While it is always tempting to assume that professional punditry is wrong—and the coronavirus panic has only increased the level of hysteria in the chattering classes—the idea that the world may be changing in fundamental ways has taken root. Henry Kissinger, the Yoda of international political wisdom, has pronounced it so: “The reality is,” wrote the former secretary of state, that “the world will never be the same after the coronavirus.”
But what does this really mean? This warning is vintage Kissinger: oracular but opaque, typically Delphic. Put more simply, what ought to change about the post-COVID world is that the United States and its allies should get their collective act together to formulate a truly grand-strategic approach to China’s pretensions to global power. The coronavirus experience is nothing if not a preview of how Beijing would act as a “rule-setting” force in international affairs. From the initial lies about the origins of the pandemic and the denials of its lethality and infectiousness to the continuing global propaganda campaign and stepped-up intimidation and aggression in the South China Sea and elsewhere, it’s a sobering if ugly picture. It’s also one that demands a comprehensive and powerful response, if the current international order—and particularly the political liberties that are its distinguishing features—is to survive intact. The response must be formulated and implemented using all tools of statecraft: ideology, diplomacy, finance and trade policy, and the ultima ratio regum, military power.
One of the first casualties from the coronavirus pandemic has been the idea that Beijing could become a “responsible stakeholder”—the memorable 2005 phrase from then-Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick—within the scope of the existing American-made order. Like many COVID-19 victims, this patient was already suffering preexisting conditions, even on life support. Now even most China optimists recognize the pattern of Beijing’s behavior. From the suppression of information late last fall, to its propaganda efforts to shift the blame for the virus to the United States, to promoting the idea that its apparent successes in containing the spread of the virus demonstrate the virtues of one-party rule, the lines between China and the West are increasingly sharply drawn. As the underlying geopolitical relationship has changed—as China feels itself to have become the global power as is its due—the prospects for cooperation have steadily diminished. This is notably true in regard to “transnational” issues such as climate change and now, quite astonishingly, public health, where an international common good should be apparent and where China optimists insisted that “shared interests” would prevail. Rather, it has been the Chinese who have set the pace in the retreat from globalism to nationalism.
That the China “Overton Window” has been relocated is reflected in a recent article by H.R. McMaster, the distinguished soldier, author, and ousted Trump National Security Advisor. Writing in The Atlantic, McMaster recalls how his view of China was solidified by a 2017 presidential visit to Beijing. “The Chinese Communist Party’s goals run counter to American ideals and American interests,” he concludes. Xi Jinping believes he has the opportunity—a fleeting one due to China’s lousy demographics, souring economy, and the reality that the world is beginning to better understand its ambitions—to recast the international order to its liking. McMaster found the final event of the state visit, a “monologue” delivered by Li Kequiang, premier of the Chinese state council, to be especially revealing.
He began with the observation that China, having already developed its industrial and technological base, no longer needed the United States. He dismissed U.S. concerns over unfair trade and economic practices, indicating that the U.S. role in the future global economy would merely be to provide China with raw materials, agricultural products, and energy to fuel its production of the world’s cutting-edge industrial and consumer products.
The McMaster piece also serves as a kind of Rohrschach test for the modern strategic mind; it has been alternatively praised and damned but both analyses regard the article as expressing the post-COVID wisdom of the policy-making Establishment. In this way, it may be as important for what it does not say as for what it does say; McMaster combines a clear—even vivid—description of Chinese motivations, goals, and behavior with a vague—even timid—description of what the United States and its allies should do in response.
Yet the most striking shortcoming of McMaster’s Atlantic article is his failure to describe what the geopolitical goals and grand strategy of the United States and its allies should be or to discuss hardcore security and military issues. McMaster has all but memorized Clausewitz, and he is particularly fond of this bit from On War: “The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment,” he wrote, “that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish by that test the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature.” To be fair to McMaster, the magazine article is but an excerpt from his forthcoming memoir Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World—with a cover photo of the general in his Army blues sporting a stare that would make Clint Eastwood think twice—which might well offer a more complete China take. But this is what the China debate lacks, even amid the current COVID-fueled reevaluation. Unless the United States can define the nature of the contest, what victory looks like, come up with a broad plan to achieve success, and devote the means necessary, the post-coronavirus world will, in fact, be very much the same as the pre-coronavirus world.
Ideological differences lie at the core of the competition with China. The United States and its allies have built both national and international systems meant to secure and promote individual liberty and flourishing, a social contract meant to manifest each person’s natural rights. Beijing has built—and continues to build—an imperial polity with both a countervailing political ideology and a nationalist purpose. It seeks to create a global order, and to secure and promote the Chinese Communist Party, which enjoys the mandate or “unity” of heaven in order to manifest the natural greatness of the Han people as a whole. These basic views of the just society are antipathetic, even incompatible; they both represent universal moral and ontological claims.
This means that long-term peaceful co-existence is difficult and contingent upon power disparities acknowledged by both sides. In the late 1990s, at the height of the post-Cold-War “unipolar moment,” the United States welcomed the People’s Republic into the international economic order in the expectation that it would accelerate economic growth and might insinuate liberal politics into Chinese minds; Beijing would bend itself to the “arc of history.” Thus argued the Clinton Administration in 2000 as it tried to convince Congress to pass the enabling legislation that would have lifted the U.S. bars to full Chinese participation in the World Trade Organization. President Clinton concluded a speech to the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies by arguing,
[I]f you believe in a future of greater openness and freedom for the people of China, you ought to be for this agreement. If you believe in a future of greater prosperity for the American people, you certainly should be for this agreement. If you believe in a future of peace and security for Asia and the world, you should be for this agreement. This is the right thing to do. It’s an historic opportunity and a profound American responsibility.
This moment has passed. As Beijing has become more powerful—and, even more important, come to regard itself as the emerging superpower—the prospects for condominium have receded. At the 19th Chinese Communist Party National Congress 2017, Chinese leader Xi Jinping trumpeted that “national socialism with Chinese characteristics” had entered a glorious “new era” of “rejunvenation.” This long and winding exhortation has become known as Xi’s “China Dream,” and, like Clinton’s WTO sales pitch, it is argued as though on the cusp of opportunity—great things lie ahead. “The wheels of history roll on,” Xi declared; “the tides of the times are vast and mighty. History looks kindly on those with resolve, with drive and ambition, and with plenty of guts; it won’t wait for the hesitant, the apathetic, or those shy of a challenge.” Where Clinton appeals, Xi announces. But there are two more profound differences than those of rhetorical tone. Xi has nothing to say about the prospects for openness and freedom, and the opportunities Xi sees are China’s opportunities—it is a deeply nationalistic declaration, one stressing the primacy of national sovereignty above justice: Xi vowed to “staunchly oppose all attempts to split China or undermine its ethnic unity and social harmony and stability.” In Xi’s dream, there is no room for freedom for Tibetans, Uighurs, or Taiwanese.
What do Chinese leaders regard as “Chinese characteristics?” In the West, the phrase is most often associated with Deng Xiaoping, certainly the most dynamic politician of the post-Mao era in China, at least prior to Xi. But even Deng the reformer anchored the essential qualities of China in the distant dynastic and rural past, the memory of greatness, filtered through the experience of Western colonization. The success of the Chinese Communist Party was measured by the return of stability to a vast nation and the end of foreign dominance. Socialism was seen as a practical choice, a mean to the end of Chinese rejuvenation, not an end in itself; socialism, even “market socialism,” could serve the Chinese nationalist cause. That cause is the “ethnic unity and social harmony an stability” of China in the world, a world made safe for the Chinese people. This is not a public, shareable good, like a “world made safe for democracy,” but the sole good of one nation above others. It enshrines a supposedly natural hierarchy, not a natural equality; the hierarchy of Chinese society is to be replicated in international society. It stands as a self-evident truth just as in the United States, political liberty is a self-evident truth. “Chinese characteristics” amount to a nationalist ideology.
The United States and its liberal allies have faced ideological challenges before; in this way, the geopolitical competition with China is reminiscent of the Cold War. This become especially clear when one properly remembers what the contest with the Soviet Union was about and how it committed the United States to what John Kennedy in his presidential inaugural address described as a “long, twilight struggle, year in, year out” to contain and deter communist Russia. While there is already a vast literature cataloguing the circumstantial differences between 1945 and 2020 (see this piece, for example) most of these analyses are rooted in a God’s-eye-view, “realist” understanding of international relations. What they frequently fail to take into account is American strategic culture, the peculiar—liberal—lenses through which we filter the world and politics. For the United States, as for China, power without purpose is meaningless. We enter this new competition not simply because of the “threat” from Beijing, but because of our own, internally-felt beliefs about justice in the world.
Ideology was the point of departure and the central insight of the Truman Administration, and it was what gave American Cold-War strategy both its coherence and its flexibility. Victory was clearly and simply defined, policies and strategies could be adjusted; containment was a precursor to regime change, deterrence complemented “roll back.” Means and ways changed, the end did not. The Clausewitzian “nature” of war is first defined by the nature of the contestants and by the character of the governing regimes, and only then by the particulars of time or place. Thus, in examining the entrails of early Cold-War decision-making, our divinations must focus on understanding ourselves rather than the geopolitical challenge per se.
The Truman Administration’s “United States Objectives and Programs for National Security,” better known by its bureaucratic designation as “NSC 68,” provides a case study if not a template for this process. While much of the scholarly and critical commentary on NSC focuses on its recommendations for “militarizing” Cold-War strategy, the memorandum itself takes as its starting point “The Fundamental Purpose of the United States”—that is, American political ideology—which is “to assure the integrity and vitality of our free society, which is founded upon the dignity and worth of the individual.”
Three realities emerge as a consequence of this purpose: Our determination to maintain the essential elements of individual freedom, as set forth in the Constitution and Bill of Rights; our determination to create conditions under which our free and democratic system can live and prosper; and our determination to fight if necessary to defend our way of life.
And so the Truman Administration pulled no punches in describing “the nature of the conflict:”
Our free society finds itself mortally challenged by the Soviet system. No other value system is so wholly irreconcilable with ours, so implacable in its purpose to destroy ours, so capable of turning to its own uses the most dangerous and divisive trends in our own society, no other so skillfully and powerfully evokes the elements of irrationality in human nature everywhere, and no other has the support of a great and growing center of military power.
These harsh terms, the clearer-than-truth rhetoric of the early 1950s, were meant to be publicly and widely distributed, despite the designation of NSC 68 as a classified document. President Truman and his “Wise Men” understood that strategy-making in America was not simply for elites but for the entire political nation. But they also granted the tribal magic of an “implacable” authoritarian order—the ineluctable “elements of irrationality in human nature”—where the endless anxieties of individual autonomy are soothed by an apparently collective definition of right governance. And, of course, they recognized “a great and growing center of military power.”
The point is less that this formulation was or was not a correct or accurate understanding of the Soviet Union—about which arguments continue—or how much of this understanding can or should be revived to understand Chinese ambitions. What can and should convey, rather, is the American view of a just and stable international order, premised upon the prosperity of “our free and democratic system” in the face of an “irreconcilable” competitor presenting a “mortal challenge.” What also should convey is a similar clarity in purpose, a measure for victory, which, to the Truman Administration, first meant achieving: “the gradual retraction of undue Russian power and influence from the present perimeter areas around traditional Russian boundaries and the emergence of the satellite countries as entities independent of the USSR.”
And so, what is to be done? What are the burning questions—or rather, the strategic answers—for our moment? Having at last come to the moment of clarity about the nature of the Chinese regime and the competition, we have taken a necessary step, but not a sufficient one. We need a similarly clarifying discussion about the nature of geopolitical power and the use of traditional tools of statecraft. We need an actual how-to strategy to make the most of the tools we have.
As with the hope that integration into the American-made economic order would modify the character of the Chinese regime, there was much optimism about the effectiveness of the multitude of international organizations created to deal with transnational conflicts and concerns. But in the 78 years since Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill created the United Nations, we have come to mistake effect for cause. The original UN was overtly an anti-Axis alliance of 26 nations, intended to keep the peace that was anticipated by victory in World War II but was still far off; its strategic purpose was not only clear, but central to its success. It organized and directed nations’ power, but it did not create the power itself. But just as the wish that China itself would become a responsible stakeholder has evaporated, so too must the performance of the World Health Organization make it plain that Chinese money and influence have diluted the utility of those international organizations of which China is a member. They can be no more than an economy-of-effort element in a reformed U.S. strategy.
At the same time, the competition with China is undeniably a global one. The origin of the global challenge lies less with China’s aggressive moves across Central, East, and South Asia, the Middle East, and even into Europe and Latin America—though those moves are quite real and, in relative regional terms, quite powerful—but rather in the United States’ geopolitical and ideological credibility. American security has been, at least since 1898 if not 1585, a function of the balance of power on the Eurasian continent; our strategic success is the result of a century’s striving to create and sustain a favorable “on-shore” balance—by continuous engagement and the projection of military power—not, as political-science realists eternally contend, by “off-shore balancing.” Even the goal of security shipping lanes and other elements of the commercial “international commons” can only be accomplished through overseas bases. Alfred Thayer Mahan and Theodore Roosevelt—the original high priests of American naval power—understood that to rule the waves required what they called “coaling stations.” Opposing an aspiring Eurasian hegemon is the American prime strategic directive.
Thus Eurasian alliances and strategic partnerships, not just with continental states but with others like Britain, Japan, Taiwan, India, and the Southeast Asian archipelagic nations, that lie at the periphery of the Eurasian heartland are essential—even existential—constituents of American strategy. This is especially true as these allies tend to adopt similar political principles and systems; our ideological and material interests, including our economic interests, very much align. This was the frame of reference that was at the core of constructing the post-World-War-II system. Though the North Atlantic Treaty Organization proved the best and most durable alliance, attempts to replicate it in Southeast Asia and the Middle East reflected similar thinking. Indeed, most of the members of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, or SEATO, were not regional states, and the formal organization limped on even after the Vietnam War; the “Baghdad pact,” which chartered the Central Treaty Organization, CENTO, survived the withdrawal of Iraq after its revolution, if not the Iranian Revolution of 1979. And these multilateral arrangements were buttressed by a network of bilateral agreements, most notably with Anglophone countries.
These Eurasian alliances are critical to a reformed and “rejuvenated” liberal order. To revive them—and especially to withstand the challenge posed by China—we must recover their original purpose in shared security interests.
For more than five centuries, the pretensions of continental hegemons have been the recurring threat to the security, liberty, and prosperity of others: Hapsburg Spain, Bourbon France, Wilhemine and Nazi Germany, and czarist and Soviet Russia have, in their turn, compelled a series of balancing coalitions. Notably, it was Imperial Japan’s aggression and brutality in China that turned the United States against it; Churchill was hardly the first strategist to ponder positive references for past devils in opposing the hegemonic drives of present adversaries. History also suggests that extra-continental powers—Great Britain and the United States—are best suited to lead and sustain such coalitions, if only because they lack the kind of territorial aims and border disputes that have distinguished Eurasian states themselves. These coalitions have been strategically successful.
But it is also the case that the success of containing coalitions must be measured by the security provided to frontline partners—those at greatest risk. Indeed, it was Britain’s retrenchment in the period following the Seven Years’ War that in part caused Americans, who still felt their borders to be insecure, to revolt against the empire they had previously so cherished. This strategic reality makes asymmetric and expensive demands on alliance leaders, not least in domestic political affairs. Heavily-taxed constituents are wont to whine about “burden-sharing” and insufficiently grateful clients. George III and Donald Trump were bothered by the same “what’s-in-it-for-me?” questions about their continental partnerships. Alliance vitality is, very often, a measure of how the leading state calculates strategic opportunity costs, the intangible profits of peace, stability and bad things that don’t happen. Conversely, frontline states run the risks of providing the battleground—whether in actual war or in confrontational diplomacy—for larger powers. This, too, is hard to price with precision, especially during the post-Cold-War period.
Over the past decade, China has exerted increasing influence on borderland states, singling out weak polities with weaker ties to the United States and its allies. Consider the case of Montenegro. Even as Montenegro in 2017 became the 29th member of NATO, Beijing’s “Belt and Road” project was beavering away on the country’s first superhighway, now frequently lampooned as the 100-mile “Balkan road to nowhere,” running from the Adriatic port of Bar, through 48 tunnels and with 107 bridges and viaducts, along some of the steepest cliffs in Europe to the town of Boljare at the Serbian border. The project had been considered twice previously, first by a Croatian company and then by a Greek-Israeli consortium; feasibility studies conducted in 2012 by U.S. firms concluded that the return was not likely to reward the cost. At that point, Beijing stepped in, offering a €809 million loan for the first phase of the construction, to be performed by the state-owned China Bridge and Road Corporation, with an 80 percent Chinese workforce. To complete the project will cost another €1.2 billion, according to an International Monetary Fund estimate. The European Investment Bank warned the Montenegrin government that they could not service the loan through tolls—traffic on the highway would have to quadruple to offset the interest—and that has proved to be the case. The national debt has ballooned to 80 percent of domestic product, a severe burden for a country of just 620,000. In sum, Montenegro is perilously close to a Sri-Lanka-like “China debt trap,” and it is doubtful that its government, already notoriously corrupt, will be able to withstand any serious pressure from Beijing. For its part, China looks to gain an Adriatic port of entry for its goods—and the Montenegrin government is proceeding with plans to “privatize” the port of Bar—and another piece in its “16-plus-one” initiative with Central and Eastern European states, an effort to paralyze the Atlantic alliances and divide the European Union.
It is tempting to lay the blame for U.S. alliance mismanagement on Donald Trump’s doorstep, and he has uniquely if unwittingly abetted Chinese efforts not only in Europe but elsewhere by his constant tongue-lashing of almost every ally from Germany to Australia and his indiscriminate trade-war attacks. But the wrecking ball has been swung with increasing vigor for several administrations—who remembers Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s “Old Europe-New Europe” snark or President Obama’s admonitions that Saudi Arabia must learn to “share” the Persian Gulf region with Iran or that Ukraine stood outside American interests? Even the Clinton Administration failed to back its policy of NATO expansion with a commensurate military posture, leaving the newly-freed states of Eastern Europe in a strategic no-man’s-land. For her part, candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016 turned her back on her own “gold standard” achievement of her tenure as secretary of state, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the very model of an economic pact with a greater strategic purpose. Despite the Obama Administration’s ballyhooed “Pacific Pivot,” maritime Southeast Asia, too, is a strategic no-man’s-land.
And therein lies the rub: To rebuild an alliance structure to preserve and extend a liberal international order will require the United States to renew security guarantees—and to do so rapidly, for much of the past three decades has been wasted. Also in that time, the Chinese have become increasingly aggressive. Now it seems that Beijing views the COVID crisis as an opportunity, much as it saw the 2008 financial crisis, to both shift the blame for the pandemic to the West and to propagandize its own performance. As the Chinese ambassador to France recently declared, “[S]ome Westerners are beginning to lose confidence in liberal democracy [and] some [democracies] have become psychologically weak.” Chinese power, even Chinese “soft power”—“sharp power”—is inherently coercive, not meant to attract but to intimidate, to create not partners but tributaries, providers of natural materials, or both. This is not merely the case in Asia, but globally.
Alas, the alliances necessary to rejuvenate the liberal order will be empty gestures—or worse, a coalition of the cowed—absent a substantial rearmament on the part of the United States. Today’s downsized, over-deployed, and technologically obsolescing armed forces—even as they are most certainly the most professional and lethal military in the world—are woefully insufficient to the strategic tasks they have been set, let alone the revived role implied by the analysis above. These are problems of both capability and capacity.
They also are problems that have been developing for three decades, since the end of the Cold War. This era has not so much been the end of history but a holiday from history, marked less by the recession of an existential and external threat—which in any case has, in Chinese rather than Russian form, surely returned—to the American-made liberal order than by a willful neglect of the essential structure of that order. Believing peace to be the natural equilibrium of international affairs rather than an accident of history and American and allied power, the Clinton Administration harvested a “peace dividend,” a bonus that its successors have continued to cash in. Today’s U.S. military is roughly two-thirds of its Desert-Storm self; equally tellingly, it has been deprived of trillions in investments. The Office of Management and Budget reports that at the height of the Reagan-era buildup, in 1985, defense spending represented 5.7 percent of gross domestic product; from 1999 it fell to 2.9 percent. It climbed back to 4.6 percent at the height of the Iraq surge in 2009, but the Trump Administration plans on reducing it to 2.8 percent of GDP at the end of the current defense program. Over the period 1985 to 2020, the United States economy has produced more than $422 trillion in GDP, says OMB; by reducing defense spending by a rough average of 2 percent of GDP, the Pentagon has lost at least $8 trillion in buying power.
Preserving a favorable balance of power in Eurasia demands that the U.S. military be sufficiently present in at least three key theaters—western Europe, maritime East Asia and the Middle East (although, looking into the not-too-distant-future, the South-Asia-Indian-Ocean “theater” is of increasing strategic importance). All of these regions have undergone profound geopolitical changes since the end of the Cold War, although the net effect cannot be realistically considered a reduction in demand for American military power. In Europe, the collapse of the Soviet Union not only brought the Cold War to a happy conclusion, but it also liberated formerly captive states of Eastern Europe. Many of these were subsequently admitted to NATO and the European Union, helping to secure their initial Western and liberal orientation and adding strategic depth to both the Atlantic alliance and the Union. Yet, in consideration of Russian desires, alliance forces were not to be permanently stationed in these new member states—in other words, the alliance extended security promises it did not guarantee with troops. Moreover, its eastern perimeter is now vastly longer than during the Cold War, extending from the Baltic to the Black Sea. The result has been opportunity for a revanchist Russia, despite its conventional-force weaknesses. But the most dramatic change has been the increasing strategic weakness of Western Europe—which has reduced both its forces and its willingness to employ them in step with the United States—and the increasing vulnerability of the Eastern European “borderlands.” Once the most enthusiastic aspirants to the liberal system, they are retreating into their own and local forms of nasty nationalism and find themselves subject of Russian subversion or, as in Montenegro, Chinese lend-build-claim predation.
In Asia, America had already substantially reduced its presence in maritime Southeast Asia in the late 1980s with the withdrawal from the Philippines—the archipelago that originally made the United States an East Asian power. After the trauma of the Vietnam War and before the rise of modern China—and, with the seeming maturity of Philippine democracy—this might have been a reasonable, if still risky, decision. In retrospect, it looks more like a lamentable retreat. Taken in conjunction with the long-standing ambiguity about the defense of Taiwan, the repositioning of forces to Guam and Australia, and the failure to engage consistently with other Southeast Asian states (beyond Singapore), the difficulty of influencing the balance of power in the region has grown substantially in the past decade. In sum, the People’s Liberation Army is constantly and provocatively present, and we are not. The Obama Administration’s promise of a “Pacific Pivot” has not been kept.
That “pivot” was meant to mask the European withdrawal and the winding down of the Iraq war. Indeed, the unfortunate consequences of American absence are nowhere more evident than in the Middle East. The past decade has been as close to a laboratory experiment as human history can offer. In 2009, and despite the many fumbles of the Bush Administration’s initial invasion and occupation, the successes of the subsequent “Surge” had created a hope for a better and more peaceable region. A decade of American retreat has not only dashed those hopes but allowed Russia and Iran to sow instability and revive the kind of Sunni paranoia that finds expression in salafism. What the Obama presidency began, the Trump Administration has ratified. Yet the global importance of the region—both as a source of instability and energy supplies—remains, notwithstanding the benefits of “fracked” liquid natural gas or the ennui that accompanies “endless” war. The Middle East is increasingly out of sight and out of mind, but not out of the geopolitical equation.
The interconnectedness of the Eurasian security system, and the concomitant demand to create a truly globe-girdling military, was a lesson learned painfully and never forgotten by the World War II generation. Their “Europe First” declared strategy emphatically did not mean “Europe Only,” and they had no thought of “pivoting” away from those theaters that did not command the highest priority. The fight to reclaim the western Pacific began long before the Overlord invasion of mainland Europe, as did the campaigns across the Mediterranean and the Middle East. They likewise followed this directive through the Cold War, not because the threat was the same—for the Soviet Union, like Nazi Germany, was principally a European power—but because American interests remained much the same. The ability to sustain a liberal order in the post-COVID world must similarly depend upon the recreation of a “three-theater” U.S. military, a sufficient front-line force in Eastern Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East.
If this force must be constantly present to deter aggressive behavior by China or other adversaries by denying the opportunities to influence, intimidate, or coerce U.S. allies and partners, it must also be sufficiently powerful to exert credible deterrence through punishment. If, from a strategic position, forward-present forces represent a “tripwire,” then other forces must have sufficient striking and counter-attacking capability and capacity to exact a substantial price for crossing the tripwire. Over the past decade, most military thinking on this subject has focused on the ability to penetrate China’s “anti-access” and “area-denial” screen, with an accent on developing long-range precision-strike systems; technologies such as hyper-velocity missiles are now in vogue. What the current debate too much overlooks is the question of how much and what sort of punishment might be necessary to credibly deter Chinese aggression; that is, what would cause sufficient pain that Beijing would regard as an unacceptable price? Moreover, striking and raiding power alone cannot sustain a world created by American power projection.
Again, Cold War deterrence debates form a useful starting point for imagining how China calculates such matters. As with the Soviet Union, the Chinese Communist Party’s greatest fear is to lose power domestically. Arguably, given China’s history of instability and civil conflict, it’s an even bigger bogeyman for Beijing than it was for Moscow; imperial collapse is the ultimate Chinese nightmare. Further, threats to Chinese stability most frequently arose from inland Eurasia, from the north and west. Indeed, the story of Admiral Zhe He’s treasure voyages and the Ming Dynasty’s policy of isolation—now very much a central point of Chinese propaganda—is incomplete without recalling that the dynasty’s principal strategic worry was a Mongol invasion. The investments needed to complete the Great Wall all but precluded both maritime and land expeditions intended to create greater strategic depth. Just as George Kennan’s assessments of Soviet strategic culture informed early Cold-War American policy, coming to a similar consensus on China will enable future U.S. policy to be less reactive and more effective. Diverting Chinese attention from maritime expansion back to continental concerns would be a challenge, but could well result in disproportionate rewards.
Such an assessment is essential prior to making major defense investment decisions. While improved range and strike power is unquestionably part of the equation, technology cannot be a cure-all, and can be geopolitically and strategically self-defeating. Two vignettes from the Cold War provide useful points of comparison. The Eisenhower Administration, frustrated by the expense and stalemate of the Korean War, sought global deterrence through its nuclear “New Look” posture and doctrine of “massive retaliation.” But threatening a general atomic exchange in response to less-than-existential crises was never credible; it didn’t deter Mao’s intervention in Korea nor Soviet support of North Vietnam. By contrast, the Reagan defense buildup of the 1980s, and the “AirLand Battle” doctrine it enabled, presented the Soviets with the possibility that open aggression against NATO could well result in an allied counteroffensive into Eastern Europe and the resulting loss of its satellite states; this was a regime-threatening prospect.
Of course, in defense planning as in grand strategy, the “lessons” of the Cold War should not be overdrawn. Yet if past experience is no guarantee of future performance, it is the experience we have. Most importantly, we ought not to ignore what kind of strategy commends itself to a free society and its coalition partners. The Cold War is also a cautionary tale: Not only was Eisenhower’s strategy faulty, but later notions, such as sacrificing Germany to allow for a buildup of NATO forces, were also self-defeating; an over-the-horizon posture in East Asia would run afoul of the same problems.
There is at least one critical difference between the previous great-power contest and this new one, however: The Soviet Union sought economic autarky for itself and its satellites, and thus played almost no role in the economic order established by the United States after World War II. China, by contrast, sits very close to the center of the current system even as it works to alter it to—or even replace it with—one more to its liking, meaning one it can control. Indeed, adjusting conventional Western economic wisdom is likely to be more difficult than reordering our security priorities, but is essential for overall success. Subordinating the profit motive to strategic direction will have costs, not just in lost dollars but in lost liberty and, almost surely, greater corruption. The “pursuit of happiness”—that is, a broad understanding of property rights—is at the heart of the American experiment. Constraint without consent is the road to revolution.
Thus it is fortunate that the COVID crisis has focused attention on the structural brittleness of globalized supply chains and the logic of “decoupling”—or inoculating—American and allied nations’ industries from their over-dependency on Chinese partners. As Andrew Michta has written:
As China has grown to become the seemingly irreplaceable core of a globalized economy, the CCP has pursued predatory mercantilism in its commercial relations with the West, in the process tilting the hard power balance in its favor. In an economic system that allows for the flow of technology and capital across national borders, redundancies in the supply chain are essential to the preservation of state sovereignty and government capacity to act in a crisis.
Yet the right response to this cannot be a Trumpian “America-first” counter-mercantilism. Instead, a more tailored, strategically-informed marketplace is required, one that preserves—no, encourages—fast flows of technology and capital among allies, bolstering their sovereignty and capacity to withstand Chinese predation, and working to allure geopolitically-important “low-wage” states, such as those of Southeast Asia, into the system. Call it “free markets for free peoples.” In this case, the over-used and usually overwrought analogy of the Marshall Plan—that is, a strategic effort in the guise of economic aid—is apt.
But a bigger and better model of the strategic integration of economic and security objectives would be the British Navigation Acts—the ones that both enabled early colonial American economic growth and motivated the American Revolutionaries. These were mercantilist measures first conceived in the early 17th century and made law under the Commonwealth in 1651. They were retained after the Restoration and not finally repealed until 1849, at the height of British power and the broad European peace of that time. Their original purpose was to promote British trade and shipping against the Dutch, who themselves had instigated such policies in their long war for independence from Spain. The British system came to its perfection, however, in the long series of wars with France, and were critical to the effort to contain French power from Louis XIV to Napoleon. The Acts were also an important element of the rapid and sustained economic development of Britain, its colonies and allies, along with London’s sophisticated tax and financial structures such as the Bank of England, which the French could not match.
Economic development and geopolitical success went hand in hand, and it came as no surprise that the British were best-positioned to exploit the Industrial Revolution. The British were even able quickly to revive and expand trade with their erstwhile American colonies—now “cousins”—after the Revolution and War of 1812. It was only when both the French and Spanish bids for European mastery had been squelched—and Germany’s unification and rise was still distant—that the Victorians felt safe enough to embrace “free trade.”
To even partially restrain the Dutch Republic, and, especially, France, as trading nations in the 17th and 18th centuries was arguably more difficult than it would be to limit Chinese access to U.S. and allied markets today; the interdependence was great, the overall British economy more brittle, and its ability to make the system work for a broad public—both domestically and internationally—was limited. It entrenched an oligarchy, displaced the traditional land-owning nobility, and, of course, was a constraint on economic liberty. And to be sure there was much backsliding and outright smuggling, particularly in the New England and extreme southern colonies where natural trade routes led to “New France” or the Caribbean. But the system worked reasonably well thanks to the City of London, which financed not just British business ventures but international efforts, and the Royal Navy, which secured shipping lanes from the English Channel London to the East and South China seas.
While it won’t be easy to rein in the globalized, “neoliberal,” 21st-century form of capitalism, a realignment of international economic practices that includes others, particularly the developed economies and democracies of Europe and East Asia, is perhaps not as challenging as trying to nationally “on-shore” complex supply chains. It will also require a change of habit—to euphemize it—on the part of American politicians. This applies to the Democratic Party as much as to Donald Trump; this isn’t a “Green New Deal” or a union-protection program any more than it is an America-first formula. And it also demands new thinking from economists; such a “free-world” form of mercantilism must sacrifice some profits—not in the name of “social justice” but in the name of a truly liberal order. While this would require substantial near-term pain, it would protect intellectual capital and longer-term growth. In calculating the greater public goods which alone justify government intervention in private and free enterprise, international security must be weighed in the account with domestic tranquility.
An obvious place to start on such an effort is the realm of “5G” communications networks, where doubts about Chinese firms Huawei and ZTE have already caused the United States, Japan, New Zealand, and Australia to enact bans on their participation in national networks. The United Kingdom has gone back and forth on the issue; Boris Johnson’s government has narrowly survived a Parliamentary revolt against the decision to allow Chinese to bid for Britain’s 5G work. France, too, seems to be of two minds, but will likely align with Germany, which thus far has been firmly in Beijing’s camp—although German conservatives have become more vocal in calling for a China re-think. That also means that most of continental Europe would follow. Conversely, India will be a tough nut for the Chinese to crack, thanks to Delhi’s own protectionist bent, labrinthine bureaucracy, and fears of Beijing’s ambitions. A heavily-subsidized U.S. effort to limit the Chinese role in 5G networks could well attract others; a Trumpian, America-first approach cannot.
Let us end where we began: the coronavirus experience is a reminder of the saliency of “regimes” in international politics. Beijing’s behavior throughout the crisis is an expression of the underlying character of its leadership, its autocratic single-party structure, and the Chinese Communist Party. The People’s Republic of China exercises the severest form of sovereignty without regard to legitimacy. The power of the state is to be maximized regardless of the rights of any individual. Like the slave-owners of the American South prior to the Civil War, they trumpet this ideology, promoting it in their propaganda as a positive good, not a bug but a design feature, superior to the decadent and degenerate democracies of the liberal world.
The United States and its democratic allies likewise embody a regime; they are states of a certain character, and that character determines how they seek to order international politics. Where the Chinese centralize power, we seek to diffuse it, to balance it across many elements of society. The purpose of this diffusion is both to shield individual liberties but also to anchor state sovereignty in legitimacy as expressed by the consent of the governed. The political nation holds government to account, and regularly—and peacefully—changes parties in power.
The COVID crisis has laid this conflict of regimes bare; it cannot be wished away any more than the virus itself could be. Nor does it mean war; these are not the guns of August 1914. It does represent, however, a kind of crossing of the Rubicon, a portent of a looming clash. We should not look for a return to normal; a liberal international order is nothing if not a historical abnormality. It is also a wonderful abnormality, one to rejuvenate, and worth paying the price of renewed American effort and expense.