Conflict Fatigue

May 12, 2023

After a while, it starts to seem like “same old, same old.” Week after week, I detail on these pages yet another twist in the seemingly never-ending US-China conflict—from tariffs and sanctions to 5G telecommunications equipment and advanced semiconductors, from Taiwan and balloons to the transition from Trump to Biden, and on and on. Eventually, human nature starts to set in, as does the tendency to become almost numb to this continuum of worrisome developments.

That is a clear risk today. And it borrows a page out of the script of the first Cold War between the United States and the USSR.  Over the 1947 to 1991 timeframe, there was an equally long and tedious continuum of worrisome conflicts that raised the distinct possibility of a hot war — not just the Berlin and Cuban Missile Crises 1961-62 but also Soviet aggression in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968), along with America’s nearly 20-year quagmire in Vietnam (1955-75). With the overlay of a costly and dangerous arms race, we became increasingly numb with conflict fatigue over the 44-years of the first cold war—until it all ended with the stunning dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

As a new strain of conflict fatigue once again sets in, we also find ourselves grasping for straws in the hope that the flames of this clash will simply flicker out on their own. That was certainly the case in the first cold war, as hope built during and after periodic US-Soviet summits—especially the Glassboro summit between LBJ and Alexi Kosygin (1967), Nixon’s three summits with Brezhnev (1972-74), and the famed Reykjavik summit between Reagan and Gorbachev (1986). The same is the case today, with hope for conflict resolution once again pinned on leader-to leader summits—the Biden-Xi meeting in Bali last November and a prospective meeting of the two presidents at the upcoming APEC summit in October. Just yesterday (May 11), an unexpected meeting in Geneva between Jake Sullivan and Wang Yi sparked talk of a thaw in what has been an increasingly frosty 3½ months.

I have never been a big fan of relying solely on the leader-to-leader recipe for conflict resolution. High-level discussions are certainly necessary but far from sufficient to move the needle in a major conflict. Starting with the historic Nixon-Mao breakthrough of 1972, the Sino-American relationship has long been overly personalized. The problem with personalization is that it can ultimately be undermined by the fragile and insidious interplay between leadership egos and domestic politics.

With that important caveat in mind, I certainly concede that the willingness of both sides to grasp for proverbial straws is something of a silver lining—an indication that the US and China, collectively, would like to see a more constructive climate of engagement. But “would like” hardly guarantees a positive outcome. In the end, it will take far more than wishful thinking wrapped around the spin of leader-to-leader meetings to resolve an increasingly conflicted Sino-American relationship. Without a new and more robust, architecture of engagement, these high-level exchanges are likely to ring hollow, and the risks of conflict fatigue will continue to mount. The longer the fatigue sets in, the greater the sense of resignation that an increasingly intractable conflict is here to stay. That’s only part of the case for a US-China secretariat that I detail in Accidental Conflict.

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