If Biden Wanted to Ease U.S.-China Tensions, Would Americans Let Him?

As tensions between their countries mount, President Biden and Xi Jinping, China’s leader, have repeatedly pushed back on comparisons to the Cold War.

But efforts to repair relations may run into a problem: public opinion. Polls show striking similarities between the hostility, pessimism and militarism in Americans’ views of the Soviet Union during the late 1940s run-up to the Cold War, and how they view China today. While the parallels remain limited and the contexts different, this could complicate attempts to avert a Cold War-like clash.

The parallels

In both cases, Americans’ views of the Soviet Union and China deteriorated rapidly from a fairly positive position.

The U.S. and the Soviets were allies during World War II, and most Americans approved of how they were cooperating for much of 1945, according to public opinion surveys archived at the Roper Center. But as the war ended and the Soviets gobbled up parts of Eastern Europe, those views flipped. By 1946, three-quarters of Americans disapproved of Soviet foreign policy.

American views of China have similarly collapsed. Between about 2000 and 2016, comparable shares viewed the country favorably and unfavorably. That changed in 2018, when former President Donald J. Trump’s anti-China language and trade war turned many Americans’ opinions sharply negative. The pandemic, China’s mass detentions of Muslims and partnership with Russia, Mr. Biden’s talk of U.S.-China “competition” and the Chinese spy balloon incident have since driven American perceptions of China to record lows.

In both cases, distrust grew as public opinion soured. When World War II ended in 1945, most Americans felt the Soviet Union could be “trusted to cooperate with us.” One year later, most felt “less friendly” toward the Soviets. Today, most Americans call China either unfriendly or an enemy.

“What’s really happening is alienation,” Robert Daly, who directs the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Woodrow Wilson Center, said. “It is that alienation which has, more than a cold war flavor, it’s a feature of a cold war.”

In 1948, as the Soviets blockaded West Berlin, most Americans thought the U.S. should keep troops there even if it risked war. Today, most prioritize preventing an invasion of Taiwan over maintaining good relations with China, sending it weapons if China invades and using the U.S. Navy to thwart a blockade. By 1949, nearly half of Americans thought it was “just a matter of time” before the U.S. went to war with the Soviets. Today, two-thirds see Chinese military power as a “critical threat” to the U.S. over the next decade.

Of course, the two cases aren’t identical. Most Americans favor reducing trade ties with China, but the two countries are more economically intertwined than the U.S. and the Soviets ever were. In the 1940s, most Americans backed sending troops to defend European countries from Soviet takeover; most don’t yet support sending troops to Taiwan. Americans still worry more about terrorism and other foreign policy issues than about China. And for now, far more say the U.S. and China are “in competition” — the Biden administration’s preferred framing — than say they’re in a cold war.

Still, the message Americans are getting from their leaders about China is profoundly negative. “That’s percolated into the general public,” said Richard Herrmann, an Ohio State University professor who studies international relations and public opinion.

A feedback loop

Souring public opinion, in turn, may worsen U.S.-China relations.

That might seem surprising; most Americans don’t pay that much attention to foreign policy, which is typically far removed from their daily lives. But the international issues that do register tend to be ones that politicians, experts and the news media talk about a lot. And once public opinion on a foreign policy issue calcifies, as it increasingly has on China, political leaders often pay attention to it. “It generally sets guardrails for what policymakers can do,” said Dina Smeltz of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, which conducts polls on Americans’ views of China.

Public animosity can incentivize leaders to speak and act aggressively, hawkishness that journalists then communicate back to the public. The result is a feedback loop in which events, leaders’ words and actions, media coverage and public opinion reinforce one another.

That feedback loop can become especially potent if public sentiment crosses party lines, as it did for much of the Cold War and increasingly does on China (even though self-identified Republicans remain more hostile toward China than Democrats and independents). “Taking a hard line on China is one of the few issues that Republicans and Democrats in Washington seem to agree on,” Joshua Kertzer, a Harvard political scientist, said in an email.

President Lyndon Johnson, left, in 1968 with advisers and former President Dwight Eisenhower, right, soon after a partial bombing halt in Vietnam was announced.Credit…Yoichi R. Okamoto/L.B.J. Library Collection

In this way, political leaders’ decisions can both shape and be shaped by public opinion. The early Cold War exemplified the dynamic. President Harry Truman’s 1947 declaration of U.S. support for countries resisting “totalitarian regimes,” dubbed the Truman Doctrine, drew on and deepened anti-Soviet animus. John F. Kennedy closely tracked polls about how other countries viewed the U.S.-Soviet balance of military power, leading him to resume atmospheric nuclear testing and hasten America’s space program. Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, poured troops into Vietnam partly because he feared political backlash if communists overran it.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken meeting with China’s president, Xi Jinping, in Beijing last week. Credit…Pool photo by Leah Millis

Mr. Biden recently predicted a “thaw” in U.S.-China relations, but last week he called Mr. Xi a dictator and then stood by it, rankling China. When Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Beijing this month to lower the temperature, Republicans blasted him. Mr. Biden’s G.O.P. challengers are already calling him soft on China ahead of the 2024 election. “The public climate places a ceiling on where the anticipated thaw could lead,” said Jessica Chen Weiss, a Cornell political scientist.

Public opinion may already be pinching Mr. Biden’s strategy. While advising the State Department from 2021 to 2022, Ms. Weiss advocated a “framework for peaceful coexistence” — deterring China more than provoking it. But, she said, senior administration officials were skeptical that Americans would support anything less than “responsibly managing the competition,” a catchphrase officials use to describe its current approach. “That’s an example of, I think, the indirect influence that the public climate — the discourse, not just the polls — has,” she said. (The White House did not comment on her appraisal.)

Chinese public opinion — which has become similarly negative and hawkish toward the U.S. under Mr. Xi — may also impede de-escalation. Academic research suggests that public opinion can drive leaders’ decision-making even in countries where politicians aren’t democratically elected. “There’s this public outcry for leaders to do something,” Mr. Kertzer said. “And then you end up in a situation where escalation on one side leads to escalation on the other.”

‘We’re already there’

Does that mean the U.S. and China are destined to grapple, Cold War-style, for decades? Not necessarily. Still, frosty relations could become self-fulfilling. A Cold War mentality in both countries could make escalation over Taiwan more likely. “Public opinion data right now suggests if China were to invade Taiwan, there would be strong responses in the U.S.,” Mr. Kertzer said. It could also hurt U.S. allies and businesses that rely on China’s economy, and could close down cooperation and diplomacy. And anti-China sentiment appears to have fueled a rise in attacks against Asian Americans.

Others think a Cold War framework can help keep tensions from turning hot. “We are already involved with China in a worldwide competition,” Mr. Daly said. “I am not advocating or predicting a cold war. I am saying descriptively that we’re already there.” Admitting as much, he added, “can inspire peaceniks as much as it inspires the hawks.”

But if diplomatic friction and mutual suspicion persist, debates over terminology could become beside the point. “The conception at the macro level is that we are really in a serious competition,” Mr. Herrmann said. “Now the public has followed. And it’s not like you can turn this ship around overnight.”

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