Joe Biden is the president-elect of the United States of America.
And it looks like Michele Flournoy will be the secretary of defense. This should worry those who believe in a world defined by international law, peace, and a non-militaristic policy.
The rise of China has drawn much attention from foreign policy thinkers and arms control advocates over the past several years. She served in prior Democratic administrations and gave us a picture of what her China policy might look like in her recent essay, "How to Prevent a War in Asia ," in Foreign Affairs. Flournoy said U.S. military capabilities should be enhanced so our country can “credibly threaten to sink all of China’s military vessels, submarines, and merchant ships in the South China Sea in 72 hours.” Former Army Col. Andrew Bacevich stated in his story “The China Conundrum: Deterrence as Dominance” that Flournoy’s ideas do not address the issue of how China will react if we engage in her deterrence strategy. Bacevich accurately states China is unlikely to respond with passivity.
Tensions between China and the United States over the South China Sea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan are also worrisome. The Trump administration’s approach made matters worse, as the administration slapped tariffs on the country in an unwise manner and used the COVID-19 pandemic to drive our two countries apart. It must be added that both the United States and China made mistakes on the COVID-19 response.
Flournoy’s thinking shares the flawed logic of our post-Cold War strategy — it is based around the idea that our country should dominate the world and not acknowledge the existence of other geopolitical powers in the world, even though we might be able to cooperate with them in building a law-driven world, despite the fact that China is a despicable, totalitarian country. Flournoy does not acknowledge that China, like the United States, has legitimate interests in the world. She also pays no attention to how much money her plan will cost in a country with so many domestic problems, as we need to address the greenhouse effect, healthcare, infrastructure, research and development, fighting the current and future pandemics, and unaffordable education. The longtime defense civil servant fails to acknowledge that her plan will kick off a costly arms race or that endless wars are a security issue themselves.
Bacevich wisely uses history as a guideline to reveal Flournoy’s flawed deterrence theory. Great Britain in the 1800s was a declining imperial power, and it chose to engage in an arms race with Germany, a rising power. The arms race did little to enhance Great Britain’s deterrence power and war broke out in 1914. The arms race only accelerated Great Britain’s decline. The United States engaged in a four-decade arms race with Soviet Russia (Cold War) with the Soviet Union breaking up in the early 1990s. We were close to a nuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis of the 1960s. Bacevich warns against another Cold War with China serving as a substitute for Soviet Russia.
During the Cold War, where China spent roughly four decades in the Soviet orbit and then moved into the U.S. orbit in the Sino-Soviet split, the country could barely feed itself and produced little Americans purchased. Now China is our biggest trading partner, and it holds $1 billion in U.S. debt. The American business establishment is connected to China, as it is a source of production as well as a market.
Flournoy feels that the most credible power is hard power, or military power. The companies that make weapons for our military — and have an enormous amount of economic and political influence — won’t pick a fight with her ideas. The citizens of our country who are coping with greenhouse effect-induced wildfires and the COVID-19 pandemic — which is bringing us packed hospitals that might go bankrupt — will gain little from this doctrine. Citizens should know more than anyone else that genuine security is not about projecting military power. Bacevich correctly states that the threats to our own continent are in our own continent!
China’s behavior toward Hong Kong and Taiwan and its recent crackdown on Muslim and Buddhist meeting places are problematic, and there will be competition in the economic realm between our two countries in the future. However, we must keep the geopolitical tug-of-war out of the military realm. Issues such as climate change and pandemics will require cooperation between the United States and China. The spirit of cooperation on a few basic issues can bring about a more orderly world. In time, China’s authoritarian system will wane, and we will be able to find more points of cooperation.
executive director of the Peace Economy Project