? A growing number of analysts believe so, warning that while the Soviet menace was significant, China has emerged as a far more sophisticated rival than the U.S.S.R., capable of challenging not just the preeminence of the U.S. military but also its economic, scientific and cultural dominance to a degree the Soviet Union could never match.
Indeed, under President Xi Jinping, China is openly confronting the United States around the world. It has launched a military buildup that has turned the South China Sea into a strategic flash point, and its “Anti-Access/Area Denial” strategy threatens American predominance in the Western Pacific. China uses its growing economic power as both a stick and carrot to pressure political elites and steer them toward policies that conform to Chinese objectives while also emerging as a major technological competitor with ambitions to supplant the United States as the world’s leader in key technologies by 2025. And the China Dream has emerged as a cultural and ideological challenge to the liberal democracy promoted by the United States.
Do these achievements make China a greater danger to the United States than the Soviet Union? No — or at least not yet.
That's because for all its achievements, China has yet to achieve the Soviet Union’s combination of political, military and cultural strength that enabled the Kremlin leaders to challenge the United States in every corner of the world, nearly undermining America’s efforts to reconstruct postwar Europe.
Recognizing the disparity in power between the Soviet Union at its peak and China today is critical if we are to avoid overstating the current Chinese threat. We are not in the midst of a global Cold War with China, nor do we face crises similar to Berlin or Cuba that risked escalating to World War III. This is not to diminish the challenge posed by China, but it’s to remind us that the United States has proved more than capable of handling similar, long-lasting confrontations throughout its history.
After World War II, the Soviet Union maintained a massive military presence in Europe and the Middle East, areas of vital strategic interest to the United States. Unable to match this conventional superiority, the United States relied on nuclear deterrence, using the threat of a nuclear response to any Soviet attack to dissuade any military aggression.
Berlin, a city divided between East and West, was the key Cold War flash point. The Soviets were determined to force the West out of its half of the city, challenging it three times between 1948 and 1961 in the hopes of coercing a U.S. withdrawal. Each time they failed because America’s leaders were willing to risk nuclear war. Today no such flash point exists between China and the United States.
And while the Chinese have gained great economic might, so too did the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. The Soviets exploited both the devastation of World War II and the collapse of Europe’s colonial empires by sending political, military and economic advisers worldwide to promote the socialist model of economic development in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America. Among the Soviet Union’s most notable achievements was the construction of Egypt’s Aswân Dam, one of the largest infrastructure projects in the world and a symbol of the Soviet Union’s equality with the United States. Washington responded with large-scale modernization programs designed to promote Western capitalism and discredit the Soviet model. Most historians now view these U.S. programs as a failure, but by 1980 they had accelerated the Soviet economic crisis and discredited the Soviet model.
China has invested enormous resources in developing its soft power, with mixed results. But this is where the Soviet Union flourished. At the height of the Cold War, Marxist-Leninist thought attracted tens of millions of adherents across the world. The Soviet Union’s triumph over Hitler demonstrated the strength of the communist system in the face of horrific adversity and legitimized the Soviet Union as a great power. After the war, Soviet soft-power operations in Europe branded Americans as warmongers bent on economic exploitation, even convincing sympathetic Western European elites that the United States was unfit to lead Europe since it lacked any basic “culture.”
The Kremlin could also turn to powerful communist parties and committed revolutionaries that threatened to overthrow pro-U.S. governments around the world. During the 1940s and 1950s, the French and Italian communist parties worked in tandem with Soviet leaders in trying to undermine the Marshall Plan and derail Europe’s postwar recovery. The Communist Party controlled French labor unions and would literally shut down the entire French economy at the whim of the Soviet Union. During the 1948 elections, the pro-Stalinist Italian Communist Party received over 30 percent of the popular vote. The Truman administration had feared an outright communist victory and was actually relieved by this outcome.
Marxist-Leninist insurgencies spread through every corner of the world, including in America’s own backyard. Cuba quickly turned into a major U.S.-Soviet flash point in the late 1950s. The Kennedy administration authorized the ill-fated Bay of Pigs Operation to overthrow Castro, which prompted Nikita Khrushchev’s decision to deploy nuclear missiles on the island, resulting in the Cuban missile crisis and the threat of nuclear war. Ultimately, the crisis prompted both sides to reduce tensions.
And while China’s technological achievements are clearly impressive, so, too, were the Soviet Union’s. The U.S.S.R. not only matched the United States in nuclear weapons technology, it actually surpassed the United States in the second-most-important technology of the era: space flight. On Sept. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 into space, the first object to orbit the Earth. The world was stunned that a mere 12 years after World War II, the Soviet Union had beaten the United States into space. Science fiction legend Arthur C. Clarke famously conceded that “the day Sputnik orbited around the Earth, the United States became a second-rate power.” America’s scientific abilities came under vicious attack, and many wondered if it were possible for democracies to defeat authoritarian nations in a Cold War.
It then got worse. Soon after, the Soviets launched the first man into space, the first women into space and the first lunar flyby. It would take President John F. Kennedy’s call to arms and the mobilization of the U.S. scientific community to land on the moon and win the space race. Today, we hear the Chinese have surpassed the United States in key technologies, but we have yet to see a Sputnik-like demonstration of their successes.
While it is easy to take the West’s victory in the Cold War for granted, it was a remarkable achievement that required a decades-long national commitment and the resourcefulness of the American private sector and civil society. This is one of the most important lessons that we can take from the Cold War. China will remain a competitor for years to come, but there is still a long way for it to go before the magnitude of its threat reaches that of the Soviet Union, giving both the Chinese and the Americans the opportunity to chart a different course.