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History and Politics Dialogue with Thomas G. Mahnken

From post-Cold War to post-Corona, the online dialogue format focused on the question of strategic preparedness for great power rivalry in historic perspective.

The president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington DC outlined how recent US administrations have perceived and reacted to rivalry between the United States, Russia and China.

“Great power competition during the Cold War was characterised by many forms of cooperation, in spite of the on-going conflict. What we are currently witnessing on a global level can aptly be described as competition, but has only been addressed as such in most recent years. The Corona crisis has exacerbated that situation, as can most acutely be observed in current state propaganda efforts.”

In his opening statements, President and CEO of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington DC, Thomas Mahnken, outlined how the current rivalry between the United States, China and Russia is and has been viewed by US administrations since the turn of the century. American political, economic and security communities have again begun to focus their attention on the need to compete with China and Russia. But three decades of separation from the Cold War mean that all but the most senior staff share an adequate understanding of great power competition. The central question of this History and Politics Dialogue was thus how Western powers, the United States and Europe by extension, can draw on past experiences in the geopolitical reality of today.

Learning from the Cold War

While stressing that existing tensions did not presuppose the development of a new Cold War situation, Mahnken posed the question what insight could be won from a more in-depth understanding of the mechanics of great power competition during the Cold War to better deal with the existing discord. Drawing on his expertise as historian and defence strategist, he observed that the development of the US-Soviet face-off in the course of the second half of the 20th century was guided by a framework of institutions that aided the United States and its allies in remaining competitive.  

That institutional framework emerged over time and mirrored a need to strategically adapt to the tectonic shifts and realignments of the Cold War, spanning from earthquakes of profound geopolitical events to the tremors of regional or domestic changes. Often overlooked, the power of that institutional framework emanated from its breadth, encompassing not only military or intelligence needs and interests, but covering the vast field of human activities from science through economy to political propaganda and information competition. That framework has survived to this day only in fragments, with some institutions disbanded and others repurposed.

A critical assessment of institutions

In open debate with participants, the discussion focussed on discerning which new institutions are needed and which would have to be reinvigorated to aptly address current challenges. Critically, this was juxtaposed by the observation of the limitations of institutions and at times their perversion as a means of systemic competition. As examples of this, the highly personalised and therefore de-institutionalised character of the current Russian system of government was cited, but also, on the basis of Chinese behaviour within organisations such as the World Trade Organisation and World Health organisation, how China's further integration into global organisations could be shaped.

With participants joining from Beijing through Moscow and Minsk to Berlin, Paris and Washington, one of the more disquieting observations referred to the rising problem of diverging understandings of basic factual issues. Most recently, this has been displayed by politically motivated peddling of misinformation regarding the origins of the novel Corona virus, with contradictory narratives gaining formative influence notably in the United States and China. Disturbingly, the ubiquity of information in the internet era has not led to shared understanding, but we are rather faced with a potentially dangerous decoupling of societies into separate information bubbles.

Against this background, the speaker and participants agreed on the importance of institutions and organisations. Especially in view of the threat to democracies from outside and from within, Mahnken emphasised that organisations can also be held together by comparable values, as coalitions of like-minded democracies. Even if this may resemble a problematic step backwards behind the hopes of liberal internationalism, such a pragmatic approach might well seem appropriate in view of current challenges.

 

 

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