Are the United States and China headed toward war? Both sides and their allies are arming at top speed and making increasingly aggressive gestures with a view toward a possible military confrontation in Asia. That the outcome of this escalating conflict is unpredictable offers little solace to those interested in peace. The current situation presents the most dangerous threat of a major great power confrontation since the end of the Cold War.
One might expect such a danger to provoke a strong response from North Americans interested in peace, but the reactions of liberals, libertarians, and progressives have been muted, to say the least. Having surrounded himself with neo-imperialist administrators and military brass, Joe Biden has maintained or intensified Donald Trump’s anti-Chinese policies and rhetoric. (Even Trump did not pledge to fight for Taiwanese independence!) More peace-oriented figures like Bernie Sanders have called for “cooperation” with China, but always as the rather flabby punch line of a statement denouncing Chinese authoritarianism, unfair trade practices, mistreatment of minorities, overly ambitious global investments, and military adventurism. Conservatives, of course, plainly assert that under President Xi Jinping’s leadership, China is aiming at nothing less than world domination.
The liberal response to the current situation is best summed up by writers like the New York Times’ David Sanger, who reports that top Biden officials do not want to speak of a new Cold War with China because this might amount to a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” Sanger describes features that allegedly distinguish the current conflict from the older competition with the Soviet bloc, such as the vast amount of U.S.-China trade. But, he adds, many in Washington consider China a more dangerous adversary than Russia and believe that a new form of Great Power struggle – a new Cold War with a strong potential to go hot – is “evolving.”
In fact, the current image of China in the U.S. combines the “evil empire” features of the old Soviet image with a new dimension: the evilly unfair economic competitor.
It does not seem to have struck these bipartisan image-makers that increased economic interdependence, so far from being an obstacle to war, may become a cause of violent conflict in a world system dominated by competitive capitalist powers. (The United States and Germany did an enormous amount of business together prior to the rise of Hitler, and major enterprises of both countries even collaborated during the early Hitler years).
Liberal pundits in the U.S. therefore favor cooperating with China on selected issues (e.g., climate change, North Korea’s nuclear weapons) while acting to “contain” or overcome Chinese influence on the political, economic, and military fronts. One can almost sympathize with more conservative commentators who decry the incoherence of these prescriptions and call for facing such “facts” as the inevitability of potentially violent struggles between Great Powers that are hegemonic in their own regions and that seek to project that power globally.
The dean of these pundits, Neo-Realist theorist John Mearsheimer, has written a manifesto entitled “The Inevitable Rivalry: America, China, and the Tragedy of Great Power Politics” that is probably destined to become one of the current era’s more influential documents.
According to Mearsheimer, rivalries between hegemonic powers like China and the U.S. are inevitable because, well, because that’s the way Great Powers behave. Since the winners of such competitions are the nations with the largest populations and most advanced economies, the United States made a bad mistake welcoming China to the World Trade Organization decades ago and treating Beijing in some respects as an equal entitled to respect. Befuddled by the liberal faith that a more prosperous China would become a more democratic and friendly state, the North Americans strengthened their no.1 competitor and must now deal with the less democratic, less friendly, vastly more productive and self-assertive China of President Xi Jinping.
This does not mean that global war is inevitable, says Mearsheimer, although he thinks that more limited “hot wars” between the U.S. and China are far more likely than they were between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. It does mean that the USA and its allies must arm to the teeth and prepare to use their weapons in order to deter Chinese aggression where possible, or to respond to it if deterrence and “containment” fail. The neo-realist guru does not rule out cooperation altogether; in this way, his prescription resembles that of the liberals. But he projects an era of U.S.-China relations based primarily on threats of force if not the direct use of advanced weaponry.
In several respects, this thesis perfectly captures the non-realistic, even delusional quality of much “Realist” thought. If the U.S. had not permitted China to participate on a more or less equal footing in world trade – if it had tried to keep China from prospering, as Mearsheimer suggests it should have done – what would have been the results? Non-Realists like Johan Galtung, John Burton, and others aware of the importance of basic human needs have a convincing answer: Beijing would almost certainly have supported violent movements to sabotage the elitist system that excluded its products and impoverished its people. Can anyone think that this would have been an improvement?
But the heart of the neo-realist argument – a principle silently accepted by most Democrats as well as Republicans – is that increased armament and a demonstrated will to use force will serve as an effective means of deterring the Chinese adversary. This faith in military deterrence rests on an assumed analogy between the current situation and the first Cold War. If the doctrine and practice of Mutually Assured Destruction helped avoid World War III from the 1950s until the fall of the Soviet Union, surely it will have a good chance of accomplishing the same result in the case of the U.S.-China conflict. As Mearsheimer puts it, “U.S. policymakers must constantly remind themselves—and Chinese leaders—about the ever-present possibility of nuclear escalation in wartime. Nuclear weapons, after all, are the ultimate deterrent.”
At this point most liberals and progressives in the United States fall silent. Many of them agree that MAD prevented both the Soviets and the North Americans from beginning a nuclear war, even though it clearly did not avert destructive proxy wars like those in Korea, Indochina, Afghanistan, Middle East. Still, runs the argument, if nuclear deterrence worked to prevent total war in the era of Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and Gorbachev, why not in the era of Xi Jinping?
This is a question well worth discussing at length, although here I can only offer a few brief comments.
First: we have now entered an era of high-tech weaponry in which conventional arms as powerful as smaller nuclear weapons have been deployed, and in which nuclear arms have been modernized to permit the use of low-yield weapons in limited war environments. These developments clearly pose a risk of escalation to higher-yield warheads and tend to erase the barrier between conventional and nuclear weapons.
Second, since nuclear deterrence did not avert proxy wars that killed millions of people in the last century, what can one say about the risk of shooting wars in Asia involving nations as populous and well-armed as the two Koreas, India, and Pakistan, not to mention Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam? As the conflict intensifies and Asian nations continue to arm and take sides, the risks of a disastrous confrontation with a potential to become global grow apace.
Third, we do not fully understand the dynamics of deterrence in the original Cold War. Was the refusal of the U.S. and U.S.S.R. to engage each other directly as combatants a result of the calculations made by leaders following the strategic principals enunciated by theorists like Herman Kahn and Henry Kissinger and their Soviet counterparts, or was it a product of unique historical circumstances and unusually good luck? Nuclear-armed bombers of the U.S. Strategic Air Command went on maximum alert on several occasions during the Cold War, and if the wrong decisions had been made, a nuclear attack might well have occurred. Furthermore, none of the hot wars of the period forced a nuclear-armed power to confront the prospect of losing its national independence or suffering some other intolerable loss. If the United States had considered a stalemate in Korea or a defeat in Vietnam intolerable, or if the Soviet Union had been determined to retain its missiles in Cuba or its troops in Afghanistan, rational calculations of risk might well have given way to a “survive or die” mentality, and the use of nuclear weapons might have been seen as an inescapable last resort.
Nuclear or not, the possibility of an incredibly bloody war in Asia cannot be laid to rest by relying on deterrent power. In any case, deterrence as a matter of strategic calculation is not what underlies the willingness of both liberals and conservatives to pursue aggressive military policies toward China. A propaganda campaign embracing information sources ranging from the New York Times to the American Conservative and from CNN to Fox Cable News promotes the idea that China is an aggressive, authoritarian adversary and a threat to U.S. security that must yield sooner or later to superior military force.
Those in the USA beating the drums of war preparation are driven by concerns of which they may be unaware, such as fears that their own social fabric is disintegrating, that white rule on a global level as well as in the U.S. is obsolescent, and that their nation’s role as a global hegemon (or “leader,” as they would say) is ending. The main task of US peace advocates today is to help their countrymen and women to understand that preparing for a war with China will not allay any of these fears or solve any of the problems that afflict their own society. Those problems can only be solved by confronting the elites that monopolize wealth, power, and social status in their own homeland.
*Richard E. Rubenstein is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment and a professor of conflict resolution and public affairs at George Mason University’s Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution. A graduate of Harvard College, Oxford University (Rhodes Scholar), and Harvard Law School, Rubenstein is the author of nine books on analyzing and resolving violent social conflicts. His most recent book is Resolving Structural Conflicts: How Violent Systems Can Be Transformed (Routledge, 2017).
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS)