Tuesday, May 29, 2018

You May Not Like These Odds

The odds aren't good. Three times out of four, the result is war. Such is the nature of superpower politics. Over the centuries superpowers have come and gone. There have been 16 instances where a dominant power was muscled out by an ascending power. 12 of those ended in war. It's called the "Thucydides Trap."

Today we're on the cusp of America's uni-polar moment being ended by the ascendancy of China giving rise to a multi-polar world in which America is still prominent but not dominant.

This transition would be perilous in ordinary times only we are not in anything remotely ordinary times. On the world stage there are no end of stressors that are in play and building. The circumstances of the key players are in flux and quite uncertain. They may make a peaceful transition much less likely.

There is the economic rivalry between China and America that will reshape access to markets and already scarce resources. China is already muscling into what had been America's sphere of influence from Asia Pacific to the Middle East to Africa and even South America. Russia is likewise moving to extend its influence into former American preserves. India, well India is just getting started but it is not developing its blue water navy to suit narrow parochial aspirations.

If all this sounds a bit much remember that it wasn't much more than 300 years ago that China and India were the world's two largest economies. They don't need our help remembering what once was or imagining what may be again. China is already there. India's GDP is now almost five times greater than America's as recently as 1980.

Economic and geo-political rivalries almost inevitably manifest in military rivalries. This is also underway.  On a daily basis America's unsurpassed military demonstrates its power but it also demonstrates its weakness. The conflicts since 9/11, called by some the "long war" or "perma-war" have revealed how often all the King's Men and all the King's Horses utterly fail to deliver meaningful victories despite costs running to several trillion dollars.

America still outspends the rest of the world on its military but it gets lousy bang for its military buck. Its military adversaries, China and Russia, get a lot more mileage out of their yuan and rubles. Both Russia and China focus their spending on gaining superiority in a few critical technologies such as hyper-velocity weapons that can neutralize America's numerical superiority. They don't waste their money on trying to match, neutralize or counter every American technology in every corner of the globe. China has focused on A2/AD - anti-access/area denial - to defend their sovereignty and their immediate sphere of influence and hegemony over the Chinese mainland and Asia Pacific.

The key adversaries are also well into a renewed nuclear arms race. Russia has deployed two new submarine designs said to be world-leading technology. It has deployed two new missile systems and new warheads to go with them. The Kremlin is known to have developed a nuclear powered, nuclear armed, robotic torpedo/submarine that is said to have a range of thousands of miles and is virtually unstoppable. The United States is rearming with new submarines and a number of new nuclear warheads including some low-yield, "mini-nukes" that risk lowering the "first use" threshold. Most recently China has announced it intends to develop newer, ultra-quiet technology submarines, new missiles and, of course, new warheads.

China still trails the US in "bleeding edge" technology but defence analysts and senior American officers warn they're catching up faster than anyone had imagined.

There are other stressors some global but some which will also impact and potentially destabilize the key adversaries. Climate change, overpopulation and over-consumption of essential resources are the big three but there are others.

China and the United States face serious problems with sea level rise, droughts and floods. Both countries face threats to fresh water resources and food security. China will have to contend with rivals for access to Himalayan headwaters, India and Pakistan, which are also nuclear armed.

Oh, and did I mention that the United States has a lunatic in the White House? That can't help.

At this point, let's turn to Foreign Policy's Graham Allison who offers five lessons the leaders of these key adversaries need to keep foremost in their minds.

Lesson 1: War between nuclear superpowers is MADness. 
The United States and the Soviet Union built nuclear arsenals so substantial that neither could be sure of disarming the other in a first strike. Nuclear strategists described this condition as “mutual assured destruction,” or MAD. Technology, in effect, made the United States and Soviet Union conjoined twins — neither able to kill the other. 
Today, China has developed its own robust nuclear arsenal. From confrontations in the South and East China Sea, to the gathering storm over the Korean Peninsula, leaders must recognize that war would be suicidal. 
Lesson 2: Leaders must be prepared to risk a war they cannot win. 
Although neither nation can win a nuclear war, both, paradoxically, must demonstrate a willingness to risk losing one to compete. 
Consider each clause of this nuclear paradox. On the one hand, if war occurs, both nations lose and millions die — an option no rational leader could choose. But, on the other hand, if a nation is unwilling to risk war, its opponent can win any objective by forcing the more responsible power to yield. To preserve vital interests, therefore, leaders must be willing to select paths that risk destruction. Washington must think the unthinkable to credibly deter potential adversaries such as China.

Lesson 3: Define the new “precarious rules of the status quo.” 
The Cold War rivals wove an intricate web of mutual constraints around their competition that President John F. Kennedy called “precarious rules of the status quo.” These included arms-control treaties and precise rules of the road for air and sea. Such tacit guidelines for the United States and China today might involve limits on cyberattacks or surveillance operations. 
By reaching agreements on contentious issues, the United States and China can create space to cooperate on challenges — such as global terrorism and climate change — in which the national interests the two powers share are much greater than those that divide them. Overall, leaders should understand that survival depends on caution, communication, constraints, compromise, and cooperation.
Lesson 4: Domestic performance is decisive. 
What nations do inside their borders matters at least as much as what they do abroad. Had the Soviet economy overtaken that of the United States by the 1980s, as some economists predicted, Moscow could have consolidated a position of hegemony. Instead, free markets and free societies won out. The vital question for the U.S.-China rivalry today is whether Xi’s Leninist-Mandarin authoritarian government and economy proves superior to American capitalism and democracy. 
Maintaining China’s extraordinary economic growth, which provides legitimacy for sweeping party rule, is a high-wire act that will only get harder. Meanwhile, in the United States, sluggish growth is the new normal. And American democracy is exhibiting worrisome symptoms: declining civic engagement, institutionalized corruption, and widespread lack of trust in politics. Leaders in both nations would do well to prioritize their domestic challenges. 
Lesson 5: Hope is not a strategy. 
Over a four-year period from George Kennan’s famous “Long Telegram,” which identified the Soviet threat, to Paul Nitze’s NSC-68, which provided the road map for countering this threat, U.S. officials developed a winning Cold War strategy: contain Soviet expansion, deter the Soviets from acting against vital American interests, and undermine both the idea and the practice of communism. In contrast, 
America’s China policy today consists of grand, politically appealing aspirations that serious strategists know are unachievable. In attempting to maintain the post-World War II Pax Americana during a fundamental shift in the economic balance of power toward China, the United States’ real strategy, truth be told, is hope. 
In today’s Washington, strategic thinking is often marginalized. Even Barack Obama, one of America’s smartest presidents, told the New Yorker that, given the pace of change today, “I don’t really even need George Kennan.” Coherent strategy does not guarantee success, but its absence is a reliable route to failure.

Thucydides’s Trap teaches us that on the historical record, war is more likely than not. From Trump’s campaign claims that China is “ripping us off” to recent announcements about his “great chemistry” with Xi, he has accelerated the harrowing roller coaster of U.S.-China relations. 
If the president and his national security team hope to avoid catastrophic war with China while protecting and advancing American national interests, they must closely study the lessons of the Cold War.
All good advice, especially the last part, except that Trump doesn't care to study anything - the man doesn't read - and he's surrounded himself with dangerous ideologues, people like Pompeo and Bolton, real freaks who think Dr. Strangelove was a documentary, in fact their favourite.


Toby said...

We can just about hear those Athenians agitating for war against Sparta. "It'll be a cake walk. Keep the soup warm, Honey. We'll be home by Sunday."

Anonymous said...

The key to the future is the destiny of USD as a de facto world reserve currency.

The Mound of Sound said...

Anon, it's very hard to imagine, with the economic track the US is on coupled with China's ascendancy and the rise of somewhat lesser economic powers, that the USD has much chance of remaining the world's reserve currency. A succession of blunders has ensured that Breton Woods is dead. Nothing lasts forever but the US has swallowed the poison pill of "American exceptialism" once too often for its own good.

If/when the world economies do the logical thing and switch to a new, blended reserve currency, it will go hard on America for a while as the US is compelled to borrow in currencies whose monetary policy it does not control.

To some it will be seen as "just desserts" while to others it will be seen as an overdue rational switch.

ktron said...

Right, mostly, but there's an underlying problem with your premise. If you avoid the mythologizing of scarcity, most of the other problems become harder for "governments" to present as serious reasons for conflict.

Habitable land is probably the only real scarcity, and with education, even that scarcity is reduced to irrelevance.

For countless generations to come, the sun will be providing all the energy we need - as it already has since long before the existence of humans.

Our problems aren't born of scarcity, they are born of lazy attitudes and an obscenely wasteful worship of business and economic models thoughtlessly based on the myth of "investment in easy extraction", and the strict control of the means to share in the benefits of that extraction..

We've already mined all the minerals and materials we could possibly need for a population expanded by orders of magnitude - a population level unlikely to be seen unless we continue to advocate for and allow the Chinese, Indian, and American governments to define a very different world than the one most people would enjoy living in. But instead of tracking those materials as the valuable resources they are, we've created a mindset that is forced to treat them as scarce by throwing them into landfills after a short retail lifespan.

We've extracted all the gold and rare earth we need, but we've fetishized the one into a lustily hoarded bangle, and the other we toss out thoughtlessly even though it would be far cheaper and economical to reclaim it that to go digging up more. This is true of virtually everything we use, no matter how "advanced" the usage may be - the things we use that do not fall into this category are easily regrown, thanks to the sun.

We constantly read about wasting water, and water shortages. Where did the water go? Was "The Man Who Fell To Earth" a mis-written history? Do aliens secretly come and steal earth's water? No, but we do pollute it and misdirect it by blocking the replenishment of groundwater by paving billions of acres of parking lots and misdirecting water into storm sewers instead of letting it rain back into the earth. Yes, glaciers are melting at record rates, but if we can ship billions of litres of juice, wine, and beer over the entire earth, we can also ship water.; we could easily re-direct some of the trillions of dollars that go into the development and manufacture of weaponry toward research into cost efficient desalination technologies.

Scarcity is a concept manufactured and promoted by stock-brokers.

Now I'll re-read your piece . . .


Trailblazer said...

Until the world comes to terms with an equitable means of the distribution of it's resources then we are on a collision course with failure.

Wasting the resources is as bad as fighting for the supremacy of access.

Canada has set it's goal as a provider of natural resources at any cost to the environment or those that produce the goods; it is a blueprint to failure.

Canada has an educated population with no common sense.
I would suspect it's relatively easy to convince a undereducated third world country to part with it's means of trade at discount prices but when Canada does it , we have to shake our heads.

Many western world countries provide weaponry to resource rich third world countries to bolster their economies plus to gain access to their resources; having lost the ability to demand the right to do so under colonialism.

Sorry to ramble..
We live in a very different world to the one of even fifteen years ago.
The population has surged and the rules have changed.
The rules have change not just by law or public opinion , but by climate change and the movement of millions around the world.

How the fuck do you wage war against that?


Jay Farquharson said...

"Most recently China has announced it intends to develop newer, ultra-quiet technology submarines, new missiles and, of course, new warheads."

Well, let's see.

China needs new nuke boats, as it's current fleet is tiny, ( 5, vs Russia's 11 and the US's 14, ), old, inefficient and noisy.

China needs new missiles, for the same reason,

And of course, nukes.

William Brodie, the RAND guy who created most of the theories around nuclear weapons, tactics and strategies, such as MAD, the Nuclear Triad, also came up with the theoretical doctrine of Minimally Assured Destruction, ( same initials, different doctrine).

Brodie's theory was that 100-150 20kt nuclear weapons, hitting any major power. ( Russia, China, the US), would cause enough short term and long term damage to society, it's military and it's infrastructure, that it would collapse.

Because a potential enemy could launch a First Strike, taking out many of that initial inventory, 200-300 nukes were needed in two different platforms, so that an enemy's First Strike, couldn't take out enough to prevent a counter strike.

All branches of the US Military, Industtial and Political systems loathed this theory and buried it. By the time Brodie came up with the theory, the US already had 3800 nukes in the Triad, and would grow that to 6900, to the point that the US had 175 nukes targetted on Moscow alone,

China only has maybe 260 to at a one time peak, 434, maybe. They are slso '70's tech, built in the late '80's, and are not the MIRV'd, swervable, decoy laden systems that make ABM systems moot.

It seem's that China decided spending the money on Shanghai, Universities, the Middle Class, high speed rail, etc, was a better investment.

The Mound of Sound said...

I don't know that I'm mythologizing scarcity, Ktron. Anyone who has delved into global food security at any depth would disagree with you.

In the perfectly rational world you envision we would clearly fare much better and our threats would be diminished yet that's not the world we have created. Witness our prime minister's announcement yesterday to purchase a 50-year, 900,000 barrel a day dilbit pipeline. He's doubling down on the filthiest, highest-carbon ersatz petroleum on the planet. Meanwhile Trump and Co. south of the line are staging a fossil energy resurrection.

Yes we could make do with all the metals we have already extracted but that is not our way. We are still a disposable consumer economy.

Your arguments are highly theoretical but they're not grounded in human nature. I did find your comments thought-provoking. Thanks.

The Mound of Sound said...

Trailblazer, you've gone to the heart of the problem - equity. We live in a global culture of haves and have nots and we're not particularly interested in changing that.

Here's one example. We know, from a number of independent studies, how much greenhouse gas we can add to existing atmospheric loading before we exceed any possible safe level. To be equitable we ought to allocate that to each nation on earth based on its population. To do that, however, would require the developed but only moderately populated countries, the First World, to almost immediately abandon the fossil fuel economy. We would likewise have to shrink our standards of living and consumption of resources. Yet we can't get our people to accept the idea of giving up their 4X4 pick up trucks in order to help save the world for their grandkids. What are our chances of persuading them to do it for some family in the Third World?

The Mound of Sound said...

I don't get your point, Jay. Are you saying that China isn't launching a programme to rebuild its nuclear weapon capability - subs, missiles and warheads?