China’s Sputnik Moment?
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Bismarck once said that the statesman’s task was to hear God’s footsteps marching through history and try to catch his coattails as he went past. U.S. President George W. Bush agreed. In his second inaugural address, Bush argued that “history has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty.” President Donald Trump had a different take. His National Security Strategy claimed: “A central continuity in history is the contest for power. The present time period is no different.” The Bush team saw history moving forward along a sunlit path; the Trump team saw it as a gloomy eternal return. Those beliefs led them to care about different issues, expect different things of the world, and pursue different foreign policies.
Theories of history, fundamental beliefs about how the world works, are usually assumed rather than argued and rarely get subjected to serious scrutiny. Yet these general ideas set the parameters for all the specific policy choices an administration makes. Know an administration’s theory of history, and much of the rest is easy to fill in.
There are a lot of possible theories of history, but they tend to fall, like Bush’s and Trump’s, into two main camps: optimistic and pessimistic. Thus, the Clinton administration followed its own version of happy directionality—think of it as Bush with less muscular Christianity. And there have been earlier believers in Trump’s dark and stormy night, as well.
Unfortunately, given the stakes of the question, no one really knows whether the optimists or the pessimists have the better case. Political theorists have fought about that for centuries, with neither side winning. A few generations ago, modern social scientists joined in, generating and testing lots of theories in lots of ways, but still, neither camp bested the other. And then, in the last few years, history got interesting again and erased some of the few things the scholars thought they had learned.
As individuals, presidents have had strong views on these matters. As a group, they have not. American foreign policy is notorious for its internal tensions. Its fits and starts and reversals do not fit easily into any single theoretical framework. Yet this pluralism has proved to be a feature, not a bug. Precisely because it has not embraced any one approach to foreign policy consistently, Washington has managed to avoid the worst aspects of all. Blessed with geopolitical privilege, it has slowly stumbled forward, moving over the centuries from peripheral obscurity to global hegemony. Its genius has been less strategic insight than an ability to cut losses.
By now, it seems fair to say that the debate between the optimists and the pessimists will never be settled conclusively, since each perspective knows something big about international politics. Instead of choosing between them, the new administration should keep both truths in its pocket, taking each out as appropriate.
Learning in U.S. foreign policy has come largely across administrations. President Joe Biden’s goal should be to speed up the process, allowing it to happen within an administration. Call it the Bayesian Doctrine: rather than being wedded to its priors, the administration should constantly update them.
The way to do so is to make theorists, not principals, the administration’s true team of rivals, forcing them to make real-world predictions, and to offer testable practical advice, and then seeing whose turn out to be better in real time. In this approach, searching intellectual honesty is more important than ideology; what people think matters less than whether they can change their minds. Constantly calculating implied odds won’t always win pots. But it will help the administration fold bad hands early, increasing its winnings over time.
The canonical modern statements of the pessimistic and optimistic visions were set out by the English philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke in the seventeenth century. Hobbes argued that states in the international system were like individuals in a hypothetical state of nature, before the invention of government. Living under anarchy, with no sovereign above them to provide order and security, they were at perpetual risk, trapped in a permanent war of all against all, doomed to spend eternity jockeying for power. Locke’s view was less bleak, and his version of the state of nature was more permissive. He didn’t think anarchy necessarily forced states into inevitable conflict. If they wanted, they could avoid war through cooperation, gaining security and protection by association.
Hobbes’s world and Locke’s world looked quite different, so it was clearly important for policymakers to determine which one corresponded better to reality. If war was inevitable and any stretch of international quiet was just the calm before another storm, states would be suckers for ever letting their guard down. But if sustained peaceful cooperation was possible, they would be fools for not trying to achieve it. For 300 years, the argument raged without end. Pessimists tended to follow Hobbes, and became known as “realists.” Optimists were drawn to Locke, and became known as “liberals.” And history piled up data higher and higher.
U.S. foreign policy's fits and starts and reversals do not fit easily into any single theoretical framework.
After World War II, scholars of international relations tackled the problem. They imposed order on the discussion and refined its concepts. They showed how one could operationalize realist and liberal theories in many ways, using different variables and processes to produce different outcomes. They tested the theories with sophisticated methods and hoped that eventually their collective efforts would yield greater understanding. Studies proliferated, researchers got better, and work became more rigorous. But the anticipated knowledge failed to materialize, and it was hard to tell what, if any, intellectual ground had really been gained. Because of this conspicuous failure, by the twenty-first century, the status claims of realism, liberalism, and rationalistic theorizing in general were being called into question within the discipline. Competing theoretical perspectives crept back into serious discussion, and scholars increasingly abandoned big questions altogether. Journals published articles on “the end of international relations theory.” And then the world started to go off the rails.
Where do things stand now? Liberals are on the defensive. They argued that globalization would build on itself and increasingly tie the world together, but instead it provoked a massive backlash, and states are weaponizing interdependence. They saw democracy as improving at its core and marching forward on the periphery, but it is now regressing and retreating. They saw Chinese authoritarianism as doomed to fail, but it has succeeded beyond all expectations. They preached cosmopolitanism, but it turns out that everybody’s a little bit nationalist (and gets more so under stress). They claimed that norms constrained behavior, but the reality is that shameless people can break them without consequence. These setbacks may be temporary, and the world may get back on the upward track it seemed to be traveling. But maybe not.
Realists, meanwhile, having taken the other side of those bets, are feeling validated. Relations between the United States and China are playing out like a classic security dilemma. The Trump administration’s most notable foreign policy accomplishment, its Arab-Israeli peace deals, emerged from classic realpolitik. In practice, liberal hegemony looks a lot like . . . hegemony.
Nevertheless, the picture is problematic here, too. Realism emphasizes states’ relative power, and that matters. But so do leaders, publics, nonstate actors, ideas, institutions, and everything else. War, meanwhile, can no longer be automatically considered the greatest danger countries face. The pandemic has caused more death and economic destruction than anything short of nuclear war or a world war, and climate change will be even more significant. Global issues such as these do not fit well into the realist paradigm.
The problems go deeper still. “International relations scholars,” the political scientist Daniel Drezner has written, “are certain about two facts: power is the defining concept of the discipline and there is no consensus about what that concept means.”
Consider the question of how a declining United States should respond to a rising China. But first, explain just what is rising and falling about each. Military strength? Economic potential? Perceptions about the long-term trends of those? Perceptions about the willingness to deploy them? The worth of each country’s alliances? Their national cohesiveness and institutional performance? Power obviously comes in multiple forms and depends on context. This means that the apparently straightforward question about the U.S.-Chinese power differential is actually quite complicated.
For all the realists’ ominous predictions about recurring conflict, finally, great-power war has not occurred for generations. Nobody knows for sure what has driven this so-called long peace or how much longer it will endure. Suggestions include luck, nuclear weapons, historical memory, U.S. power and policy, economic interdependence, changing value systems, and more. But whatever the cause, until this unprecedented stretch of great-power peace is broken, it is a bit rich for pessimistic realists to claim that optimistic liberals are obviously naive.
Interestingly, the dissidents in international relations—sociologists, psychologists, constructivists, critical theorists, cultural theorists, Marxists, feminists, network theorists, and others outside the U.S. mainstream—have weathered recent decades better. This is not because their own findings have cumulated; they haven’t. But scholars drawn to those approaches made wiser bets than the rationalists, both realist and liberal, on what ultimately mattered in political life. They focused on hierarchy as well as anarchy, making them better at seeing domination when it was occurring. They were more attuned to social relationships. And they started from better assumptions about their basic unit of analysis.
We now know that humans are cognitively biased against reason. Our brains are hardwired to make us emotional, volatile, and tribal. We act according to personal webs of meaning that do not necessarily overlap with those of others. The dissidents in international relations took those factors as starting points, not afterthoughts. They looked at political actors from the inside as well as out, focused on identity, and appreciated culture and contingency. Their approaches were better suited for a world in which identity politics is central to everything and small numbers of people can wreak vast amounts of damage—not to mention a world in which those people increasingly live through social media, the addicted customers of private companies with business models based on custom-tailoring reality, inflaming emotional volatility, and stoking group conflict.
Studying these strange particles is difficult. It’s hard to count the irrational numbers. Humans’ multiple cognitive deficiencies, for example, make them susceptible to lies, which play a major but understudied role in politics.
Ordinary lying, knowingly telling untruths, is common. Big lying, peddling a full-fledged alternative reality akin to the Marvel Universe, is not.
Big lies are the territory of prophets and demagogues, people who hear divine voices themselves or play a divinity for others. They are self-contained intellectual paradigms immune from scientific falsification. As the scholar Nina Khrushcheva notes, the big lie “covers everything and redefines reality. There are no holes in it. You . . . either accept the whole thing or everything collapses.” The bigger the lie, the further it is from reality, the more psychic potential energy builds up in between. And when the collapse comes, the energy gets released in a sudden burst. It was that kind of cathartic explosion that blew over the U.S. Capitol on January 6.
Was the riot a political protest that got out of hand? An attempted putsch? A heroic defense of the republic against satanic pedophiles? It was all of these and more, because the event was streaming on several platforms simultaneously—not just the conventional tv networks but also the inner mental channels of the deluded rioters. This was history as tragedy and farce combined; the casualties included a woman who was reportedly trampled to death while carrying a flag saying “Don’t Tread on Me.”
The most persuasive reading of the day is as immersive theater, and not just because the marchers came in costume. It played like a mass live production of Euripides’s Bacchae, the tale of a mysterious cult leader who wreaks vengeance on a city that disrespects him by whipping its citizens into a frenzied nihilistic rampage. Some men just want to watch the world burn. And some crowds just like the way it hurts.
The riot’s practical implications are deeply disturbing. But its theoretical implications are more so. For example, one leading proponent of the big lie in question, Peter Navarro, was a crucial architect of the Trump administration’s trade policy. It will be interesting to see how mainstream scholarship on international political economy incorporates conspiracy theorizing into the heart of its analysis.
Big lies are the territory of prophets and demagogues, people who hear divine voices themselves or play a divinity for others.
Once they seized the Capitol, meanwhile, these terrorists took selfies rather than hostages. Like most of their predecessors in the 1970s, they wanted a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead. But what if among them had been an even prouder boy, one like Timothy McVeigh, the 1995 Oklahoma City bomber? Then, the entire U.S. Congress could easily have been wiped out, along with the vice president. It will be interesting to see how the episode affects risk assessments of all kinds. Clearly, it isn’t so hard to decapitate the United States. Just as clearly, it hasn’t happened recently not because anybody prevented it but because almost nobody was trying.
Most disturbing is what the incident revealed about Trump. As Bob Corker, a former Republican senator from Tennessee, put it: “The one plus that comes out of this [is] people have been able to see firsthand what all of us have known, just who he really is.” With that in mind, imagine a scenario in which a few hundred thousand votes went the other way last November, letting Trump win the presidency and the Republicans keep the Senate, fair and square.
In that branch of the multiverse, January 6 in Washington plays out rather differently. The same crowd comes, but it is much, much larger. They don’t want to hang Vice President Mike Pence; they want to hug him. They don’t storm the Capitol; they stand outside cheering as he certifies the president’s reelection. Trump is happy, too. And why not? He gets to be the supreme leader of the world’s most powerful military, in unquestioned control of his party and all three branches of government, with an official propaganda network and a cult of personality that has millions of members who will literally believe him over their own eyes. For four more years.
It didn’t happen. But it could have, easily, with all the consequences one might spin out for everything from foreign policy and trade, to American ideals and institutions, to the future course of international politics. Democracy didn’t prevail. It lucked out. One does not come away from the thought experiment struck by some larger pattern of history, optimistic or pessimistic. One comes away struck by its radical contingency.
Some call for abandoning the search for a larger theoretical framework for foreign policy altogether. “Grand strategy is dead,” claimed Drezner and two other political scientists, Ronald Krebs and Randall Schweller, in these pages last year. They argued:
The world today is one of interaction and complexity, wherein the most direct path between two points is not a straight line. A disordered, cluttered, and fluid realm is precisely one that does not recognize grand strategy’s supposed virtue: a practical, durable, and consistent plan for the long term.
To debate grand strategy, they wrote, “is to indulge in navel-gazing while the world burns. So it is time to operate without one.” They want an administration’s agenda to emerge piece by piece, bottom up from departments and the field, rather than spring from the head of some scribbler in Washington who thinks he knows where history is going. In place of overarching theoretical frameworks, they propose flexibility and incremental experimentation.
Drezner, Krebs, and Schweller are correct when they argue that simplistic road maps are not very helpful in dealing with today’s complex international landscape, and both convinced optimists and convinced pessimists seem fated to produce crude and incomplete surveys. But that is not an argument for throwing the maps away. It is an argument for figuring out how to use two bad maps simultaneously.
Foreign policy, after all, is not cartography. It’s orienteering—racing madly through dangerous, unknown territory. And theorists aren’t mapmakers, they’re coaches: their job is to help players race better. Maps provide crucial information, but the players have to use them out in the field, trying to move as fast as possible relative to others without getting hurt. Offered two bad maps, smart players wouldn’t pick one or toss both. They’d take both along and put them to use. Policymakers should do the same, carrying both realist and liberal maps of the world with them as they go, filtering and combining them as possible.
The first thing a player with two bad maps would learn was not to trust either completely. The learning would show itself over time primarily through the avoidance of extreme failure. Interestingly, this is just what Drezner and his co-authors find in the history of American foreign policy—which is precisely why they suggest listening to the inductive, experiential wisdom of practical policymakers: “The push and pull between the establishment and its critics and between the executive branch and Congress eventually reined in the worst excesses of American activism and prevented the overembrace of restraint.” The pattern is there, but miscoded. The United States has not succeeded because it has operated without theory. It has succeeded because it has relied on multiple theories.
Foreign policy is not cartography, but orienteering—racing madly through dangerous, unknown territory.
The process works like this. An optimistic administration, believing the world can be improved, invades a developing country (Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc.) and tries to make it look like Nebraska. After many years of futile, costly effort, the administration is kicked out and replaced with a pessimistic successor that withdraws. It can go the other way, too. A pessimistic administration, thinking cooperation is for suckers, tries to go it alone in the world—only to achieve little and be swapped out for optimistic successors able to work better with others. The motor of U.S. diplomatic success has been the combination of multiple foreign policy traditions, multiple dogmatic administrations, and regular political turnover.
American foreign policy has always involved flying blind, making mistakes, and slowly, painfully learning what not to do. But the process has played out unconsciously, across administrations and eras rather than within them. By recognizing and surfacing the pattern, by becoming aware of itself, the country could own its behavior and more consciously control and direct it.
An excellent way to do just this in practice emerges from the forecasting research of Philip Tetlock, an expert in political psychology. Tetlock began with a simple experiment: he asked supposed experts to make specific predictions about future political events and then checked to see how they did. The results showed that Yeats was right: the best lacked all conviction, while the worst were full of passionate intensity. As the international security scholar Peter Scoblic and Tetlock wrote in these pages last year:
Those who were surest that they understood the forces driving the political system (“hedgehogs,” in the philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s terminology) fared significantly worse than their humbler colleagues, who did not shy from complexity, approaching problems with greater curiosity and open-mindedness (“foxes”).
More experiments followed, including tournaments with large numbers of experts and amateurs, repeating and elaborating on the findings. Out of the whole, a picture emerged of what the most successful forecasters did: they kept an open mind and thought flexibly. The essence of successful forecasting, Tetlock decided, was combining multiple maps with good decision rules for choosing among them—which meant incorporating the two basic approaches to prediction, scenario planning and probabilistic forecasting, into a unified framework. As Scoblic and Tetlock put it:
The answer lies in developing clusters of questions that give early, forecastable indications of which envisioned future is likely to emerge, thus allowing policymakers to place smarter bets sooner. Instead of evaluating the likelihood of a long-term scenario as a whole, question clusters allow analysts to break down potential futures into a series of clear and forecastable signposts that are observable in the short run.
The Biden administration, in short, does not face a tragic choice of pessimism, optimism, or just winging it. Instead of embracing realism or liberalism, it can choose pragmatism, the true American ideology. The key is to draw on diverse theoretical traditions to develop plausible scenarios of many alternative futures, design and track multiple indicators to see which of those scenarios is becoming more likely, and follow the evidence honestly where it goes.
Such an approach to foreign policy would not change the world. But it would allow the United States to see the world clearly and operate in it more effectively. Which would be nice for a change.
America Must Think Small