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.