The big question this century for the U.S. foreign policy establishment is what to do about China. The journal “Foreign Affairs” recently devoted an entire issue to the question. The articles ran the gamut from the U.S. needing to muscle up on the one hand to withdrawing from Asia entirely on the other. For my contribution, I will draw on three academic works to come to one simple conclusion.
First, British meteorologist Lewis F. Richardson, who penned some of the first mathematical equations for weather prediction, turned his attention to arms races and wars in his classic “Statistics of Deadly Quarrels” in 1960. He was the first to predict that the outcome to international quarrels would hinge on a fatigue factor. This factor would kick in decisively, particularly in a long, drawn-out quarrel, when the size of military expenditures reached too high a cost when weighed against a country’s economic resources.
Second, Yale economic historian Paul Kennedy wrote in his “The Rise and Fall of Great Powers” (1987) that the military and economic power of countries is constantly changing relative to that of national rivals. These changes result from differential national growth in economic capacity and technological innovation. Successfully managing these shifts depends on coherent and flexible strategy.
Third, to these material factors of dynamic power, Ray S. Cline, in his “World Power Trends and U.S Foreign Policy” (1980), added the importance, not just of strategy, but of national will.
These three points worked their way through the history of the last century. Near the end of World War I in 1917-18, the principal remaining combatants — Britain and France versus Germany — all had reached the point of complete fatigue. Germany and France were experiencing massive troop mutinies in the trenches, and the British were hanging by a thread largely by drawing on resources from their colonies. The U.S. intervention in 1917, on the side of Britain and France, with 3 million fresh soldiers backed by the huge American industrial base, tipped the scales to their victory.
The U.S., with its industrial base again, was the “arsenal of democracy” in World War II. The Japanese naval commander, Admiral Yamamoto, understood that given this industrial base, the Japanese would be finished if they could not deliver a knock-out blow to American Pacific forces at Pearl Harbor in 1941. Despite the Japanese attack, the Americans recovered and inflicted a decisive defeat on the Japanese navy at Midway the next year. With this, though fierce fighting followed, the war in the Pacific was over. In Europe, for all the military prowess of Hitler’s Germany, the American economic behemoth proved too potent, and Germany collapsed.
The same history repeated itself in the Cold War (1946-1989) between the United States and the Soviet Union. With an economy half the size of America’s, the Soviet Union amassed a military force twice the size of that of the United States, though America retained a large technological advantage. Over time, the Soviet’s massive military force took a toll on its economy. By the 1980s, its economy had ground to a halt. Desperate for Western technology to restart its economy, the Soviet Union abandoned the Cold War in America’s favor.
In all these 20th century “quarrels,” the superior resources of the American economy carried the day in what historians call “The American Century.”
In facing the challenge of China today, however, we cannot claim the same clear advantages. At the end of the Cold War, the size of the Chinese economy was one-third that of the United States. Today, it has reached two-thirds. Moreover, China’s economic growth rate is double ours. Even more disturbing is its tremendous growth and acquisition of sophisticated technologies. Whether China’s economy soon will surpass America’s is the big question facing the United States. Put simply, the two key factors of American advantage over the Soviet Union — its economy and technology — cannot be automatically assumed in the case of China.
Further, I am reluctant to say, one additional factor in our favor in the last century is showing real fatigue in this one — our national will. Since 2001, the armed forces of the United States have been in constant combat in the Middle East. Whatever our current withdrawal from Afghanistan means, the inescapable impression across the globe is that our national will is eroding.
Relying on the insights of the three scholarly works of Richardson, Kennedy and Cline leads me to one conclusion: It should be clear that facing the challenge of China alone is too risky, even dangerous. We will have to do it with friends — and add their resources to our own to achieve what we accomplished in the last century.