America Is Not Ready for a War With China
How to Get the Pentagon to Focus on the Real Threats
A major strategic challenge for the United States in the coming decades will be integrating emerging powers into international institutions. The dramatic growth of Brazil, China, and India -- and the emergence of middle-tier economies such as Indonesia and Turkey -- is transforming the geopolitical landscape and testing the institutional foundations of the post-World War II liberal order. The Obama administration promotes developing cooperative relations with emerging powers, believing that countries with a stake in world affairs will become responsible global actors. But the United States should be under no illusions about the ease of socializing rising nations. Emerging powers may be clamoring for greater global influence, but they often oppose the political and economic ground rules of the inherited Western liberal order, seek to transform existing multilateral arrangements, and shy away from assuming significant global responsibilities.
Over the next ten years and beyond, the United States will have to accommodate new powers in reformed structures of global governance while safeguarding the Western liberal order it helped create and defend. The world is entering a chaotic era. Global visions will compete, norms will shift, and yesterday's rule takers will become tomorrow's rule makers. The United States will have to make both practical and psychological adjustments. U.S. officials need to recalibrate their aspirations for multilateral cooperation and reexamine long-standing assumptions about the United States' role in the world.
TESTING OBAMA'S AMBITIONS
U.S. President Barack Obama's approach to rising powers builds on that of George W. Bush, who encouraged China to become a "responsible stakeholder" in the international system. The Bush administration called on China to embrace established standards of behavior and accept new regional and global obligations, asking Beijing to abandon its mercantilist policies and press North Korea to relinquish its nuclear program.
Obama has extended this "responsible stakeholder" principle to all rising nations, linking it to a broader agenda of global institutional reform. The May 2010 National Security Strategy envisions integrating emerging powers into the world order as pillars of a rule-bound international system. The premises of the document are striking. "Power, in an interconnected world, is no longer a zero-sum game," it declares. In the past, the objective of statecraft was to manage the balance of power; today, it is to manage global interdependence. Although the United States remains committed to "underwriting global security," as the document says, and renovating international institutions, it cannot do so alone. "New and emerging powers who seek greater voice and representation will need to accept greater responsibilities for meeting global challenges," the strategy paper argues.
There is much to applaud here. Practically speaking, none of today's international problems can be resolved in a conference room with representatives from the West alone. Complex challenges -- from energy insecurity to financial instability, climate change, terrorism, and infectious diseases -- require input from established and emerging powers alike.
There is also a powerful geopolitical logic. Historically, power transitions have been fraught with danger. Status quo states resist accommodating new powers. By giving emerging nations a greater stake in today's order, the Obama administration is hoping to increase the legitimacy of existing arrangements and discourage assaults on prevailing liberal norms. At the policy's core sits Lyndon Johnson's rule. As Johnson once said about FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover -- albeit in saltier language -- it is better to bring difficult players inside the tent than leave them outside where they can make mischief. Rejecting the notion of a competitive, multipolar world, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has advanced the vision of a "multipartner" one, in which major states (as well as nonstate actors) cooperate to pursue their shared interests in global security, stability, and prosperity. The Obama administration has launched bilateral dialogues with the world's main non-Western powers, including Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Russia, South Africa, and Turkey.
Yet Brazil and Turkey demonstrated this past spring why Obama's integration effort may prove turbulent. The two countries' leaders suddenly injected themselves into the long-running negotiations over Iran's nuclear ambitions, seeking to broker an agreement on Iranian enrichment activities that would have allowed Iran to reprocess its low-enriched uranium abroad. In Washington, Paris, and London, voices across the political spectrum called the initiative amateurish and ill timed. Although the Brazilian-Turkish gambit failed to halt UN Security Council action against Iran, Brazil and Turkey defied the United States and the other permanent members of the council by voting against additional sanctions. The episode shows that integrating new powers as responsible stakeholders will be far trickier than the Obama administration presumes.
MULTIPOLARITY WITHOUT MULTILATERALISM
The world remains more Hobbesian than the White House cares to admit. Global interdependence is increasing, but fundamental interests still collide and strategic rivalries persist. The Obama administration appears to regard the decline of U.S. hegemony with equanimity, anticipating that shared national interests and mutual security dilemmas will permit the established and the emerging powers to pursue collective goals, such as arresting nuclear proliferation, mitigating climate change, combating terrorism, and preserving an open, liberal international economic system. But it has left a darker scenario unexplored: What if the new global order leads to an era of multipolarity without multilateralism?
On balance, the diffusion of power is likely to exacerbate the strategic rivalry between the established and the emerging powers, and among the emerging powers themselves. The world's major nations, after all, are playing more than one game. They may cooperate on financial reform or antiterrorism but also may compete vigorously for market share, strategic resources, political influence, and military advantage. The question for the United States is how to manage relationships with rising powers that contain elements of both partnership and rivalry.
Consider U.S.-Chinese relations. The Obama administration seeks "strategic reassurance" about China's intentions in East Asia -- that is, indications from Beijing that it will not imperil the security of its neighbors or challenge existing U.S. alliances as it increases its global role. Although China has economic incentives not to rock the boat in the near term, the United States' and China's long-term objectives may be less compatible. The United States wants a stable balance of power in East Asia, a region that China seeks to dominate. It also wants China to become a pluralist democracy -- something the Chinese Communist Party presumably opposes.
Rivalry among the emerging powers may also complicate multilateral cooperation. This is most obvious between China and India, which share a disputed border extending over 2,000 miles, compete for regional influence and natural resources, and remain acutely sensitive to changes in their relative military capabilities. China's cultivation of India's neighbors is making New Delhi afraid of strategic encirclement, and maritime competition between the two powers is increasing in the Indian Ocean.
Finally, even on those issues on which the basic interests of the established and the emerging powers align -- terrorism, climate change, nuclear proliferation, or global financial stability -- these states' priorities may differ. The issue of North Korea is an obvious example. Both the United States and China want the North Korean nuclear program eliminated. But whereas Washington places a high priority on this objective, Beijing seeks above all to preserve cordial relations with Pyongyang. It fears the anarchy of a failed state on its borders and would rather maintain the status quo than see the Korean Peninsula reunified under a democratic government that might prove hostile to Chinese interests. Beijing had these motives in mind when it ensured that a UN Security Council resolution in July addressing the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel earlier this year offered only a tepid condemnation, failing to indict by name the obvious perpetrator, North Korea.
COMPROMISE MAY COME SECOND
The emerging non-Western powers do not share the United States' view on global governance. The ideal scenario for Washington would be for the rising powers to embrace Western principles, norms, and rules, just as entrants to the European Union adopt its acquis communautaire, the whole body of EU laws. But the emerging nations are intent on altering existing rules, not adopting them hook, line, and sinker. These countries do not grant the United States the sole authority to define the limits of responsible sovereignty. They believe that they are entitled to reshape international arrangements to suit themselves. This shared aspiration has been on display at the annual BRIC summits, at which Brazil, Russia, India, and China have (among other things) challenged the dollar's role as the world's reserve currency and demanded a greater voice in international financial institutions.
Another important source of tension between the established and the rising powers concerns the limits of national sovereignty. Most of the emerging powers are skeptical of the belief, common in Western circles, that sovereignty is contingent and that international intervention is justified against states that commit mass atrocities, sponsor terrorism, or pursue weapons of mass destruction. This skepticism extends to democracies such as Brazil, India, and South Africa, which have opposed vigorous UN Security Council action in response to human rights violations in places such as Myanmar (also known as Burma), Sri Lanka, Sudan, and Zimbabwe.
Principled differences between the established and the emerging powers extend to other realms. Progress on preventing nuclear proliferation, including an agreement on the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, has been stymied by disputes over the relative responsibilities of the nuclear weapons states and the nonnuclear weapons states. Brazil, for instance, insists that all weapons-holding states must make significant progress on their obligations to disarm before it will accept additional controls on its own nuclear facilities.
Similar disputes arise in economic relations. All of today's emerging players seek to have greater weight in global governance, but they do not necessarily seek more global governance. Their views on the International Monetary Fund's reform agenda are a case in point. Many Western countries in the G-20 want the IMF to assume a more overt surveillance role and to monitor the macroeconomic policies of member states, the status of their regulatory efforts, and the risks these states pose in terms of spawning international financial crises. China, India, and Saudi Arabia, in contrast, oppose a larger role for the IMF; they want larger voting shares at the organization without any additional infringement on their prerogatives.
The Obama administration often insists that international rules, such as those regarding nonproliferation or trade, must be enforced. It assumes that the world's major players will naturally prioritize global security and economic and environmental challenges just as it does. But the emerging powers do not accept all the current international rules, and the White House has provided little insight into what it can or will do to persuade these powers to cooperate in cases in which their preferences are not, in fact, aligned with those of the United States.
POWER WITHOUT RESPONSIBILITY
Rising powers are often inclined to enjoy the privileges of power without assuming its obligations. They prefer to free ride on the contributions of established nations. This instinct is reinforced by the anxiety that accepting international commitments could jeopardize their domestic development.
Emerging countries wrestle with conflicting identities. They seek a louder voice in global affairs, but as self-identified developing countries, they remain committed to alleviating poverty within their own borders. Thus, they resist global initiatives that would hamper their domestic growth.
This dual identity can sometimes allow rising powers to bridge North-South divides. But it can also leave them whipsawed between global ambitions and solidarity with other developing nations. Obama administration officials speak wryly of emerging powers cross-dressing as developed countries within the G-20 only to invoke long-standing developing-country grievances in other forums.
Some of the most prominent rising powers are ringleaders of developing-country blocs. Brazil, India, Indonesia, and South Africa, for example, are all leaders of the Group of 77 (G-77), and the last three are members of the Non-Aligned Movement -- both groups that impede multilateral cooperation by reinforcing obsolete ideological divisions between the North and the South. Despite strong bilateral ties to the United States, these rising players have a penchant for playing to the gallery and voting against U.S. preferences in the UN General Assembly, the Human Rights Council, and other multilateral forums. Obama has spoken wistfully of the need to abandon "outdated" bloc mentalities, but the emerging powers show little inclination to do so.
Internal political dynamics make integration efforts difficult. Leaders of both the established and the emerging powers must reconcile an increasingly complicated and intrusive multilateral agenda with political realities at home. These pressures are likely to constrain partnership between them.
Regime type, for example, is limiting U.S.-Chinese cooperation on cybersecurity. The United States has promoted a vision of cyberspace that is open, global, and relatively anonymous, whereas China's vision is predicated on state control. Both countries are interested in keeping the Internet safe from criminal activities, but it is hard to see how they can agree on any multilateral system as long as Beijing insists on censorship and persecutes online dissidents.
And yet Obama's engagement strategy pragmatically recognizes that addressing global problems such as climate change, nuclear proliferation, and financial instability calls for meaningful cooperation, not only with democracies but also with nondemocracies. Global governance requires collaboration among the unlike-minded. But partnership among the like-minded cannot be assumed, either. Democracy is an unreliable predictor of allegiance to U.S. interests. Some of the United States' recent diplomatic tussles have been with big emerging democracies. Brazil, under its flamboyant president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has assumed a prominent global profile thanks to its criticism of the United States' international role, ranging from the U.S. military presence in Colombia to Washington's alleged pro-Israel bias. Turkey, for decades a reliable U.S. ally, has staked out an independent posture on Middle East policy under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, abandoning its historical neutrality and making its relations with Israel contingent on the latter's policy toward Gaza.
CHANGE FROM WITHIN
The world today is not a blank slate, as it was after World War II, when, as the Obama administration frequently notes, a farsighted generation of U.S. leaders laid the foundations of a Western liberal international order. They left many institutional products -- international and regional, formal and informal, general purpose and issue specific. Absent a cataclysm such as a world war, reallocating influence within existing bodies will be an uphill struggle. The more important the institution, the more its powerful members will resist diluting their authority within it.
China and Russia, for example, oppose allowing any new permanent members to join the UN Security Council. None of the council's permanent five nations will countenance either limiting its veto power or extending that power to others. And consider the International Energy Agency. It excludes major energy consumers such as China and India, as well as major energy suppliers such as Russia. Ostensibly, the reasoning behind this is that IEA members must belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. But there is another, more self-interested explanation: voting at the IEA is weighted based on each country's share of global oil consumption in 1974, and its current members want to retain this arrangement even though oil consumption has remained essentially static in North America and Europe while increasing eight- and sixfold in China and India, respectively. Vested interests also plague ongoing debates about governance of the World Bank, the IMF, and other international financial institutions.
To be sure, the shock of the recent global economic downturn has driven some degree of change. The G-20 has become the principal forum for international economic coordination, the first major adaptation in multilateral cooperation to reflect dramatic shifts in global power. The G-20 created the Financial Stability Board in April 2009 to strengthen international standards for global finance. The resources of the IMF have expanded. And the members of both the IMF and the World Bank have agreed to adjust those organizations' voting weights and quotas by several percentage points in favor of emerging-market economies. But the overall impact of these reforms is modest. This is not a global constitutional moment akin to the one 65 years ago.
In any event, even more ambitious efforts to bring rising powers into existing institutions will be limited by the prospect of tradeoffs between effectiveness and legitimacy. This concern is at the core of the debates over UN Security Council expansion. As Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, explained to the UN General Assembly in February 2009, "The United States believes that the long-term legitimacy and viability of the United Nations Security Council depends on its reflecting the world of the twenty-first century." At the same time, she continued, any expansion must "not diminish its effectiveness or efficiency." A larger, more inclusive Security Council could complicate U.S. efforts to garner sufficient votes for critical resolutions.
Expanding existing forums can also harm consensus. This is most obvious in the shift from the G-8 -- still a cozy Western-dominated forum despite Russia's presence -- to the G-20, a much more diverse body. Given its heterogeneity, the G-20 is unlikely in the short term to become a venue for addressing sensitive security and political issues, such as Iran's nuclear program or the violence in Sudan.
A GRAND BARGAIN
The United States has no choice but to rely on rising powers to help address today's global challenges. But it must engage these countries in a way that preserves the core of the postwar order. The political scientist G. John Ikenberry has argued that the time is ripe for an "institutional bargain": by ceding influence within multilateral frameworks while it remains dominant, the United States might lock in support from the rising powers for an international order based on the Western model.
But how should the United States go about doing this? Should the rising powers be integrated quickly on the assumption that giving them a stake soon will make them responsible faster? Or would it be wiser to adopt an incremental approach, one that conditioned the rising powers' entry into the club on their demonstrated willingness to play by global rules and shoulder new burdens? Both approaches could entail frustrations.
There is no guarantee that the world's rising powers will become the United States' strategic partners. Washington may want them to do more on the world stage, but it cannot control their choices and it will not always like the results of their participation.
There is, of course, no common worldview among today's emerging countries. But as U.S. power declines, the rising powers will seek to test, dilute, or revise existing institutions to suit their purposes. The United States will need to decide when to stand firm, when to engage, and when simply to agree to disagree. This will likely produce ongoing debates about the appropriate boundaries of national sovereignty, the desirable balance between the state and the market, and the proper foundations of political legitimacy.
During the Cold War, the United States could count on solidarity among the capitalist democracies. In the twenty-first century, the normative foundations for multilateral cooperation will be weaker. An imperfect historical parallel might be the Concert of Europe of the early 1800s. That arrangement leavened the traditional balance of power with a balance of rights, which helped bridge differences between the Western powers (France and the United Kingdom) and the authoritarian monarchies (Austria, Prussia, and Russia) of the Holy Alliance. Global cooperation today may follow a similar logic. The United States may need to pay less attention to regime type and tolerate nations in which democracy is lacking or absent. It must be attuned to nationalist sensitivities in the rising powers -- including those linked to the United States' perceived interventionism, unilateralism, or militarism -- and to the temptation of all governments to harness these grievances for their own political purposes. Accommodating new powers while retaining as much of the old order as possible will be a constant balancing act, much like the Concert of Europe was two centuries ago.
Yet as Thomas Wright of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs has observed, the Obama administration has done little serious thinking about how to foster cooperation when the United States' interests diverge from those of other countries. The brief discussion of potentially clashing interests with rising powers in the National Security Strategy document of May 2010 seems too limited: "And when national interests do collide -- or countries prioritize their interests in different ways -- those nations that defy international norms or fail to meet their sovereign responsibilities will be denied the incentives that come with greater integration and collaboration with the international community." The warning clearly applies to Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela but may or may not also apply to those emerging countries that fall short of being "rogue." What if Brazil, China, or Turkey simply prioritizes its interests differently from the United States on critical issues?
In this complex international reality, fixed alliances and formal organizations may count for less than shifting coalitions of interest. Fortunately, the United States is well positioned to exploit these dynamics, since it will remain for the foreseeable future the hub for most agreements that will be discussed in the G-20 and other major forums. But to make the most of this advantage, U.S. officials will need to be unsentimental about forming partnerships of convenience. They will need to convene different clubs for different purposes, balancing encompassing arrangements such as the G-20 with smaller affinity groupings such as the G-8, which permit the United States to collaborate with longtime partners that broadly share its fundamental political and economic values.
Meanwhile, the United States must not allow the emerging powers to avoid contributing to global public goods. At times, these contributions might follow the notion of "common but differentiated responsibility." Adopted at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio and incorporated into the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, this principle establishes different obligations for developed and developing countries, based on their internal capacities. But the United States should resist the promiscuous invocation by fast-growing economies of internal development constraints and insist on clear benchmarks for balancing the responsibilities of the established and the emerging powers over time. More generally, the United States must link any extension of international status, voice, and weight to the emerging powers to their concrete contributions to world stability.
Reform of the increasingly outdated UN Security Council is an area in which the United States must insist on ground rules for inclusion. Any new permanent seats should be granted only to those states that make tangible efforts to foster international peace and security. Reasonable criteria for measuring such efforts could include whether a state has military (as well as civilian) capabilities that could be deployed globally or regionally on behalf of the UN; significantly supports the UN's regular and peacekeeping budgets; is willing to use enforcement tools under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, authorizing sanctions and the use of military force; is able to help broker political solutions; and has a record of conforming to and enforcing security regimes. The United States can provide incentives for aspiring states to meet Western expectations by proposing concrete benchmarks for eligibility.
Any adjustment to the UN Security Council will take time. In the meantime, the United States should use the G-20 framework to anchor emerging powers such as Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, and South Africa in the current world order and forge understandings with them on issues such as currency imbalances, climate change, peacekeeping, development cooperation, and nonproliferation. By investing the G-20 with real influence and gradually expanding its agenda, the established nations may encourage the rising powers to jettison outmoded positions held by the G-77 regarding sovereignty, nonintervention, and economic development in favor of more pragmatic policies. A dynamic G-20 would also provide a valuable testing ground for the emerging powers to demonstrate their credentials for Security Council membership.
U.S. officials must make peace with incrementalism. They need to be flexible in accommodating the institutional aspirations of the emerging powers. Cooperation will arise through the gradual updating of existing multilateral architecture, ad hoc arrangements, and bargaining. Where possible, the United States should use flexible approaches not simply to sidestep international organizations but also to drive reform efforts within them. Multilateral cooperation within large groups will increasingly rest on "minilateral" agreements, that is, agreements among a subset of key states, beforehand. This is the lesson of the Copenhagen accord of December 2009, which was reached in the waning days of the 15th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The United States brokered a last-minute deal with the so-called BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India, and China) that, even though it was nonbinding, set the stage for tangible global action to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Additional progress on climate change will depend heavily on the 17-nation Major Economies Forum -- an informal body comprised of the world's major emitters of greenhouse gases. This forum will not replace the UNFCCC, but it can galvanize progress within it.
PRESERVATION THROUGH COOPERATION
In the end, the biggest obstacle to integrating rising powers into the world order may come from within the United States. Making room for emerging players will require psychological adjustments on the part of U.S. officials. They will have to reevaluate the touchstones that have defined U.S. foreign policy since 1945. For more than half a century, the United States has served as the chief architect and ultimate guarantor of an open, liberal international political and economic order. This role has become embedded in U.S. political culture and national identity. But as global power becomes diffuse, the United States' long-standing habits of mind may be more limiting than helpful.
By the 1960s, as former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson cruelly noted, the United Kingdom had lost an empire but not yet found a new role. The erosion of U.S. hegemony, although less stark, poses its own challenges. As the United States sheds its primacy, it will need to adopt a more inclusive form of leadership. Compromise will be the order of the day.
The U.S. public may be prepared to make this shift: a comprehensive digest of recent polling data compiled by the Council on Foreign Relations and World Public Opinion suggests that Americans are willing to share the world's burdens. Yet at a minimum, multipolarity will test the assumptions of American exceptionalism. The United States has long taken an à la carte approach to its international commitments: picking and choosing among multilateral treaties, institutions, and initiatives and occasionally acting alone or opting out to preserve its sovereignty or freedom of action. But as the U.S. National Intelligence Council's report Global Trends 2025 suggests, "Such a selective approach is . . . running into trouble because those powerful enough to afford picking and choosing are growing more numerous." As today's rising powers avail themselves of the same privilege, such exceptionalism may fray the fabric of the international system. To hold the postwar order together, the United States will have to become a more consistent exemplar of multilateral cooperation.