Washington’s Missing China Strategy
To Counter Beijing, the Biden Administration Needs to Decide What It Wants
Today's political flux features on its diplomatic surface three interacting trends: a disintegration of the cold-war coalitions, the rise of nonsecurity issues to the top of diplomatic agendas, and a diversification of friendships and adversary relations. These surface movements are the expression of deeper currents, which, if appropriately exploited by providential statesmanship, could fundamentally alter the essence of world politics, changing the structures and ingredients of power itself.
Let us examine each trend in turn, accepting the risks of oversimplification that are inescapable in any broad projection of the future.
First, the United States and the Soviet Union are today less anxious than they were in the 1950s and 1960s that shifts by smaller countries toward nonalignment, neutralism or even the other's coalition will fundamentally affect either of their vital security interests. Changes in military technology have reduced the value of forward bases not only for strategic deterrence but also for combat and reconnaissance in large-scale conventional war. An exception is Eastern Europe, where the Soviets still insist upon a security belt made up of completely loyal allies. Elsewhere, superpower protection, having become less credible, loses some of its value, while at the same time the price of securing that protection rises. This generates high incentives for the smaller countries to strike postures of independence in the hope of creating more opportunity for diplomatic maneuver against both superpowers. In turn, the superpowers find the fidelity of their allies less reliable. New geopolitical doctrines that assert a reduced security requirement for allies are given greater play in military planning and foreign policy generally. Ideologies which make it imperative to defend on a global basis the good people against the bad are pushed aside in favor of more "pragmatic" considerations.
Second, the loosening of the hierarchical relationship between the superpowers and their smaller allies within each of the grand cold-war coalitions gives freer play to conflicts over non-security issues-economic primarily-while the relative emergence of the nonsecurity issues reinforces the fragmentation of these coalitions. When protection against a threatening enemy coalition was the most pressing concern, the subordination of special economic, political and cultural interests to the requirements of the common defense was more readily accepted as was the hegemony over one's coalition by the country with the most powerful military capabilities. Today, questions concerning the best means of providing for the common defense of the coalition-strategies toward the opposing coalition, the allocation of roles and burdens among the members- are still prominent. But the ability of the United States on the one side, and the Soviet Union on the other, to prevail over their respective allies in intra-coalition politics has been decreasing, in considerable measure because of the increasing ability of lesser members, when nonmilitary matters are at issue, to form coalitions with one another or with nonaligned countries, and even with members of the other cold-war coalition. This aspect of the process of coalition disintegration is beginning to play a role even among the Warsaw Pact countries. Thus, some countries have an incentive to push non-security issues to the top of international agendas partly for the purpose of increasing their bargaining power vis-à-vis the coalition superpower; and to the extent that the rise in nonsecurity issues and the construction of multiple coalitions are the results of East-West détente, these countries develop a vested interest in the evaporation of cold-war issues. In this way the disintegration of the cold-war coalitions, once begun, sets in motion other forces that tend to accelerate the pace and force of the erosion.
Next, the disintegration of global bipolarity and the rise of nonsecurity issues open new opportunities, and provide greater incentives, for countries to cultivate a wider and more diverse range of international friends than was possible previously. In the heyday of the cold-war coalitions each superpower, while competing for allies all around the globe, made firm distinctions between its coalition partners and members of the enemy camp. Rarely would lesser members of either alliance deal bilaterally with members of the opposing alliance unless the exchanges were stage-managed by the alliance leader. Even for transactions within the camp, when important political or economic issues were being negotiated, the superpower was usually heavily involved and bilateral or multilateral dealings among a subset of members were discouraged-unless, of course, the superpower was one of the parties. To be sure, "nonaligned" countries (notably India, Egypt and Indonesia) played the field, but many statesmen and analysts assumed this international stance was untenable over the long run. Now it is precisely such a flexible posture, in many respects resembling nonalignment, that seems to be serving as the model for realistic diplomacy.
Thus, more and more, divergences in worldview or differences in social systems are insufficient causes to bar cordial relations among countries. Economic intercourse, technological coöperation and scientific and cultural exchanges are considered legitimate among virtually all possible combinations of countries; and increasingly, organizations and forums for these purposes are using functional or geographic rather than ideological criteria for participation. Multilateral groupings established for coöperation in various fields have crosscutting memberships-for example: some members of a given security grouping find themselves co-members of a regional environmental control grouping with countries which are in the adversary security grouping, and a different subset of members of each of these groupings are participants in a space-communications system. This means that rival international coalitions also vary in membership according to the issues in dispute.
If the dominant tendencies continue to mature as indicated above, an international system whose essential characteristics are grossly different not only from the bipolar cold-war system but also from previous "balance- of-power" systems could emerge full blown, very likely by the 1980s. We can only conjecture as to what these essential characteristics will be, and even then only in broadest outline. But, admitting the guesswork inherent in such an exercise, and recognizing the possibility that unpredictable contingencies-such as rapprochement between Russia and the People's Republic of China plus a renewal of belligerent expansionism by either or both-could halt or reverse the disintegration of the cold-war coalitions, it is not too early to try a sketch of the emerging system.
First and foremost, the new system would feature a change in the nature of international power itself. If the international power of a country is defined as the capacity to influence other countries to accede to its objectives, then in a system characterized by multiple and crosscutting coalitions formed around a variety of issues, the properties of power would be significantly different than in the predominantly bipolar system. In the new system, those with the most influence are likely to be those which are major constructive participants in the widest variety of coalitions and partnerships, since such countries would have the largest supply of usable political currency-in effect, promissory notes that say: "We will support you on this issue, if you support us on that issue." Conversely, threats to withdraw support would serve as negative sanctions.
The power-maximizing country would want to have its own pledges of support universally honored and highly valued; frequently, these would be in the form of financial assets or economic and technical inputs it can make available to the projects desired by others. Such a country also would want to be able to convert pledges it has collected from others into currency for its own use. When these are from poorer countries which lack surplus material assets, they may be in the form of votes in the various multinational forums whose endorsement is important to projects desired by the richer country.
Power in the form of promises to apply or withhold military capabilities- the dominant form of power during the cold war-would still be of ultimate decisive importance in conflicts over vital security interests. But it would have little utility compared with other forms of power, and sometimes even a negative effect, in bargaining over the nonsecurity issues around which coalitions would be forming and reforming. For the threat to apply military power carries a high risk of devaluing the other bargaining chips in one's possession, since it is almost certain so to alienate the involved societies from one another that they dismantle their coöperative projects and withdraw from mutual coalition partnerships in virtually all fields. Pairs of countries that have few interlocking relationships to start with (as used to be the case with East-West relations in the cold war) can afford to be indifferent to such a falling out between them. But active participants in the emerging international system, with elaborate overlapping of interests and coalitions, ought to be highly constrained by the knowledge that their opponents in one area are often their supporters in another.
If coercive bargaining strategies must be resorted to, the prudent statesman will conserve his overall store of influence by proffering, withholding and withdrawing assets well below the level of military force and avoiding the development of total nation-to-nation or coalition-to- coalition hostility. Rarely should a specific dispute warrant the costs, in loss of influence, that would accompany escalation to war threats, the mobilization of military alliances or the polarization of international politics.
What, then, becomes of today's great powers, especially the two superpowers? How would they stand under new criteria of power? America and Russia could continue to be the most influential in the emerging system by virtue of their command over economic resources, technological skills and military capabilities. But if they were to rely primarily on the coercive leverage of their first-ranking material positions instead of exploiting the opportunities in the new system for participating in multiple coalitions, they might find themselves falling behind other actors in usable power. Moreover, in competition with each other for global influence, the United States and the Soviet Union would find that constructive coöperation with smaller countries gains more votes in global and regional forums than coercive or denial strategies.
The nine or more members of the European Economic Community (EEC), when acting as a unit on particular international issues, could well emerge as an equally powerful unit in world politics-especially if the United States and the Soviet Union continue to act as if the obsolete bipolar confrontation of security communities still were the essence of international relations. The usable power of the West European group in any case would not stem from its military capability. It would derive principally from techno-economic capabilities, cultural ties, geography and diplomatic skill. The EEC countries are well situated for coalition- building with the countries of Eastern Europe, being partners or competitors in a larger all-European market and over the use of common all- European resources: river basins, seas, energy supplies, air space and the atmosphere. Moreover, the West Europeans can be expected to be especially active in maintaining and constructing North-South interdependencies, building particularly upon the intimate connections France maintains with most of her former colonies in Africa and upon British Commonwealth ties.
Japan, though envisioned as equal to or surpassing the Soviet Union in gross national product by the end of the century, is nevertheless likely to rank lower in overall power (as defined here), and possibly will remain somewhat behind the EEC. While having the high technological and financial assets to assure that other countries desire her coöperation, Japan herself, because of extensive reliance on others for raw materials, will continue to be vitally dependent on the good will of others, and on the absence of regional or global conflicts that could interrupt her supply lines. She has neither the potential for self-sufficiency of the United States or the Soviet Union, nor the historic community ties of EEC countries to Third-World partners, to insulate this vulnerable dependency. As such she must please as well as be pleased. A hefty military capability will be of practically no use to her in day-to-day bargaining relationships, and, in light of recent history, even the slightest suggestion that she might attempt to escalate a dispute over economic matters to the military level would surely alienate a large number of her suppliers, and revive a broad international coalition against her.
The fifth great power, China, must rely almost entirely upon skillful diplomacy, rather than exchangeable material assets, to exert any great influence beyond her borders. The only wide swath she can hope to cut in international coalition politics is as a champion of the Third-World countries, among whom she may continue to be the only nuclear-armed nation for some time. But China's nuclear capability, even if useful to deter military attacks upon herself, is unlikely to be pertinent as a bargaining counter on behalf of other members of any Third-World coalition. Her diplomatic leadership opportunities in the Third World will depend rather on the degree and quality of the Third-World policies of the United States, the Soviet Union, the EEC countries and Japan. If the industrialized great powers, either as a result of preoccupation with their own rivalries or a moral indifference to Third-World concerns, appear to be treating the less- developed countries as pawns, the way will be open for China to strike heroic poses in international forums as an aggressive spokesman for the world's poor.
China also can be expected to exploit any opportunities for driving wedges between the Soviet Union and the East European countries, as a part of her continuing effort to be an alternative pole of attraction in the world Communist movement. As either a major market or source of specialized products, China will be of growing importance to many countries, but not of decisively greater importance than major countries or regional groupings in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, South Asia or Southeast Asia.
Yet, though one may thus seek to assess the present great powers, it would be misleading to characterize the relationships among the five most powerful actors in the emerging system as a five-sided balance of power, since this conveys rough equality of weight among the five in their intramural competition. Most of the usable kinds of power at the disposal of each are incommensurate; and in specific categories some of the countries are clearly more powerful than others.
Wars between Europe and the United States, between the United States and Japan, or between Japan and Europe, are too implausible for the respective military balances between these pairs to have any important effects on disputes likely to arise among them. Even between the United States (or Europe) and the Soviet Union (or China), Japan and the Soviet Union or Japan and China, the rapid escalation of any particular dispute to the war- threat level would be rarely if ever warranted, given the costs and risks of this pattern of interaction and the availability (in the system we have postulated) of nonmilitary means of exerting pressure. The only pair for which the military equation may yet be immediately relevant is China and Russia-given a continuation of their border dispute.
In the nonmilitary categories of power, the relationships among the five often lack any common denominator for measurement; and to the extent that there are comparable categories, they tend to exhibit imbalance more than symmetry. Thus, the Soviet Union and members of COMECON probably would be more in need of commerce with the West than vice versa. On the other hand, being state-controlled economies, the Socialist countries could more easily subject their commercial negotiations to the requirements of their international political maneuvers. Japan, as suggested above, would be more vulnerable to economic pressures involving a potential cut-off or increase in price in essential raw material sources, particularly petroleum products, than the United States, Russia or China. Western Europe would also be weak in this respect. But the power of each of the major actors to influence the flow and price of raw materials could come to depend most of all on its overall relationship with producer countries in the Third World.
On the increasingly important issues of terms of access to and privileges in the space and ocean environments, and international ecological standards and controls, who gets what, when and how would be highly dependent upon (1) international structures set up to allocate benefits and costs and to resolve disputes, and (2) the configuration of coalitions in each of these fields. These institutional structures and coalitions are unlikely to be congruent with the hierarchy of power based upon either standard military or economic indicators. The relevant "balance of power" in such areas would take in a much wider set of critical actors and interdependent relationships than is contemplated in most visions of a five-power world.
Moreover, the emerging international system would not be congenial with the concept of "multipolarity," if this term is used to connote a magnetic pull by certain powerful countries, presumably over the other nations in their respective regions, and the resulting creation of spheres of (hegemonial) influence-jurisdictions of domination marked out for themselves by each powerful country, and respected by the others. Such a carving up of the globe, even if ostensibly agreed to by the major actors, would not be sustainable, given the condition of multiple interdependence and crosscutting coalitions. Smaller countries within a region would actively seek extra-regional partners for commerce or other functions in order to retain bargaining leverage against the dominant regional country. Rather than being a pole of attraction, a dominant regional country with pretensions to hegemony is likely to reinforce the centrifugal tendencies already present in the system. It might appear to succeed in the short run, but would tend to produce in time a subregional coalition in opposition. The existence of this coalition would tempt other big powers, or other coalitions outside of the region, to subvert the sphere of influence of the dominating regional power by establishing special ties with the aggrieved nations and publicly championing their causes.
Just here one sees readily a principal threat to the new system. As in the Czechoslovakian and Dominican episodes, it may be very hard for a regionally hegemonial power to choose to relax its overbearing control when challenged, instead of applying physical force to keep extra-regional influence out of its would-be satellites. The coercive option, even when applied to a smaller power within one's region, is likely to revive the salience of power in international politics, and rather rapidly destroy the underlying preconditions of the postulated system.
Indeed, if countries with nuclear weapons and other powerful military capabilities invoked their military superiority for purposes of facing down opponents in any type of conflict situation, then military force and militarized diplomacy-although bad currency-in a kind of Gresham's law of international politics, would tend to drive out the good currency of coöperative and limited coalition-building. Inevitably, many prestige- seeking countries would refuse to rely on their own material resources and diplomatic skill for protecting their interests. Instead, they would want their own weapons of mass destruction, and a dangerous nuclear "Nth- country" pattern could become a fundamental feature of international politics.
Thus a few instances of escalation to high-level military coercion by one or some of the most powerful actors could engender a retrogressive chain- reaction of coercive diplomacy, throwing most countries back into the classic mode of attempting to balance one another's power by military means, which now, for any adversary of a nuclear-armed country, would require some sort of devastating second-strike capability. The system of multiple interdependence would soon contain multiple arms races and multiple paranoia. And there would be strong temptations to resort to the drastic Hobbesian alternative of a global "Leviathan" : a centralized authoritarian law-and-order system imposed on the world by those with sufficient coercive power to overwhelm all opponents. It takes little imagination to recognize that any attempt to impose such a system probably could not be undertaken without provoking a world war.
Obviously, the maturing of a full-blown system of multiple interdependence where power would be exercised largely in the form of constructive exchanges of valued resources rather than threats of physical destruction cannot be forecast with confidence. In Washington and Moscow, the habit of calculating power primarily in terms of military capabilities and of displaying these capabilities, as a tiger displays his teeth, in conflicting situations still appear to be strong. The United States, though pledged to liquidate its participation in the Southeast Asian war, has for most of the last decade applied major military force against a smaller adversary in that region. The Soviet Union, having just a few years ago enforced a régime change in Czechoslovakia with tanks and bullets, does not yet appear ready to abandon the use of brute force as a control mechanism in Eastern Europe or to withdraw the 450,000 troops it has there. The NATO countries in Western Europe still view the 300,000 U.S. troops deployed in Germany as a critical bargaining chip in East-West negotiations. The Sino- Soviet border issues continue to be prosecuted in the classic mode of exhibiting menacing deployments of force on each side. The balance of military power between the Arab nations and Israel is buttressed on each side by equipment from the Soviet Union and the United States. And in many areas of the globe more removed from great-power rivalries, smaller powers often seem even further behind in accepting the new disutility of physical coercion.
What then are the requirements of a providential statesmanship that will increase the likelihood of the world's political development toward a more peaceful and just world order?
First of all, a special responsibility falls on the existing nuclear-armed countries, particularly the two military superpowers, not to utilize their military superiority, even as an implicit bargaining chip, in order to influence weaker military actors to comply with their demands. If such self- restraint is not exercised, other countries-most prominently Japan, but also India, Brazil and others-will be compelled to conclude that an essential factor in one's bargaining position is status as a nuclear-armed country.
Second, the largest, strongest and wealthiest countries will have to refrain from attempting to maintain or establish spheres of dominance, or even to maintain permanent extended alliance systems. Such "hegemonial multipolarity" is inherently unstable given the trends we have postulated. Moreover, there are certain to be overlapping, and thus contested, areas in the would-be spheres-a situation making for dangerous miscalculation in the bipolar system, which would be compounded in a multipolar system.
Third, the leading economic and technological nations not only will have to allow substantial lines of interdependence to run between countries within their geographic regions and extra-regional countries, but should actively encourage the elaboration of multiple and intersecting webs of interdependence between countries formerly in rival ideological blocs and between pairs of nations that have had historic rivalries. The objective should be to create on the world scene the dense interlinking and cross- cutting of communities that prevent extreme polarization and civil war within the more stable domestic societies.
Fourth, in order to counter a bitter polarization between the more affluent and mobile elements of world society, and those elements which because of their relative poverty and vulnerability to competition are susceptible to exploitation, a global system of open access and interdependence will have to be regulated by institutions and policies designed to redress this kind of imbalance. If political borders are to become significantly more porous on a North-South basis without in effect reinstituting new forms of colonial dependence by the world's poor on the world's rich, then the world's political economy will have to be structured to implement redistributive interferences in the global market analogous to those that now obtain within the advanced democracies.
Finally, to prevent the misuse of and conflicts over the world's common resources, and a new stage of dangerously competitive empire-building in newly exploitable environments-the oceans, the atmosphere and outer space- new sets of representative institutions will need to be elaborated and empowered on regional and global bases to ensure that all the communities affected have a fair say over how these common goods of mankind are used.
The stark alternatives are becoming increasingly evident to peoples all around the globe. But few societies have a secure enough material base and physical insularity to maintain the well-being of their own people and still devote substantial energies to world community tasks. Yet without some societies willing to take the initiative in sloughing off the anachronistic habits of 300 years of international politics, the new pattern of relationships required to avoid world anarchy is probably not going to emerge.
Is the United States likely to be one of those societies that constructively come to grips with the new forces? Could its people become ready and willing to support this kind of statesmanship?
The apparent obsolescence of the cold war, which for most Americans has a special sting of despair associated with the tragedy of Vietnam, has disposed even those segments of the policy community and the public which have been most internationalist to doubt that their country has any business trying to look after the well-being of others. There appears to be growing support for policies that would reduce the foreign commitments of the United States, bring American military personnel home, trim the defense budget and cut foreign military and economic assistance.[i]
Yet it would be unfair to the essential character of American society to infer a long-term trend toward isolationism from the current fatigue and frustration associated with recent foreign policy failures. There is a deep strain of idealism in the American political ethos which is continually seeking expression on a universal scale. The country in its best image of itself is a place of domicile and shared power for peoples of all cultures, religions and nationalities-a great experiment, perhaps, for the fashioning of the polity of the globe-and, in the twentieth century at least, a catalytic participant in the construction of a just and noncoercive world order. When this part of the American identity is suppressed, when the country turns inward to become totally preoccupied with its own maladies, it loses an essential part of its purpose.
An American leadership that was concerned to raise the spirit of the American people and, once again, the hopes of mankind, could begin today to reshape U.S. foreign policy along the following lines:
(1) The United States, by its own example, would play down the use of force as a sanction behind diplomacy, and encourage the dismantling of permanent military coalitions premised on an international clash of arms between major ideological groupings. This would not preclude the maintenance of the minimal military forces necessary to assure the Soviets or any other potential adversary that it would be futile for them to resolve their disputes with the United States by force. And to dissuade the powerful nations from picking on the weak, it may be necessary occasionally to underline the fact that the United States reserves the right to help the victims of military attack. At a minimum, the marginal role military power should play in contemporary big-power diplomacy could be conveyed by demilitarizing the vocabulary of power that has been featured in U.S. foreign policy pronouncements since World War II.
(2) The United States would seek out special opportunities for practical coöperative projects with those with whom it has had general ideological disagreements. This would involve resisting temptations to mobilize cold- war allies to speak in concert on new issues or for alliance structures to form the scaffolding of new institutions. It might require more work, and some sacrifice of efficiency, to put together new functionally specific coalitions that cut across the preëxisting military alliances. Without such initiatives by the United States, an open world of interdependent and mutually respectful communities has little chance of evolving. A necessary corollary to such initiatives, however, is self-restraint against inflating particular conflicts of interest into ideological conflicts over ways of life.
(3) The United States would coöperate in funneling substantial capital and other resources from the rich to the poor countries through international institutions. If this mode of effecting "North-South" resource transfers is to be enhanced, the people of affluent industrialized countries, particularly the United States, will need to be roused to share part of their wealth with those less fortunate on grounds other than economic self- interest or military security. It will be necessary to develop new world community and world interest rationales as motivating appeals.
(4) As the world's leading center of technological innovation, the United States would make it attractive to others to share in the opportunities now arising to develop global systems for exploiting the earth's wealth for the benefit of mankind. If access is to be granted to U.S. scientists and technologists into coastal and seabed areas containing sources of new mineral wealth; if preferred frequencies and orbital slots for space satellite systems are to be granted willingly to U.S. systems; and if other nations are to coöperate with the United States and other advanced industrial nations in constructing global networks for monitoring and regulating the use of the globe's atmospheric, water and terrestrial resources to assure that essential ecosystems are not dangerously destabilized-then the United States will have to stimulate other countries, particularly the technological have-nots, to coöperate with U.S. nationals in these ventures. This probably means that equity criteria will have to be significantly injected not only in the setting of funding responsibilities for the new multilateral ventures, but also in the distribution of benefits.
(5) Finally, in promoting greater reliance on multilateral institutions, the United States would support principles of representation that would give voice, in so far as possible, to all communities affected by the multilateral activities. This implies that in international lending institutions, the recipient countries would be given more responsibility than at present for the allocations and setting the conditions of repayment. It also implies that the consumers of the various resources of the sea as well as their producers and marketers should have a say in how the ocean "commons" is administered. The same would hold for other transnationally used environments and resources, some traditionally considered subject only to domestic jurisdiction. The shared participation would be on more than a token basis, and would include decision-making functions as well as technical tasks. In short, the people of the United States in the first instance would have to be more forthcoming than they have been in dispensing with some of the traditional trappings of national sovereignty.
A foreign policy responsive to these guidelines would be consistent with the basic international objectives of the United States since the end of the Second World War. Those objectives-a world environment conducive to the survival of the American society; and a system of international relations in which disputes are resolved without war, and in which opportunities to partake of the good life are extended to others-were pursued for a generation through policies that now need to be supplanted by a new set of policies. The fact that it is time for a new' American posture, less reliant on military power and alliances, does not mean we must condemn this country's entire cold-war role. It does mean that we must free ourselves from the snares of inertia and false pride so as not to confuse the policies and commitments of the past with the fundamental objectives they were supposed to serve.
[i] Opinion data as of 1971 show less than a quarter of the American public willing to approve the use of U.S. troops to defend major allies such as West Germany or Japan in the event they were attacked by Communist-backed forces. Even fewer would fight on behalf of smaller allies, with surprisingly large portions of those polled unwilling to provide any support at all. See Albert H. Cantril and Charles W. Roll, Jr., "Hopes and Fears of the American People." Washington, D.C.: Potomac Associates, 1971.