Skip to content

March 27, 2012


The Dangers of Grand Strategy on Auto Pilot

by Mike M

A leading element of the Conventional Wisdom on U.S. grand strategy and global posture is that America’s presence in key regions is essential to dampening mutual fear and hostility, to avoiding multipolar rivalry, and thus to keeping the peace.  But there are increasing questions to be asked about the role we’re playing and how we play it.

Secretary of State Clinton restated elements of the conventional wisdom in her essay about the US role in Asia:  “Beyond our borders, people are also wondering about America’s intentions—our willingness to remain engaged and to lead.  In Asia, they ask whether we are really there to stay, whether we are likely to be distracted again by events elsewhere, whether we can make—and keep—credible economic and strategic commitments, and whether we can back those commitments with action.  The answer is: We can, and we will.”  The same basic argument is widely held among national security experts and scholars.  One thoughtful IR scholar put it this way a few years back:  In Asia, a recurrence of 19th-century style power rivalries is entirely possible—and the key roadblock to its emergence is US power.  “American deterrence prevents states from exploiting perceived advantages, and American reassurance comforts nervous elites about the potential threats posed by their neighbors.”

By this standard, the Shift or Tilt (or Lean or Nod or Drift, depending on your preferred view of the policy) to Asia was both necessary and wise.  Growing Chinese power had worried the region.  A reassertion of American power was overdue to quell the fears and return the balance of power to a stable equilibrium.  The American role underpuins US economic, political and security interests.

There’s another perspective, though, from those who call for a more restrained (or, pejoratively, “neo-isolationist”) US posture.  They argue that there’s an abundance of security in the world today, not a deficit:  China isn’t looking to invade anyone, to take our leading example.  Other Asian nations could easily match Chinese spending, technology, and military power.  US allies are free-riding on American security guarantees rather than asking for help they objectively “need.”

As Benjamin Friedman and Justin Logan have argued, for example, justifying a US military presence in Asia requires showing that “Asian nations cannot or will not balance Chinese power themselves and that their failure to do so would greatly harm US security.  Neither is likely.”

Here’s a silly question, for anyone who’s observed government policymaking up close:  When the Asia Pivot was being developed, did the US government test these propositions against one another?  Was there a rigorous analysis of which was true?  Is a US “pivot” really necessary, in other words?

The guess here is:  Not so much.  Memos were circulated that contained some variant of three things.  First, crowds of assertions that the conventional wisdom is “true,” without really persuasive argumentation that this is so.  “We must reassert US power and credibility lest …”  And so forth.  Well, maybe, but maybe not; that’s a claim, but is it valid?

Second, veiled implications that, You know, this policy would make us look really sensible and strong on national security issues.  As Democrats, that’s not an unimportant thing.  I don’t disparage such considerations—even the Great Nonpartisan American Eisenhower had to balance the mollification of his party’s right wing with his best judgment.  But political mollification didn’t justify the domino theory, and it doesn’t make the current policy sound, either.

Third, and most persuasively, perceptual “evidence from the region.”  Asian leaders believe X or Y, and therefore it’s true.  They “tell us they worry about the decline of American power, and are beginning to question …”  This is the best—but also the most nonresponsive—response to the question.  It avoids the substance of the debate by saying, “They say they need us, so they must.  Because they think they need us, if they perceive our power ebbing away, they’ll react crazily.”

But that, too, is an assertion, and as we’ve learned so many times before, the claims of friends and allies, temporary or permanent, can’t always be taken at face value.  They have their interests, and are not above projecting beliefs designed to advance them.

This isn’t to say that there is not genuine concern throughout Asia about the effects of rising Chinese power and the risks of a departing America.  Discussions with security experts throughout the region make this clear.  But a dozen more detailed questions—just how serious are the questions; what would states have done without the “Shift”; are there ways to address the concerns short of a reassertion of US power—needed to be asked before America threw itself into a gigantic strategic commitment.

But what’s the problem, some will ask?  Reasserting credibility is always a good thing.  Except that it is not.  Three propositions about broad strategic trends place some of the big muscle-moves of the current administration into a potentially troubling light.

Proposition 1:  The existing American global posture—including in Asia—is unsustainable.  This argument has been made here before but is common to many observers these days.  We are running out of money.  Challengers are developing technologies and operational techniques to deny us access to key regions.  They are building asymmetric capabilities—cyber, space—to achieve veto power over US force projection at key moments.  Key rising powers don’t want the US to exercise the same influence it once did.  And so forth.

Proposition 2:  A sudden collapse of that posture would be—will be—more disastrous to US credibility, and regional security, than a gradual shift to a more restrained regional and global role.  If the US says, “We’ll still be here” (in Asia or elsewhere) but in a slightly different way, and “we will work closely with allies to transition gradually to a posture that continues to sustain alliances …” etc etc; and if we cut $800 billion from defense over 10 years but develop new operational concepts to fight wars in innovative ways, and if we prioritize what we’ll do and not do in ways that focus our efforts on defending global stability—we could ease our way into a slimmed-down grand strategy without generating regional instability.  But if we insist that nothing has changed, that we’re doing more, that we’re setting up new bases here and there … and then one day a US carrier breaks down in the middle of the Pacific from over-use, or in an actual contingency Chinese asymmetric tactics kick the hell out of a task force, or there’s a massive budget crisis in Washington that demands $200 billion in defense cuts in one year—that will have perceptual effects from which US global posture will never recover.

Proposition 3:  An aggressive, forward-leaning deterrent posture can have counterproductive effects.  Very clearly, many Chinese officials and commentators have long seen US policy as designed to contain and undermine them, a perception grounded in very long-standing perceptions about foreign/Western conspiracies.  The Shift has been assessed in this light, and if we are not careful could end up creating a more suspicious, resentful, hostile, and ultimately aggressive China than we otherwise needed to face.  History is full of examples of nations who felt mistreated taking out their grievance in the form of external mischief-making.

If these three propositions are true, then heading forward with continued statements of unrestrained regional US primacy is dangerous and counterproductive.  Now, all three may be mistaken—though the betting here is that all three are on the mark.

The point is, US national security strategy has reached the disturbing point at which it appears to be operating on autopilot.  We have an overriding, impelling conventional wisdom that drives us toward pre-selected outcomes without serious debate—outcomes oriented toward a maximalist, primacist vision of the US role in the world.  Such a role might be sustainable, it might be advisable, it might be acceptable to the world; but the point is, domestic debate about its essential elements has now all but ceased.  And it will apparently take events—events more serious than confronting calamities in two successive nation-building operations—to make this country rethink its course.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jeff K.
    Mar 27 2012

    Mike, your entry is characteristically thoughtful and powerful. The one issue I had with your analysis is that while I too can see danger in how the announced “pivot” towards Asia is operationalized, of the three that you list, I would put your third proposition at the top of the list. Clearly following a Cold War global military-centric response to the rise of Chinese power is unsustainable. It could cause us to take ourselves out of the game before it is ever played by completely eroding the economic base of our national power. We could also do long-term damage to our ability to influence political outcomes in East Asia by having a hollow strategy exposed by chance or an assertive adversary. But the most dangerous is the potential of creating a real security concern where today only the potential exists.

    The rapid growth of Chinese economic power has generated enormous uncertainty in international, regional, and domestic Chinese politics. It is understandable that the U.S. continues to struggle with its response to the rise of the first non-democratic global economic power. As the Cold War security threat dissipated in the late 1970’s, debate over how to handle the economic competition presented by Japan similarly consumed U.S. policymakers and commentators. Hearing shifts in the tone of voice of some of our most stout allies in the region as they contemplate the meaning of China’s increasing wealth adds urgency to today’s discourse.

    But when engaging China at the international level it is important for the U.S. to deeply appreciate the effect its behavior can have on the structure of political power within China. The national single-party rule of China often leads us to continue making the mistaken assumption that it can be treated as a monolithic, unitary actor. While the Chinese Communist Party undoubtedly wields tremendous power, political outcomes in China cannot all be traced back to its preferences and power. Political factions, both inside and outside the party representing the full range of material and intangible interests, are exerting more and more influence. As a result of the increased uncertainty, the complicated and messy reality of Chinese domestic politics makes global headlines much more routinely today than in years past. The struggle for control over domestic political outcomes in China is real.

    What determines the actual political power of these factions, and how they coalesce into political coalitions capable of shaping political outcomes, largely depends upon who is seen to have the most salient strategic narrative for a favorable Chinese future. A story that includes increased Chinese engagement with the liberal global economy and being an increasingly respected and responsible member of the community of states as a path to increased prosperity and liberalization of Chinese society empowers one set of factions. A story that sees China as being once again held down or held back by a distant western power intent upon using its military to dictate the terms of China’s engagement with its neighbors and the world would empower a completely different set of factions. The international relations phenomenon of a security dilemma, or the idea of a self-fulfilling prophesy, come true largely because domestic political factions that benefit from the outside world complying with their script coalesce the more powerful domestic coalition and eventually come to wield more power.

    The role we choose to play in China’s strategic narrative will help shape domestic political outcomes in China, which will in turn present us with new challenges. The structure of domestic power in this country certainly gives me cause for concern.

    Jeff K. – “Better to be thought a fool than open your mouth and remove all doubt.”

  2. Mike M
    Apr 3 2012

    Excellent thoughts, Jeff … not much to disagree with. I wholly agree, as you know, about the unsustainability of the strategy. I guess I am more worried than you about the reaction we are provoking, even admitting the decentralized nature of their (or any) system. I think even as our national security apparatus is slowly gaining a generalized suspicion of China’s motives, intentions, and behavior, so China is coming to see us in similarly hostile ways, across the board. Both systems have a range of actors, views, perspectives, but the general phenomenon of a rising mutual hostility is clear. The new Brookings report on this is pretty persuasive I think; I’ll be doing a post on it soon. Any event … thanks for a very thoughtful comment.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Note: HTML is allowed. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to comments

%d bloggers like this: