In this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell speaks with Hal Brands, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and the author of the new book, "The Twilight Struggle: What the Cold War Teaches Us About Great Power Rivalry Today." Morell and Brands discuss the ways in which applied history can help policymakers make better-informed strategic decisions today. They move through a selection of Cold War-era lessons outlined by Brands in his book to inform the United States' approach to competition with Russia and China. They also discuss why some efforts — including the forging global partnerships and successfully projecting democratic values — may pose more of a challenge for the United States today than it did in decades past.
- Value of applied history: "[H]istory is really omnipresent in the making of policy. I think what's really important, and I think what this book tries to do, is to go back and really look at that history closely because the alternative to using history well isn't not using history, it's using history poorly. And so the more we understand about the historical reference points that we look to in making sense of our own time, the better off we'll be."
- Seeking asymmetric advantages: "[I]f you look at the way that, say, the military balance in the western Pacific has changed vis-a-vis China over the last 20 years, one of the reasons it's changed so dramatically is that China has actually been very good about developing and fielding asymmetric capabilities. They have been developing anti-ship missiles that cost far, far less than the aircraft carriers, for instance, that they are meant to target. And so they've been developing cost effective ways of keeping U.S. power projection at bay."
- Understanding key rivals: "[T]o the extent the United States actually had a winning strategy in the Cold War in the late 70s and 80s, we did it because we had a very acute grasp of Soviet economic, political and social weaknesses that came out of this world of Sovietology. And so we're in a better starting position vis-a-vis China than we were vis-a-vis the Soviet Union because we already have an intelligence community. We have more people who've looked at China studies as a field of academic expertise than had looked at Soviet studies in the late 1940s. But we're not nearly where we need to be, and so we need to be thinking about this sort of as a similar generational investment in developing the sort of expertise we need on Russia and China if we're going to tailor smart strategies today."
INTELLIGENCE MATTERS - HAL BRANDS
PRODUCER: OLIVIA GAZIS
MICHAEL MORELL: Hal, welcome back to intelligence matters, it's great to have you on the show again.
HAL BRANDS: Thanks for having me, Michael. It's always a pleasure.
MICHAEL MORELL: So we're going to talk now about your new book, called, "The Twilight Struggle: What the Cold War Teaches Us About Great Power Rivalry Today." The book actually comes out on January 25th, a bit later than you had hoped, because I guess some supply chain issues, and it can be pre-ordered right now on Amazon.
Hal, I think this is a really important book. I think it's terrific. I read it over the weekend, and I think that anyone who is serious about thinking about U.S. strategy toward our great power adversaries, China and Russia, should read this book. And I think folks are going to realize that as soon as we start talking about it. And the first question I want to ask you, Hal, is what do you do in the book? What does the book do, if you can explain that to folks? And why did you decide to take the approach that you did?
HAL BRANDS: Sure. So the reason I wrote this book is that I was trying to do something a little bit different in terms of explaining and making sense of America's competitions with Russia and China. And so there are there are a number of books, including a great many good books that essentially look forward and try to think about what America's policies in the future towards Russia and China should be.
What I tried to do in this book was to look backward and to see what insight the past could give us on those questions. And so in particular, as the title indicates, I wanted to do a deep dive on America's experience during the Cold War and look in particular about how America handled a series of competitive problems or competitive challenges vis-a-vis the Soviet Union in the Cold War, in hopes that those could shed some light on the challenges that we face in our competitions today.
And so the book is really a work of what's sometimes called, 'applied history.' It's primarily about the past, but it's not simply studying the past for its own sake. It's studying the past to try to figure out what it can tell us about the problems of our own time.
MICHAEL MORELL: So in general, you think this applied history approach is important, not just for history's sake, but to help policymakers think about the future. And you've had some experience in government, and I'm just wondering to what extent you think this is used by policymakers today, and to what extent maybe they should use it a little bit more.
HAL BRANDS: So my view is that policymakers are always using history. They just may not be using it as explicitly and consciously as they think, or as we might like them to; we, historians, might like them to. And so everybody has historical analogies that they use to explain new situations. Just look at the debates now over whether the US-China competition is or isn't a 'new Cold War.' Everybody draws on their own formative experiences in thinking through how they're going to approach unfamiliar problems.
That was true of the U.S. policymakers who crafted U.S. strategy at the beginning of the Cold War. They were obviously very much influenced by their experiences during the run-up to World War II. It was true of the Vietnam generation; they were very much influenced by that same set of experiences, and it's true of American policymakers today.
And so history is really omnipresent in the making of policy. I think what's really important, and I think what this book tries to do, is to go back and really look at that history closely because the alternative to using history well isn't not using history, it's using history poorly. And so the more we understand about the historical reference points that we look to in making sense of our own time, the better off we'll be.
And this is particularly important with respect to the Cold War. The Cold War occurred within the living memory of many senior American policymakers who are in power today. It's part of sort of the historical repertoire of anybody who has studied American history, and so we're going to be using Cold War analogies and Cold War history to make sense of our current predicament in one way or another. And so this book is an effort to really help folks do that more explicitly, more consciously and better.
MICHAEL MORELL: So I sat around the Sit Room table for four years as a deputy, and I certainly saw people bring their perspective on history to discussions. But I also saw on occasion policymakers request, or the intelligence community provide, very specific applied history. So I remember President Obama asking us, "Tell me all the times in Iranian history when they've made a strategic shift, and why did that happen? And what lessons can we learn from this?"
This is when we were trying to get them into the negotiating table, when we were thinking about Syria. We put on the table all of those times where America has supported an insurgency and what determines success and what determined failure. So the president could think about Syria from that perspective.
And I always saw those moments, just to drive home the point you're making, as some of the most useful analysis that we did during my time as deputy director. So I'm just kind of endorsing what you're saying here.
HAL BRANDS: It's interesting that you mentioned that, Michael. I saw some of the reporting in the media about the estimate you referred to where the question was, had American support for guerrilla resistance movements in the past led to success or failure? And when I did serve in government at the end of the Obama administration, one of my side projects, if I had ever been able to find time for it, was to go back and look at that assessment, if I could, because it seemed to be such an interesting question. And the way that the conclusions were reported in the media seemed so intriguing as well.
But I think the general point you make is is exactly right. And so, you know, policymakers are constantly immersed in information on current events. They cannot avoid it, but their judgments are often being made, either implicitly or explicitly, based on some understanding of the past, what has or hasn't worked in the past, how a given adversary or friend has reacted to a certain situation in the past. And so to the extent that you can go back and study that stuff in detail - and it's hard, just because of the time pressures that people face in government, you can really add a lot of value to the conversation.
MICHAEL MORELL: I just want to mention that, from my perspective, the book has three main sections. It has a terrific introduction that I think by itself should be a must-read essay on the geostrategic situation in which we find ourselves today. It then has 10 chapters that provide the history of the U.S. approach to the Cold War against the Soviet Union, and then it has a final chapter on the lessons that you have drawn from that history that we might be able to draw upon today.
And what I'd like to do, Hal, for the rest of the conversation is to focus on at least some of those lessons and Hal what I would love for you to do is, when I toss out one of the lessons I'd love to have you talk a little bit about it, where that lesson comes from in the Cold War and what specific applicability may be today.
So let me walk through those. And I guess the first one I want to start with is, "Long term competition requires navigating between unacceptable extremes." Can you talk about that one?
HAL BRANDS: So that was an idea that really emerged early in the Cold War, and it was really at the essence of the containment strategy that the United States formulated in the late 1940s and then pursued in various forms and with many variations over the course of the Cold War. And at the heart of containment was a little bit less intuitive than it might seem today. And so you have to understand that the intellectual background, as we just discussed, to the early Cold War was World War II. And I think the lesson that many people took away from World War II was that you either had to appease aggressive dictators or you had to fight them sooner rather than later.
And George Kennan, the State Department official who is often credited with being the author of containment, argued, No, it didn't have to be either of those ways, that the Soviet Union was an aggressive and an opportunistic, but also a somewhat cautious power; that it would hesitate before provoking war with the United States, because the United States was the stronger actor in the international system.
And so if the United States sort of held firm, if it firmly but non-provocatively contained Soviet influence over a period of years, it could get a geopolitical victory. It could achieve the mellowing or the breakup of Soviet power, as Kennan put it, without having to fight another global war.
And so containment, what it did was really to open up a path between the unacceptable extremes of appeasement on the one hand, and another global war on the other hand. And that idea provided, I think the intellectual guiderails that kept U.S. policy from veering off the road over the course of the Cold War.
I think that's relevant today because I think the United States is still, in some ways, searching for its theory of success, theory of victory vis-a-vis Russia and particularly China in these new competitions. And so if you take the case of China, we've concluded collectively that engagement of China after the Cold War did not work, that a shift toward a more competitive policy is warranted. That's an idea that's been picked up by the last two administrations.
But what exactly that is meant to lead to, when and how it's going to produce a better result in the end, has yet to be articulated. And so what we still need in this competition is a little bit more clarity on exactly where we're trying to go over the long term, and how we can get there without stumbling into unacceptable extremes.
MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah, that was exactly exactly what I was going to ask you. And then here's a really important one: "How an enlightened inside game can support a hard-nosed outside game."
HAL BRANDS: Yeah. So the most important thing the United States did during the Cold War was not something it did to the Soviet Union. It was something that it did with its mostly democratic friends and allies. And this was really the creation of what we would now think of as the 'West,' or what was sometimes referred to as the 'Free World' during the Cold War.
And so again, if you think back to the first half of the 20th century, the most advanced societies in the world had twice torn themselves and the world to pieces in global wars. And so the major insight, I think that American policymakers took away from that experience, was that the best way of competing with a new challenger like the Soviet Union was basically to forge a healthy, thriving, free world that would be saved from external aggression, but also safe from its own internal demons.
And so a lot of what the United States did during the Cold War was basically about removing sources of conflict within the democratic world. So the democratic world could be more united and effective in dealing with the communist bloc. And so the creation of an open and fairly cooperative international economy, the promotion of democracy in countries like Japan and Germany, the creation of U.S. security alliances that basically provided that blanket of reassurance underneath which former enemies like France and West Germany could cooperate.
All of this was essential to basically changing the trajectory of the advanced industrial world and thereby creating advantages that the Soviet Union could overcome. And so if you want to take the parallel for today, the parallel for today is simply that, how the United States manages relations with its allies and partners will ultimately be as important, if not more important, than what it does bilaterally vis-a-vis China. And I'm happy to talk more about the details of that, if that's of interest.
MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah. One of the things that strikes me is this is a tough one today, right? Because when I talk to my former friends and colleagues from other countries, you know, one of the questions that they ask me is, 'Yes, the United States seems to be back today' - although that can be debated a bit. 'But can you guarantee us that 2016 isn't going to repeat itself again in 2024 or 2028? And if you can't do that, then we're forced to hedge with Russia and with China.' So it seems a little tougher today than it was during the Cold War, unless I'm missing something here.
HAL BRANDS: I think I would say that it's always been difficult. And so the United States, even during the Cold War, there were debates whether America was going to maintain its commitment to NATO, for instance. And so there was a big debate about this during the early 1950s, when the United States first deployed troops on a permanent basis to Europe. There were debates again during the Vietnam era when leading senators were calling for bringing home half, if not more, of the American contingent in Europe.
And so there's always been a bit of uncertainty in the American commitment to faraway nations, in part because that commitment sometimes seems so unnatural and so unique. I'm not denying that there's more uncertainty today, because what we didn't have during the Cold War and what we did have more recently was really pronounced ambivalence about American global policy and American global commitments at the top of a US administration. That was a new phenomenon under Donald Trump and frankly, not a particularly constructive one.
The good news is that the United States is in some ways in a better position to handle this today because our relationships with our allies are so deeply established and they're so deeply institutionalized. And so what you actually saw during the Trump years was that - just to take a look at NATO, for instance, at the leader-to-leader level, U.S.-NATO relations were extremely tempestuous and bad and poisonous. In some cases at the working level, they actually went on fairly well because we do have these deeply institutionalized relationships with other countries, and so we may have a little bit more margin for error here than we would have in the late 1940s - although I certainly wouldn't want to understate the dangers of sort of consistent American inconsistency in its leadership of the free world.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Hal, the next one that struck me was, "Seek asymmetric advantages." You don't usually think about the United States, you know, seeking asymmetric advantages.
HAL BRANDS: So when you're thinking about long-term competition, a competition that's going to extend over years or even decades, it becomes very important how effectively each side and how efficiently each side uses its resources. And so one of the imperatives is to find areas where you can drive up your opponent's costs and you can use your resources more efficiently than they can use theirs.
And now that's very abstract. But let me give you an example of this. And so one of the most effective U.S. initiatives during the Cold War was supporting anti-communist insurgents in places like Afghanistan during the 1980s. That was an initiative that cost the United States relatively little in the near term. There are big debates about how much it cost the United States in the long term, but in the near term it cost us relatively little, and it severely drove up the costs of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and ultimately helped make that occupation too costly to sustain. And so that's an example of sort of an asymmetric strategy that makes your enemy pay too high a cost to sustain a position.
Now, with respect to the present, I think we're in a little bit of a worse position right now, and so if you look at the way that, say, the military balance in the western Pacific has changed vis-a-vis China over the last 20 years, one of the reasons it's changed so dramatically is that China has actually been very good about developing and fielding asymmetric capabilities. They have been developing anti-ship missiles that cost far, far less than the aircraft carriers, for instance, that they are meant to target. And so they've been developing cost effective ways of keeping U.S. power projection at bay.
I think we have alternatives for for shifting that. And so if you think about the Western Pacific, if you think about the difficulties of projecting power over water, which is what China would have to do to invade Taiwan or otherwise assert its will in the region, that's really a theater that ought to be favorable for defense. And so I think what you have written in some places, Michael, and what other people have advocated is that the United States and its allies and its partners, such as Taiwan, basically need to flip the anti-access area denial challenge on its head and field their own capabilities - sea mines, anti-ship missiles, that sort of thing - that can simply make Chinese power projection, a Chinese invasion of Taiwan too costly to contemplate.
MICHAEL MORELL: As we've talked about in some things we've written together, that requires the Department of Defense to really think about concepts in a way that it tends not to.
HAL BRANDS: Historically, it tends not to, historically, until forced to by dire necessity. And so one of the other themes that comes out of the book, I think, is that we often do our sharpest strategic thinking at times of danger, at times when resources are squeezed. And so if you look at some of the strategies that helped win the Cold War in the 1980s, I referenced the Reagan doctrine of supporting anti-communist insurgents.
You could also look at some of the military innovations, both technological and conceptual - air-land battle and that sort of thing that came out of the 1980s. They really had their genesis in the 1970s when it appeared that the Soviet Union was really on the advance when DOD and other American agencies were dealing with severe resource constraints. And so they had to think much more carefully about, 'How will we invest our resources, how will we array our capabilities to get maximum advantage out of them?' And so sometimes adversity can actually be a spur to the sort of creative thinking you need in the long-term rivalry.
MICHAEL MORELL: Hal, this next one is going to resonate with people. But I'm wondering to what extent it faces a significant challenge today because of our own problems. And that is, "Values are weapons in a great power struggle."
HAL BRANDS: This one, I think, is really quite central to the debates we're having about how to deal with Russia and especially China today. And so during the Cold War, the United States never would have succeeded geopolitically had it taken sort of a puritanical approach to foreign policy. We had to do all sorts of nasty things: cooperating with anti-communist authoritarians in the Third World, making our peace with Mao's China - Mao was probably one of the great mass murderers of the 20th century - in order to better contain the Soviet Union in the 1970s and so on and so forth.
But I think that at a broad level, values were really important and they were really important as a source of American advantage during the Cold War. They were part of what held our alliances with countries like West Germany and France and the United Kingdom. Together, those weren't just alliances rooted in shared interests, they were alliances rooted in shared values, and they were a reminder that the vision that the United States had for the world was ultimately more attractive than the vision that the Soviet Union had for the world.
Now you raised the question: Does the same thing pertain today? I think the answer is Yes. Although I am sensitive to the fact that America's own commitment to democratic values is arguably in greater doubt than it was at many times during the Cold War, and I'm also sensitive to the fact that the Chinese in particular have developed very good ways of trying to peel members of the democratic world off of that coalition by using economic pressure and economic inducements.
Nonetheless, if you look at some of the coalitions that are taking shape to contain Chinese influence today, they're basically coalitions of democracies coming together to defend a concept of world order that is challenged by the rise of an aggressive, authoritarian regime. This is certainly the case with the Quad, which is basically four democracies in the Indo-Pacific. It's the case with AUKUS, which is the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom. It's the same thing with a variety of other partnerships as well, and I think it's important to keep in mind that, you know, if you ask the question, "Is China's vision of domestic and global order one that is rooted in sort of the absolute power of an often brutal authoritarian regime? Is that more or less attractive than the vision of domestic and international order that the United States can put forward?" I think of our own vision, flawed as it may seem right now, is ultimately going to prove more attractive, and it's going to prove a source of competitive advantage for us once again.
MICHAEL MORELL: We really need to make that case. We can't just expect people to see that; we have to be aggressive in talking about the upside of our system and the downside of theirs to the world. I would imagine you would agree with that.
HAL BRANDS: We need to be brutally candid in talking about the failures and frankly, the crimes of the Russian and Chinese systems. This is something the United States got very good at during the Cold War, when we made what might be referred to as 'information warfare' a way of life. And we developed very strong governmental capabilities like the U.S. Information Agency for getting our story out and getting out the true story about the communist rule.
We also have to be very active in addressing our own internal failings, and this is another lesson of the Cold War, which is that, you know, the United States had some problems during the Cold War in terms of living up to its own best ideals. We can obviously look at the McCarthy era as the best - or the worst - example of that. But on balance, the Cold War was an interesting case where the need to wage ideological competition against an authoritarian foe, the Soviet Union, actually pushed us to do things that we ought to have done anyway to make our own society better and more just.
And I think the best example of this is civil rights. And so the reason that the federal government gets very serious about breaking down segregation in the South in the late 1950s and 1960s is that the persistence of segregation has just become a blot on America's image, particularly in the Third World. And so to the extent that we make progress in breaking down the legacy of racial discrimination in the United States, it's in part due to the Cold War. I think that's the example we need to emulate today.
MICHAEL MORELL: So Hal, here's one that really resonates with me, but I'm wondering to what extent its application today is actually challenging our values. And that is: "Political warfare is a grim but necessary tool of great power rivalry."
HAL BRANDS: So when I talk about political warfare - and that's basically a term of art for going on the offensive, not just playing defense, but taking measures that divide an adversary's coalition, that destabilise its domestic system or that otherwise weaken its ability to compete. There was a very extensive roster of these activities during the Cold War, everything from paramilitary operations inside the Soviet bloc during the late 1940s, most of which failed miserably, to radio broadcasting through Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, meant to get Western news and Western perspectives into the Soviet bloc, which succeeded, I think, quite a bit more effectively.
The question that emerges is, 'Can you do these things in ways that are consistent with your own values?' And this was a very sharp question during the Cold War. And it came up in particular during the 1950s with the Hungarian uprising in 1956. And so the United States had been trying to promote unrest in Eastern Europe for about a decade after the end of World War II. But what happened, when that unrest actually turned into something serious in Hungary, and to a lesser degree in Poland, in 1956, is the United States basically stood aside as many of the people who had been inspired by some of the radio broadcasts into the bloc rose up and were ultimately slaughtered by the Red Army.
And so I think that that is a very sobering example. It's a cautionary tale that when you are trying to destabilise an adversary regime, the costs of that may be borne by the people you mean to support. And so the United States does need to be very careful and very thoughtful about how it goes about political warfare in the coming years.
I think there are ways, however, that the United States can do things that would simply raise the cost of authoritarian government within China. And so coordinating sanctions against Chinese officials or Chinese entities that are involved in the repression of the Uyghur population, for instance, we've seen that the Chinese are so sensitive about this that they will have sort of wolf warrior meltdowns when it happens that often harm their own interests.
And so about a year ago, the United States and Europe got together with few other democracies to slap sanctions on some Chinese officials involved in repression in Xinjiang, and the Chinese reacted so vociferously that they blew up their trade and investment deal with the European Union. That's a win for us.
There are also ways you can do it in terms of sort of spoofing some of the surveillance systems that the Chinese use to maintain order within their own societies. I think there are possibilities here, but we always have to be conscious that we are not asking people to take risks in which we're not ultimately willing to support them.
MICHAEL MORELL: And I think one of the sharp challenges today is because China's success is so dependent on its economic performance that to undermine China in the way we're talking about really requires undermining them economically. And that cuts at the heart of America's commitment to free enterprise and free markets and free trade, et cetera.
HAL BRANDS: That's right, and it was also a question we had to address, albeit in a more limited sense, during the Cold War. And so the United States, together with a bunch of its allies, created basically multilateral export controls on exports to the Soviet bloc to ensure that the Soviets weren't getting their hands on things that would supercharge their economic performance, their military performance vis-a-vis the West.
We're likely to need something like that today and to put an even sharper point on it, the United States actually does have an interest in slowing Chinese innovation and certain technological sectors that may determine the balance of economic and military power. And so if it's retarding the flow of high-end semiconductors to Huawei, for instance, that's a form of political warfare that we have to be willing to wage.
MICHAEL MORELL: So Hal here's one that I think is also important, certainly to me as an intelligence officer: "Don't neglect the hidden dimensions of rivalry."
HAL BRANDS: Some of the stuff that's most important in long-term competition isn't necessarily the most visible or the sexiest aspects of it. And so what I was referring to with that particular lesson was, all of the things that the United States did to try to understand the Soviet Union during the Cold War, when the Cold War began, we really didn't know much about how the Soviet Union operated, even though we know who some of its leaders were and what their biographies were.
And so over the course of 40 years, the United States really makes a whole of society investment in understanding the enemy. And that included everything from building the Central Intelligence Agency to building academic Sovietology as a field to forging all sorts of connections between the government and academics and think tanks so that you could have good discussions about the enemy going over and back across the boundary between government and outside of government.
And one of the arguments I make in the book, which I imagine probably appeals to you, Michael, is that I think we did better in this area than we often get credit for. And I think in particular, the CIA has been somewhat unfairly maligned for some of its predictions about Soviet economic performance in the 1970s and 1980s. And the argument I make is that, to the extent the United States actually had a winning strategy in the Cold War in the late 70s and 80s, we did it because we had a very acute grasp of Soviet economic, political and social weaknesses that came out of this world of Sovietology.
And so we're in a better starting position vis-a-vis China than we were vis-a-vis the Soviet Union because we already have an intelligence community. We have more people who've looked at China studies as a field of academic expertise than had looked at Soviet studies in the late 1940s. But we're not nearly where we need to be, and so we need to be thinking about this sort of as a similar generational investment in developing the sort of expertise we need on Russia and China if we're going to tailor smart strategies today.
MICHAEL MORELL: I couldn't agree with you more and we have an awful long way to go here. We're not where we need to be.
So, Hal, we've talked about seven of your 12 lessons. So there are five more for people to discover in the last chapter of your book. But we have about a minute and a half left, and I wanted to ask you one more question, which is, I want you to flip the script here. I want you to think about yourself as a Chinese or Russian historian looking back at the Cold War, and is there a particular lesson that you would draw from their perspective in terms of saying: Here's a mistake I'm not going to make in this competition with the United States.
HAL BRANDS: It's interesting that you raise that question because it's something I've actually been thinking a lot about in my writing recently. And the way I'd answer this, I guess, is I would say that until pretty recently, I think China had drawn very two very astute lessons from the Cold War. The first was, 'Don't give the United States a pretext for waging a Cold War against you, because that's going to turn out badly.'
And the second was, 'Stay away from sort of a numerical nuclear arms race with the United States, because that's unlikely to benefit you in the air.' Now it's ironic that these are the two lessons, because China has basically forgotten both of these lessons over the past decade or the past few years. If you look at the nuclear buildup, if you look at the way that China seems to be going out of its way to alienate the United States in the world right now, if I were in Xi Jinping's perspective, I'd be very concerned that China has actually forgotten its most relevant lessons from the Cold War.
MICHAEL MORELL: Thank you very much for spending time with us. On that first lesson, right, that balance between the unacceptable extremes and where we should find a sweet spot, I hope to have you back at some point just to talk about what you think the answer to that is.
But thank you very much for joining us. The author is Hal Brands, and the book is, "The Twilight Struggle: What the Cold War Teaches Us About Great Power Rivalry Today.
Hal, thank you.
HAL BRANDS: Thank you, Michael. I enjoyed the conversation.
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