America Is Not Ready for a War With China
How to Get the Pentagon to Focus on the Real Threats
The international system that the United States and its allies created after World War II has benefited the entire world, but global political and economic engagement have left too many Americans behind. Over the last 70 years, free-market democracies have come to dominate the global economy, U.S.-led efforts have dramatically reduced poverty and disease, and the world has been spared great-power conflict. Yet many Americans—myself included—are increasingly coming to believe that our country suffers from a leadership vacuum. People are losing faith that their leaders will work to make all Americans better off and that they will rally us to join with our allies in order to craft cooperative solutions to the global problems that buffet us. Economic growth is delivering benefits for the few but not for the many. Political discourse has become poisoned by partisanship and egotism.
In the face of these challenges, we have a choice between two options: shut the blinds and withdraw from the world or engage with allies old and new to jump-start a new era of opportunity and security. Although American leaders should always put American interests first, that does not mean that we have to build walls, close off markets, or isolate the United States by acting in ways that alienate our allies. Continuing to do that will not insulate us from external challenges; it will simply turn us into bystanders with less and less influence.
I choose cooperation and engagement. Only those who have forgotten the lessons of history can credibly contend that peace and prosperity await us inside “Fortress America.” Yet as evergreen as this debate is—retreat or engage—reaching for set-piece answers to the problems facing the country will not work. New times require new answers, even to old questions. The way forward is not to retreat but to renew our commitment to supporting those who share our values, to reboot our capacity to collaborate, and to forge a new consensus on how to adapt our policies and institutions to the new era.
Having served on the Armed Services Committee and chaired the Budget Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives when the U.S. government enjoyed the only balanced budget in living memory, I am no stranger to the pessimism of those who say, “It can’t be done.” But I am also no stranger to the hope that comes from remembering past accomplishments. Leaders must now draw on that hope to rediscover open-mindedness, civility, mutual respect, and compromise.
On challenge after challenge, we are better off working together than going it alone. To secure our economic future, we must prepare our workers for the future rather than retreat into protectionism. To deal with global threats—from Russian aggression to nuclear proliferation to cyberattacks—we need to harden our defenses and reinvigorate our alliances. To fight terrorism, we must be more discerning about when to commit American power and insist that our allies bear more of the burden. To deal with the rise of China, we must strike the right balance between cooperation and confrontation. In other words, the world needs more American engagement, not less.
TRANSFORMING DISRUPTION INTO OPPORTUNITY
As governor of Ohio, a state with an economy larger than those of 160 countries, I am reminded daily that we live in a connected world. Over a quarter of a million jobs in my state depend on trade, and those jobs generate close to $50 billion in export earnings every year. In the United States as a whole, one in five jobs—40 million of them—depend on trade, and these jobs tend to be higher paying. There’s no denying that as goods and services have flowed more freely across borders, our country as a whole has become better off. But there are also some people who have suffered as a result. Jobs have been lost, and the cold steel furnaces in my hometown of McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, stand as a testament. These steel mills were once the engines of middle-class prosperity. Today, the well-paying jobs they provided are gone.
It is up to Americans to constantly innovate in order to remain competitive. Our international trading partners have to realize, however, that if they do not do more to eliminate government subsidies, dumping, and other anticompetitive behavior, support for free and fair trade will collapse even further in the United States. The result will be that everyone will suffer. That said, we should not have to resort to heavy-handed tariffs and quotas in order to get our partners to start taking our concerns seriously. To reduce jobs losses from trade, we need an expedited process, free of bureaucratic delays, to review trade violations and stop them when they occur. But we must also undertake new efforts that help people obtain the skills they need for the jobs of the future. Trade was not responsible for the majority of American job losses in the last generation; technology was. That trend will only accelerate.
Traditional manufacturing will suffer the most from the technological tsunami. It would be foolish to try to spare ourselves the force of this wave by retreating. Instead, we must ride the wave. That means better preparing the U.S. work force—in particular, aligning our education and training efforts with the needs of emerging industries and improving the flexibility of labor markets. Educators must partner with the private sector to advocate the right curricula, develop the right skill sets, and make businesses a greater part of the educational system by offering mentoring, workplace opportunities, and on-the-job training. Real leadership is showing the courage to help people embrace change, find new frontiers, and adjust in a fast-paced world—not making false promises about returning to the past. The right leadership can draw out from Americans the characteristics that we need to flourish, ones I know we already possess: resiliency, flexibility, and agility, and a dedication to lifelong learning.
Without greater confidence about their future place in the global economy, Americans will have little reason to support international cooperation and engagement. If the United States continues to go it alone, however, that will only open up further opportunities for nations that do not have our best interests at heart, such as China and Russia, to shape our future for us. That’s why it was such a mistake for the Trump administration to turn its back on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would have eliminated 18,000 foreign tariffs currently imposed on products that Americans make and seek to sell overseas. Those tariffs hold back job creation, and eliminating them could unleash new growth across the United States. We shouldn’t have threatened to jettison the North American Free Trade Agreement or the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement either. Instead, we should work with our neighbors and partners to modernize these agreements, which are essential to our economic security and global influence. On trade, as on many other issues, the goal should be to find win-win solutions, not to make threats and try to divide and conquer.
During my 18 years on the House Armed Services Committee, I learned that our alliances are vital to national security. But the world has changed markedly since these partnerships were first formed. We now must contend with not just the familiar conventional and nuclear threats from Russia but also those posed by China, Iran, and North Korea; threats in space and cyberspace; and threats from nonstate actors. The new environment demands leaner, more agile coalitions to solve such problems swiftly.
President Donald Trump was right to suggest that our allies are no longer the poverty-stricken nations they were after World War II. They can and must provide for a greater share of their own defense and security, particularly in their own regions. These allies, along with the United States, need to take care to avoid overemphasizing any individual threat, such as terrorism, at the expense of longer-term challenges, such as Russian intimidation, Chinese expansionism, or North Korean nuclear proliferation. All of us must adapt our budgets accordingly, investing in efforts to deal with new cyberthreats and preserving our ability to project power and secure the open global trading system. And Washington must insist that its allies in Europe and the Pacific contribute more to joint efforts.
Real leadership is showing the courage to help people embrace change, find new frontiers, and adjust in a fast-paced world—not making false promises about returning to the past.
Our common purpose with our allies is to preserve and advance freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. These values are what distinguish us from our rivals, and they are what make our alliances so strong and attractive to others. As we press our allies to do more, we must not lose sight of the fact that we should also be working with them—both to reshape our alliances into nimble coalitions and to recruit other like-minded countries, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam, to join in.
As a child of the Cold War, I remember well the schoolroom “duck and cover” exercises, an ever-present reminder of the risk of nuclear war. No threat holds greater consequences for all of humanity than that of the accidental or deliberate use of nuclear weapons. Containing that risk has to remain our top priority.
U.S.-Russian agreements such as the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) were designed to achieve greater stability and security when it comes to nuclear weapons, and that goal should not be abandoned lightly. With New START expiring in 2021 and the INF Treaty on the verge of being fatally undermined by Russia’s noncompliance, we need to think long and hard about walking away from them. Unless we are convinced that they are unsalvageable, agreements that by and large have worked for the two states holding more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons should not be allowed to fall apart.
A number of issues have soured U.S. relations with Russia, including the Kremlin’s violent intervention in Ukraine, its support for Syria’s brutal dictator, its disinformation and destabilization campaign in the Baltic states, its penchant for assassinating political enemies at home and abroad, and, of course, its interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Nonetheless, we will have to work with Russia on arms control, because with around 7,000 warheads, the country remains the world’s largest nuclear power. Where we have common interests, we should cooperate, while never closing our eyes to the nature of Russia’s leaders, their intentions, and their disregard for our values. Where we cannot cooperate, we must hold Moscow at arm’s length until there is either a change in behavior or a change in leadership.
North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons remains another major concern. Until we have a definitive, verifiable treaty that formally ends the Korean War and denuclearizes the Korean Peninsula, we will need to keep up the pressure on Pyongyang to relinquish its nuclear weapons. Additional sanctions can and should be put in place. That includes sanctions on large Chinese companies that enable North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. North Koreans who are working overseas to earn the regime the hard currency that funds that program should be sent home on an expedited basis. The United States and its allies should also put in place a much tighter counterproliferation regime on shipments going into or out of North Korea. Ultimately, however, it will take peaceful regime change in Pyongyang to resolve the nuclear threat North Korea poses in Northeast Asia. The country best positioned to facilitate such a change is China, provided it can be sure that the United States, South Korea, and Japan will not exploit the situation.
Iran also presents a major proliferation threat. Given that the nuclear deal with Iran was one of the few things constraining the country from producing nuclear weapons, it was a mistake for President Trump to walk away from it. The president’s move created disunity and separated us from our allies at a time when we need to be rallying together to confront a myriad of other challenges.
I am sympathetic to the efforts of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former Democratic Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, and former Secretary of State George Shultz to rid the world of nuclear weapons. In my discussions with them, however, it has been made clear that this is a goal that can be achieved only in small steps. And with nuclear proliferation on the upswing, it appears as though that dream is now further away than ever. For that reason, deterrence will have to remain an essential part of our national defense strategy for the foreseeable future. Accordingly, we will have to continue to modernize our nuclear weapons and harden against cyberattacks the electronic systems that control them.
Almost all U.S. computer systems and communication networks are at risk from such attacks. To stop the systematic looting of American technology and ideas, we will need to reorganize our cyber-operations. Those parts of the U.S. military, the Department of Homeland Security, and the FBI that deal with cyberattacks should be united under a single agency headed by a cabinet-level official. That agency must be responsible for both cyberoffense and cyberdefense, and the latter task must encompass both government and commercial systems.
Beyond this, the government can mandate that sensitive data be encrypted, and individual agencies can hold cyberdefense drills and employ “red teams” to independently test the ability of their systems to withstand attacks. But we cannot rely on defenses alone. Washington must use its improving ability to attribute the origins of cyberattacks and then retaliate loudly or softly, depending on the circumstances. And given that cyberwarfare has geopolitical implications, diplomacy will be key to organizing a collective defense among our allies—a cyber-NATO, effectively.
The private sector has a vital role to play in cyberdefense, too. American technology giants have all too often failed to prevent their platforms from being used for malign purposes, such as interfering in elections and spreading terrorist propaganda. The general public and the rest of the private sector should place economic pressure on these companies—for example, withholding advertising and avoiding doing business with them—until they fulfill their responsibilities.
REBALANCING THE WAR ON TERRORISM
After 17 years, the war on terrorism has become a series of open-ended commitments. Some of those commitments clearly need to be revisited. In Afghanistan, President Barack Obama micromanaged the war and put in place a series of half measures, and President Trump sent additional troops into a conflict that cannot be resolved militarily. Both presidents’ decisions were mistakes. We must now look instead to diplomacy to negotiate a sustainable U.S. exit with all of Afghanistan’s stakeholders.
We should continue to train and assist Afghan government forces so that they can hold key population centers, but we should limit ourselves to securing two core U.S. interests: preventing Afghanistan from once again becoming a terrorist safe haven and ensuring that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons remain secure. Neither goal requires all that many U.S. boots on the ground. U.S. forces in the Gulf and along Afghanistan’s northern borders can achieve the first goal. A political settlement in Afghanistan that reduces the risk of chaos spilling across the border, together with long-term assistance in Pakistan supporting the institutions of civilian nuclear control, can help achieve the second. We should have no illusions about the difficulty of achieving such a settlement. But it is probably the only way to exit an otherwise endless conflict without risking a bloodbath in Afghanistan or instability in Pakistan.
President Trump deserves credit for improving on President Obama’s strategy against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, in Syria and Iraq. Now that the terrorists’ strongholds have been all but eliminated, the only remaining core U.S. interest at stake is preventing ISIS from using those countries to mount future attacks against us. That mission does not require a major commitment of U.S. combat troops. With our help, allies whose interests are more directly affected than our own—such as Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and European countries—should take the lead in mitigating the continuing but reduced threat from ISIS and in repatriating Syrian refugees.
Going forward, we need to be much more careful and focused about how we fight terrorism. We have to develop better criteria for when to intervene abroad. And when we do intervene, we need clearer guidelines about what kinds of resources to commit—for example, combat troops versus military trainers. We also need clearer benchmarks for when we should escalate our commitments and when it makes more sense to cut our losses and leave. In particular, we should restrict our major counterterrorism efforts to instances in which our homeland is directly at risk. When it is not, we should avoid getting embroiled in civil wars and instead use diplomacy to rally international partners to assume the lead. Doing that would allow us to husband our resources for the challenges that pose a far greater long-term threat to U.S. national security.
ADAPTING TO THE RISE OF CHINA
Chief among those challenges is an increasingly assertive China. Beijing is already seeking to convert its economic power into regional influence through such projects as the Belt and Road Initiative, a massive infrastructure venture, and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a rival to Western-led development banks. Looking to fill the political void created by the current vacuum in U.S. international leadership, Chinese leaders are making ridiculous assertions that their country will define the meaning of freedom and liberty.
The principal strategic challenge for the United States is to integrate China into the international system in a manner that allows us to protect our interests in Asia and safeguard international institutions against China’s assaults on democratic values. China’s ultimate goal is to end what it considers to be American dominance and to replace it with a new order in which Beijing gets an equal voice in setting the rules. It wants to push the United States out of the western Pacific, undermine our alliances in the region, and re-create a Sinocentric sphere of influence in Asia free from challenges to its authoritarian rule.
To achieve any of our foreign policy goals, we will have to rededicate ourselves to civility and compromise at home.
Confounding our hopes and expectations, China’s regime has managed to deliver economic growth without being forced to democratize. But China is not 12 feet tall: its economy has serious structural flaws, including exceedingly high levels of debt, a cohort of retirees whose living expenses will be difficult to fund, and wages that are increasingly uncompetitive with those paid by China’s neighbors. Nor is China a monolith: like the United States, the country is riven by rival factions, leading to infighting that diverts productive resources. China does not need to be contained as the Soviet Union once did, since its provocative behavior is already driving some of its neighbors into our arms. Indeed, through its actions, Beijing can largely be counted on to contain itself.
Another difference between the rivalry with China today and that with the Soviet Union during the Cold War is that China and the United States are so economically intertwined. This means not only that the two countries will remain co-dependent for the foreseeable future but also that relations between them need not be a zero-sum game. There are ample opportunities to pursue strategies with China that can adapt the world system to reflect Beijing’s growing international role while benefiting both sides. Those opportunities include reining in North Korea, addressing climate change, and promoting international investment and economic growth.
There are limits to how much can be achieved through cooperation, however. We should acknowledge our rivalry with China more frankly and prepare our country to compete more vigorously. This does not necessarily mean embarking on a path of outright confrontation. Rather, it means putting hopes of a peaceful political evolution in China on the back burner and incentivizing Beijing to play a constructive role in the international system. It also means being prepared to decisively counter Chinese moves that threaten the United States and its allies.
Achieving these ends will be impossible if we continue to hollow out the State Department. Instead, we must empower it and permit our seasoned senior diplomats to guide the way, harnessing all the instruments of American power to exploit China’s weaknesses. U.S. officials should much more forthrightly advocate the values that we hold dear and vocally criticize China’s shortcomings. They should also better protect our economic interests by combating Chinese dumping and currency manipulation, streamlining the World Trade Organization’s dispute-resolution process, and insisting on full reciprocity in market access.
Deterring China also has a military dimension. The U.S. military should forward-deploy greater numbers of forces in the western Pacific and continue to challenge China’s illegal attempts to expand its territorial control there. Washington should make it clear that there will be a significant price to pay for any attack on U.S. assets in space and expand our regional allies’ missile and air defense capabilities. In the long run, however, the best chance for peace lies in a China that itself chooses reform. To kick-start that process, we will have to support efforts to give mass audiences in China better access to the unvarnished truth about what is going on in the world.
TOGETHER WE ARE STRONGER
The United States needs a national security doctrine around which a consensus can be built—both between the Democratic and the Republican Parties and with those who share our interests and values overseas. As we continue the search for that, we should work together to secure our economic future, reimagine and strengthen our defenses and alliances, and focus on the prime challenges to our national interests. Rather than pulling back and going it alone, America must cooperate and lead.
That is true whether the country in question is China, Iran, or Russia and whether the issue at stake is nuclear proliferation, cybersecurity, or counterterrorism. But to achieve any of our foreign policy goals, we will have to rededicate ourselves to civility and compromise at home. Without doing so, we cannot hope to lead by example. Nor will we be able to pass the fiscal, educational, work-force, and other reforms needed to restore Americans’ confidence in international engagement.
I have faith that our deeply held values will guide us down the right path. As we look back at history, Americans can take pride in the fact that we have made the world a better place time and time again. We can draw strength for the future from our past achievements. Working together in the spirit of bipartisan compromise, idealists and realists can help the United States rediscover optimism to shape our destiny and guarantee our security. America will be stronger and more prosperous for it.