It’s all well and good to perseverate about the national security dangers the Trump presidency poses to the United States, and some at least are real enough. But it’s a mistake to allow our time horizons to be constricted by the presumably fleeting periodicity of those dangers. When we analyze the future security environment, as the U.S. intelligence community is obliged to do from time to time, we look out beyond three, five, or eight years. When we do that, what post-Trumpian challenges can we detect?
In my view, the most serious of these challenges is not strictly an exogenous threat, whether from a state or clot of non-state actors, but rather the combination of a key challenge with how the very act of managing it could change American governance frameworks in ways we might come to regret. More specifically, my fear is that a protracted geo-economic competition with China could usher in the American national security state of the future. I will come in a moment to my meaning and reasons, but we need a little history as prelude.
The phrase “national security state” was a Cold War-era meme devised mainly by members of the American adversary culture (to employ Lionel Trilling’s perfect phrase) for use in defaming the “containment”-framed foreign and national security strategies of Democratic and Republican administrations alike. Peddled prominently by the founders, fellows, “senior scholars,” and lateral associates of the Institute for Policy Studies—Marcus Raskin, Richard Barnet, Saul Landau, Richard Falk, Noam Chomsky, Barbara Ehrenreich, Robert Jay Lifton, and others—the phrase was deployed to argue, among other things, that the short-of-war mobilization of the United States during the Cold War was distorting the American economy, militarizing American culture, and undermining American democracy by dint of a new subculture of secrecy lorded over by shadow elites connected indelibly to the “military-industrial complex.”
The arguments, such as it was, took several forms. Some stressed sober Marxian economic projections; some recycled gob-eyed Hobsonian-Leninist theories of imperialism; still others chose mystical psychobabble propositions holding that the very existence of U.S. nuclear weapons was turning the United States in a Nazi-like state. The core of it all was the revisionist insistence that U.S. Cold War policy was not a response to a national security threat but rather the cause of international insecurity, and hence that everything other regimes and parties did to resist, oppose, undermine, and subvert U.S. policy was on balance benign. IPS never saw an adversary of the United States it could not praise, support, excuse, or at least “understand.”
Of course the whole concept of the United States as a “national security state” belied a mammoth irony: There was a national security state engaged in the Cold War—the Soviet Union. It was the Soviet Union that commanded an economy for the sake of maximizing aggregate military might. It was the Soviet system that bulldozed any concern for average citizens in the name of an all-encompassing industrial policy. It was the Soviet Union that empowered unaccountable bureaucrats to override any and all forms of governmental accountability. IPS ideologues therefore might sensibly have invoked Bernard Williams’s warning to “beware who you take for an enemy, for you will grow more like him,” but to the best of my knowledge they never did.
Back in the day, all of this struck me as nefarious and insidious bullshit. IPS succeeded in spreading these and related ideas far and wide—and they are all still out there in abundance, having by now spread in lowest-common-denominator form deep into an American mass culture that has always looked upon core governmental authority with a jaundiced eye. But of course none of these shrill warnings came to pass. The United States did not morph into a Nazi-like state because of nuclear weapons; American democracy was none the worse for the wear of the Cold War experience; and the American economy was not captured by defense industry behemoths and their cadres of stealthy lobbyists. Indeed, if you had wanted to make a decidedly mediocre investment in the stock market over the past thirty or so years, buying defense industry stocks was perhaps the most reliable way to have done that. We have problems with our democracy and with rentier “capture” in the economy, to be sure, but these problems pretty plainly have other sources, many of which have arisen since 1989.
And yet—it is highly implausible to assert that the experience of the Cold War changed nothing important about American society, and downright foolish to assert that it changed nothing at all. Change is inevitable, except, of course, from a vending machine. But sorting out the causal strands is something else again. The mobilization of that era was not strictly military; it was institutionally syncretic, involving government, industry, universities, and more besides. Some of that syncretism had its origin in World War II, and some of the evolved institutional webbing of Cold War days seems in retrospect to have been benign, for example in the way that R&D investments for military purposes fertilized the general economy and contributed to the broad-based economic growth of that era.
But surely the way the United States mobilized for the Cold War changed something beyond what was inchoate in earlier patterns, and not all of those changes were benign. The world just doesn’t work that way, and it’s no strain to see an example in the transformation of the Roman Republic into an Empire by dint of the military exigencies of that time. The militarization of American culture is certainly real, but where it came from is not obvious—anymore than one can identify the water in a river from the many streams that feed it. Separating out the sources of social change over a forty-year period in a society as capacious and complex as that of the United States is a mug’s game.
I’ve little patience for mug’s games; looking forward concerns me more. Let me then get to the gist. China, like the Soviet Union, integrates its institutions in ways that enable, if not mandate, state industrial policy in the service of developing military power. But unlike the Soviet Union, China has not sought autarkic development, at least not since Deng Xiaoping de-Maoified the Middle Kingdom. The Chinese leadership has sought to integrate China into the global economy, even as it has lately identified five key first-rank technological innovation priorities judged critical to military/security development: cybernetic technology, nanotechnology, brain science, quantum communications and computation, and robotics.
Part of the reason for China’s engagement in the global trading system has been, to put it plainly, to conduct a systematic program of industrial espionage and theft focused on its strategic technological priorities—or, to put it less brusquely, a set of arrangements conducive to accelerated technology transfer. The terms the Chinese government has set to allow U.S. tech companies to invest and do business in China clearly attest to this design. There is nothing uniquely Chinese about this, however. Japanese postwar industrial policy strategy bore some similar features despite its lack of military focus, and indeed throughout much of the 19th century an ambitiously industrializing United States stole from Britain, Germany, and other European countries anything valuable that its travelling businessmen and diplomats could get their hands on.
But something new is going on that makes the Chinese case more unlike than like its historical predecessors. During the Cold War the flow of innovation was most often from government labs focused on defense-related matters into the general economy—everything from microwave ovens to the internet started out as a DARPA or NASA-origin project. Now, as is widely known, the key generative innovations come not from within government labs but from places like Silicon Valley, and the government has strained to find models of cooperation with the private sector that can keep the U.S. technological edge in defense systems. The R&D enterprise is still one big ecosystem that stretches across many social-institutional borders, but the balances and connectivity hubs have shifted around a lot.
More than that, the range of private sector-reared technologies deemed to have national security relevance has multiplied. During the Cold War, military acquisition and design chiefs did not have to look far beyond their own labs and a few time-tested partners in the defense-industrial sector for what they needed for next generation military systems. The rest of the U.S. economy was considered national-security relevant only in general terms. That is no longer the case. Particularly because of the vast applicability of innovations in information technology to the management of integrated combat system operability, whole new domains of “the private sector” can be rationally construed as having national security relevance. And it is precisely here that the asymmetry between the U.S. and Chinese ways of organizing the nexus between the state and economy start to matter.
Traditionally and philosophically, we prefer that relationship to be loose. We don’t like industrial policy, we don’t go in for command economies, and we don’t want government telling private citizens and partnerships (otherwise known as corporations) what to do or how to do it—except as proves necessary. We accept government support of infrastructural development as a natural role and have done so since at least since the canal-building projects of the Monroe Administration. And we increasingly, if still imperfectly, require corporations to take responsibility for remediating the negative externalities that they cause, like pollution. But that’s about it.
China, on the other hand, exemplifies the concept and practice of eminent domain in just about every way imaginable. First of all, the Chinese government has been so assiduous about developing eavesdropping and hacking applications of IT to first and foremost monitor its own population. The same is true of Russia. These state’s abilities to penetrate U.S. and other communications systems have their origin, then, in something the U.S. government doesn’t do at all. Such is the burden of regimes fearful of their own legitimacy deficits.
Second, in post-Mao China there are such things as private enterprises. Indeed, some large Chinese corporations are among the richest and most powerful in the world. But they are independent and private only at the margin. No serious person doubts that if the CCP Politburo decides to “attach” some economic asset or process to state control for state purposes, that decision will be carried out. Corporate independence in China is contingent for not being embedded in a framework of rule of law. It can be selectively reversed at imperial—I mean, governmental—will.
This is why, at base, the CFIUS has banned Huawei products, why the FCC has pressured U.S. companies not to partner with Huawei, and why the heads of the IC have been unanimous in recommending to Congress that it pass legislation officially banning Huawei and other Chinese telecommunications companies from operating in the United States. The reason is that these and other companies are in effect arms of the Chinese government, and can be “asked” to hack, subvert, and otherwise compromise critical American telecommunications infrastructure.
The U.S. IC has good reason for concern, and in particular the NSA for very specific reasons. The NSA has two main traditional objectives (and for all the narcissistic idiots out there affected downstream by old IPS agitprop, no, tracking and reading your personal emails is not one of them): surreptitiously acquiring signals intelligence on foreign governments (but not foreign businesses); and ensuring the security and fidelity of U.S. information systems, especially ones constructed to aid U.S. warfighters, against efforts by outsiders to penetrate them. NSA has been almost surreally effective at the former objective. Until fairly recently, it was also quite proficient at the latter objective—until NSA itself became the victim of internal security breakdowns.
The main reason NSA has been so good at what the law mandates it to do is that virtually all of the technology involved has been of U.S.-origin, and a fair bit of that has been designed and developed under U.S. government aegis. Knowing our own systems intimately provided a kind of superhighway when it came to penetrating foreigners who used essentially the same technology. Same with would-be hackers trying to use basically our stuff to penetrate our systems: We play B-team exercises with ourselves in order to anticipate what bad actors might do to get into our intelligence underwear, so to speak. It has helped us mightily to defend the integrity of our government/military systems (OPM excepted, of course, along with much of the private sector).
But what if in five, ten, or twenty years the telecommunications technology out there is not exclusively or predominantly made-in-the-USA? What if the best technology out there is Chinese in origin? What if Chinese IT stuff becomes the world standard? Wouldn’t Chinese intelligence efforts be as vastly aided in that kind of environment, as U.S efforts have been aided in the past?
This is no joke. In the race to 5G (fifth generation wireless network technologies), Chinese companies like Huawei and ZTE are significantly ahead of Qualcomm and other American companies, not least because the Chinese government has been pouring huge sums of R&D money into them while U.S. government R&D expenditures have languished under Democratic and Republican administrations alike. International rules of the technological road are already being laid down for a 5G world, and not long ago the ITU (International Telecommunications Union) accepted a Chinese protocol rule over a competing American one in what amounts to the re-construction of a global utility. This is an ominous indicator, notwithstanding the fact that it attracted almost no attention from mainstream U.S. media.
For NSA and other U.S. intelligence agencies to have to operate in a world in which someone else’s IT “stuff” occupies center position imposes simultaneously higher costs, greater uncertainties, and longer time lags in getting things done to standards. This is unacceptable to a state whose security primacy depends on technological superiority in all core areas of security competition. As a result, there will be some amalgam of temptations and pressures to somehow gather U.S. industrial IT assets closer to governmental control.
Such straws are already in the wind. Note for example that the odious Don Blakenship, now running for Governor in West Virginia as a Trump clone, has expressed admiration for China’s state-controlled economy and even, according to the New York Times, “expressed interest in gaining Chinese citizenship.”
This sort of thing, in general at least, should surprise no one. Plenty of Westerners admired Mussolini’s Italy in the 1920s, or how Hitler made Germany’s trains run on time in the mid-1930s. Most infamously, we recall how Lincoln Steffens visited the Soviet Union in 1919 and returned to proclaim that he had “seen the future, and it works.” Western intellectuals have been utter suckers for any political system that seemed capable of obviating the noise and clutter of democracy, because Western intellectuals tend to chafe at any kind of noise and clutter they deem beneath their own superior capacity to point the way forward. Blankenship is no intellectual, to be sure, which only proves that you don’t really have to be an intellectual to be a fool.
As it happens, there are plenty of fools everywhere, highly educated ones and others—not to exclude the United States. The same fears about a monolithically organized Soviet Union that were rife during the Cold War will doubtless return in the course of a protracted U.S. competition with China. And there will be plenty of grist for the anxiety mill on that account. Does it bother me, for example, that the Chinese have been able to build three brand spanking-new international airports from scratch in the time that it has taken us to extend a single rail line from downtown Washington to Dulles Airport, a line that still remains unfinished and has faced major setbacks? Damned right, it does.
But the decentralized system powered by the verve of freedom won out in the Cold War, didn’t it? My guess is that it would win out again in due course, all else equal (which of course it never is), in a competition with China—particularly in an age that rewards net-centric flexibility and punishes excessive centralization.
The question is, then, will the American political class be confident enough to let it win out? Will it listen to Bernard Williams, and be sure to avoid America’s coming to resemble the adversary it chooses? I suppose we’ll find out by and by.