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Is China’s recent missile test a ‘Sputnik moment’? I think not

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President Biden entered the White House declaring “America is back” on the world stage. But as he departed for Europe last week to attend the G-20 Rome Summit and the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, the United States’s standing with friends, allies, partners and others is no better and possibly worse than during the Trump administration. The disastrous Afghan withdrawal was significant. And Biden’s failure to reach an agreement with congressional Democrats on two big physical and human infrastructure bills before his trip did not help his credibility as a leader.

Worse perhaps is that American public opinion reflects the sense of  an increased threat posed by China and Russia. China is more prominent. The media is abuzz with stories on the likelihood or near certainty of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. In response to China’s test of a hypersonic intercontinental missile, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley called it “very close” to a “Sputnik moment.” Really?

History counsels caution. In October 1957, the Soviet Union put the first satellite, Sputnik, into space, causing near panic in the U.S. That led to serious re-examination of the technological capabilities of both the U.S. and USSR.  In 1958, the Gaither Commission, chaired by Ford Foundation head  H. Rowan Gaither, convened before Sputnik, issued sober findings about what would become known as the “Missile Gap.”

The irony was that the missile gap entirely favored the U.S. The USSR lagged far behind. But the Kennedy campaign promised as a key plank in its platform a major defense rearmament program to counter Soviet alleged military superiority. In the first months of 1961, President Kennedy sent  three defense supplemental budget requests to Congress and began increasing the strategic nuclear force to 41 Polaris ballistic submarines, 1,054 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and about 5,000 medium and long-range bombers. That April, Kennedy authorized the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.

In the Kremlin, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was caught in a vice. Khrushchev had purposely shifted significant monies from defense to the private sector believing that “peaceful coexistence” had been established with the Eisenhower administration, provoking strong resistance from his military. The Kennedy military buildup and the Bay of Pigs were used as strong arguments for the military to reverse these earlier spending changes.

Khrushchev’s response was  innovative: Station short-range nuclear missiles in Cuba, much as the U.S. had done in Turkey with its Jupiter missiles,  to threaten the U.S. East Coast and counter  the U.S.’s numerical superiority in ICBMs. The U.S. detected the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba, and in October 1962 the crisis erupted. Khrushchev was forced to back down, both to remove the missiles and significantly to increase defense spending.

Two years later, Khrushchev was removed from his post as party leader. But if the Kennedy team had closely examined the intelligence and realized the missile gap was  dramatically in our favor, one can wonder if the Cold War might have ended earlier. And 40 years later, another American administration would ignore the intelligence and over react, leading to the worst foreign policy disaster since Vietnam in provoking the second Iraq War in 2003. 

Similarly, relations with Russia are deteriorating quickly. Russian cyber hacking and the causes of the so-called Havana Syndrome in which U.S. diplomats are being subjected to some sort of electronic beam that is very injurious to health are ticking time bombs. And the expulsion of eight Russian diplomats from the NATO mission and the closure of NATO offices in Moscow in response are not helpful.

The conclusions are clear. First, a serious and highly objective analysis of the specific threats, dangers and uncertainties posed by China and Russia must be conducted. And it cannot be a replay of the Gaither Commission or the “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD) fiasco with Iraq.

Second, the U.S. must set as its highest priority seeking areas of engagement with China and Russia. For the former it could be on possible relaxation of tariffs. With Moscow, it can be strategic stability talks on arms control or restarting more robust military-to-military talks as confidence-building measures.

Third and perhaps most difficult, we must tone down the hyperbolic rhetoric that risks turning China and Russia from adversaries into enemies.

In times of domestic crisis, leaders often search for external enemies to divert the nation’s attention. But until harder evidence becomes determinant, this “Sputnik moment” is no reason to make China an enemy — yet. 

Harlan Ullman, Ph.D, is senior adviser at Washington, D.C.’s Atlantic Council and the primary author of “shock and awe.” His latest book, due out in December, is, “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and that World at Large.” 

Tags Ballistic missile China Chinese Communist Party Cold War Intercontinental ballistic missile Joe Biden Mark Milley Missile gap Nikita Khrushchev Nuclear warfare Russia Russian-US relations South China Sea Soviet Union–United States relations

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