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What Went Wrong? U.S.-China Relations from Tiananmen to Trump

What Went Wrong? U.S.-China Relations from Tiananmen to Trump

James Steinberg looks back at the relationship between the United States and China over the last 30 years and asks whether a better outcome could have been produced had different decisions been made.

Sense and Indispensability: American Leadership in an Age of Uncertainty

Sense and Indispensability: American Leadership in an Age of Uncertainty

Former ambassador to Sweden, Azita Raji, proposes a way forward for a renewed and sustainable American foreign policy. This would require a re-examination of America's interests, institutional reforms, and a revival of American ideals. To wit: reflection,…

What Is a Moral Foreign Policy?

What Is a Moral Foreign Policy?

How should we judge the morality of a president's foreign policy? Joseph Nye suggests a rubric that is based on a three-dimensional ethics of intentions, means, and consequences and that draws from realism, cosmopolitanism, and liberalism.

Thinking in Space: The Role of Geography in National Security Decision-Making

Thinking in Space: The Role of Geography in National Security Decision-Making

Being able to "think in space" is a crucial tool for decision-makers, but one that is often deemphasized. In order to improve its ability to think in space, the national security community ought to objectively assess how effectively it is employing geographic…

To Regain Policy Competence: The Software of American Public Problem-Solving

To Regain Policy Competence: The Software of American Public Problem-Solving

American policymaking has declined over the past several decades, but it is something that can be regained. It is not ephemeral or lost to the mists of time. The skills needed to tackle public problem-solving are specific and cultural — and they are…

A Primer on Analyzing Nuclear Competitions

A Primer on Analyzing Nuclear Competitions

Bruce Sugden offers a nuclear primer for analysts studying nuclear competition, urging them to broaden the range of plausible “what if” questions around which their studies are structured.

The Good Friday Agreement: Ending War and Ending Conflict in Northern Ireland

The Good Friday Agreement: Ending War and Ending Conflict in Northern Ireland

The 1998 Agreement that ended Northern Ireland's bloody civil war has often been attributed to many of the remarkable individuals involved in the peace process. But how much of a difference did they really make? James Steinberg explores this question by…

The End of the End of History: Reimagining U.S. Foreign Policy for the 21st Century

The End of the End of History: Reimagining U.S. Foreign Policy for the 21st Century

Americans lack a shared vision of what the role of the United States ought to be in the world. It's time for America to start asking itself some tough questions about the future of American leadership and for U.S. leaders to rethink how to persuade the…

After the Responsible Stakeholder, What? Debating America’s China Strategy

After the Responsible Stakeholder, What? Debating America’s China Strategy

Now that the responsible stakeholder approach to China is essentially defunct, how should America respond? There are four options — accommodation, collective balancing, comprehensive pressure, and regime change.

Crossroads: Counter-terrorism and the Internet

Crossroads: Counter-terrorism and the Internet

Brian Fishman, who leads the effort against terrorist and hate organizations at Facebook, argues that counter-terrorism researchers need to tailor their recommendations to the corporate policymakers inside tech companies who want to do far more than the bare…

Against the Great Powers: Reflections on Balancing Nuclear and Conventional Power

Against the Great Powers: Reflections on Balancing Nuclear and Conventional Power

The toughest and most important challenge for U.S. defense strategy is how to defend vulnerable allies against a Chinese or Russian fait accompli strategy, particularly one backed by nuclear threats. Here's how the United States should think about how to…

It’s Time to Make a New Deal: Solving the INF Treaty’s Strategic Liabilities to Achieve U.S. Security Goals in Asia

It’s Time to Make a New Deal: Solving the INF Treaty’s Strategic Liabilities to Achieve U.S. Security Goals in Asia

The United States and its allies need a different approach to deter China in the Western Pacific. After building islands in the South China Sea’s disputed waters, claiming they were for peaceful purposes, China recently militarized them. Chinese military…

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                    [post_content] => This essay is adapted from the Ernest May Lecture delivered on Aug. 3, 2019, at the Aspen Strategy Group.


There are few things that Democrats and Republicans in Washington agree on these days — but policymakers from both parties are virtually unanimous in the view that Sino-American relations have taken a dramatic turn for the worse in recent years. In the span of just about one decade, we have seen what was once hailed as a budding strategic “partnership”[1] transformed into “a geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order.”[2] This dark view of the bilateral relationship spans the political spectrum from the Trump administration to the president’s Democratic challengers on the left. Consider, for example, this statement from Sen. Elizabeth Warren regarding America’s engagement with China: “The whole policy was misdirected. We told ourselves a happy-face story that never fit with the facts.”[3] As journalist Mark Landler recently observed, “From the White House to the boardroom, from academia to the news media, American attitudes toward China have soured to an extent unseen since Mr. Kissinger’s historic trip.”[4]

What went wrong? How did a relationship that appeared to hold such promise turn into a rivalry that more and more resembles the challenges of the Cold War? And, since this is an election year, the question quickly morphs into the all too familiar, “Who is to blame”?[5]

For some, this trajectory of Sino-American relations is not surprising. Scholars such as John Mearsheimer have long argued that conflict between the United States and China is unavoidable — a product of the inherent tensions between an established and rising power.[6] If we accept this view, then the policy question — both with regard to the past and to the future — is not how to improve Sino-American relations but rather how to prevail in the foreordained contest. Taken at face value, this view suggests that if anything “went wrong” it was the failure to understand from the outset that China and the United States were destined for what the National Bureau of Asian Research has called the “U.S.-China Competition for Global Influence” — the title of the latest in its Strategic Asia series.[7] If any mistakes were made, they were mistakes that came from wrongly believing that a better, more cooperative relationship was possible.

This is a pretty bleak assessment about the future. Even if military conflict is not inevitable, it’s hard to see how this view produces anything except a prolonged, costly, and potentially dangerous struggle between two militarily and economically powerful states across the full range of policy issues. It’s “game on” in the battle for primacy in which each side has the determination to prevail rather than submit.

But for those of us who question the premise, there is a heavy burden to show that an alternative path was possible in the past and may still be possible in the future. In this essay, I focus on the past to see whether different choices might have produced a better outcome, thus suggesting, though not guaranteeing, that choices in the future might similarly lead to a more optimistic result.

Framing the question this way naturally leads to a counterfactual exercise. If we can’t construct a plausible counterfactual story that would have led to a better outcome, then the result of the exploration will lead us back to the alternative hypothesis — namely that the current state of affairs was either inevitable or, perhaps, is even better than it might otherwise have been. This is no small challenge. Counterfactual assertions are easy to make and are often resorted to, not just in the academy, but in the world of politics. But they are inherently impossible to prove. Yet, despite the formidable methodological challenges, counterfactual analysis is an indispensable tool in the analytic tool kit. Near the end of Strange Victory, Ernest May’s magisterial study of the fall of France in 1940, he observes, “though many historians raise eyebrows at counterfactual speculation, I think it integral to any historical reconstruction. … I simply choose to say explicitly that if condition x had not obtained, the actual events probably would not have gone as they did.”[8]

[quote id="1"]

There are few tools available to assess the validity of counterfactuals. May himself often confidently offered rather definitive conclusions that might startle a political scientist: In Strange Victory, he asserted, for example, that “intelligence analysis was an integral part of German operational planning: without it the odds against Germany adopting anything like the final version of Plan Yellow would have been at least two to one.”[9] However, a number of insightful political scientists, including Jack Levy, Richard Ned Lebow, Steve Weber, Philip Tetlock, and Aaron Belkin have offered valuable suggestions on better and worse ways to apply counterfactual analysis to international relations.[10]

What different decisions might the United States and China have made over the past 30 years that would have produced a better outcome in Sino-American relations today? Before delving into that question, first I’ll clarify two things: One, by “better,” I mean a relationship that featured more cooperation across a range of issues — including security, economic, and political issues — and less risk of conflict, especially military conflict. Two, I chose 30 years because this past summer marks the 30th anniversary of the Chinese government’s suppression of the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square. China’s actions — and the George H.W. Bush administration’s response — represent one of the most important decisions that shaped the course of Sino-American relations and one that I will return to in detail shortly. Moreover, the end of the Cold War arguably represents a significant inflection point in Sino-U.S. relations, as the relationship became less instrumental and more centrally focused on bilateral concerns.

My initial approach to answering the question of what might have been done differently was to look at key decisions made by each side over the past 30 years, to see whether a different choice in any of these cases might have had a significant impact on the trajectory of the relationship. Borrowing from the political science literature, the question is sometimes phrased in terms of “critical junctures” — moments in time where specific decisions have a consequential, and potentially irreversible, impact on the course of events.[11] But further reflection suggests that it was at least as likely that the “path” of U.S.-Chinese relations was the product of a sequence of accumulated decisions rather than one decisive moment. For Robert Frost, two roads might diverge in ways that have irreversible consequences, but, as critics of the critical junctures approach have pointed out, international relations are not so binary.[12] In the case of Sino-American relations, each of the individual, specific choices reflected a broader underlying policy approach that informed that choice — a policy approach sometimes called a policy of “engagement,” which was relatively consistent across the four administrations from George H.W. Bush to Barack Obama. After looking at some of the key decisions that were made and the alternative decisions that could have been made, I will turn to the question of whether a different strategy based on a different set of assumptions would have produced a better result.

In this essay, I examine three decisions that many commentators have identified as the key “mistakes” of the past 30 years: the U.S. response to Tiananmen; the decision to support China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) and grant China Permanent Normal Trade Relations; and the U.S. effort to broker a resolution of the Scarborough Shoal crisis in 2012. I’ve picked these three decisions for several reasons. First, at the time of each decision, some were pushing for a different approach. Although there is debate in the political science community about whether this is a necessary condition for a plausible counterfactual, it certainly helps the credibility of the analysis.[13] Second, the decisions occurred under three different administrations, one Republican and two Democratic. Finally, these decisions cover the three main areas of contention in the U.S.-Chinese relationship: values, economics, and security, respectively. Although I focus in this essay only on U.S. decisions, a more complete analysis would give comparable attention to Chinese decision-making as well, a point I’ll come back to in the conclusion.

Decision 1: Tiananmen

First, let’s consider the decisions made in Washington after China’s 1989 actions against the democracy protests in Tiananmen Square. The story of the U.S. debate on how to respond is a familiar one, although the recent publication of “The New Tiananmen Papers” in Foreign Affairs revealing the deliberations of the Communist Party of China, and the Asia Society’s re-publication of key documents from the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library help revive a sense of the contemporary debate in both countries.[14] Both in its direct diplomacy with China, as well as its executive actions and negotiations over sanctions legislation, the Bush administration sought to moderate the U.S. response to limit the overall disruption in Sino-U.S. relations. There were calls at the time for tougher sanctions, including revoking China’s most favored nation status, while candidate Bill Clinton vehemently attacked the policy in his 1992 presidential campaign.[15] Nor was the critique of Bush’s policy response limited to Bush’s Democratic opponents. Writing in the World Policy Journal shortly after Tiananmen, Marie Gottschalk, the associate editor, argued,
The time for a reassessment of Sino-American relations is long overdue. China’s domestic and international conditions have changed enormously since President Nixon’s visit in 1972. … Yet US policy has remained surprisingly constant, driven by outdated sentiments and questionable assumptions. By failing to rethink this approach, the so-called realists have pursued a surreal path in Sino-American relations that has not only hurt the cause of political reform and human rights in the People’s Republic, but also America’s long-term interests in the region.[16]
The Bush administration’s decision to try to sustain U.S.-Chinese ties, rather than to adopt more punitive measures, was not based exclusively on either the strategic or the economic value of the Sino-American relationship. Bush himself argued that continued engagement with China, including through trade, would foster the values agenda as well: “As people have commercial incentives, whether it’s in China or in other totalitarian countries, the move to democracy becomes inexorable.”[17] How might things have been different had Bush adopted his critics’ approach? One could conceive of three scenarios. First, under the economic pressure of losing most favored nation status, and the political pressure of diplomatic isolation, China’s leaders might have opted to move toward political reform. This, of course, was the argument made by contemporary critics. Second, China might have resisted U.S. pressure, but at the cost of slowed or even reversed economic growth, which, over time, might have eroded support for the Communist Party of China and ultimately led to a change of regime. Third, China might have adopted a more hostile attitude toward the United States and developed a strategy to confront America more directly. The first scenario seems quite implausible. A look at the deliberations of the party leadership in “The New Tiananmen Papers” published in Foreign Affairs suggests that Deng Xiaoping and his colleagues saw political reform as an existential threat to their leadership, and their statements evinced a clear willingness to risk economic and political isolation to retain control. That conclusion is buttressed by the Chinese leaders’ strong resistance to the Clinton administration’s subsequent effort to condition most favored nation status on improving human rights. Of course, it can be argued that in the latter case, China’s leaders may have doubted Clinton’s willingness to go through with the threats. However, given the earlier congressional votes withdrawing that status in 1991 and 1992, Beijing certainly could not take that for granted.[18] The second scenario is somewhat more plausible but is also questionable. A case can be made that the technology and arms sanctions that the United States and others imposed in the aftermath of Tiananmen did impact China’s economic growth and the pace of its military modernization. At the same time, one could argue that the technology sanctions ultimately persuaded China that it would need to focus on developing its own indigenous capability, thus becoming a more formidable competitor in the long run. For the strategy of “strangulation” to have succeeded, the United States would have had to close its markets to China (overcoming opposition from U.S. businesses) and persuade China’s other key economic partners in East Asia and Europe to follow suit. Although U.S. allies generally adopted the limited sanctions imposed by the Bush administration at the time, it would have been a heavy lift to get them to willingly hurt their own economies through broader trade sanctions. And even if they had been willing, it is a further stretch to conclude that the economic pain would have undermined a communist leadership that had survived the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Indeed, one can imagine that economic sanctions might have triggered a nationalist backlash that would have reinforced the image of the communist party as the defender of China’s sovereignty — a development even more likely under the third scenario, which seems the most plausible of the three alternatives. This scenario would have led to much earlier confrontation between the United States and China and a much tenser East Asia during the first two decades following the end of the Cold War, with all the associated economic and political ramifications. One can imagine, for example, that in this case China might have actively supported North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear ambitions, not to mention have taken a tougher line on Taiwan.

Decision 2: Admission to the World Trade Organization

The second case study is the Clinton administration’s decision to support China’s admission to the WTO and to grant China Permanent Normal Trade Relations.[19] Of all the China policy decisions of the last three decades, this has attracted the most criticism, both at the time and especially in hindsight. In fact, a cottage industry of sorts has emerged, epitomized by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer’s assertion in his 2017 report to Congress: “It seems clear that the United States erred in supporting China’s entry into the WTO on terms that have proven ineffective in securing China’s embrace of an open, market-oriented trade regime.”[20] In a piece for the Atlantic in August 2018, author Gabe Lipton asserted, “By letting [China] into the World Trade Organization back in 2001, Washington laid the groundwork for the tensions roiling relations with Beijing today.”[21] Before considering the counterfactual, it is useful to recall the arguments made in favor of the decision to support China’s entry into the WTO.[22] On the economic front, the Clinton administration argued that the agreement would enhance access for U.S. exports by reducing tariffs and eliminating barriers to investment. It also asserted that the need for China to meet WTO standards would lead to economic reform in China, including privatization and the decline of state-owned enterprises. The administration contended that subjecting China to the WTO settlement mechanisms offered a greater chance of gaining compliance with trade agreements. More broadly, it argued that admission to the WTO would make China more prosperous and stable, and that a weak China was at least as likely to be a threat as a strong China. [quote id="2"] Clinton further asserted that by supporting China’s entry to the WTO, the United States would increase its influence over Chinese decision-making: “[E]verything I have learned about human nature in over a half-century of living now convinces me that we have a far greater chance of having a positive influence on China's actions if we welcome China into the world community instead of shutting it out.”[23] Some have suggested that the Clinton administration also thought that WTO membership would lead to political reform and human rights improvements in China. I’ll come back to this point below, but for now I will simply quote Clinton’s own words: “Membership in the W.T.O., of course, will not create a free society in China overnight or guarantee that China will play by global rules. But over time, I believe it will move China faster and further in the right direction, and certainly will do that more than rejection would.”[24] Critics of the WTO decision have offered a number of complementary arguments for why the decision was a mistake. First, on the economic front, they contend that China’s entry into the WTO — at least on the terms agreed to by the United States and other WTO members — destroyed millions of jobs in America, decimated the U.S. manufacturing industry in key sectors, and created a massive trade deficit, which, at least in the view of some, had wider adverse consequences. Lighthizer, for example, has stated that “our trade deficit with China played a major role in creating the financial bubble that exploded in 2008.”[25] At the same time, China failed to open its markets to U.S. firms and U.S. exports, denying the United States the reciprocal benefits of more open trade. For some, this was a product of the specific terms of the deal — the United States did not demand enough. For others, the problem lay in insufficient enforcement.[26] And for a third group, the problem was inherent in the WTO itself. Again quoting Lighthizer: “[T]he WTO settlement system is simply not designed to deal with a legal and political system so at odds with basic premises on which the WTO was founded.”[27] James McGregor argues that “Chinese policymakers are masters of creative initiatives that slide through the loopholes of WTO and other international trade rules,”[28] including currency manipulation and forcing companies to relocate to China rather than export from domestic sources. Moreover, to the extent that WTO membership contributed to China’s economic success, it reduced the pressure for political reform, since the leadership could point to the success of its authoritarian mode of governance in producing prosperity. And the wealth generated helped underwrite China’s rapid military modernization and technological progress, both of which challenge U.S. security interests in East Asia and beyond. Many of these arguments were advanced at the time of Clinton’s decision, including by leaders in his own party. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, for example, argued, “China’s pattern of violating trade agreements behooves the US Congress to retain its authority for annual review of China’s trade record.”[29] There is no doubt that many of the more hopeful predictions — or perhaps the better word is aspirations — were unrealized. U.S. job losses to China in the past two decades have been well documented.[30] Similarly, the downward trend in political reform, political rights, and the rule of law seems incontestable, while U.S. influence over China in a range of areas is waning. But the fact that bad things happened following China’s entry into the WTO does not, by itself, prove that they were caused by that decision. Or perhaps even more important, it doesn’t prove that things would have been better had the United States blocked China’s entry into the WTO or held out for a better deal. In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, Philip Levy explores some of the counterfactual scenarios.[31] One option would have been for the United States to acquiesce in China’s membership but to deny China either annual or permanent status as a most favored nation.[32] Critics at the time and subsequently have argued that denying permanent normal trade relations would have had several positive consequences. First, requiring annual renewal of China’s most favored nation status would have provided the United States leverage over China’s actions, and in the meantime the United States would have retained the right to impose higher tariffs against Chinese exporters. Second, it would have created substantial uncertainty for U.S. and other foreign manufacturers considering outsourcing production to China, reducing their willingness to relocate and thus limiting job losses in the United States.[33] Some of these critiques are unpersuasive. As the Clinton administration argued at the time, were America not to extend most favored nation status it would primarily harm the United States, since other countries’ exporters would gain greater access to China than America, and, of course, it would also raise costs for U.S. consumers and businesses for products where China formed part of the supply chain.[34] Moreover, imposing higher barriers against Chinese imports might simply displace U.S. job losses to other low-cost producing countries that had already joined the WTO. There is certainly evidence to support this view, based on the impact of Obama’s 2012 tariffs on Chinese tires, which largely appear to have led to more imports from other countries at higher prices, rather than a substantial increase in U.S. jobs.[35] A second option would have been to try to block China’s admission to the WTO. Under the organization’s rules, new members are admitted by a two-thirds majority vote. Thus, this strategy would have required the United States to rally significant outside support to block China’s entry. However, many countries, especially U.S. allies like Japan and Germany, had a large stake in expanding their access to China. To be fair, in the past, most new admissions to the WTO have been by consensus, so it could be argued that the United States had a de facto, if not de jure, veto, although this is quite speculative.[36] What would have happened if China had not joined the WTO in 2001? This option offers some theoretical advantages over the first counterfactual scenario presented above. In this scenario, the United States would not be at a competitive disadvantage to other countries. Like in the previous scenario, the United States could continue annual reviews of China’s most favored nation status with the option of imposing new protections. But whether this alternative would have made a difference is debatable, since this scenario would have simply continued the status quo in U.S.-Chinese trade. Although the United States, in theory, would have had additional leverage, the experience of the previous 20 years suggests that China would not likely have made significant concessions based on the mere threat of denying it status as a most favored nation. Of course, America could have broken with previous practice and demonstrated its resolve by making good on that threat and imposing new barriers against Chinese exports. This scenario bears considerable similarity to the current U.S.-Chinese “trade war”: China has made some new concessions but at least through the fall 2019 “interim agreement” has refused dramatic change. Would China have been more willing to compromise at an earlier stage of its economic development when it was even more dependent on export-led growth? Perhaps, although many — including President Donald Trump — believe that China’s current economic difficulties make the country more susceptible to trade “hardball.”[37] [quote id="3"] Even assuming that the United States might have derived some economic benefit from denying China’s entry to the WTO in 2001, there would have been non-economic costs as well. For example, had the United States blocked China’s WTO membership in 2001, it would have also lost its leverage to insist on the simultaneous entry of Taiwan in the WTO, something that has played an important role in shoring up Taiwan’s economy as well as providing it the international stature that comes from participation in a major international institution.[38] Would the costs of blocking China’s membership have been worth it if exclusion had slowed or even halted China’s economic and military rise? It certainly would have crystallized a more adversarial relationship between China and America, since China would have seen such a decision as evidence of a broad containment strategy. As Joseph Fewsmith argued at the time, “if negotiators had failed to reach agreement [during the second round, in November 1999] Jiang would likely have been forced to play the nationalist card to defend himself.”[39] The third counterfactual scenario would have been to hold out for a better deal. This option — assuming it was possible — would appear to avoid all the downsides of the two previous scenarios, and would offer the benefit of wresting additional concessions from China. It seems almost incontrovertible that the United States might have gotten at least a somewhat better deal if it had held out for more.[40] It’s hard to make the case that Beijing had truly reached the end of its rope and would have preferred to walk away rather than continue to negotiate. This conclusion is buttressed by the fact that the United States backed off from the initial deal negotiated with Zhu Rongji in April 1999: Despite the rather public humiliation associated with the rebuff, China returned to the table.[41] China’s willingness to put new offers on the table in response to the recent Trump tariffs also suggests that China is not averse to making new concessions under pressure. Would a better trade deal in 2000 have made a significant impact on subsequent relations between the two countries? A key question is whether America could have gained enough additional concessions to alter significantly the adverse impact on U.S. jobs and manufacturing other than at the margins. Critics have argued, for example, that the United States could have negotiated strong safeguards against China’s violations of its commitments,[42] or insisted on more thorough reform of state-owned enterprises and China’s intellectual property rights practices. The “but-for” in this case is complex. U.S. manufacturing employment was already declining precipitously even before China’s entry into the WTO. There is considerable debate about whether the WTO agreement by itself had any impact on that trend.[43] Indeed, it is possible to argue that manufacturing in the United States might have been even worse off if the United States had successfully insisted on more thorough-going reforms, since it is arguably the process of reform itself that has helped stimulate China’s emergence as an economic powerhouse.[44] In the end, the question of impact of the WTO decision goes to the broader question of how the United States responded to the process of globalization, and whether other policies — either more protectionist ones, or those more focused on retraining and retooling workers and industries — would have been more effective in addressing the economic and social costs of deepening global economic integration.[45]

Decision 3: Scarborough Shoal

The third example is the confrontation between China and the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal in 2012. Critics of America’s China policy have argued that the United States has failed to respond effectively to what is seen as increasingly assertive Chinese behavior in the South and East China Seas that endanger the security of the United States and its East Asian partners and puts at risk freedom of navigation in these vital waterways.[46] The Scarborough Shoal incident is an interesting case, since U.S. policymakers were focused on defusing the crisis, rather than pursuing a policy of confronting and challenging Chinese aggressive actions. Although the story is complex and some of the facts are disputed by the participants, the basic outlines are reasonably clear.[47] In April 2012, a Philippine warship boarded several Chinese fishing boats in the waters close to Scarborough Shoal, a landform long occupied by the Philippines but claimed by China under its expansive “nine-dash line.” China dispatched two marine surveillance ships in response, blocking efforts by the Philippines to arrest the fishermen and confiscate their catch. A tense standoff ensued with both Chinese and Filipino officials insisting that the other side had to withdraw its vessels from the area. The Philippines announced that it would take the matter to international arbitration, called on ASEAN to support the Philippines, and appealed to the United States to clarify that the Scarborough Shoal fell within the terms of the U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty. In response to the crisis, the United States and the Philippines conveyed their first “2+2” meeting (involving both countries’ foreign and defense ministers), during which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta broadly reaffirmed the treaty without making specific reference to Scarborough Shoal, and agreed to enhance support for Philippine maritime forces. China, in turn, imposed what amounted to economic sanctions on the Philippines. In June, the United States helped broker an understanding for a mutual withdrawal of naval vessels. In the end, the Philippines withdrew its ships and China did not, leading to China’s de facto control over Scarborough Shoal. At the time, there appears to have been little debate within the U.S. government over what course to take and a broad consensus emerged in favor of the U.S. effort to defuse the crisis. But China’s actions following the U.S. mediation effort had a profound impact on both participants and observers of the crisis that has colored the U.S.-Chinese policy debate ever since and has led to a vigorous debate about America’s approach to the crisis.[48] What might the United States have done differently? On the political level, Washington could have more clearly endorsed the Philippines’ sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal and the associated maritime rights that flow to that claim under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.[49] It could have provided more direct support to the Philippine navy and coast guard, including dispatching U.S. vessels to the area. Finally, it could have declined to mediate the crisis at all. [quote id="4"] Critics of the decision to mediate argue that if the United States had adopted a more assertive approach, China would have backed off, given the relatively dubious nature of its claim, as well as the risks of a direct confrontation with the United States. It’s hard to test this assertion, although in other cases where China has sought to assert questionable claims over international commons — for example, in declaring an Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea, or contesting U.S. freedom of navigation operations — China has, up until now, refrained from direct confrontation (although there have been close calls).[50] Assume, for the purpose of argument, that a U.S. show of resolve would have been successful in causing China to back off: The key question is whether this would have led to an improvement in relations between China and America over the longer term. Advocates of this more assertive approach would argue yes — establishing clear and enforceable red lines would have tamed China’s ambitions and moderated its policies. According to this logic, China simply has too much at stake in its own process of economic development to risk a war with the United States over its claims in the South and East China Seas. There is a certain plausibility to this argument. Consider the 1996 Taiwan Strait Missile Crisis, which bears some similarity to the Scarborough case. There, the Clinton administration dispatched two aircraft carriers to the waters off Taiwan following a series of Chinese missile firings which landed in the waters near Taiwan. The U.S. action appeared to persuade China to abandon the intimidating practice. The United States clearly won that “battle,” and for an extended period China refrained from provocative shows of force against Taiwan. But what about its impact on the broader “war,” i.e., the long-term relationship between America and China? Some people, such as Michael Cole, have argued that, while China backed off in 1996, the experience led the People’s Liberation Army, as well as China’s political leaders, to deepen their determination to match the United States militarily, so as to be in a better position to prevail in the future.[51] Similarly, in the case of Scarborough Shoal, it can be argued that even if a more assertive U.S. response had led to China backing down in the near term, the experience might have reinforced China’s conviction that the United States was and remains determined to side with China’s adversaries, thus hastening the deterioration of relations and increasing the likelihood of conflict between the United States and China. What lessons can we learn from these three decisions? First, it’s hard to make a powerful case that things would clearly have been better had different policies been in place. Second, the possibility of a better outcome seems greatest in the case of economic relations, weakest in the case of human rights and political reform in China, with the security realm lying somewhere in the middle. Third, even when there might have been short-term gains from taking a different decision, the long-term consequences might have been much different and conceivably even worse than the reality today.

Reexamining America’s China Policy

As I suggested earlier, perhaps the answer to the question “What went wrong?” is not so much bad individual decisions, but rather a misguided overall strategy. Put differently, the individual decisions were flawed because they were the product of a flawed strategy. To explore this hypothesis, we need to be a bit clearer about what the strategy was, and what the alternatives were. Many commentators have noted the broad consistency of U.S. policy toward China beginning with the Richard Nixon administration.[52] Although presidential challengers from Ronald Reagan to Clinton to George W. Bush often criticized the incumbent’s strategy, in the end, most observers have argued that the similarities in each administration’s China policy were greater than the differences.[53] So, what were the core assumptions underlying the U.S. approach? Although many have adopted the shorthand phrase “engagement,” the term is too amorphous and procedural to capture the essence of the policy. At its core, America’s China policy was based on the belief that a stable, prosperous China would serve the interests of the United States, while a weak and insecure China was at least as likely to pose risks for the United States and its allies. Therefore, the United States should welcome, rather than resist, China’s rise.[54] Implicit in this policy was a belief that a rising China would not inherently threaten the United States. Some have argued that that there was also a second belief underlying the policy — that as China became more prosperous it would come to resemble the United States and increasingly share America’s values with regard to domestic governance and the international order.[55] This convergence would then facilitate increased cooperation between the two countries. Iain Johnston’s thorough look at the historical record suggests that while most advocates for the policy hoped that liberalization would occur, the decision to support rather than oppose China’s rise was not premised on this hope.[56] Nevertheless, for the purposes of this analysis, the assumptions behind the policy are less important than whether a different strategy would have produced a better result. What alternative strategies were available to U.S. presidents from H.W. Bush to Obama, and how might adopting them have changed the course of Sino-American relations? At the risk of oversimplification, we can draw on the familiar Goldilocks paradigm. One school has argued that the strategy was too soft; another that it was too tough. However, by choosing this analytic framework, it is not my purpose to stack the deck in favor of the actual policy as “just right.” First, the “too soft school.” As the three case studies above demonstrate, critics have argued that a tougher line would serve U.S. interests by one of three mechanisms — by slowing China’s rise, by forcing the Communist Party of China to adapt its policies to meet U.S. demands, or by fostering regime change. They cite a long list of misguided accommodations that America has made for China that include, among others, the Clinton administration’s decision to drop human rights conditionality for most favored nation status in 1994 and George W. Bush’s reversal on enhancing support for Taiwan following the EP-3/Hainan Island incident. In the late 1990s, this viewpoint was pressed by the “Blue Team” — members and staff of Congress, think tanks, journalists, and others who challenged the prevailing policy of the Clinton administration.[57] Individuals associated with the Blue Team argued that the United States was underestimating the “China Threat” — the title of a 2000 book by Washington Times reporter Bill Gertz — and they advocated a range of alternative strategies, including an explicit commitment to regime change.[58] More recently, this view has been picked up by the reincarnated “Committee on the Present Danger,” now called the “Committee on the Present Danger: China,” which contends that “there is no hope of coexistence with China as long as the Communist Party governs the county” and therefore the United States should adopt “a determination to reverse decades of American miscalculation, inaction and appeasement.” [59] Of course, these views represent the most extreme wing of a broader spectrum of views advocating for a policy that more forcefully challenges China. In one form or another, there is a growing conviction among U.S. politicians and policy analysts that the relationship between America and China should be seen as a zero-sum competition in which the United States should seek to “prevail” over China. For example, Ambassador Bob Blackwill and Ashley Tellis have argued that “preserving US primacy in the global system ought to remain the central objective of U.S. grand strategy in the twenty-first century.”[60] An alternative strategy is offered by the “too hard” school, which argues that the difficulties in the Sino-U.S. relationship stem from America’s reluctance to accommodate China’s rise.[61] In this view, had the United States been more accommodating, China would have felt less threatened and more willing to cooperate with America on shared economic and security interests like non-proliferation and counter-terrorism, rather than compete with the United States.[62] Proponents of this view argue that while the rhetoric of America’s China policy over the past several decades has supported China’s rise, the reality has been much more confrontational. These critics point to a long list of hostile U.S. actions: the continued ban on technology transfers to China imposed after Tiananmen and tightened after the Cox Committee Report in 1998;[63] arms sales to Taiwan beginning with the George H.W. Bush administration’s F-16 sales in 1992 despite the promise of the U.S.-China Third Communique;[64] Clinton’s carrier diplomacy during the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis; the reinforcement of U.S. security alliances with Japan and South Korea despite the end of the Cold War; George W. Bush’s use of third-party sanctions against Banco Delta Asia in 2005; and the Obama “pivot,” which included beefing up the U.S. military presence in East Asia. As a result, China had little choice but to focus its efforts on competing with the United States through strengthening its military, building up its indigenous economic and technological prowess, and enhancing ties with countries like Russia to counter U.S. power. Charles Glaser is a prominent exponent of this view, arguing specifically that accommodating China instead of Taiwan as part of a grand bargain would better serve U.S. interests.[65] [quote id="5"] How can we evaluate the likely success of these two alternative strategies? One way is to look at history. In many ways, the “too soft” argument mirrors the argument against détente made by critics of Nixon’s policy toward the Soviet Union, including the earlier incarnation of the Committee on the Present Danger.[66] Following this analogy, today’s proponents of the “soft on China argument” would argue that it was Reagan’s more confrontational approach — from human rights to security — rather than Nixon’s accommodation, that brought the Soviet Union to the bargaining table and ultimately ushered in the end of the regime. Nor is the Nixon era the only possible historical touchstone. Glaser, a critic of the “too soft school,” notes: “Reaching back further in history, the too soft argument might invoke one of the greatest warhorses of historical analogies — the Munich argument.”[67] The “too hard” argument might, in turn, invoke the history of the United States’ own rise, pointing to the early failure of European powers who sought to check U.S. expansion and the more successful approach followed by the United Kingdom, which (at least after 1812) chose to accommodate and work with a rising United States — including its acquiescence to the Monroe Doctrine and a U.S. hemispheric sphere of influence — a history so richly explored by Kori Schake.[68] But Ernest May, one of the greatest analysts of the use and misuse of historical reasoning, would be the first to caution against such superficial analogies.[69] Even if we accept the argument that Reagan’s tough line brought about the end of the Cold War — a matter of no small controversy — that doesn’t help us much in judging whether a similar approach would have a similar effect vis-à-vis China. China’s leadership is more agile and its society more dynamic than the Soviet Union of the 1980s, and thus is less vulnerable to U.S. pressure and coercion. Reagan’s success depended to some degree on the support, or at least acquiescence, of U.S. allies. Getting this support is a much more difficult challenge when it comes to China, as can be seen today in the lukewarm response of U.S. allies to the Trump administration’s strategy.[70] If China is not the Soviet Union of 1980, neither is China the United States of the 19th century. European powers, especially Europe’s monarchies, may have been wary of America’s ascendency, but for Britain, shared political values — along with Britain’s abandonment of mercantilist policies in the mid-19th century and its preoccupation with imperial interests in Africa and Asia — meant there was a degree of congruence, or at least complementarity of interest, that facilitated Britain’s decision to work with, rather than against, the United States. For these reasons, accommodating China’s rise might not turn out nearly as well for the United States as accepting America’s rise did for Britain. But this is not the only way to use history to evaluate these counterfactual strategies. A more productive approach is to look more narrowly at the U.S.-Chinese relationship, to see where the U.S. policy has been most and least successful. To use political science terminology, we can look at “within case,” rather than “cross case,” comparisons. In the years following the Nixon administration, U.S. policy toward China produced some notable successes. Normalization not only began a process of engagement that brought considerable economic benefit both to China and to the United States, it also helped build a more stable security environment in East Asia and the Western Pacific. This benefitted not just the United States but also its allies. Over time, China joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty and related arms control regimes, abandoned its policies of supporting revolutionary movements around the world, and began to support U.N. peacekeeping activities. Most notably, China acquiesced to the status quo with regard to Taiwan, despite its rhetorical commitment to unification. Domestically, while democracy failed to take hold, Chinese society became more open. And of course, China’s economic growth helped fuel global prosperity, and contributed to managing the economic crisis of 1998­–99. The achievements of this period were based on a more or less explicit shared understanding or modus vivendi about the terms of the relationship. I’m deliberately not using the term “bargain,” which has implications of an explicit quid pro quo. The United States would welcome the rise of a strong, prosperous China and not seek to overthrow the communist party’s control. China would not seek to challenge the United States’ dominant position in East Asia or the broader international economic and political order that helped facilitate China’s own economic development. But this understanding had within it the seeds of its own destruction. As long as there was a large military and economic disparity between the two countries the relationship was reasonably stable. It began to erode as China became more economically successful and militarily more capable. This, in turn, fueled U.S. anxiety about China’s long-term intentions. Critics in America began to focus on what they saw as the dark side of Deng Xiaoping’s “hide and bide” strategy,[71] while some in the People’s Liberation Army and Chinese academia began to question why China needed to continue to acquiesce to U.S. hegemony or defer key policy objectives, such as the recovery of Taiwan. These changing circumstances led the George W. Bush administration to seek to revise the shared understanding. Robert Zoellick’s concept of a “responsible stakeholder” was an effort to take into account China’s growing power and its desire for a greater international role, while deflecting Chinese pressure to replace the U.S.-led international order.[72] That effort continued into the early years of the Obama administration. It was reflected most clearly in the joint statement of Obama and President Hu Jintao following Obama’s visit to China in 2009: “The two countries reiterated that the fundamental principle of respect for each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is at the core of the three U.S.-China joint communiqués … The two sides agreed that respecting each other’s core interests is extremely important to ensure steady progress in U.S.-China relations.”[73] It’s fair to say that these efforts to create a new shared understanding largely failed. Despite the meeting between Obama and Xi Jinping at Sunnylands in 2013,[74] and later between Trump and Xi at Mar-a-Lago in 2017,[75] there has been little meeting of the minds on the nature or future of the bilateral relationship. There are several possible explanations for this failure. Some would argue that failure was inevitable given the inherent conflicts between an established and rising power.[76] A second explanation might focus on domestic forces in each country that have made mutual accommodation difficult. As we have seen in the United States over the past two decades, Congress — including leaders from both parties — has pushed for a tougher U.S. approach to China. Presidential aspirants have repeatedly challenged the policies of incumbents, with some success: Clinton in 1992, Bush in 2000, and Trump in 2016. In China, growing nationalism and the need to shore up the communist party’s legitimacy in the absence of democratic reform have pushed China’s leaders toward a less accommodating strategy. A third explanation might emphasize each side’s judgment of the other’s intentions and of its own capabilities. The case for U.S.-Chinese cooperation in the past was based on the idea of what the Chinese call “win-win” cooperation — that both sides will gain more from cooperation than competition. But what if one concludes that the other is determined to prevail at all costs rather than cooperate?[77] In that case, the choice then becomes one of “compete or acquiesce.” And if both sides believe that they can prevail in the competition, both will choose competition over conciliation — even potentially risking war. In game theory, it’s a game of chicken where each side believes the other will swerve.[78] [quote id="6"] I would argue that both the domestic dynamics and each country’s increasingly gloomy assessment of the other’s true intentions against the backdrop of China’s rise help explain the current state of affairs. Here it is important to look at something I have not yet addressed: decision-making in China, specifically the Chinese response to the George W. Bush and Obama efforts to reshape the relationship. Although this assessment risks appearing self-serving coming from a former American policymaker, a good case can be made that the Chinese side bears significant responsibility for the failure to reach a new understanding. I come to this conclusion both from my own engagement as deputy secretary of state from 2009 to 2011, but also from conversations with Chinese interlocutors as well. Jeff Bader expressed a similar view in his book, in which he identifies “a changed quality in the writing of Chinese security analysts and Chinese official statements, and in some respects Chinese behavior.”[79] Two factors explain China’s reluctance to move in the direction of a new U.S.-Chinese strategic understanding. First, during a key period — George W. Bush’s second term and the beginning of the Obama administration — China experienced relatively weak leadership under the collective decision-making of Hu, which made any bold initiative — particularly one that involved compromise with America — difficult. The problem was compounded by a sense of hubris in some leading Chinese circles following the financial crisis of 2008–09, which led some to believe that the United States was in permanent decline while China was on the ascendancy.[80] As a result, a promising moment passed, and the failure of these two U.S. efforts to elicit a positive response from China began to harden attitudes in America. It is possible to argue that Xi’s proposal for a new form of “major power relations” was a belated effort to respond to the initiatives of Bush and Obama.[81] For a brief period, there was evidence that the Obama administration saw this as a new opening.[82] But Xi’s effort came to naught — in part, because of skepticism in the United States, in part, because China never really made clear what Xi envisioned by this concept or whether it reflected a real Chinese willingness to meaningfully accommodate U.S. concerns. Even if there was an opportunity for a new Sino-American understanding, one might reasonably ask whether that window is now closed — as a result of decisions made both in Beijing and Washington. And if the window is not closed, what form might that new understanding take? These questions are worth deep reflection before the two countries resign themselves to a costly and dangerous future of rivalry and potentially even conflict. In reflecting on the decisions leading to the Spanish-American War and the annexation of the Philippines, Ernest May wrote: “unconcernedly and almost unthinkingly, these statesman ran the risk of precipitating Europe into a coalition against the United States.”[83] The challenge for policymakers in the United States and China is to avoid this peril even as the United States adapts its policy to a more capable and assertive China. A solid understanding of the history of Sino-American relations — both what went wrong and what went right — will allow us to do just that.   Hon. James B. Steinberg is professor of social science, international affairs, and law at Syracuse University and previously served as dean of the Maxwell School, from July 2011 until June 2016, and dean of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin from 2005 to 2009. His government service includes deputy secretary of state (2009–11), deputy national security advisor (1996–2000) and director of the State Department Policy Planning Staff (1994–96). Recent publications include, “China-Russia Cooperation: How Should the US Respond,” in Richard J. Ellings and Robert Sutter, eds., Axis of Authoritarians (National Bureau of Asian Research 2018); “US versus China: A Technology Cold War,” Nikkei Asian Review, March 19, 2019; and A Glass Half Full? Rebalance, Reassurance and Resolve in the US-China Relationship (Brookings Institution Press, 2017) and Strategic Reassurance and Resolve: US-China Relations in the 21st Century (Princeton University Press, 2014) (both with Michael O’Hanlon).   Image: Derzsi Elekes Andor [post_title] => What Went Wrong? U.S.-China Relations from Tiananmen to Trump [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => what-went-wrong-u-s-china-relations-from-tiananmen-to-trump [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2020-01-07 12:09:35 [post_modified_gmt] => 2020-01-07 17:09:35 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw [lead] => James Steinberg looks back at the relationship between the United States and China over the last 30 years and asks whether a better outcome could have been produced had different decisions been made. [pubinfo] => [issue] => Vol 3, Iss 1 [quotes] => Array ( [0] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => What different decisions might the United States and China have made over the past 30 years that would have produced a better outcome in Sino-American relations today? ) [1] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => Indeed, one can imagine that economic sanctions might have triggered a nationalist backlash that would have reinforced the image of the communist party as the defender of China’s sovereignty. ) [2] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Would the costs of blocking China’s membership have been worth it if exclusion had slowed or even halted China’s economic and military rise? ) [3] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => Advocates of this more assertive approach would argue yes — establishing clear and enforceable red lines would have tamed China’s ambitions and moderated its policies. ) [4] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => In one form or another, there is a growing conviction among U.S. politicians and policy analysts that the relationship between America and China should be seen as a zero-sum competition in which the United States should seek to “prevail” over China. ) [5] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => Even if there was an opportunity for a new Sino-American understanding, one might reasonably ask whether that window is now closed — as a result of decisions made both in Beijing and Washington. ) ) [style] => strategist [type] => Strategist [style_label] => The Strategist [download] => Array ( [title] => PDF Download [file] => ) [authors] => Array ( [0] => 20 ) [endnotes] => Array ( [title] => Endnotes [endnotes] => [1] See, “U.S.-China Joint Statement,” The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, Nov. 17, 2009, “The two sides reiterated that they are committed to building a positive, cooperative and comprehensive U.S.-China relationship for the 21st century, and will take concrete actions to steadily build a partnership to address common challenges.” [2] National Security Strategy of the United States of America, The White House, December 2017, 45 [3] Michael Martina, “Senator Warren, in Beijing, Says U.S. Is Waking Up to Chinese Abuses,” Reuters, April 1, 2018, [4] Mark Landler “The Road to Confrontation,” New York Times, Nov. 25, 2018, Public opinion on U.S.-Chinese relations, has also recently turned more negative, although positive attitudes remain higher today than in the aftermath of Tiananmen or even the late 1990s. See, Dina Smeltz et al., “Rejecting Retreat: Americans Support U.S. Engagement in Global Affairs,” Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Sept. 6, 2019, 29–30, According to the Pew Research Center, unfavorable U.S. attitudes toward China increased by 13 percent from 2018 to 2019. See, Laura Silver, Kat Devlin, and Christine Huang, “U.S. Views of China Turn Sharply Negative Amid Trade Tensions,” Pew Research Center, Aug. 13, 2019, [5] As such, the contemporary debate is beginning to take on a resemblance to the pernicious “Who lost China?” debate following the communist victory in 1949. See, for example, Robert P. Newman, Owen Lattimore and the “Loss” of China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992) [6] John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: Norton, 2001), chap. 2; Graham Allison, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017). [7] Ashley J. Tellis, Alison Szalwinski, and Michael Wills, eds., Strategic Asia 2020: US-China Competition for Global Influence (Washington, DC: National Bureau of Asian Research, 2020), [8] Ernest R. May, Strange Victory: Hitler’s Conquest of France (New York: Hill and Wang, 2000), 452–53. [9] May, Strange Victory, 456. [10] See, e.g., Philip E. Tetlock and Aaron Belkin, eds., Counterfactual Thought Experiments in World Politics, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996); Philip Tetlock and Aaron Belkin, “Counterfactual Thought Experiments in World Politics: Logical, Methodological and Psychological Perspectives,” in, Counterfactual Thought Experiments in World Politics, ed. Tetlock and Belkin; Steven Weber, “Counterfactuals, Past and Future,” in, Counterfactual Thought Experiments in World Politics, ed. Tetlock and Belkin; Jack S. Levy, “Counterfactuals, Causal Inference, and Historical Analysis,” Security Studies 24, no. 3 (2015): 378–402,; and, Richard Ned Lebow, Forbidden Fruit: Counterfactuals and International Relations, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010). See also, Daniel Nolan, “Why Historians (and Everyone Else) Should Care About Counterfactuals,” Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition 163, no. 2 (March 2013): 317–35, [11] On critical junctures and path dependency, see, Giovanni Capoccia and R. Daniel Kelemen, “The Study of Critical Junctures: Theory, Narrative, and Counterfactuals in Historical Institutionalism,” World Politics 59, no. 3 (April 2007): 341–69, [12] There are several dimensions to the critique. First is the issue of causality: Just because a sequence of events followed a decision does not in itself imply causation; the outcome might have occurred in any event. The second is the question of “irreversibility” — the possibility that a subsequent decision might have restored events back on to the path that would have occurred had the initial decision been different. See works cited in note 11. [13] See, for example, Niall Ferguson, “Introduction,” in, Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, ed. Niall Ferguson (New York: Basic Books, 1999). [14] Andrew J. Nathan, “The New Tiananmen Papers: Inside the Secret Meeting that Changed China,” Foreign Affairs 98, no. 4 (July/August 2019); “The Other Tiananmen Papers,” Asia Society China File, July 8, 2019, [15] For a detailed account of the Bush administration actions and the congressional response, see, David Skidmore and William Gates, “After Tiananmen: The Struggle Over US Policy Toward China in the Bush Administration,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 27, no. 3 (Summer 1997): 514–39, [16] Marie Gottschalk, “The Failure of American Policy,” World Policy Journal 6, no. 4 (Fall, 1989): 668, Gottschalk’s argument prefigures many of the subsequent critiques of U.S. policy, for example: “To enable China to project power in the Pacific more effectively, Deng’s military modernization has favored the Chinese Navy. China has built new naval bases and up to date warships and missiles… . Beijing also intends to enhance its submarine fleet…beefed up its capability for long distance troop deployments and conducted naval exercises further and further afield from China.” See page 676. [17] Skidmore and Gates, “After Tiananmen,” 519. This view was echoed in Bush’s subsequent veto message with respect to the 1992 legislation withdrawing China’s most favored nation status: “my administration shares the goals and objectives of HR 2212… My objection lies strictly with the methods proposed to achieve these aims.” George H.W. Bush, “Veto Message on China MFN Status” Congressional Quarterly, March 7, 1992, 582. [18] See, Skidmore and Gates, “After Tiananmen,” 530–34. [19] Granting China permanent normal trade relations was required if the United States wanted to gain the trade benefits associated with China joining the WTO. [20] 2017 Report to Congress on China’s WTO Compliance, United States Trade Representative, January 2018, 2, [21] Gabe Lipton, “The Elusive ‘Better Deal’ with China,” Atlantic, Aug. 14, 2018, [22] For a contemporary account of the Clinton’s arguments in favor of China’s WTO accession, see, Ted Osius, “The Legacy of the Clinton-Gore Administration’s China Policy,” Asian Affairs: An American Review 28, no. 3 (Fall 2001): 125–34, [23] See, “Full Text of Clinton’s Speech on China Trade Bill,” New York Times, March 9, 2000, [24] “Full Text of Clinton’s Speech on China Trade Bill.” [25] Robert E. Lighthizer. “Testimony Before the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission: Evaluating China’s Role in the World Trade Organization Over the Past Decade,” June 9, 2010, 15. Lighthizer cites Ferguson’s earlier testimony to the House Ways and Means Committee in support of this assertion. Niall Ferguson, “The End of Chimerica: Amicable Divorce or Currency War,” Testimony before the Committee on Ways and Means of the U.S. House of Representatives, March 24, 2010, 4. [26] See James Bacchus, Simon Lester, and Huan Zhu, “Disciplining China’s Trade Practices at the WTO: How WTO Complaints Can Help Make China More Market-Oriented,” Cato Institute, Policy Analysis no. 856, Nov. 15, 2018, [27] Lighthizer, “Testimony Before the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission,” 16–17. See similarly, Mark Wu, “The ‘China Inc’ Challenge to Global Trade Governance,” Harvard International Law Review 57, no. 2 (Spring 2016): 261–324. [28] Cited in, Lighthizer, “Testimony Before the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission,” 20. [29] See, for example, “Statement by Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi on the Democratic Leader’s Decision to Oppose Permanent NTR for China,” April 19, 2000, [30] See, David H. Autor, David Dorn, and Gordon Hanson, “The China Shock: Learning from Labor-Market Adjustment to Large Changes in Trade,” Annual Review of Economics, no. 8 (2016): 205–40, [31] Philip Levy, “Was Letting China Into the WTO a Mistake?” Foreign Affairs, April 2, 2018, [32] The Jackson-Vanik Amendment, Sec 401 of the Trade Act of 1974, prohibits the United States from granting most favored nation status to certain countries, except by annual presidential waiver. For this reason, Congress was required to amend Sec 401 in order to grant China permanent most favored nation status in order for the United States to gain the benefits associated with China’s accession to the WTO. If the United States had failed to grant China permanent normal trade relations following China’s accession to the WTO, the WTO’s “non-application clause would allow either party to refuse to apply WTO commitments to the other.” JayEtta Z. Hecker, “China Trade: WTO Membership and Most-Favored Nation Status,” Testimony before the Subcommittee on Trade, Committee on Ways and Means, House of Representatives, GAO/T-NSIAD-98-209, June 17, 1998, 10. [33] China viewed achieving permanent normal trade relations (and thus escaping the uncertainties of annual review) an important benefit of U.S. support for China’s WTO accession. Hongyi Harry Lai, “Behind China's World Trade Organization Agreement with the USA,” Third World Quarterly 22, no. 2 (2001): 248, [34] “important consequence of the United States invoking WTO non-application is that if China becomes a member, it does not have to grant the United States all the trade commitments it makes to other WTO members, both in the negotiated accession package or in the underlying WTO agreements. Because U.S. businesses compete with business from other WTO members for China ’s markets, this could potentially put U.S. business interests at a considerable competitive disadvantage. For example, the United States may not benefit from Chinese concessions regarding services, such as the right to establish distribution channels in China. While the United States would continue to benefit from Chinese commitments made in bilateral agreements concluded with the United States, the commitments are not as extensive as those in the WTO agreements.” JayEtta Z. Hecker, “China Trade: WTO Membership and Most-Favored Nation Status”, Testimony before the Subcommittee on Trade, Committee on Ways and Means, House of Representatives, GAO/T-NSIAD-98-209, June 17, 1998, 11, [35]“The big winners from the 2009 safeguard tariffs were alternative foreign exporters, primarily located in Asia and Mexico, selling low-end tires to the United States. Domestic tire producers were secondary beneficiaries.” Gary Clyde Hufbauer and Sean Lowry, “US Tire Tariffs: Saving Few Jobs at High Cost,” Peterson Institute of International Economics, no. PB12-9, April 2012, See also Levy, “Was Letting China Into the WTO a Mistake?” [36] See Hecker, “China Trade,” 7. [37] See, Sylvan Lane, “Trump Faces Dwindling Leverage with China,” The Hill, Sept. 15, 2019, Others argue that the leverage is overstated, and that Xi’s need to appear strong domestically is a more important factor than the impact on the Chinese economy. [38] See, Nancy Bernkopf Tucker, “The Taiwan Factor in the Vote on PNTR for China and its WTO Accession,” NBR Analysis 11, no. 2 (July 2000): 33–45, [39] See, Joseph Fewsmith, “China and the WTO: The Politics Behind the Agreement,” NBR Analysis 10, no. 5 (December 1999): 227, Fewsmith’s article provides a valuable account of the Chinese deliberations over the negotiations with the United States in connection with the WTO. [40] There is some support for the belief that China would have to make even greater concessions if it had waited to conclude the WTO negotiations rather than agreeing in 1999. See Lai, “Behind China's World Trade Organization Agreement with the USA,” 249. [41] See Fewsmith, “China and the WTO,” 218–27. [42] For example, Lighthizer argues that the United States effectively gave up the option of section 301 actions in favor of the WTO dispute resolution mechanism. “By contrast to Section 301 — which was a powerful tool with which to influence our trading partners — the dispute settlement process is simply not designed to deal with a country like China.” Lighthizer, “Testimony Before the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission,” 23–24. [43] See, for example, Bob Davis, “When the World Opened the Gates of China,” Wall Street Journal, July 27, 2018, Indeed, in the 15 years before China’s entry into the WTO, U.S. imports from China grew at a faster rate than in the 15 years after, albeit from a much lower base. [44] The desire to accelerate reform was a major impetus for Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongzhi’s determination to get a WTO agreement. See, Lai, “Behind China's World Trade Organization Agreement with the USA,” 249–50. [45] For this reason, former Democratic Congressman David Bonior, a strong critic of the WTO agreement, later stated: “I don’t know that [a defeat for the WTO agreement] would have made a difference.” Davis, “When the World Opened the Gates of China.” [46] See, for example, Hal Brands and Zack Cooper, “Getting Serious About Strategy in the South China Sea,” Naval War College Review 71, no. 1 (2018): 17, “there was a growing perception in the region—and even among some senior American policy makers—that the [Obama] administration had drawn redlines that it ultimately had not upheld, and that too often it had failed to slow, let alone halt, China’s drive for primacy.” See also, Mira Rapp-Hooper and Charles Edel, “Adrift in the South China Sea,” Foreign Affairs, May 18, 2017, [47] For a detailed account of the crisis, as well as background on the competing claims, see, “Case 3: Scarborough Shoal Standoff (2012),” in, Michael Green et al., Countering Coercion in Maritime Asia: The Theory and Practice of Gray Zone Deterrence, Center for Strategic and International Studies, (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2017) [48] See, for example, Greg Poling and Eric Sayers, “Time to Make Good on the U.S.-Philippine Alliance,” War on the Rocks, Jan. 21, 2019, [49] In this case, like all of the disputed sovereignty claims in the area, the United States has declined to take sides, while insisting on a peaceful resolution of the disputes and upholding freedom of navigation under applicable international law. [50] Most recently the Chinese Luyang destroyer sailed within 45 yards of the USS Decatur on Sept. 30, 2018. See, John Power and Catherine Wong, “Exclusive Details and Footage Emerge of Near Collision Between Warships in South China Sea,” South China Morning Post, Nov. 4, 2018, [51] See, J. Michael Cole, “The Third Taiwan Strait Crisis: The Forgotten Showdown Between China and America,” National Interest, March 10, 2017, “[I]njury to Chinese pride…convinced Beijing of the need to modernize its military. The result was an intensive program of double-digit investment, foreign acquisitions…and indigenous resourcing to turn the PLA into a force capable of imposing Beijing’s will within its immediate neighborhood and eventually beyond.” [52] See, for example, Jeffrey Bader, “U.S.-China Relations: Is It time to End the Engagement?” Brookings Institution, Policy Brief, September 2018, [53] See, Richard Baum, “From ‘Strategic Partners’ to ‘Strategic Competitors’: George W. Bush and the Politics of U.S. China Policy,” Journal of East Asia Policy Studies 1, no. 2 (August 2001): 191–220, [54] See, for example, Robert D. Blackwill and Ashley J. Tellis, “Revising U.S. Grand Strategy Toward China,” Council on Foreign Relations Special Report No. 72, March 2015: “a series of administrations have continued to implement policies that have actually enabled the rise of new competitors, such as China.” See page 4. [55] See, Kurt M. Campbell and Ely Ratner, “The China Reckoning: How Beijing Defied American Expectations,” Foreign Affairs (March/April 2018), [56] Alastair Iain Johnston, “The Failures of the ‘Failure of Engagement’ with China,” Washington Quarterly 42, no. 2 (Summer 2019): 99–114, [57] See, Robert G. Kaiser and Steven Mufson, “‘Blue Team’ Draws a Hard Line on Beijing,” Washington Post, Feb. 22, 2000, A1, See also Baum, “From ‘Strategic Partners’ to ‘Strategic Competitors,’” 199–200. [58] The view was not limited to politicians, University of Pennsylvania Professor Arthur Waldron advocated a similar approach: “I agree with people who think that regime change is key a to a really stable peace.” Kaiser and Mufson, “’Blue Team’ Draws a Hard Line on Beijing.” [59] “Guiding Principles of the Committee,” Committee on the Present Danger: China, [60] Blackwill and Tellis, “Revising U.S. Grand Strategy Toward China,” 4. See, Ana Swanson, “A New Red Scare is Reshaping Washington,” New York Times, July 20, 2019, [61] See, Hugh White, “The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power,” Lowy Institute,; and Charles L. Glaser, “Time for a U.S.-China Grand Bargain” Policy Brief, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, July 2015, [62] For the classic argument about the importance of accommodation among great powers, see, Hans J. Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1948). [63] See, “Report of the Select Committee on U.S. National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns with the People’s Republic of China,” H.R. Rept 105-851, Jan. 3, 1999, In the wake of the report, Congress enacted a number of new restrictions on the transfer of satellite and missile related technology to China. See, “China: Possible Missile Technology Transfers from U.S. Satellite Export Policy — Actions and Chronology,” Congressional Research Service, Report 98-485 F, updated Oct. 6, 2003, [64] The communique reads: “[T]he United States Government states that it does not seek to carry out a long-term policy of arms sales to Taiwan, that its arms sales to Taiwan will not exceed, either in qualitative or in quantitative terms, the level of those supplied in recent years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and China, and that it intends to reduce gradually its sales of arms to Taiwan, leading over a period of time to a final resolution.” “Joint Communique of the United States of America and the Peoples Republic of China,” The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, Aug. 17, 1982, [65] Glaser, “Time for a U.S.-China Grand Bargain.” [66] For the classic statement, see, Norman Podhoretz, “The Present Danger,” Commentary, March 1980, [67] Charles Glaser take on the analogy: “The 1938 Munich agreement gave accommodation a bad name. But under certain circumstances, territorial concessions can help a state protect vital interests… the U.S. commitment to Taiwan feeds Chinese concerns about motives in the region and fuels competition over the sea lines of communication (SLOCs) in East Asia.” Glaser, “Time for a U.S.-China Grand Bargain.” Hugh White offers a similar argument. Hugh White, The China Choice: Why We Should Share Power (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). [68] Kori Schake, Safe Passage: The Transition from British to American Hegemony (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017). [69] See, Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers (New York: The Free Press, 1988). [70] See, for example, Arjun Kharpal, “U.S. Allies Defy Trump Administration’s Plea to Ban Huawei from 5G Networks,” CNBC, March 21, 2019, [71] See, Michael Pillsbury, The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2016). Pillsbury argues that the hide and bide strategy was really intended as a plan to “prepare for revenge.” Also see, Liu Zhen, “War of Words: How the United States Got Lost in Chinese Translation,” South China Morning Post, Oct. 24, 2018, [72] Robert B. Zoellick, “Whither China: From Membership to Responsibility,” Remarks to the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, Sept. 21, 2005, “It is time to take our policy beyond opening doors to China’s membership in the international system: We need to urge China to become a responsible stakeholder in that system.” [73] “U.S.-China Joint Statement,” The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, Nov. 17, 2009, [74] During the press conference after the Sunnylands meeting, Xi stated, “we had an in-depth, sincere and candid discussion…on our joint work to build a new model of major country relations.” Obama then described progress on improving U.S.-China military-to-military communication and observed, “that’s an example of concrete progress that can advance this new model of relations between the United States and China.” “Remarks by President Obama and President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China After Bilateral Meeting,” The White House Office of the Press Secretary, June 8, 2013, In a subsequent speech at Georgetown University, National Security Advisor Susan Rice stated, “When it comes to China, we seek to operationalize a new model of major power relations.” “Remarks as Prepared for Delivery by National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice,” The White House Office of the Press Secretary, Nov. 21, 2013, Soon after, however the Obama administration stopped using the phrase. [75] Following the Mar-a-Lago meeting, the White House press secretary stated: “President Trump and President Xi agreed to work in concert to expand areas of cooperation while managing differences based on mutual respect. The two presidents reviewed the state of the bilateral relationship and noted the importance of working together to generate positive outcomes that would benefit the citizens of both countries.” “Statement from the Press Secretary on the United States-China Visit,” The White House, April 17, 2017, [76] See, Allison, Destined for War. [77] In game theory terms, the parties believe the highest “payoff” is from prevailing and competing and losing is better than compromise. [78] This discussion draws on the insights of Thomas C. Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict (Cambridge, MA: President and Fellows of Harvard College, 1960) and Robert Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International Politics (New Edition) (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2017). [79] Jeffrey Bader, Obama and China’s Rise: An Insider’s Account of America’s Asia Strategy (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2012), 79–80. [80] See, Minnie Chan, “We Don’t Want to Replace US, Says Dai Bingguo,” South China Morning Post, Dec. 8, 2010, (Dai at the time was a state councilor, the highest ranking foreign policy official). “The notion that China want to replace the United States and dominant the world is a myth.” The article quotes Professor Shi Yinhong, a well-connected international scholar, noting that Dai’s comments indicated that Beijing “was trying to amend some senior officials’ ‘improper commentaries’ on Sino-US issues.” For the full version of Dai’s remarks, see, Dai Bingguo, “Stick to the Path of Peaceful Development,” Beijing Review, no. 51, Dec. 23, 2010, [81]Although the phrase appears to have originated under Hu Jintao (see, Hideya Kurata, “Xi Jinping’s ‘New Model of Major-Power Relations and South Korea,” International Circumstances in the Asia-Pacific Series (China), Japan Digital Library (March 2016),; Ren Xiao, “Modeling a ‘New Type of Major Power Relations’ A Chinese Viewpoint,” ASAN Open Forum, October 4, 2013,, it is most closely associated with Xi. For a rich history of the concept, see, Jinghan Zeng, “Constructing a ‘New Type of Great Power Relations’: The State of Debate in China (1998-2014),” British Journal of International Relations, 18, no. 2 (2016): 422–42, China’s leaders now appear to have moved beyond the expression. See, David Wertime, “China Quietly Abandoning Bid for ‘New Model of Great Power Relations’ with U.S.,” Foreign Policy, March 2, 2017, [82] See, Susan E. Rice, “America’s Future in Asia,” Speech, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., Nov. 20, 2013, found at, The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, [83] Ernest R. May, Imperial Democracy: The Emergence of America as a Great Power (Chicago: Imprint Publications, 1991), 270. ) [contents] => Array ( [title] => [contents] => ) ) [1] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 2271 [post_author] => 339 [post_date] => 2019-12-16 05:00:36 [post_date_gmt] => 2019-12-16 10:00:36 [post_content] => Like many people of a certain age, I vividly remember the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon nearly 50 years ago. I held my breath as the lunar module approached the moon’s surface, and when the camera showed the American flag standing on the surface of another world, I was filled with pride, like millions of Americans. But I wasn’t an American yet. I was an Iranian citizen, a young girl watching television in our house in Tehran. And although I wouldn’t move to the United States until several years later, I knew from an early age that America was the place for me. The America I admired as a young girl was the America that put a man on the moon, the America that stood for democracy in the face of the Soviet monolith, the America that struggled righteously and courageously to bring justice to all, regardless of color or creed. Over the past century, the United States has served as the world’s premier example and defender of freedom and human rights. Most people on this planet admired America’s foundational values — perhaps not universally, but broadly and deeply.[1] I saw this when I studied in Switzerland. I saw it when I worked as an investment banker in Japan. And I especially saw it when I served as the U.S. ambassador to Sweden. Even when they disagreed with American policies, people abroad had faith in the American people and, by and large, believed that the United States would ultimately do the right thing and lead by example. It is true that, from America’s beginning, a certain distance has separated its ideals from its practices, particularly in issues related to race, such as slavery and segregation. The great comfort is that, over time, this disparity has shrunk as America’s practices have approached its ideals. For example, many young people like me, viewing the United States from the outside, saw the achievements of the Civil Rights movement as a historical catharsis that righted old wrongs and helped America purge itself of the Jim Crow era. But now the distance between America’s ideals and practices seems not to be shrinking, but widening. Countries around the world take note when the United States abandons desperate friends, shrugs when dictatorial partners murder critics, or appears to politicize the prosecution of domestic political opponents.[2] Their observations will have consequences. They may partner less often with the United States, and more often with America’s more dictatorial geopolitical competitors. Already some European allies, faced with chaotic and contradictory U.S. policies, are thinking about a possible accommodation with Russia over Crimea.[3] This suddenly widening gap between what America stands for and what it does grates deeply against the grain of the country’s overwhelmingly beneficial role in post-World War II global history. The United States was instrumental in designing the post-war architecture of international cooperation that created the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and other institutions.[4] It created the conditions, space, and security that led from the European Coal and Steel Community to the European Union, conditions that transformed Europe from a driver of global conflict twice in one century into one of the world’s most remarkable economic and political successes. That security was underwritten by NATO — the world’s most effective military alliance — which successfully deterred the Soviet Union for decades until what Ronald Reagan aptly called the “evil empire” was consigned to the dustbin of history. [quote id="1"] All of these institutions were created to tame international anarchy and promote global cooperation that would enable the spread of free political systems and free markets. Given the violence endemic to human affairs, they were enormously successful, particularly in Europe. But these global institutions require an engaged, productive United States, no less so nearly 30 years after the end of the Cold War. For example, NATO without the United States is less than the sum of its parts. The question isn’t simply one of power, but of legitimacy and leadership. An America that leads NATO in the pursuit of legitimate goals turns a summation of military forces into a multiplier of both hard power and soft power.[5] A United Nations without the United States is a debate club, barren of ideals or purpose, overwhelmed by disinformation and autocratic bluster. The G7 relies on active leadership from Washington for its success. But in a few short years, the Trump administration has taken an axe to these institutions by praising and partnering with authoritarians, railing against longtime democratic allies, and straining or breaking international alliances and agreements.[6] As many voices predicted, “America First,” is mostly “America Alone,” with only the occasional bad company of faithless autocrats and noxious hyper-nationalists. America occupies a privileged, but assailable position, rivaled by revisionist powers. If it continues on its current course of disengaging from global leadership and adopting “America First” policies, those of us who watched in wonder the landing on the moon may live to see a darker, more terrifying era set in. Arguably this era has already begun, given that Turkey’s intervention in Syria — made possible by President Donald Trump’s decision to pull back U.S. troops — could lead to an even more unpredictable downward spiral of that conflict, and the president is demanding dramatically increased monetary contributions to defense from stalwart Asian allies, such as Japan and South Korea.[7] As the country prepares for what is sure to be a contentious and tense electoral season, presidential aspirants and analysts of all stripes are offering their visions for America’s role in the world in the forthcoming era. Many of these visions are inspiring. Too many, however, lack a process for identifying specific policies. The “vision thing” is surely important for guiding the country forward, but the devil is in the details, and a way to create these details is needed in order to find the devil inside them. Pivotal moments in history hinge on the hard cases, and these tend to defy high-minded principles.

Surviving Contact with Reality

A durable vision for foreign policy that can survive contact with hard cases must grapple with the following inter-related realities. First, the post-Cold War era, defined by America’s “unipolar moment,” is ending.[8] That would be true regardless of who is in the White House. But the global distribution of power that will define the next world order is still up for grabs. Whoever wins the 2020 presidential election will have the unenviable task of reaffirming alliances and rebuilding trust with partners made skeptical that America can make promises that last from one administration to another. The task is essential in order to preserve and promote America’s values in a multipolar world. Rather than America First, the country should strive to be America primus inter pares — first among equals, or leader by general acclamation rather than by proclamation. Second, while the international institutions that America built over the last 70 years — military, economic, and beyond — remain critical, they are no longer as fit-for-purpose as they once were. Rising competitors may offer compelling alternatives such as China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Old institutions are also increasingly challenged from within as governments in countries like Hungary, Poland, and Turkey develop autocratic characteristics. And America’s own foreign policy institutions are also in need of modernization, recapitalization, and reform. Third, the American people have been disengaged from foreign policy for far too long. This is not necessarily a question of public ignorance. As Emma Ashford recently wrote, “[A]fter almost two decades of an unwinnable ‘War on Terror,’ it’s somewhat condescending to assume that the problem is with the American people, not with the foreign policy itself.”[9] It may be true that there are aspects of U.S. foreign policy that demand better explanations to some segments of the electorate, such as the value of multilateral agreements and military alliances. But it is also time for America’s foreign policy elite to listen to the American people. While Trump’s visceral hostility to NATO is wrong, for example, his antagonism has shined a light on legitimate questions regarding burden-sharing that deserve fair debate. Rather than just pivoting to Asia, America will need to balance itself carefully in the east and the west to counter terrorist threats and an emerging Sino-Russian bloc that supports autocratic practices and policies. For this job, America’s allies — particularly in Europe — must be better invested both ideologically and financially in their own defense.

Toward a Sustainable American Foreign Policy

How do we restore U.S. leadership in a sustainable way that advances American interests without overextension? It’s a big question, but difficult times call for ambitious thinking. As John F. Kennedy said when he announced America’s intention to go to the moon, we do these things “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” I propose three groups of priorities for a renewed and sustainable American foreign policy. They consist of a period of public deliberation and debate to re-examine, clarify, and perhaps redefine assumptions about America’s interests; wide-ranging institutional reforms as a result of those deliberations; and a corresponding revival of American ideals and the hard and soft power behind them. To sum up, America needs to begin the process for reflection, reform, and renewal. First, reflection. America needs a national conversation about how to rekindle the power of its ideals. The 1945 Joint Congressional Committee on the Organization of Congress, and subsequent iterations in 1965 and 1991, offers a model.[10] A new Joint Committee for a Renewed American Foreign Policy would serve a useful political purpose, showing the public that both parties can come together again for the country’s greater good. It would also inject needed congressional oversight into foreign policy formulation during a time when it is dangerously concentrated in the executive branch. [quote id="2"] The problem is party polarization. I assume, perhaps optimistically, that following the next election cycle policymakers from both sides of the aisle will crave a period of relative political peace, irrespective of the victor. After every presidential election, a period of good feelings — mixed with exhaustion — invariably settles upon Washington. Politicians from both parties pledge to work on a bipartisan basis and the newly elected president is toasted at an inaugural luncheon hosted by the bipartisan Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies. All the rancor of the 2016 election did not stop President Barack Obama from graciously welcoming President-elect Trump to the White House while making a call for national unity.[11] Perhaps those good feelings could be channeled into a Joint Committee for a Renewed American Foreign Policy, with all the appeal to political independents that such high-minded bipartisanship would hold. They could use that time to rebuild bridges and ponder ways to ensure that America’s policies are consonant with its ideals. The United States is the oldest democracy in the world: a self-perfecting nation based on the ideals of equality. If it is again to become Reagan’s “shining city on a hill,” America must remember that all eyes are upon it.[12] It must also be willing to recognize and correct its mistakes. If America stays true to its core values, it will continue to attract the sympathies and support of right-thinking people around the world. This is a subtle kind of power, but it extends wherever people demand freedom and justice, which is to say everywhere. In that vein, perhaps the greatest failure of the current administration is the perception, widely held abroad and sometimes at home, that U.S. foreign policy has ceased to defend democratic rules, ideals, and norms, and instead has become an instrument that American elites use to pursue their own corrupt interests — or like many other countries whose foreign policies are extensions of autocratic agendas. Therein lies the fundamental contradiction of “America First.” Eisenhower once said, “America is great because she is good.” But an America that uses all means to place herself first cannot be great because she is just like everyone else, throwing around sharp elbows to grab whatever scraps lie on the geopolitical table. And if America’s greatness is measured only by the size of its economy or the strength of its military, rather than the appeal of its ideals, then it will eventually likely be overtaken by a country like China, which has a larger population and more natural resources. Where such a country can never overtake America is in its commitment to universal ideals that respect and enable the fundamental potential and goodness of all people. When I was a young girl watching Apollo 11 descend onto the lunar surface, I did not think of the United States as advancing a narrow and self-interested agenda while fighting with others at the geopolitical table. America was the only table worth sitting at, and all of us wanted a seat. Apollo 11 represented the vanguard of humanity’s desire to transcend its limits, and the stunning accomplishment of putting a man on the Moon had a seismic foreign policy impact far beyond our ability to measure. It was freedom’s ultimate success story: Dare to be free, and you could reach for the stars. Second, reform. The outcome of this national conversation would serve as the basis for wide-ranging institutional reform. America must invest in and modernize its diplomacy. As U.S. ambassador to Sweden, I had the privilege of leading a team of career diplomats, military officers, and civil servants from numerous government agencies and departments as we worked together to advance American interests abroad. Those people remain some of the most capable professionals I have had the pleasure to work with in my career. Diplomats testifying in the ongoing House impeachment hearings have demonstrated for the American people the high standards of professionalism in the Foreign Service, as well as the seriousness and consequential nature of U.S. diplomacy. They are not exceptions, but the rule. But even the most capable individuals need adequate resources to do their jobs, and in his 2020 budget, the president proposed a 23 percent cut in State Department and USAID funding.[13] Gen. Jim Mattis famously said in 2013, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.”[14] His meaning was that the hard daily work of diplomacy, rarely acknowledged in public, defuses disputes before they break out into military conflicts. Both of Trump’s secretaries of state, however, have driven junior and senior members of the Foreign Service out of the department at a time when U.S. foreign policy is in tatters across the globe.[15] As former Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns recently wrote in Foreign Affairs, the damage now being done to the State Department “will likely prove to be more severe to both diplomatic tradecraft and U.S. foreign policy” than any previous political assault on the institution.[16] All that said, it is not enough to simply provide more funding. The State Department’s challenges have become more complex, from the rise of China to the impact of artificial intelligence on foreign policy. The way that it does its work must be fundamentally re-imagined. I cannot claim to know exactly how the department should be reformed. Ideally, the results of a Joint Committee for a Renewed American Foreign Policy, informed by career staffers and specialist academics, would help to provide more specific prescriptions. But I can say that while diplomacy cannot achieve everything, it is the most cost-effective way to build support for America’s priorities abroad and promote the mutual understanding so necessary for international cooperation. [quote id="3"] Part-and-parcel of reforming U.S. diplomacy is communicating its necessity and value to Americans who are often skeptical of what taxpayer dollars purchase at the State Department. America seems more willing to fund what it can count. To borrow Mattis’ words, ammunition is easy to quantify, but soft power is not. It is important to help people understand that America’s military forces aren’t based in Europe out of altruism; they are there to keep the peace in a continent that has spawned two world wars that killed tens of millions, including hundreds of thousands of Americans. America isn’t in the United Nations because it likes getting harangued by its adversaries; it is there to push back against their hostile policies, and to help ensure that conflicts get resolved before they flame out of control and become armed conflicts that drag America in. American primacy in international affairs has allowed the United States to set standards and reach markets in a way that a less engaged nation never could.[17] And American consumers have gained enormously from trade, with access to affordable goods undreamt of when Neil Armstrong was taking big steps on the moon. The benefits to average Americans are real. Policymakers need to work harder to communicate these benefits, while not dismissing concerns about trade out of hand. Finally, out of reform would come renewal. With faith in America’s ideals renewed, the country would have a newfound confidence in supporting those ideals without hypocrisy, using both hard and soft power. U.S. foreign policy works best when American ideals and aspirations are at its core. But the country would also have to stop turning a blind eye to behaviors that contradict its fundamental values. A “transactional” foreign policy leaves America short-changed because autocracies inevitably gain more from it, and rules-based democracies gain less. If American leaders shrug when autocrats murder journalists or repress their own peoples, America’s natural allies are repelled, and by acquiescing to authoritarianism the country helps corrode the international order. Friend or competitor, ally or enemy, the United States must hold other nations to account when they step over the line. This can take the form of quiet diplomacy and arm-twisting behind the scenes, public rebuke and peer pressure, or even bilateral or multilateral sanctions. But the message should be clear: Autocratic regimes cannot enjoy the benefits of the West while taking actions that undermine it. Perhaps the first goal for an American foreign policy revival would be to try again on international trade accords. The Obama administration began to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership, signed the Paris Climate Agreement, and advocated for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, while the Trump administration withdrew the United States from the climate accord and suspended negotiations on the two trade agreements. But all these agreements had real benefits for the United States, from setting the “rules of the game” for global trade before China can do so itself, to tackling the existential threat of climate change, to forming the world’s largest free trade zone with wealthy nations eager to buy American goods. It’s not too late to resurrect all these agreements or negotiate new ones. Doing so would lay the foundation for years of mutually beneficial economic exchange that would do much to lower the chances of great power warfare. In the past, America has thrown open its doors to refugees, kept the peace in war-wracked regions, stemmed the tide of AIDS in Africa, and kept the light of freedom alive in hopeless corners of the world. After the unbelievable horror of World War II, the United States helped build an international system that has prevented another global catastrophe. It has become the richest country in the world through trade and helped bring unimaginable levels of prosperity to the rest of the globe. The United States may have hit a rough patch in its history. But for me, it will always be that gutsy country that dared to dream that a person could walk on the moon. A momentary crisis of confidence doesn’t change the fact that America is a positive force for good in the world. That’s what America is: a place where hope compels us to believe that great things can still be done. That’s who Americans are. And if Americans are true to their values, then the United States will once again be a guiding light in the night for the world.   Azita Raji served as U.S. ambassador to Sweden from 2016 to 2017. She is a senior fellow at the Institute of European Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. [post_title] => Sense and Indispensability: American Leadership in an Age of Uncertainty [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => sense-and-indispensability-american-leadership-in-an-age-of-uncertainty [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-12-15 10:57:50 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-12-15 15:57:50 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw [lead] => Former ambassador to Sweden, Azita Raji, proposes a way forward for a renewed and sustainable American foreign policy. This would require a re-examination of America's interests, institutional reforms, and a revival of American ideals. To wit: reflection, reform, and renewal. [pubinfo] => [issue] => Vol 3, Iss 1 [quotes] => Array ( [0] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => But in a few short years, the Trump administration has taken an axe to these institutions by praising and partnering with authoritarians, railing against longtime democratic allies, and straining or breaking international alliances and agreements. ) [1] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => If America stays true to its core values, it will continue to attract the sympathies and support of right-thinking people around the world. ) [2] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => American primacy in international affairs has allowed the United States to set standards and reach markets in a way that a less engaged nation never could. ) ) [style] => strategist [type] => Strategist [style_label] => The Strategist [download] => Array ( [title] => PDF Download [file] => ) [authors] => Array ( [0] => 339 ) [endnotes] => Array ( [title] => Endnotes [endnotes] => [1] See, for example, Anne-Marie Slaughter, The Idea that Is America: Keeping Faith with Our Values in a Dangerous World (New York: Basic Books, 2007). [2] On abandoning friends, see, Peter Baker and Catie Edmondson, “Trump Lashes Out on Syria as Republicans Rebuke Him in House Vote,” New York Times, Oct. 16, 2019, On minimizing the murder of American-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, see, Michael D. Shear, “Trump Shrugs Off Khashoggi Killing by Ally Saudi Arabia,” New York Times, June 23, 2019, On politicizing the prosecution of political opponents, see, Katie Benner and Adam Goldman, “Justice Dep’t Is Said to Open Criminal Inquiry Into Its Own Russia Investigation,” New York Times, Oct, 24, 2019, [3] See, for example, David Chazan, “France Says ‘Time Has Come’ to Ease Tensions with Russia,” The Telegraph, Sept. 9, 2019, [4] See, G. John Ikenberry, Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011). [5] Alexandra Gheciu, “Security Institutions as Agents of Socialization? NATO and the ‘New Europe,’” International Organization 59, no. 4 (October 2005): 973–1012, [6] For praising and partnering with authoritarians, see, for example, Domenico Montanaro, “6 Strongmen Trump Has Praised — and the Conflicts It Presents,” NPR, May 2, 2017,; and “The Strange Love-In Between Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan,” The Economist, Nov. 14, 2019, For railing against longtime democratic allies, see, for example, Paul D. Shinkman, “Trump Attacks France, Germany while Praising Turkey at NATO Summit,” U.S. News and World Report, Dec. 3, 2019, For straining or breaking international alliances and agreements, see, for example, “Donald Trump: European Union Is a Foe on Trade,” BBC, July 15, 2018,; Lisa Friedman, “Trump Serves Notice to Quit Paris Climate Agreement,” New York Times, Nov. 4, 2019,; and Mark Landler, “Trump Abandons Iran Nuclear Deal He Long Scorned,” New York Times, May 8, 2018, [7] See, Lara Seligman and Robbie Gramer, “Trump Asks Tokyo to Quadruple Payments for U.S. Troops in Japan,” Foreign Policy, Nov. 15, 2019, [8] The phrase “unipolar moment” was popularized by Charles Krauthammer in an influential essay in Foreign Affairs. Charles Krauthammer, “The Unipolar Moment,” Foreign Affairs, Sept. 18, 1990, [9] Emma Ashford, “The Gentleman from Nebraska Misfires on America’s Foreign Policy Debate,” War on the Rocks, May 6, 2019, [10] For a useful overview of these committees, see, Donald R. Wolfensberger’s “A Brief History of Congressional Reform Efforts,” The Bipartisan Policy Center and The Woodrow Wilson Center, Feb. 22, 2013, Wolfensberger concludes that such committees have had, at best, mixed results. But a new joint committee could be a useful way to begin a conversation about how to rebalance power between the legislative and executive branches, particularly in areas of foreign policy and defense. It could also help lead the way to reforming legislation. [11] David Nakamura and Juliet Eilperin, “Trump Meets with Obama at the White House as Whirlwind Transition Starts,” Washington Post, Nov. 10, 2016, [12] In Reagan’s election eve address, he said, “I know I have told before of the moment in 1630 when the tiny ship Arabella bearing settlers to the New World lay off the Massachusetts coast. To the little bank of settlers gathered on the deck John Winthrop said: ‘we shall be a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world.’ Well, America became more than ‘a story,’ or a ‘byword’ — more than a sterile footnote in history. I have quoted John Winthrop's words more than once on the campaign trail this year — for I believe that Americans in 1980 are every bit as committed to that vision of a shining ‘city on a hill,’ as were those long ago settlers.” Ronald Reagan, “Election Eve Address: ‘A Vision for America,’” American Presidency Project, Nov. 3, 1980, [13] “A Budget for a Better America: Promises Kept. Taxpayers First,” The White House, March 11, 2019, 71, [14] Mattis frequently reprised this theme, even while serving as secretary of defense.  See, for example, his remarks of Oct. 30, 2018: “I was frustrated enough with some aspects of State Department's budget that, in my testimony, I said if you don't fully fund up on Capitol Hill, my testimony, if you don't fully fund the State Department, please buy a little more ammunition for me because I'm going to need it.” “Secretary Mattis Remarks on the National Defense Strategy in Conversation with the United States Institute for Peace,” Department of Defense, Oct 30, 2018, [15] Max Greenwood, “State Dept. saw 12 percent Drop in Foreign Affairs Workers in First 8 Months of 2017,” The Hill, Feb. 10, 2018, [16] William J. Burns, “The Demolition of U.S. Diplomacy,” Foreign Affairs, Oct. 14, 2019, [17] See, for example, G. John Ikenberry, “Why the Liberal World Order Will Survive,” Ethics and International Affairs 32, no. 1 (Spring 2018): 17–29, ) [contents] => Array ( [title] => [contents] => ) ) [2] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 2152 [post_author] => 334 [post_date] => 2019-11-25 05:00:19 [post_date_gmt] => 2019-11-25 10:00:19 [post_content] => While historians write about American exceptionalism and moralism, diplomats and theorists like George Kennan have often warned about the negative consequences of the American moralist-legalist tradition. According to this line of thinking, international relations is anarchic and there is no world government to provide order. States must provide for their own defense and when survival is at stake, the ends justify the means. Where there is no meaningful choice there can be no ethics. Thus, in judging a president’s foreign policy, we should simply ask whether it worked, not whether it was moral. However, in my experience as a scholar and sometime practitioner of foreign policy, morals do matter. The skeptics duck the hard questions by oversimplifying things. The absence of world government does not, in fact, mean the absence of all order. And while some foreign policy issues do relate to America’s survival as a nation, most do not. Since World War II, the United States has been involved in several wars but none were necessary to ensure its survival. Many important foreign policy choices having to do with human rights or climate change or internet freedom do not involve war at all. Instead, most foreign policy issues involve making trade-offs between values — something that requires making choices — not the application of a rigid formula of “raison d’état.” A cynical French official once told me, “I define good as what is good for the interests of France. Morals are irrelevant.” He seemed unaware that his statement was a moral judgment. It is tautological, or at best trivial, to say that all states try to act in their national interest. The important question is how leaders choose to define and pursue that national interest under different circumstances. Access to oil, sales of military equipment, and regional stability are all national interests, but so too are values and principles that are attractive to others. How can these two categories of interests be combined? Moreover, whether practitioners like it or not, Americans continuously make moral judgments about presidents and foreign policies.[1] The election of Donald Trump has revived interest in what is a moral foreign policy, shifting it from a theoretical question to front page news. For example, after the 2018 killing of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, Trump was criticized for ignoring clear evidence of a brutal crime in order to maintain good relations with the Saudi crown prince. The New York Times labelled Trump’s statement about Khashoggi “remorselessly transactional, heedless of the facts,” while the Wall Street Journal editorialized that “we are aware of no President, not even such ruthless pragmatists as Richard Nixon or Lyndon Johnson, who would have written a public statement like this without so much as a grace note about America’s abiding values and principles.”[2] Unfortunately, many judgments about ethics and foreign policy are haphazard or poorly thought through, and too much of the current debate focuses on Trump’s personality. Americans are seldom clear about the criteria by which they judge a moral foreign policy. They praise a president like Ronald Reagan for the moral clarity of his statements, as though rhetorical good intentions are sufficient in making ethical judgments. However, Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush showed that good intentions without adequate means to achieve them can lead to ethically bad consequences, such as the failure of Wilson’s Treaty of Versailles or Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Or they judge a president simply on results. Some observers have praised Richard Nixon for ending the Vietnam War, but was he right to sacrifice 21,000 American lives just to create a reputational “decent interval” that turned out to be an ephemeral pause on the road to defeat? In this essay, I suggest an approach to comparing different moral foreign policies. I first argue that good moral reasoning should be three dimensional: weighing and balancing the intentions, the means, and the consequences of a president’s decisions. Determining a moral foreign policy is not a matter of intentions versus consequences but must include both as well as the means that were used. I then examine and compare the elements of three common mental maps of world politics — realism, cosmopolitanism, and liberalism. Presidents often combine these three mental maps in different ways that shape the intentions, means, and assessment of consequences of their foreign policy. I illustrate this process with a discussion of the problem of intervention. Finally, I develop a scoring system that allows us to compare their policies, and then apply it to three presidents. Given the different cultural backgrounds, political views, and religious beliefs of Americans, moral reasoning about foreign policy is hotly contested both by politicians and analysts, but it is inescapable.[3] This article aims not to solve but to bring structure to these arguments.

Three-Dimensional Ethics

In their daily lives, most people make moral judgments along three dimensions: intentions, means, and consequences. Intentions are more than just goals. They include both stated values and personal motives (as in, “her motives were well meant”). Most leaders publicly express goals that sound noble and worthy, even though their personal motives, such as ego and self-interest, may subtly corrupt those goals. Moreover, good goals must not only satisfy one’s values, they also have to pass a feasibility test. Otherwise, the best of intentions can have disastrous moral consequences, often providing the proverbial pavement for the road to hell. Johnson may have had good intentions when he sent American troops to Vietnam, but a leader’s good intentions are not proof of what is sometimes misleadingly called “moral clarity.” Judgments based on good intentions alone are simply one-dimensional ethics. For example, Ari Fleischer, the press secretary for George W. Bush, praised his boss for the “moral clarity” of his intentions, but more than that is needed for a sound moral evaluation of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.[4] The second important dimension of moral judgment is means. Means are spoken of as being effective if they achieve one’s goals, but ethical means also depend upon their quality as well as their efficacy. How do leaders treat others? A moral leader must likewise consider the soft power of attraction and the importance of developing the trust of other countries. When it comes to means, leaders must decide how to combine the hard power of inducements and threats with the soft power of values, culture, diplomacy, and policies that attract people to their goals.[5] Using hard power when soft power will do or using soft power alone when hard power is necessary to protect values raises serious ethical questions about means. As for consequences, effectiveness is crucial and involves achieving the country’s goals, but ethical consequences must also be good not merely for Americans, but for others as well. “America first” must be tempered by what the Declaration of Independence called “a proper consideration for the opinions of mankind.” In practice, effectiveness and ethical means are often closely related. A leader who pursues moral but unrealistic goals or uses ineffective means can produce terrible moral consequences at home and abroad. Leaders with good intentions but weak contextual intelligence and reckless reality-testing sometimes produce bad consequences and lead to ethical failure. [quote id="1"] Given the complexity of foreign policy, prudence is more than just an instrumental virtue. Recklessness in assessing what just war theorists call “a reasonable prospect of success” can become culpable negligence in moral terms. Good moral reasoning about consequences must also consider maintaining an institutional order that encourages moral interests as well as particular newsworthy actions, such as helping a human rights dissident. It is also important to include the ethical consequences of “non-actions,” such as President Harry Truman’s willingness to accept stalemate and domestic political punishment during the Korean War rather than follow Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s recommendation to use nuclear weapons. Good moral reasoning does not judge presidential choices based on stated intentions or outcomes alone, but on all three dimensions of intentions, means, and consequences.[6] Mental Maps of the World and Moral Foreign Policy What is an accurate picture of world politics? Is it so harsh that leaders must abandon their morals at the border? Do they have any duties to those who are not fellow citizens? Cynics might say, “No, because foreigners don’t vote.” Total skeptics argue that the entire notion of a “world community” is a myth, and that where there is no community, there are no moral rights and duties. Nonetheless, moral discourse in the realm of foreign policy persists, and leaders use three prevailing mental maps of world politics to offer different answers to these questions. Realism While there are various strands of realism, realists all portray a world of anarchy where a state’s survival depends upon it helping itself — international morals and institutions provide little succor. Unlike total skeptics, realists accept some moral obligations but see them as limited primarily to practicing the virtue of prudence in the harsh environment of world politics. John Bolton argues for “defending American interests as vigorously as possible and seeing yourself as an advocate for the US rather than a guardian of the world itself.”[7] Hans Morgenthau wrote that “the state has no right to let its moral disapprobation…get in the way of successful political survival. … Realism, then, considers prudence…to be the supreme virtue in politics.”[8] In the words of John Mearsheimer, “States operate in a self-help world in which the best way to survive is to be as powerful as possible, even if that requires pursuing ruthless policies. That is not a pretty story, but there is no better alternative if survival is a country’s paramount goal.”[9] In dire situations of survival, consequences may indeed justify what appear to be immoral acts. Robert D. Kaplan argues that “the rare individuals who have recognized the necessity of violating such morality, acted accordingly, and taken responsibility for their actions are among the most necessary leaders for their countries.”[10] A frequently cited example is when Winston Churchill attacked the French fleet in 1940, killing some 1,300 Frenchmen, rather than let the fleet fall into Hitler’s hands. Churchill referred to that crisis of British survival as a “supreme emergency,” and Michael Walzer argues that in such rare instances moral rules can be overriden even though “there are no moments in human history that are not governed by moral rules.”[11] For instance, some ethicists have justified Churchill’s bombing of German civilian targets in the early days of World War II when Britain’s survival was at stake, but condemned his later support for the fire-bombing of Dresden in February 1945 when victory in Europe was already assured.[12] In the early days of the war, Churchill could claim the necessity of “dirty hands” as his justification for overriding the moral rules, but he was wrong to continue to do so in the later days of the war when he had more leeway. In general, such dire straits of supreme emergency are rare and leaders often exaggerate dangers and threats to justify their actions. For example, Trump justified his mild reaction to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi with, “America First! The world is a dangerous place!”[13] But realists who describe the world in a way that pretends moral choices do not exist are, in fact, making a moral choice and then merely disguising that choice. Survival comes first, but that is not the end of the list of values. Most of international politics is not about survival. A smart realist also knows different types of power exist. No president can lead without power, at home or abroad, but power is more than bombs, bullets, or resources. You can get others to do what you want by coercion (sticks), payment (carrots), and attraction (soft power), and a full understanding of power encompasses all three of these behaviors. Because soft power is rarely sufficient by itself and takes longer to accomplish its effects, leaders find the hard power of coercion or payment more appealing. But when wielded alone, hard power can exact higher costs than when it is combined with the soft power of attraction. The Roman empire rested not only on its legions, but also on the attraction of Roman culture. The Berlin Wall came down not under an artillery barrage, but from hammers and bulldozers wielded by people who had lost faith in communism. A nation’s soft power rests upon its culture, its values, and its policies (when the latter are seen as legitimate in the eyes of others). It can be reinforced by the narratives that a president uses to explain his foreign policy. John F. Kennedy, Reagan, and Barack Obama, for example, framed their policies in ways that attracted support both at home and abroad. Nixon and Trump were less successful in attracting those outside the United States. There is a moral difference between a broad, long-term definition of national interest that can include citizens of other nations and a myopic definition that excludes others. Cosmopolitanism Another important mental map of the world involves viewing the world through a lens of common humanity, known as cosmopolitanism. Cosmopolitans see all humans as of equal moral worth regardless of borders. While it may be weak, some degree of international human community exists. As neural science has shown, moral intuition about other humans is evolutionarily hard-wired into people.[14] Most Americans respond with empathy to pictures of starving or drowned children even if not all Americans would allow them to cross the U.S. border or would take them into their homes, although some would. The cosmopolitan mental map rests on the belief that basic human rights are universal. David Luban argues that rights “are not respecters of political boundaries and require a universalist politics to implement them; even if this means breaching the wall of state sovereignty.”[15] Many Americans hold multiple loyalties to several communities at the same time in a series of widening concentric circles that extend beyond national boundaries. One can simultaneously feel part of a town, a state, a region, a profession, a transnational ethnic group, and humanity at large. However, loyalty to the outer circles tends to be weaker and generate weaker moral duties than cosmopolitans often assume. One can be a stout inclusive nationalist and a moderate globalist at the same time, but the community of nationality is usually stronger. [quote id="2"] I often used to ask my students to test their moral intuitions about the existence and limits of cosmopolitanism with the following thought experiment. Suppose you are a good swimmer reading at the beach and you notice a child drowning in the surf. Would you put down your book and rescue her? Most would say yes. Would it matter whether she called, “Help!” or cried out in a foreign language? Most would say the foreign language would make no difference. If she were somewhat further out and you were not a strong swimmer, how much risk would you take? Answers would range from the prudent to the heroic. If there were two children, one of which was yours, and you could rescue only one, would it matter whether it was yours? Most would say yes. In other words, one’s role as parent adds moral rights and duties beyond the common humanitarian duty that would prompt one to rescue an anonymous drowning child. Borders are arbitrary and sometimes unjust, but nations are communities that similarly engender additional roles, rights, and responsibilities. As Stanley Hoffmann pointed out, “States may be no more than a collection of individuals and borders may be mere facts, but a moral significance is attached to them.”[16] A cosmopolitan who ignores the moral, legal, and institutional significance of borders fails to do justice to the difficult job of balancing rights in the international realm as much as the blinkered realist who sees everything as a matter of national survival. A humanitarian duty to rescue can coexist with a preference for prioritizing the protection of one’s fellow citizens.[17] The devil is in the details of how far and how much. Liberalism There are various strands of liberalism including economic liberalism, which stresses the pacific benefits of trade; social liberalism, which emphasizes contacts among people; and institutional liberalism, which argues that institutions can create a society of states that mitigates the negative effects of anarchy. International politics is often called anarchic, but anarchy simply means “without government,” and does not necessarily mean chaos. Liberals argue that rudimentary practices and institutions such as the balance of power, international law, norms, and international organizations can create enough order to establish a framework for making meaningful moral choices in most cases. Institutions shape expectations of future behavior, which allows leaders to go beyond simple transactionalism. Institutions of international law and morality play a role even in war. The just war doctrine originated in the early Christian church as Saint Augustine and others wrestled with the paradox that if the good did not fight back, they would perish and the evil would inherit the earth. That doctrine of just self-defense became secularized after the 17th century and today it provides a broad normative structure that encompasses all three moral dimensions discussed above: good intentions represented by a just cause; forceful means that are proportional to the situation and which discriminate between military and civilian targets; and good consequences that emerge from a prudent regard for the probability of success. Just war doctrine is more than theoretical. It is enshrined both in international humanitarian law (e.g., the Geneva Conventions) and the American military’s Uniform Code of Military Justice. Soldiers who violated the moral principles that are enshrined in the law of armed conflict have been jailed in many countries including the United States. Different mental maps of the world portray anarchy differently, and that affects the way leaders frame their moral choices. Writing in 1651 after the bloody English civil war in which the king was decapitated, the realist Thomas Hobbes thought of anarchy as chaotic and imagined a state of nature without government as a war of all against all where life was “nasty, brutish, and short.” In contrast, writing in a somewhat more peaceful period a few decades later, the liberal John Locke thought of anarchy as the absence of government, but imagined that such a state of nature would involve social contracts that permitted the successful pursuit of life, liberty, and property. Modern liberals follow the Lockean approach to international anarchy and believe that institutions stabilize expectations in ways that permit reciprocity and morality to enter into policy decisions. They help create a “long shadow of the future,” that is a means to escape zero-sum calculations.[18] Liberals argue that while there is no world government, there is a degree of world governance. They argue that anarchy therefore has limits. At the same time, they recognize that the state is a key institution of world politics both as a reality and as a moral community. Even a renowned liberal philosopher like John Rawls believed that the conditions for his theory of justice applied only to domestic society.[19] At the same time, Rawls argued that a liberal society’s duties went beyond its borders: These should include mutual aid in dire circumstances and respect for laws and institutions that ensure basic human rights while allowing people in a diverse world to determine their own affairs as much as possible.[20] The rise of human rights law after World War II, particularly in reaction to the horror of genocide, has complicated presidential choices. The American public wants some response to genocide, but it is divided over how much. For example, in retrospect, Bill Clinton criticized his own failure to respond to the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.[21] Yet, after the death of American soldiers in an earlier humanitarian intervention in Somalia in 1993, had Clinton tried to send American troops to Rwanda he would have encountered stiff resistance in parts of his administration, the Congress, and the public. Clinton has acknowledged that he could have done more to help the United Nations and other countries to save some of the lives that were lost in Rwanda, but this example is a reminder that good leaders today are often caught between their cosmopolitan inclinations and their more traditional democratic obligations to the people who elected them. Mixing Mental Maps These three mental maps of world politics are not mutually exclusive — in practice, leaders mix them in inconsistent ways in different contexts to shape the stated intent, means, and consequences of their foreign policies. In a detailed comparison of the 14 American presidents since 1945, I found that most have turned out to be “liberal realists with a touch of cosmopolitanism.”[22] Realism is the default position that most presidents use to chart their course in foreign policy. Given a world of sovereign states, in my personal policy experience, realism is the best map to start with. For example, at the end of the Cold War when I participated in formulating an East Asia policy in the Clinton administration, we wanted to integrate a rising China into liberal international institutions, but we started with a realist policy of reaffirming the U.S.-Japan security relationship, which was, at that point, in disarray. By reaffirming America’s position in the regional balance of power, we were taking out a realist insurance policy in case our policy of liberal integration failed. The two approaches were complementary to one another. Realism is the right place to start, but too many realists stop where they start without realizing that realism is a necessary but not sufficient condition for crafting good policy. They fail to recognize that cosmopolitanism and liberalism often have something important to contribute to forming an accurate moral map. When survival is in jeopardy, realism is a necessary basis for a moral foreign policy, but it is not sufficient for all foreign policy scenarios. The question again is one of degree. Since no state can attain perfect security, the moral issue is what degree of security must be assured before other values such as welfare, identity, or rights become part of a president’s foreign policy? Most foreign policy choices involve questions about authorizing arms sales to authoritarian allies or criticizing the human rights behavior of another country. When some realists treat such isssues as similar to Churchill’s decision to attack the French fleet, they are simply ducking hard moral issues. It is not enough to say that security comes first or that justice presupposes some degree of order. Presidents have to assess how closely a situation fits a Hobbesian or Lockean mental map, or where an action lies on a continuum between ensuring security and pursuing other important values. [quote id="3"] Public opinion also shows a similar pattern of mixing mental maps. Because the American people are usually more concerned with domestic issues than foreign policy, they tend toward a basic form of realism. Security from attack and economic security generally rank highest in opinion polls. Because elite opinion is often more interventionist than the public, some critics argue that the elite is more liberal than the public.[23] However, patterns of “strong, widespread public support for international organizations, multilateral agreements and actions, and collective international decision making suggest that most Americans are…‘neo liberals,’” while support for humanitarian assistance shows strands of cosmopolitanism.[24] 

The Example of Intervention

Intervention has been a fraught issue in recent foreign policy debates, prompting questions about when the United States should take actions that involve extending its reach beyond its own borders. Since 1945, the liberal Charter of the United Nations has limited the use of force to self-defense or actions authorized by the Security Council (where the United States and four other countries have veto power). Realists argue that intervention can be justified if it prevents disruption of the balance of power upon which order depends. Cosmopolitans prioritize justice and individual human rights to justify humanitarian intervention. Liberals argue that nations are groups of people with a sovereign right — enshrined in the U.N. Charter — to determine their own fate. Intervention can only be justified to counter a prior intervention or to prevent a massacre that would make a mockery of self-determination.[25] In practice, these principles often get combined in odd ways. In Vietnam, Kennedy and Johnson argued that America was countering a North Vietnamese intervention in the South, but the Vietnamese saw themselves as one nation that had been artificially divided for realist, Cold War balance-of-power purposes. In the first Gulf War, George H.W. Bush used force to expel Iraq’s forces from Kuwait in order to preserve the regional balance of power, but he did so using the liberal mechanism of a U.N. collective security resolution and a broad coalition to enhance American legitimacy and soft power. Bush considered himself a realist and refused to intervene to stop the shelling of civilians in Sarajevo, but after devastating pictures of starving Somalis were shown on American television in December 1992, he sent American troops on a cosmopolitan humanitarian intervention in Mogadishu, which subsequently became a problem for his successor.[26] In the second Gulf War, American motives for intervention were mixed. Theorists have sparred over whether the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a realist or a liberal intervention.[27] Some key figures in the George W. Bush adminstration, such as Richard Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, were realists concerned about Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction and the local balance of power. The “neo-conservatives” in the administration (many of whom were former liberals) stressed promoting democracy as well as maintaining American hegemony. Outside the administration, some liberals supported the war because of Hussein’s abominable human rights record, while others opposed Bush for failing to obtain the institutional support of the U.N. Security Council as his father had in the first Gulf War. Stephen Walt, a realist skeptic about intervention, argues that “had realists been at the helm of US foreign policy over the past 20 years, it is likely that a number of costly debacles would have been avoided.”[28] Perhaps he is right, but his case is far from clear, for there are many variants of realism as well as of liberalism. Realism is a broad tendency, not a precise category with clear implications for policy. Certainly Cheney and Rumsfeld considered themselves realists. In the 2016 presidential debate, both Trump and Hillary Clinton said the United States had a responsibility to prevent mass casualties in Syria, but neither advocated major military intervention. While some commentators argue that liberal interventionism to promote democracy has “grown into ‘America’s self-designation as a special nation,’” there is an enormous difference between democracy promotion by coercive and non-coercive means.[29] Voice of America broadcasts and the National Endowment for Democracy cross international borders in a very different manner than does the 82nd Airborne Division. In terms of consequences, the means are as important as the ends. No one of the mental maps of the world provides presidents with an easy answer or substitutes for their good judgment and contextual intelligence when deciding whether to intervene or not. In its broadest definition, intervention refers to external actions that influence the domestic affairs of another sovereign state, and they can range from broadcasts, economic aid, and support for opposition parties at the low-coercion end of the spectrum, to blockades, cyber attacks, drone strikes, and military invasion at the high-coercive end. From a moral point of view, the degree of coercion involved is very important in terms of restricting local choice and rights. Moreover, military intervention is a dangerous instrument to use. It looks deceptively simple, but rarely is. Prudence warns against unintended consequences.

“The Best Moral Choice in the Context”: A Presidential Scorecard

How then should we judge the morality of a foreign policy? Presidents have their own values and convictions but they are also leaders living in what Max Weber described as a political world of non-perfectionist ethics.[30] Arnold Wolfers, a sophisticated and subtle Swiss-American realist, argued after World War II that “the interpretation of what constitutes a vital national interest and how much value should be attached to it is a moral question. It cannot be answered by reference to alleged amoral necessities inherent in international politics.” At the same time, leaders cannot always follow a simple formula. The best one can hope for in judging the ethics of foreign policy leaders, Wolfers concluded, is determining whether they made “the best moral choices that circumstances permit.”[31] While this is true, it is not completely helpful. It is a necessary but certainly not a sufficient standard. As mentioned above, prudence is a virtue in an anarchic world, but such a broad rule of prudence can easily be abused. How, then, can Americans decide whether their presidents did indeed make “the best moral choices” under the circumstances? They can start by making sure to judge them in terms of three-dimensional ethics, deriving criteria for each dimension from the wisdom of all three mental maps of realism, liberalism, and cosmopolitanism (in that order). When looking at the foreign policy goals that presidents have sought, one should not expect them to have pursued justice at the international level similar to what they aspired to in their domestic policies. In the August 1941 Atlantic Charter, one of the founding documents of the liberal international order, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Churchill declared their devotion to ensuring freedom from want and from fear (though they disagreed about the British empire),[32] but Roosevelt did not try to transfer his domestic New Deal to the international stage. [quote id="4"] As mentioned earlier, survival comes first, but liberals and cosmopolitans argue that America has duties abroad that include humanitarian assistance and respect for basic human rights. Beyond that, Rawlsian liberals want to allow peoples in a diverse world to determine their own affairs as much as possible.[33] Thus, Americans should ask whether a president’s goals include a vision that expresses widely attractive values both at home and abroad, but also prudently balances those values and assesses risks so that there is a reasonable prospect of success. It is not enough to articulate noble goals — feasibility also matters. This means a president should be judged not only on his or her character and intentions, but also on contextual intelligence when it comes to promoting values. Regarding ethical means, presidents can be judged by the well-established just war criteria of proportional and discriminate use of force that are the law of the land in the United States. They can also be judged by Rawls’ liberal concern for minimal degrees of intervention in order to respect the rights and institutions of other peoples. As for ethical consequences, Americans can ask whether a president succeeded in promoting the country’s long-term national interests, but also whether he respected cosmopolitan values regarding human life by avoiding extreme insularity totally discounts harm to foreigners. The example that leaders set also has important moral consequences, as does whether they are promoting truth and trust that broadens moral discourse at home and abroad. These criteria are modest and derived from insights from realism, liberalism, and cosmopolitanism. The resulting “scorecard” below is by no means complete. Others might select other criteria from the different mental maps and weight them differently. Nevertheless, this scorecard provides some basic guidance to determine what constitutes a moral foreign policy that goes beyond Wolfers’ simple generality about prudence: Intentions: Goals and Motives
  1. Moral vision: Did the president express attractive values, and did those values determine his motives? Did he have the “emotional IQ” to avoid contradicting those values because of his personal needs?[34]
  2. Prudence: Did he have the contextual intelligence to wisely balance the values he pursued and the risks he imposed on others?
  1. Use of force: Did he use force while paying attention to necessity, discrimination in the treatment of civilians, and the proportionality of benefits and harm?
  2. Liberal concerns: Did he try to respect and use institutions at home and abroad? To what extent did he consider the rights of other peoples?
  1. Fiduciary: Was he a good trustee of America’s long-term interests?
  2. Cosmopolitan: Did he consider the interests of other peoples and minimize causing them unnecessary harm?
  3. Educational: Did he respect the truth and build credibility? Did he respect facts? Did he try to create and broaden moral discourse at home and abroad?

Three Illustrations

This three-dimensional scorecard hardly solves all problems of judgment, but it encourages looking at all dimensions of a president’s actions when comparing the morality of different foreign policy leadership. Consider the example of Reagan and the two Bushes. When people sometimes call for a “Reaganite foreign policy,” they tend to mean the moral clarity that went with Reagan’s simplification of complex issues and his effective rhetoric in the presentation of his values. Not only is this type of morality inadequate and one-dimensional for reasons explained above, but it also mistakes the success of Reagan’s moral leadership, which included the ability to bargain and compromise as he pursued his policies. Nonetheless, clear and clearly stated objectives can educate and motivate the public. The key question is whether Reagan was prudent in balancing his aspirations and the risks of trying to achieve his objectives. Reagan’s initial rhetoric in his first term created a dangerous degree of tension and distrust in U.S.–Soviet relations that increased the prospect of a miscalculation or accident leading to war, but it also created incentives to bargain which Reagan later put to good advantage when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in Reagan’s second term. In terms of consequences, Reagan undoubtedly advanced the national interests of the United States, though most of the credit for ending the Cold War and the Soviet Union belongs to Gorbachev. In any event, Reagan took good advantage of the opportunity in a manner that did not exclusively benefit insular American interests. He ranks near the top of the second quartile. By his own account, George H. W. Bush did not have a transformational vision for the world, but was interested in avoiding disaster in a world that was changing dramatically at the end of the Cold War. While he referred to a “new world order” he never spelled out what this would look like. As Bush and his team responded to the forces that were largely outside of his control, he set goals that balanced opportunities and prudence. In each instance, Bush limited his short-term aims in order to pursue long-term stability, prompting some critics to complain that Bush did not set more transformational objectives.[35] In ethical terms, although Bush did not express a strong moral vision, it is difficult to make the case that he should have been less prudent and taken more risks. In terms of consequences, Bush was a worthy fiduciary in accomplishing national goals and managed to do so in a manner that was not unduly insular and did minimal damage to the interests of foreigners. He was careful not to humiliate Gorbachev and to manage Boris Yeltsin’s transition to power in Russia. At the same time, not all foreigners were adequately protected; for example, Bush assigned a lower priority to Kurds in northern Iraq, to dissidents in China, or to Bosnians who were embroiled in a civil war in the former Yugoslavia. In that sense, Bush’s realist approach limited his cosmopolitan impulses. With better communication skills, Bush might also have been able to do more to educate the American public about the changing nature of the world they faced after the Cold War. But given the uncertainties of history, and the potential for disaster as the Cold War era came to a close, Bush had one of best foreign policies of the period after 1945. He allowed America to benefit from a rising tide and his skills avoided shipwreck during tempest. He ranks in the top quartile (along with Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower.)[36] In contrast, George W. Bush started his first term in office as a limited realist with little interest in foreign policy, but his objectives became transformational after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Like Wilson, Roosevelt, and Truman, Bush became concerned about security but turned to the rhetoric of democracy to rally his followers in a time of crisis. His 2002 national security strategy, which came to be called the Bush Doctrine, proclaimed that the United States would “identify and eliminate terrorists wherever they are, together with the regimes that sustain them.”[37] In this new game, there were no rules. The solution to the terrorist problem was to spread democracy everywhere, and a freedom agenda thus became the basis of his 2006 national security strategy.[38] But the removal of Hussein did not accomplish the mission, and inadequate understanding of the context plus poor planning and management undercut Bush’s grand objectives. As a result, I rank him in the bottom quartile of presidents since World War II.


A perpetual problem in American foreign policy is the complexity of the context, and that is why contextual intelligence is such an important skill for presidents to have in framing an ethical foreign policy. Contextual intelligence is the ability to understand an evolving environment and capitalize on trends.[39] Sometimes prudence is dismissed as mere strategic self-interest and contrasted with moral conviction. But in three-dimensional ethics, both are essential. As Max Weber famously pointed out, conviction is important but in a complex political environment like foreign policy, the president is a trustee who must follow an ethic of responsibility.[40] In that context, weak contextual intelligence that produces negligent assessment and reckless risk-taking leads to immoral consequences. In legal terms, irresponsible assessment is termed “culpable negligence.” In assessing foreign policy, Trump’s rejection of intelligence and reliance on television sources raises serious moral as well as practical questions. We live in a world of diverse cultures and still know very little about social engineering and how to “build nations.” When one cannot be sure how to improve the world, prudence becomes an important virtue in an ethic of responsibility, while hubristic visions can do serious damage. Prudence usually requires emotional intelligence and the ability to manage one’s emotions and turn them to constructive purposes rather than to be dominated by them. [quote id="5"] That returns us to the role of institutions, public goods, and how broadly a president defines America’s national interest. The overall assessment of a president’s foreign policy depends not just on specific actions but also on how a pattern of actions shapes the environment of world politics. A president may have a broad and long-term vision but be unable to convince the public — witness Wilson in 1919. The disastrous 1930s were caused when the United States replaced Britain as the largest global power but failed to take on Britain’s role in providing global public goods. The result was the collapse of the global system into depression, genocide, and world war. In the domestic realm, governments produce public goods such as policing or clean water from which all citizens can benefit and none are excluded. At the anarchic global level, where there is no government, public goods — such as managing climate change, ensuring financial stability, or guaranteeing freedom of the seas — are provided by coalitions led by the largest power. Small countries have little incentive to pay for such global public goods: Because their small contributions make little difference to whether they benefit or not from these goods, it is rational for them to ride for free. But the largest powers can see the effect and feel the benefit of their own contributions. Thus, it is rational and in the long-term national interest of the largest countries to lead. Part of American exceptionalism is America’s disproportionate size. Leadership by the largest country in the production of global public goods is consistent with “America First” but it rests on a broader historical and institutional understanding of the current context than Trump has shown when he uses that term. As Henry Kissinger has argued,
to strike a balance between the two aspects of world order — power and legitimacy — is the essence of statesmanship. Calculations of power without a moral dimension will turn every disagreement into a test of strength. … Moral prescriptions without concern for equilibrium, on the other hand, tend toward either crusades or an impotent policy tempting challenges; either extreme risks endangering the coherence of the international order itself.[41]
Well-meaning interventions that are not based on good contextual intelligence can alter millions of lives for the worse. For presidents, prudence is a necessary virtue for a good foreign policy, but it is not sufficient. American presidents in the inter-war period were prudent when they instead needed to embrace a broader institutional vision. Wilson had such a vision, but without adequate contextual intelligence. Roosevelt began his presidency without a foreign policy vision but developed one on the job. In the future, a sense of vision and strategy that correctly understands and responds to new technological and environmental changes, such as cyber threats and climate change, will be crucial. In judging a president’s record of pursuing a moral foreign policy that makes Americans safer but also makes the world a better place, it is important to look at the full range of his or her leadership skills, to look at both actions and institutions, commissions and omissions, and to make three-dimensional moral judgments. Even then, we will often wind up with mixed verdicts — but that is the nature of foreign policy. We cannot responsibly banish moral discourse from foreign policy, but we can try to be more disciplined in how we structure our moral reasoning about it.   Joseph S. Nye Jr. is University Distinguished Service Professor, Emeritus and former dean of the Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He received his bachelor's degree summa cum laude from Princeton University, won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University, and earned a PhD in political science from Harvard. He has served as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, chair of the National Intelligence Council, and deputy under secretary of state for security assistance, science, and technology. His most recent books include Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era, Is the American Century Over?, and Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the British Academy, and the American Academy of Diplomacy. In a recent survey of international relations scholars, he was ranked as the most influential scholar on American foreign policy, and in 2011, Foreign Policy named him one of the top 100 Global Thinkers.   Image: Sgt. Bryan Lewis [post_title] => What Is a Moral Foreign Policy? [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => what-is-a-moral-foreign-policy [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-11-25 18:42:52 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-11-25 23:42:52 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw [lead] => How should we judge the morality of a president's foreign policy? Joseph Nye suggests a rubric that is based on a three-dimensional ethics of intentions, means, and consequences and that draws from realism, cosmopolitanism, and liberalism. [pubinfo] => [issue] => Vol 3, Iss 1 [quotes] => Array ( [0] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => In their daily lives, most people make moral judgments along three dimensions: intentions, means, and consequences.  ) [1] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => Borders are arbitrary and sometimes unjust, but nations are communities that similarly engender additional roles, rights, and responsibilities. ) [2] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => The rise of human rights law after World War II, particularly in reaction to the horror of genocide, has complicated presidential choices. The American public wants some response to genocide, but it is divided over how much.  ) [3] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => No one of the mental maps of the world provides presidents with an easy answer or substitutes for their good judgment and contextual intelligence when deciding whether to intervene or not. ) [4] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => We cannot responsibly banish moral discourse from foreign policy, but we can try to be more disciplined in how we structure our moral reasoning about it. ) ) [style] => strategist [type] => Strategist [style_label] => The Strategist [download] => Array ( [title] => PDF Download [file] => ) [authors] => Array ( [0] => 334 ) [endnotes] => Array ( [title] => Endnotes [endnotes] => [1] Daniel Deudney and G. John Ikenberry, “Realism, Liberalism and the Iraq War,” Survival 59, no. 4 (August-September 2017): 7–26, [2]  Mark Landler, “Trump Stands with Saudis Over Murder of Khashoggi,” New York Times, Nov. 20, 2018,; “Trump’s Crude Realpolitik,” Wall Street Journal, Nov. 21, 2018, [3] Owen Harries, “Power and Morals,” Prospect, April 17, 2005, 26, [4] Ari Fleischer, “What I Will Miss About President Bush,” New York Times, Nov. 4, 2008, [5] Joseph Nye, Jr., Soft Power (New York: Public Affairs, 2004). [6] Tom L. Beauchamp, Philosophical Ethics: An Introduction to Moral Philosophy (New York: McGraw Hill, 1982), 179. In his view, virtue ethicists emphasize intentions, deontologists focus more on means, and utilitarians are most concerned with consequences. [7] Caroline Daniel, “Hard Man Who Sits at the Heart of US Foreign Policy,” Financial Times, Dec. 19, 2002, 14. [8] Hans J. Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace (New York: Knopf, 1955), 9. [9] John J. Mearsheimer, The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), 216. [10] Robert D. Kaplan, The Return of Marco Polo’s World: War, Strategy, and American Interests in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Random House, 2018), 146. [11] See, Michael Walzer, “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 2, no. 2 (1973): 160–80. See also, Gerald F. Gaus, “Dirty Hands,” in, A Companion to Applied Ethics, ed. R.G. Frey and Christopher Heath Wellman (Malden, MA, Blackwell, 2003), 167–79. [12] Cathal J. Nolan, “‘Bodyguard of Lies’: Franklin D. Roosevelt and Defensible Deceit in World War II,” in, Ethics and Statecraft: The Moral Dimensions of International Affairs, ed. Cathal J. Nolan, 2nd ed. (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004), 35–58. [13] “Statement from President Donald J. Trump on Standing with Saudi Arabia,” The White House, Nov. 20, 2018, [14] Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York, Random House, 2012). [15] David Luban, “The Romance of the Nation State,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, 9, no. 4 (Summer 1980): 392, [16] Stanley Hoffmann, Duties Beyond Borders: On the Limits and Possibilities of Ethical International Politics (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1981), 155. [17] Alexander Betts and Paul Collier, Refuge: Rethinking Refugee Policy in a Changing World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 125. [18]  See, Robert Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation (New York: Basic Books, 1984); Robert O. Keohane, “Reciprocity in International Relations,” International Organization 40, no. 1 (Winter, 1986): 1–27, [19] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971). [20] John Rawls, The Law of Peoples (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999). [21] Barbara Kellerman, Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2004), chap. 9. [22] Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020). [23] Stephen M. Walt, The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018). [24] See, Daniel W. Drezner, “The Realist Tradition in American Public Opinion,” Perspectives on Politics 6, no. 1 (March 2008): 63. See also, Benjamin I. Page and Marshall M. Bouton, The Foreign Policy Dis-connect: What Americans Want from Our Leaders but Don’t Get (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 241. [25] Michael Walzer, Arguing About War (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004), 35–36. [26] Humanitarian intervention is not a new or uniquely American foreign policy problem. Victorian Britain had debates about using force to end slavery, Belgian atrocities in the Congo and Ottoman repression of Balkan minorities long before Woodrow Wilson became the American president. Gary J. Bass, Freedom’s Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention (New York, Random House, 2008), 4. [27] Deudney and Ikenberry, “Realism, Liberalism and the Iraq War.” [28] Stephen M. Walt, “What Would a Realist World Have Looked Like?” Foreign Policy, Jan. 8, 2016, [29] Quoted in, Max Fisher and Amanda Taub, “Syria Provokes an American Anxiety: Is U.S. Power Really So Special?” New York Times, Oct. 8, 2016, See also, Sean Lynn-Jones, “Why the United States Should Spread Democracy,” Discussion Paper 98-07, Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University, March 1998. [30] Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation,” in, Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, ed. H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958), 126. [31] Arnold Wolfers, Discord and Collaboration: Essays on International Politics (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1962) 47–65. [32] See Michael Fullilove, Rendezvous with Destiny: How Franklin D. Roosevelt and Five Extraordinary Men Took America Into the War and Into the World (New York: Penguin, 2013), chap. 7. [33] Rawls, The Law of Peoples. [34] The masculine pronoun used in the list reflects presidential history, not preferences for the future. [35] Zbigniew Brzezinski, Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower (New York: Basic Books, 2007). [36]  For a full discussion, see, Nye, Do Morals Matter? chap. 9. [37] The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, White House, September 2002, [38] The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, The White House, March 2006, [39] Anthony J. Mayo and Nitin Nohria, In Their Time: The Greatest Business Leaders of the Twentieth Century (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2005). See also, Joseph S. Nye Jr., The Powers to Lead (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), chap. 4. [40] Weber, “Politics as a Vocation,” 126. [41] Henry Kissinger, World Order (New York: Penguin Press, 2014), 367. ) [contents] => Array ( [title] => [contents] => ) ) [3] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 2052 [post_author] => 322 [post_date] => 2019-11-07 14:10:07 [post_date_gmt] => 2019-11-07 19:10:07 [post_content] =>

Only statesmen who can do their political and strategic thinking in terms of a round earth and a three-dimensional warfare can save their countries from being outmaneuvered on distant flanks.

            -Nicholas Spykman[1]

  Leaders who fail to think in space do so at their own peril. Nicholas Spykman published the above warning on the importance of mental maps in the context of World War II and the global challenges it presented, but his argument regarding the importance of spatial thinking to the nation’s security has never been more relevant. Thinking in space has long been an essential tool for thinking critically and communicating clearly when it comes to national security decision-making. The importance of mental maps and geographic communication are only growing in an era of new global challenges and renewed great power competition. Strategists and diplomats would benefit from gaining greater insight into the ways geographic information shapes national security decision-making. Moreover, understanding this impact can help produce recommendations for how American strategists can more effectively think in space. The tools and resources needed to elevate the spatial thinking of those charged with conducting America’s foreign policy and securing the national interest are all available. Unfortunately, American strategists are currently not making full use of geographic information, inhibiting the policymaking process as well as the government’s ability to communicate global policy. Despite national security decision-makers having unprecedented access to geographic information and tools with which to visualize the world, this is not the golden age of spatial thinking in national security policymaking. The challenges confronting the national security community require learning new ways of spatial thinking — and relearning old ones — on a global scale. The ability to “think in space” is more than mere navigation, map-reading, or geographic literacy. The basic assumptions laid out in Richard Neustadt and Ernest May’s classic study Thinking in Time, which explores how decision-makers can make better use of history, are germane to this type of thinking.[2] The first assumption is that busy decision-makers and their advisers are presented with a tremendous quantity and diversity of information every day. Thus, when it comes to thinking in space, such individuals can consume only a small amount of the geographic information available to them. Second, the pressures of time and limited information do not lend themselves to thinking critically or, in the case of thinking in space, questioning the geographic renderings they are presented with. Third, it is nevertheless possible to achieve marginal improvements — in this case, in the use of geographic information — and be, as Neustadt and May put it, “more reflective and systematic.”[3] This article seeks to advance the conversation about how geographic information shapes national security decisions. While many have agreed with Spykman that “geography matters” and although there is a substantial literature on cartography as a form of communication, there has been little analysis of how geography “matters” when it comes to contemporary national security decision-making.[4] This article begins by considering the position of national security decision-making at the intersection of the art and science of cartography and visualization, the unique cartographic consciousness of American strategists, and the various theories of geopolitics. These three elements are analogous to the three “images” Kenneth Waltz identified to discuss international relations: the individual, the national, and the global.[5] In the sections that follow, I discuss the interaction of technology and geography, arguing that the ability of decision-makers to think critically in space has not kept pace with the advances of technology. The article then turns to the structure and process for employing geography in U.S. national security institutions and the importance of thinking in space in order to tackle 21st-century national security challenges. Finally, the article closes with recommendations for making the national security workforce more effective and identifies areas for further research.

Three Levels of Thinking in Space

Echoing Waltz, thinking in space occurs at three levels of national security decision-making: the individual, the governmental or national, and the global. Examining each of these three levels in sequence allows a careful review of the existing research, historical context, and theoretical foundations of different aspects of thinking in space. These three perspectives also provide useful analogies and suggest frameworks for evaluating contemporary issues. At the most basic level, thinking in space is the act of an individual seeking to make sense of space when it is out of sight and perhaps beyond his or her direct experience. On the national level, American society, including its vast national security bureaucracy, has developed its own uniquely American national geographic consciousness, with implications for how Americans use geographic information. At the highest level, geographic conceptualization of the international system — that is, geopolitics — bounds and focuses diplomacy and national security decisions. The Individual Level: Capturing and Interpreting Space on a Flat Surface Individuals must interpret and describe their geographic context, whether exploring a new city as a tourist or formulating wartime strategy. It is, therefore, essential to understand fundamental issues of cognition and spatial reasoning, which have been an important part of human evolution and can vary widely among individuals and even cultures.[6] Some may possess Clausewitz’s inner eye — the military thinker wrote that spatial cognition is a commander’s “special gift.” His version of thinking in space was a “sense of locality” through which abstract space was “vividly present to the mind, imprinted like a picture, like a map, upon the brain, without fading or blurring in detail.”[7] Others, however, might be what the Japanese call “hōkō onchi,” someone who is “directionally tone-deaf.”[8] One famous study found unique patterns of activity and even structural changes in the hippocampus of the brains of London taxi drivers who mastered the encyclopedic knowledge required to pass the city-wide driver licensing exam.[9] Cartography is the way in which geographic information is communicated to and interpreted by the individual. The maps we study shape our spatial understanding, and the maps we make reflect deliberate choices to describe and simplify a complex reality. Lewis Carroll and Jorge Luis Borges both explored the idea of a fictional “perfect” map, on a one-to-one scale, which would be difficult to consult as “it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight.”[10] A perfect map is impossible, and thus every map is a simplified, two-dimensional abstraction of three-dimensional space. According to one provocative argument, “not only is it easy to lie with maps, it’s essential.”[11] These lies could be accidental misrepresentations or deliberate deceptions, but the best maps make intentional and transparent choices, trading some distortions for others, such as scale, projection, and symbolization. Thus, the mapmaker only tells “white lies” and the informed map reader knows which lies the map contains and why. Scale and projection are both practical cartographic “lies.” A wall-sized world map cannot contain the same detail as a state highway map, but both have their purpose. Projection allows the transfer of three dimensions to two but entails some distortions in the process: No projection can preserve true distance, area, and shape in the same map. For example, many map users are familiar with the Mercator projection’s heavy distortion of distance and area. While the unlikely hold of the Mercator projection on American education is an instructive history of addiction to lazy conventions, there is nothing technically inaccurate about the projection itself, which was a remarkable technological achievement that facilitated global trade and exploration.[12] The essential point is that mapmakers must select an appropriate projection and scale to facilitate accurate interpretation by the map user, and informed map users must understand the reasons for those choices.  

Image 1: Comparison of Six Different Common Projections, All Centered on Beijing (Maps by author, 2019)

Robinson: Compromise to reduce distortion of shape, area, and distance.


Goode Homosoline: Distortion reduced by interrupting the map in areas less important to the user.


Miller Cylindrical: Compromise that fits on a rectangular page, but distorts distance and area, particularly in high latitudes.


Orthographic: Realistic "globe" view, but shapes and area are distorted. Can only depict one hemisphere.


Miller Cylindrical: Compromise that fits on a rectangular page, but distorts distance and area, particularly in high latitudes.


Gnomonic: Every line is a great circle, showing direct paths between points, but area and shape are distorted. Can only depict one hemisphere.  

Mercator: Useful for ocean navigation, but significant distortion of distance and area. The example above includes polar regions which are typically cropped.

  There is no perfect answer when it comes to choosing a map projection, though there are many wrong ones. One map familiar to many in the U.S. military is “The World with Commanders’ Areas of Responsibility,” which uses the Miller Cylindrical projection to delineate the regional combatant commands under the Unified Command Plan. The standard world wall map produced for the Department of Defense also uses the Miller projection, which has the advantage of being rectangular and fitting neatly onto a sheet or wall, but is only slightly less distorted than the Mercator projection in terms of high latitudes.[13] The Miller projection is inappropriate, for example, for a planner in the Pacific seeking to understand or convey the tyranny of distance in that theater. When distance is the central issue to a planning team, an equidistant projection, of which there are many kinds, is most appropriate. However, American officials rarely use equidistant projections, possibly because they look unfamiliar and distort shape while preserving distance. When comparing the size of two areas or mapping the distribution of data, such as population density, an equal-area projection is most appropriate and accurate. When mapping the entire world onto a single sheet or wall, a “compromise” projection provides a balance that accepts, but minimizes, distortions to the distance, area, and shape.[14] The creator of one of the best compromise projections, Arthur H. Robinson, called for map creators to heed principles of graphic design just as an author “must employ words with due regard for many important structural elements of the written language, such as grammar, syntax, and spelling.”[15]  


Image 2: The Miller Cylindrical projection (top) is common to many Department of Defense wall maps. The Two-Point Equidistant projection (bottom), shows true distances to Honolulu and Taipei. Both maps are at the scale of 1:65,000,000, and show the Great Circle paths among Taipei, Honolulu, Fairbanks, Darwin, and San Francisco. The dashed rings show 2000-kilometer ranges around these cities. Maps by author, 2019.

  Symbolization is another area in which cartographers must tell necessary “lies.” To make a road, river, or small island visible on a map, the cartographer often must make it far wider or larger than it actually is at that scale. Abstract symbolization provides a powerful language through which cartographers can communicate, but can also easily become a source of inadvertent blunders or deliberate deception. The design choices that cartographers make significantly impact the ways in which individuals will perceive geographic information. Even if scale and projection are appropriately and effectively used, the employment of line, color, information density, text labels, and symbols bear on accuracy and ease of interpretation. Because maps can feature centrally in national security decision-making, this is particularly important to bear in mind. The National Level: Development of American Cartographic Consciousness Zooming out from the individual to the national level, one can see how a unique American cartographic consciousness has evolved with the nation, shaping the way that Americans — including national security decision-makers — view the world. Every nation, and its government, has its own relationship with maps. The national map is a critical dimension of national identity and governments have a vested interest in the regular, public declaration of the extent of their sovereignty. Kosovo and Cyprus, for example, put the outline of their borders on their national flags. America’s cartographic consciousness developed over several principal phases. Spatial thinking may have had an early hold on the national psyche in a nation founded by traders and explorers — George Washington himself had an early career as a surveyor before his military and political life. The colonial era was marked by exploration, colonization, and conquest of the interior, after which national independence marked an inflection point as the young republic sought to craft its own geographic identity.[16] Before and after independence, there was a grand spatial dimension to America’s commitment to territorial expansion. This was evident in the colonial era but grew rapidly in the years after independence, most notably with the Louisiana Purchase and the Jefferson administration’s sponsorship of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Susan Schulten, a leading scholar of the role of cartography in American society, highlights important links between geographic education and the development of the early republic. Emma Hart Willard, a prominent educator of the period, explicitly connected the teaching of geography with national development and promotion of an American identity.[17] The Civil War represented a watershed moment in popular mapping, as newspapers published battle maps and Americans both north and south followed the progress of the war. Some of the first American maps to shade or color code the different states (i.e., choropleth maps) distinguished slave and free states, while the Lincoln administration closely studied maps detailing the distribution of slave populations in the South. The 1874 publication of the Statistical Atlas of the United States, charting data from the 1870 census, opened a new era of the American government using cartographic data in support of policymaking.[18] This period also saw growing institutional commitment to the study and advancement of geography, as seen in the establishment of the American Geographical Society in 1851 and the National Geographic Society in 1888. It was also at this time, in 1878, that Harvard appointed its first geography professor.  

Image 3: Population density, as depicted in the Statistical Atlas of the United States for 1870. Courtesy of the U.S. Census Department

  At the end of the 19th century, a truly outward and international perspective to America’s cartographic consciousness began to emerge. The Spanish-American War, the “Great White Fleet,” and Alfred Thayer Mahan’s writings on global sea power shifted America’s cartographic consciousness to a maritime and international focus. The acquisition of Hawaii, Guam, and the Philippines forced an expansion of the national map that included the vast scale of trans-Pacific distances. And although Mahan did not achieve the same popular acclaim in his own country that he enjoyed in Europe, he had a clear impact on key leaders like Theodore Roosevelt, who, as assistant secretary of the Navy and later as president promoted the development of the United States into a global naval power.[19] Franklin D. Roosevelt’s wartime leadership demonstrated the value of thinking in space: He had an innate spatial sense that strengthened his critical thinking and he employed maps in communicating with his administration. But, in addition to creating a White House map room and attaching hand-annotated maps to memoranda, Roosevelt employed geography to explain national strategy to the public, most famously in his Feb. 23, 1942, radio address, for which newspapers nationwide printed accompanying world maps. Roosevelt directly contributed to a new national consciousness of strategic issues in World War II that Alan Henrikson called a “revolution…in the way Americans visually imagined the earth and represented it cartographically.”[20] The career of cartographer Richard Edes Harrison exemplified this revolution.[21] In the 1930s, Harrison began producing maps emphasizing nontraditional projections and perspectives — particularly orthographic projections, which provide a realistic “globe” view, but in which shapes and areas are distorted and only one hemisphere is viewable at a time. He sacrificed convention to enable visualizations that better reflect the reality that the world is three-dimensional than do most flat, two-dimensional maps.[22] Harrison’s 1944 Look at the World: The Fortune Atlas for World Strategy includes dozens of original maps of war zones from multiple perspectives and advances several arguments about how different nations’ unique spatial perceptions influenced the making of good or bad strategy. Harrison made an impassioned plea for the importance of “geographical sense” to Americans who had been forced by the war from “a period of cartographic lethargy.”[23] He also attacked the “psychological shackles of conventional maps” that prevent Americans from effectively conceptualizing geographic challenges, and held particular disdain for the “invariable placing of North at the top [as] geographical cant in its most pernicious form.”[24] The popular atlases and magazine maps of World War II created the defining spatial conception of global threats facing America — Henrikson called this new global awareness “air-age globalism” — that continued into the early years of the Cold War.[25] The threat of nuclear attack by strategic bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles brought new military challenges into sharper focus, such as the strategic value of the Arctic. Maps with azimuthal equidistant projections centered on the North Pole became essential to understanding the threat axis. Those emphasizing the cartographic perspective of air-age globalists reached their peak with Alexander de Seversky whose maps depicted the Arctic as the “area of decision” situated most directly between the industrial heartlands of the United States and Soviet Union.[26] [quote id="1"] Although remarkable technical achievements in cartography continued throughout the Cold War, geography’s place in academia did not keep pace. Indeed, despite the demand for geography skills during World War II, Harvard eliminated its geography department in 1948. Neil Smith argues that Harvard’s decision marked a key moment in an “academic war over the field of geography,” in which the institutionally weak discipline faced challenges in establishing itself as a true science, something more than a set of technical skills and distinct from the other physical and social sciences.[27] Personal and academic rivalries also played a role in the Harvard affair, as did McCarthyite accusations that university geography departments were a “haven for socialists.”[28] Also in decline from a relative high point during World War II was the effectiveness of geographic discourse between national leaders and the public, which did not carry forward to Vietnam. Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara wrote late in life that Indochina had been effectively “terra incognita” for the Kennedy-Johnson national security team.[29] But the United States employed ample cartographic resources in support of combat and economic development efforts in Vietnam. Furthermore, at various stages of America’s military involvement in Vietnam, President John F. Kennedy, McNamara, and President Richard Nixon all used maps in televised press conferences on the Vietnam War, but the effect was somehow less compelling than Roosevelt's radio address. Johnson, for his part, studied a terrain model of Khe Sanh as he directed his advisers to avoid a repeat of Dien Bien Phu, perhaps reflecting the broader tendency to fixate on operational and tactical situations, rather than the strategic level of war in that conflict.[30] Over the course of the Cold War, the associated cartographic imagery became more ideological than geostrategic, reflecting the global contest for influence between the two superpowers.[31] The Cold War map simplistically reduced the world (on a Mercator projection) to color-coded countries aligned to either the United States or the Soviet Union. It is not yet clear how to describe the American cartographic consciousness in the post-Cold War or post-9/11 world. The low level of geographic literacy among Americans in an age of globalization is a popular and longstanding complaint.[32] In one recent study, conducted at a time of high tension on the Korean peninsula, only 36 percent of American respondents could correctly identify North Korea on a map, while only 16 percent of Americans could correctly locate Ukraine in a similar 2014 study.[33] But these results are nothing new: In December 1950, with the Korean peninsula in crisis, the New York Times front page highlighted the poor results of a survey on geographic education in American schools and colleges.[34] Indeed, for all of the geopolitical turbulence of recent decades, America’s cartographic consciousness and the way that the American national security apparatus functions have been remarkably consistent since the end of the Cold War. The International Level: The Theory and Context of Geopolitics At the international level, geographic context and literacy are closely related to how decision-makers perceive the structure of the international system and the nature of the powers that define it. Saul Bernard Cohen defines modern geopolitics as the “scholarly analysis of the geographical factors underlying international relations and guiding political interactions.”[35] Geopolitics shapes the way national leaders view the outside world and how they make national security decisions. Just as individuals may not comprehend the distortions of the map they are looking at and Americans may not reflect on the uniqueness of their own cartographic perspective, national leaders may not realize it when they invoke geopolitical theories or engage in some of the great debates of geopolitics. In other words, policymakers may not be interested in geopolitics, but geopolitics is interested in them. The principal early proponent of geopolitical thought was Halford Mackinder, who elaborated the concept of a Eurasian “heartland,” control of which determined global power. Mackinder’s career overlapped with Mahan’s, but they advanced very different arguments about where the seat of global power rested. Mackinder, writing at a time when Mahan’s theories of sea power had reached peak popularity, argued that the true pivot of world power was on land, and that advances in the technologies of land power diminished the importance of maritime trade and naval power.[36] However, Mahan the historian and Mackinder the geographer shared a common geographical model and common assumptions about the role of military power and conflict in determining a nation’s status in the international system.[37] This enduring understanding of a world in which regional centers of power compete within a closed system has profoundly influenced how strategists conceive of global space. Nicholas Spykman fused Mahan and Mackinder in his analysis of great power competition for regional and global influence.[38] Spykman accepted much of Mackinder’s geographic conceptualization, but argued that the critical geostrategic region was not the Eurasian heartland but the coastal “Rimland” that surrounds Eurasia, an area that Mackinder referred to as the “inner or marginal crescent.”[39] According to Spykman, a strong power like the United States should, therefore, support buffer states (i.e., in the Rimland) and fight its enemies abroad, as only weak states fight defensively at their own borders or within their own territory. Spykman also studied the difference between how land powers and sea powers think in space, writing in 1938 that “[a] land power thinks in terms of continuous surfaces surrounding a central point of control, while a sea power thinks in terms of points and connecting lines dominating an immense territory.”[40] Spykman perceived that the unpopularity of foreign engagement created a natural cycle among great powers — especially the United States — of war, isolation, alliance, and renewed war. Furthermore, Spykman explicitly connected the structure of the international system to domestic and foreign policy, calling the tension between interventionism and isolationism “the oldest issue in American foreign policy.”[41] [quote id="2"] Spykman’s perspective helped shape policy throughout the Cold war, but the politics and structure of the immediate post-Cold War world initially appeared dramatically different than the preceding centuries of great power competition and traditional geopolitics. However, in his 2012 book, The Revenge of Geography, Robert Kaplan highlighted the enduring importance of geopolitics following the end of the Cold War. Not only does he begin his first chapter with an argument for “recover[ing] our sense of geography” that was lost with the end of the Cold War, but he devotes a full chapter to the 21st-century importance of Spykman’s Rimland thesis.[42] More recently, Jakub Grygiel updated Spykman’s thinking for the new century. Grygiel’s 2017 book, The Unquiet Frontier, co-authored by Wess Mitchell, makes a geopolitical argument for resisting the lure of isolationism and sustaining American engagement abroad to counter Chinese and Russian probing for weak points in America’s international position.[43] The context and theory of geopolitics are not merely academic. Contemporary strategists debate whether Mahan or Mackinder holds more sway in guiding China’s rise. The answers to that debate hold important implications for how America should compete with China over the long term.[44] The thinking of individuals across the American foreign policy establishment, from realists to liberal internationalists, has been firmly rooted in Spykman’s concept of forward engagement for the better part of a century. Spykman also discussed the possibility that the Asian littorals might one day “be controlled not by British, American, or Japanese sea power but by Chinese air power.”[45] He would doubtless be amazed at the geographic tools — from GPS to Google Earth — available to the average person and the geospatial support provided to American national security decision-makers, but at the same time dismayed at their inability to “do their thinking in terms of a round earth and three-dimensional warfare.”[46] In order to critically analyze national security decision-making, it is essential have a greater awareness of how thinking in space takes place on the individual, national, and international levels. These national security decisions occur within a specific context on all three levels, often in ways decision-makers may not be fully conscious of. As Robert Jervis writes, “the roots of many important disputes about policies lie in differing perceptions. And in the frequent cases when the actors do not realize this, they will misunderstand their disagreement and engage in a debate that is unenlightening.”[47] The preceding theoretical and historical foundation therefore serves as the basis for the following portion of this article, which focuses on the practical considerations of how well the national security establishment thinks in space and how it might improve.

The Use of Geography in National Security Institutions

There is little data on how exactly government institutions employ the vast amounts of geographic data and finished cartographic products created by the U.S. government. Public strategy documents, congressional testimony, and some declassified products offer the public a small but limited view of the frequency with which cartography is utilized in discussions on issues of defense and foreign policy and the quality of such cartography. The extent to which officials employ cartography and visualization to explain a decision is relevant, and potentially a meaningful proxy, to how much “thinking in space” went into that decision. Thinking in space is not just useful during the decision-making process itself. It is also central to effectively communicating how a given decision will be implemented. Using text and cartography together in public documents can help explain a national security issue to the public more effectively, as well as guide the execution of policy at the lower levels of government.[48] It is notable that neither the 2017 National Security Strategy nor the 2018 National Defense Strategy includes any maps.[49] Similarly, the National Defense Strategy Commission’s 2018 assessment of the National Defense Strategy, the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, the Navy’s 2018 Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, and the 2017 Defense Posture Statement, all lack maps, although they were laid out by professional graphic designers and include other visual aids, such as photographs and charts.[50] Despite their purpose being to explain global strategy, these documents use maps with less frequency than a typical issue of the Economist. By contrast, the annual report to Congress titled, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” mandated since 2000, includes 14 maps in its 2018 edition, including a diverse set of scales and projections.[51] Although released by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, it is important to note this report is fundamentally an intelligence product and is largely compiled by the Defense Intelligence Agency. Similarly, the Defense Department’s 2019 Missile Defense Review includes a few small and informative maps but is also produced by the intelligence community.[52] The lack of maps in the majority of these documents does not mean that cartography and spatial thinking played no role in their development and presentation or the implementation of the policies they prescribe. For example, those who developed the 2018 National Defense Strategy consulted maps while considering new operating concepts, testing these concepts in war games, and presenting National Defense Strategy themes to key stakeholders.[53] However, these cartographic efforts were ad hoc and largely incidental to the process of developing and implementing the strategy. Whether considering grand strategy, military capability, national cartographic consciousness, or individual spatial cognition, to exclude geographic content fails to make use of a valuable tool. Geographic expertise and resources are scattered widely and inconsistently across the national security enterprise, but many organizations have some sort of department that produces cartographic or geospatial products, often in conjunction with other graphic design services. That some parts of the government employ geography in their public messaging and others do not could reflect deliberate choices about the most appropriate or most effective ways to make an argument. More likely, however, is that the differences are the result of widely varying cartographic capabilities across the government, unevenly distributed geospatial resources, and long-unquestioned institutional processes. [quote id="3"] The National Security Council, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and the Joint Staff would all benefit from a much greater ability to produce original geographic content in house. These organizations are among the most influential in the interagency policymaking process — indeed the National Security Council is its central coordinator — and yet they lack their own cartography capabilities. Policymakers at the National Security Council, Office of the Secretary of Defense, and the Joint Staff may be avid consumers of maps, and they all certainly have access to quality geographic products through the intelligence community. However, that this capability has been almost exclusively allocated to the intelligence community has important implications. The intelligence community, by nature and by design, resides primarily in a classified domain, which allows it to take the sensitive information it collects and present it through geospatial visualizations. But working with classified systems can also hinder the employment of the full range of software and data that is available, as security policies can slow the adoption of commercial or open-source software suites and data repositories. In recent years, many successful geography applications have emerged from open-source software models that emphasize crowd-sourced development and collection of data by a wide array of volunteers — as in the case of OpenStreetMap — but government agencies prefer traditional models of software development and data collection from established corporations.[54] A more subtle challenge arises from the relationship between the intelligence community and policymakers, in which intelligence seeks policy relevance but avoids making policy prescriptions. High standards of security and objective independence from crafting policy are vital principles within the intelligence community, but when it is the only one with cartographic resources, these firebreaks can also serve to keep the best maps and most compelling geographic communication out of the hands of decision-makers. The government, with some exceptions, has generally treated geography and cartography as a service to be provided to customers, rather than as a core capability for decision-makers. That is, cartography is a support function assigned to technical specialists, rather than a skill, like effective writing, to be prized by policy advisers or senior officials. This has been particularly true in the military, which has considered mapmaking an enlisted function and not a skill set needed in the officer corps. The military has diminished even the enlisted focus on cartography through the elimination of certain specialties or their merger with other disciplines.[55] Government organizations have also been hampered in geostrategic thinking by the shift from general and thematic cartography to specialized geospatial intelligence. A subtle difference is apparent in the different treatment of geography at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the CIA. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s doctrinal definition of geospatial intelligence is that it “consists of imagery, imagery intelligence, and geospatial information,” emphasizing imagery and data over cartography.[56] By contrast, the CIA’s cartography center emphasizes cartography as a form of communication “to present the information visually in creative and effective ways for maximum understanding.”[57] This focus on visual communication may be narrower, more traditional, and less technical, but it is probably more consistent with promoting thinking in space.

Visualizing and Communicating the Geography of Coming Challenges

The contemporary environment and the threats that loom on the horizon present new challenges, and a few opportunities, for thinking in space. The American national security enterprise has a chance to regain the skills it has lost. Now is a time when those charged with thinking in space in defense of the nation can gain a new and more sophisticated understanding of the geographic information they consume, the limits of their own expertise in using it, and ways to cope with ambiguity. Although lacking any maps, as noted above, the 2018 National Defense Strategy uses spatial language to argue for a reappraisal of the nation’s strategic position. The strategy document argues that “every domain is contested—air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace,” that battles are conducted “at increasing speed and reach,” and that “the homeland is no longer a sanctuary.”[58] By naming the leading competitors or pacing threats, the language of the National Defense Strategy allows for more geographic clarity than similar previous documents that referred only generically to capabilities or regions. Stating explicitly that China, followed by Russia, should be the strategic focus of the U.S. military, puts a geographic frame on planning discussions. Chinese military modernization has reintroduced old lessons about the tremendous expanse of the Pacific theater. Preparing for a high-end conflict that emphasizes the air and maritime domains might require relearning the cartography of the air-age globalism that took hold in the 1940s. Invoking the “tyranny of distance” has become a standard talking point for officials highlighting the difficulties of rapid response and the importance of forward deployment and foreign partnerships in the Pacific. But there is insufficient geographic content to support these points beyond rudimentary — and often inaccurate — range rings. If China is the primary concern for force planners, they must employ better mental and physical maps of the Pacific. Well-articulated spatial content, with geographic arguments supported by cartographic communication, would help strategists present a more effective case to their audience. The true implications of the tyranny of distance and the key geographic relationships of the Pacific theater need to be fully understood by strategists and clearly argued before the national leadership, the American people, and key U.S. allies.[59] In particular, there are three domains that are crucial when it comes to constructing both mental and actual maps if decision-makers want to be prepared for coming challenges. Space, cyberspace, and the undersea environment are essential strategic domains whose physical infrastructure is difficult to visualize spatially. Very few humans have navigated a submarine or charted the motion of a spacecraft and while cyberspace has become a part of ordinary life, few can explain the physical infrastructure of the internet. Leading Chinese strategists have emphasized that these domains are critical, calling space and cyber the new “commanding heights” of military capability that could “determine the outcome of future wars.”[60] Making smart investments to prepare for future conflict and compete with peer adversaries in these domains requires the commitment of a host of political, technological, and financial resources. These weighty national security decisions require critical analysis of complex data. Thinking in space must play a part in these decisions, even if spatial visualization proves difficult. Space Preparing for, deterring, and executing operations in the space domain requires decision-makers to think spatially. Outer space may be far from the earth’s surface where map coordinates are plotted, but it remains fundamentally spatial. Thus, we can analyze and visualize space in some of the same ways we approach traditional geographic problems. The coordinates that describe the three-dimensional position of a satellite are no different than those of an airplane, except that they change much more rapidly, the atmosphere is not a factor, and the distances are so great that communication delays are a more important factor, even at the speed of light. [quote id="6"] American policymakers seeking to accurately envision the spatial context of objects above the Karman Line probably fare little better than American high school students trying to locate Iraq on a world map. Supporting decision-makers in analyzing this domain will require a mix of traditional and unconventional geospatial materials. There is not a widely available body of accessible reference material for visualizing earth orbits. The established standard, Systems Tool Kit (formerly known as Satellite Tool Kit) contains a powerful visualization engine, but, as with many Geographic Information Systems suites, it is designed for experts, not generalists, in order to analyze complicated physics problems.[61] Outside of science education posters, there are few wall charts or reference atlases of various satellite constellations. Such charts — unclassified base maps of space — do not yet adorn the walls of conference rooms in which policymakers discuss investing in this vital domain. In part, the nature of orbitology makes a static or “flat” reference product on paper problematic, thus, animation or interactive displays may foster more understanding. Although creating, transporting, and displaying a digital interactive product has major practical limitations, it would almost certainly be more accurate and effective than static products, in part because objects in space move very fast and static maps cannot accurately portray location in time.[62] Cyberspace Visualizing cyberspace in recent years has been an interesting artistic endeavor, but practical mapping of the domain in support of national security decision-making remains undeveloped. Gaining a better understanding of the overlap between physical and virtual domains has become vitally important for senior officials. There have been a variety of official and unofficial efforts to generate comprehensive, global maps of internet traffic and devices, and books like The Atlas of Cyberspace have compiled different conceptual visualizations.[63] These efforts highlight that the private sector dominates both the visualization and the management of the physical infrastructure that supports internet traffic,[64] while private companies play an increasingly central role in discovering and responding to cyber attacks. They also own and manage the majority of the key information for visualizing the internet, such as charts of cables and switches and raw data on the paths through which internet traffic is routed. [65] One author found the researchers from a leading visualization firm, TeleGeography, to be part of a “small global fraternity that knows the geography of the internet” and has robust mental maps of the geographic movement of traffic on the internet’s physical cables.[66] Undersea The undersea domain has captured less attention in the popular press than space and cyberspace, but it is nevertheless a vital strategic domain that challenges the geographic thinking of national security leaders. In contrast to the cyber and space domains, shortfalls in thinking about undersea space derive more from disinterest and lack of imagination than technical or bureaucratic challenges. Anti-submarine warfare was a high priority in World War II, but submarine operations of that era were only partially an undersea contest. Competing for mastery of the undersea domain reached its height in the Cold War ocean surveillance networks and reliance on submarine-launched ballistic missiles for strategic deterrence. Such issues of military use of the undersea domain have become prominent again, but technology has also dramatically increased the commercial importance of the undersea environment. The overwhelming majority of global communication rides on seabed fiber-optic cables and the growing feasibility of extracting seabed resources requires an enhanced understanding of the undersea geography that determines competing claims and the accessibility of those resources. These challenges raise the importance of making national security leaders familiar with the shape and science of the undersea world. Those who develop and implement national strategy will have to become more spatially conversant in presenting and considering the strategic issues of the undersea domain.

Challenges to Thinking in Space

Getting policymakers and military leaders to think in space more effectively is easier said than done. There are a number of challenges to enhancing geographic skills — some of these challenges are more cognitive and abstract, while others are more practical and procedural. But they must be described so that they can be understood and overcome. As discussed above, technology has made possible some remarkable uses of geography in the digital age, but technology is a double-edged sword that creates tradeoffs for the decision-maker relying on a digital reference or navigational aid. Similarly, there are tradeoffs in the specific ways that national security organizations use geographic information, with implications for the quality and efficiency of the decisions these groups make. Confronting the nature of these tradeoffs suggests national security decision-makers would benefit from adapting their tools and processes to improve their ability to think in space. The Effects of Technology on Thinking in Space in the 21st Century The idea that technology impacts the spatial thinking of its users is not a new one. In 1913, Gerard Stanley Lee wrote that “the telephone changes the structure of the brain. Men live in wider distances, and think in larger figures, and become eligible to nobler and wider motives.”[67] A growing body of research has examined the effects of technology on spatial thinking as digital systems replace analog techniques in cartography and navigation and indicates that technology can both aid and hinder thinking in space. Geographic information systems technology encompasses the collection, manipulation, analysis, and display of increasingly rich data sets, empowered by global navigation systems, the storage of big data collected in the field, space-based imaging sensors, and the computing power to process it all. This technology has become an essential tool for an ever-broadening set of organizations, from businesses seeking more efficient supply chains to local governments managing public services and utilities and nongovernmental organizations conducting disaster relief. The essential skills for developing geographic tools and manipulating geographic information, i.e., geographic information systems technology, has become much more an exercise in computer programming and development of user interfaces than of traditional cartography. Scientists studying the interface between human cognition and digital maps discuss “navigational efficiency,” suggesting the ideal geospatial tool would reach maximum efficiency by requiring no geographic knowledge or critical thinking.[68] [quote id="4"] Digital navigation is the ubiquitous and essential means by which many people around the world engage with the mapped environment. But the ease of use and narrow purpose of navigational tools and digital map applications have also led to what researchers identify as “spatial cognitive deskilling” — people who use certain tools and interfaces actually acquire less spatial knowledge than they otherwise would.[69] A visual display that demands less skill of the user and strips away context can have clear benefits. Henry Grabar notes this is perhaps most evident in the way that a transit diagram, technically a “cartogram” rather than a map, allows a tourist to navigate the New York subway or London Underground. However, Grabar also points out that such navigational tools abandon geographic accuracy and provide little to no context of the surrounding environment. Having “small screens and egocentric perspectives, mobile navigation systems function like blinders, reducing the landscape to the width of a street. They narrow the world.”[70] Indeed, a broader view of the world provides a reminder of the tendency for technology to narrow the perspective by abandoning the context. A remarkable 2018 New York Times map of every structure in the United States, produced in both paper and online interactive forms, prompted Harvard’s Susan Crawford to remark on how modern technology denies individuals important spatial context, saying that “we lose what’s fascinating about a place by not having this bigger picture.”[71] Small navigational displays in cars replicate a capability that has been available in military cockpits for decades. Various studies have examined how to optimize displays for tactical situational awareness.[72] Recent studies of U.S. Navy doctrine have praised the development, circa 1943, of the shipboard Combat Information Center, which allows operational commanders to think spatially with new sensors (radar), new displays (the Plan Position Indicator scope), and networked communications (radio).[73] For all of the advances of integrated sensors and communications in modern military systems, some contemporary military officers have noted issues with spatial cognitive de-skilling within the officer corps due to using these digital tools in place of analog processes and paper charts. Moreover, digital screens limit the size and resolution of the map display and the hardware and software that integrate sensors, processors, databases, and displays require significant maintenance. The Navy now relies on digital charts that can be updated more readily than paper charts, but the system needs constant information technology support for the maintenance and integration of various electronic components. Developing skilled navigators necessitates specialized training with analog and digital systems alike. Digital systems require their users to be especially conscious of the quality and sources of the data displayed.[74] One study of flight skills among pilots found that certain basic skills were declining due to reliance on advanced instruments and that pilots consistently overestimated their level of skill in the event of losing advanced systems.[75] One critique of the Army’s digital systems, under the Command Post of the Future, is that these new tools are not expedient for field use since they have maintenance requirements that are too steep for deployment in austere environments. Moreover, they can introduce as much noise as signal into a geographic display because of a bias toward the most-accessible data layers displayed on a base map (such as auto-generated vehicle locations) rather than the most important data. Some officers, therefore, find digital systems to be less effective than analog alternatives for conveying clear spatial information among higher- and lower-echelon commanders.[76] Dealing with Ambiguity: Dangers of Dependence and Excessive Trust Despite the trend in spatial de-skilling, technology has deepened our addiction to certain types of geographic information and changed the way we consume it — with a less critical eye and without context. But what would happen if that technology was suddenly unavailable? Unexpectedly being denied the availability, quality, and accuracy of geographic information that technology currently provides will impair decision-making at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels. There is a need for greater research on what happens when strategic decision-makers, conditioned to highly accurate and unambiguous spatial information, are suddenly denied that information or presented a deliberately deceptive spatial image. The increasing sophistication and broader proliferation of technology that is shaping strategic situational awareness present new challenges to decision-makers. Rebecca Hersman and Bernadette Stadler argue that many of the core concepts of crisis management were developed during the Cold War; however, decision-makers have not kept pace with changes in technology since 1990.[77] Furthermore, they argue the “emerging strategic situational awareness environment” will require policymakers to develop a more sophisticated understanding of the technology through which they visualize and maintain awareness of complex security challenges. Natural fog and friction are reason enough to build cognitive tools for dealing with ambiguous geographic information. However, an adversary presenting deliberately deceptive geographical information creates crucial challenges for decision-makers. Sharp power and information warfare are on the rise, and the United States has proven itself ill-prepared to deal with the deception and disinformation campaigns at which an adversary like Russia excels. Although geographic information has not yet been tampered with in the same way as other forms of communication, cartography will not be spared from the phenomenon of “deepfakes” and will inevitably be involved in what a recent RAND study called “truth decay.”[78] Following the Gulf War, discussions about navigation warfare began to shift toward the operational impacts of protecting and attacking a combatant’s positioning, navigation, and timing  systems on weapons guidance, command and control, and a variety of other operational functions.[79] But little attention has been paid to the possibility of a systemic attack that, beyond crippling GPS and communications networks, fundamentally degrades or denies the ability of the senior leadership to make geographically informed decisions. The 2002 Millennium Challenge exercise highlighted just how poorly U.S. military commanders fare at processing a highly dynamic common operating picture, particularly when a deceptive foe pollutes that picture with false information.[80] It is increasingly easy to envision a conflict in which the national command authority will have to issue new strategic guidance with no confidence in its knowledge of enemy and friendly positions and might have to act counter to a geographic picture it suspects of being deceptive. The geographic information that supports and empowers national security decisions can be both part of the problem and part of the solution in future challenges. Cartography has always been an art that manages the ambiguity of the geographic environment and, when used carefully and effectively, can serve as an essential heuristic to aid strategic decisions even in an uncertain environment. However, to improve performance in these decisions, senior leaders in the U.S. national security community would benefit from moving away from what Gary Klein calls an “impoverished mental model” to a “rich mental model” in their consumption and use of geographic information.[81] Practical Challenges of Incorporating Geography into National Security Institutions Some of the challenges to thinking in space are rather practical. As discussed above, cartography skills are in surprisingly short supply within the Department of Defense. A broad survey of the distribution of Defense Department cartographic resources would help leadership study the possibility of equipping policy offices and planning staffs with some of the capabilities currently found only in the intelligence community. Cartographic consultants could embed within planning teams, not to give them reference material, but to help add quality geographic content to documents and presentations. However, even if staff officers and decision-makers were able to create and edit better maps, they would still face practical challenges in sharing and displaying them. Cartographers have always published maps in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, but the contemporary national security community is narrowly limited to the letter-size sheets that are easily reproduced and included in briefing books. Amateur and professional cartographers alike must struggle with the tradeoff of creating the most compelling and accurate product possible while recognizing that the limitations of printers and formatting may require a black-and-white image in “portrait” orientation. The U.S. military’s devotion to “slideware” predates the arrival of Microsoft PowerPoint, but the dangers of the current PowerPoint addiction, which is antithetical to critical thinking, are well established in formal and informal critiques, such as the “Creed of the PowerPoint Ranger.”[82] PowerPoint has some advantages when it comes to displaying maps and other geospatial information, providing a common format and platform for easy sharing of files by email. PowerPoint allows the easy import and annotation of base maps, empowering any user to attempt thematic cartography by layering crude symbols, but it is very much a double-edged sword. The ease of manipulating images and adding new symbols can obscure or misuse the underlying geographic data. PowerPoint itself, and the broader system of storing, transmitting, and displaying its files, presents important limitations similar to those of printer paper and briefing books. PowerPoint locks in a specific aspect ratio that is perfect for a map of North Dakota, but not for countries like Vietnam or Chile, which have a major north-south extent (unless, of course, one follows Harrison’s advice to abandon the arbitrary “north up” convention). Because file sizes grow quickly with high-resolution images — such as a quality map — the imperative quickly becomes reducing the resolution of embedded images, which in effect deliberately reduces the quality of a map. To support necessarily large files of quality geographic products, information technology departments should seek better integration with and adoption of alternatives to email for simple and secure transfer. [quote id="5"] Digital displays have advantages in that they cheaply and easily display an array of dynamic content and can even support animation. A very early glimmer of how such technology might prove useful to support national security goals appeared in the use of animated terrain models through a program called PowerScene during the 1995 negotiations for the Dayton Accord.[83] U.S. officials, led by Richard Holbrooke, reportedly used PowerScene to great effect with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to demonstrate the advantages and infeasibility of different proposed border demarcations.[84] Visualization of detailed three-dimensional models is widely employed by the U.S. military for mission planning, but the promise of systems like PowerScene to support national-level decision-making or multilateral diplomacy, as seen at Dayton, has not materialized. The technology demonstrated at Dayton is now widely available for free: The desktop edition of Google Earth supports fly-through control with a joystick or gamepad. If deployed more widely and if users develop a natural facility with the interface, future government officials might use such a tool for studying a problem or presenting policy options, although the low level of geographic literacy and unsophisticated employment of cartographic tools detailed above suggest that simpler and more straightforward solutions would pay greater dividends in the near term. Furthermore, those employing and using this kind of visualization tool should do so conscious of the dangers of spatial de-skilling.[85] The quality of digital screens has improved dramatically in recent years, accompanied by falling prices in high-resolution displays. Nevertheless, screens still struggle to compete with paper when it comes to resolution, a major factor when rendering the fine details that the human eye can pick out of a good map. Large-format paper maps also have their own downsides. Paper maps are static, paper is expensive (and heavy in large quantity), and printers are notoriously fickle. But paper maps transport easily, roll out on any table, and work even when computers, networks, and projectors do not cooperate. The Department of Defense and national security organizations might consider shifting some of their resources away from large digital displays to make large-format color printers and plotters more widely available.

Growing a National Security Workforce Equipped to Think in Space

Although national security professionals undoubtedly score higher in geographic literacy than the general population, proper surveys of these issues would surely reveal gaps and areas for improvement. Jakub Grygiel has argued that “the education profession is failing” the needs of national security.[86] Better foundational education on geography would help enrich the geographic mental models of policymakers. Students receiving a master’s degree in national security or international relations — civilian or military — ought to receive both education and training for using geography. The differences between education and training are subtle but tremendously important: If training is learning how to perform a specific task and education is learning how to think, then both are required for thinking in space. National security professionals, whether on a military staff or at the National Security Council, could be more effective if equipped with the practical skills to develop original geographic content. They should be able to make their own maps, their own geographic arguments, and know what went into them. These practical skills, though mechanical in many ways, are potentially as valuable as the mechanical skill of proper citation in academic writing that receives such heavy emphasis at the war colleges. Just as the war colleges stress critical thinking skills to turn successful operational-level leaders into effective participants in the interagency policymaking process at the strategic level, these institutions would be ideal places to build upon the practical navigational skills of pilots, sailors, and battalion commanders in order to help them create more sophisticated and strategic mental maps.[87] Civilian and military graduate programs rightly require students to master clear and effective writing. These future decision-makers would similarly benefit from receiving training in the modern tools available for analyzing and presenting geographic information. Studies at the graduate level should involve more than just remedial familiarity with maps and should emphasize skills for mastering spatial critical thinking. Over the longer term, curriculum changes could create a broader reservoir of geographic expertise at senior levels. Professional military education requirements already highlight critical thinking and briefly mention geographic factors, but the Joint Staff ought to amplify the importance of spatial thinking and communication, alongside reading and writing, in the senior schools.[88] Civilian and military schools should draw on a well-established academic curriculum for all levels of cartography and visualization with commercial and open-source software suites, including free online courses. Other near-term solutions include the addition of courses on geographic skills in elective programs, or the creation of a geography adviser to aid students in incorporating geography and cartography into their work. Such an adviser, or a “geography center,” would not be the equivalent of a mapmaker on call. Rather, these advisers would serve as mentors to help students conceive geographic arguments and provide resources for gaining practical skills with tools like geographic information systems software. ArcGIS, produced by ESRI, is the overwhelmingly dominant geographic information systems software suite, with a market share akin to that of PowerPoint. The U.S. government is ESRI’s largest customer and ArcGIS licenses are widely available throughout different parts of the national security community. Where licensing costs are prohibitive, the leading open-source alternative to ArcGIS is QGIS, which can serve most of the geospatial analysis and cartography needs of a typical military officer or foreign policy generalist. The sophistication of software like ArcGIS and QGIS can present steep learning curves to novices. Moreover, these software suites have capabilities that go far beyond the needs of those seeking to merely incorporate effective cartography into their communication. There are, however, several other free and user-friendly options available for quickly generating base maps tailored to the purpose required. ESRI offers an online “My Map” portal that provides basic geographic information systems services and a library of base maps in different styles, with more powerful services available with a subscription.[89] The “Natural Earth” project, sponsored by a consortium including the North American Cartographic Information Society, provides an extensive set of well-curated public domain data for use in map making.[90] The cartographer Cynthia Brewer, who has published several practical guides to effective cartographic design, also maintains a website for effective and reliably reproduced color schemes that can quite literally help the amateur cartographer or designer to “paint by numbers.”[91] With a small investment in expert instruction or self-guided study, a skilled computer user can learn to create custom maps at no cost, choosing among appropriate projections in QGIS and layering data from Natural Earth.[92]


Geographic analogies are powerful instruments, though they run the same risks of cognitive bias and shallow analysis as other simplifications, such as historical analogy. The shortcomings of historical analogy have been well studied by scholars who warn against the “tyranny of the past upon the imagination,” and the dangers awaiting those who “do not examine a variety of analogies before selecting the one that they believe sheds light on their situation.”[93] The great military historian Michael Howard highlighted the dangers of overlapping analogies in both history and cartography, writing that historical battlefield maps, with “neat little blocks and arrows moving in a rational and orderly way…are an almost blasphemous travesty of the chaotic truth.”[94] Just as one ought not to depend on a single historical analogy, a senior official or policy analyst could constrain their thinking if relying on a single geographic perspective. Geography can be just as subjective as history, and those who desire to think more effectively in space should seek out multiple perspectives in the maps they study and their own mental maps. As mentioned above, Richard Edes Harrison argued that a critical first step is to dispense with persistent conventions that inhibit a “flexible view of geography,” such as always placing north at the top of the map. Harrison also wrote, in a wartime article co-authored by Robert Strausz-Hupé, that “the main pitfall to avoid is the continual use of one map, for the mind is inexorably conditioned to its shapes. It begins to look ‘right’ and all others ‘wrong.’”[95] Take as an example a map of the Taiwan Strait rotated 55 degrees. Such a map will look “wrong” at first, but has the benefit of forcing the viewer to give fresh consideration to the key distances and geographic relationships.  

Image 4: Taiwan Strait: Richard Edes Harrison encouraged the use of maps that force a new perspective on a familiar geographic issue. Map by author, 2019.

  Despite the pace of technological development and geopolitical shifts in the last two decades, the fundamental processes of national security institutions have changed remarkably little and are not conducive to the flexible view advocated by Harrison and Strausz-Hupé above.[96] The bureaucratic circulatory system continues to rely on strategy documents, memos, email, briefings, and PowerPoint slides with anemic geographic content. The current distribution of cartographic capability and the standard forms of communication within the government are stagnant and may actively contribute to spatial de-skilling.[97] Thus, the national security community needs to sharpen its understanding of the problem and consider different processes. There is limited data on questions of geographic literacy, trends in the use of geographic data, or the effectiveness of spatial thinking within the U.S. national security establishment. More research is needed to understand the institutional dimensions of how the U.S. government thinks in space, where the strengths and weakness are, what credible options for improvement exist, and what barriers inhibit their employment. Collection of such data would enable meaningful evaluation of how effectively the U.S. government’s geospatial tools and products support decision-makers and would undoubtedly suggest ways to improve the government’s use of geography and fix technical gaps and problems. Broad surveys of America’s national security institutions could not only identify any persistent holes in basic geographic knowledge but could also highlight conceptual strengths and weaknesses in employing the art and science of cartography. The findings of such investigations would provide valuable information to the civilian and military academic institutions of higher learning that shape future policymakers. There is much work to be done in studying and improving the way the U.S. national security apparatus uses geography. However, another vital question for future scholars and analysts will be how America’s potential adversaries think in space. Succeeding in a long-term strategic competition requires a deep understanding of the thought processes, priorities, and blind spots of the other side. It is crucial to understand the persistent distortions that exist in an adversary’s world view, what inefficiencies endure in the ways they process new and ambiguous geographic information, and what cartographic messages resonate best with their national security system.[98] But this will not be possible until the U.S. national security community improves its own ability to think in space. Thinking in space is only one tool available to decision-makers and is no panacea to crafting successful strategies and avoiding tragic blunders. But more sophisticated geographic thinking and communication will sharpen national security decision-making and help decision-makers to better communicate their plans to the public. The national security community must be a learning and adaptive organization. It needs an objective evaluation of how effectively it is employing geographic information and it must seek every opportunity to sharpen its skills in order to think effectively in space.   Andrew Rhodes is a career civil servant who has served as an expert in Asia-Pacific affairs in a variety of analytic, advisory, and staff positions across the Department of Defense and the interagency. He earned a BA in political science from Davidson College, an MA in international relations from The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and a certificate in Geographic Information Sciences from the University of North Dakota. He recently graduated with highest distinction from the U.S. Naval War College and is an affiliated scholar of the Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute. The contents of this paper reflect the author’s own personal views and are not necessarily endorsed by the Naval War College, the Department of the Navy, or the U.S. government. Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Peter Dutton, Michael O'Hara, Megan Rhodes, and many other Naval War College classmates, faculty, and staff who provided valuable insights for this article. [post_title] => Thinking in Space: The Role of Geography in National Security Decision-Making [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => thinking-in-space-the-role-of-geography-in-national-security-decision-making [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2020-01-09 11:05:25 [post_modified_gmt] => 2020-01-09 16:05:25 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw [lead] => Being able to "think in space" is a crucial tool for decision-makers, but one that is often deemphasized. In order to improve its ability to think in space, the national security community ought to objectively assess how effectively it is employing geographic information and seek every opportunity to sharpen its skills in this area. [pubinfo] => [issue] => Vol 2, Iss 4 [quotes] => Array ( [0] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Harrison made an impassioned plea for the importance of “geographical sense” to Americans who had been forced by the war from “a period of cartographic lethargy.” ) [1] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => In other words, policymakers may not be interested in geopolitics, but geopolitics is interested in them. ) [2] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => The government, with some exceptions, has generally treated geography and cartography as a service to be provided to customers, rather than as a core capability for decision-makers. ) [3] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => For all of the advances of integrated sensors and communications in modern military systems, some contemporary military officers have noted issues with spatial cognitive de-skilling within the officer corps due to using these digital tools in place of analog processes and paper charts.  ) [4] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => However, even if staff officers and decision-makers were able to create and edit better maps, they would still face practical challenges in sharing and displaying them.  ) [5] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => These weighty national security decisions require critical analysis of complex data. Thinking in space must play a part in these decisions, even if spatial visualization proves difficult. ) ) [style] => strategist [type] => Strategist [style_label] => The Strategist [download] => Array ( [title] => PDF Download [file] => 2441 ) [authors] => Array ( [0] => 322 ) [endnotes] => Array ( [title] => Endnotes [endnotes] => [1] Nicholas J. Spykman, America’s Strategy in World Politics: The United States and the Balance of Power (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1942), 165. [2] Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers (New York: The Free Press, 1986). [3] Neustadt and May, Thinking in Time, 2. [4] Ken Jennings, Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks (New York: Scribner, 2011). Harm de Blij, Why Geography Matters: More than Ever (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 16. [5] Kenneth N. Waltz, Man, the State, and War: A Theoretical Analysis, Revised Edition (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001). [6] M.R. O’Connor, Wayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World (New York: St. Martin’s, 2019). Lera Boroditsky and Alice Gaby, “Remembrances of Times East: Absolute Spatial Representations of Time in an Australian Aboriginal Community,” Psychological Science 21, no. 11 (2010): 1635, [7] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (New York: Alfred A. Knopf (Everyman’s Library), 1993), Book I, chap. 3, 127. [8] Joshua Hotaka Roth, “Hōkō onchi: Wayfinding and the Emergence of ‘Directional Tone-Deafness’ in Japan,” Ethos 43, no. 4 (December 2015): 402–22, [9] Eleanor A. Maguire et al., "Navigation-Related Structural Change in the Hippocampi of Taxi Drivers," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 97, no. 8 (2000): 4398–403, [10] Lewis Carroll, Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (London: Macmillan, 1893), 169. Jorge Luis Borges, “On Exactitude in Science,” in, Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley (New York: Viking Penguin, 1998). [11] Mark Monmonier, How to Lie with Maps, Second Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 1. [12] Mark Monmonier, Rhumb Lines and Map Wars: A Social History of the Mercator Projection (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004). [13] “Mapping Customer Operations,” Defense Logistics Agency, accessed Jan. 18,  2019, [14] J.A. Steers, An Introduction to the Study of Map Projections, 15th Edition (London: University of London, 1970). [15] Arthur H. Robinson and Randall D. Sale, Elements of Cartography, 3rd Edition (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1969), 250. [16] Susan Schulten, "Map Drawing, Graphic Literacy, and Pedagogy in the Early Republic," History of Education Quarterly 57, no. 2 (May 2017): 185–220, [17] Jeremy Black, Maps and History: Constructing Images of the Past (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 75. [18] Susan Schulten, Mapping the Nation: History and Cartography in Nineteenth-Century America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 2012. [19] George W. Baer, One Hundred Years of Sea Power: The U.S. Navy 1890-1990 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), 11. [20] Alan K. Henrikson, “The Map as an ‘Idea’: The Role of Cartographic Imagery During the Second World War,” The American Cartographer 2, no. 1 (1975): 19, [21] Susan Schulten, “Richard Edes Harrison and the Challenge to American Cartography,” Imago Mundi 50, no. 1 (1998): 174–188, [22] Jeremy Black, Maps and History: Constructing Images of the Past (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 230. [23] Richard Edes Harrison, ed., Look at the World: The Fortune Atlas of World Strategy (New York: Fortune, 1944). [24] Harrison, ed., Look at the World. [25] Timothy Barney, Mapping the Cold War: Cartography and the Framing of America’s International Power (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 30. [26] Alexander P. de Seversky, Air Power: Key to Survival (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950), map following page 312. [27] Neil Smith, “’Academic War over the Field of Geography’: The Elimination of Geography at Harvard 1947-1951,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 77, no. 2 (June 1987): 155­–72, [28] Smith, “Academic War,” 166. [29] Robert S. McNamara, “We Were Wrong, Terribly Wrong,” Newsweek, April 16, 1995. [30] Conor Friedersdorf, “The Battle of Khe Sanh and Its Retellings,” Atlantic Monthly, Jan. 27, 2018, [31] Barney, Mapping the Cold War, 11–16. [32] Kevin Quealy, “If Americans Can Find North Korea on a Map, They’re More Likely to Prefer Diplomacy,” New York Times, May 14, 2017,; Kyle Dropp, Joshua D. Kertzer, and Thomas Zeitzoff, “The Less Americans Know About Ukraine’s Location, the More They Want U.S. to Intervene,” Washington Post, April 7, 2014, “What College-Aged Students Know About the World: A Survey on Global Literacy,” National Geographic Society and the Council on Foreign Relations, September 2016, “Final Report: 2006 Geographic Literacy Study,” National Geographic Society and Roper Public Affairs, May 2006, [33] Quealy, “If Americans Can Find North Korea on a Map”; Dropp et al., “The less Americans know about Ukraine’s location.” [34] Benjamin Fine, “Geography Almost Ignored in Colleges, Survey Shows: Yet Most Educators Deem It Vital to Good Citizenship-Students' Knowledge of Subject Found Woefully Inadequate,” New York Times, Dec. 18, 1950, 1. Barney also references this article in juxtaposition to early Cold War headlines on the same day relating to the Korean War: see Barney, Mapping the Cold War, 96. [35] Saul Bernard Cohen, Geopolitics: The Geography of International Relations, 2nd Edition (Lanham, MD: Rowan and Littlefield, 2009), 11. [36] Martin Glassner, Political Geography (Hoboken: John Wiley and Sons, 1995), 325. [37] Jon Sumida, “Alfred Thayer Mahan, Geopolitician,” Journal of Strategic Studies, 22, no. 2-3 (1999): 42, [38] Spykman, America’s Strategy in World Politics. [39] Francis Sempa, “The Geopolitical Realism of Nicholas Spykman,” in, Nicholas J. Spykman, America’s Strategy in World Politics (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2008). [40] Nicholas J. Spykman, “Geography and Foreign Policy II,” American Political Science Review 32, no. 2 (April 1938): 224. Emphasis added. I am indebted to Jakub Grygiel, for whom I once worked as a research assistant, for highlighting this passage: Grygiel, Great Powers and Geopolitical Change, 10. [41] Spykman, America’s Strategy in World Politics, 5. [42] Robert D. Kaplan, The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate (New York: Random House, 2012), 3. [43] Jakub J. Grygiel and A. Wess Mitchell, The Unquiet Frontier: Rising Rivals, Vulnerable Allies, and the Crisis of American Power (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016). [44] Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes, Red Star over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy, 2nd Edition (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2018). [45] Spykman, America’s Strategy in World Politics, 469. [46] Spykman, America’s Strategy in World Politics, 165. [47] Robert Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), 31. [48] Edward R. Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (Cheshire, CT: The Graphics Press, 2001). Michael P. Verdi and Raymond W. Kulhavy, “Learning with Maps and Texts: An Overview,” Educational Psychology Review 14, no. 1 (March 2002): 27-46, [49] Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America, Department of Defense, January 2018, [50] National Security Strategy of the United States, The White House, December 2017,; 2018 National Defense Strategy; Providing for the Common Defense, National Defense Strategy Commission, Nov. 14, 2018,; Nuclear Posture Review, Department of Defense, February 2018,; A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, Version 2.0, United States Navy, December 2018,; 2017 Defense Posture Statement: Taking the Long View, Investing for the Future, Department of Defense, February 2016, [51] Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Aug. 16, 2018, [52] Missile Defense Review, Department of Defense, Jan. 17, 2019, [53] Personal experience of the author in 2017 and correspondence with principal members of the National Defense Strategy drafting team in 2019. [54] “About Page,” OpenStreetMap, [55] “Careers and Jobs: Geospatial Engineer (12Y),” United States Army,; “Careers and Jobs: Geospatial Intelligence Imagery Analyst (35G),” United States Army, [56] “Publication 1.0: GEOINT Basic Doctrine,” National System for Geospatial Intelligence, April 2018, The Department of Defense defines imagery as “a likeness or presentation of any natural or man-made feature or related object or activity, and the positional data acquired at the time the likeness or representation was acquired, including: products produced by space-based national intelligence reconnaissance systems; and likeness and presentations produced by satellites, airborne platforms, unmanned aerial vehicles, or other similar means.” DOD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms (Joint Publication 1-02) (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2018), 115. [57] “The Mapmaker’s Craft: A History of Cartography at CIA,” Central Intelligence Agency, Nov. 10, 2016, [58] 2018 National Defense Strategy, 3. [59] Andrew Rhodes, “Go Get Mahan’s Yardstick,” US Naval Institute Proceedings 145, no. 7 (July 2019): 19–23, [60] Xiao Tianliang [肖天亮], “'Operational Cloud' Promotes Joint Operations to a Higher Level [“作战云”把联合作战推向更高层次],” People’s Liberation Army Daily [解放军报], Jan. 5, 2016. [61] “Space Support,” Analytical Graphics, Inc., accessed July 26, 2019, [62] “Catalog of Earth Satellite Orbits,” NASA, Sept. 4, 2009, [63] Betsy Mason, “Beautiful, Intriguing, and Illegal Ways to Map the Internet,” WIRED, June 10, 2015, [64] Martin Dodge and Robert Kitchin, Atlas of Cyberspace (London: Pearson, 2002). [65] Adam Segal, The Hacked World Order: How Nations Fight, Trade, Maneuver, and Manipulate in the Digital Age (New York: PublicAffairs, 2016), 41. [66] Andrew Blum, Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet (New York: HarperCollins, 2012), 33­–34. Mapping Communication (Carlsbad, CA: TeleGeography, 2018). Electronic book is available at, accessed Jan. 24, 2019. [67] Gerald Stanley Lee, Crowds: A Moving-Picture of Democracy (New York: Doubleday, 1913), 65. [68] Stefan Münzer, Hubert D. Zimmer, and Jörg Baus. "Navigation Assistance: A Trade-Off between Wayfinding Support and Configural Learning Support," Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 18, no. 1 (2012): 18–37, [69] Klaus Gramann, Paul Hoepner, and Katja Karrer-Gauss, "Modified Navigation Instructions for Spatial Navigation Assistance Systems Lead to Incidental Spatial Learning," Frontiers in Psychology 8, no. 193 (2017),; Claudio Aporta and Eric Higgs, "Satellite Culture: Global Positioning Systems, Inuit Wayfinding, and the Need for a New Account of Technology," Current Anthropology 46, no. 5 (December 2005): 729–53, [70] Henry Grabar, “Smartphones and the Uncertain Future of 'Spatial Thinking,” Citylab (Atlantic Monthly blog), Sept. 9, 2014, [71] Quoted in, Tim Wallace, Derek Watkins, and John Schwartz, “A Map of Every Building in America,” New York Times, Oct. 12, 2018, [72] Maura C. Lohrenz, Michael E. Trenchard and Melissa R. Beck, “Clearing Up the Clutter,” Defence Management Journal (2008). Maura C. Lohrenz, et al., “Optimizing Cockpit Moving-Map Displays for Enhanced Situational Awareness,” in, Situational Awareness in the Tactical Air Environment: Augmented Proceedings of the NAWC 1st Annual Symposium (1997), chap. 13, 363–87, [73] Trent Hone, Learning War: The Evolution of Fighting Doctrine in the U.S. Navy, 1898-1945 (Annapolis: US Naval Institute Press, 2018), 206. Trent Hone, “Learning to Win: The Evolution of U.S. Navy Tactical Doctrine During the Guadalcanal Campaign,” Journal of Military History 82, no. 3 (July 2018): 817–41. [74] Edward H. Lundquist, “Surface Warfare Officers School Employing New Technology and Training Methods,” Defense Media Network, Aug. 22, 2018, [75] John P. Young, Richard O. Fanjoy, and Michael W. Suckow, “Impact of Glass Cockpit Experience on Manual Flight Skills,” Journal of Aviation/Aerospace Education and Research 15, no. 2 (Winter 2006),; John Zimmerman, “The Truth About the iPad,” Air Facts, Sept. 29, 2011,; Ron Rapp, “Teaching Flight Planning: Digital vs. Paper,” The House of Rapp, June 7, 2011,; Michael W. Gillen, Degradation of Pilot Skill, Master’s Thesis, University of North Dakota, 2008. [76] John Q. Bolton, “Modifying Situational Awareness: Perfect Knowledge and Precision Are Fantasy,” Small Wars Journal, June 10, 2018,; John Bolton, “Overkill: Army Mission Command Systems Inhibit Mission Command,” Small Wars Journal, Aug. 29, 2017, [77] Rebecca Hersman and Bernadete Stadler, “When Is More Actually Less? Situational Awareness and Nuclear Risks,” War on the Rocks, Aug. 2, 2019, [78] Robert Chesney and Danielle Citron, “Deepfakes and the New Disinformation War: The Coming Age of Post-Truth Geopolitics,” Foreign Affairs 98, no. 1 (January/February 2019), Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael D. Rich, Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2018), [79] “Lockheed Martin Selected for U.S. Air Force Navigation Warfare Study,” Business Wire, Aug. 21, 1996. [80] Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2005), 99–147. [81] Gary Klein, Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011), 104. [82] T.X. Hammes, “Dumb-dumb Bullets,” Armed Forces Journal, July 1, 2009,; Spencer Ackerman, “Colonel Kicked Out of Afghanistan for Anti-Powerpoint Rant,” WIRED, Aug. 27, 2010,; Edward R. Tufte, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within, 2nd Edition (Cheshire, Conn: Graphics Press, 1942, 2006). “PowerPoint Ranger: Where the Battle Staff Commiserates” Powerpoint Ranger, [83] Mark W. Corson and Julian V. Minghi, “Powerscene: Application of New Geographic Technology to Revolutionise Boundary Making,” IBRU Boundary and Security Bulletin, Summer 1996, 34–37. [84] Ethan Watters, “Virtual War and Peace,” Wired, March 1996, [85] Eric Van Rees, “AR, VR and GIS Have Finally Found Each Other,” Spar3D, Oct. 10, 2017, [86] Jakub Grygiel, “Educating for National Security,” Orbis 57, no. 2 (Spring 2013): 201–216, [87] Kevin P. Kelley and Joan Johnson-Freese, “Getting to the Goal in Professional Military Education,” Orbis 58, no. 1 (Winter 2013): 119–31, [88] “Officer Professional Military Education Policy,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Instruction 18001.01E, May 29, 2015 [89] “ My Map,” ArcGIS, accessed Nov. 7, 2019, [90] “Home Page,” Natural Earth, [91] Cynthia A. Brewer, Designing Better Maps: A Guide for GIS Users (Redlands, CA: Esri Press, 2015). Cynthia Brewer, Mark Harrower, and the Pennsylvania State University, “COLORBREWER 2.0: Color Advice for Cartographers,” [92] “Projection Wizard” is an excellent tool for amateur cartographers needing assistance selecting a projection and importing it to software like QGIS. See, [93] Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International Politics, 217–18, 281–82. [94] Michael Howard, “The Use and Abuse of Military History,” Royal United Services Institution Journal 107, no. 625 (1962): 4–10. [95] Richard Edes Harrison and Robert Strausz-Hupé, “Maps, Strategy, and World Politics,” Infantry Journal, November 1942, 40. [96] Wolf Melbourne, “Naval Intelligence’s Lost Decade,” US Naval Institute Proceedings 144, no. 12 (December 2018): 44–48, [97] Claude Berube, “How to Avoid a Naval Intelligence Jutland,” War on the Rocks, Oct. 18, 2019, [98] For one example of Chinese scholars discussing the nexus of cartography and geopolitical analysis, citing many of the same issues raised here, see, He Guangqiang and Song Xiuju (何光强, 宋秀琚), “Map Projection and Geopolitical Analysis: A Perspective of Spatial Cognition (地图投影与地球政法分析:一种空间认知的视角),” Human Geography (人文地理), no. 2, 2014. ) [contents] => Array ( [title] => [contents] => ) ) [4] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 1862 [post_author] => 102 [post_date] => 2019-09-10 05:00:14 [post_date_gmt] => 2019-09-10 09:00:14 [post_content] => Policymaking is a discipline, a craft, and a profession. Policymakers apply specialized knowledge — about other countries, politics, diplomacy, conflict, economics, public health, and more — to the practical solution of public problems. Effective policymaking is difficult. The “hardware” of policymaking — the tools and structures of government that frame the possibilities for useful work — are obviously important. Less obvious is that policy performance in practice often rests more on the “software” of public problem-solving: the way people size up problems, design actions, and implement policy. In other words, the quality of the policymaking. Like policymaking, engineering is a discipline, a craft, and a profession. Engineers learn how to apply specialized knowledge — about chemistry, physics, biology, hydraulics, electricity, and more — to the solution of practical problems. Effective engineering is similarly difficult. People work hard to learn how to practice it with professional skill. But, unlike the methods taught for engineering, the software of policy work is rarely recognized or studied. It is not adequately taught. There is no canon or norms of professional practice. American policymaking is less about deliberate engineering, and is more about improvised guesswork and bureaucratized habits. My experience is as a historian who studies the details of policy episodes and the related staff work, but also as a former official who has analyzed a variety of domestic and foreign policy issues at all three levels of American government, including federal work from different bureaucratic perspectives in five presidential administrations from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama. From this historical and contemporary vantage point, I am struck (and a bit depressed) that the quality of U.S. policy engineering is actually much, much worse in recent decades than it was throughout much of the 20th century. This is not a partisan observation — the decline spans both Republican and Democratic administrations. I am not alone in my observations. Francis Fukuyama recently concluded that, “[T]he overall quality of the American government has been deteriorating steadily for more than a generation,” notably since the 1970s. In the United States, “the apparently irreversible increase in the scope of government has masked a large decay in its quality.”[1] This worried assessment is echoed by other nonpartisan and longtime scholars who have studied the workings of American government.[2] The 2003 National Commission on Public Service observed,
The notion of public service, once a noble calling proudly pursued by the most talented Americans of every generation, draws an indifferent response from today’s young people and repels many of the country’s leading private citizens. … The system has evolved not by plan or considered analysis but by accretion over time, politically inspired tinkering, and neglect. … The need to improve performance is urgent and compelling.[3]
And they wrote that as the American occupation of Iraq was just beginning. In this article, I offer hypotheses to help explain why American policymaking has declined, and why it was so much more effective in the mid-20th century than it is today. I offer a brief sketch of how American education about policy work evolved over the past hundred years, and I argue that the key software qualities that made for effective policy engineering neither came out of the academy nor migrated back into it. I then outline a template for doing and teaching policy engineering. I break the engineering methods down into three interacting sets of analytical judgments: about assessment, design, and implementation. In teaching, I lean away from new, cumbersome standalone degree programs and toward more flexible forms of education that can pair more easily with many subject-matter specializations. I emphasize the value of practicing methods in detailed and more lifelike case studies. I stress the significance of an organizational culture that prizes written staff work of the quality that used to be routine but has now degraded into bureaucratic or opinionated dross. Many former officials share such concerns, as will become apparent.[4] My suggestions use a relatively simple template, making it easy for people to learn and use it. But, as in engineering, knowing the steps for good policy design is much simpler than implementing them in professional practice. That is why in-depth case work in training and a strong organizational culture in practice are so important, and so difficult. Of course, some will point to dysfunction in the hardware of American politics and policy as a cause of the decline in policymaking prowess. But whatever the other issues, surely part of the solution to improving American policymaking must include better performance in analyzing, crafting, and implementing solutions to public problems.

Policymaking: Hardware vs. Software

The software of substantive public problem-solving overlaps with the formal procedures of government, but it is really a different subject. The software of policy is about how policies are crafted within a given set of processes and constraints. Software includes methods or routines for the way the substantive work is done, at the level of the individual professional and the institution. At every stage, the software includes organizational cultures for getting and evaluating information, for doing analysis, and for recording what is being done. By contrast, the tools and structures that frame the possibilities for useful work may be described as the hardware of policymaking. Explanations for failures of policy tend to focus on the structure of government. While hardware constraints are real, in my experience, problems often have at least as much to do with bad software. Good software is also one of the few defenses against bad hardware. For instance, amid all the public controversies about law in America, the United States still does reasonably well upholding the rule of law and the administration of justice. Why? One reason is because the American legal profession has established very strong norms about what constitutes appropriate legal reasoning and quality legal research and writing. This is software. [quote id="1"] Such norms are no sure cure for partisanship, caprice, incompetence, and corruption. But, in the American legal world, generally accepted norms for legal research and writing do help constrain excesses, clarify arguments and evidence, and expose sloppy work. They provide a common vocabulary for evaluation and analysis. In American public policy design, however, there are no comparable norms that distinguish professional craft. There is no commonly understood set of habits that routinely force out necessary questions and naturally highlight gaps in information or analysis. Good software, rigorous training, and strong organizational culture can decisively improve performance. One of the more interesting social-science experiments ever conducted for policy work, the University of Pennsylvania and U.C.-Berkeley’s “Good Judgment Project” led by Philip Tetlock, Barbara Mellers, and Don Moore, funded by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, ran from 2011 to 2015. It included work from more than 25,000 forecasters making more than a million predictions about world developments. The study’s basic conclusions: “First, talented generalists often outperform specialists in making forecasts. Second, carefully crafted training can enhance predictive acumen. And third, well-run teams can outperform individuals.”[5] Consider that an illustration of what is possible in just one facet of work.

Preparing to Make Policy

Bad policymaking is almost unavoidable when policymakers undertake complex and difficult work without adequate training or preparation. Unfortunately, a lack of adequate training or preparation seems to be the norm among American policymakers today. Why? I offer three premises: First, general training among senior and mid-level policy professionals is radically insufficient to prepare them to do action-focused analysis and assessment, high-quality written policy design work, and adaptive, people-centered implementation. Usually this training simply does not exist. Second, whatever the talents of individual politicians or officials or commentators, they will remain idiosyncratic unless the craft is institutionalized in a canon of professional education and the related ideas are better understood. Third, even if certain professional or graduate schools (e.g., in public policy, law, political science, or economics) had an effective canon of this kind, which I believe they do not, such programs — as currently configured — simply will not reach, or are effectively unavailable, to the large majority of people who will find themselves actually filling most senior and mid-level policy jobs. Modern American political history offers support for these premises, as I outline below. As this sketch reveals, the best practices that made the software of American policymaking successful in the mid-20th century neither came out of the academy nor migrated back into it. They were never adequately turned into canonical methods, “carefully crafted training,” or an organizational culture of well-run analytical teams.

A Brief History of Preparing Policymakers

American education for public service “has differed from such education in most if not all other parts of the world.”[6] Outside of the Army and Navy, the notion of professional “careers” in public service did not emerge in America until the late 19th century. The passage of the Pendleton Act in 1883 created the first national civil service in America and many states adopted similar reforms. These laws required competitive examinations for entry into public service — although the educational levels required were not high. Basic literacy and numeracy were desired, as was some knowledge of accounting and some constitutional history. A loosely defined field of “public administration” arose during the early 20th century. The impetus for it was a delayed reaction to the rapid urbanization of America, one of the great social upheavals in the history of the country. The field of public administration combined general administrative skills and knowledge (e.g., finance, accounting, personnel management), relevant technical knowledge (e.g., hydrology, criminology), and some knowledge about emerging social sciences. The Training School for Public Service, founded in 1911, was typical among pioneering public administration institutions. At first not associated with any university, it was instead part of the New York Bureau of Municipal Research, founded in 1906. In 1931, the Training School in New York City broke up. Part of it went to Columbia University and part to the important Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, which was founded in 1924 with six public administration students. The Woodrow Wilson School was established at Princeton University in 1930. In Washington, DC, Robert Brookings founded a research institute and graduate school in the early 1920s, later reduced just to research. Between 1914 and 1930, several dozen institutions created small programs in public or municipal administration.[7] Diplomacy escaped all formal professionalization until early in the 20th century. Diplomats, as distinct from consuls, did not begin to have to pass examinations until the mid-1920s. “Then, as now, many of the higher diplomatic posts remained ‘spoils.’”[8] In the United States, expertise in statecraft was often equated with experience in the principles and practice of international law. To foster its study, the American Society of International Law was founded in 1906. Some indication of the society’s stature can be gathered from noting that its first president was Elihu Root (1906–24), who had been Theodore Roosevelt’s secretary of war and then secretary of state. When Root stepped down, his place was taken by the then-secretary of state (and future chief justice of the Supreme Court), Charles Evans Hughes (1924–29). In those years, the society regularly held meetings at the White House and was addressed by the president. In addition to skill in the practice of international law, skill in foreign policy work was also often associated with the knowledge of international business. Familiarity with diplomatic history was a plus, as was knowledge of foreign languages, geography, and culture. The new law schools could well have become a broader base for training policymakers. But the formative ones, such as Harvard Law under Dean Christopher Langdell, sought to foster as their distinct intellectual identity a new science of legal thinking, its principles to be discovered through the study of cases. In this context, “administrative law” became a field within law schools, conceived of as an effort to decode the legal principles that guided court review of administrative decisions.[9] Very early, the public administration schools moved away from older styles of training in governing philosophies, political thought, and civic virtue, the kinds of educations urged by men like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, or John Stuart Mill. Like the founders of American political science, these academic leaders thought such educational agendas were old-fashioned and too concerned with formal structures. Instead, the new leaders of these schools wanted to move beyond discussions of political philosophy and civic virtue. They wanted to build policies on the scientific study of social conditions and political behavior. They hoped that “scientific — ‘what is’ — studies would replace public-spirited — ‘what should be’ — studies.” Their argument was that by understanding the sociology of criminal behavior, the economics of labor unrest, the public health of cities, or the patterns of behavior among elected officials, there would be a scientific basis for action, and that this was better than just a lot of nostalgic, virtuous philosophizing.[10] This model for a school of public administration added some value. Various disciplines gathered valuable information about social conditions and theories about social behavior. Public administration was then informed by such knowledge. But neither the early schools, like Maxwell, nor the emerging discipline of “political science,” developed a canon for how best to apply scientific knowledge to higher-level policy design.[11] [quote id="2"] Political science was built up as a discipline to consider policymakers objectively, as objects of study. Such scientists view the behavior of policymakers much as entomologists view the behavior of insects. Neither set of scientists are necessarily concerned with giving “how to” advice to their subjects. In saying this, I am not trying to join a culture war decrying the relevance of social science. I simply observe the way such scientists tend to formulate their problems and questions, which then affects everything else. Much of the debate about relevance in those disciplines is a supply-side argument: that if they produced different scholarship, such work would be more influential. My argument in this article is different. It is a demand-side argument. It is that, as the software of policy work has deteriorated, the people doing policy work no longer do the analysis — or articulate the questions — to seek out and use relevant knowledge, whatever its source. I think it will be most impactful to fix the demand side of the problem. The Golden Age of American Policymaking Policy staff work of all kinds achieved a relative high point with the crises of the 1940s. The craft and discipline of policymaking was already surging because of the public responses to the Great Depression. But World War II produced a vast mobilization of talent to tackle a staggering array of military, economic, and governance problems. The Allied successes included extremely high-quality policy work on grand strategy, logistics, and problem-solving of every kind. The German and Japanese high commands were comparably deficient in all these respects.[12] Paul Kennedy calls this software advantage the “most important variable of all.” Analytically, he noticed “a support system, a culture of encouragement, efficient feedback loops, a capacity to learn from setbacks, an ability to get things done.” All of this could permit “the middlemen in this grinding conflict the freedom to experiment, to offer ideas and opinions, and to cross traditional institutional boundaries.”[13] From these tremendous accomplishments, I note five observations: First, no one should overly romanticize the often quarrelsome, wasteful, and chaotic world of Washington during these years. There were many mistakes, some of them deadly and disastrous. Nor did the skills come from a well-thought-through template of the kind proposed in this paper. They emerged piecemeal from vast and stressful experience, amid plenty of bureaucratic rivalry and confusion. Second, the experience arose from years of trial and error in managing the most challenging rival sets of claims and arguments on a global scale. With their long experience in doing this, including the challenges of managing resources, shipping, and manpower, the British staffing systems were the most evolved. British staffing practices were envied and then emulated by the Americans. Third, the relevant qualities did not, by and large, migrate from the American universities. Nor did the qualities migrate back to them. Fourth, the relevant qualities did emerge from some distinctive cultures and leaders. One big tributary was the very strong, decentralized problem-solving culture of American business in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.[14] In that era, the paradigmatic discipline of American business and industry was engineering, and the paradigmatic figure was that of the ingenious tinkerer who deeply understood both design and production and knew his way around the shop floor. Bill Knudsen at General Motors, who started his career in bicycle and auto parts, and as a builder of steam engines, was a typical and well-known exemplar. Another great tributary was the managerial culture inside the armed forces, fostered by specific individuals. The military leaders during the war who set the tone for the high-level staff work were strategic managers — men like George C. Marshall or the civilian resource manager, Ferdinand Eberstadt, rather than “warriors” like Douglas MacArthur. It was no accident that Marshall elevated his most trusted staffer and planner in 1942, Dwight Eisenhower, to top command. Marshall and Eisenhower had strong views about the organizational culture of effective policymaking. Underperforming staff officers or program managers were frequently relieved and reassigned. Fifth, the wartime and immediate postwar experience profoundly influenced organizational culture for another generation or so. A great many Americans had been drawn into the work of higher-level policy design on numerous topics. “One analyst referred to [the war] as the largest program in postdoctoral education for faculty in the nation’s history.” There was a similar impact on the nation’s lawyers.[15] The breadth of experience summed up by these five observations about policy culture and staff work carried over into postwar efforts. In 1947, as secretary of state, Marshall used his first national radio address to the American people to remind them that, “Problems which bear directly on the future of our civilization cannot be disposed of by general talk or vague formulae – by what Lincoln called ‘pernicious abstractions.’ They require concrete solutions for definite and extremely complicated questions.”[16] The military and business cultures of the United States in this period were intensely oriented toward practical problem-solving. They emphasized meticulous written staff work: unending flows of information and estimates, habitual preparation of meeting records or minutes, constant and focused debates about priorities and tradeoffs, and guidance directives drafted with concise precision that a lawyer would envy. The result, especially by 1943 and afterward, was marked in dozens of projects from the atom bomb to the Marshall Plan to the Berlin Airlift. Any close study of such efforts reveals superior construction of large-scale, complex multi-instrument policy packages, including frequent adjustments. The point about constant adjustment and iteration is notable. Even in military technology, most of the key Allied innovations turned out to be second-generation innovations. In other words, they were not the airplanes or ships that were available or in production at the start of the war. Instead, they were new or improved models of every kind, several of which had not even been imagined before the war. They were developed with agility and on a massive scale by a number of agencies and scores of companies in response to ongoing lessons learned, lessons that were constantly, consciously being extracted and studied. It is difficult for those who have not pored through the archives to appreciate the scale and scope of this work, ranging from economic statecraft to amphibious operations to science policy. The extraordinary sets of official history volumes from World War II, familiar to historians of the period, give a sense for the work. They are also a striking illustration of the organizational culture that would produce such meticulous and admirable historical analyses. The organizational culture that accomplished so much during the war was passed along mainly through imitation and apprenticeship. But the best practices did not migrate into standardized training or academic degree programs. The Microeconomic Turn The mid-20th-century academic paradigm of policymaking assumed a relatively neat separation between “policy” on the one hand (often equated with lawmaking) and “administration” on the other, presumably informed by good social science. By the 1960s, this older paradigm seemed more and more out of date. Although intellectuals recognized the huge intermediate space that was being filled by policymaking, academia had trouble figuring out how to teach it. Older public administration programs suffered an institutional identity crisis. The private foundations that had helped build up that field in the 1930s lost interest. The field of public administration fell into lower repute as compared with the rising social sciences. Partly in response, a new trend in public policy education took shape. The social sciences were developing new techniques for the systematic analysis of public policies using analytic models, many derived from economic theory, along with quantitative methods. The federal government was pouring money not only into the expansion of government services, but also into training programs. In 1958, the Government Employees Training Act became law, while grants from the Civil Service Commission helped to subsidize large numbers of mid-career students. Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School was transformed by a 1965 gift from Charles and Marie Robertson. In 1968, the University of Michigan converted its public administration institute into an institution for “public policy studies.” Also in 1968, Harvard scrapped its former school of public administration, established a new John F. Kennedy School of Government, and developed an entirely new academic program for it. During that same academic year, the University of California created a new Graduate School of Public Policy at its flagship Berkeley campus, awarding a new “public policy” degree to replace its earlier offering in public administration. [quote id="3"] Dedicating one of the new buildings at the Woodrow Wilson School in May 1966, President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed that “the public servant today moves along paths of adventure where he is helpless without the tools of advanced learning.” He said the country would need “enormous new drafts of trained manpower into the public service.” A presidential task force recommended new programs to train these “enormous new drafts.” Foundations like Carnegie and Ford took on the role that the Social Science Research Council had played in an earlier generation. All this momentum produced one of the most significant changes in professional higher education of that generation. “At the heart of this shift [during the 1960s and early 1970s] was a growing faith in the power and prestige of economics as a field, a method, and even a science.” For instance, “in and around Robert McNamara’s Department of Defense, economists put into practice techniques of program analysis and benefit-cost measurement, which President Lyndon Johnson then forced on all domestic departments involved in building his Great Society.” One scholar involved in this shift recalled
visiting the office of a cabinet secretary in order to explain to him a several-hundred-page booklet on policy planning budget systems, one of the hallmark techniques of the era. He came upon the secretary fingering the booklet and asking, ‘What is this piece of shit?’ He had the pleasure of responding, ‘That piece of shit, sir, is what the president of the United States has directed that you introduce into your department.’[17]
The triumph of the RAND analysts, as some called it, put a lasting mark on education for public service. The core curriculum for that degree and similar foundational programs, like the one at Berkeley, then set a widely imitated paradigm which claimed that it taught “policy analysis.” Economic tools for analyzing policy were regarded as novel. They fostered evidentiary discussion of outcomes. And, because the tools came from “demanding social science disciplines,” they “helped give the curriculum of the fledgling public policy schools a certain kind of legitimacy in the academic world in which they were struggling for academic respect.”[18] “But left open, however,” one of the founding deans of such schools recalled,
were the answers to two further important questions: first, the extent to which schools of public policy intended to train individuals to participate effectively in the governmental process as policy makers as well as policy analysts; and if so, how individuals trained to be policy analysts, or policy makers … would relate to the political processes that were an inevitable part of policy making in a democratic society.[19]
Further, in the new curricula the definition of “policy analysis” was narrowed. In this paradigm, policy analysis teaching would focus on “economics, statistics, and quantitative analysis.” In such core curricula, at least half of the courses are in economics and statistics.[20] They focus especially on cost-benefit analysis and the microeconomic fields of behavioral economics, game theory, and operations research. Any student who masters this curriculum and the relevant statistics applications would be equipped to contribute to certain kinds of policy-related research. The student could model theories of action for certain kinds of public problems. But most policymaking challenges, and the related staff work, call upon different sets of skills. As a result, even as it triumphed in this part of academia, the microeconomic paradigm of policy analysis was passing out of fashion in much of government. In the world of foreign policy, the microeconomic paradigm never gained much traction to begin with, except in segments of development work.[21] Some studies have been done on the alumni of this kind of policy analysis education to see how well it worked for them in practice. The results seriously question the value of such core curricula. The alumni told the investigators that they wished they had learned more about topics like “policy design.”[22] While the study of policy analysis was taking its microeconomic turn, the study of “public administration” went through its crisis and advanced forward. It was revived as a field of “public management.” That field, fortunately, has continued to mature and advance.[23] Social Science and the Return of the Lawyers After World War II, law and lawyers became more and more powerful in establishing paradigms for domestic policymaking in the United States. In foreign policy, the story was very different. The older paradigm for expertise, that of international law, lost its dominant standing. No critic was more influential than the famous former diplomat George Kennan, who published a set of polemical lectures on “American Diplomacy” in 1951 attacking what he regarded as a legalist-moralist strain in American statecraft.[24] Kennan himself had no particular use for social science. He spent the rest of his life writing history and historical reflections. History and social science continue to be invaluable resources for evidence about trends and causes in social behavior. The gap remains in the application of this knowledge to the solution of practical problems. This is not because academics do bad work. Their work varies, as always. But, as I mentioned earlier, their work is fundamentally oriented to answering questions that are meaningful within their scholarly fields. These questions are very different from the kinds of questions actually encountered in the application of their knowledge to the solution of practical problems. There is a similar divide between the world of laboratory science disciplines and the world of engineering. Chemical engineering is not just applied chemistry. It is a distinctive discipline with canonical methods of its own. In the engineering disciplines, this point was grasped more than a hundred years ago. Law schools have become principal producers of the people who are actually going into the policy jobs. Lawyer-officials have ready gifts. They know how to make an argument. They are usually experienced writers. On a good day, they are relatively rigorous in attending to factual and legal detail. The tradeoff for these “generalist” skills, however, is a lack of much subject-matter or foreign expertise. Experienced as advocates who can pick evidence to defend a position, lawyers are not necessarily trained to weigh and sift positions on both sides. Experienced in being asked to decide what “can” be done, lawyers are not trained to analyze what “should” be done, even in policies having to do with policing or the administration of justice. They have no necessary experience in policy design, analysis, or implementation. Perhaps above all, a lawyerly cast to government tends to emphasize process over substance. Meetings proliferate. Sides are heard. The quality of written staff work takes second place.

The Teaching Problem and “Thick” Cases 

The World War II generation learned much about effective policy work, but never quite figured out how to teach it. Data for the microeconomic sort of policy analysis is also rarely connected to the data about implementation. Experts in program evaluation and experts in performance management became estranged, “a tale of two children who were brought up in the same house but were raised by different tribes and aren’t so friendly with one another.”[25] One part of the problem is that policy engineering is complicated. Assessing a policy situation is a classic problem of “thick description.” In academia, if readers will forgive me for lapsing momentarily into academic-speak, thick description
accurately describes observed social actions and assigns purpose and intentionality to these actions, by way of the researcher’s understanding and clear description of the context under which the social actions took place. Thick description captures the thoughts and feelings of participants as well as the often complex web of relationships among them. Thick description leads to thick interpretation, which in turn leads to thick meaning of the research findings. … Thick meaning of findings leads readers to a sense of verisimilitude, wherein they can cognitively and emotively ‘place’ themselves within the research context.[26]
For readers who got bogged down in that definition, the punch line is in the last sentence. Consider the Marshall Plan, for example. The simple memory of this might be that Americans wisely displayed exceptional generosity and foresight in committing a lot of money to help rebuild Europe. But that level of understanding barely begins to comprehend the qualities of the work involved in developing and implementing the European Recovery Program. The genius of the program is found in the details of the design, which are difficult to summarize quickly but include the way the plan involved the Europeans in working out the program designs and new ways to cooperate within Europe, the way the program set up and used local “counterpart” funds for acquisitions in each of the participating European countries, and the way it rallied wary U.S. congressmen with elements that appealed to the businessmen in their districts. Even at the level of higher strategy, the Marshall Plan reflected a choice of where to commit resources and energy — in this case, a massive commitment to Western Europe amid the simultaneous clamor for a commitment instead to America’s favored side in China’s civil war. Many public policy problems are like this, “thick” with successive stages of problem-solving, each with layers of analysis and context. Such thick problems are relatively resistant to social science generalizations. They also confound quests for generic forecasting. The problem has spawned an extensive literature about the craft of analyzing and sifting specific information, although in America much of this work is mainly known and taught among professional intelligence analysts.[27] All this is hard to translate to the classroom for a variety of reasons. First, many teachers do not have the requisite knowledge of policy-relevant details, because they have never been involved in the subject-matter specialization and because their scholarly disciplines do not usually expect (or even want) them to master such problem-solving skills. [quote id="4"] Second, hiring practitioners does not necessarily help. When ex-practitioners go into the classroom, they can often tell stories. They remember some of the details. Yet, they have no canon for how to teach about their experiences. One expert who surveyed courses in diplomacy all over America found that the differences were enormous. Across academics and practitioners alike, she concluded, “I could not find a common core.” Instead, what she found were courses that just elide the messy challenge of how to solve problems, especially if they involved other governments. Some courses focus on acquiring transnational expertise, “without distrusted national governments getting in the way.” Other courses dodge engagement by being aimed more at Americans who view the world as “a pathological mess” and just want protection from it. Then they focus on security studies, including intelligence, like the study of how to diagnose a disease, without attempting to teach about how to solve a foreign problem.[28] Third, college courses prefer “thin” cases that are easy to digest and understand in a single class before moving on to the next topic. The structure of a course usually leaves little time for students to delve very deeply into the details, personalities, and issues in any specific episode. To do so requires too much reading or assumes too much background knowledge. Students like stories. But, in the classroom, memorably thin descriptions and colorful anecdotes are preferred. Even classes that use a case method rarely devote multiple classes, much less weeks, to microexamination of a single case, however rich it may be. One popular solution to teaching about problem-solving is to stage a simulation. Yet, simulations in such simplified thin cases “devolve rather rapidly into theater.” International crisis simulations reinforce the notion of diplomacy as “an event or series of events, of crisis management or negotiations done in a matter of days.” To a veteran practitioner, “Diplomacy is to simulations as the practice of medicine is to the TV show ‘ER.’”[29] Another practice in contemporary teaching about policy work enjoins students to try writing “options” papers, modeled on policy memos. A typical policy memo in contemporary American government consists of some discussion of what is going on, something about process, and recommended talking points. If there is any policy analysis at all, it rarely advances much beyond op-ed style argument. As if to learn to imitate this mediocrity, students writing options papers are often urged to keep their papers short — op-ed length — supposedly so they can learn how to engage the attention of busy policymakers. The would-be experts thus learn to be experts by dumbing themselves down. Such training does not prepare students to engage professionally with the messy details of the policy instruments being used or the messy details of the local circumstances in which these concepts may actually be tested.

The Organizational Culture Problem

The usual focus in the study of organizational culture is on the culture of operators, of the “street-level bureaucracy,” as the title of one classic work put it.[30] These studies tend to neglect the organizational culture of higher-level policy work. Yet, it was just that part of organizational culture that was so essential in the software of the American organization for victory in World War II and its most effective public problem-solving in the postwar years. This part of the software is made up of formal and informal routines for activities that seem mundane, but are not. These cultural routines and habits define the way the key organizations distribute information about what is going on, including the ways top officials get their information every morning; comment upon or “clear” incoming reports or policy papers; delegate policy work; interact with “the field”; analyze issues for higher-level discussion and decision; resolve differences, either through written work or in meetings; record and brief about policy discussions and decisions; and critique their work. There are great variations in these practices. American practices are different than in other governments. They even vary greatly over time within the same agency. Two specific examples, both in the foreign policy world, illustrate this point. Through World War II and the postwar years, daily information about what was going on in the world was provided to top leaders by diplomatic and military reports, from the State Department and the armed services. Beginning in the 1960s, and evolving very slowly during the next 30 years, the CIA took over the job. The CIA became a systematic primary source of daily publications and briefings to tell top leaders what was going on in the world. The armed forces’ products quickly receded in importance and the quality deteriorated. By the 2000s, the State Department’s daily morning product had disappeared altogether and was abolished. Intelligence agencies have very particular strengths and weaknesses in what they follow and what they do. So, reliance on the intelligence agencies for the morning “papers” has very large effects on what policymakers see about the world. It also has very damaging effects on the incentives and quality surrounding diplomatic and military reporting. But this growing reliance on the daily worldview of the intelligence community (not necessarily drawing from foreign field presence or experience) was not the product of a conscious policy choice. It evolved incrementally, with little notice or reflection. Records of policy discussions provide another example of the variation of organizational cultures over time. Through the war and postwar years, careful records were usually kept for all high-level meetings among American officials. This is hard to do. It was not done mainly out of regard for historians, although that was a factor. It was done because such records were considered essential for good government. It forced reflection on what had been said or not said. It helped others stay current if they had a need to know what was going on. These habits were so thoroughly ingrained that even when President Eisenhower met one-on-one with his secretary of state, almost invariably one or both men would routinely prepare a written record of what they had just said to each other. The secret recording systems used by Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Richard Nixon were an extension of such habits, as dictabelts and tape machines made their way into offices. Henry Kissinger’s staff prepared excellent records of about 15,000 of his meetings and telephone calls. These routines remained relatively strong through the 1970s and even well into the 1980s, though they were starting to fade. It is now rare to find any good records kept of what is said at meetings among American officials. The quality of the records of meetings with foreigners has also deteriorated. The usual excuse given is the horror of leaks. But that horror was perfectly familiar to officials of the wartime and postwar generation as well. Though constantly irritated by leaks, those past officials thought that the net value of routines of good governance took precedence. The real reasons for the change are likely more banal. There was no conscious policy choice across the administrations to quit preparing good records. It is just hard to do it. Without a routinized discipline, it vanishes from the day-to-day culture. In the postwar period, detailed written estimates and policy staff work were the norm. Papers were subjected to constant peer review from colleagues who were similarly trained and experienced. Very busy officers were accustomed to writing and reading lengthy papers of this kind every day. Thousands of Americans acquired such experience. They could be found operating at the highest levels in Marshall Plan development (such as the famed economists Charles Kindleberger and Edward Mason), occupation governance (such as the young Kissinger), strategic planning, research and development (for example, Vannevar Bush’s team at the wartime Office of Scientific Research and Development and later in the creation of the National Science Foundation), and much more. One pattern in the War Department culture was that responsibility for planning and responsibility for operations were inseparable. A planner had to be willing and able to convert his work into action.[31] Developing these habits, the Americans during the 1940s were strongly influenced, through common work in various Allied organizations, by long-established and relatively high-quality British processes for collective policy analysis and staff work. Eisenhower was both a product and exemplar of such Allied experience. Although the origins are almost forgotten, the 1947 creation of America’s National Security Council system was greatly influenced by the model of British systems, including the British War Cabinet system. Many of the Americans had come to know, imitate, and grudgingly admire those staffing methods. They consciously adapted analogous habits of systematic paper preparation, record-keeping, historical evaluation, peer commentary, lucid guidance, and collective decision-making. Eisenhower well understood this background about why the National Security Council was created and how it was originally expected to function. He was the last American president who did.[32] [quote id="5"] The Pentagon Papers on the decisions made during the Vietnam War, the subject of the 2017 film, “The Post,” were an anachronism in more than one way. As bad as the Vietnam decisions were, the policy papers were long, detailed, and rigorous. The Pentagon Papers were such a revelation because this underlying policy work, and the dilemmas being presented, were relatively lucid and self-revealing. Suppose contemporary officials actually opened up and read some of these documents about Vietnam today. Suppose they contrasted the quality of the memos written in the 1960s with the papers they have seen cross their desk more recently, say, on policy toward Afghanistan or Iraq. These officials might be a bit bewildered. In their own working lives, they may never have seen written staff analyses of this kind, work that was so commonplace 50 years ago.[33] The sheer existence of the Pentagon Papers project is another revealing symptom of a vanished organizational culture. This work of thoroughgoing historical reflection was done at the direct behest of Secretary of Defense McNamara, during the Johnson administration. Back then, this sort of high-quality review was not so strange. There were other searching, internal self-examinations, like the ones done after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, or after the swine flu vaccine mess during the Ford administration. It is hard now to imagine the kind of American government that would even commission an internal study as meticulous as the Pentagon Papers, or the kind of studies the Kennedy and Ford administrations ordered to examine their own failures.[34] Outsiders — and even many insiders, especially the less-experienced ones — are unconscious of most of this software, and how much it varies. Historians rarely notice such things or compare contrasting routines over time. Although the details of such staffing practices have been extensively studied in Britain, I do not know of any comparable published work on these practices in the United States. One way to spot the decline in the quality of written policy work is to notice if the paper simply describes what is going on and then moves on to statements of what “we” want, with “talking points.” In this environment, PowerPoint slides replace prose analysis. As the quality of written staff work declines, fewer decisions can be made based off the paperwork. High-level meetings proliferate. They become a surrogate for good written analysis and advocacy. In such oral processes, delegation of analysis and action is more difficult. More and more policy work gets pulled up to the level of overworked principals, and their own ill-documented oral meetings. Meanwhile, senior agency officials turn more and more into functionaries. As they know their work or views are less meaningful, the trend reinforces the downward cycle. The older organizational culture naturally placed a high value on in-depth knowledge and analysis. In the CIA’s analytic world, for instance, Cold War-era estimates “could draw on a deep base of knowledge,” the 9/11 Commission observed in 2004. But,
[w]hen the Cold War ended, those investments could not easily be reallocated to new enemies. The cultural effects ran even deeper. In a more fluid international environment with uncertain, changing goals and interests, intelligence managers no longer felt they could afford such a patient, strategic approach to long-term accumulation of intellectual capital. A university culture with its versions of books and articles was giving way to the culture of the newsroom.[35]
With the disappearance of these organizational cultures, largely unnoticed, the software of policymaking that went with them also faded away about a generation ago. The deterioration in policymaking software has had a huge impact, as several recent policy episodes, including the Iraq War, have made clear. Yet, the present generation of policymakers and politicians are, understandably, not even aware of what has happened or how the government has changed.

A Template for Policy Engineering: Assessment … Design … Implementation

“Design process” is a phrase that is foundational in engineering education, in which students are trained in how to apply knowledge to the solution of practical problems. One of the main purposes of an engineering design process is to generate better questions and focus them constructively. Such focused questions then drive more specific, in-depth assessment. Engineers are often taught a set of steps they must memorize, steps that are put on a card they carry in their wallet. The specific steps memorized by engineering trainees vary from textbook to textbook or teacher to teacher. Common formulas have five or seven steps. MIT’s fine course on “Engineering Innovation and Design” in its renowned Gordon Engineering Leadership Program has a 10-step design process.[36] “Design” has become a fashionable concept during the last ten years. Although the usages overlap, they vary in important ways. In the business world, “design thinking” has become a term synonymous with a search for greater creativity in thinking about what the firm is trying to do. A leader in this field is the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford’s Its guide to design thinking breaks down a process with five stages (with sub-methods for each): empathize (with the user), define (the challenge), ideate, prototype, and test.[37] At the end of the 2000s, reacting to a very difficult and complex set of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. Army decided it needed to add the concept of “design” to its basic field manual for “the operations process.” Officers now argue about what “Army design methodology” means in practice. At a minimum, it is the Army’s way of urging commanders who are confronting complex or unfamiliar problems to stop and think harder about what they are trying to do. Officers are urged to at least “give a bit of structure to those periodic conversations any commander has with his staff officers to improve his appreciation of the mission.” This should at least take the form of four questions, about what is going on, what exactly is the desired end state, what is the theory of strategic action to get that result, and how to act and speak to make good on that theory.[38] [quote id="6"] Meanwhile, within academia, some scholars of public management have pressed for a turn toward a “new” study of policy design, what they call “design 2.0.” These experts reject the stock analyses that just relate tools to outputs, a superficial “means-ends understanding of policy formulation.” Instead, they call attention to the multilayered and deeply context-dependent nature of modern policy design.[39] In the world of business schools, the field of “decision analysis” — a required part of the usual first-year MBA curriculum — consists substantially of teaching students how to assign number weights to values and probabilities and then work up equations that integrate the calculation of these variables.[40] It does not, however, actually teach a policy design framework. A process for policy work, which itself is often called a “design process,” is all about assessment, design, and implementation. [41] Assessments Assessments are judgments about circumstances. These appreciations are always a compound of assessments of reality, what we or “they” think is going on; assessments about values, what we or “they” care about; and preliminary assessments about action — what, if anything, might be done. In this context, the action judgment is simply the threshold cognitive judgment — can we do something about this? — that then influences how much attention we give to the problem. There are various heuristic aids to assessment: weighing alternative interpretations of available evidence, weighing alternative futures and scenarios, assigning probabilities, and more.[42] Good assessment has at least four elements: Design Design is the choreography of action. A more academic definition of policy design, developed by scholars working in Canada and Singapore, calls it: “an activity conducted by a range of policy actors at different levels of action in the hope of improving policymaking and policy outcomes through the accurate anticipation of the consequences of government actions and the articulation of specific courses of action to be followed to achieve different levels of policy goals and ambitions.” Such design work occurs “within the context of designing complete policy packages. … [So] each policy and program is a complex arrangement of ends and means-related goals, objectives, instruments, and calibrations that exists in a specific governance and temporal setting, and these contexts must be taken into account if effective program design is to result from design efforts.”[44] To put this a little more simply, the “design” part of a policy design process includes choices about: To offer a simple illustration of how such a framework could be applied, just consider one part, the “operational objectives,” in the Trump administration’s trade and tariff policy toward China. Are they to gain a trade deal that would more fairly recouple the American and Chinese economies? If so, what would be a concrete definition of success? Or the operational objectives could be the opposite — to decouple the two economies. Again, what would be a concrete, working definition of whether that objective had been attained? Or the operational objectives could be defined as a targeted increase in U.S. manufacturing employment, or as a reduction of U.S. bilateral current account deficits. And so on. Obviously, the analysis of these different operational objectives then open up quite different questions about the best theories of action and choreographies of what should be done. Yet, since at the moment (September 2019) no one can tell what the operational objectives are for the U.S. policy, the policy becomes inherently incoherent. Implementation Implementation is the final part of the policy work. It is attentive to local circumstances, the realities of the field, and the many stakeholders involved. At every stage, the software includes the organizational cultures for getting and evaluating information, for doing analysis, and for recording what is being done. As with the other elements, implementation is not separate from assessment and design. It interacts with them, as implementation informs ongoing reevaluation of everything else. [45] This whole template — conscious methods for assessment, design, and implementation — is itself just a kind of heuristic tool. As with the engineering trainees memorizing the steps on their wallet cards, such tools are both a discipline and a defense. They are a kind of analytical checklist that provide a bit more protection against so many insistent claims that divert and distract attention.

Policy Education Should Not Stand Alone

The wartime and postwar science adviser, public official, and longtime president of Harvard, James Conant, regarded Harvard’s public administration school, established in the late 1930s, as his greatest failure. He observed that two approaches had to be balanced. Such public affairs education should not, he thought, duplicate business schools by trying to build an entirely separate faculty. He thought such education should draw on the resources of the university as a whole. At the same time, Conant thought it was important to have a curriculum that did not emphasize a science of public administration separated from its policy content.[46] Colleges of arts and sciences, and the major professional schools (law, business, engineering, medicine) all turn out women and men who work on public policy. In fact, despite the growth of the policy schools, these older institutions empirically still contribute the great majority of the citizens who work on such problems, including at the higher levels of policymaking. Yet, none of those “regular” schools are, or can be, primarily interested in public policy or education for public service. Even at the leading policy schools, only a fraction of their graduates actually go into public service.[47] The challenge, then, is in how to offer a distinctive preparation for citizen involvement in public policy. Aside from the general education of citizens, the professionals who are most likely to identify a need for more professional training tend to be in government, including the military, foreign service, intelligence, and legislative staff; law, including as a possible addition to law school work; business, including as a possible addition to business school work; academia, including as a possible addition to PhD or MA programs; applied science, including engineering, public health, and medical practice; and nonprofit organizations. Many of the key jobholders already in government are primarily trained in specialized field and technical duties. Their often-admirable training does not include adequate preparation for policymaking challenges outside their traditional functional and managerial skillsets. Traditional graduate studies related to policy work tend to bifurcate into two very distinct tracks — a professional master’s degree program and an academic PhD program. Both of these programs serve important purposes, but they leave a major gap. The PhD students develop rigorous research skills to investigate theories in their fields, but are largely insulated from consideration of real-world policymaking.[48] Professional master’s students are exposed to some complexities and challenges of practice. The strength of these programs can be training in quantitative analytic methods, public administration, and advocacy. For various reasons, they do not provide rigorous training in the kind of strategic and design thinking needed for problem-solving, nor do they impart enough relevant substantive knowledge.[49] In addition, students are forced to make a fateful choice early in their studies. They can either pursue the law or master’s degree, which opens the path to the world of practice yet can mean foregoing a career in teaching and research. Or they can pursue the academic PhD and sharply steer away from training in practical problem-solving. An alternative approach would be to develop a relatively flexible curriculum. It would be conceived not as an alternative educational pathway, but as a broadening or extension of a core path that a student or professional has already chosen. Rather than forcing students to choose between a traditional “major” or career track and public service, the purpose of the curriculum would be to help students learn how to apply their core interest (and others they may discover) to public service. This complementary curriculum thus need not emphasize in-depth subject-matter education in particular regions of the world or in functional specialties like development, public health, cyberspace, or public order. The curriculum should instead be designed and delivered so that it can complement many such specializations. Such a curriculum could have at least three especially distinctive features: first, instruction and practice in analysis of detailed information and the assessment of situations. These assessments must grow out of a relatively deep ability to understand and imagine governance in unfamiliar institutions. Second, instruction and practice in a conscious policy design process: This process can teach students how to break down complex policy problems. Then they can learn how to unpack and identify critical questions or choices, using a common conceptual vocabulary. Finally, the curriculum could make extensive use of detailed case studies, both historical and contemporary, as projects in which students can develop a series of specific skills in working with situations of potential cooperation and conflict. These projects can be sustained over weeks, to give a sense of iterative change and adjustment. Some programs have tried such “policy task forces/workshops.”[50] [quote id="7"] The skills to develop in such extended exercises can include attention to the routine habits of effective staff work. They include familiarity with the role of budgeting in policymaking, crafting public statements, participation in policy debates, role-playing to understand the perspectives of others and gain experience with negotiation, and learning to orchestrate and evaluate the implementation of a policy. Such an educational initiative carries with it a major agenda for research. More and better “thick” case studies are needed, of the kind that are indispensable in other realms of professional education. The traditional scholarly disciplines have a specific understanding of what “case studies” mean for their investigations, but those case studies are rarely very useful for this kind of practical education. At some policy schools, such cases as exist have been prepared by professional “casewriters” who often do not have substantive training in the topic and whose work may not reflect the best scholarship or expert analysis. The range of possible studies of this kind is enormous. Such studies can bring “thick” problems and fateful choices to life.


There are obviously several major ways to explain the decline in government performance and the collapse in public trust in the U.S. government since the high-water marks of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Since the early 1960s, the government has tried to do much more — around the world and at home — and it is perceived to have usually fallen short, sometimes catastrophically so. It is not very useful to blame the anti-Washington discourse. Such scapegoating of Washington is not new. It is an old, old theme in American history. Nor do I blame incompetent delivery of basic services, which are still reasonably good in America. Part of the story is a record of policy failures: the tendency to react to events rather than drive them, poorly specified objectives, confusing guidance, reliance on weakly evidenced suppositions, little grasp of organizational capacities, inability to adapt organizations to new problems, overreliance on ill-managed contractors. These are all symptoms. They are symptoms of policies that are badly designed. Weak knowledge of the history of certain issues or even of the government’s own policy record, a superficial grasp of other communities or institutions, and a preoccupation with reactions to daily news: These, too, are symptoms. They are symptoms of a weakening capacity for in-depth professional assessment. Of course, the marked tendency to militarize policy, to rely on military instruments and military policymakers, is no cure. It is another symptom of the breakdown, as American policymaking is dumbed down and becomes praetorian. Some of these problems can be blamed on bad structures and on polarized, dysfunctional politics. But that’s not all of the story. As the immensely powerful Qing empire in China began to decay in the early 1800s, a leading scholar began calling for reform of the Confucian system that selected and trained the country’s administrative elite. He looked around and saw “everything was falling apart … the administration was contaminated and vile.” The scholar, Bao Shichen, “found himself drawn toward more practical kinds of scholarship that were not tested on the civil service exams.” Bao “would in time become one of the leading figures in a field known broadly as ‘statecraft’ scholarship, an informal movement of Confucians who were deeply concerned with real-world issues of administration and policy.”[51] Tragically, for Bao and many of his reformist allies, though their efforts made some headway, it was not enough. They could not reverse the decline of their empire. The United States government has plenty of problems too. Fortunately, it is not yet at the point the Qing dynasty reached. Americans can reflect on a proud heritage, not far in the past, when Americans were notorious across the world for their practical, can-do skills in everything from fixing cars to tackling apparently insurmountable problems, public as well as private. These seemingly bygone skills were not in their genes or in the air. They need not be consigned to wistful nostalgia. The skills were specific. They were cultural. And they are teachable.   Philip Zelikow is the White Burkett Miller Professor of History and J. Wilson Newman Professor of Governance at the Miller Center of Public Affairs, both at the University of Virginia. His books and essays focus on critical episodes in American and world history. A former civil rights attorney and career diplomat, he has served at all levels of American government. He was the executive director of the 9/11 Commission and, before that, directed the Carter-Ford commission on federal election reform. He has also worked on international policy in each of the five administrations from Reagan through Obama.   Image: Nicepik [post_title] => To Regain Policy Competence: The Software of American Public Problem-Solving [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => to-regain-policy-competence-the-software-of-american-public-problem-solving [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2020-01-09 11:04:10 [post_modified_gmt] => 2020-01-09 16:04:10 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw [lead] => American policymaking has declined over the past several decades, but it is something that can be regained. It is not ephemeral or lost to the mists of time. The skills needed to tackle public problem-solving are specific and cultural — and they are teachable. [pubinfo] => [issue] => Vol 2, Iss 4 [quotes] => Array ( [0] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => The software of policy is about how policies are crafted within a given set of processes and constraints. ) [1] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => Very early, the public administration schools moved away from older styles of training in governing philosophies, political thought, and civic virtue, the kinds of educations urged by men like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, or John Stuart Mill.  ) [2] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => The organizational culture that accomplished so much during the war was passed along mainly through imitation and apprenticeship. But the best practices did not migrate into standardized training or academic degree programs. ) [3] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => Many public policy problems are like this, “thick” with successive stages of problem-solving, each with layers of analysis and context.  ) [4] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => One pattern in the War Department culture was that responsibility for planning and responsibility for operations were inseparable. A planner had to be willing and able to convert his work into action. ) [5] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => A process for policy work, which itself is often called a “design process,” is all about assessment, design, and implementation.  ) [6] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Rather than forcing students to choose between a traditional “major” or career track and public service, the purpose of the curriculum would be to help students learn how to apply their core interest (and others they may discover) to public service. ) ) [style] => strategist [type] => Strategist [style_label] => The Strategist [download] => Array ( [title] => PDF Download [file] => 2440 ) [authors] => Array ( [0] => 102 ) [endnotes] => Array ( [title] => Endnotes [endnotes] => [1] Francis Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014), 469. [2] On other quality critiques, see, e.g., Donald Kettl, Escaping Jurassic Government: How to Recover America’s Lost Commitment to Competence (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2016); and Paul Light, “A Cascade of Failures: Why Government Fails, and How to Stop it,” Brookings Institution, July 2014, [3] Urgent Business for America: Revitalizing the Federal Government for the 21st Century, National Commission on Public Service, chaired by Paul Volcker (Washington: Brookings Institution, 2003), 1–2. [4] A group of former officials who are also educators, and have thus worked on both sides of the fence, recently joined me in publishing a “Statement on Education for Public Problem Solving,” posted at a website that also includes some suggestive scholarship. [5] Paul J. H. Schoemaker and Philip E. Tetlock, “Superforecasting: How to Upgrade Your Company’s Judgment,” Harvard Business Review, May 2016, 4,; see generally Tetlock and Dan Gardner, Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction (New York: Broadway Books, 2015). [6] Alexander Keyssar and Ernest May, “Education for Public Service in the History of the United States,” in, For the People: Can We Fix Public Service? ed. John D. Donahue and Joseph S. Nye Jr. (Washington, DC: Brookings, 2003), 225. [7] Keyssar and May, “Education for Public Service in the History of the United States,” 232. [8] Keyssar and May, “Education for Public Service in the History of the United States,” 230. [9] See William Chase, The American Law School and the Rise of Administrative Government (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982), 29–49. [10] “Scientific,” Ralph Ketcham, Public-Spirited Citizenship: Leadership and Good Government in the United States (New York: Routledge, 2015), 102 (discussing the address of Harvard president A. Laurence Lovell to the new American Political Science Association in 1910). A perceptive Chinese political thinker of the early 20th century, Liang Qichao, much influenced by the work of John Dewey, was worried in 1919 about the trend in American political science toward “the omnipotence of science” amid a presumed social Darwinism of struggle among conflicting interests. Liang, trying to adapt Western ideas to his more Confucian sensibility, believed these trends were neglecting the older concentration on civic virtue and defining the public good. Ketcham, Public-Spirited Citizenship, 104–05. [11] Ketcham, Public-Spirited Citizenship, 101–30. Ketcham illustrates his argument with an appendix that offers a sharply observed history of the evolution of the Maxwell School at Syracuse (see pages 205–52). Both William Mosher, at Syracuse, and Charles Merriam, at the University of Chicago, produced early exemplary textbooks that tried to balance their social scientific observations of American public life with hortatory statements of their idealistic hopes for American government planning. Reviewers noted the “unresolved” tension between the specific science and the sermonizing idealism about how it should be applied in practice. Ketcham, Public-Spirited Citizenship, 226–27. [12] On the deficiencies of high-level German military staff work, especially on higher-level strategy, intelligence assessment, resource management, and logistics, see, e.g., Geoffrey Megargee, Inside Hitler’s High Command (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000). [13] Paul Kennedy, Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War (New York: Random House, 2013), 362, 372. A similar argument is made by Richard Overy, in Why the Allies Won (New York: Norton, 1997), who does not delve as deeply into the software that made the structures he praises so functional. [14] See, for example, Thomas McCraw and William Childs, American Business since 1920: How It Worked, 3rd ed. (New York: Wiley Blackwell, 2018), 26–28, 72–75 (emphasizing the decentralized management approaches of both Alfred Sloan at GM and Ferdinand Eberstadt in organizing war production). Explaining the “deindustrialization” of the 1970s and 1980s, they stress that, by then, “American management became more enamored with ‘financialization’ than with creating new products and services.” See page 232. [15] Keyssar and May, “Education for Public Service,” 233. [16] Marshall radio address, April 1947, quoted in Philip Zelikow, “George C. Marshall and the Moscow CFM Meeting of 1947,” Diplomacy and Statecraft 8 no. 2 (1997): 97, 116, [17] Keyssar and May, “Education for Public Service,” 234; and Graham Allison, “Emergence of Schools of Public Policy: Reflections by a Founding Dean,” in, Oxford Handbook of Public Policy, ed. Michael Moran, Martin Rein, and Robert Goodin, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 64. See generally, telling this triumph of the microeconomic turn as a success story, Beryl Radin, Beyond Machiavelli: Policy Analysis Comes of Age (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2000). Radin’s conception of policy analysis is triumphantly exclusive. It seems to simply ignore the existence of lawyers, diplomats, and health care policy wonks, among the many categories of people who believe they do such work. [18] Allison, “Emergence,” 68. Allison recounts that he focused much of his agenda as dean on offsetting this curricular bias by building up the public management curriculum, fostering executive programs, and raising funds for problem-focused research centers. This work did help the school take off and become relatively successful. But, even from his account, it is not clear that he ever fully addressed the two questions that bothered him from the start. [19] Allison, “Emergence of Schools of Public Policy,” 65. [20] Such courses are currently 16 of the 30 credits in the Harvard Kennedy School’s first-year master in public policy core curriculum: “Degree Requirements,” Harvard Kennedy School, accessed Aug. 26, 2019, [21] As I saw firsthand when chairing part of the Harvard Kennedy School’s core curriculum during the 1990s, several of the founders of the Harvard Kennedy School were deeply dissatisfied with the way the school’s core curriculum had developed. They believed the school had succumbed to the desire of much of the faculty to join the “third best economics department in Cambridge.” Richard Neustadt quoted in Graham Allison, “Institution Builder,” in, Guardian of the Presidency: The Legacy of Richard E. Neustadt, ed. Matthew Dickinson and Elizabeth Neustadt (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2009), 146–47. [22] For articles that focus on alumni of the Harvard Kennedy School, see, Carol Chetkovich, “What’s in a Sector? The Shifting Career Plans of Public Policy Students,” Public Administration Review 63 no. 6 (November 2003): 660–74,; and Mark Henderson and Carol Chetkovich, “Sectors and Skills: Career Trajectories and Training Needs of MPP Students,” Journal of Public Affairs Education 20 no. 2 (2014): 193–216, [23] The modern field of public management has innovated and matured into a global movement, borrowing much from management innovations in the private sector. At the level of day-to-day job performance and integrity, federal bureaucrats seem to do at least as well as employees in private firms. See Donald Kettl, The Global Public Management Revolution, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2005); and Hal Rainey, Understanding and Managing Public Organizations, 5th ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014), chap. 14. [24] George F. Kennan, American Diplomacy 1900-1950 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951). [25] Donald F. Kettl, “Making Data Speak: Lessons for Using Numbers for Solving Public Policy Puzzles,” Governance 29 no. 4 (October 2016): 573–79,; “a tale of two children,” Donald Moynihan quoted in Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene, “Government’s Data-Driven Frenemies,” Governing, March 17, 2016, [26] Joseph Ponterotto, “Brief Note on the Origins, Evolution, and Meaning of the Qualitative Research Concept Thick Description,” Qualitative Report 11 no. 3 (2006): 538, 543, [27] An introduction to this literature is available through the essays collected in Roger George and James Bruce, eds., Analyzing Intelligence: National Security Practitioners’ Perspectives, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2014). [28] Donna Marie Oglesby, “Diplomacy Education Unzipped,” Foreign Service Journal (January/February 2015): 27, 28, [29] Barbara Bodine (a retired diplomat and current director of Georgetown’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy), “Teaching Diplomacy as Process (Not Event): A Practitioner’s Song,” Foreign Service Journal (January/February 2015): 21, 24. [30] E.g., Michael Lipsky, Street-Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services, 30th anniv. rev. ed. (New York: Russell Sage, 2010). For an example in the case of U.S. diplomats, see Kenneth Weisbrode, The Atlanticists: A Story of American Diplomacy, rev. ed. (Santa Ana, CA: Nortia Press, 2015). [31] See, for example, the detailed portrait in Ray Cline, Washington Command Post: The Operations Division, in the Historical Series on the U.S. Army in World War II, subseries for the War Department (Washington: Office of the Chief of Military History, 1951). [32] The initial proposal for a national security council, in the Eberstadt Report, was modeled on the British War Cabinet system and the wartime State-War-Navy Coordinating Committee, which had also been modeled on British practice. Douglas Stuart, Creating the National Security State (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 89. For background on the Roosevelt practice, see also, Matthew Dickinson, Bitter Harvest: FDR, Presidential Power and the Growth of the Presidential Branch (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999). Though this is mostly forgotten now, President Harry Truman was suspicious of the national security council proposal. He was suspicious precisely because he understood that it was modeled on the British War Cabinet and, like that system, was meant to dilute the power of the head of government and constrain him in a more deliberate, analytical, and collective decision-making system. [33] When national security officials of the Obama administration reflect on the best written policy work they encountered, the two standouts seem to have been the preparatory work done before the May 2011 Bin Laden raid into Pakistan and the policy support work on Iran that culminated in the Iran nuclear deal of 2015. But I think those episodes stand out so much to them because the fine quality of that written policy work was not the norm. [34] As illustrations see, for example, the studies published in Richard Neustadt, Report to JFK: Skybolt in Perspective (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999); Richard Neustadt and Harvey Fineberg, The Swine Flu Affair: Decision Making on a Slippery Disease (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1978). [35] The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (New York: Norton, 2004), 91. I was the commission’s executive director. This particular passage of the report was drafted with the input of a former deputy director of the CIA and the former head of the CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence, both of whom were on our staff. During the 2000s and 2010s, reacting to problems in analytic tradecraft, exemplified by the Iraq weapons of mass destruction catastrophe, the intelligence community built up a National Intelligence University, operated by the Defense Intelligence Agency. The CIA has developed its Sherman Kent School of Intelligence Analysis. The substance of the CIA’s analytic training has improved, although some of those involved in these innovations believe the intelligence community needs to make further significant progress. [36] The ten steps are: 1) identify needs (what’s the problem?); 2) information phase (what exists?); 3) stakeholder phase (what’s wanted and who wants it?); 4) planning/operational research (what’s realistic and what limits us?); 5) hazard analysis (what’s safe and what can go wrong?); 6) specifications (what’s required?); 7) creative design (ideation); 8) conceptual design (potential solutions); 9) prototype design (create a version of the proposed design); and 10) verification (does it work and, if not, redesign). From the version of MIT’s course 6.902 taught in Fall 2012 by Blade Kotelly and Joel Schindall and available through MIT OpenCourseWare. [37] See, e.g., “An Introduction to Design Thinking: Process Guide,” Hasso Plattner Institute, accessed Aug. 26, 2019, [38] “Field Manual 5-0: The Operations Process,” Department of the Army, March 2010; “ADP 5-0: The Operations Process,” Department of the Army, May 2012. The impetus for the “design” movement appears to have come from the Army’s Command and General Staff College and School for Advanced Military Studies, both at Fort Leavenworth. The quote and questions, paraphrased, are from Lt. Col. Celestino Perez, “A Practical Guide to Design,” Military Review, March-April 2011, 43–45,; see also Heather Wolters, “Army Design Methodology: Commander’s Resource,” Department of the Army, Feb. 2012, [39] One template for policy design, derived from domestic policy experience, offers a five-level framework: high-level abstraction, program-policy linkages, program-level operationalization, program implementation linkages, and specific measures. Michael Howlett, Ishani Mukherjee, and Jeremy Rayner, “Designing Effective Programs,” in, Handbook of Public Administration, 3rd ed., ed. James Perry and Robert Christensen (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2015), Table 10.5, 196. See generally Michael Howlett, Ishani Mukherjee, and Jun Jie Woo, “From Tools to Toolkits in Policy Design Studies: The New Design Orientation Towards Policy Formulation Research,” Policy & Politics 43 no. 2 (April 2015): 291, 297-99, For more on this notion of “design 2.0” as a research agenda, see also Howlett and Mukherjee, “Policy Design: From Tools to Patches,” Canadian Public Administration 60 no. 1 (March 2017): 140–44, [40] See, e.g., Paul Goodwin and George Wright, Decision Analysis for Management Judgment, 5th ed. (New York: Wiley, 2014). [41] Earlier and different versions of this design framework were first tried out in Philip Zelikow, “Foreign Policy Engineering: From Theory to Practice and Back Again,” International Security 18 no. 4 (Spring 1994): 143–71, This framework has been tried out in the classroom at Harvard and elsewhere. At Stanford, Jeremy Weinstein and Francis Fukuyama are developing an analogous framework in their teaching. [42] See, e.g., the illustrations catalogued in Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right (New York: Henry Holt, 2009); and Steven Johnson, Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions that Matter the Most (New York: Riverhead, 2018). [43] These four elements are a synthesis of methods suggested in Richard Neustadt and Ernest May, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers (New York: Macmillan, 1986), along with the way Neustadt, May, and I then developed and taught these ideas. See also Tetlock and Gardner, Superforecasting. I’m indebted to Michael Morell for discussions about the most basic elements of good assessment. See also the good discussion in Bodine, “Teaching Diplomacy as Process (Not Event),” 21–26. [44] Howlett, Mukherjee, and Rayner, “Designing Effective Programs,” 195. [45] For more on this emphasis on local, ground-level knowledge, see generally, written more in the context of domestic policymaking, Tara Dawson McGuinness and Anne-Marie Slaughter, “The New Practice of Public Problem Solving,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, Spring 2019, 27–33, For some promising work on how to implement effective programs in the realm of state institution building, what they call “Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation,” see Matt Andrews, Lant Pritchett, and Michael Woolcock, Building State Capability: Evidence, Analysis, Action (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017). In more of a conflict/security context, see the pair of outstanding recent case study illustrations of analysis from the ground up, offered in Carter Malkasian, War Comes to Garmser: Thirty Years of Conflict on the Afghan Frontier (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016) (the paperback edition has a valuable afterword reflecting on more recent U.S. efforts); and Illusions of Victory: The Anbar Awakening and the Rise of the Islamic State (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017). [46] Allison, “Emergence of Schools of Public Policy,” 67; James Conant, My Several Lives (New York: Harper & Row, 1970). [47] Such placement trends led to a major lawsuit against Princeton, in which the members of the Robertson family that had originally donated the funds to enlarge the Woodrow Wilson School sued because the school no longer seemed to be using the gift to educate students for public service. Part of the 2008 settlement required Princeton to sponsor a $50 million foundation dedicated to that mission. Tamar Lewin, “Princeton Settles Money Battle Over Gift,” New York Times, Dec. 10, 2008, [48] This depiction of the academic market failure draws in part from arguments developed by Jim Steinberg and Frank Gavin for the Carnegie International Policy Scholars program. The academic PhD programs suffer from another problem. Unlike the policy schools, which are often home to faculty from a variety of social science disciplines, and in some cases the natural sciences and engineering, PhD programs in international affairs are designed, taught, and administered in discipline-based departments, primarily political science. This arrangement may make sense for scholarly training in that discipline. But it is counterproductive for interdisciplinary policy training. That problem has been compounded by the long-term decline of area studies programs within political science departments. [49] The professional master’s degree programs, typically one to two years, focus on professional skills training for future practitioners. These degree programs are the core of most APPAM (Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management) and APSIA (Association of Professional Schools in International Affairs) schools. To the extent they have a canon, they too reflect the “microeconomic turn.” There are usually also courses that provide background information on international relations, current issues, and particular regions. As a nod to practical training, such schools frequently hire faculty as professors of practice and adjuncts who are current and former practitioners. They frequently draw from their experience to tell good policy stories and offer suggestive illustrations. This helps. But they then lack an established teachable canon for rigorous professional education. [50] There are some useful precedents in the “policy analysis exercises” used at some of the public policy schools. At Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, Bodine describes policy task force/workshops as “more practical than the conventional academic approach and more conceptual, structural and historical than simulations or even case studies.” Each focuses on a single major ongoing policy issue. Students produce a set of detailed papers on each facet of it. Bodine, “Teaching Diplomacy as Process (Not Event),” 25. The CIA’s Kent School of Intelligence Analysis has had some success using an analogous approach in training intelligence analysts. [51] Stephen Platt, Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age (New York: Knopf, 2018), 233 (following the work of William Rowe). ) [contents] => Array ( [title] => [contents] => ) ) [5] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 1573 [post_author] => 282 [post_date] => 2019-07-16 05:00:24 [post_date_gmt] => 2019-07-16 09:00:24 [post_content] =>

Just because nuclear war is undesirable and the probabilities of it occurring are very low is no reason not to think about it.[1]

—Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger (1974)

  The U.S. government has recognized that great power competition is the principal feature of the international security environment that puts U.S. national interests at risk. Every public strategy document released in the last two years, including the 2017 National Security Strategy, the 2018 National Defense Strategy, and the 2019 Missile Defense Review, has highlighted the centrality of great power competition.[2] The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review clearly extends the centrality of that competition to the realm of nuclear forces.[3] However, while identifying the challenges of nuclear competition — between the United States and Russia on the one hand, and the United States and China on the other — is a crucial first step for making strategic assessments, these strategy documents provide little in the way of guidance for analyzing nuclear competition. This article aims to fill that gap by discussing a strategic-analytic framework for generating useful research on the U.S. competitive position relative to its potential nuclear adversaries.[4] Several elements of the framework are discussed within the context of exploring the approaches to analyzing military competitions and, in particular, identifying the key features of a nuclear competition. The final section provides the reader with several cautionary notes for how to avoid analytic traps in designing a strategic assessment of a nuclear competition.

The Role of Nuclear Competitions Between Great Powers

Perhaps beginning with President Barack Obama’s foreign policy initiative to “rebalance to Asia and the Pacific,” the United States government has been recovering from its post-Cold War holiday. This was a time in which a large proportion of U.S. national security departments and agencies abstained from analyzing and preparing for the potential strategic implications of the growth of the Chinese economy and military, the stabilization of the Russian political economy and the ascendance of the regime of Vladimir Putin, and the decline of the U.S. nuclear weapons enterprise for America’s standing in the international security environment and its national security interests.[5] A key step in that recovery has been acknowledging, as formalized in the 2017 National Security Strategy, that the United States must be an active great power competitor if it wants to safeguard its worldwide strategic interests and maintain the credibility of its defense commitments to allies in Europe and in East Asia in the face of challenges from Russia and China. Since their advent in 1945, nuclear weapons have been part and parcel of great power competition, though as the United Kingdom, France, India, Pakistan, and North Korea demonstrate, nuclear weapons are not the exclusive province of great powers. Like military forces in general, nuclear weapons are tools of statecraft, and, since 1945, great powers have wielded them for a variety of purposes:[6] to deter nuclear and non-nuclear attacks against a great power’s homeland and that of its allies, to conduct military missions and achieve wartime objectives if deterrence fails, to act as a visible sign of assurance to weaker allies of the security patron’s commitment to their defense, to coerce other states, and to hedge against geopolitical and technological surprises.[7] Relatedly, great powers have used their nuclear forces to compensate for what they have perceived as the relative military inferiority of their conventional forces. Take, for example, the U.S. military posture and force planning of the 1950s and 1960s, or Russia’s post-Soviet-era reliance on nuclear weapons in its force structure.[8] Nuclear competitions involving the United States have been a feature of the international security environment for decades.[9] Russia has remained an active nuclear competitor since the end of the Cold War — it has sustained and modernized a robust nuclear arsenal along with the applicable military doctrine, training, and exercises.[10] China’s rise as a major regional power — including its deployment of a diverse array of military forces to deny U.S. forces access to the waters and airspace between its coastline and the Second Island Chain (stretching roughly from the Japanese island of Honshu, through Guam and on to Indonesia) and its military encroachments on disputed territories within the South China Sea — has corresponded with significant qualitative improvements to its nuclear forces.[11] One notable improvement has been the deployment of road-mobile launchers for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and associated hardened underground facilities to enhance their survivability against attack. This development could diminish the effectiveness of a U.S. counterforce attack against Chinese nuclear forces and affect U.S. planning for the defense of regional allies and the U.S. homeland. In sum, nuclear weapons have gone hand-in-hand with great power competitions since the end of World War II. Because the great powers have continued to strengthen their nuclear forces and use them as tools of statecraft in various ways since the end of the Cold War, nuclear competitions continue to be salient in great power military competitions. With several public U.S. strategy documents pointing to a reinvigorated great power competition, the next section addresses the nature of great power military competitions.

What Are Great Power Military Competitions?

In the nuclear era, a great power can be defined as either the leading state in terms of relative military power, or a state that has sufficient relative military power that it could fight the leading state to the degree that a war of attrition could result. A great power must also maintain a secure nuclear second-strike capability,[12] without which the leading state could effectively disarm it. The literature on great power competition and rivalry makes clear that such a competition is a “political-military-economic competition between two states. This competition extends over many decades, even prospectively a century or more.”[13] Great power competition, however, does not necessarily imply conflict. It lies on a spectrum whose extremes are marked by both conflict and cooperation.[14] In some areas of international politics, two great powers can have a convergence of interests that enables cooperation, such as in nonproliferation of nuclear weapons or in counter-terrorism efforts, while in other areas they can have a conflict of interests, such as in territorial disputes between themselves or between their client states. As the U.S.-China competition demonstrates, competitors can trade goods while also equipping themselves for war with one another. The underlying source of tension remains fear and mistrust between two great powers that cannot be easily subdued with military force and whose intentions cannot be discerned with high confidence.[15] [quote id="1"] The literature points to a multitude of reasons why great powers compete with one another. Paul Kennedy, for example, finds that the sources of the competition between Britain and Germany in the late 19th century were economic, geographic, and ideological. As he puts it,
[T]he Anglo-German antagonism basically arose from the fact that in the half-century under scrutiny Germany grew out of its position as ‘a cluster of insignificant States under insignificant princelings’; and from the further facts that this growth gradually threatened to infringe perceived ‘British interests’, that these economic shifts increased the nervousness of British decision-makers already concerned about ‘saving the Empire’, and that they were accompanied by ideas about a German mission which could be adopted by political forces grappling with severe domestic problems.[16]
Aaron Friedberg echoes Kennedy in describing the causes of the U.S.-China competition.[17] Friedberg argues that, notwithstanding the zero-sum nature of the economic and military aspects of the competition, a central element is that the United States and China maintain a different set of core political beliefs and ideologies. America’s post-Cold War policy for dealing with China has been tied to liberal ideas about the interconnectedness of trade, economic growth, democracy, and the protection of human rights, while China — a single-party state led by the Chinese Communist Party, which is fixated on maintaining its hold on power — has pursued policies that reflect the ruling regime’s authoritarian and illiberal character.[18] In order to understand what a military competition is, analysts can turn to the writings of Andrew Marshall, who was a member of the first generation of analysts seeking to understand the nature of the U.S.-Soviet military competition and, most important, how to assess the relative standings of the competitors over time.[19] In his 1966 study, Marshall describes military competition as two countries, or groups of countries, organizing, training, and equipping their military forces to deal effectively with the military forces of the other in one or more potential contingencies.[20] This definition encompasses not only weapons systems, but also doctrine, military education and training, command and control, logistics, and military exercises. Moreover, by using the term “military competition,” Marshall makes clear that his focus is on the military sector of the larger strategic competition. The focus on the military aspects of the strategic competition is especially important, as Marshall and James Roche argued in 1976, if the analytic objective is to understand and improve how the Defense Department might better position its investments portfolio for the strategic competition (the Defense Department, after all, is responsible to the president for the military arm of national power).[21] Analyzing Military Competitions How, then, should one analyze military competitions and estimate a competitor’s relative military power? There are three analytic approaches to this question, which aim to either forecast a competitor’s future military posture and capabilities or understand the potential outcome of a combat interaction between the competitors’ military forces in a specific military contingency or group of contingencies. For a comprehensive understanding of military competition, it is necessary to incorporate all three approaches. First, in exploring and characterizing military competitions to forecast a competitor’s future military capabilities and posture, Marshall found that a promising approach is to start with a detailed historical analysis of the evolution of the competitors’ military forces. This analysis ought to, in turn, highlight whatever is known about asymmetries between competitors’ military thinking, in tactical doctrine, in organizational practices and styles of command and control, as well as the historical preferences of the relevant organizations that provide input or make decisions about military capabilities and posture.[22] Such an in-depth and lengthy study, Marshall believed, was needed to understand the long-term decision-making behavior of military organizations and other organizations relevant to shaping a state’s military forces and posture, in order to forecast a competitor’s military power beyond five years. A second approach is to study the interaction of military forces in a particular military contingency (e.g., the interaction of U.S. and Chinese nuclear forces in a conflict over Taiwan that begins with conventional combat). When Marshall offered a framework of what such an assessment might look like in 1983, he used the military balance in Europe between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Warsaw Pact as an example.[23] To conduct such a study, an analyst would begin by selecting a geographic area that can be distinguished from others by the nature of its military problem and then determine and compare what objectives the opposing forces would try to achieve and with what ways and means. If, in such a comparison, the U.S. objective is to deter a military attack, then the analysis would initially emphasize the competitor’s assessment of the military balance. The competitor’s assessment should be that the balance favors the United States — that is, the competitor cannot achieve its objectives through military operations. In analyzing the balance of military forces, the analyst should select a military contingency that covers a range of plausible situations that will test the capabilities of the forces: for example, U.S. power projection to a region not normally considered a likely combat zone, or the competitor’s military deception operations.[24] Interestingly, some analysts make the mistake of characterizing conventional balances as being set in stone and unable to evolve.[25] To these analysts, the United States has enjoyed such significant and enduring conventional advantages over potential nuclear adversaries since the early 1990s that it may safely dismantle its nuclear capabilities or force-employment capacities, or impose upon itself doctrinal restraints with minimal or no consideration for how long it might take to reconstitute these capabilities or capacity levels. Yet, in the span of less than 10 years, amid signs that the U.S. competitive position in the military balances in Europe and East Asia has declined, it appears that those analysts’ earlier assessments of the conventional balances have not withstood the test of time. It is important to recognize that military balances — whether conventional or nuclear — between the United States and its military competitors change in reaction to various actions taken by competitors, including procurement of different types of weapon systems, training military forces for particular missions, and developing and exploiting technological breakthroughs.[26] The evidence since 1995, for example, suggests that China’s investment in conventional precision-strike capabilities has eroded U.S. military advantages in plausible Western Pacific conflict scenarios.[27] The Chinese military is better equipped in 2019 than it was in 1995 to at least delay the sustained intervention of U.S. air and naval surface forces in a China-Taiwan theater of operations — if not completely deny them access.[28] In addition, China’s deployment of mobile ICBM launchers, which increases the survivability of its nuclear forces, suggests the nuclear balance between China and the United States might be less favorable to the latter than it was 20 years ago. [quote id="2"] Likewise, the conventional military balance in Europe between the United States and Russia does not favor U.S. forces in 2019 to the same degree that it did two decades ago.[29] Gen. Philip Breedlove, former commander of U.S. European Command, stated in 2015 that U.S. European Command was seeing growing Russian capabilities and significant military modernization. As a result of those developments, Breedlove characterized U.S. European Command as assuming “significantly greater risk. Our timelines are longer, our preparations are less robust, and our fundamental ability to deter and defeat in a timely and effective manner is less sure than it could be.”[30] In 2018, Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, Breedlove’s successor at U.S. European Command, clarified that understatement in testimony before the U.S. Congress: “I don't have all the forces I need in Europe today, and we have got to continue to invest and establish the posture that is required.”[31] Military balances in general are not based solely on the number of units or weapon systems each competitor has deployed in likely theaters of operations. To be comprehensive, any analysis of a military balance should incorporate the competitors’ concepts of operations and how they practice warfare.[32] Other useful elements to consider might include, but are not limited to, the readiness levels of theater-based forces, the rates at which the competitors could reinforce those forces, the security of their lines of communications, abilities to sustain effective combat units, and command-and-control capabilities. For protracted war scenarios that could include the intermittent use of nuclear weapons, understanding the abilities of competitors’ conventional forces to fight amidst the after-effects of a nuclear weapon strike (i.e., blast, thermal radiation, prompt and residual radiation, and electromagnetic pulse) could be critical to developing an accurate assessment of the military balance. Interestingly, Richard Betts’ 1980s argument remains relevant to thinking about contemporary and emerging conventional military balances: History demonstrates that the initial phase of war might be as bad for the defender — even one that enjoys a numerical advantage — as worst-case estimates would suggest for two reasons. First, a defense posture and plan cannot account for all plausible regional military contingencies with a given competitor. Rather, strategists and planners will whittle down plausible contingencies to those most likely to occur. Second, attackers have time to assess the defense and develop offensive operations that will exploit observable weaknesses.[33] In the end, it pays to take a long view of the balance of military forces between the United States and its competitors, rather than painting a static picture. A 2016 Institute for Defense Analyses report showed that, since the late 1980s, the median time required for major defense acquisition programs (including initial development) to reach initial operational capability was approximately eight years. This included aircraft, ground systems, space systems, and ships.[34] Therefore, analysts should look at key trends that will shape particular military balances over a minimum of 10 years to give Defense Department senior managers sufficient time to direct changes in investment portfolios to sustain U.S. advantages or to develop new ones. The third analytic approach to understanding military competition is to describe and assess the implications of the military investment balance.[35] Undertaking such an assessment will require looking at the allocation of national resources to research and development efforts in technological areas that might serve as latent military power (i.e., designed but unproduced military capabilities) that a competitor could exploit in the future, perhaps during a protracted conflict. An assessment of the military investment balance can shed light on how seemingly nonmilitary investments, such as those from a nondefense organization, might have utility in a military balance or its evolution. It would also better capture a competitor’s defense-related investments and how that competitor might seek to sustain or gain advantages in particular areas of a military competition. For example, a country’s deep underground facilities are also a means to defend senior leaders or other critical personnel against conventional and nuclear attack. Or consider this: During the Cold War, the U.S. nuclear weapons complex — a Department of Energy responsibility — exercised all phases of its nuclear weapons life-cycle process, from the research phase, all the way through production, and eventually, retirement and dismantlement. However, according to the Defense Department, “U.S. nuclear weapons have not undergone the full life-cycle phase process since the completion of the W88 [warhead] Phase 5 in 1991.”[36] What if U.S. competitors have been exercising all, or most, of the life-cycle phases for their nuclear weapons, particularly research and development of different weapon designs and effects, something that the United States has abstained from for nearly thirty years? What might be the implications for how nuclear competitions will evolve? Moreover, what might disparities in dormant weapons-production capacity mean for a nuclear competition if one competitor mobilizes that capacity during a crisis or conflict?[37] Prior to discussing the remaining elements of a framework for analyzing nuclear competitions, it is important to keep in mind that military competition occurs within a broader strategic competition wherein the economic resources of the competitors need to be addressed. A comparative economic analysis should shed light on how efficient and effective competitors are relative to one another in allocating a proportion of their economic resources for a long-term military competition.[38] Marshall suggested that there are several components to being an effective and efficient competitor: being a low-cost producer of effective military forces while bringing about higher costs for the competitor; maintaining the health of key areas of the defense-industrial base; steering the competition into areas where one has advantages and enjoys enduring technological leadership; and choosing to trail in areas of military competition where one might be much less effective and efficient in sustaining a military advantage.[39] Relatedly, at a broader level, analyzing the political economy of a competitor can serve as a backdrop to understanding its “fitness” for long-term military competition. David D’Lugo and Ronald Rogowski’s analysis of the Anglo-German naval race offers insights into thinking about the extent to which a competitor’s political institutions and social actors (e.g., labor unions or industrial blocs) support resource extraction from the economy to generate military power.[40] In another case, there is evidence suggesting that the U.S. nuclear force structure and posture during the Cold War were principally driven by the political economy of U.S. military commitments to Europe.[41]

Key Features of Nuclear Competitions

What is special about nuclear competitions? First, nuclear weapons possess enormous destructive power and, when mated to high-speed missiles, can be quickly delivered to targets over long distances. The speed of delivery makes a nuclear strike extremely difficult to defend against. Second, nuclear weapons, unlike conventional weapons, have the potential to produce long-term, wide-area effects due to radioactive fallout. Finally, in most, if not all, nuclear states, the policy for using nuclear weapons is determined to a great extent at the most senior level of leadership.[42] Lower-level officials, planners, and analysts in military organizations — and some in nonmilitary organizations — however, are the ones generating the options that are ultimately presented to senior leaders in order to make these policy decisions. The next three features to be discussed are applicable to all military competitions, not just to nuclear ones. Nevertheless, some arguments and debates about U.S. nuclear policy and strategy and the state of nuclear competitions have obscured or ignored these features. Therefore, they will be described and analyzed in terms of how they relate to understanding a nuclear competition. The Importance of the Competitive Context When Considering Nuclear Strategy A key feature of nuclear competition — oftentimes obscured by histrionics in debates about nuclear policy, strategy, and forces — is that competitive interaction is the foundation for thinking through the issues surrounding nuclear forces and doctrine. U.S. nuclear forces and nuclear doctrine are not designed in a vacuum. And yet, some analysts have given short shrift to the competitive political and military setting in which nuclear operations would take place.[43] This oversight often leads to two analytic weaknesses. First, downplaying the competitive context results in the failure to account for how changes in a competition might render particular U.S. forces and doctrine ill-suited to achieving U.S. policy objectives. Furthermore, U.S. forces may be less effective against an emerging competitor if they have been designed and postured with another competitor predominantly in mind. Second, it also leads to an underappreciation of the uncertainty about how U.S. leaders might react to a variety of political and military conditions surrounding a future conflict, as well as the uncertainty about how U.S. competitors might view America’s willingness and ability to effectively use military forces against their own forces to achieve wartime objectives. With the competitive context in mind, analysts are better positioned to understand how a nuclear competition is evolving and to construct the bridge between U.S. policy objectives (including potential war aims) and the ways in which available military instruments may be used against a dynamic opponent in today’s — and tomorrow’s — strategic setting.[44] Investigating the strategic and operational adequacy of U.S. nuclear forces within the competitive context will help analysts explicitly incorporate into their research designs a number of questions: How effective might America’s military forces and those of its competitor be in particular conflict scenarios (e.g., comparing training and readiness, tactics and operational concepts, and how well those tactics and operational concepts exploit existing technologies in the operational environment)? How might forces be employed in pursuit of different national objectives, and what types of force employment concepts might constitute escalation and warrant a nuclear response?[45] With the competitive framework anchoring the analysis, the issue of how potential nuclear adversaries might defend their ability to wage military campaigns against U.S. attempts to halt them ought to garner more of the analyst’s attention. To wit, what ought to be debated is not whether the United States should deploy new types of low-yield weapons, but whether current low-yield weapons are allocated to the most capable delivery systems or platforms in light of likely operational environments.[46] [quote id="3"] Failing to account for the competitive context, moreover, could lead some analysts to inaccurately identify the possible decisions that U.S. and adversary leaders would make in potential conflict scenarios as well as the plausible range of combat outcomes between opposing forces.[47] To be clear, such analyses do not reveal careful consideration of the range of variables that might shape combat outcomes, operational planning, and strategic decision-making.[48] Further muddying the task of identifying the plausible range of conflict conditions and combat outcomes between opposing forces, it is axiomatic that in any military competition, competitors seek to complicate one another’s planning to gain advantages in future conflicts.[49] Their tools for doing so include information denial, deception, ambiguous declaratory policies, and forces capable of performing multiple military missions.[50] In a crisis and wartime scenario, competitors might try to conceal their true political and military objectives to throw off the other’s efforts to gain advantages.[51] Times of crisis and war will create unforeseen pressures and dynamics that will influence decision-makers. They can predict neither the full scope of options that will be available to a competitor nor the options that will be available to themselves. Analysts should acknowledge that they are constrained in the same way.[52] In a hypothetical conflict in the Baltic states, for example, Russia’s deployment of nonstrategic nuclear weapons and dual-capable delivery systems raises the possibility that the first use of a nuclear weapon could be at sea involving a Russian anti-ship strike against a U.S. surface combatant, perhaps an aircraft carrier, or it could be against U.S. aircraft approaching Russian airspace.[53] At the same time, Russia could use other levers to generate political fissures within NATO — between Western Europe and the Baltic states, between Europe and the United States, and between the citizens of European states and their governments. Perhaps Russian leaders calculated that nuclear use at sea or in the air would not elicit a larger U.S. nuclear response, or that an equivalent U.S. response would come at the cost of deeply fracturing NATO (something Russian leaders would be delighted to see). Or perhaps the Russians miscalculated. The Role of Non-Nuclear Technologies in Shaping Nuclear Competition A second key feature of nuclear competitions is that, due to current and anticipated technical advances in a wide range of military capabilities, the proliferation of non-nuclear systems will shape nuclear competition to a greater degree in the future than it did before 1991. Critics of U.S. nuclear policy sometimes emphasize the ability of U.S. military forces to carry out cross-domain deterrence: for example, threatening to carry out a non-nuclear attack to deter a nuclear one.[54] Yet, cross-domain deterrence does not necessarily mean relying solely on one or two favored types of weapons or domains of military operations (i.e., air, sea, ground, or cyber) to deter threats. It is really about coordinating and synchronizing forces and different types of weapons to generate credible threats in the eyes of adversaries. Some of those responses could utilize a combination of arms and a cross-domain approach to enhance their effectiveness. Thus, figuring out how a competitor might deploy and employ nuclear forces during the next 20 to 30 years requires accounting in some useful way for the non-nuclear forces that will be available for use alongside them. A competitor’s non-nuclear forces may affect how it uses nuclear weapons in a crisis or conflict to achieve a particular objective, and that use might, in turn, shape competitors’ deployment of non-nuclear and nuclear forces or their decision to employ nuclear weapons to achieve their objectives. As critics of new low-yield nuclear weapons point out, conventional precision-strike systems are capable of conducting effective strikes against some types of targets that were once only assigned to nuclear weapons systems.[55] This does not mean, however, that conventional capabilities will completely crowd out nuclear weapons in countries’ operational plans. Tailored nuclear weapons, for example, might be the most effective for destroying particular hardened targets when non-nuclear means cannot be relied on to do the same or to degrade the target’s military effectiveness.[56] When used in the role of missile defense, the radiation output of a nuclear weapon is likely to produce a lethal radius exceeding that of conventional weapons, thereby increasing the chance of disabling an incoming delivery vehicle that is inadequately hardened against radiation effects.[57] Many nuclear competitors seem to believe that non-nuclear active missile defenses hold the prospect of being more effective today than when first deployed decades ago; however, in some cases, the size of a missile raid and the use of counter-measures could reduce their effectiveness.[58] Thus, the possibility of intercepting inbound nuclear-armed delivery vehicles has implications for nuclear escalation.[59] In addition, computer network attack and defense could affect nuclear command, control, and communications in a crisis or conflict, while a competitor’s views of the wartime survivability and effectiveness of its own space-based capabilities — intelligence,  surveillance, and reconnaissance; communications; and missile early warning systems — might affect how it sees its chances in a nuclear conflict.[60] For example, the loss of space-based platforms with multiple-mission payloads in an ongoing non-nuclear conflict might lead to a nuclear response. Conventional and Nuclear Operations Are Interdependent The third key feature of a nuclear competition, somewhat related to the role of non-nuclear technologies, is that assessing how the character of the nuclear competition under peacetime conditions might look different under wartime conditions cannot be completely divorced from other areas of the military competition. Thus, policy and strategy debates would benefit from examining the plausible multidomain dynamics and complexities of potential conflicts, including nuclear-use scenarios, through an operational lens to better understand the relative strengths and weaknesses of U.S. warfighting capabilities.[61] Analysis of and planning for integrated conventional and nuclear operations is important for at least two reasons. First, how nuclear operations evolve during a conflict will, to some extent, depend on how conventional operations play out, and vice versa. For example, if U.S. forces were to conduct conventional suppression of enemy air defense operations against Russia’s integrated air defense system within its Western Military District, Russian leaders could perceive the effort as threatening the security of the state, thereby provoking the use of nuclear weapons to compel U.S. de-escalation. Similarly, Chinese leaders might interpret U.S. conventional strike operations against the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force units and command-and-control infrastructure as a way to degrade China’s nuclear deterrent.[62] Such an interpretation could result in Chinese nuclear strikes against U.S. military targets in the Pacific region. Second, nuclear strikes can be used in tandem with conventional precision-strike systems to make offensive operations more effective.[63] For example, if a competitor fears the effectiveness of an opponent’s terminal-phase missile defense system — the last opportunity to intercept a missile before it hits its target — it might initiate a broad conventional-strike campaign by first detonating a nuclear weapon at high altitude to disrupt the transmission of radar waves with the intent of degrading the opponent’s missile defenses.[64] Perhaps, just as during the Cold War phase of the U.S.-Russia nuclear competition, U.S. conventional forces must be organized, trained, and equipped to survive and remain effective in a battlefield that sees the use of nuclear weapons to have any chance of providing decision-makers with non-nuclear options for warfighting and deterrence. Although the Russian government would prefer to conduct military operations under the threat of nuclear weapons use rather than their actual use, the combination of Russia’s limited conventional-strike force structure, likely regional adversaries, and potential war aims translates into the Russian military planning and practicing for a nuclear battlefield.[65] In Russian exercises and war games, the use of nuclear weapons in battlefield-support missions can mark the early and middle phases of conflicts — and the Russian military is trained and equipped accordingly.[66] [quote id="4"] One key difference between the Russian and the Chinese militaries is that the former is better equipped for integrated conventional-nuclear operations. For many political reasons, both international and domestic, the Chinese military might improve its position in this area of the U.S.-China competition in the near future. With advances in Chinese long-range conventional precision-strike technologies, for example, the rocket force could transfer those technologies to its nuclear forces and broaden the range of operational concepts available to Chinese war planners.[67] Meanwhile, there is no open-source evidence to suggest that U.S. conventional forces are better off than they were in 2011 when the Department of Defense’s Defense Science Board concluded that “the survivability, effectiveness, and adaptation of [conventional forces] to [a battlefield in which nuclear weapons have been used] is at best unknown.”[68] No wonder that the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review stated that combatant commands and service components will plan, train, and exercise to integrate nuclear and non-nuclear forces and to operate in a nuclear battlefield.[69] The Defense Department will need to invest in increasing the ability of U.S. conventional forces to operate in a nuclear battlefield, especially if the United States wants the option of refraining from an in-kind nuclear response to a hypothetical Russian nuclear strike against NATO forces, as some analysts have recommended.[70] These recommendations raise the question of how to configure U.S. conventional forces for a possible protracted conflict in which only one side is utilizing nuclear weapons. U.S. nuclear restraint in this scenario might invite Russia to continue to use nuclear weapons and lead to the rapid degradation of U.S. and allied conventional forces (in addition to undermining U.S. extended deterrence commitments and nuclear nonproliferation efforts). Nuclear self-restraint and reliance on conventional operations after a competitor has used nuclear weapons raise a number of challenges for the U.S. military’s current and planned force structure and posture, especially regarding a possible conflict in Europe. For example, in light of the 2011 Defense Science Board report and U.S. European Command’s post-2001 emphasis on operations outside of NATO members’ borders, U.S. airbases overseas are less capable of supporting flight operations for extended periods of time due to a lack of training and equipment geared toward reconstituting the bases’ capabilities following a nuclear strike.[71] In addition, while the U.S. Army should be re-assessing its tactics for resolving the dilemma between how its ground forces mass for effective attack versus how they space out units to avoid presenting themselves to enemy forces as inviting targets as Russia continues to improve its ability to conduct conventional precision strikes, it should also be taking steps to ensure it can conduct effective operations on a nuclear battlefield. Such steps may include hardening its equipment against the effects of a nuclear strike, reviewing its decontamination procedures and possibly enhancing its decontamination equipment, and planning how to regain the battlefield initiative and its control of the tempo of operations following a nuclear strike.[72] The challenges of ensuring survivable conventional forces in a potential European nuclear battlefield suggest that it will not be easy to terminate a conflict on favorable terms against an adversary using nuclear weapons while U.S. forces use only conventional operations and other non-nuclear tools. They also indicate that both conventional and nuclear forces constitute the anti-access and area denial problem that the U.S. military has been fixated on for years (an adversary’s anti-access and area denial systems increase the distance between its assets and areas from which the United States can operate its military forces with impunity).[73] Analysts should consider this area fertile ground for more comprehensive examination.

Avoiding Pitfalls in Analyzing Nuclear Competitions

There are five additional considerations, or guidelines, to keep in mind while analyzing a nuclear competition or structuring an assessment of a given nuclear balance involving the United States that will help to avoid analytic weaknesses that will derail the integrity of the findings or of the diagnosis. First, U.S. extended deterrence commitments and alliance politics complicate U.S. nuclear policy and strategy and force structure decisions, as well as combined allied military planning. If the aim of analysis is to ensure the adequacy of U.S. military capabilities, then the potential for additional and novel problems to surface for Defense Department planners and U.S. decision-makers during a crisis or war should not be excluded from the analysis or substituted with rosy assumptions. Second, because analysts are limited in their ability to foresee all of the critical circumstances of a future battle space and to discern an adversary’s future intentions, they should not discount the possibility of the limited use of nuclear weapons. Third, strategic analysts should be skeptical about the utility of social scientific theories and models of complex human interactions under the nuclear shadow, unless those theories and models account for how key features of a nuclear competition, based on empirical evidence, will influence its peacetime evolution and how those features might shape military operations. Fourth, competitors’ peacetime nuclear declaratory policies are inadequate guidelines for bounding the scope of an analysis of a nuclear competition. These policies could change quickly once the leadership confronts the reality of a crisis or war. Fifth, the nature of a nuclear war will ultimately be defined by politics. The possibility of one or more belligerents making concessions to bring the war to a close means that nuclear annihilation is not the only possible outcome after the initial use of nuclear weapons. No A Priori Resolution of U.S. Extended Deterrence Problems Some critics of enhanced U.S. nuclear weapon capabilities or posture are dismissive of the military and political challenges that U.S. extended deterrence commitments might pose for U.S. decision-makers over the next 20 to 30 years.[74] These critics are convinced that, in the eyes of potential adversaries, the United States and its allies have a credible deterrent. But they are unclear about what specific actions can be deterred and under what particular conditions, what factors make the deterrent credible to adversaries, and for how long adversaries may believe the U.S. deterrent threats to be credible.[75] Sometimes, these critics seem to suggest that potential adversaries perceive robust coupling between the U.S.-based nuclear arsenal and the local defense of U.S. allies; however, adversaries’ perceptions and how they might change over time are usually opaque or indeterminate to external observers.[76] Because of this significant uncertainty, a key element of U.S. defense planning has been to deploy and posture forces to minimize the ability of and the incentives for potential adversaries to devise and implement operational plans for achieving their war aims. U.S. leaders have also tried to assure a disparate set of allies of the U.S. commitment to their defense and keep them aligned on policy and strategy.[77] U.S. leaders from both major political parties have long wanted a robust set of military options for dealing with a nuclear competitor’s potential challenges to U.S. extended deterrence commitments. The takeaway, though, is not that the United States should simply develop and deploy all possible types of nuclear options so that it can have in-kind responses ready for the many ways competitors might use nuclear weapons. Rather, it is that it is reasonable to expect that future U.S. decision-makers will not want the United States to accept being a strategic hostage to an adversary’s ability to launch a nuclear strike at the U.S. homeland. Nor will decision-makers want to cede the initiative to an adversary in regional conflicts that threaten U.S. overseas interests. History suggests that decision-makers will want a toolkit equipped with multiple nuclear and non-nuclear capabilities to manage alliance politics, deter different forms of aggression, and mitigate operational challenges. The act of deterring a particular adversary action is essentially to sustain a threat to impose costs on the adversary or deny it a benefit, if it commits that action.[78] The effectiveness of the threat, moreover, is inextricably connected to whether the adversary believes that the defender is willing to absorb the costs that may come with fulfilling that threat. The higher the costs that are thought to be associated with fulfilling the deterrent threat, the less credible the deterrent threat is likely to be in the mind of the adversary. In concrete terms, nothing is more important to a nuclear competitor than the security of its homeland. Thus, analysts have generally viewed threats of large-scale costs in response to an adversary launching major conventional or nuclear attacks against a country’s homeland to be more credible than threats meant to deter an adversary from committing small-scale attacks against the country’s homeland that cause limited damage, or to protect distant allies against attack.[79] [quote id="5"] The debate surrounding the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review shows that, just like during the Cold War phase of the U.S.-Russia nuclear competition, extended deterrence commitments remain a key challenge in formulating U.S. nuclear policy and strategy.[80] To some extent, echoes of the Nixon administration’s nuclear thinking — which was centered on its belief that the ability of the Soviet Union to respond to a large-scale U.S. nuclear attack with a devastating nuclear counter-attack against the continental United States had nullified the U.S. extended nuclear deterrent — continued to reverberate during the Clinton and Obama administrations.[81] A declassified and heavily redacted Nuclear Supplement to Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan For FY 1996 suggests that some form of escalation control and limited nuclear options were retained in Department of Defense planning.[82] Though the Obama administration sought to downplay the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy and to elevate the role of non-nuclear capabilities, it nevertheless insisted that U.S. nuclear forces “be postured and planned” so that the “United States should have a wide range of effective response options available to deter potential regional threats.”[83] In sum, because U.S. extended deterrence commitments generate a wide range of foreseeable and unforeseeable strategic and operational problems for U.S. planners and decision-makers, analysts should ensure that such problems are incorporated into their assessments as much as practicable, and not simply assume the problems will fail to materialize and complicate future U.S. military operations. Limited Nuclear Wars Are Possible Analysts can neither foresee the full range of circumstances that will factor into an adversary’s decision to be the first to use nuclear weapons in support of a military campaign, nor can they predict the circumstances that would shape a response. Therefore, analysts should not rule out the possibility of limited nuclear use, whereby an adversary’s use of nuclear weapons is not designed to destroy or overthrow the government of its opponent.[84] Instead, they should plan for such a possibility and think about how U.S. general purpose and nuclear forces would conduct sustained combat operations in an environment defined by the constant threat of nuclear weapons use as well as the actual intermittent use of such weapons.[85] Perhaps most important, the open-source literature indicates that the Russian military believes that limited nuclear wars are indeed possible. According to Dave Johnson, an analyst in the NATO International Staff Defence Policy and Planning Division, Russian military writings suggest “a role for nuclear weapons, including their limited use, in wars of various scales and intensities.”[86] One scenario that has become salient in discussions about a possible U.S.-Russian nuclear conflict is a Russian invasion of one or all of the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, all of which are NATO members.[87] In a 2016 Center for American Progress table-top exercise looking at a short-warning Russian invasion of the Baltic states, participants recommended that U.S.-NATO forces continue to wage a conventional campaign rather than employ nuclear weapons to halt or reverse the Russian offensive.[88] Russian military documents and the published works of Russian military authors, however, suggest an alternative scenario wherein Russia conducts limited nuclear escalation — perhaps against U.S. military targets on European territories or in the littoral waters — in defense of gains it has made and to thwart U.S. intervention. In other words, Russia would extend its nuclear umbrella over seized territory to shore up its fait accompli against a NATO counter-attack.[89] In response to Russia’s nuclear use in the European theater, the onus would be on the United States to refrain from a nuclear response; to conduct a nuclear strike that the Russians might perceive as equivalent to their own, thereby perhaps lessening the pressure for Russian escalation; or to conduct a much larger set of nuclear strikes against military targets, which the Russians might see as highly escalatory.[90] In the Baltic states fait accompli scenario, it would be challenging for U.S. and NATO forces to continue conventional operations without also conducting supporting nuclear strikes to re-establish intra-war deterrence of Russian nuclear use. Discounting the possibility of the limited use of nuclear weapons could exclude numerous plausible military scenarios from being studied in the effort to determine whether U.S. military forces are adequately prepared for the use of nuclear weapons in a conflict. A Nuclear Revolution? Disagreements About Deterrence and Strategic Stability In order for any analysis of nuclear competitions to be meaningful to Defense Department planners and national security policymakers, it should be based on empirical data as much as possible. However, the dearth of adequate information on how each competitor views its standing in a nuclear competition against the United States and the potential effectiveness of its ways and means to achieve its objectives might lead some analysts and policymakers to fall back on a small collection of social scientific theories and models of the military requirements of deterring nuclear weapons use or of achieving war aims, such as the “nuclear revolution” perspective or the “superiority-brinksmanship synthesis theory.”[91] They should be cautious in surrendering to that temptation at the early stages of their research and analysis. The discussion so far suggests a divergence between the nuclear revolution school — the main school of nuclear thought in academia — and the strategic-analytic framework discussed in this paper. Although it is outside the scope of this article to close the gap between these two approaches, it is important to highlight some of the areas of disagreement and concern about deterrence requirements and the issue of strategic stability, as well as with how the United States could best develop its nuclear capabilities and nuclear posture to achieve its national security objectives.[92] Analysts adopting the strategic-analytic framework discussed in this article should be mindful that social scientific theories and models — by simplifying complex interactions of human, organizational, and inter-state behaviors in a quest for parsimonious explanations and predictive power — do not explain or help analysts understand the exceptions to the models that are found in histories of military competitions. It is these exceptions — the complexities and nuances reflected in evolving technologies, military operational concepts, and doctrine; the rise and fall of influential national security organizations; and new decision-making processes — that might be critical to understanding areas of potential U.S. leverage in a nuclear competition. Most important, the early adoption of some theories or models could result in the analyst foreclosing promising avenues of investigation, such as how U.S. competitors actually assess the nuclear balance and whether they would be deterred from initiating war to achieve their objectives. Therefore, while social scientific theories and models can offer insights and intriguing perspectives, strategic analysts should approach them with a skeptical eye.[93] In brief, the leading proponents of the nuclear revolution school, Robert Jervis and Charles Glaser, argue that under the condition of mutual assured destruction, wherein each nuclear competitor’s major population centers are vulnerable to annihilation, the likelihood of one side attacking the other is low and the quest for capabilities that would allow a disarming first strike is therefore futile. Moreover, because neither competitor can spare its population from serving as a hostage, the competitor willing to accept greater risk in a crisis or conflict will prevail.[94] Political outcomes, according to this school of thought, will be based on a competition in risk-taking rather than the nuclear balance.[95] [quote id="6"] Critics have countered, however, that the nuclear revolution school does not explain nuclear reality.[96] Keir Lieber and Daryl Press argue that through technological change and innovative military operational concepts, nuclear competitors can put one another’s seemingly invulnerable retaliatory forces in jeopardy. They further note that the United States has invested heavily in capabilities to undermine the survivability of its competitors’ forces.[97] Brendan Green and Austin Long, using declassified sources, contend that Soviet leaders during the latter half of the Cold War believed that mutual assured destruction was tenuous due to U.S. competitive pressure on the Soviet nuclear force structure and posture.[98] In addition, Matthew Kroenig uses his “superiority-brinksmanship synthesis theory” to argue that advantages in the nuclear balance increase a competitor’s willingness to engage in the competition in risk-taking. In contrast, an inferior nuclear competitor is less likely to run great risks and initiate military aggression against a superior competitor.[99] Taken together, these critics of the nuclear revolution school assert that nuclear advantages are achievable and do matter to political outcomes. Several areas of tension between the nuclear revolution school and its critics come to the surface in discussions of how the United States can use nuclear forces to maintain its overseas defense commitments to allies and deter both nuclear and non-nuclear attacks on their homelands. First, to enable the United States to demonstrate its resolve in support of the defense of its overseas interests and enhance its bargaining position with an adversary, the nuclear revolution school favors small-scale nuclear strikes against nonmilitary targets, such as economic and industrial assets, or even demonstration strikes against remote, unpopulated geographic areas simply to show resolve, rather than nuclear strikes against military targets, especially nuclear forces.[100] Correspondingly, the school asserts that under the condition of mutual assured destruction and in line with the logic of deterrence by punishment, the costs of counterforce strikes actually result from harm caused to the adversary’s population, not from the loss of military capabilities. Moreover, according to this school of thought, U.S. counterforce capabilities could end up encouraging escalation. In contrast, Elbridge Colby, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development when the 2018 National Defense Strategy and Nuclear Posture Review were published, contends that small-scale nuclear strikes against military targets, such as conventional forces, could enable the United States to demonstrate both resolve and restraint.[101] Colby suggests that an adversary might see a difference between U.S. strikes against military forces that weaken its ability to achieve its objectives, and strikes against targets that might result in additional harm to civilians. If so, that difference could allow the United States to shift the burden of escalation onto the adversary. If the adversary were to assess the nuclear balance and recognize this potential outcome, it might be dissuaded from initiating a conflict in the first place. The nuclear revolution school overlooks this possibility. Second, and related, the nuclear revolution school sees little value in retaliating in kind against military targets following an adversary’s counterforce attack for several reasons: First, destroying forces while bargaining under the condition of mutual assured destruction does not inflict substantial costs on the adversary (assuming the forces are not near population centers); second, small-scale attacks against nonmilitary targets do inflict costs while also conveying U.S. restraint and the implicit promise of future costs if the adversary does not reciprocate this restraint; finally, attacking the adversary’s nuclear forces sends a much less clear message in terms of demonstrating restraint and the promise of future costs, as there is little logic to attacking redundant nuclear forces when the adversary will retain a survivable nuclear retaliatory capability.[102] Using the strategic-analytic framework, however, an analyst cannot rule out a priori the possibility that adversary leaders would perceive circumstances differently from how U.S. leaders perceive them. Indeed, the analyst following this framework would seek empirical evidence of how the adversary assesses the loss of military capabilities compared to the loss of a certain portion or demographic sector of its population, and how it conceives of restraint and escalation in the use of force. For example, empirical research might uncover that adversary leaders would likely interpret American ICBMs en route to their country as more provocative — potentially eliciting a prompt nuclear response against the U.S. homeland — than the use of U.S. nuclear freefall bombs delivered by aircraft in a conflict far from U.S. territory. Thus, the types of weapons employed might be important in demonstrating U.S. restraint and in manipulating the adversary’s thresholds for escalation.[103] Third, the nuclear revolution school argues that maintaining significant counterforce capabilities to help limit the damage to one’s homeland is dangerous because it reduces strategic stability.[104] Strategic stability is usually used in U.S. nuclear policy debates to mean that the mutual vulnerability of each competitor’s population and the mutual invulnerability of deterrent forces would eliminate any incentive to initiate an attack against the other’s national security interests during a crisis.[105] This core concept undergirding mutual assured destruction calls for the United States to eschew nuclear capabilities that would support large-scale counterforce targeting in an extended deterrence scenario and to limit damage to the U.S. homeland. As discussed above, however, the threat of a major nuclear response following an attack on a competitor’s homeland is generally judged as more credible than the threat of such a response following an attack on its allies. Gaining insight into the adversary’s assessment of U.S. capabilities, credibility, and resolve might lead analysts to look into whether instability that favors the United States in a competition (e.g., U.S. counterforce capabilities to increase the vulnerability of an adversary’s nuclear forces) might enhance the U.S. ability to deter aggression against its allies.[106] Furthermore, in light of the possibility that America’s adversaries could be risk-prone or could miscalculate U.S. resolve and capabilities, U.S. counterforce capabilities might serve as a hedge. The last and perhaps most fundamental disagreement between the nuclear revolution school and its critics when it comes to understanding nuclear competitions is that the nuclear revolution school turns a blind eye to investigations into the historical preferences of the relevant organizations that provide input or make decisions about nuclear capabilities and posture. [107] In contrast, the strategic-analytic framework described in this article encourages analysis of competitors’ internal decision dynamics, research and development efforts, and procurement programs to discern key factors underlying current and evolving states of the competition. Such analysis, in the case of the Soviet nuclear buildup during the Cold War, for example, might have uncovered the different roles played by Soviet civilian leaders, senior military leaders, and the Soviet defense industry in making decisions about nuclear forces and strategy.[108] As Caroline Milne found in her study of the perceptions of mutual vulnerability within the U.S.-Soviet Union nuclear competition and the U.S.-China nuclear competition,
mutual vulnerability can be very difficult for (at least two sets of) nuclear rivals to accept in perpetuity. For a variety of reasons, it is much preferable to try to solve or at least ameliorate this strategic dilemma. Accordingly, while theories about the stability of reciprocal second-strike capabilities may be elegant, they presume a lack of agency that participants will find challenging to resign themselves to.[109]
The takeaway is not that social scientific theories and models are worthless. It is that analysts seeking to understand the character of future warfare and a nuclear competition should emphasize a wide-ranging investigation and empirical evidence — such as U.S. and competitors’ military capabilities, targeting policy, doctrine, and concepts of operations — rather than rely on social scientific theories that tend to prematurely guide research and analysis into an area of limited breadth and depth — an area that might keep the analyst from considering key factors that could shape the balance of nuclear forces as well as perceptions of that balance. Declaratory Policies and Published Doctrine Are of Limited Predictive Value Incredible as it may seem, even U.S. analysts with the requisite foreign language skills can hold divergent views about a competitor’s policy documents and doctrinal texts. Thomas Christensen and Gregory Kulacki, for example, both trained in Mandarin Chinese, interpret the 2004 edition of The Science of Second Artillery Campaigns (the Second Artillery being the predecessor to the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force) in starkly different ways.[110] Christensen takes a much less sanguine view of the document’s implications for Chinese nuclear escalation in what has, thus far, been a conventional conflict than Kulacki, who is adamant that the text proscribes China’s first use of nuclear weapons. Kulacki maintained this more optimistic view of Chinese nuclear restraint when the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences published a new edition of The Science of Military Strategy.[111] And yet, even if analysts did agree, what an adversary claims it would do in a crisis or during wartime might only be as solid as the paper it is written on. As Christensen recognizes, competitors cannot be assured that peacetime declaratory policies will persist during the stressful and violent circumstances of conflict. The same thing can be said about relying on published military doctrine.[112] In 1975, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger noted that neither national leaders nor military forces are constrained by doctrine in a wartime environment.[113] Because the nuclear thresholds and practices of potential adversaries are always shrouded in uncertainty, it would behoove U.S. analysts to conduct sensitivity analyses to see how their findings might change. Other perceptive analysts of Russian and Chinese nuclear thinking have written about the ambiguities and vague expressions found in the two countries’ nuclear declaratory policies. With Russia planning — if not fully funding — the deployment of a strategic weapon arsenal consisting of long-range conventional precision-strike weapons, nonstrategic nuclear weapons, and strategic nuclear weapons, the objective seems to be to give Russian leadership maximum flexibility and a range of options to deal with both anticipated and unforeseen contingencies.[114] Russia’s 2014 military doctrine states that Russia reserves the right to respond with nuclear weapons when “the very existence of the state is threatened.” However, because it does not list the criteria by which Russian leaders would assess threats to the state, there may be multiple U.S.-NATO conventional courses of action — including rolling back the Western Military District’s integrated air defense system or launching an air-missile raid against the Northern Fleet’s naval facilities on Russia’s Kola Peninsula —  that could create perceptions of a growing threat against the Russian state and elicit different types of Russian military reactions. [quote id="7"] China, on the other hand, has officially maintained a no-first-use pledge since it became a nuclear power in 1964. However, that pledge has not escaped the criticism of Chinese strategists.[115] For the past ten years, scholars have noted a debate within Chinese military circles “about whether to discard or place conditions” on Beijing’s declaratory policy.[116] Apparently, concerns over the effects of conventional strikes against China’s nuclear deterrent generated the debate. Some Chinese writers have argued for increasing the pledge’s ambiguity to create additional uncertainty in the minds of China’s adversaries. Others have suggested that China conduct a nuclear counter-attack in response to an enemy’s conventional counter-nuclear attack. More recently, analysts have reasoned that the continued publication of articles in China arguing for official exemptions to the no-first-use pledge reflects the authors’ frustration that China is not leveraging the potential political effects of its nuclear forces.[117] As in the Russian military literature, so-called “warfighting concepts” are found in Chinese military writings: for example, the possibility of nuclear strikes of varying scale against an array of military, political, and economic targets.[118] In the Chinese military literature, according to a 2017 RAND study, “warfighting concepts” refer to “an approach that involves conducting multiple waves of strikes of various scales against different types of targets in a nuclear conflict of extended duration, designed to control escalation or to compel an end to hostilities on favorable terms.”[119] What is potentially troubling for the U.S. military is that the continuing debate within China over the merits of its no-first-use pledge could interact with these warfighting concepts and result in China’s leaders sanctioning the first use of nuclear weapons during a conventional conflict with the United States. This situation might be more likely were China losing a high-stakes conflict with the United States, perhaps failing to secure beachheads on Taiwan due to a U.S. military intervention.[120] While far from certain, the central ingredients seem be in place to create the wartime circumstances that could pressure China to ostensibly violate its declaratory policy and use nuclear weapons first.[121] First, Chinese military writings emphasize the benefits of seizing and retaining the initiative throughout a conflict.[122] Second, U.S. analysts have noted that China likely judges computer network attacks and counter-space operations to be warranted early in a conflict to paralyze the enemy’s command-and-control system.[123] Third, one of the guiding principles, or fundamental doctrinal tenets, for the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force is “key point counter-attacks” to reduce the enemy’s will to fight. Taken in combination, these factors suggest, but do not prove, that Chinese leaders and military planners could find reason to justify China using nuclear weapons first to obtain an advantage over the United States in a conflict. In short, because policies developed under peacetime conditions can change quickly once policymakers confront the reality of a crisis or war, countries’ nuclear declaratory policies are poor guidelines for defining the scope of an analysis of a nuclear competition. Victory Is Possible in Some Nuclear Wars The preceding sections demonstrate that, like conventional warfare, nuclear warfare can come in all shapes and sizes. As is always the case, the meaning of victory in war is shrouded in politics.[124] Leaders will define what “victory” is in terms that they deem favorable in order to bring an end to hostilities, but even an authoritarian regime will want the public to support the basis for the cessation of hostilities to avoid domestic political upheaval. The possibility of a limited nuclear war means that the world might only see small-scale use of nuclear weapons — perhaps only a single detonation — before belligerents cease military operations and de-escalate tensions. In light of the psychological shock, physical damage, and military effect that just a handful of nuclear strikes might cause, one or more belligerents may very well acquiesce to the political demands of the adversary that launched nuclear weapons. This acceptance could constitute a political victory in the eyes of the adversary’s leaders and body politic, as well as in those of the opponents. On the other hand, nuclear use could result in belligerents changing their war aims and modifying their campaign plans accordingly. In the end, because different forms or types of victory may be achievable, analysts should not buy into the mantra that “no one wins a nuclear war” and allow it to shape their assessments of nuclear competitions.[125]

Planning a Road Trip through Terra Incognita

There is too much uncertainty surrounding potential crises and conflicts between the United States and nuclear adversaries for analysts to provide iron-clad assurances that a particular U.S. nuclear or regional defense posture will deter acts of aggression or establish a ceiling on nuclear escalation. Even former Secretary of Defense William Perry, a prominent advocate of disarmament measures and the non-use of nuclear weapons, acknowledged that “we have no experience with escalation in a nuclear war, and we have no way of being confident what the ultimate outcome would be of a first use of nuclear weapons.”[126] Likewise, Jervis, a critic of U.S. “escalation control” planning, has noted that analysts and strategists have little empirical basis for guiding nuclear strategy. The United States is the only state that has conducted nuclear strikes — and it was against a non-nuclear opponent. “Our knowledge of nuclear deterrence,” according to Jervis, “is largely deductive.”[127] Yet, the deductions and parsimonious models that some analysts rely upon are unmoored from the operational and political challenges surrounding the initial use of nuclear weapons in a future conflict and the threat of their continued use as that conflict potentially develops into a protracted war.[128] The preceding sections, in combination, have contended that warfighting capabilities are inextricably foundational to protecting U.S. overseas interests and maintaining and fulfilling extended deterrence commitments. The only way to avoid the connection between warfighting capabilities and deterrence of a wide range of adversary actions and do minimal harm to U.S. vital interests is for the United States to abandon its alliance commitments and adopt a minimum deterrence posture solely to safeguard the U.S. homeland.[129] Perhaps recognizing the challenges that extended deterrence poses for U.S. policymakers and strategists, in 2010 several analysts affiliated with the U.S. Air Force called on the United States to withdraw its extended deterrence commitments.[130] Needless to say, while the United States plans on retaining disparate overseas defense commitments, analysis that fails to work through seemingly intractable military problems and strategic challenges — while only providing assertions of how future conflicts will unfold and how different leaders will make decisions about the use of nuclear weapons — cannot be justified. Such analysis is clearly not useful to informing debates and decisions about future U.S. nuclear capabilities and posture. Recall President Dwight Eisenhower’s thoughts on the value of diligent planning. In a speech at the National Defense Executive Reserve Conference in 1957, he stated,
Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. There is a very great distinction because when you are planning for an emergency you must start with this one thing: the very definition of ‘emergency’ is that it is unexpected, therefore it is not going to happen the way you are planning. So, the first thing you do is to take all the plans off the top shelf and throw them out the window and start once more. But if you haven't been planning you can't start to work, intelligently at least. That is the reason it is so important to plan, to keep yourselves steeped in the character of the problem that you may one day be called upon to solve—or to help to solve.[131]
With the U.S. government’s renewed emphasis on engaging in great power competition, there is a pressing need for objective analyses to inform an accurate diagnosis of the character of future warfare and the relative standing of U.S. military forces in the U.S.-China and U.S.-Russia nuclear competitions. Such analyses could also shape and influence associated U.S. nuclear policy and strategy debates — they would help Defense Department senior managers and members of Congress as they choose investments that will shape the structure, posture, and doctrine of U.S. military forces during the next 20 to 30 years. The strategic-analytic framework described in this article accentuates the use of a broadly scoped investigation and empirical evidence regarding U.S. and competitors’ forces to better understand their adequacy in performing military missions to achieve national objectives in peacetime and under wartime conditions, and to identify key military challenges, risks, and opportunities for the United States.[132] Such an approach is centered on the interaction between competitors, which improves the analyst’s chances of capturing the major factors shaping the evolution of nuclear balances, the role of non-nuclear technologies and forces upon the balances, and the interdependence between conventional and nuclear operations. As long as the United States maintains its extended deterrence commitments, analysts need to account for the array of problems associated with maintaining the credibility of U.S. security guarantees and projecting military power against other nuclear competitors. To be deterred from committing a broad range of aggressive acts against U.S. interests, nuclear competitors must fear that the courses of action that they are equipped to take, including measures to deter and defeat U.S. military operations, face a level of risk sufficient to make them doubt that they can achieve their war aims at less cost than accepting the status quo for an extended period of time.[133] It is incumbent upon analysts to set aside any normative concerns and policy preferences they may harbor and to broaden the range of plausible “what if” questions around which their studies on nuclear competition are structured.   Bruce M. Sugden is a research analyst at the Institute for Defense Analyses in Alexandria, VA. For their helpful suggestions and criticisms of earlier drafts he thanks Robert Angevine, William Chambers, Jeffrey McKitrick, Caroline Milne, Victor Utgoff, John Warden, and the anonymous reviewers and editors of the Texas National Security Review. The views, opinions, and findings expressed in this article should not be construed as representing the official position of either the Institute for Defense Analyses or the Department of Defense.   Image: National Nuclear Security Administration [post_title] => A Primer on Analyzing Nuclear Competitions [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => a-primer-on-analyzing-nuclear-competitions [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-09-12 17:47:45 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-09-12 21:47:45 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw [lead] => Bruce Sugden offers a nuclear primer for analysts studying nuclear competition, urging them to broaden the range of plausible “what if” questions around which their studies are structured. [pubinfo] => [issue] => Vol 2, Iss 3 [quotes] => Array ( [0] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Nuclear competitions involving the United States have been a feature of the international security environment for decades. ) [1] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => To be comprehensive, any analysis of a military balance should incorporate the competitors’ concepts of operations and how they practice warfare. ) [2] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => In a crisis and wartime scenario, competitors might try to conceal their true political and military objectives to throw off the other’s efforts to gain advantages. ) [3] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => The Defense Department will need to invest in increasing the ability of U.S. conventional forces to operate in a nuclear battlefield... ) [4] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => History suggests that decision-makers will want a toolkit equipped with multiple nuclear and non-nuclear capabilities to manage alliance politics, deter different forms of aggression, and mitigate operational challenges. ) [5] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => Therefore, while social scientific theories and models can offer insights and intriguing perspectives, strategic analysts should approach them with a skeptical eye. ) [6] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Because the nuclear thresholds and practices of potential adversaries are always shrouded in uncertainty, it would behoove U.S. analysts to conduct sensitivity analyses to see how their findings might change. ) ) [style] => strategist [type] => Strategist [style_label] => The Strategist [download] => Array ( [title] => PDF Download [file] => 1809 ) [authors] => Array ( [0] => 282 ) [endnotes] => Array ( [title] => Endnotes [endnotes] => [1] The 1974 Economic Report of the President, Hearings Before the Joint Economic Committee, Congress of the United States, Ninety-third Congress, Second Sess., Part 4, March 7, 1974, (Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, 1974), 905, Congress/Hearings/The 1974 Economic Report of the President Part IV (644).pdf. [2] National Security Strategy of the United States, the White House, December 2017,; Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America, Department of Defense, January 2018,; and, Missile Defense Review, Department of Defense, January 2019, [3] Nuclear Posture Review, Department of Defense, February 2018, [4] The strategic-analytic framework is based on the net assessment analytic concept as practiced within the Defense Department. The aim of a net assessment is to understand the nature and character of a military competition and one’s ability to achieve desired objectives against an opponent, and how that ability changes over time, to help senior managers understand a military problem in a particular way. See Paul Bracken, “Net Assessment: A Practical Guide,” Parameters 36 (Spring 2006): 90–100,; and Jeffrey S. McKitrick, “Adding to ‘Net Assessment,’” Parameters 36 (Summer 2006): 118–19, Because critical information about a competitor’s view of a particular military problem might be unavailable for constructing a truly “net” assessment, I use “strategic-analytic framework” instead of “net assessment” to describe a useful way to approach analysis of a nuclear competition. [5] “FACT SHEET: Advancing the Rebalance to Asia and the Pacific,” The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, Nov. 16, 2015, On the marginalization of Defense Department analysis of the nuclear competitions between 1991 and 2018, see Robert Peters, Justin Anderson, and Harrison Menke, “Deterrence in the 21st Century: Integrating Nuclear and Conventional Force,” Strategic Studies Quarterly 12, no. 4 (Winter 2018): 26–27, [6] For a contemporary treatment of what we know about the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. grand strategy and, more critically, what we do not yet fully understand, see Francis J. Gavin, “Rethinking the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons and American Grand Strategy,” Texas National Security Review 2, no. 1 (November 2018): 74–100, [7] Some studies that explore how states have employed nuclear weapons for various purposes include Richard K. Betts, Nuclear Blackmail and Nuclear Balance (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 1987); Charles L. Glaser, Analyzing Strategic Nuclear Policy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990); Todd S. Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann, Nuclear Weapons and Coercive Diplomacy (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017); Matthew Kroenig, The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy: Why Strategic Superiority Matters (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018); Terence Roehrig, Japan, South Korea, and the United States Nuclear Umbrella: Deterrence after the Cold War (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017); and Francis J. Gavin, Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America’s Atomic Age (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012). [8] Jim Mitre, “A Eulogy for the Two-War Construct,” Washington Quarterly 41, no. 4 (Winter 2019): 7–30,; and Michael Kofman, “Searching for Strategy in Washington’s Competition with Russia,” War on the Rocks, Jan. 30, 2018, [9] Andrew W. Marshall, “Arms Competitions: The Status of Analysis,” in The Western Panacea: Constraining Soviet Power through Negotiation, Vol. II of Soviet Power and Western Negotiating Policies, ed. Uwe Nerlich (Cambridge, Mass.: Ballinger Publishing Co., 1983): 3–19; and Ernest May, John D. Steinbruner, and Thomas W. Wolfe, History of the Strategic Arms Competition 1945-1972, Part II (Washington, D.C.: Office of the Secretary of Defense, Historical Office, March 1981), 810. The term “nuclear competition” is a more appropriate term to describe the analytic phenomenon in question rather than the term “arms race,” which implies a definitive and foreseeable termination point in the development of nuclear forces and the corresponding strategic and doctrinal developments, as well as the absence of military innovation. Nuclear competition, on the other hand, implies constant military innovation, which is consistent with other forms of military competition. [10] “Nuclear Posture Review, Panel Discussion,” at National Defense University, Feb. 16, 2018, C-Span, [11] Annual Report to Congress, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2018 (Washington, D.C.: Department of Defense, May 16, 2018), chap. 3, [12] John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001), 5. [13] A. W. Marshall, “Competitive Strategies – History and Background,” March 3, 1988, 1; and James Lacey, ed., Great Strategic Rivalries: From the Classical World to the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016). On great power competition in the economic sphere, see Markus Brunnermeier, Rush Doshi, and Harold James, “Beijing’s Bismarckian Ghosts: How Great Powers Compete Economically,” Washington Quarterly 41, no. 3 (Fall 2018): 161–76, [14] Thomas G. Mahnken, “Thinking about Competitive Strategies,” in Competitive Strategies for the 21st Century: Theory, History, and Practice, ed. Thomas G. Mahnken (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012), 5. See also Hal Brands, “The Lost Art of Long-Term Competition,” Washington Quarterly 41, no. 4 (Winter 2019): 31–51, The Defense Department in early 2019 might still be confused over how to think about great power competition. See Katie Bo Williams, “What’s Great Power Competition? No One Really Knows,” Defense One, May 13, 2019, [15] Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics; and Sebastian Rosato, “The Inscrutable Intentions of Great Powers,” International Security 39, no. 3 (Winter 2014/15): 48–88, For a counter-argument that intentions can be assessed with high confidence under particular circumstances, see Charles L. Glaser and Andrew H. Kydd, "Correspondence: Can Great Powers Discern Intentions?" International Security 40, no. 3 (Winter 2015/2016): 197–202, [16] Paul M. Kennedy, The Rise of the Anglo-German Antagonism: 1860-1914 (London: The Ashfield Press, 1987), 466. [17] Aaron L. Friedberg, “Competing with China,” Survival 60, no. 3 (June-July 2018): 7–64, [18] Friedberg, “Competing with China,” 8. [19] Marshall also founded the Defense Department’s Office of Net Assessment and was its director for over 40 years. For more on the intellectual structure behind how the Office of Net Assessment analyzed military competitions, see Andrew W. Marshall, J.J. Martin, and Henry S. Rowen, eds., On Not Confusing Ourselves: Essays on National Security Strategy in Honor of Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter (Boulder, Co: Westview Press, 1991), esp. chaps. 9, 15, and 16. [20] A.W. Marshall, “Problems of Estimating Military Power,” prepared for presentation at the American Political Science Meetings (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, 1966), 2. [21] Andrew W. Marshall and James Roche, “Strategy for Competing with the Soviets in the Military Sector of the Continuing Political-Military Competition,” Department of Defense Memorandum, 1976, 3, [22] Marshall, “Problems of Estimating Military Power,” 6, 13–17, and 21. [23] Marshall, “Arms Competitions.” [24] Aaron Friedberg, too, addressed the question of how statesmen should measure relative military power. See Aaron L. Friedberg, “The Assessment of Military Power: A Review Essay,” International Security 12, no. 3 (Winter 1987/88): 190–202, doi:10.2307/2538805. [25] Barry Blechman and Russell Rumbaugh, “Bombs Away: The Case for Phasing Out U.S. Tactical Nukes in Europe,” Foreign Affairs 93, no. 4 (July/August 2014),; and Michael S. Gerson, “No First Use: The Next Step for U.S. Nuclear Policy,” International Security 35, no. 2 (Fall 2010): 7–47, [26] Bruce M. Sugden, “Nuclear Cruise Missile Opponents Are Pushing a Dangerous Line,” War on the Rocks, Jan. 14, 2016, [27] James Stavridis, “China's military power already on par with US in East Asia,” Nikkei Asian Review, Nov. 22, 2017, [28] Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2018, chap. 5. [29] Scott Boston, Michael Johnson, Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, and Yvonne K. Crane, Assessing the Conventional Force Imbalance in Europe: Implications for Countering Russian Local Superiority (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, 2018), [30] “Department of Defense Press Briefing by General Breedlove in the Pentagon Briefing Room,” Defense Department, April 30, 2015, [31] Matthew Cox, “EUCOM Commander Downplays 'Bleak' Report of Russian Military Strength,”, March 8, 2018, [32] Eliot A. Cohen, “Toward Better Net Assessment: Rethinking the European Conventional Balance,” International Security 13, no. 1 (Summer 1988): 50–89, [33] Richard K. Betts, “Conventional Deterrence: Predictive Uncertainty and Policy Confidence,” World Politics 37, no. 2 (January 1985): 169–70, [34] David M. Tate, Acquisition Cycle Time: Defining the Problem (Revised), IDA Document NS D-5762 (Alexandria, Va.: Institute for Defense Analyses, October 2016), [35] I thank Jeffrey McKitrick for sharing his description of a military investment balance and its usefulness for understanding nuclear competition. [36] Nuclear Matters Handbook, Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear Matters, 2016, 155, [37] These questions are suggested by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency’s 2019 unclassified assessment of Russian and Chinese nuclear modernization trends. See Lt. Gen. Robert P. Ashley, Jr., “Russian and Chinese Nuclear Modernization Trends,” remarks at the Hudson Institute, Washington, D.C., May 29, 2019, A recent assessment of the potential for the U.S. Department of Energy to meet the 2030 requirement to achieve a plutonium pit production capacity of 80 per year illustrates the sub-optimal state of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex compared to the late 1980s. See David E. Hunter, Rhiannon T. Hutton, et al., Independent Assessment of the Two-Site Pit Production Decision: Executive Summary (Alexandria, Va.: Institute for Defense Analyses, 2019), [38] Andrew W. Marshall, Long-Term Competition with the Soviets: A Framework for Strategic Analysis (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, 1972), 23–28, Valuable investigations of the burden of military expenditures on national economic resources include John M. Hobson, “The Military-Extraction Gap and the Wary Titan: The Fiscal-Sociology of British Defense Policy 1870-1913,” Journal of European Economic History 22, no. 3 (1993): 461–506; the chapters by David F. Epstein and Stephen M. Meyer, in Henry S. Rowen and Charles Wolf, Jr., eds., The Impoverished Superpower: Perestroika and the Soviet Military Burden (San Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies, 1990); Andrew W. Marshall and Abram N. Shulsky, “Assessing Sustainability of Command Economies and Totalitarian Regimes: The Soviet Case,” Orbis 62, no. 2 (Spring 2018): 220–43,; Marc Trachtenberg, “Assessing Soviet Economic Performance During the Cold War: A Failure of Intelligence?” Texas National Security Review 1, no. 2 (March 2018),; and Austin Long, “Rubles, Dollars, and Power: U.S. Intelligence on the Soviet Economy and Long-Term Competition,” Texas National Security Review 1, no. 4 (August 2018), [39] Marshall, Long-Term Competition with the Soviets, 33–34. [40] David D’Lugo and Ronald Rogowski, “The Anglo-German Naval Race and Comparative Constitutional ‘Fitness,’” in The Domestic Bases of Grand Strategy, ed. Richard Rosecrance and Arthur A. Stein (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), 65–95. On how the U.S. political economy shaped the extraction of resources from the U.S. economy during the Cold War, see Aaron L. Friedberg, In the Shadow of the Garrison State: America's Anti-Statism and Its Cold War Grand Strategy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000). [41] Austin Long, “The Least Miserable Option: The Political Economy of U.S. Nuclear Counterforce, 1949-1989,” American Political Science Association 2011 Annual Meeting Paper, available at Social Science ResearchNetwork:; and Francis J. Gavin, Gold, Dollars, and Power: The Politics of International Monetary Relations, 1958–1971 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004). [42] Robert Jervis, “The Political Effects of Nuclear Weapons: A Comment,” International Security 13, no. 2 (Fall 1988): 80–90, doi:10.2307/2538972; and David Alan Rosenberg, “Reality and Responsibility: Power and Process in the Making of United States Nuclear Strategy, 1945–68,” Journal of Strategic Studies 9, no. 1 (1986): 35-36, [43] James E. Doyle ignores the competitive interaction between the United States on the one hand, and China and Russia on the other, in his article, “Mini-nukes: Still a bad choice for the United States,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, April 17, 2017, [44] Colin S. Gray, The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016); and Colin S. Gray, “Nuclear Strategy: the Case for a Theory of Victory,” International Security 4, no. 1 (Summer 1979): 54–87, [45] Gary Anderson, “The Challenge of Fighting Small Wars While Trying to Adequately Prepare for Big Ones,” Small Wars Journal, April 11, 2019, [46] Janne Nolan and Brian Radzinsky, “Continuity from Ambiguity: The Real Role of Nuclear Posture Reviews in U.S. Nuclear Strategy,” War on the Rocks, Feb. 19, 2018, [47] Vipin Narang, “The Discrimination Problem: Why Putting Low-yield Nuclear Weapons on Submarines Is So Dangerous,” War on the Rocks, Feb. 8, 2018,; Jon Wolfsthal, “Say No to New, Smaller Nuclear Weapons,” War on the Rocks, Nov. 22, 2017,; and Doyle, “Mini-nukes.” [48]  One chapter in an Adelphi Series publication is a notable exception. See James E. Doyle, “Deterrence and Flexibility,” in Doyle, Renewing America’s Nuclear Arsenal: Options for the 21st Century, Adelphi Series 56, no. 462 (2016), [49] Sugden, “Nuclear Cruise Missile Opponents Are Pushing a Dangerous Line.” [50] Henrik Praks, “Hybrid or Not: Deterring and Defeating Russia’s Ways of Warfare in the Baltics – the Case of Estonia,” NATO Defense College, Research Paper no. 124 (December 2015),; Tom Shugart and Javier Gonzalez, “First Strike: China’s Missile Threat to U.S. Bases in Asia,” Annual Conference Transcript, Center for a New American Century, June 28, 2017,; “Destroyers – DDG,” United States Navy Fact File, accessed April 11, 2019,; “B-52 Stratofortress,” U.S. Air Force Fact Sheet, last modified Dec. 16, 2015,; and Nolan and Radzinsky, “Continuity from Ambiguity.” [51] Michael Kofman, Katya Migacheva, Brian Nichiporuk, Andrew Radin, Olesya Tkacheva, and Jenny Oberholtzer, Lessons from Russia’s Operations in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, 2017), 23–24. [52] Doyle, “Deterrence and Flexibility,” 32–33.; Colin S. Gray, “Deterrence Resurrected: Revisiting Some Fundamentals,” Parameters (Summer 1991): 100–101,; and Antulio J. Echevarria II, “On Schelling and the Fallacy of Positive Doctrines,” Infinity Journal 6, no. 2 (Summer 2018): 10–14, [53] TNI Staff, “Meet Russia’s Tu-22M3 Backfire, The Bomber That Could Sink a Navy Aircraft Carrier,” National Interest, June 5, 2018,; Megan Eckstein, “Truman Carrier Strike Group Operating North of Arctic Circle; First Time for US Navy Since 1991,” USNI News, Oct. 19, 2018,; and Michael Kofman, “Revise and Resubmit: An Unconvincing Proposal for Permanent U.S. Troops in Poland,” War on the Rocks, Nov. 1, 2018, [54] Adam Mount, “Trump’s Troubling Nuclear Plan: How It Hastens the Rise of a More Dangerous World,” Foreign Affairs, Feb. 2, 2018,; and James Scouras, Edward Smyth, and Thomas Mahnken, Cross-Domain Deterrence in US-China Strategy (Laurel, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, 2014), 2, [55] Michael Krepon, “The Folly of Tactical Nuclear Weapons,” Defense One, Oct. 2, 2017, [56] Effects of Nuclear Earth-Penetrator and Other Weapons, National Research Council (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2005), [57] Richard L. Garwin and Hans A. Bethe, “Anti-ballistic Missile Systems,” Scientific American (March 1968): 259–68, [58] Ronald O'Rourke, Navy Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) Program: Background and Issues for Congress, Congressional Research Service, updated Feb. 6, 2019,; Theodore A. Postol, “Lessons of the Gulf War Experience with Patriot,” International Security 16, no. 3 (Winter 1991/92): 119–71;; Max Fisher, Eric Schmitt, Audrey Carlsen, and Malachy Browne, “Did American Missile Defense Fail in Saudi Arabia?” New York Times, Dec. 4, 2017,; and Andrew M. Sessler, et al., Countermeasures: A Technical Evaluation of the Operational Effectiveness of the Planned US National Missile Defense System, Union of Concerned Scientists and MIT Security Studies Program, April 2000, [59] Stephan Fruhling, “Managing escalation: Missile Defence, Strategy and US Alliances,” International Affairs 92, no. 1 (January 2016): 81–95, [60] Erik Gartzke and Jon R. Lindsay, “Thermonuclear Cyberwar,” Journal of Cybersecurity 3, no. 1 (March 2017): 37–48,; and, Russia Military Power: Building a Military to Support Great Power Aspirations, Defense Intelligence Agency, 2017, [61] See, for example, James John Tritten, “Are Nuclear and Non-Nuclear War Related?” Journal of Strategic Studies 11, no. 3 (1988): 365–73, [62] Vincent A. Manzo, “After the First Shots: Managing Escalation in Northeast Asia,” Joint Forces Quarterly 77 (2nd Quarter, 2015): 96–97, [63] Thomas G. Mahnken, “Weapons: The Growth & Spread of the Precision-Strike Regime,” Daedalus 140, no. 3 (Summer 2011): 45–57, [64] Samuel Glasstone and Philip J. Dolan, eds., The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, Third Edition (Washington, D.C.: Departments of Defense and Energy, 1977), 47,; and Garwin and Bethe, “Anti-ballistic Missile Systems.” [65] Lester W. Grau and Charles K. Bartles, The Russian Way of War: Force Structure, Tactics, and Modernization of the Russian Ground Forces (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Foreign Military Studies Office, 2016), 25, 46, 48, 51, and 61, [66] In particular, see the remarks of Gregory Weaver, “Nuclear Posture Review, Panel Discussion.” [67] Eric Heginbotham, Michael S. Chase, et al., China’s Evolving Nuclear Deterrent: Major Drivers and Issues for the United States (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, 2017), esp. chaps. 2 and 3, [68] Interim Report of the Defense Science Board (DSB) Task Force on the Survivability of Systems and Assets to Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) and other Nuclear Weapon Effects (NWE), Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, August 2011, [69] Nuclear Posture Review. [70] Michael Krepon and Joe Kendall, “Beef Up Conventional Forces; Don’t Worry About A Tactical Nuke Gap,” Breaking Defense, March 28, 2016,; Krepon, “The Folly of Tactical Nuclear Weapons”; and Wolfsthal, “Say No to New, Smaller Nuclear Weapons.” [71] Brian Bahret, “Breedlove to command EUCOM, SHAPE,” Royal Air Force Mildenhall, May 8, 2013, [72] Field Manual 100-30 Nuclear Operations (Washington, D.C.: Headquarters, U.S. Army, 1996), 2–5,; and Samuel Cranny-Evans, Mark Cazalet, and Christopher F. Foss, “The Czar of Battle: Russian Artillery use in Ukraine Portends Advances,” Jane’s International Defence Review, accessed May 26, 2019, [73] Richard Fontaine and Julianne Smith, “Anti-Access/Area Denial Isn’t Just for Asia Anymore,” Defense One, April 2, 2015,; and Nathan Jennings, Amos Fox, and Adam Taliaferro, “The US Army is Wrong on Future War,” Modern War Institute, Dec. 18, 2018, [74] Adam Mount, “Questioning the Case for New Nuclear Weapons,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, accessed Aug. 21, 2015,; and Steve Andreasen, “Rethinking NATO’s Tactical Nuclear Weapons,” Survival 59, no. 5 (2017): 47–53, [75] Blechman and Rumbaugh, “Bombs Away.” [76] Earl C. Ravenal, “Counterforce and Alliance: The Ultimate Connection,” International Security 6, no. 4 (Spring 1982): 26–43, [77] Frank A. Rose, “As Russia and China Improve their Conventional Military Capabilities, Should the US Rethink Its Assumptions on Extended Nuclear Deterrence?” The Brookings Institution, Oct. 23, 2018,; Paul Dibb, “Should Australia Develop Its Own Nuclear Deterrent?” The Strategist, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Oct. 4, 2018,; and Kofman, “Revise and Resubmit.” [78] Thomas C. Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960), 187–88. [79] Glaser, Analyzing Strategic Nuclear Policy, 54; Robert Jervis, The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution: Statecraft and the Prospect of Armageddon (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990), 38–40; and Kroenig, The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy, 4. [80] Draft Memorandum from Secretary of Defense McNamara to President Kennedy, “Subject: Recommended Long Range Nuclear Delivery Forces 1963-1967,” Sept. 23, 1961, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963, Vol. VIII, National Security Policy,; Marc Trachtenberg, History and Strategy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), chaps. 4–5; and Ravenal, “Counterforce and Alliance.” [81] William Burr, ”The Nixon Administration, the ‘Horror Strategy,’ and the Search for Limited Nuclear Options, 1969-1972,” Journal of Cold War Studies 7, no. 3 (Summer 2005): 34–78,; Richard Nixon, “National Security Decision Memorandum 242,” Jan. 17, 1974,; James R. Schlesinger, The Theater Nuclear Force Posture in Europe, A Report to the United States Congress in compliance with Public Law 93-365 (Washington, D.C.: Department of Defense, April 1, 1975), partially declassified, 1–2,; and “Notes on NSC Meeting 14 February 1969,” [82] Nuclear Supplement to Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan for FY 1996 (JSCP FY 96), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Instruction 3110.04, Feb. 12, 1996, partially declassified, A-2, D-1, H-3, and GL-11, [83] Nuclear Posture Review Report, Department of Defense, April 2010,; and Report on Nuclear Employment Strategy of the United States Specified in Section 491 of 10 U.S.C., Department of Defense, June 12, 2013, 8, [84] Donald Stoker, “Everything You Think You Know About Limited War Is Wrong,” War on the Rocks, Dec. 22, 2016, [85] John K. Warden, Limited Nuclear War: The 21st Century Challenge for the United States, Livermore Papers on Global Security no. 4 (July 2018), [86] Dave Johnson, Russia’s Conventional Precision Strike Capabilities, Regional Crises, and Nuclear Thresholds, Livermore Papers on Global Security no. 3 (February 2018): 16, [87] David A. Shlapak and Michael W. Johnson, “Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics,” RR-1253-A, RAND Corporation, 2016, [88] Adam Mount, “The Case Against New Nuclear Weapons,” Center for American Progress, May 4, 2017, 24–25, [89] Keir Giles, “Russia’s ‘New’ Tools for Confronting the West: Continuity and Innovation in Moscow’s Exercise of Power,” Chatham House Research Paper (March 2016), 19,; and Johnson, Russia’s Conventional Precision Strike Capabilities, 52. [90] Jay Ross, “Time to Terminate Escalate to De-escalate — It’s Escalation Control,” War on the Rocks, April 24, 2018, [91] Andrew W. Marshall, “Commentary: Strategy as a Profession in the Future Security Environment,” in Nuclear Heuristics: Selected Writings of Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter,  ed. Robert Zarate and Henry Sokolski (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, January 2009): 625–36; Marshall, “Arms Competitions;” and Francis J. Gavin, “Breaking Discipline and Closing Gaps? – The State of International Relations Education,” War on the Rocks, Feb. 5, 2015, On the importance of being “ruthlessly empirical” in one’s analytic approach to understanding a military competition, see the remarks of Tom Ehrhard, a former military assistant in the Defense Department’s Office of Net Assessment, in “Remembering Andy Marshall,” Defense & Aerospace Report Podcast, March 29, 2019, For the nuclear revolution perspective, see Jervis, The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution; for the superiority-brinksmanship synthesis theory, see Kroenig, The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy. [92] Analysis of the disputes between different schools of thought within the nuclear analytic community during the 1980s, much of which remains relevant to contemporary nuclear issues, can be found in Glaser, Analyzing Strategic Nuclear Policy, chaps. 2–3. [93] On the relative merits of analyses based on deductive and inductive methods, see Robert Jervis, “Rational Deterrence: Theory and Evidence,” World Politics 41, no. 2 (January 1989): 183–207, [94] Jervis, The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution, chap. 3; Robert Jervis, “Why Nuclear Superiority Doesn’t Matter,” Political Science Quarterly 94, no. 4 (Winter 1979-1980): 617–33,; and Glaser, Analyzing Strategic Nuclear Policy, esp. chap. 11. For application of the nuclear revolution framework to the U.S.-China nuclear competition, see Charles L. Glaser and Steve Fetter, “Should the United States Reject MAD? Damage Limitation and U.S. Nuclear Strategy Toward China,” International Security 41, no. 1 (Summer 2016): 49–98, [95] Glaser, Analyzing Strategic Nuclear Policy, 53; and Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966): 92–125. [96] For a more extensive survey of the nuclear revolution school and its critics, see Gavin, “Rethinking the Bomb.” [97] Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, “The New Era of Counterforce: Technological Change and the Future of Nuclear Deterrence,” International Security 41, no. 4 (Spring 2017): 9–49, [98] Brendan R. Green and Austin Long, “The MAD Who Wasn’t There: Soviet Reactions to the Late Cold War Nuclear Balance,” Security Studies 26, no. 4 (2017): 606–41, [99] Kroenig, The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy, 3–4, and 15–20. [100] Jervis, “Why Nuclear Superiority Doesn’t Matter,” 632; and Glaser, Analyzing Strategic Nuclear Policy, 219–20, and 229. [101] Elbridge Colby, “Against the Great Powers: Reflections on Balancing Nuclear and Conventional Power,” Texas National Security Review 2, no. 1 (November 2018): 149–51, [102] Glaser, Analyzing Strategic Nuclear Policy, 230. The nuclear revolution school judges that costs are only associated with levels of damage to a country’s society, not with the loss of military forces or capabilities for command and control. This judgment rests on the assumption that political leaders value their population more than their military forces. Thus, it follows from the logic of deterrence by punishment that a state inflicts costs by striking the targets of highest value to the adversary. I thank Charles Glaser for clarifying his views of the issues raised in this paragraph via e-mail correspondence, July 10, 2019. [103] Schelling, Arms and Influence, 141–51. [104] Glaser, Analyzing Strategic Nuclear Policy, 15 and 45. For different definitions and assessments of the utility of the term “strategic stability,” see Elbridge A. Colby and Michael S. Gerson, eds., Strategic Stability: Contending Interpretations (Carlisle Barracks, PA: U.S. Army War College Press, 2013), [105] Derived from Michael S. Gerson, “The Origins of Strategic Stability: The United States and the Threat of Surprise Attack,” in Colby and Gerson, Strategic Stability, 34. [106] Kroenig, The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy, 132–33, refers to this instability as “positive instability.” The nuclear revolution school seems confident that the inescapable risk of escalation to large-scale counter-homeland strikes — Schelling’s “threat that leaves something to chance” — will make a competitor’s military threat against U.S. allies unlikely in the first place. See Jervis, “Why Nuclear Superiority Doesn’t Matter,” 620; Glaser and Fetter, “Should the United States Reject MAD?” 95; and Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict, 187­–203. [107] I am indebted to Caroline Milne for bringing this area of disagreement to my attention. [108] Steven J. Zaloga, The Kremlin’s Nuclear Sword: The Rise and Fall of Russia’s Strategic Nuclear Forces, 1945-2000 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002): chap. 5; and John A. Battilega, “Soviet Views of Nuclear Warfare: The Post-Cold War Interviews,” in Getting MAD: Nuclear Mutual Assured Destruction, Its Origins and Practice, ed. Henry D. Sokolski (Carlisle, PA.: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, November 2004): chap. 5. Analysis of relevant data, especially a competitor’s closely held data, requires that the data has been collected and made available to analysts in the first place. [109] Caroline R. Milne, “Hope Springs Eternal: Perceptions of Mutual Vulnerability Between Nuclear Rivals,” PhD Dissertation, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 2017), 205. [110] Thomas J. Christensen, “The Meaning of the Nuclear Evolution: China's Strategic Modernization and US-China Security Relations,” Journal of Strategic Studies 35, no. 4 (2012): 447–87,; and Rachel Oswald, “U.S.-China Nuclear Talks Stymied by Distrust and Miscommunication,” Atlantic, Oct. 3, 2011, [111] Gregory Kulacki, The Chinese Military Updates China’s Nuclear Strategy (Cambridge, MA: Union of Concerned Scientists, 2015). [112] Williamson Murray, Military Adaptation in War: With Fear of Change (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011). [113] Schlesinger, The Theater Nuclear Force Posture in Europe, 15. [114] Dave Johnson, Nuclear Weapons in Russia’s Approach to Conflict (Paris: Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique, November 2016),; and Michael Frankel, James Scouras, and George Ullrich, Nonstrategic Nuclear Weapons at an Inflection Point (Laurel, MD.: The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory LLC, 2017), 14–17, [115] Alastair Iain Johnston, “China's New "Old Thinking": The Concept of Limited Deterrence,” International Security 20, no. 3 (Winter, 1995-1996): 5–42, [116] M. Taylor Fravel and Evan S. Medeiros, “China’s Search for Assured Retaliation: The Evolution of Chinese Nuclear Strategy and Force Structure,” International Security 35, no. 2 (Fall 2010): 80,; and Heginbotham, et al., China’s Evolving Nuclear Deterrent, 129–33. [117] Heginbotham, et al., China’s Evolving Nuclear Deterrent, 131. [118] Fravel and Medeiros, “China’s Search for Assured Retaliation,” 70 and 76. [119] Heginbotham, et al., China’s Evolving Nuclear Deterrent, 136. [120] Scouras, Smyth, and Mahnken, Cross-Domain Deterrence in US-China Strategy, 14–16, and 63. [121] Christensen, “The Meaning of the Nuclear Evolution,” 453–54, and 475–78. [122] Alison A. Kaufman and Daniel M. Hartnett, Managing Conflict: Examining Recent PLA Writings on Escalation Control, CNA China Studies (February 2016), chap. 5, [123] Burgess Laird, War Control: Chinese Writings on the Control of Escalation in Crisis and Conflict (Washington, D.C.: Center for a New American Security, February 2017), 17–18, [124] Colin S. Gray, War, Peace and Victory: Strategy and Statecraft for the Next Century (New York: Touchstone, 1991), 12–13, 38–39, 325, and 341–46; and Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976). [125] “Reps. Frankel, Lieu Introduce Bill to Prevent Nuclear Arms Race,” Website of Congresswoman Lois Frankel, Press Release, Feb. 14, 2019,; Colin S. Gray and Keith Payne, “Victory is Possible,” Foreign Policy, no. 39 (Summer 1980): 14–27,; and Colin S. Gray and Michael Howard, “Correspondence: Perspectives on Fighting Nuclear War,” International Security 6, No. 1 (Summer 1981): 185–87, On expansion of war aims, see Eric J. Labs, “Beyond Victory: Offensive Realism and The Expansion of War Aims,” Security Studies 6, no. 4 (1997): 1–49, [126] Quoted in “There’s No Such Things as ‘Limited’ Nuclear War,” William J. Perry Project, March 7, 2017, [127] Robert Jervis, The Illogic of American Nuclear Statecraft (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984), 38. [128] Matthew Hallex and Bruce Sugden, “Nuclear Weapons: Thinking about Strategy and Nuclear Weapons,” in Personal Theories of Power: Exploring Strategy Through the Eyes of Emerging Leaders, ed. Nathan Finney, Richard Ganske, Mikhail Grinberg, and Tim Wolfe, The Bridge and CIMSEC Compendium (June 2014), 41–43, [129] Draft Memorandum from Secretary of Defense McNamara to President Kennedy, “Subject: Recommended Long Range Nuclear Delivery Forces 1963-1967.” A minimum deterrence posture is defined as the United States having the ability to conduct a retaliatory nuclear attack against an adversary’s major population centers but not a counterforce attack to disarm it of its military forces. [130] James Wood Forsyth Jr., B. Chance Saltzman, and Gary Schaub Jr., “Minimum Deterrence and its Critics,” Strategic Studies Quarterly (Winter 2010): 3–12, [131] Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Remarks at the National Defense Executive Reserve Conference,” The American Presidency Project, online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, accessed April 19, 2019, [132] “Department of Defense Directive 5111.11, Director of Net Assessment,” Department of Defense, Dec. 23, 2009, 1, [133] Michael E. Brown, Deterrence Failures and Deterrence Strategies: Or, Did You Ever Have One of Those Days When No Deterrent Seemed Adequate? (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corp., 1977): 2, 4, and 23–24, ) [contents] => Array ( [title] => [contents] => ) ) [6] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 1453 [post_author] => 20 [post_date] => 2019-05-21 05:00:55 [post_date_gmt] => 2019-05-21 09:00:55 [post_content] => Twenty years ago, Northern Ireland’s bloody civil war ended with the signing of the “Good Friday” Agreement.[1] The scale of the conflict may seem small in terms of absolute numbers of those killed and wounded when compared to larger tragedies of the 20th century.[2] Nevertheless, its duration, spanning nearly 30 years from the onset of the “Troubles” until the Agreement was signed in 1998, and its pervasive impact — not just on Northern Ireland, but on the Republic of Ireland, the United Kingdom, and even the United States — more than justifies the importance attached to the achievement of peace. Since 1998, implementing the Agreement has proved difficult and the peace remains fragile, tested now by the fallout from Britain’s “Brexit” vote. Yet, the Agreement remains one of the most important examples of how a decades-long sectarian conflict can come to an end.[3] There have been many books and articles written by participants, journalists, and academics that have sought to describe the process leading up to the Agreement and to explain why it came about.[4] Peace, like victory, has a thousand fathers, and studies of the peace process have identified a wide range of factors that arguably contributed to the outcome. Why then yet another article on this topic? My contribution seeks to “bridge the gap” between two complementary perspectives: the viewpoint of a diplomat deeply involved in the negotiations and that of a teacher and scholar of international relations and conflict resolution.[5] My goal is twofold: to help practitioners think about how to orchestrate the various tools of diplomacy in support of current and future peacemaking efforts,[6] and to contribute to the long-standing academic debate among historians and political scientists about causal explanations in international relations. In particular, I want to examine the interaction between structural factors (such as demographics, economics, and the end of the Cold War), the peace process, and efforts made by key individuals involved in the process. In any analysis of this kind, the question of agency looms heavily. The Northern Ireland peace process involved many remarkable, dynamic individuals, in and out of government, who populate the narrative. It is relatively easy to describe the decisions these individuals made, while it is somewhat more complex to explain their motivations and calculus (although memoirs abound, there is always danger that the accounts are self-serving).[7] More challenging is the question of how much, if any, difference these individuals made, or whether the deeper economic and social forces at work would have led to an end of the conflict independent of the peace process itself. The very vividness of the first-hand accounts of events and the colorful personalities of the central players may contribute to over-attribution of causality. Almost every major actor in the drama has, at one point in time, been “nominated” as the “indispensable” figure in making the Agreement possible, from David Trimble and John Hume, who were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, to Gerry Adams and his co-negotiator Martin McGuiness, George Mitchell, Tony Blair, Bertie Ahearn, Bill Clinton, Monica McWilliams, May Blood (of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition), and even the shadowy MI5 agent who helped broker key talks between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the British government in the early 1990s. For this reason, I begin my analysis by examining the broader, structural factors, before delving into the specifics of the negotiators and the negotiation. I then turn to the motivations and goals of the principal actors: the political parties in Northern Ireland, civil society, and the three governments involved (the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the United States).[8] Next, I look at the negotiating process leading up to the 1998 Agreement. Finally, my analysis turns to some conclusions about how to assess the impact of the various factors and the potential implications of that analysis for future peace processes.

The Historic, Economic, and Social Context

The conflict in Northern Ireland — the Troubles — in its violent form spanned three decades, from about 1968 to 1998. It led to the loss of thousands of lives and even more casualties, affecting Catholics and Protestants; paramilitaries and civilians in the North; British security forces serving in Northern Ireland, England, and on the European continent; and British civilians who were victims of IRA attacks in England. The violence caused billions of dollars of economic harm and left deep social and psychological scars. It had its roots in the complex history of Ireland’s relationship with Great Britain, especially the settlement that led to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 and the partition of the island into the Irish Free State and the “province” of Northern Ireland, the six northern counties on the island that opted out of the Irish Free State under the provisions of the treaty. The source of the Northern Ireland conflict was, in part, political — the legacy of the dispute among Irish nationalists about whether to accept, even temporarily, the partition of Ireland. It was also social and economic. While Catholics made up most of the island, Protestants composed the majority in the six Ulster provinces. For historic and geographic reasons, the counties of Ulster were more industrialized and prosperous than the more rural south, and wealth and political power was largely controlled by Protestant elites.[9] Thus, class, religious and ethnic distinctions, as well as a legacy of de jure and de facto religious discrimination against Catholics in the North all combined to set the stage for sectarian strife. But just as the violence erupted in the 1960s, societal and economic forces began to change this equation. Differential birth rates and patterns of emigration led to a relative increase in the Catholic population of Ulster. Immediately after the partition in 1921, the percentage of Catholics in Ulster was just under 35 percent,[10] but by the time of the 2001 census the proportion had risen to 40.2 percent, compared with 45.6 percent non-Roman Catholic Christians.[11] Equally important, Catholics make up an even greater share of the younger population, a plurality in all age groups up to 39 in the 2011 census, with predictable consequences for the future makeup of the Northern Ireland electorate. The growing Catholic population meant that Catholics — if they chose to participate — would have a growing voice in the politics of the province, even under a pure majoritarian governance model without a formal power-sharing arrangement. Thus, provincial self-governance provided, at least in theory, an alternative, or complementary strategy to empowering the Catholic/nationalist community in Ulster. Perhaps even more significant, it opened up the prospect that at some time in the foreseeable future, a majority in the North might favor leaving the United Kingdom and joining the South, a possibility that both the Irish and British governments foresaw and implicitly endorsed by enshrining the principle of “consent” in the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985.[12] [quote id="1"] Changes in the economic fortunes of the two parts of the Irish island also had an impact on the course of the conflict and the eventual peace agreement. During the second half of the 20th century, the economy of the Irish Republic was transformed, fueled to a considerable degree by the entry of Ireland and the United Kingdom into the European Union in 1973.[13] This trend began to take effect in the 1980s and accelerated in the 1990s with the emergence of high rates of growth in the South, earning the Republic the sobriquet “Celtic Tiger.” At the same time, demographic and economic forces, combined with negative impact from the Troubles on investment prospects in Ulster, led to a relative decline in the economic performance of the North.[14] The result was a growing convergence in living standards between the two parts of Ireland. By 2018, GDP per capita in Northern Ireland was less than half that of the Republic, although this figure, in part, reflects the outsized role of multinationals in the South. But even by more conservative estimates, the standard of living today is at least relatively comparable, North and South.[15] The improved economic fortunes of the South enhanced the attractiveness of the Republic as an economic partner for Northern Ireland, especially among the business community, increasing interest in cross-border cooperation. This was particularly true for border districts, which were among the poorest parts of both North and South. This trend accelerated with completion of the Single European Act in 1993, which both deepened economic ties among E.U. members and diminished the significance of the border between the North and South.[16] It is also important to consider how the wider international environment might have contributed to achieving peace in Northern Ireland. Some have suggested that the end of the Cold War reduced the salience of the U.S.-U.K. relationship and thus opened the door for greater U.S. engagement — including American President Bill Clinton’s willingness to incur British Prime Minister John Major’s anger by granting Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams a visa to visit the United States. To some extent, progress in solving other, arguably more difficult, conflicts — including the Oslo Agreement between Israel and the Palestinians and the Dayton Agreement, which ended the fighting in Bosnia — put pressure on the Northern Ireland protagonists to take similar “risks for peace.” Finally, growing international attention to the problem of terrorism posed challenges to the IRA’s ability to arm itself through ties with other terrorist organizations, such as Spain’s Basque separatists and Columbia’s Revolutionary Armed Forces, as well as through its previously vital ties to Libya under Muammar Qaddafi’s rule.[17]

The Actors

The Northern Ireland Political Parties The political landscape in Northern Ireland leading up to the 1998 Agreement consisted of two key parties on the Catholic side — the republican Sinn Fein (the political wing of the IRA) and the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party[18] — and two on the unionist side — the Ulster Unionist Party and the Democratic Unionist Party[19] — along with smaller loyalist parties associated with Protestant paramilitaries,[20] and one non-sectarian party, the Alliance Party. The Catholic Side Sinn Fein, as a party, has its roots in the struggle for Irish independence in the early 20th century, but its deep involvement in Northern Ireland dates from the 1960s, and particularly from the 1969 party conference when the IRA split between the “official” wing,[21] which favored peaceful political measures to protect Catholics rights and bring about the unification of Ireland, and the “provisional” wing, which sanctioned the use of violence (both to protect the Catholic community and to force the British to abandon Northern Ireland). The “provos” viewed efforts to introduce reform measures in the North or power sharing as simply a means to perpetuate British colonial rule.[22] In the early 1980s, Sinn Fein shifted to a dual-track strategy known as “the ballot box and the Armalite”[23] — participating in parliamentary and local elections (IRA hunger-striker Bobby Sands was elected to the British Parliament in 1981) while continuing its campaign of violence. The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), formed in 1970 out of several smaller parties, was also committed to a united Ireland, but foreswore the use of force and focused much of its attention on the civil and political rights of Catholics under British rule. The SDLP believed that simply forcing the British out would not solve the problem — without the support of the unionist community, unification would simply continue the violent civil war (albeit under Irish rather than British sovereignty). The party emphasized the necessity for the Republic of Ireland to play a formal role in decision-making for the North. The SDLP saw this as a way  to give expression to nationalists’ sense of Irish “identity,” to complement their British “citizenship” as residents of the United Kingdom. The two parties (and their charismatic leaders, Adams and John Hume, respectively) were political rivals in the 1980s, contesting local elections in the North. Although Sinn Fein had some electoral success in its early efforts, its share of the nationalist vote fell throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, and, despite early fears, Sinn Fein was not successful in overtaking the SDLP until after the signing of the 1998 Agreement.[24] During the late 1980s, Sinn Fein’s views about the long-term prospects for achieving republican goals through violence began to shift. Analysts and historians have offered a number of complementary explanations for this crucial development. These include the “Ulsterization” of security, which reduced the number of British military targets and forced the IRA to attack indigenous Northern Irish security personnel;[25] the increasing effectiveness of British intelligence and security operations; and the inherent tensions in the “ballot box and Armalite” strategy, as IRA attacks, especially those resulting in non-combatant causalities, cut deeply into Sinn Fein’s electoral support, both in the north and south of Ireland.[26] Adams publicly described this evolving perspective in an interview in 1988, in which he seemed to rule out the prospect of a military solution to the conflict.[27] This set the stage for a series of meetings between Adams and Hume leading, in 1993, to a joint agreement which included two key provisions:
As leaders of our respective parties we have told each other that we see the task of reaching agreement on a peaceful and democratic accord for all on this island as our primary challenge. We both recognise that such a new agreement is only achievable and viable if it can earn and enjoy the allegiance of the different traditions on this island, by accommodating diversity and providing for national reconciliation.[28] (emphasis added)
The discussions between Sinn Fein and the SDLP took place in parallel with secret discussions between Sinn Fein and the British government.[29] This signal from Sinn Fein (and thus implicitly from the IRA itself) helped trigger a series of events — including the Downing Street Declaration and the decision by Clinton to grant Adams a visa to visit the United States, both discussed below — that were crucial to the 1998 Agreement. Most importantly, they led to the IRA ceasefire of 1994. Although this was not the first announced ceasefire, and although it did not last (the 1996 Canary Wharf bombing brought it to an end), it was seen both then and subsequently as a decisive shift in the trajectory of the conflict. Sinn Fein’s turn toward taking a political approach was, in part, a response to the improved prospect that its goal of unification might be achieved through peaceful means. It may also be attributed to backlash against IRA violence and Sinn Fein’s continued electoral difficulties.[30] One of the key barriers to including Sinn Fein in the peace process was the nature of its ties to the IRA, the paramilitary organization responsible for most of the attacks on British and Ulster security forces and loyalist paramilitaries, as well as a number of high-visibility attacks in England, including a failed assassination attempt on Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that killed one of her aides. The exact nature of the ties between the two groups was (and remains) hotly disputed, both in the lead-up to the Agreement and its implementation. Sinn Fein leaders always insisted that the two were separate and that Sinn Fein could not speak for the IRA.[31] To some extent, this was a kind of deniability designed to give the IRA flexibility to explore what was possible using Sinn Fein as a “cut out”  to explore possible outcomes of the negotiations without actually committing the IRA to accepting the political route.[32] At the same time, there is good reason to believe that at crucial moments the Sinn Fein leadership did not have sufficient clout within the IRA to bring about Sinn Fein’s preferred outcomes, particularly on the issue of the IRA decommissioning its arms.[33] But here, too, it is impossible to rule out the judgment that this was a familiar negotiating ploy designed to persuade the other parties (unionists, Dublin, London, and Washington) that Sinn Fein had reached the end of its flexibility. Reg Empey, a key Ulster Unionist Party negotiator and unionist member of parliament, called the argument that Sinn Fein and the IRA were distinct a “charade.”[34] The Unionist/Protestant Parties The dominant Protestant party in Northern Ireland for much of the 20th century was the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), which, as the name makes clear, had as its central tenet preserving the union with the United Kingdom. Led from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s by James Molyneux, a strong figure who served as a member of parliament in Westminster, the UUP held uncompromising attitudes on the important issues facing Ulster: It opposed greater involvement and a greater voice for Catholics through power sharing in Ulster institutions (including in the short-lived provincial parliament, created in 1973), reforming the Royal Ulster Constabulary (seen by many Catholics as a sectarian force), and giving the Republic of Ireland a role in Northern Ireland affairs.[35] Although the UUP had strong ties to the Conservative (Tory) Party in Great Britain, there were also tensions, stemming from history, cultural differences, and economics, as well as an abiding fear that unionism was more important to the UUP (and Northern Ireland Protestants generally) than it was to Tories. This fear was stoked by the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, which opened the possibility that Ulster’s ties to the United Kingdom could be sacrificed through the political process.[36] The 1990 statement by Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Peter Brooke that “The British government has no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland” further stoked these fears.[37] [quote id="2"] This unionist anxiety about depending on Westminster to protect their interests led to increasing unionist focus on autonomy and self-governance for Northern Ireland, in contrast to the arguments of “integrationists” like Enoch Powell, who argued that Ulster should be governed directly from Westminster, no different than the rest of the United Kingdom.[38] Some unionists placed their hopes on Conservative Prime Minister John Major’s dependence on the votes of unionist members of parliament to maintain his parliamentary majority following the 1992 elections. That hope was undercut first by Major’s decision to support the Anglo-Irish “Frameworks” document of 1996, seen by unionists as a sellout to the Irish, and later by Labour’s victory in 1997. The unionists’ desire to achieve greater control over their destiny played a crucial role in the final decision to accept the 1998 Agreement, as Empey later explained:
We had been dying death by a thousand cuts for 30 years. Unionism had been excluded from the decision-making process since 1972. Throughout that period, direct rule [by the U.K. government in London] had worked against Unionism. Policy decisions had been taken on a whole range of issues that were not in the interest of Unionism.[39]
The growing focus on autonomy as a way to protect unionist/Protestant interests in Northern Ireland played an important role in the rise of David Trimble as the head of the UUP. Although Trimble had a long history in unionist politics, he was largely overshadowed by other prominent UUP leaders, both among unionist members of parliament and constituency figures. His involvement in the Drumcree Orange Order parade in 1995 propelled his rise to the top, burnishing his apparently hardline unionist credentials by ostentatiously defying the British attempt to limit a Protestant parade through a Catholic neighborhood.[40] This association helped sustain his credibility with unionists, who, during the negotiations, were required to abandon traditional “red lines,” including participating in talks with Sinn Fein in 1997 without prior decommissioning and, ultimately, signing the 1998 Agreement without decommissioning. Although Trimble secured a majority of his party’s council in support of the Agreement, the decision triggered a split within the UUP and ultimately contributed to the UUP’s electoral eclipse by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The second leading party on the unionist side was the DUP, formed in the 1970s. Led by the fiery Presbyterian minister, Reverend Ian Paisley, the DUP was even more rigid in rejecting any accommodation with either the nationalists in Northern Ireland (especially through power sharing) or with the Irish government in the South. The DUP largely boycotted the peace negotiations, in part because it insisted on a complete and credible renunciation of violence and prior decommissioning before sitting down with any of the parties linked to paramilitaries (republican or loyalist). Ironically, following the Agreement, the longest period of stable devolved government in Northern Ireland came during a time when the DUP shared power with Sinn Fein (2010–17).[41] The other key parties on the Protestant/unionist side were those associated with the loyalist paramilitaries. They were, in many respects, the counterparts of Sinn Fein/the IRA. These included the Progressive Unionist Party, headed by David Ervine and associated with the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force, and the Ulster Democratic Party, headed by Gary McMichael and associated with the Ulster Defence Association. Although the loyalists were, during the 1970s and 1980s, the most militant of the Protestant groups, they also suffered the most from the fighting — and their decision, much like that of the IRA, to turn from violence to political negotiations gave significant momentum to the peace process. The first evidence of this new orientation emerged in the form of a split between the two principal loyalist groups, the Ulster Defense Association, which remained committed to violence, and the Ulster Volunteer Force, which began to advocate for negotiations. Ultimately, both groups declared a ceasefire shortly after the IRA ceasefire of Aug. 31, 1994, and, in the ensuing years, became an important advocacy group within the Protestant/unionist movement at difficult moments in the negotiations.[42] Non-Sectarian Involvement The Alliance Party was founded in 1970 as a pro-union, but non-sectarian, party. The Alliance was the only political party that sought votes from both the nationalist and unionist constituencies.[43] It received an estimated seven to 10 percent of the vote in the 1980s and 1990s and it participated in the Northern Ireland Forum (from which the participants in the negotiations for the 1998 Agreement were chosen) and won six seats in the first Northern Ireland Assembly election. Its leader, Lord John Alderdice, was an active participant in the all-party negotiation. One Alliance official later described the party’s contribution as a “weathervane” — making sure that proposals were neither too pro-union nor too pro-nationalist and advocating for the integrity of the process, particularly the commitment to exclusively peaceful means.[44] Civil Society Groups A variety of civil society organizations functioned as peace advocates and ultimately were involved in the talks that led to the Agreement through the election of representatives from the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition to the Northern Ireland Forum and, as a result, the formal peace talks. These groups frequently complained that their representatives were excluded from key discussions, both formal and informal. It is hard to assess their specific impact on the signing of the 1998 Agreement. To some extent, they represented a concrete expression of underlying public sentiment, which yearned for an end to the violence, that would have had an impact on the traditional political leaders even in the absence of the groups’ formal participation in the talks. Some analysts have argued that civil society organizations contributed by acting as honest brokers, broadening the agenda, and building public support for the Agreement’s subsequent ratification and that their involvement helped make the Agreement more durable.[45] Skeptics like Fred Halliday, however, have challenged the importance of civil society in the Northern Ireland peace process:
[W]hen it comes to internal conditions, the central issue remains the intentions of the main military and political players….Protest, denunciation, scorn may play a role, but this is not enough to sway the ‘hard’ men and women….it comes through a decision by the nasty people that it is, at that particular moment, more advantageous to pursue peace than war.[46]
Religious leaders were involved at various stages of the peace process, beginning as early as the 1960s, though as institutions they largely resorted to exhortation. Individual clergy, notably one Catholic priest, Father Alec Reid, did at times play a significant role.[47] The referendum that followed the signing of the Agreement revealed the differences between the two communities — while virtually all nationalists/Catholics voted to approve the Agreement, only about half of unionists voted “yes.” In the subsequent decision to go into government without decommissioning, the UUP ruling council split 58-42. But even on the Catholic side, a small splinter maximalist group, the “Real IRA,” continued to oppose the Agreement, including through the use of violence. The Governments The British Government During the early years of the Troubles, the British government’s strategy centered around a strong commitment to the “union” and a conviction that peace could only be achieved through a tough security posture. This approach was crystallized when Edward Heath’s Tories replaced the Labour government of Harold Wilson in 1970.[48] In an attempt to quell the violence, in 1972 Heath abolished the Protestant-dominated Parliament of Northern Ireland, known as the “Stormont” Assembly,[49] which had exercised limited self-government in Northern Ireland since partition. In 1973, the British government proposed a new approach, the Sunningdale Agreement, returning most of the previous powers (other than security) to a reformed Northern Ireland Assembly, which would take decisions under a power-sharing arrangement between unionists and nationalists. Sunningdale also included a role for the Republic of Ireland in the form of North-South bodies designed to foster cooperation across the island. Each of these elements were to feature prominently, 25 years later, in the 1998 Agreement. While Sunningdale was narrowly embraced by the UUP under its leader Brian Faulkner (as well as by the SDLP), grass roots unionist opposition crushed the agreement and pushed Faulkner from his leadership role. Heath’s successor, Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, was strongly unionist both by personal inclination and by Tory politics. Her hardline instincts were reinforced by the 1984 IRA attack on the Conservative party conference in Brighton in which she narrowly escaped and a key advisor was killed.[50] Nonetheless, Thatcher’s decision to conclude the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement without consulting unionist leaders was, in retrospect, a pivotal moment toward launching the peace process. Although her goal was to gain Irish support for a tougher crackdown on the IRA, her willingness to accept an Irish role in Northern Ireland affairs stunned unionists and helped fuel a sense that devolution (regional self-government) and power-sharing, rather than dependence on Westminster, was a more reliable means of protecting unionist interests. Thatcher’s successor, John Major, was less personally wedded to unionism, and some credit him with making the major decisions — including the Downing Street Declaration and the Anglo-Irish Frameworks document[51] — that ultimately led to the 1998 peace agreement. Major indisputably demonstrated considerable courage in engaging with his Irish counterparts (and indirectly with the IRA). But these actions further deepened unionist suspicions, and Major’s dependence on unionist votes for holding onto his parliamentary majority constrained his room to maneuver, which led him to emphasize a permanent cessation of violence and prior arms decommissioning as pre-conditions for Sinn Fein entering peace talks, tests that nearly collapsed the process. It was thus somewhat ironic that the 1997 election of Prime Minister Tony Blair, from the more traditionally “green” Labour Party, helped pave the way for the 1998 Agreement. Although unionists historically mistrusted Labour, Thatcher’s and Major’s actions had damaged unionist faith in the Tories. Moreover, during his first weeks in office, Blair made a major effort to demonstrate his support for the “consent” principle, which was fundamental to the unionist approach.[52] In addition, Blair’s broad support for devolution (for Scotland and Wales as well as Northern Ireland) helped ease unionist fears that self-government for Northern Ireland was a first step toward leaving the Union or being given second-class status within the United Kingdom. The Irish Government The issue of Northern Ireland has played an outsized role in Irish politics. The identities of the major political parties in the South were built on their approach to unification. Fianna Fail, the party of Eamon de Valera, rejected the partition of Ireland and the continued ties to the Irish crown in the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, which created the Irish Free State. Fine Gael was the heir of Michael Collins and the pro-Treaty forces, who acquiesced in the exclusion of the six northern countries from the Irish Free State. Fianna Fail’s subsequent 1932 electoral triumph led to the enshrinement of a constitutional claim (in the 1937 Constitution) of sovereignty over the entire island of Ireland, a key point of contention in the 1998 negotiations until the very end. Fine Gael, by contrast, took a much harder anti-IRA line, opposing direct talks with Sinn Fein or the IRA. Although the centrality of the Northern Ireland issue came, over time, to define the two parties less and less, there remained a perception that Fianna Fail was more nationalist. This was reflected in the approach of Fianna Fail Taoiseach Charles Haughey and, later, Albert Reynolds (who replaced Haughey in 1992), who worked hard to get Sinn Fein into the peace process. By contrast, Fine Gael Taoiseach John Bruton (1995–97) took a tougher line on decommissioning that was much closer to the British view and was considered more sympathetic to the unionist view on the importance of consent.[53] [quote id="3"] Initially, the elevation of Fianna Fail’s Bertie Ahearn in 1997 seemed to presage a throwback to greater support for more maximalist demands of Sinn Fein and the SDLP, although Ahearn made gestures designed to reassure unionists.[54] This more traditional Fianna Fail approach was reflected in the draft agreement Blair and Ahearn presented to the peace conference in the crucial final days of negotiation, which leaned heavily toward the nationalists’ insistence on strong and quasi-independent North-South institutions. The tabling of this draft nearly caused the talks to collapse. However, in the face of unionist revolt, Ahearn agreed, against the advice of his aides, to radically dilute these provisions in order to secure unionist agreement — a decision which has led some to nominate Ahearn as yet another candidate for the “indispensable actor” award.[55] The United States Two competing forces shaped U.S. policy toward Northern Ireland during the early years of the Troubles. On the one hand, the United States and the United Kingdom shared a strong political bond, with historic roots reinforced by the Cold War. These ties inclined Washington to defer to London on what the United Kingdom saw as a domestic conflict. Pulling in the opposite direction was a large and active Irish Catholic diaspora that sympathized with the plight of the Catholics in Northern Ireland. Irish Americans were largely in favor of Irish unification, though divided between those who came to support Sinn Fein/the IRA (IRA sympathizers in the United States provided substantial financial and material support to the group)[56] and those who opposed violence and supported the SDLP. The latter group had strong adherents in the U.S. Congress (including leaders such as House Speaker Tip O’Neill and Sen. Ted Kennedy) but the executive branch largely prioritized U.S.-U.K. ties. Clinton had no prior involvement in the issue before taking office, but, in an unscripted moment during the presidential campaign, indicated his openness to granting a U.S. visa to Adams, who had been denied entry in the past because of his links to the IRA.[57] As a result, unionists were apprehensive when Clinton was elected. Despite the campaign statement and the presence on Clinton’s National Security Council staff of former Kennedy aide Nancy Soderberg, during his first months in office, Clinton initially adopted the pro-British line of the State Department, which opposed granting Adams a visa without the IRA first renouncing violence. But in January 1994, Clinton decided to grant the visa at the urging of Irish Taoiseach Reynolds, members of Congress (including Kennedy, who himself changed his position at the urging of Hume), and Clinton’s White House staff. Clinton had been persuaded that it was more likely to achieve an IRA ceasefire by granting the visa without pre-condition, a judgment that seemed to be vindicated by the IRA ceasefire in August 1994, although at the time Major was furious with Clinton.[58] U.S. involvement following the issuance of the visa followed two tracks. First, there was an effort to promote economic development and investment in Northern Ireland to demonstrate the benefits peace could confer to both communities.[59] This was followed by more direct diplomacy through the appointment of former Senator George Mitchell to lead the negotiations and Clinton’s own personal involvement. During his dramatic visit to Belfast at Christmas 1995, Clinton went out of his way to emphasize his consultations with Trimble, leading one former unionist member of parliament, Roy Bradford, to observe at the time that the visit “significantly changed the feeling among unionists that the American agenda is exclusively nationalist.”[60] Clinton’s willingness to lend support to unionist positions came into play again in the peace process end game, when, in a phone call with Trimble, Clinton backed up Blair’s commitment to “bring down” the power-sharing agreement if the IRA did not begin decommissioning following Sinn Fein’s entry into government.

The Peace Process

The Formal Process During the early 1990s, momentum began to build for launching a formal peace process for the first time since the failed Sunningdale conference of 1973. Initial talks began in 1991 (the inter-party or Brooke-Mayhew talks) involving the moderate parties — the two main unionist parties (the UUP and DUP), the SDLP, and the Alliance Party — and excluding the parties associated with the paramilitaries — Sinn Fein and the loyalist parties. The British government began a secret back channel dialogue with Sinn Fein in 1990 but the initiative failed and was shelved in 1993 because the British government insisted on a permanent end to violence as a condition of Sinn Fein’s participation in the peace process.[61] Following a wave of violence in October 1993, and with talks on the brink of collapse, the governments of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland issued the Downing Street Declaration in December 1993. The declaration addressed a number of the key principles to govern any settlement and opened the door for Sinn Fein to participate in formal talks following a renunciation of violence, including a “handing over of arms.”[62] In response, the IRA, in August 1994, announced “a complete cessation of military operations,” but the two governments insisted that the action was insufficient and that the IRA had to commit to a permanent renunciation of violence and arms decommissioning to participate in negotiations. In an effort to break the stalemate, the two governments established an international body, chaired by Mitchell, to look into the decommissioning issue. The group produced a report that concluded that the IRA/Sinn Fein would never accept decommissioning as a pre-condition,[63] but proposed instead that all parties be required to affirm a set of principles (“the Mitchell Principles”), which included, inter alia, a commitment to total disarmament. The report provided the British government a way out of the decommissioning stalemate, and the governments in London and Dublin announced that they would convene talks in June 1996 that would be open to all parties that accepted the Mitchell Principles (but without a decommissioning pre-condition). They did insist that the IRA restore its ceasefire (which the group had broken in February 1996) in order for Sinn Fein to participate, which happened in 1997. The process of selecting delegates was a complex formula based on elections to a Northern Ireland Forum for Political Dialogue. Delegates to the negotiations were chosen by members of the forum in a way that ensured the negotiations would be dominated by the major parties but would also guarantee the participation of smaller parties, including those associated with the loyalist paramilitaries, as well as women, Labour, and the Alliance Party.[64] The process included arrangements for expelling any party that violated the conditions of entry. The hardline unionists (the DUP and the United Kingdom Union Party) walked out at the outset, in part, in protest of the selection of Mitchell to chair the negotiations. But the UUP stayed in, partially because it didn’t trust the British government to protect its interests.[65] The hardline unionists walked out again when Sinn Fein was admitted to the talks in July 1997. Mitchell believes that their absence gave the moderate UUP room to negotiate, and that, had they stayed, an agreement might not have been possible.[66] The talks were divided into three strands: The first, chaired by the United Kingdom, was focused on governance issues for Northern Ireland. The second strand was focused on relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and was chaired by Mitchell and Harri Holkeri, a former Finnish prime minister.[67] The third was focused on Irish-U.K. relations, and was chaired by the two countries’ governments. Decisions were taken on the basis of “sufficient consensus.” For Strands Two and Three, this required a majority of each side (unionist and nationalist) separately, plus an overall majority of all delegates, as well as agreement by the two governments. Strand One had similar requirements, except the Irish government had no vote.[68] This arrangement meant that, at least theoretically, the UUP and SDLP could do a deal without either Sinn Fein or the DUP. Blair and Adams met following Sinn Fein’s entry into the talks, the first time a Sinn Fein leader had met with a British prime minister in 76 years.[69] The negotiations were protracted and by late 1997 were largely at a stalemate. This was followed by a rash of sectarian killings, which threatened to derail the process.[70] In January 1998, the British and Irish governments tabled a short document that had been negotiated with Trimble.[71] In March 1998, Mitchell announced a deadline of April 9 for conclusion of the talks. The choice of date was not entirely arbitrary, as the legislation that established the forum was due to expire in May 1998.[72] In addition, Mitchell believed that the agreement had to be completed, and a ratifying referendum held, before the “marching season” in July, a time of high tensions in Northern Ireland.[73] The parties reached an agreement on Good Friday, April 10, 1998, after side interventions by Blair (in the form of a written letter) and Clinton (in the form of a telephone call with Trimble) designed to assure the unionists that the agreement would not be implemented if the IRA failed to move forward with decommissioning. All told, the formal talks lasted 21 months. The Informal Negotiations The formal peace process unfolded in parallel with a complex set of inter-related secret and informal negotiations. These included talks between the British and Irish governments; between the British and Sinn Fein/the IRA; and between the Irish and various parties, including Sinn Fein, the SDLP, and the unionists. They also included dialogue that took place in Washington in connection with various parties’ visits to the United States and frequent contacts in Northern Ireland between U.S. diplomats and all the Northern Ireland parties.[74] Notably, there were almost no secret negotiations between the Northern Ireland parties themselves, with the notable exception of the Hume-Adams dialogue in the late 1980s. The secret talks allowed the parties to escape the pre-conditions barriers that impeded public dialogue with “terrorists,” but at the same time, the periodic exposure of the secret talks did pose challenges to the governments’ credibility and angered the moderate parties who felt their anti-violence stance was undermined by the governments’ willingness to negotiate with parties associated with active paramilitaries. The Agreement and Its Aftermath The Agreement mirrored the three-strand approach of the negotiations. Strand One established the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive. “Key decisions” could only be taken by “cross-community” consent defined as:
  1. either parallel consent, i.e., a majority of those members present and voting, including a majority of the unionist and nationalist designations present and voting; or
  2. a weighted majority (60 percent) of members present and voting, including at least 40 percent of each of the nationalist and unionist designations present and voting.
The Executive is run by the first minister and deputy first minister, jointly elected on a cross-community basis under the same rules for making key decisions in the Assembly. The jurisdiction of the devolved government was initially based on areas previously within the scope of the Northern Ireland government departments but could be enlarged with the approval of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Strand Two represented the North-South dimension: It created the North–South Ministerial Council and the North–South Implementation Bodies. The Agreement provided three different mechanisms for “all-island” actions: through the adoption of common policies, through coordinated policies implemented separately by the Northern Ireland and Irish governments, and through actions by North-South “implementation bodies.” To provide nationalists some confidence that the North-South dimension would not be subject to a unionist veto, the Agreement provided that the council had to agree on at least 12 “matters” for cooperation through cross-border institutions, drawn from a list of permissible subjects.[75] [quote id="4"] Strand Three established the East-West dimension: the British-Irish Council and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. The council consists of the two national governments plus the devolved governments of Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, with a focus on “practical co-operation” on issues within the competence of the devolved governments, while the intergovernmental conference involves only the two national governments and was designed to give the Irish government a voice on non-devolved issues, in particular, security issues. The Agreement resolved the constitutional issues by enshrining the principle of consent: opening the prospect of unification with the South but only with the consent of a majority of the North. The Republic of Ireland agreed to amend its constitution to eliminate claims to sovereignty over the North,[76] while the British government repealed the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, which, in fact, provided a British veto over the status of Northern Ireland. The Agreement protected the option of dual citizenship for residents of Northern Ireland, irrespective of whether, in the future, Northern Ireland remained in the United Kingdom or became part of Ireland. It additionally included human rights provisions that specifically addressed some of the major Catholic concerns, including the establishment of a Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. There were also hortatory provisions on issues such as economic development and linguistic diversity. The Agreement largely sidestepped several of the substantive issues underlying the conflict. Although recognizing the importance of reconciliation and the need to address victims of violence, the Agreement established no mechanisms for this purpose. It deferred to subsequent decisions by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning on matters relating to the timing and modalities of decommissioning.[77] Similarly, the parties deferred to a newly created Independent Commission on Policing with regard to questions of policing and justice. Finally, the Agreement included no timetable for the withdrawal of British security forces and emergency powers. The implementation of the Agreement has faced significant challenges over the past two decades.[78] During the first decade following the signing of the Agreement, the British government twice had to restore direct rule, in 2000 and 2002, the second time for a period of five years. The first devolved government was led by the moderate parties (the UUP and SDLP) but subsequent elections have promoted Sinn Fein and the DUP to the fore. On the plus side, paramilitary violence has largely disappeared, though dissident groups remain a threat, and the British no longer play a direct security role. For an extended period following the Hillsborough Agreement (2010), when the two communities finally agreed on important issues not addressed in the 1998 Agreement (especially policing and criminal justice), the institutions were functioning reasonably well. The Northern Ireland economy received a significant boost in the first decade following the Agreement, notably in lowered unemployment rates. Since the 2008­–09 recession, growth has been much lower, but comparable to the rest of the United Kingdom.[79] Notably, the difference in unemployment rates between Catholics and Protestants has narrowed dramatically. But political scandal in 2017 led to institutional paralysis, which remains unresolved.[80] Inter-communal mistrust remains high, and volatile issues including language, parades, and symbols continue to be flash points. Despite intensive discussions since the Agreement was signed, there is still no agreed mechanism to address historical legacy issues. Brexit further complicates the prospects for the future. The DUP supported Brexit while a modest overall majority — 56 percent — opposed it. Sinn Fein has called Brexit “the most serious threat in the history of the peace process.”[81]

Who and What Made the Agreement Possible?

We are now in a position to take on the difficult question of judging the importance of three factors — circumstance, people, and process — in achieving the 1998 Agreement. There has been considerable debate about and attention given to the importance of individuals to the successful conclusion of the Agreement. Many of the participants themselves are quite explicit in crediting the efforts of individuals. For example, in an article written after the signing of the Agreement, Trimble singled out Blair, Ahearn, and Mitchell for credit.[82] Mitchell, in turn, focused on Blair and Ahearn,[83] as well as David Ervine, head of the Progressive Unionist Party.[84] Analysts, too, have weighed in, crediting, inter alia, Adams, Major, and Reynolds.[85] One well-connected BBC commentator later claimed that Father Alec Reid’s role was “absolutely critical” to the peace process.[86] In addition, analysts have focused on the personal relationships between key actors in the peace process, both positive and negative, as well as lack of relationships, as important factors. For example, Clinton’s strong ties with Blair facilitated coordination, in contrast with his frosty relationship with Major. Major’s strong personal relationship with Irish Taoiseach Albert Reynolds contributed to their ability to manage the sharp substantive differences between the two countries’ priorities.[87] Indeed, many assessments of why the process succeeded focus on trust-building exercises such as the extended Adam-Hume dialogue of 1988–93 and the decision to move the talks from Northern Ireland to the U.S. ambassador’s residence in London after the Agreement was signed but before it was implemented (providing a sharp contrast with tensions arising from the lack of personal contact or direct talks between the parties during the negotiations that produced the Agreement).[88] Clinton’s various meetings — with Trimble in Belfast during his 1995 visit and with all the key leaders during the annual St. Patrick’s Day events in Washington D.C. — and especially his close ties with Blair, all seem to have contributed to the successful outcome as well. But subsequent difficulties with implementing the Agreement raise questions about just how much trust was generated, and, therefore, how much it might have contributed to the Agreement in the first place. Of course, there is no definitive answer to the agency question, to the counterfactual “but for” claim.[89] There seems little doubt, for example, that Adams’ belief in the efficacy of political action rather than violence and Trimble’s willingness to engage in power sharing represented breaks from the past that were staunchly opposed by others in their parties until the very end (and beyond). At the same time, the two men’s rise to positions of power reflected broader forces. In the case of Sinn Fein/the IRA, Adams’ interest in pursuing a political solution was strengthened by the public backlash against violence, particularly after British security forces withdrew from the front lines. Indeed, it can be argued that Adams only turned to the political solution once the “ballot box and Armalite” strategy had failed. For Trimble, political changes at Westminster, which had nothing to do with Northern Ireland, left Northern Ireland’s unionists more isolated and dependent on themselves to protect their interests through devolution. In that sense, both Adams and Trimble had the fortune of being at the right place at the right time to assume leadership. Similarly, those who would give the laurel to Blair and Ahearn can argue that they succeeded in achieving, in relatively short time, what Major and his various Irish counterparts failed to accomplish. Yet, it is also possible to argue that what constrained Major, and what empowered Blair, was the size of the parliamentary majority — a fact that had little or nothing to do with their Northern Ireland policies.[90] Major has also been singled out for his willingness to engage both with Dublin and Sinn Fein, but here, too, his choices were highly constrained. While the security strategy had blunted the IRA’s efforts, there was widespread belief within British security circles (parallel to thinking in Sinn Fein) that force alone could not bring the conflict to an end. One way to try to answer this question of agency is to examine SDLP leader Seamus Mallon’s widely-quoted aphorism that the 1998 Agreement was “Sunningdale for slow learners.”[91] The implication of his statement is that, had “faster” learners been around in 1973–74, power sharing and North-South cooperation based on the principle of consent might have succeeded much earlier and the war might have ended much sooner.[92] Yet, it is hard to see in the context of the violence of the first years of the Troubles that there was much that unionist leader Brian Faulkner, or any other unionist leader, could have done to rally unionist support for power sharing, or that a different British prime minister (much less a different Taoiseach), through force or guile, could have countered the ferocious unionist opposition to the Sunningdale agreement. Similarly, it is difficult to see who within the IRA could have carried the day in favor of accepting the legitimacy of a reconstituted Northern Ireland Assembly and the unionist veto over Irish unification. (It is notable that Adams himself was propelled into a leadership role by his critique of the IRA’s 1975 ceasefire.)[93] Finally, there seems to have been no plausible Conservative leader (much less one from Labour) who could have pushed the deal through over the violent unionist opposition. In other words, Sunningdale failed, not because of poor leadership (or “slow learners”), but because circumstances were not propitious for an agreement that embodied the key principles of consent, power sharing, and cross-border institutions. Put another way, the structural changes that were just beginning to work themselves out following the onset of the Troubles were a necessary condition to the acceptance of the framework that was on offer, but they were rejected by both Sinn Fein/the IRA and the unionists in 1973. [quote id="5"] At the same time, it is possible to imagine that the 1998 Agreement might have failed. It is plausible that crucial decisions in the run-up to the Agreement might have gone a different way — Ahearn’s decision to revise the agreement he had reached only days before on the North-South institutions, Trimble’s willingness to accept Blair’s promise on decommissioning, or Mitchell’s decision to impose a firm deadline. In other words, the structural forces may have been necessary, but alone they were insufficient to account for the fact that the Agreement happened when it did, in the precise shape that it took. Of course, all of the central actors faced considerable constraints on their freedom of action. For example, Trimble spent an extraordinary amount of time and effort dealing with internal dissension within his party, and on several occasions was forced to renegotiate after finding that he could not sell a proposed deal to them. Adams, too, emphasized the constraints he faced from other leaders and the rank and file.[94] Even Hume faced internal dissension when he launched his dialogue with Adams. It is reasonable to assert that these protestations also reflected a well-known negotiating tactic — “My hands are tied.” But it is also true that many of these leaders made important choices along the way that built sufficient credibility with their constituents to give them the necessary leeway. This was dramatically illustrated following the brutal IRA attack on a loyalist headquarters in Belfast’s Shankill Road on Oct. 13, 1993. Adams’ appearance as a pall bearer at the funeral of one of the IRA gunmen led many to believe that his action would kill any hopes for making progress toward peace. Yet, two months later, Adams used his credibility with the IRA to persuade its Army Council not to reject publicly the Downing Street Declaration, issued just two months after the bombing. Both governments later acknowledged that Adams’ failure to participate in the funeral would have irreparably damaged his credibility with the IRA.[95] More broadly, Adams and McGuinness demonstrated extraordinary dexterity in managing the almost unimaginable process of bringing the IRA leadership to accept the unthinkable changes in republican orthodoxy embodied in the 1998 Agreement. Similarly, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Mo Mowlam’s audacious decision in January 1998 to meet with the loyalist prisoners at the Maze Prison is frequently credited with saving the process, despite the outcry of the UUP.[96] Even Trimble’s notorious “dance” with the DUP’s Ian Paisley at Drumcree can be seen in this light.[97] As Martin Mansergh, senior advisor to several Fianna Fail Taoiseachs during the peace process, observed, “the thin centrist strand made a valuable contribution but was not nearly strong enough to support a settlement on its own.”[98] The inclusion of parties associated with hard-line positions complicated their interactions with each other and with the governments but strengthened their legitimacy with their bases when the time came to do a deal. This argues strongly for the importance of individual choice. Perhaps the best way to characterize the role of agency is to say that circumstance dealt each of the major players a reasonably favorable hand which facilitated agreement, but that each played the hand quite skillfully.[99] Each saw, earlier than many others, the path forward that led to the Agreement. It is certainly possible to imagine that others who might plausibly have been in their place — even those who shared the same basic approach to the conflict — might not have sealed the deal when it came about. At the same time, the very fact that the Agreement ultimately found implementation through a pact that featured Paisley as first minister is a reflection of the power of the forces pushing to end the fighting. Agency played an important role in the timing and precise terms of the Agreement, but arguably a much less significant one in the broader turn away from violence. A similar analysis applies to assessing the role of process — both formal and informal — in ultimately reaching the Agreement. At its core, the most significant feature of the process was the focus on inclusivity,[100] especially the controversial decision to involve the parties associated with the paramilitaries before they unequivocally and demonstrably renounced violence, rather than seeking to achieve an agreement involving only the “constitutional” parties. From the early days of the Troubles through the early 1990s, both the British and Irish governments had pursued a different approach, seeking to marginalize the paramilitaries and limit the negotiations to the constitutional parties.[101] By almost all assessments, the very presence in the negotiations of individuals strongly associated with the “guns” — McGuinness (Sinn Fein/the IRA), Ervine (Progressive Unionist Party), and Gary McMichael (Ulster Democratic Party) — which caused such heartburn for more traditional political leaders, proved central to bringing about an agreement that would stick. Thus, Major’s reluctant decision to find a way to begin inclusive talks following the Mitchell report proved vital. A related feature of the process that was instrumental was the sequencing — the willingness to move the process forward without a firm commitment to a permanent ceasefire and at least initial steps toward the paramilitary groups decommissioning their arms. The decision to move from pre-conditions to “conditions subsequent” was another feature that distinguished this negotiation from the Sunningdale agreement and unblocked the stalemate that plagued the process during most of the Major years. The decision seems vindicated not only by the successful conclusion of the negotiations, but also by the subsequent IRA decommissioning and the relative low level of defection by dissatisfied members of the paramilitaries. It is not hard to imagine that a deal done by the SDLP and the UUP alone might have met serious resistance from the IRA and the loyalists, though of course, the declining effectiveness of violence, apparent by the late 1980s, might have tempered the scale and duration of the backlash. At the same time, the inclusion of such diverse perspectives had an impact on the content of the Agreement in two important respects. First, the parties’ mutual suspicions drove them toward a consociational model that blocked vetoes. This reduced the risk of either party being outvoted and thus made the Agreement more palatable to their respective constituencies.[102] But this came at the cost of possible paralysis. Left on their own, an agreement involving only the UUP and SDLP might well have tilted the balance toward a more flexible approach. Second, the deep divisions even within the two camps led the parties to defer important decisions on key substantive issues ranging from the future of policing to the role of the North-South bodies, setting the stage for the predictable crises that followed. A number of commentators have focused on the role of civil society in bringing about the Agreement, both as an outside force pressing the parties and as formal participants in the negotiations. It is difficult to assess how much the grass roots peace movement helped to build opposition to violence and thus facilitate the paramilitaries’ decision to give it up. Peace groups had been active throughout the Troubles, for example, in the women’s movement in the 1980s, with only limited success in bringing an end to the fighting. Several commentators have focused on the formal role of civil society organizations in the process. Maria Power, for example, concludes that “the negotiations leading up to the agreement demonstrated the centrality the peacebuilding or community-relations sector had in conflict resolution.”[103] Others give more measured judgments: “[W]hile the contribution of the [civil] sector was not crucial to the eventual outcome of the political negotiations in 1998, it was nonetheless positive and significant.”[104] These assertions are difficult to assess, most importantly because the formal process itself was relatively less important compared with the proliferation of secret channels and private negotiations, which excluded civil society. Other features of the process seem less consequential. On the whole, the formal processes, especially the Stormont negotiations, played a very modest role at best. The combination of the setting, which was sterile and forbidding,[105] and the parties’ unwillingness to deal with each other face-to-face in public settings, relegated the formal sessions to play acting, mostly designed to reassure the parties’ constituents that they were holding fast to their uncompromising positions. Even in private, the parties rarely engaged with each other directly. This accentuated the importance of the governments (primarily the United Kingdom and Ireland, but, at critical moments, the United States as well) and Mitchell as go-betweens. Much has been written about the role of Mitchell and his two colleagues as third-party mediators. On the substance of the negotiations themselves, the three chairs played relatively modest roles compared with the British and Irish governments. Indeed, during the crucial final days of the negotiations, Mitchell reluctantly gave the parties a draft proposal on Strand Two, drafted by Blair and Ahearn, against his own judgment since he believed the provisions were anathema to unionists and would torpedo the negotiations.[106] As noted above, much of the negotiations took place outside the formal process, where the role of the three chairs was limited. Nonetheless, Mitchell’s personal integrity, reputation for impartiality, and patience played a valuable role in keeping the negotiations going. Similarly, the availability of the de Chastelain commission as a third-party means of validating decommissioning was critical to its attainment. One area where the formal process arguably did make a difference was the use of deadlines, particularly to bring the negotiations to a conclusion. Mitchell imposed a two-week deadline in March 1998 ahead of marching season, which triggered an intense period of engagement leading to Mitchell’s tabling of a “composite” document on April 6, including the abortive British-Irish proposal on Strand Two, which triggered the final crisis of the negotiations.[107] By contrast, the open-ended nature of the process following the first IRA ceasefire contributed to its breakdown in early 1996.

Lessons for Practitioners: What Does This Mean for Future Peace Negotiations?

The Importance of “Ripeness” and How to Recognize It The experience of Northern Ireland strongly underscores a major factor highlighted in the literature on conflict resolution — the importance of ripeness.[108] The very fact that the parties adopted in 1998 what they had rejected in 1973 strongly suggests that changed circumstances played a critical role. But this observation is of limited value to the practitioner without some guidelines for assessing when circumstances are “ripe.” While policymakers are often limited in what they can do to create the conditions that make a conflict ripe for settlement,[109] it is a vital tool of statecraft to be able to spot an opportunity when it is emerging. It is equally important to understand when a conflict is not ripe for negotiation: It can be argued that the premature effort leading to the Sunningdale agreement in 1973 actually contributed to prolonging the conflict. Should this have been apparent to the British government at the time? One lesson of the Northern Ireland experience is that the secret channels developed in the late 1980s and earlier 1990s played a crucial role in providing the governments and the political parties themselves an opportunity to judge whether the circumstances were ripe for agreement before launching a speculative — and perhaps counterproductive — public negotiation. There were risks involved in secret diplomacy. The desire to preserve secrecy led the governments perilously close to public dishonesty, which, when exposed, endangered their credibility. Nevertheless, the groundwork that this diplomacy laid ultimately reduced the risks that each side took by engaging in the process. These secret contacts allowed the key parties to explore the implications of flexibility and to adapt their positions without the risk of embarrassment if the gambits proved unsuccessful and the other side unforthcoming.[110] [quote id="6"] Some commentators have focused on the idea of “stalemate” as a central characteristic of ripeness. Here, it is true that Sinn Fein had concluded that it could not “bomb” its way to Irish unification. British officials, especially in the security community, similarly concluded that despite the growing efficacy of their efforts in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the IRA could not be “defeated.” Thus, some have argued that the more effective British security policies of the late 1980s and early 1990s worked to create a stalemate ripe for settlement. But it seems unlikely that stalemate by itself would have brought about the 1998 Agreement. The return to violence in the mid-1990s (after the initial ceasefire declaration in 1994), suggests that many in the IRA still considered violence (or at least the threat of violence) an important element of leverage in the negotiations. Similarly, some in the unionist community (dissenters within the UUP as well as the DUP and United Kingdom) were not convinced of the need to compromise. For this reason, I think it is more useful to see the Agreement as a result of the fact that each side could see the agreement as a “win” (at least in relative terms) rather than a product of a stalemate from which they sought to extricate themselves. Another feature of ripeness goes to the question of how the parties assess the impact of the passage of time on their chances of achieving their goals. The parties in this case reached an agreement because their assessments of time converged. The unionists believed that time was not on their side — that demographics and the politics of the United Kingdom were steadily eroding their leverage. So they accepted a power-sharing arrangement, which they had firmly rejected as a matter of principle for decades, and acquiesced in the idea that sovereignty might be transferred from the United Kingdom to the Republic by a popular vote. In return, they got the Republic of Ireland to amend its constitution to repeal its claim of sovereignty over the six counties and secured a more limited form of North-South institutions. Trimble articulated this view in a speech shortly after the conclusion of the Agreement:
A number of responses were possible to the changed situation [the Hume-Adams process leading Sinn Fein to pursue the political track]… . I remember a parliamentary colleague saying…we should revert to saying No all the time… . The important point that I draw from this, generally speaking, is that it is not enough to be passive, to adopt a tactic or an approach that consciously or deliberately leaves the decision in the hands of other people. It is not always the way you like and you can never be certain exactly how it is going to work out.[111]
Sinn Fein, too, was influenced by its assessment of the future. On the one hand, its leaders believed they had extracted most of what they could get from the use of violence. They also feared that they would be unable to sustain the IRA’s ceasefire much longer if they failed to produce a result through negotiations. But they also perceived that by making key concessions (e.g., abandoning their insistence that Britain renounce sovereignty over Northern Ireland and accepting the principle of consent), they could turn the passage of time in their favor by achieving an agreed unification through the ballot box. Thus, both unionists’ fears about the future and republicans’ hopes for it led each side to conclude that this agreement, with all its painful compromises, was better than walking away and taking a chance on the future. This sense of ripeness helps explain why the terrorist attacks that plagued the peace process throughout the 1990s (the IRA Shankill Road bombing in 1993 and the subsequent loyalist revenge attacks or the Canary Wharf and Manchester bombings in 1996, for example) did not derail the talks. Once the parties had made the strategic decision to seek peace, violence actually seemed to have served as an impetus rather than a barrier to compromise.[112] Understanding each party’s assessment of the impact of time can help the peacemaker both decide when to intervene and how to use these assessments to achieve an agreement. The Dayton Accords, which ended the Bosnian War, are instructive. It was at the moment that the Serb forces saw the tide of battle turn against them, but before the Bosnians and Croats had the means to defeat the Serbs on their own, that the United States had maximum leverage in bringing about an agreement. The Impact of Process on the Shape of the Outcome Many have held up the process leading to the 1998 Agreement as a model of successful conflict resolution. Whether the process contributed to the success depends, of course, on the definition of success. There is little doubt that the Agreement has led to a decrease in intercommunal violence. Including the paramilitaries made it less likely that they would attack the process or the agreement that the process produced. Equally important, it gave them a stake in taking on dissidents who wanted to challenge the Agreement. Although splinter groups persisted on both the republican and loyalist sides, their impact has been marginal. But this process decision has come at a cost. Because the process helped lead to a consociational agreement that protects the rights of the two communities but deferred tackling many of the underlying sources of conflict (e.g., policing, economic equality, etc.), the peace continues to be fragile, sectarian tensions remain high, and the institutions created by the agreement are barely functional, at best.[113] These concerns were raised by many of the civil society participants during the negotiations, but their voices were marginalized in favor of the priority attached to getting the men with the guns to lay down their arms. In this respect, there are important resemblances to the way in which the Dayton process shaped the substance of the Dayton Accords, which ended the fighting in Bosnia. Both processes included the hard men who had stoked the conflict, resulting in agreements that, in somewhat similar ways, froze sectarian identity in the framework of the settlement and thus perpetuated the underlying conflict. In both cases, hopes that the passage of time and public pressure would lead to an evolution of the political arrangements away from their sectarian roots have been disappointed. Of course, including former paramilitaries in peace negotiations does not guarantee this kind of result. In South Africa, the Africa National Congress party and the apartheid government created more unitary structures in their peace agreement, which included explicit elements of reconciliation. Nonetheless, it seems fair to say that the shape of the peace process in South Africa contributed both to the success of the agreement and its limitations. The lessons of these cases are clear: Practitioners need to consider the potential long-term costs of a peace process that focuses primarily on the short-term goal of ending the fighting. One commentator has called this the choice between a “no more shooting” and “no more fighting” type of agreement.[114] Empowering the Peacemakers The analysis of the role of agency in the Northern Ireland peace process suggests that people do matter. However, the practitioner’s tools for creating “peacemakers” is limited. But practitioners can help support the people who have both the inclination and the capacity to make the choices for peace. Throughout the Northern Ireland peace process, the governments involved made conscious efforts to support those whom they believed wanted to, and were capable of, making the deal — from Clinton granting Adams a visa to his embrace of Trimble during his visit to Belfast, to Mo Mowlam’s visit to the Maze prison to meet with loyalist paramilitaries. Of course, these kinds of efforts require finesse. Sometimes embracing a peacemaker can backfire —arguably Clinton’s support for Shimon Peres after Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination did Peres more harm than good. In Northern Ireland, there was considerable wariness about outside parties — whether from Dublin, London, or Washington — attempting to influence events in Ulster. In some cases, such outside involvement ended up raising suspicions, rather than enhancing the authority those outsiders sought to promote. Third Party Guarantors For the Agreement to work, it was critical for the unionists to believe that, whatever long-term risks they might run in terms of demographics, etc., the IRA’s cessation of violence — and the resort to exclusively peaceful means — was not simply tactical. To some extent, unionists saw decommissioning as reducing the IRA’s capability to return to war. But most recognized that the IRA might easily replace any arms it destroyed. More important was the unionist belief that, because the IRA had so strongly resisted decommissioning in the past, an agreement to decommission was a real sign of peaceful intent. For that very reason, however, the IRA was unwilling to take even modest steps on decommissioning until the deal was complete. [quote id="7"] The success in breaking this stalemate — and the unionists’ ultimate willingness to accept decommissioning as a subsequent condition of the Agreement — highlights the importance of credible interlocutors and third-party guarantors. Only when Blair gave Trimble his personal assurance that he would eject Sinn Fein from the Northern Ireland Executive if the IRA failed to decommission (a commitment reiterated by Clinton in the closing hours), did Trimble agree to go along.[115] The British government had helped earn that credibility through its actions, for example, when Mowlam temporarily ejected Sinn Fein from the talks in February 1998 after a series of killings linked to the IRA, at the risk of collapsing the talks. Trimble’s willingness to accept the procedures for decommissioning depended on the credibility of a report from an independent commission rather than relying on the word of “interested parties.”[116] Sequencing The challenge posed by decommissioning was, perhaps, the most consequential of a recurring set of problems surrounding sequencing. By the early 1990s, the contours of the Agreement had emerged, but issues of sequencing proved a major obstacle to progress. Whether Sinn Fein’s participation in talks should follow or precede a ceasefire or whether Adams’ visa to the United States should be made conditional on a cessation of violence are just two examples. As late as 1995, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Patrick Mayhew’s insistence that some act of decommission precede Sinn Fein’s entry into the talks (even after the IRA had entered into a ceasefire) nearly collapsed the whole project.[117] Willingness to accept a condition subsequent rather than a pre-condition was a major test of how much each side was willing and able to take risks for peace. Sinn Fein, in particular, insisted that it needed prior actions by the British and Irish governments to permit it to move forward. The problem of sequencing in regards to decommissioning returned following the conclusion of the 1998 Agreement, when the question arose of whether decommissioning had to precede Sinn Fein taking its place in the Northern Ireland Executive. This impasse was again resolved in a review conducted by Mitchell, which led to the pre-condition being dropped.[118] As Quentin Thomas, a senior British civil servant, observed, “the question is whether one accentuates the positive and seeks to bring people in when they appear at the door of democracy and want to join talks. Or whether you hold them there and subject them to some examination to see whether their shoes are clean.”[119] Perhaps Clinton’s decision was the easiest, as he had the least to lose if the IRA returned to violence after Adams was issued the visa. But even there Clinton risked causing complications in the U.S.-U.K. relationship. Practitioners face strong pressure to impose pre-conditions to negotiations. They fear that entering into open-ended negotiations may be perceived as a sign of weakness and may subject them to domestic criticism for abandoning important red lines.[120] Yet, the imposition of pre-conditions often becomes a straightjacket, as the other side is unlikely to give up valuable leverage without some confidence in the overall shape of the outcome. The secret negotiations in the lead-up to the Agreement helped reduce the danger that Sinn Fein/the IRA would simply pocket dropping the pre-conditions, but in the end the British and Irish governments understood that the only possibility of reaching an agreement was to take that risk. It was crucial that the governments establish credibility that they would enforce the conditions after the Agreement was signed. Practitioners can draw an important lesson from this on how to avoid the pre-condition trap. Substance The parties involved in the peace process made little effort to resolve the substantive issues that divided them. The constitutional and process issues that formed the heart of the Agreement largely involved broad issues of principles. By contrast, the substantive concerns — policing, criminal justice, social welfare — were areas where the details were as important as the principles. For these kinds of issues, the parties chose to defer resolution by handing the problem to independent commissions (for things like decommissioning and policing), to the Assembly (on devolved issues), and to the British and Irish governments (on non-devolved issues). The last minute snag on Strand Two illustrates the problem of dealing with detail. The Irish government and the nationalists wanted strong substantive commitments on the scope of North-South bodies, but in the end had to settle for broad language and hope that the specifics could be agreed to later.[121] This approach facilitated concluding the Agreement at the expense of littering the landscape with landmines that have continued to dog its implementation. Thus, practitioners face a choice in deciding whether to tackle detailed issues of substance similar to the issue of inclusivity — whether to seize a short-term gain (e.g., stopping the fighting) at the risk of long-term costs (e.g., perpetuating underlying sources of conflict).


The 1998 Agreement came at a time of considerable post-Cold War optimism about the prospects for resolving long-standing political conflict, from the Middle East to the Balkans to Colombia. The passage of time has tempered those hopes, as many conflicts have proved resistant to settlement, and even those agreements that have remained intact have largely proved disappointing in bringing about true reconciliation. The 1998 Agreement certainly falls into that category, but the brutal violence has not re-emerged. As the international community contemplates future peacemaking efforts, in Afghanistan, Yemen, South Sudan, and beyond, the Northern Ireland peace process continues to offer important lessons to scholars and practitioners alike.   Hon. James B. Steinberg is professor of social science, international affairs, and law at Syracuse University and previously served as dean of the Maxwell School, from July 2011 until June 2016, and dean of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin from 2005 to 2009. His government service includes deputy secretary of state (2009–11), deputy national security advisor (1996–2000) and director of the State Department Policy Planning Staff (1994–96). Recent publications include, “China-Russia Cooperation: How Should the US Respond,” in Richard J. Ellings and Robert Sutter, eds., Axis of Authoritarians (National Bureau of Asian Research 2018); “US versus China: A Technology Cold War,” Nikkei Asian Review, March 19, 2019; and A Glass Half Full? Rebalance, Reassurance and Resolve in the US-China Relationship (Brookings Institution Press, 2017) and Strategic Reassurance and Resolve: US-China Relations in the 21st Century (Princeton University Press, 2014) (both with Michael O’Hanlon).   Image: Robert Paul Young [post_title] => The Good Friday Agreement: Ending War and Ending Conflict in Northern Ireland [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => the-good-friday-agreement-ending-war-and-ending-conflict-in-northern-ireland [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-10-28 11:58:59 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-10-28 15:58:59 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw [lead] => The 1998 Agreement that ended Northern Ireland's bloody civil war has often been attributed to many of the remarkable individuals involved in the peace process. But how much of a difference did they really make? James Steinberg explores this question by examining the interaction between structural factors, the peace process, and efforts made by key individuals involved in the process. He also looks at what lessons this history holds for future peace negotiations. [pubinfo] => [issue] => Vol 2, Iss 3 [quotes] => Array ( [0] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => The source of the Northern Ireland conflict was, in part, political — the legacy of the dispute among Irish nationalists about whether to accept, even temporarily, the partition of Ireland. It was also social and economic.  ) [1] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => The unionists’ desire to achieve greater control over their destiny played a crucial role in the final decision to accept the 1998 Agreement... ) [2] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Although the centrality of the Northern Ireland issue came, over time, to define the two parties less and less, there remained a perception that Fianna Fail was more nationalist.  ) [3] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => The Agreement resolved the constitutional issues by enshrining the principle of consent: opening the prospect of unification with the South but only with the consent of a majority of the North. ) [4] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Perhaps the best way to characterize the role of agency is to say that circumstance dealt each of the major players a reasonably favorable hand which facilitated agreement, but that each played the hand quite skillfully. ) [5] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => While policymakers are often limited in what they can do to create the conditions that make a conflict ripe for settlement, it is a vital tool of statecraft to be able to spot an opportunity when it is emerging.  ) [6] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Practitioners need to consider the potential long-term costs of a peace process that focuses primarily on the short-term goal of ending the fighting.  ) ) [style] => strategist [type] => Strategist [style_label] => The Strategist [download] => Array ( [title] => PDF Download [file] => 1811 ) [authors] => Array ( [0] => 20 ) [endnotes] => Array ( [title] => Endnotes [endnotes] => [1] As with almost every issue, large and small, involving Northern Ireland, even terminology is controversial and tinged with partisan overtones. In the United States, the Irish Republic, and among Northern Ireland nationalists, the agreement is commonly referred to as the “Good Friday Agreement.” Among unionist, it is often called the “Belfast Agreement.” In this essay I will use the “1998 Agreement” or simply the “Agreement,” to describe the outcome of the peace process. [2] Approximately 3,500 people were killed during the Troubles. Of these, a little more than 1,500 were from the Catholic community in Northern Ireland, 1,250 from the Protestant community, and the rest (around 700) from outside Northern Ireland (including British security forces). See, “Statistical Breakdown of Deaths in the ‘Troubles,’” Wesley Johnston, accessed May 8, 2019, [3] This paper largely focuses on the events leading up the 1998 Agreement, but, in order to assess what happened and why, I touch briefly on subsequent developments, without going into detail into the many follow-on negotiations involving the Agreement’s implementation. [4] This paper draws on a number of these studies, as well as my own personal involvement, beginning in the 1980s as an aide to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, and, more substantively, as director of policy planning at the State Department (1994–1996) and deputy national security advisor to President Bill Clinton (1996–2000). The studies include Eamon Mallie and David McKittrick, Endgame in Ireland (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2001); Thomas Hennessey, The Northern Ireland Peace Process: Ending the Troubles (New York: Palgrave, 2001); George J. Mitchell Making Peace (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999); Cathy Gormley-Heenan, Political Leadership and the Northern Ireland Peace Process (New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2007); Maria Power, ed., Building Peace in Northern Ireland (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2011); Tim Pat Coogan, The Trouble: Ireland’s Ordeal 1966-1996 and the Search for Peace (Boulder, CO: Roberts Reinhardt Publishers, 1996); Paul Bew, Peter Gibbon, and Henry Patterson, Northern Ireland 1921-2001: Political Forces and Social Classes (London: Serif, 2002); Paul Bew, The Making and Remaking of the Good Friday Agreement (Dublin: Liffey Press, 2007); Ed Moloney, A Secret History of the IRA (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002). [5] At least one other scholar-participant has written extensively about the peace process: Paul Bew, long-time professor of Irish Politics at Queens University, Belfast, was an advisor to David Trimble. [6] The idea for this essay arose out of a RAND conference designed to help those involved in the Afghanistan peace process think about lessons learned from past peace conferences. I am grateful to RAND for its support of the initial research on this project. [7] In addition to George Mitchell, see, for example: Alastair Campbell, The Blair Years: Extracts from the Alastair Campbell Diaries (London: Hutchinson, 2007); Gerry Adams, An Irish Journal (Kerry: Brandon, 2001); Gerry Adams, Hope and History: Making Peace in Northern Ireland (Kerry: Brandon, 2004); David Trimble, To Raise Up a New Northern Ireland (Belfast: Belfast Press, 2001); Kate Fearon, Women’s Work: the Story of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1999), as well as the memoirs of President Clinton, Prime Minister Major, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Marjorie “Mo” Mowlam, etc. [8] Some might fairly argue that I have left out one key group of actors — the civil servants and policy advisors (including government ministers) who played a role that was somewhat independent of their political masters. This group includes important figures such as Peter Brooke, Quentin Thomas, Jonathan Powell, and Mo Mowlam on the British side; Martin Mansergh, Sean O’Huiginn, and Paddy Teahon on the Irish side; and Tony Lake and Nancy Soderberg in the United States — to name just a few — as well as the advisors to the various parties in Northern Ireland. For a rich, first-hand account of the role of officials on the British side, see Graham Spencer, ed., The British and Peace in Northern Ireland, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015). [9] Within the Protestant community there were significant class and social differences. Although the dominant forces in Northern Ireland were Protestant, many Protestants were also poor or marginalized, and these differences accounted in part for the divisions and strains within the unionist community, a dimension richly documented in Dean Godson’s biography of David Trimble: Himself Alone: David Trimble and the Ordeal of Unionism (London: Harper Collins, 2004). [10] 1926 census. Hennessey puts the Catholic percentage at about 33 percent at the time of partition. Hennessey, The Northern Ireland Peace Process, 2. [11] “2001 Census, Key Statistics, Table KS07a,” Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, accessed May 16, 2019,,;  See also “Background Information on Northern Ireland Society,” Conflict Archive on the Internet, accessed May 16, 2019,, for the long term trends. In the most recent census, Catholics now make up 45 percent of the population, while Protestants make up 48 percent. “2011 Census: Religion in Northern Ireland,” Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, Charles Landow and Mohammed Aly Sergie, The Northern Ireland Peace Process, Council on Foreign Relations, last updated March 12, 2019, [12] “If in the future a majority of the people of Northern Ireland clearly wish for and formally consent to the establishment of a united Ireland” the two governments “will introduce and support in the respective Parliaments legislation to give effect to that wish.” To be clear, even those sympathetic to the nationalist cause did not believe that demography would change the outcome quickly. Bew, The Making and Remaking of the Good Friday Agreement, 28. [13] Andy Bielenberg and Raymond Ryan, “Irish Economic Development: Past, Present, Future?,” Irish Examiner, May 20, 2013,; “Economies of Ireland, North and South, Since 1920,” Encyclopedia of Irish History and Culture, accessed May 8, 2019, [14] John Bradley, “The History of Economic Development in Ireland, North and South,” Proceedings of the British Academy, no. 98 (1999): 35–68, [15] Peter Donaghy, “Is Northern Ireland Dramatically Poorer than the Republic?,” Slugger O’Toole, March 26, 2018, [16] The importance of single market and more broadly the E.U. dimension was reflected in John Hume’s first draft of what became the Downing Street Declaration. Mallie and McKittrick, Endgame in Ireland, 111. It’s worth noting that the challenge Brexit now poses to this “economics will drive politics” approach to all-island integration was foreshadowed in the divergent decisions of Ireland and the United Kingdom on the single currency. See Bew, The Making and Remaking of the Good Friday Agreement, 26. [17] For an extensive treatment of the IRA-Libya connection, see Moloney, A Secret History of the IRA, especially the “Prologue.” [18] The term “republican” relates back to the divisions within the anti-British forces during the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1920. Republicans rejected the residual links to Great Britain retained in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. Their efforts were partially vindicated by the creation of the Republic in 1949, which not only broke the formal ties to the United Kingdom but also included a constitutional claim, under Articles 2 and 3, to the counties of Northern Ireland. The repeal of these provisions was central to unionist support for the 1998 Agreement. [19] There was a third, smaller mainstream party, the United Kingdom Union Party, largely the platform for a prominent, anti-agreement Protestant member of parliament from Northern Ireland, Robert McCartney. [20] The DUP was affiliated with the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force, which, together with the Progressive Unionist Party, was affiliated with the Ulster Defence Association. The perspectives of the loyalist parties are discussed in more detail below. [21] The “official” wing was heavily influenced by Marxist theory, and focused on the class conflict that it believed united the North and South rather than on the political identity of being “Irish,” which had spawned the IRA at the beginning of the 20th century. See Moloney, A Secret History of the IRA, 56–79. [22] Hennessey, The Northern Ireland Peace Process, 44. [23] The phrase was coined by IRA director of publicity, and long-time Adams ally, Danny Morrison in 1981: “Will anyone here object if with a ballot paper in this hand and an Armalite in this hand, we take power in Ireland?” Moloney, A Secret History of the IRA, 203. [24] In the first elections contested by both the SLDP and Sinn Fein in the early-to-mid-1980s, the SDLP led Sinn Fein by 5–6 percentage points. That margin grew to around 10 to 12 percent in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Sinn Fein finally overtook the SDLP in local elections and in elections to Westminster in 2001, in elections to the Stormont Assembly in 2003, and in European elections in 2004. For complete Northern Ireland elections results, see: “Election Results in Northern Ireland Since 1973,” Elections: Northern Ireland Elections, accessed May 8, 2019, [25] Hennessey focuses on the “Ulsterization” of security in the North, which led to a reduced British military presence. This had the effect both of removing a major nationalist grievance and forcing the IRA to focus its violence on “Irish,” albeit Protestant, victims, rather than what they considered the colonial oppressor. Hennessey, The Northern Ireland Peace Process, 39. [26] Others, especially Moloney, argue that Adams’ decision to move Sinn Fein to a political approach was part of a long-term plan conceived much earlier and which became more explicit around 1983–84. Moloney, A Secret History of the IRA, 240. Moloney also notes the decline in the Sinn Fein vote compared with the SDLP beginning with the 1984 European Parliament elections and accelerated by the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement as well as the increasing effectiveness of British security operations and the electoral backlash stemming from a number of botched IRA operations. Moloney, A Secret History of the IRA, 326–49. The Enniskillen bombings, which led to the death of a number of non-combatants at a Remembrance Day event in 1987 was a particular turning point. Sinn Fein/IRA leader Martin McGuinness himself later observed, “Obviously it was going to deal a damaging blow to Irish Republicanism.” Mallie and McKittrick, Endgame in Ireland, 63. [27] Hennessey, The Northern Ireland Peace Process, 41. [28] “John Hume/Gerry Adams Joint Statement,” Sinn Fein, April 23, 1993, [29] For accounts of these discussions and the importance of maintaining confidential channels throughout the conflict, see: Peter Taylor, Provos: The IRA and Sinn Fein (London: Bloomsbury, 1997) chap. 22; and Mallie and McKittrick, Endgame in Ireland, chap. 5. [30] The backlash also had its roots in the British strategy to move away from using British forces to provide security in favor of Northern Ireland security personnel, in particular the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The IRA could argue that violence against British forces was an attack on an “occupying force,” but attacks on the constabulary represented the killing of fellow Irish citizens. It should be noted that some skeptics have suggested that Sinn Fein/the IRA never really embraced the political track, but rather, cynically backed the process leading up to the Agreement and ultimately the Agreement itself on the expectation that unionists would ultimately reject it, allowing Sinn Fein to revert to it traditional unification objectives after having demonstrated that compromise with Unionism was futile. See: Bew, The Making and Remaking of the Good Friday Agreement, 30–31. Moloney disagrees, arguing that while IRA leaders Adams and McGuiness continued to make arguments of this kind to hardliners in the IRA, in fact, they had “made the choice for peace.” Moloney, A Secret History of the IRA, chap. 17. [31] Most in the unionist community and in Great Britain believed that Adams was a member of the IRA’s governing Army Council, an assertion consistently denied by Adams. McGuiness’ links to the IRA were clearer. Moloney makes the most detailed case in support of the argument that Adams played a central, formal role in the IRA from the earliest days of the Troubles until the Agreement itself, although even by Moloney’s account, there seemed to be a substantial disconnect between Adams’ evolving political strategy and the active (and politically damaging) actions of the IRA in the late 1980s and early 1990s, such as the use of “human bombs.” Moloney, A Secret History of the IRA, 347–49. [32] This was most obvious at the time the all-party talks began in 1997, when Sinn Fein accepted the Mitchell principles, allowing Sinn Fein to enter the talks, while at the same time the IRA indicated that it “had problems” with some aspects of the principles, thus preserving ambiguity about whether it had accepted exclusively peaceful means: “The Sinn Fein position actually goes beyond the Mitchell Principles. Their affirmation of these principles is therefore quite compatible with their position. As to the IRA's attitude to the Mitchell Principles per se, well, the IRA would have problems with sections of the Mitchell Principles. But then the IRA is not a participant in these talks.” “Mitchell Principles Problematic – IRA,” Irish Times, Sept, 12, 1997, [33] In A Secret History of the IRA, Moloney catalogues the serious challenges to Adams’ strategy during the key months leading up the Agreement. [34] Mallie and McKittrick, Endgame in Ireland, 281. [35] For a rich history of the evolution of the UUP during this period, see Godson, Himself Alone. [36] The Anglo-Irish Agreement had a complex impact on subsequent events. As noted above, it did appear to contemplate a political process that could lead to a united Ireland, as well as conceded a role for the South in Northern Ireland affairs. At the same time, this possibility was undercut by Thatcher’s own hardline unionist sensibilities, reflected in the her famous “out, out, out” speech of 1984, in which she ruled out the three solutions for Northern Ireland proposed by the Irish government — unity, federation, or joint authority (between the United Kingdom and Ireland). Thatcher justified the concessions in the Anglo-Irish Agreement as a way to gain Irish support for tougher security measures against the IRA. Hennessey, The Northern Ireland Peace Process, 26. [37] Mallie and McKittrick, Endgame in Ireland, 72. [38] Hennessey argues that Molyneux did not share this distrust, despite the Downing Street Declaration, quoting Molyneux’s statement, “There is no possibility of us being betrayed.” Hennessey, The Northern Ireland Peace Process, 92. But the subsequent release of the British-Irish Framework Documents in 1995, which proposed to create North-South bodies with more than consultative powers, badly undercut Molyneux’s credibility and helped lead to his replacement by Trimble. Hennessey, The Northern Ireland Peace Process, 97. [39] Mallie and McKittrick, Endgame in Ireland, 251. [40] Trimble had earlier established his unionist bona fides by helping to bring down the Sunningdale Agreement in 1974, an earlier attempt at resolving the Northern Ireland conflict. Mitchell, Making Peace, 174. Trimble himself has argued, “I am a product of the destruction of Stormont” — the decision of the British government to abolish the Protestant-dominated Stormont Assembly, first by direct British rule and then by a power-sharing arrangement with nationalists. Godson, Himself Alone, 25. [41] Although the UUP held a plurality of unionist votes in the first election for the Northern Ireland Assembly, the DUP supplanted the UUP in the second election in 2003 and its margin over the UUP has grown since then. “Election Results.” UUP’s troubles were earlier apparent in the 1999 European parliamentary elections, where it was outpolled by the DUP. [42] Mallie and McKittrick, Endgame in Ireland, 179–80. Hennessey argues, “The UFF [Ulster Freedom Fighters] and UVF [Ulster Volunteer Force] support for the peace process was the decisive difference. It robbed extreme Unionism of a cutting edge.” The Northern Ireland Peace Process, 90. [43] Mitchell, Making Peace, 44. [44] See Brian Eggins, History and Hope: The Alliance Party in Northern Ireland (Dublin: The History Press, 2015) fn. 162. [45] See Jamille Bigio and Rachel Vogelstein, “Women’s Participation in Northern Ireland Peace Negotiations Made Them Less Likely to Fair,” The Hill, April 13, 2018, [46] Fred Halliday, “Peace Processes in the Late 20th Century,” in A Farewell to Arms: From “Long War” to Long Peace in Northern Ireland, ed. Michael Cox, Adrian Guelke, and Fiona Stephens (New York: Manchester University Press, 2000), 285. See also the essays in Power, Building Peace in Northern Ireland. [47] Moloney offers a detailed look at the role of the Catholic Church and key clergy. [48] That said, even under the Tories, there were periodic efforts to talk directly with the IRA, including the secret 1972 Cheyne Walk talks between Secretary of State for Northern Ireland William Whitelaw and an IRA delegation, including Gerry Adams, which led to an early, but brief ceasefire. [49] One of the early Northern Ireland Prime Ministers, James Craig, called it “a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant state.” Godson, Himself Alone, 26. [50] Prior to taking office in 1979, Member of Parliament and Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Airey Neave, had been killed by a splinter republican paramilitary group, the Irish National Liberation Army. [51] The British and Irish governments issued “Frameworks for the Future” in February 1995, with proposals on all three strands of the talks. Unionists most strongly objected to provisions that allowed the two governments to decide on the authority of a future North-South body, without the prior consent of a future Northern Ireland Assembly. See Hennessey, The Northern Ireland Peace Process, 92–99. [52] Specifically, Blair indicated his support for the “triple lock” — the requirement that any change in the status of Northern Ireland required the agreement of the parties in the North, the public in the north through a referendum, and the approval of the British parliament. Hennessey, The Northern Ireland Peace Process, 104. [53] Albert Reynolds dubbed Bruton “John Unionist.” Moloney, A Secret History of the IRA, 435. It was during the administration of an earlier Fine Gael prime minister, Garrett Fitzgerald, that Ireland first accepted the idea that unification should only come about with the consent of the people of Northern Ireland, leading to the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. [54] After taking office, Ahearn announced “irrendentism is dead.” Hennessey, The Northern Ireland Peace Process, 106–107. [55] Hennessey observed, “It is doubtful that any of his Fianna Fail predecessors would have had the vision to do this.” The Northern Ireland Peace Process, 167. [56] Irish American support for the IRA, including money and weaponry such as the notorious “Armalite” (AR-15), is discussed in detail in Moloney, A Secret History of the IRA, 114–15. [57] Mallie and McKittrick, Endgame in Ireland, 150. [58] Shane Hickey, “Major Was Furious with Clinton for Granting Adams a Visa,” Irish Times, Dec. 28. 2018, [59] This initially took the form of the Northern Ireland Investment conference in Belfast chaired by George Mitchell and U.S. Commerce Secretary Ron Brown. [60] Roy Bradford, “Straws in the Wind Show Signs of Hope and Change,” Irish Times, Jan. 3, 1996, [61] Hennessey, The Northern Ireland Peace Process, 70–74. Moloney argues that the secret process dates back to indirect contacts between Adams and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Tom King in 1986 or 1987. Moloney, A Secret History of the IRA, 247. Notably Moloney argued that Adams acted without the approval of the IRA Army Council. [62] Hennessey, The Northern Ireland Peace Process, 81–83. [63] Mitchell reached this conclusion after consulting with the head of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Hugh Annesley. This conclusion was shared by Chilcot: “if you set a long time condition, a period of rehabilitation in which no violence took place, it would not happen.” Mitchell, Making Peace, 79. [64] Mitchell, Making Peace, 42–45. [65] Mitchell, Making Peace, 50, 60. [66] Mitchell, Making Peace, 110. [67] The third international chair was John de Chastelain, former chief of Canada’s defense staff. [68] Hennessey, The Northern Ireland Peace Process, 102. [69] Hennessey, The Northern Ireland Peace Process, 113. [70] As a result of the violence, the governments voted to expel, at least temporarily, both the Ulster Democratic Party (linked to the loyalist paramilitary Ulster Freedom Fighters) and Sinn Fein. Although the decision risked collapsing the talks, in the end, it buttressed the credibility of the condition subsequent approach by demonstrating the government’s willingness to carry out its threats against non-compliant parties. Mitchell, Making Peace, 134–42. [71] Hennessey, The Northern Ireland Peace Process, 115–18. The document, called “Propositions on Heads of Agreement,” included almost all of the key features that ended up in the final Agreement. [72] Mitchell, Making Peace, 103; Mallie and McKittrick, Endgame in Ireland, 22. [73] Mitchell, Making Peace, 143–46. [74] Among the most consequential of the secret talks were the meetings between Sinn Fein and a British MI5 agent, “Fred,” which led to the Peter Brooke statement that Britain had “no strategic interest” in Northern Ireland, and to the Sinn Fein-Reynolds meeting. See Mallie and McKittrick, Endgame in Ireland, chap. 6. Another important secret channel was between the Irish and loyalist paramilitaries, fostered by a former unionist leader, Roy Magee. Mallie and McKittrick, Endgame in Ireland, 140. [75] Agriculture, education, transport, environment, waterways, social security/social welfare, tourism, E.U. programs, inland fisheries, aquaculture and maritime, health, accident and emergency services, and urban/rural development. [76] The amendment was approved by referendum in both parts of Ireland in May 1998. [77] Interestingly, the approach used by the Decommissioning Commission drew on the experience of disarming the Kosovo Liberation Army. See Mallie and McKittrick, Endgame in Ireland, 276. [78] For a summary of developments since the Agreement, and on-going issues, see Kristin Archick, Northern Ireland: Current Issues and On-Going Challenges in the Peace Process, Congressional Research Service, March 12, 2018, [79] Archick, Northern Ireland, 19 [80] Ben Kelly, “Why Is There No Government in Northern Ireland and How Did Power-sharing Collapse?” The Independent, April 30, 2019, [81] Connla Young, “Sinn Fein Say Good Friday Agreement Facing Its Biggest Threat,” Irish News, May 14, 2019, [82] Gormley-Heenan, Political Leadership and the Northern Ireland Peace Process, 37, quoting David Trimble, “The Belfast Agreement,” Fordham International Law Journal 22, no. 4 (1999), Moloney argues, in A Secret History of the IRA, that Adams’ triumph was part of a long-term strategic plan that took years to bring to fruition. It may well be that, unlike Trimble, Adams was guided by a masterplan. But the fact that it took Adams 25 years to realize this goal suggests that favorable exogenous factors, as well as Adams’ efforts, were necessary for the plan to succeed. [83] Mitchell credits Ahearn’s willingness to reopen the “Strand Two Agreement” (against the advice of his aides), which he had reached with Blair just days before the Good Friday Agreement: “Had Ahearn insisted on the Strand Two provisions he had worked out with Blair, there would not have been a Good Friday Agreement.” Mitchell, Making Peace, 171. [84] Gormley-Heenan, Political Leadership and the Northern Ireland Peace Process, 37–38, quoting George J. Mitchell “Toward Peace in Northern Ireland,” Fordham International Law Journal 22, no. 4 (1999), [85] Thus, Moloney, in arguing that the credit belongs to Adams, asserts, “The Irish peace process was a not a spontaneous phenomenon, tossed around by forces outside its control, nor was it forced upon its architects by the fortunes of war. The process was like a precooked dinner whose basic menu had largely been decided long before most of the diners knew the meal was planned.” Moloney, A Secret History of the IRA, xvi. At other points, Moloney indulges in what feels like a parody of the “Cleopatra’s nose” version of counterfactual analysis: “If Annie Adams [Gerry Adams’ mother] had not insisted on making the move to Ballymurphy [an IRA stronghold in West Belfast], the IRA might never have been led by Gerry Adams, and Irish history would now look very different.” Moloney, A Secret History of the IRA, 46. [86] Peter Crutchley, "IRA Ceasefire 20 Years On: The Priest Who Brokered the Peace," BBC News, Aug. 31, 2014, This view is echoed by Moloney: “To say that Father Alec Reid is the unrecognized inspiration of the peace process would be an understatement.” A Secret History of the IRA, 223. [87] Mallie and McKittrick, Endgame in Ireland, 115. [88] Mallie and McKittrick, Endgame in Ireland, 218. One British government official observed, “The body language changed after Winfield. Before that it was always stiff and stilted, but afterwards they no longer seemed stiff and stilted in each other’s presence. Winfield was the psychological breakthrough.” Mallie and McKittrick, Endgame in Ireland, 264. [89] The narrative presented in the earlier sections of this essay is a form of “process tracing,” which helps clarify the key decisions and those responsible for the decisions. By itself, however, this approach can’t really answer “what mattered” — either as necessary or sufficient cause. For this reason, counterfactual analysis is particularly useful. For a discussion of some of the considerations and difficulties, see Jack S. Levy, “Counterfactuals, Causal Inference, and Historical Analysis,” Security Studies 24, no. 3 (September 2015): 378–402,; Francis J. Gavin, “What If? The Historian and the Counterfactual.” Security Studies 24, no. 3 (September 2015): 425–30,; and Neil J. Roese, ed., What Might Have Been: The Social Psychology of Counterfactual Thinking (London: Psychology Press, 1995). [90] See for example Mallie and McKittrick’s judgment: “The election of 1997 transformed the peace process.” Endgame in Ireland, 213. [91] See Mary Holland, “A Very Good Friday,” Guardian, April 11, 1998, [92] Hennessey challenges at least part of the claim, arguing that the 1998 Agreement had a much weaker North-South dimension which allowed for unionist acceptance. Thomas Hennessey, “‘Slow learners’? Comparing the Sunningdale Agreement and the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement,” in Sunningdale, the Ulster Workers' Council Strike and the Struggle for Democracy in Northern Ireland, ed. David McCann and Cillian McGrattan (Manchester: Manchester University, 2017). [93] See Moloney, A Secret History of the IRA, 142. [94] This was particularly true on the issue of decommissioning, where Adams repeatedly insisted on the limits of his influence over the IRA. His position was corroborated by the British head of the Northern Ireland police (the Royal Ulster Constabulary), Hugh Annesley, who, when asked by Mitchell at a key juncture in 1995 whether Adams could get the IRA to decommission before an agreement, replied, “No, he couldn’t do it even if he wanted to. He doesn’t have that much control over them.” Mitchell, Making Peace, 30. [95] Moloney, A Secret History of the IRA, 414–16. [96] Mallie and McKittrick, Endgame in Ireland, 221–23. [97] Godson describes the episode in detail. Godson, David Trimble and the Ordeal of Unionism. [98] Martin Mansergh, “Forward,” in Lessons from the Northern Ireland Peace Process, ed. Timothy J. White (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2013), ix. [99] Gormley-Heenan examines this problem at some length. Political Leadership and the Northern Ireland Peace Process, 91–96. [100] Inclusivity has several different meanings in the context of these negotiations. The term was sometimes used to refer to the inclusion of the full range of stakeholders, including civil society, but was also used more narrowly, by Sinn Fein and the loyalists, to refer to the protagonists in the conflict. See for example, Timothy J. White, “Lessons from the Northern Ireland Peace Process: An Introduction,” in Lessons from the Northern Ireland Peace Process, 7. Broad inclusivity of civil society was valuable but it was the inclusion of the former paramilitaries that was crucial. See Paul Dixon, “The Victory and Defeat of the IRA,” in Lessons from the Northern Ireland Peace Process. [101] Mitchell, Making Peace, 19. This is an important difference between the 1998 Agreement and Sunningdale. [102] Whether the agreement is truly a consociational agreement is a matter of much debate among political scientists, see White, “Lessons from the Northern Ireland Peace Process: An Introduction,” 4; and articles cited in footnote 2. [103] Power, Building Peace in Northern Ireland, 8. [104] Feargal Cochrane and Seamus Dunn, People Power? The Role of the Voluntary and Community Sector in the Northern Ireland Conflict (Cork: Cork University Press, 2006), 173. [105] Mallie and McKittrick, Endgame in Ireland, 216. [106] See Hennessey, The Northern Ireland Peace Process, 164–65 and Mitchell, Making Peace, 173. “As I read the document I knew instantly that it would not be acceptable to the Unionists.” Godson, Himself Alone, 327. As noted above, the ensuing crisis was only resolved when Ahearn agreed to walk back the draft and dilute the provisions opposed by the unionists. [107] In fact, the deadline actually slipped by a day; on the evening of the formal deadline the talks were still at an impasse. Mitchell, Making Peace, 177. The deadline also helped Adams gain IRA assent to enter the talks — his critics feared that an open-ended negotiation predicated on a continued IRA ceasefire would be used as a British ploy to weaken the IRA’s operational capacity as well as its rank and file support. See Moloney, A Secret History of the IRA, 471. [108] The classic statement is presented by William Zartman in “Ripeness: The Hurting Stalemate and Beyond,” in International Conflict Resolution After the Cold War, ed. Paul C. Stern and Daniel Druckman (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2000), As noted below, the approach I suggest here relies less on Zartman’s idea of a “hurting stalemate” and more on the perception by both sides of a positive gain. [109] But not impossible. Arguably the decision to arm the Bosnians and bomb the Serbs during the Bosnia conflict, and the bombing of the Serbs in Kosovo, helped produce circumstances that made those conflicts “ripe” for settlement. See Zartman, “Ripeness,” 244. [110] Gormley-Heenan, Political Leadership and the Northern Ireland Peace Process, 14, quoting Paul Arthur, Peer Learning: Northern Ireland as a Case Study (New York: Carnegie Corporation, 1999), 10. “The participants shared a concern that something needed to be done and that at the very least they should explore each others’ options. Track two presented the best opportunities to do so. The absence of the media, the physical location, the neutral back up support, all were as far removed as possible from the rawness of Northern Ireland’s political arena.” [111] Mallie and McKittrick, Endgame in Ireland, 257. See also, Hennessey, The Northern Ireland Peace Process, 19. [112] Mallie and McKittrick, Endgame in Ireland, 129. [113] See Timothy J. White, “The Role of Civil Society in Promoting Peace in Northern Ireland,” in Building Peace in Northern Ireland, ed. Maria Power, 38–40. [114] See Maria Power, “Introduction,” in Building Peace in Northern Ireland, 4. [115] On Blair’s decommissioning side letter, see Hennessey, The Northern Ireland Peace Process, 169–70. [116] This view of the role of third parties is, thus, distinct from the focus on third parties as “neutral” mediators. What mattered most here was not neutrality but that third parties could offer something of value to the parties themselves. This more traditional understanding of the role of neutral actors in peace processes was illustrated by the creation of the Independent Commission on Policing, which produced a blue print for policing reform — something the parties themselves were unable to accomplish. [117] Mitchell, Making Peace, 25. [118] The IRA completed decommissioning in 2005. [119] Mallie and McKittrick, Endgame in Ireland, 205. [120] For a discussion of the problem of “open” diplomacy (without preconditions) see Oriana Skyler Mastro, The Costs of Conversation (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019). [121] Mitchell, Making Peace, 175. ) [contents] => Array ( [title] => [contents] => ) ) [7] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 1383 [post_author] => 271 [post_date] => 2019-02-24 05:00:33 [post_date_gmt] => 2019-02-24 10:00:33 [post_content] => Editor's note: This essay is adapted from a speech delivered at the Fifth Annual Texas National Security Forum held in Austin, Texas, on Nov. 30, 2018.   America is facing a crisis in its foreign policy imagination. This is not just a crisis among academics, although they are obviously a vital part of the conversation. Nor is this crisis restricted to career foreign policy hands. And it is definitely not limited to politicians. This is a crisis among the American people. The American people do not have a shared sense of what America is trying to accomplish in the world with its foreign policy. And if U.S. politicians and practitioners don’t recognize that reality here at home, then the United States cannot effectively advance its agenda abroad. Properly diagnosing this crisis — and locating a solution — means making some strong criticisms of recent American foreign policymaking. The goal is not to lay blame. Rather, it is to answer an urgent question: How did the United States get to a place where so many Americans seem open to taking an isolationist posture toward the world? Why is there such a strong impulse to disengage? One of the clear lessons of 2016 is that the public hasn’t wholly embraced America’s major foreign-policy decisions over the last several years — and perhaps even the last few decades. Many Americans believe that, since the end of the Cold War, the United States has failed to articulate a shared foreign-policy vision that’s bigger than this or that administration’s re-election plan. In fact, most Americans have come to treat foreign policy as just another Republican-versus-Democrat issue. In fairness, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the American people have had some luxury to do so. In this respect, America is a victim of its own success. It takes a big foreign-policy vision to draw 320 million people spread across a continental nation together into a common, enduring commitment. If America is going to send its children into harm’s way, it has to have a shared reservoir of ideas, a shared vision, a shared imagination of what its role on the global stage should look like. That’s a big challenge, especially at a time of intense disagreements in domestic policymaking, stoked by a media that profits from polarization. But in spite of that — or perhaps because of it — America needs a vision that is big enough to hold across election cycles. I am an unstinting advocate for American engagement in the world, and I think the impulse to withdraw from America’s important, longstanding commitments is a very bad thing. U.S. global leadership is indispensable, not only for the security of America’s friends and partners, but for protecting America’s own interests. When hell breaks loose on the other side of the world, it inevitably boomerangs home. When the United States doesn’t lead, chaos inevitably follows. If America continues to drift toward global disengagement, it will be sucked into all sorts of troubles that it can’t envision right now. The lesson of the two World Wars and of the Cold War is that the United States cannot avoid the world. America ultimately must lead a system of alliances. When it does otherwise, the consequences for the United States and its partners are much worse than policymakers are liable to anticipate in the short term, when disengagement can seem appealing. I have four objectives in this essay. First, I want to examine why so many Americans, on both sides of the political aisle, seem to be open to a U.S. policy of retreat. [quote id="1"] Second, I want to begin the work of “translating” the next era of U.S. engagement. Every acronym-agency report that has come out over the last 18 months has talked about the “return of great-power conflict,” and they are right. But there has been a failure to communicate that reality in terms that will persuade and build the support of millions of Americans. For example, America is clearly in a long-term tech race with China. But it’s just as clear that the American people either don’t realize it or are not convinced that it matters. Third, I want to suggest a few concrete steps that America can pursue as it continues to think about how to modernize U.S. intelligence, defense, and diplomacy for the digital era. Lastly, I want to offer some encouragement, because despite the fact that the United States faces big challenges, I’m confident that America can rise to meet them. There is a lot of talk about the “unprecedented” nature of the threats America faces today. Human beings tend to emphasize the discontinuity between historical periods, because we’re narcissists and we think, “We’re here, so this must be the inflection point of all history!” But it’s usually not true, and it’s the job of the historian to step in and say, “Sorry, everyone, but in fact there’s far more continuity than discontinuity at this moment.” However, there’s a case to be made that this is, in fact, one of the turning points in 230 years of American history, akin to America’s opening to global engagement at the beginning of the 20th century, or to the emergence of the Cold War. America’s complex security considerations are downstream of the digital revolution that the world is living through right now, which truly is changing everything. For all of human history, economics has been about atoms; looking forward, economics is going to be largely about bytes. And that change has all sorts of implications for intelligence, defense, and diplomacy. There is as much opportunity as chaos in this revolution. But only if America leads.

The Rush to Retreat

To begin, it’s important to look sympathetically at the position of the many American citizens who are increasingly skeptical of the post–World War II consensus position on U.S. global engagement and leadership. Many U.S. citizens aren’t exactly sure what they get out of America’s continued global engagement or what America’s goals are in the world. And perhaps it’s not so hard to see why they feel that way. America has endured nearly two decades of war, and there’s little end in sight to its involvement in the Middle East, the president’s recent announcements of troop withdrawal notwithstanding.[1] In Afghanistan, the Taliban is so bold that late last year they attacked the head of the American forces.[2] Three American soldiers were wounded in that ambush. A few weeks later, in a separate attack, four American servicemen were killed.[3] Some have hailed the ongoing negotiations between the United States and the Taliban, but given the Taliban’s refusal to negotiate directly with the government in Kabul, they are unlikely to be fruitful in the long term. American allies increasingly choose to free-ride under America’s security umbrella, instead of contributing meaningfully to their collective defense. American troops are currently stationed in more than three-quarters of the countries on the planet — more than 160 out of 195 — including many nations that have very significant economic and military resources.[4] Many of my constituents ask, “Why are we there? Why aren’t they paying their fair share?” In the eyes of many American citizens, the global financial system that the United States built increasingly seems not to be working in their favor. Again, that system is regularly exploited by free-riders, but especially — and more importantly — by bad actors like China. Outsourcing has upended longstanding job paths, and many American workers think that the financial system benefits a class of elites — a top 1 percent, or 10 percent, or 25 percent — whose interests are not those of the median worker. America has a broken immigration system and weak border security. The inability to assimilate new immigrants in a lawful, orderly way is undermining America’s national cohesion. I am a defender of America’s immigration tradition, but it’s important to recognize that there is a higher percentage of foreign-born residents living in the United States than at almost any time in American history — about 13 percent. The high-water mark was 14.5 percent between 1890 and 1920, a period of massive economic, political, and social disruption. America needs to have a national conversation about whether it’s making it possible for millions and millions of newcomers to become a part of the single American community. Moreover, the refusal to secure the U.S. border is a refusal to take seriously the national-security implications of a porous border. America’s adversaries around the world know that the U.S. border is penetrable. People in Washington tend to exaggerate particular threats, but the United States has plenty of adversaries that are well aware that its unsecured northern and southern borders and its shrugging approach to visa overstays are weaknesses to be exploited. This is just a sampling, but the takeaway is plain to see: The dissatisfaction of so many millions of Americans is a result of a failure by American leaders to persuade them that the United States has a coherent, long-term foreign-policy vision that gathers all the different parts of its national-security apparatus into one clear, definable whole. To understand how this has come about, take a look at recent history. Since the end of the Cold War and the fall of America’s last great adversary, the American people have seen their country’s foreign policy upended in important ways every time one party takes over from the other. When the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed, it was heralded as the “end of history” — the final triumph of liberal democracy over other political and economic systems and the vindication of the American way of life. [quote id="2"] The 1990s enjoyed the peace dividend of the Cold War: economic growth, worldwide stability, and a military drawdown. Under President George H.W. Bush, the United States waged a quick and relatively painless war to push Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, and over the following decade America’s most significant military engagements were in places like Bosnia and Serbia — tiny, perennially dysfunctional corners of Eastern Europe. There were individual tragedies and hardships, to be sure, but overall — and against the backdrop of a bloody 20th century — this was an unbelievable decade of peace and prosperity, and many American policymakers began to talk as if (and perhaps believe that) the happiness of the post–Cold War peace dividend would last forever. A single event ended that fantasy. On Sept. 11, 2001, America found it had a new enemy: not a great power, but pockets of fanatics associated with no state, wearing no uniform, willing to kill in the name of religion, and dedicated to the death of ordinary Americans. Quite understandably, American foreign policy was reoriented toward this real and urgent threat. Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and, later, the Islamic State posed a unique concern to American security, and to U.S. friends and allies. Political, national-security, and intelligence-community conversations turned to the challenge of non-state actors. But, as became apparent, this reorientation was done to the exclusion of almost everything else, and it took for granted that the American people were committed to this new mission. The public broadly supported more engagement, it’s true. Unfortunately, however, that effort to combat non-state actors was never integrated into any long-term vision of America’s role in the world, or of America’s responsibilities for managing the international system as a whole. The public lost the thread, and the United States took its eye off the threat posed by rising powers like China and resurgent powers like Russia. So now, America, as a nation, finds itself caught off guard yet again. America has been surprised by Russia’s aggressive expansionism, not only in its own neighborhood but across Europe and the Atlantic. It is also surprised by China’s heavy hand over not only its Pacific neighbors but far afield — in places like Africa, where an increasing number of countries could be considered Chinese vassal states, and even in Central and South America. Who, in recent years, predicted the need for an updated Monroe Doctrine? America has been distracted with its own political short-termism. The country stumbles from agenda to agenda, seized by candidates’ and officials’ short-term political interests. There isn’t a shared sense of what America is doing in the long term, and why. On the whole, there are only those in power and those trying to displace those in power, and that’s not enough reason for Americans to support larger outlays or send their kids into harm’s way. America has lost any sense of a shared vision of its role on the global stage. Ultimately, this is unsustainable, and the American people are right to say that the inchoate status quo is not working. To his credit, President Donald Trump has intuited some of these problems. Because he thinks his mandate is, in part, to disrupt, he has been willing to call out the tendency of some foreign-policy experts to recycle old, tired rhetoric and ideas, and to pretend that old framings of problems are eternally valid — that the same appeals can be used in 2018 that were used in 1988. Candidate Trump sensed that a lot of Americans wanted someone to stand up to a foreign-policy establishment that, in their eyes, had grown lazy and distant. Unfortunately, I don’t think President Trump has solutions to the problems he has identified. He wants to disrupt, but toward no clear end. The suggestion that the United States should return to isolationism should prompt Americans to ask: “What has happened when we’ve tried isolationism in the past?” The plain answer is that it has never been good for the American people, let alone for America’s allies and neighbors. “America First” is a 1920s slogan for a 1920s policy. It didn’t work then, and it won’t work today. The great lesson of America’s interwar isolationism 100 years ago — when the United States won the “Great War” and then retreated, failing to secure the peace — is that it left the country woefully unprepared when another war broke out. America has a better historical example to guide its path today: the period following World War II. In the 1940s, America won a war, but then decided to “win the peace” as well. Instead of retreating after victory, America set out to build a new global order designed to prevent yet another catastrophic war. It established and led institutions, such as the United Nations, that were dedicated to securing diplomatic solutions to simmering conflicts. It established new financial institutions and trading regimes to secure the global financial order. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade ensured a rules-based trading order that endures to this day in the form of the World Trade Organization. Most importantly, America formed security alliances such as NATO — arguably the most important and significant military alliance in two millennia — with friends who were dedicated not just to shared interests but to shared principles. At the heart of all these efforts was the recognition that a peaceful and prosperous world would redound to the benefit of Middle America. If the United States had not created that world, no one would have created it, and all nations would have suffered — including America. Everyone involved in American foreign policymaking needs to think again about how to persuade the American people of the value of an American-led, American-powered global order.

The Return to Great Power Competition

The contours of the era in which America now finds itself become clearer by the day. The “end of history” has come to an end.[5] The world is returning to the great power competition that for so long defined international relations. The United States needs to prepare for another long contest of nation-versus-nation, and the only way to prepare for a contest of that kind is by persuading Americans that it’s necessary. But America’s leaders have not been doing that. It is clear that Russia is on the move. President Vladimir Putin is hard at work trying to make his country great again. He and his circle of kleptocrats are looking for opportunities to reassert Russia’s traditional role as the hegemon that can dictate the fate of Europe and the Far East. Over the past decade, Putin has proven himself willing to take big risks to make that happen: annexing Crimea, invading Ukraine, facilitating the Assad regime’s atrocities in Syria (and committing some of Russia’s own atrocities), launching cyber attacks across Europe, and of course deploying the campaign of disinformation and hacking that disrupted the 2016 elections in America — something that will surely be resurrected for the 2020 elections. Putin is an evil man. But let’s not overstate his powers. He presides over a shrinking, aging population and a collapsing economy that is built largely around a single resource. But he is playing his bad hand very well, and he will be able to increase his winnings if the United States forgoes its role in Europe. America can no longer afford to be reactive to Putin’s aggressions — the time has come to be proactive. That said, U.S. leaders need to turn the attention of the American people to the coming long-term struggle with China. Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party leaders have created a hybrid system of communism and techno-mercantilism that brings together almost absolute state control and enormous economic power. It has been said that present-day China is what Stalin always intended to create, but was never able to manage. [quote id="3"] China is already making increasingly expansive territorial claims. Its navy is taking control of strategically important sea lanes and trade routes, in an effort to exercise control over more than $5 trillion of global annual trade, as well as military routes used by neighboring countries and the U.S. Navy. Beijing is making massive investments in the developing world, especially across Asia and Africa, but — as mentioned above — increasingly also in Central and South America, in an effort to crowd out American economic power.[6] China wants to make itself the partner of choice in the developing world, especially in those parts of the world that have historically been understood as falling within America’s sphere of influence. The massive Belt and Road Initiative is not only a project to expand Chinese economic power, but a way of fracturing the sovereignty of nearby states and turning them into outposts of Chinese interests. In the Western world, China uses its Confucius Institutes as propaganda outlets for party interests. In the United States, these institutes are present on a number of university campuses, and many academic leaders have been very naïve about the strings that are attached to them. China has dedicated itself to being the world’s go-to high-tech manufacturer by 2025, and its leader in artificial intelligence by 2030. If China can gain an edge in artificial intelligence research, as many experts believe it can, it will hold the whip hand over the next-generation tools that will be necessary for America’s national economic growth, as well as for its military and national security. China doesn’t want to end up in an open competition with the United States. Its goal is rather to win the battles of the future before they reach the battlefield. China is willing to play a decades-long, maybe even century-long, game to reclaim what it sees as its historic position as the “Middle Kingdom” — that is, to make itself once again the center of the world. Right now, most countries don’t want to be on “team China.” They know that it is bad for them. But many of them are telling American leaders that they can’t hold out for long. They know that the future in the Pacific — as well as globally — is going to be either America-led or China-led, and they’re beginning to place their bets. When the United States abandons the world stage, it strengthens China’s hand. It’s worth pointing out that China is not doing this alone. It’s getting a leg up from many American companies in Silicon Valley. These companies have shown a willingness to help the Chinese Communist Party perfect its security state in exchange for access to Chinese markets. This should be stated clearly: There are American companies that are tacitly undermining America’s national-security community at precisely the time when public-private, digital-technology partnerships are becoming essential for America’s economy, security, and politics. I don’t want to paint a picture of doom and gloom — and I’ll explain why below — but I do think America is in a critical period, and it doesn’t have a vision to guide it through the challenges that it is about to face. The United States has an adversary that is willing to move quickly, quietly, and cleverly, as well as operate on a very long timeline. China knows what it wants the world to look like in 25 and 50 years. Does America? The answer is clear: No. The American people have not been brought into a conversation about what the world might look like, for good or for ill, in 25 or 50 years. China has no such problem. The last century of American engagement in the world led to an extraordinary period of peace and prosperity. America’s refusal to continue to lead will threaten those achievements. A world in which America withdraws is a world in which America and its allies are in ever-present and increasing danger. Every alternative to American leadership will put U.S. interests in jeopardy, threaten U.S. security, and endanger America’s freedom to live by and promote its values. A world where the United States sits on its hands is a world where China, Russia, and others will exploit its weaknesses. That will be bad for America. Eventually, hell abroad will find its way to America’s shores.

The Need for Imagination

America needs a new way forward. It can’t retreat, but the above-mentioned problems people sense are real and can’t be ignored. U.S. policymakers can’t pretend the American voters will go along with a program of vigorous engagement without being persuaded, courted, and wooed. The challenge, then, is for policymakers to be honest about American foreign-policy failures — and also to make clear the opportunities available to America, as a nation, if together it is clear-eyed. In short, American foreign policy is suffering from a failure of imagination. The policymaking class has failed to get the American people to really imagine the possibilities of American leadership — or to imagine a world without it. The United States need a foreign-policy imagination that is broader, more adaptive, and more creative — an imagination suited to the digital age and to an era in which threats are more complex than they were in 1941, 1950, 1963, 1988, or 2001. America needs a foreign-policy imagination that can comprehend the new era of challenges it faces. I’m a rookie in politics. I’ve only been in my office for three and a half years, and I’m one of only eight people in the Senate who has never been a politician before. So I want to suggest a few ideas, although I don’t pretend that this is a sufficient menu. Nevertheless, I think these are examples of creative, concrete ways that those of us specially tasked with thinking carefully about America’s role in the world might move forward, and my hope is that they will spark other ideas and further discussion. Hybrid Warfare In an age of hybrid warfare, more and more of America’s contests will take place on servers and digital networks, rather than on traditional battlefields. This means the United States needs to rethink and reorient on multiple fronts. There is not one single place to start. Often, the debates about bureaucratic reorganization in the intelligence community (which I support) incapacitate substantive policy discussion, and prevent any forward progress. What the entire national-security apparatus should be able to do is take steps across different domains at the same time, rather than first figure out the exact proper sequence of every incremental change. It’s clear that the American intelligence community is not adequately equipped to meet the challenges of the next century’s great power competition. One potential step toward readiness would be to establish a Hybrid Threat Center, perhaps housed within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (although those specifics are best left for a future bureaucratic tussle). Like the National Counterterrorism Center, the Hybrid Threat Center would bring together experts from across different domains in the intelligence community — cyber, finance, info-ops, and more — to provide policymakers with an aggregated view of how China and Russia in particular, but also North Korea and Iran, are using asymmetric tools to influence the United States and undercut U.S. interests — including in domains that typically are not seen as political. This center would not replace the work being done at China and Russia desks. Rather, it would concentrate dispersed resources in an urgent direction. The Hybrid Threat Center would emphasize open-source analysis and technological trends like the spread of “deepfake” technology. It won’t be long before hackers with relatively simple tools will be able to fabricate convincing audio or video of things that were never said or didn’t happen. This is going to cause enormous chaos. It’s going to destroy lives and roil financial markets — and it might well spur military conflicts. America will need the resources to assess and react urgently. It will also need people who retain some public trust, who can say with authority what is real and what isn’t. Some of them will have to come from the national-security world. It will be important to think about what that entails for how these institutions operate day-to-day, amid so much political polarization. The center would be a key intelligence resource to help policymakers address the challenges America faces more swiftly. There are many areas right now where America is superior to China in theory but not in operational effectiveness, because America’s bureaucratic and legal cultures are messy and slow. [quote id="4"] Additionally, given that there is no widespread agreement in U.S. intelligence and national-security communities about the security and military implications of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, America needs a National Intelligence Estimate that can shape that kind of consensus. During the Cold War, these estimates about the Soviet Union were hardly perfect, nor wholly immune from politicization, but they performed the crucial task of helping thoroughly inform policymaking conversations, and so they became a launch-point for meaningful debate. A National Intelligence Estimate on the Chinese initiative could be a valuable tool to spur and inform debates that have so far been avoided, or conducted largely as political point-scoring exercises. Cyber Warfare The Hybrid Threat Center would, of course, touch deeply on cyber security policy, but much more than that is needed. We are a quarter-century into the era of cyber war, and America has only just begun to think about what this means for its long-term strategic interests and how that will guide America’s current operational and tactical posture. Russia’s exploits in the 2016 election demonstrated how vulnerable America’s critical infrastructure is to attack. No one in the U.S. government was thinking about election systems as part of critical infrastructure even just a few years ago. There are many more failures of imagination like that. America faces the prospect of modes of information warfare that it has not taken the time even to attempt to imagine. The United States needs to be able not just to parry but to go on the offense against China and other sophisticated actors who won’t just be posting Facebook ads, but will use their capabilities to undermine America’s defense capabilities and to (quite literally) change numbers inside U.S. financial institutions. Imagine the chaos when middle-class Americans’ checkbooks stop balancing — even by just a few dollars. That kind of attack is not at all hard to imagine, but what the resulting turmoil would look like and how to address it is not part of any public discussion. The most recent National Defense Authorization Act established a Cyberspace Solarium Commission modeled after President Dwight Eisenhower’s Solarium Commission, which brought together public- and private-sector experts to formulate defense policy for the nuclear age.[7] America needs that kind of initiative for the cyber age, and it’s my hope that the new commission will be just that. The current administration’s new National Security Presidential Memorandum 13, which replaces Presidential Policy Directive 20, delegates authority to the military and other agencies to conduct cyber operations, allowing quicker responses to cyber threats.[8] The Cyberspace Solarium Commission will hopefully forge consensus about taking more steps like this that can empower the people doing the frontline fighting in cyberspace. It’s clear that efficient lines of communication to inform the president about cyber issues have not yet been established. This president and future presidents need to have ready, regular access to cyber intelligence. How to fix this problem ought to be part of a broader delayering inside the intelligence community as a whole — where, again, a clumsy bureaucracy limits operational effectiveness. China is extorting intellectual property from American companies, especially in the tech sector. The U.S. Government Accountability Office should assess all collaborative technology initiatives between the United States and China to better understand what America is losing and how rapidly, and where the biggest exposures are. Lawmakers should direct the chief information security officer at the Office of Management and Budget to provide annual reports on where China is intentionally causing vulnerabilities in U.S. supply chains. Political Warfare For years, the United States has only reacted to a combination of cyber and information operations. That is unsustainable. America must be on defense and on offense. To that end, the U.S. government should make better, more robust use of organizations like the U.S. Agency for Global Media and establish some sort of political-warfare agency that can serve as a coordinating hub for American offensive activities and information operations across the globe. If there’s anything America’s adversaries hate, it’s transparency. The United States should make Xi’s and Putin’s finances unmistakably clear to their people and to the world. It should use government agencies’ social-media reach to amplify the work of non-governmental organizations and other groups and actors that expose the corruption of authoritarian regimes. America has a giant bully pulpit — it should use it. The U.S. government should fast-track asylum claims by whistleblowers who expose corruption in authoritarian regimes, and it should figure out ways to reward more of that work by America’s friends abroad. The National Counterintelligence and Security Center should produce an unclassified report on China’s influence and propaganda activities in the United States, especially on American campuses. And it should be publicized far and wide, so the American people know.  Alliances, Old and New Finally, policymakers need to communicate more thoughtfully with U.S. citizens about the value of alliances. In the last couple years, there has been a lot of talk about the costs of alliances. Yes, it’s true, they are expensive. But, to invoke former Defense Secretary James Mattis, the only thing more costly than having alliances is not having them.[9] The United States needs to rebuild the institutions that support these alliances. When America pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, it ceded economic influence to China. It should re-engage. Nobody was happier about America’s retreat from that trade agreement than Beijing. Despite some technical concerns about the BUILD Act, America should continue to find creative ways for the U.S. public sector to encourage private-sector investment across Asia, as a counterweight to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. [quote id="5"] America needs to rethink its Pacific engagement in terms of multilateral institutional relationships, rather than the default hub-and-spoke configuration. China and Russia are flexing their muscles in the Pacific and the United States needs something more like a “NATO for Asia” that could turn America’s bilateral alliances into multi-party partnerships. The bottom line is that many of the institutions America helped to create or has used to safeguard its interests abroad, such as the U.N. Security Council, have grown sclerotic. That’s undeniable. But the solution is not to scrap institutional solutions altogether. The conversation that ought to take place is about what kinds of new institutions can be built in the present circumstances to serve America’s long-term goals. The word “reset” has become a bad word, but America does, in fact, need a sort of institutional “reset,” because right now many Americans think the choice is between retreating or clinging to every existing institution with a death grip. That’s a false choice. If they’re smart, America’s leaders ought to do three things at the same time, and as part of one coherent strategy: stop investing in any institutions that are obsolete or counterproductive, revamp institutions that are useful but need an update, and create new institutions where they are needed. It’s not necessary to embrace the idea that the only two choices are a reflexive defense of every jot and tittle of the current order, or global retreat. These are just a handful of possibilities. None of them is a silver bullet. Many of them would likely require serious tweaking, and some of them may sound good in theory but would prove impractical. That’s okay. What the country needs is more debate about new institutions that can support global engagement. It needs to start imagining new ways of seeing and organizing the world that are conducive to advancing U.S. interests.

America: Imagination as a Resource

I have spilled a lot of ink pointing out the failures of imagination in the U.S. foreign-policy establishment — how it has grown beholden to stale approaches and has defended confusion and incoherence and therefore ended up unprepared. It has not done anything to build a consensus about America’s role in the world over the next 25, 50, and 100 years. Nonetheless, I am very confident in the American imagination, because it’s an inexhaustible resource. In very practical, down-to-earth ways, America has unquestionably the greatest entrepreneurs, innovators, and creative thinkers on the earth. People who grow up in America grow up in an environment where they’re supposed to challenge the received wisdom — where they’re supposed to build the new mousetrap, the revolutionary app. People across the world — the 96 percent of the world that doesn’t live in the United States — know that if you’re an entrepreneurial, innovative thinker, America is the place to be. If the U.S. government can apply that cultural and economic power to the challenges America faces, it can win — just as it won the industrial race and the space race against the Soviet Union. But the American imagination is extraordinary in another way. America is the only modern nation founded on the idea that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights. The country hasn’t always lived up to that belief, but over 230 years it has managed to steward it pretty well. And in the process, it has helped millions upon millions of people around the world realize that they don’t have to live under the thumb of tyrants. Continually striving to meet U.S. commitments to liberty and justice under changing circumstances has been a source of promise to the world. That’s still true today. That is why people suffering under repression still look to the United States as a beacon — and not to Russia or China. It isn’t a coincidence that just before the tanks rolled in, that group of students in Tiananmen Square in 1989 had built their own Statue of Liberty in the middle of the square. They didn’t do that because they wanted to go to Silicon Valley to build a new company. They did that because they knew that American principles hold not just for 320 million Americans, but for every person across the globe. There are important debates to be had about where American foreign policy ought to be situated along the idealist/realist continuum, but when the rubber meets the road, the single greatest asset for deploying a realist foreign policy continues to be the idealist commitment America has to universal human dignity. The American moral imagination elevates every human being. When America chooses to lead, peace, prosperity, liberty, and dignity follow — maybe not immediately, and maybe not easily, but eventually. But U.S. leadership is not an inherent law of the world. U.S. leadership isn’t guaranteed by fate or destiny. We the people — Americans at every level — are tasked with renewing that leadership in each generation. And so, the questions Americans should be wrestling with today are: Will we hand the reins to someone else? Will we retreat? Or will we do the hard work of re-envisioning American leadership for the 21st century and beyond?   Ben Sasse is a Republican U.S. senator from Nebraska.   [post_title] => The End of the End of History: Reimagining U.S. Foreign Policy for the 21st Century [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => the-end-of-the-end-of-history-reimagining-u-s-foreign-policy-for-the-21st-century [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-05-24 11:48:05 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-05-24 15:48:05 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw [lead] => Americans lack a shared vision of what the role of the United States ought to be in the world. It's time for America to start asking itself some tough questions about the future of American leadership and for U.S. leaders to rethink how to persuade the American people of the value of an American-led, American-powered global order. [pubinfo] => [issue] => Vol 2, Iss 2 [quotes] => Array ( [0] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => The lesson of the two World Wars and of the Cold War is that the United States cannot avoid the world. America ultimately must lead a system of alliances. ) [1] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => America has lost any sense of a shared vision of its role on the global stage. Ultimately, this is unsustainable, and the American people are right to say that the inchoate status quo is not working. ) [2] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => The United States needs to prepare for another long contest of nation-versus-nation, and the only way to prepare for a contest of that kind is by persuading Americans that it’s necessary. ) [3] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => It’s clear that the American intelligence community is not adequately equipped to meet the challenges of the next century’s great power competition. ) [4] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => The bottom line is that many of the institutions America helped to create or has used to safeguard its interests abroad, such as the U.N. Security Council, have grown sclerotic. ) ) [style] => strategist [type] => Strategist [style_label] => The Strategist [download] => Array ( [title] => PDF Download [file] => 1471 ) [authors] => Array ( [0] => 271 ) [endnotes] => Array ( [title] => Endnotes [endnotes] => [1] Dan Lamothe and Josh Dawsey, “Trump Wanted a Big Cut in Troops in Afghanistan. New U.S. Military Plans Fall Short,” Washington Post, Jan. 8, 2019, [2] Pamela Constable and Sayed Salahuddin, “U.S. Commander in Afghanistan Survives Deadly Attack at Governor’s Compound that Kills Top Afghan Police General,” Washington Post, Oct. 18, 2018, [3] Ryan Browne, “Fourth U.S. Service Members Dies After November IED Attack in Afghanistan,” CNN, Dec. 3, 2018, [4] “Our Story,” Department of Defense, accessed April 23, 2019, [5] See, Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992). [6] Kartik Jayaram, Omid Kassiri, and Irene Yuan Sun, “The Closest Look Yet at Chinese Economic Engagement in Africa,” McKinsey & Company, June 2017, [7] “H.R. 5515 – John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019,” 115th Congress (2017–2018), - toc-HEDF86C877B1B46F49F2D9039A895923D. [8] Ellen Nakashima, “White House Authorizes ‘Offensive Cyber Operations’ to Deter Foreign Adversaries,” Washington Post, Sept. 20, 2018, [9] “Remarks by Secretary Mattis on the National Defense Strategy,” U.S. Department of Defense, Jan. 19, 2018, ) [contents] => Array ( [title] => [contents] => ) ) [8] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 1069 [post_author] => 9 [post_date] => 2019-02-20 12:37:45 [post_date_gmt] => 2019-02-20 17:37:45 [post_content] => The Trump era has upended many aspects of U.S. statecraft, not least among them America’s China policy. For 25 years after the Cold War, the United States executed a largely bipartisan approach to managing a rising China. This strategy was based on the idea that a combination of persistent engagement and prudent hedging would ultimately socialize Beijing into the American-led international order. In recent years, however, that strategy unraveled as China became more repressive internally and grew stronger and more assertive externally. In response, the Trump administration has proclaimed the “responsible stakeholder” strategy dead and argued that Washington must get serious about competing with Beijing. Yet, competition is not an end in itself. Despite the emerging consensus that Washington’s old strategy has failed, there is little agreement on what should replace it. What, exactly, does America seek to achieve vis-à-vis China? Should U.S. leaders indefinitely contain Chinese geopolitical influence? Force the “breakup or mellowing” of Chinese power? Pursue a grand bargain with the Chinese Communist Party? These are fundamental questions, which the administration has yet to answer. There are four basic options for resetting America’s China policy: accommodation, collective balancing, comprehensive pressure, and regime change. These options are ideal-types: They illustrate the range of possible approaches and capture distinct analytical logics about the nature of the China problem and the appropriate response. At one extreme, Washington could seek an accommodation with Beijing in hopes of striking a grand bargain and establishing a cooperative long-term relationship. At the other extreme, the United States could seek regime change or even precipitate a military showdown to prevent China from growing more powerful. Both of these options assume that America must take urgent action to “solve” the China challenge. Yet, neither of these approaches is realistic, and, in fact, each is downright dangerous. The real debate involves the two middle options: collective balancing and comprehensive pressure. Collective balancing would rely on U.S. cooperation with allies and partners to prevent China from constructing a regional sphere of influence or displacing the United States as the world’s leading power. Comprehensive pressure would go further, attempting not simply to counter-balance Chinese influence overseas but to actively erode China’s underlying political, economic, and military power. These options, in turn, rest on different fundamental assumptions. Collective balancing accepts that Chinese power is likely to expand but assumes that it is possible to prevent Beijing from using its power in destabilizing ways. Comprehensive pressure assumes that China’s power must be limited and even diminished, despite the risk that doing so will sharply escalate tensions. Probing the logic of these strategies, and assessing their various strengths and weaknesses, is critical to going beyond “competition” and adopting a new approach. The alternative — practicing tactics without strategy — is no way to confront the daunting geopolitical challenge that China presents.

The Rise and Fall of the Responsible Stakeholder

For decades, U.S. leaders undertook a largely consistent, bipartisan approach to China. The United States sought to integrate China into the global economy by opening its markets and welcoming China into the World Trade Organization. Washington also pushed Beijing to assume a greater role in regional and global affairs. U.S. leaders hoped that their efforts would illustrate the benefits of membership in the existing order and induce China, as Robert Zoellick explained in 2005, to “work with us to sustain the international system that has enabled its success.”[1] In the meantime, the United States committed to maintain the military capabilities and alliances necessary to dissuade China from taking a more confrontational path.[2] The responsible-stakeholder paradigm offered a coherent “theory of victory”: It identified a desired outcome and employed all elements of American power to bring about that outcome. Over time, the strategy produced greater Sino-American cooperation on a range of issues, from counter-piracy to climate change. It is increasingly clear, however, that the responsible-stakeholder strategy failed. Two of its core assumptions now appear misplaced: the idea that China’s intentions would become more benign over time, and the belief that Washington had the power to keep Chinese ambitions in check until that shift occurred. What happened instead was that, as China rose, the Chinese Communist Party became more willing to use its newfound power in coercive and disruptive ways.[3] Confounding Western hopes that China would liberalize, the Chinese Communist Party embraced more repressive policies, especially after Xi Jinping became general secretary in 2012. Meanwhile, Beijing sought to control the Indo-Pacific region by coercing its neighbors, undermining U.S. alliances, practicing mercantilist policies, steadily increasing its presence and influence in the South China Sea, and modernizing its military. In the Indo-Pacific and beyond, moreover, China has engaged in a range of behaviors that challenge American interests: supporting authoritarian regimes, engaging in widespread corruption, pursuing predatory trade practices and major geo-economic projects meant to project Chinese influence further afield, seeking to stifle international criticism of its human rights abuses, practicing massive intellectual property theft, and striving for technological dominance in critical emerging fields, such as artificial intelligence. Recently, China’s confidence has been on display, with Xi stating in 2018 that “no one is in a position to dictate to the Chinese people,” after declaring in 2017 that China is ready to “take center stage in the world.”[4] Rather than becoming a responsible stakeholder in a U.S.-led system, China appears increasingly determined to compete with Washington for primacy in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. These more assertive policies have been made possible by China’s surprisingly rapid growth. Between 1990 and 2016, China’s constant-dollar gross domestic product increased roughly twelve-fold and its military spending grew ten-fold.[5] The People’s Liberation Army rapidly developed the tools — anti-ship missiles, quiet submarines, advanced fighter aircraft, and integrated air defenses — needed to contest American supremacy in the Western Pacific and give China greater ability to shape events in its region and beyond. Surging national wealth also led to an explosion of Chinese trade, lending, and investment abroad, which enabled far more ambitious geo-economic statecraft. All told, this expansion of Chinese national power is unprecedented in modern history. It has dramatically narrowed the gap between China and the United States and made it far more difficult for Washington to shape Beijing’s behavior. [quote id="1"] No strategy can survive the invalidation of its central premises: By the end of the Obama presidency, the responsible-stakeholder concept was living on borrowed time. The Trump administration drove the final stake through the concept in its 2017 National Security Strategy. The document slammed Beijing for attempting to “shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests” and declared the failure of China’s “integration into the post-war international order.”[6] In particular, China’s behavior increasingly threatens three enduring U.S. interests. First, the United States seeks to maintain a favorable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region and to deter a military conflict — over Taiwan, Korea, or maritime Asia — that could undermine the regional order and cost American or allied lives. Second, U.S. leaders have an interest in ensuring an open international economy conducive to American prosperity and competitiveness. Third, the United States seeks to preserve an international environment in which democracy, human rights, and the rule of law can flourish, and it seeks to strengthen — where possible — the prevalence of those practices abroad. As Chinese power has grown and Chinese behavior has become more assertive, U.S. policymakers have come to see all three of these interests as being imperiled. So far, however, the Trump administration’s efforts to protect these interests have been inconsistent. The administration levied tariffs on Chinese goods, attacked China’s “predatory economics,” announced a strategy to preserve a “free and open” Indo-Pacific region, and unveiled a national defense strategy focused on countering China.[7] But these moves were accompanied by a warm, sometimes fawning, personal relationship between President Donald Trump and Xi, by persistent hopes that Beijing would help deliver an agreement to denuclearize North Korea, and by speculation that the Trump administration might yet resolve its trade disputes with China through some sort of economic grand bargain. Meanwhile, the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership left the United States without a credible strategy for combating China’s regional economic influence, and separate trade disputes with Japan and South Korea rattled some of Washington’s key regional relationships. These conflicting actions feed the perception that Trump is an unreliable partner, not just for China but for allies as well. In short, the responsible-stakeholder strategy may be dead, but U.S. leaders have not settled on an alternative. In conversations with experts, we have found that most scholars and policymakers fall into one of four camps, based largely on assumptions about China’s intentions, regional reactions, and the sustainability of U.S. primacy. These four ideal-type options are outlined in Figure 1 below and assessed in the sections that follow.   Table 1: Four Possible China Strategies [table id=12 /]  

The Risks of Accommodation

Although the Trump administration has pushed the relationship toward greater competition, some experts believe that the United States and China should manage their differences by striking a “grand bargain.” Charles Glaser suggests that the United States should end its commitment to Taiwan in exchange for China peacefully resolving its maritime disputes and accepting a long-term U.S. military presence in the Indo-Pacific.[8] Lyle Goldstein argues that the two countries should work together to encourage the development of “cooperation spirals.” Chinese leaders, for their part, have touted “win-win” solutions and a new model of great-power relations.[9] The attraction of accommodation is obvious. If successful, it would avoid the costs associated with prolonged political, economic, military, technological, and ideological competition, and it would facilitate compromise on issues such as climate change, where joint U.S.-Chinese action is sorely needed. The logic of this approach is equally straightforward: If the United States has failed to shape Chinese behavior through a combination of engagement and hedging, then it should seek to defuse the emerging confrontation before the balance of power becomes even less favorable. Unfortunately, accommodation is a bad bet for several reasons. First, the United States cannot simply “make a deal” on many core issues since those issues have to do with the territory and interests of U.S. allies and partners. Washington does not itself claim the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, Scarborough Shoal, or Taiwan, so it cannot relinquish those claims. Entering negotiations with Beijing over the heads of leaders in Tokyo, Manila, and Taipei would undermine the U.S. network of alliances and partnerships. U.S. leaders would thus find it difficult to strike a grand bargain unless they are also willing to entertain withdrawing from the Indo-Pacific. Second, neither U.S. nor Chinese leaders can have much confidence that a bargain struck now would hold in the future. At times of flux in the international hierarchy, established powers often hesitate to conclude grand bargains because they fear that the rising power might simply seek to renegotiate the deal later, when the balance has shifted further in its favor. So even if the United States cut a deal that satisfied China in the short term, there is little guarantee that Beijing would remain satisfied if its influence continued to grow. In fact, accommodation could incentivize greater Chinese revisionism by signaling declining U.S. willingness to defend its interests or by giving Beijing control of valuable territory — such as Taiwan — that could serve as a springboard to future aggression.[10] Chinese leaders are also likely to be skeptical of a grand bargain given that the United States has walked away from major agreements signed in recent years — most notably the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord. Finally, perhaps because of the reasons listed previously, leaders in Washington and Beijing appear averse to a grand bargain. Although Trump vaguely floated the idea in the months after his election, and there remains the possibility of a broad economic deal to deescalate the bilateral trade war, his administration recently and publicly dismissed a broader strategy of accommodation aimed at a comprehensive settling of differences.[11] Future U.S. administrations are likely to do the same, given that both Republicans and Democrats have strongly criticized China’s security activities, economic practices, and human rights violations. Meanwhile, Xi Jinping has provided few indications that he is willing to make serious compromises in pursuit of a deal. Quite the opposite: His recent speeches on both foreign and domestic policy have been strident and confident.[12] Even if a grand bargain is theoretically possible, it is probably not in the cards.

The Dangers of Regime Change

If the quest for a comprehensive settlement of differences is likely to prove quixotic, so is another extreme option rooted in a sense of great urgency: bringing the competition to a head in hopes of conclusively resolving the China problem. If aggression and expansion are baked into China’s authoritarian system, and if China’s rulers can sustain high levels of economic growth and political stability long enough to make a serious bid for geopolitical dominance in the Indo-Pacific and beyond, there is potentially an argument for adopting drastic measures to avert this outcome. If a confrontation between Washington and Beijing is inevitable, this thinking goes, better to have that confrontation while it can still be won. To this end, U.S. officials could seek regime change in Beijing through covert action or all-out economic warfare. The United States could even provoke a military showdown in the hopes of crippling and perhaps destroying the Chinese Communist Party. Radical as it sounds, such now-or-never thinking has influenced U.S. policy debates before. During the late 1940s, an array of American strategists and informed observers argued that Washington should wage preventive war against the Soviet Union before Moscow acquired the bomb. The Truman administration rejected this option, but it pursued provocative policies of destabilization — such as fomenting violent resistance in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union — meant to weaken and perhaps cripple the Soviet empire before it became even more dangerous.[13] These policies largely failed, however, and the idea of forcing a showdown with China also suffers from fatal defects. [quote id="2"] First, although Beijing is sure to be a formidable competitor, it would have to become far more powerful — and aggressive — to constitute the sort of existential threat that would justify such an extreme response. And while China may grow stronger, its own internal vulnerabilities — a growing debt burden and accumulating economic challenges, an aging population and festering social instability, as well as simmering ethnic tensions — suggest that its continued ascent is not foreordained.[14] Forcing an all-out confrontation would be a strategy born of panic, not realism. Second, such an aggressive American strategy would almost certainly backfire. It is doubtful that the United States could overthrow the Chinese Communist Party short of major war — after all, U.S. sanctions have failed to topple far weaker governments — and efforts to do so might provoke Beijing to lash out. Even if the United States succeeded in deposing the party, there is no guarantee that a new government would be better. The collapse of Communist Party rule could lead to the rise of a radical nationalist military clique just as easily as it could the emergence of a stable democracy. Nor would the emergence of such a democracy necessarily solve America’s problems. Young democratic governments are often more warlike than their predecessors, and any successor regime would have good reason to be angry with the United States.[15] Provoking war with Beijing would risk even more cataclysmic effects: heavy American casualties and equipment losses, severe economic costs, cyber attacks against critical domestic infrastructure, and the potential for nuclear escalation.[16] Starting such a war would also rupture American alliances and levy intense global condemnation upon the United States. Even if America were to win a military conflict, any such victory would be Pyrrhic in the extreme, for it would jeopardize the very security and influence a more competitive strategy is meant to protect.

Collective Balancing

If U.S. leaders accept that China poses a formidable challenge without a decisive solution, they are left with two primary options: collective balancing and comprehensive pressure. Where these two strategies differ is in their approach to the changing balance of power. Comprehensive pressure seeks to reverse the ongoing power shift. Collective balancing accepts that shift as a fact of life — and does not attempt to significantly disrupt the economic relationship with China — but maintains that Beijing can be deterred by a coalition of like-minded states. China has already surpassed the United States in GDP (adjusted for purchasing power parity), but advocates of collective balancing assert that America still has the upper hand. After all, the United States retains treaty alliances with more than half of the world’s 20 largest economies and has close partnerships with many others. Talk of U.S.-China rivalry therefore misses the larger point: The competition is not between China and the United States but between a comparatively isolated China and a broad-based, U.S.-led coalition. Accordingly, the center of gravity for a strategy of collective balancing is the alignment decisions of states in the Indo-Pacific region. If Indo-Pacific countries align with the United States in a firm balancing coalition, then Washington would have the political, economic, and military power to resist Chinese efforts to alter the status quo in destabilizing ways. And if China cannot dominate the Indo-Pacific, it would not be able to mount a serious hegemonic challenge to the United States. Beijing would not be able to dictate the terms of trade in the region in a way that gives it decisive economic advantages over the United States; it would not have the regional springboard necessary to project significant military power on a truly international scale. In other words, by keeping China constrained and off-balance within the Indo-Pacific, collective balancing prevents China from reshaping the world beyond the Indo-Pacific.[17] As the logic of collective balancing would predict, Beijing’s coercive actions already appear to be facilitating greater cooperation among some regional states, such as Japan, India, and Australia, while also causing those and other countries to seek closer security relationships with the United States. Time is therefore on America’s side, advocates of collective balancing argue, so long as the United States adequately supports and encourages the resistance that Chinese assertiveness provokes. And if the United States and its allies and partners hold the line and show that China cannot overturn the regional and international order, Beijing may eventually adopt more acceptable policies Collective balancing, then, would hinge on America’s ability to maintain a coalition of countries sufficient to deter or counteract Chinese revisionism. Doing so would require undertaking an array of enhanced measures to demonstrate that Washington can prevent Beijing from dominating the region politically, economically, and militarily, and to assure regional states that the United States will reliably back countries that stand up to Beijing. In practice, this would necessitate significant investments in new U.S. military capabilities to reverse the deteriorating regional balance of power. The United States would also support countries from Japan to Vietnam as they develop their own anti-access/area denial capabilities to keep China at bay. Washington would use military sales, training, exercises, and other tools to bolster countries confronting Chinese coercion. U.S. leaders would simultaneously intensify efforts to provide Indo-Pacific states with alternatives to deepening economic dependence on China by rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (or a similar replacement) and working with key allies and partners to offer loans and capital to vulnerable countries. Good first steps include the recently passed BUILD Act, which will substantially increase U.S. development financing in the Indo-Pacific, and the U.S.-Australia-Japan Trilateral Partnership for infrastructure development.[18] Collective balancing would also feature stronger efforts to delineate acceptable Chinese behavior from unacceptable activity, and to inflict harsher penalties on Beijing when lines are crossed. To date, many U.S. positions regarding China have been murky, such as Washington’s ambiguous approach to application of the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty.[19] China has often challenged these commitments using “gray zone” coercion — incremental expansion designed to probe when and where Washington is willing to stand by its commitments. Instances of the United States failing to help its friends beat back gray-zone coercion — such as the Scarborough Shoal incident in 2012 — have undermined perceptions of U.S. reliability in the region and discouraged allies and partners from taking a harder line toward Beijing.[20] Conversely, since President Barack Obama stated that the Senkaku Islands fell within Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty in 2014, Beijing has avoided a major confrontation.[21] [quote id="3"] Collective balancing thus requires closer cooperation with allies and partners to determine and demonstrate the extent of U.S. commitments. Lingering questions about U.S. alliance guarantees — namely, whether the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty covers the islands and reefs that Manila controls in the South China Sea — would be clarified, with the understanding that the risk of giving America’s friends license to engage in irresponsible behavior is dramatically outweighed by the danger that unchecked Chinese salami-slicing would hollow out America’s alliances on the installment plan. Any Chinese efforts to acquire control of new or disputed territory, or to restrict freedom of navigation or overflight, would need to be met with a forceful response. Diplomatic or economic costs would also have to be imposed for other destabilizing actions, such as deploying additional military capabilities to man-made Chinese islands or declaring an Air Defense Identification Zone covering the South China Sea. By showing that Washington is fully committed to sharper competition with China, advocates of collective balancing argue, this strategy would rally the region and ensure that Beijing faces a multilateral coalition it cannot overwhelm. Yet, a strategy of collective balancing has weaknesses. First, even a stronger American approach might not be sufficient to pull together a diverse region and prevent China from altering the status quo in significant ways. Close U.S. allies — namely South Korea and Japan — remain at odds due to historical animosities.[22] Similarly, despite their common interest in resisting Chinese aggrandizement, the other South China Sea claimants are more divided than they were five years ago. China has proven adept at splitting regional organizations, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, by bribing or bullying vulnerable states.[23] If China’s economic and military power grows, so will its ability to peel off weaker members of any balancing coalition. Rather than hanging together, regional states might end up hanging separately. Second, if China can sustain robust economic growth, even a multilateral balancing strategy may ultimately be untenable. Former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers predicts that China’s economy will be twice the size of America’s by 2050.[24] Well before that, China may attain sufficient military power to make U.S. (or U.S.-plus-allied) intervention in areas such as Taiwan prohibitively expensive.[25] If the balance continues to shift, problems of collective action would plague opponents of Chinese expansion, shrinking the number of regional states willing to stand up to Beijing. And if a changing balance of power makes the Chinese leadership more accepting of risk, even an impressive balancing coalition may not be sufficient to deter greater aggressiveness. Put simply, it may prove impossible to accept the ongoing U.S.-China power shift while still maintaining an acceptable regional balance. Third, key Trump administration policies have undermined America’s alliance edge. The alignment decisions of regional states would take center stage in a collective-balancing approach, and the wisdom of U.S. policies would be viewed through this lens. Yet, the administration’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership damaged U.S. relationships in the region, leaving many countries more dependent on and vulnerable to China. Trump’s application of tariffs on steel and aluminum for purported national security reasons has hurt many allies and partners. Finally, as the Trump administration’s first secretary of defense, James Mattis, suggested in his resignation letter, Trump does not appear to believe in “maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies.”[26] In all these ways, the administration has made it more difficult to execute a strategy of collective balancing.

Comprehensive Pressure

The limitations of collective balancing raise an obvious question: What if cooperation with allies and partners proves insufficient to check China’s momentum and preserve peace in the Indo-Pacific? After all, America has long sought to inhibit the malign expression of Chinese power but has had diminishing success as Beijing’s capabilities and ambitions have grown. The RAND Corporation reports that the military balance in the Western Pacific is rapidly nearing a series of “tipping points” at which America’s superiority and ability to deter Chinese aggression against Taiwan or even in the South China Sea might rapidly erode.[27] China also has extensive economic ties with all the countries of the Indo-Pacific, including every U.S. ally. If these trends continue, holding the line may prove impossible: The United States could find itself in the position of Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II before World War I, lamenting that his allies and partners were dropping away “like rotten pears.”[28] And because collective balancing deals only with the outward manifestations of Chinese power — as opposed to putting greater pressure on the underlying sources of that power — it takes a great deal of U.S. leverage off the table. Consequently, it might be necessary for the United States to take a sharper posture toward China by adopting a comprehensive pressure strategy reminiscent of Washington’s containment of Moscow during the Cold War. In some ways, a comprehensive pressure strategy would look a lot like collective balancing. It would include intensified military, diplomatic, and geo-economic initiatives meant to stymie China’s bid for primacy in the Indo-Pacific and perhaps beyond. In addition, comprehensive pressure would feature initiatives meant to give the United States greater strategic autonomy vis-à-vis China and to reduce Chinese power over time. At a minimum, the United States would disentangle itself from China in sectors where the existing level of economic interdependence threatens America’s ability to resist Chinese advances — for example, by ending the practice of sourcing critical components of U.S. military capabilities from Chinese companies.[29] At a maximum, comprehensive pressure might entail weakening China’s economy by imposing broad-based tariffs, excluding China from trade agreements, restricting allied trade with and investment in China, and undermining China’s role in global supply chains.[30] Comprehensive pressure could also feature efforts to politically and ideologically undermine the Chinese Communist Party. This could include sanctions against Chinese leaders involved in repression, stronger condemnation of Chinese human rights violations, and even attempts to undermine the legitimacy of the regime by releasing files on corruption by top party leaders and their families. It might also involve efforts “to introduce new information into relatively closed societies,” as a recent report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments suggests.[31] The goal would not be to overthrow the regime but, rather, to weaken China’s geopolitical potential by diverting its attention and resources to domestic challenges. A proposal with parallels to containment immediately meets with derision from some American critics (and Chinese spokespersons), who argue that the strategy reeks of “Cold War thinking.” Yet, there are real advantages to this approach. If the United States cannot effectively fight a prolonged war against China because — as a recent Defense Department report explains — the Pentagon relies on Chinese suppliers for “a number of critical energetic materials used in munitions and missiles,” then Sino-American economic integration has gone too far.[32] There is no question, moreover, that China’s economic and political strains constitute strategic vulnerabilities that the United States could exploit for competitive advantage, just as America used economic denial and ideological warfare to weaken the foundations of the Soviet empire during the Cold War. Although the Trump administration’s approach to China has been muddled, the administration has undertaken some initiatives consistent with a comprehensive pressure strategy. Most notably, the administration has attempted to address the glaring contradiction at the heart of America’s post-Cold War strategy toward China: the fact that the United States has long sought to contain China’s ability to challenge the American-led world order while simultaneously helping China build the economic and military wherewithal to mount such a challenge. In a stark change of approach, a faction within the administration has supported the president’s trade war with China not as a bargaining tactic but as a way of weakening China’s economy.[33] Furthermore, Vice President Mike Pence’s October 2018 speech on China, which indicted Beijing for an array of foreign and domestic misdeeds, seemed designed as a call to arms in the manner of Winston Churchill’s 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech or Harry Truman’s 1947 “Truman Doctrine” address. Likewise, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre to highlight the coercive nature of the Chinese Communist Party and proclaim American solidarity with Chinese citizens seeking greater political freedoms and human rights.[34] [quote id="4"] Yet, the Trump administration’s periodic embrace of tougher China policies has triggered three core criticisms. First, embracing comprehensive pressure means pushing U.S.-China relations into a new and potentially more dangerous phase. The United States would no longer be able to claim the moral high ground by saying that it does not oppose China’s emergence on the world stage. Instead, it might face accusations of being the more aggressive party in the dispute. This approach would certainly increase the difficulty of cooperation on issues such as climate change and management of future economic crises. Beijing, moreover, would probably not remain passive while the United States applied pressure. It might respond in ways that would further ratchet up tensions and raise the chances of outright conflict. Given that China’s long-term power trajectory is deeply uncertain in light of looming political, economic, and demographic challenges, prudence may counsel delaying such a decisive rupture in the relationship for as long as possible.[35] Second, although some U.S. allies — such as Japan — might quietly applaud the shift in U.S. policy, many others would hesitate to embrace such an approach. Most U.S. allies and partners would fear that Washington was forcing them to choose sides in a U.S.-China confrontation. They might well resist a strategy that requires them to significantly constrict their economic dealings with their largest trading partner, especially given their vulnerability to Chinese economic coercion and political meddling. If the United States goes too far, too fast, it might inadvertently damage relationships that will be critical to keeping China’s ambitions in check. Third, domestic politics in the United States may not be ready for comprehensive pressure. Hawkish rhetoric toward China is becoming ever more commonplace among U.S. officials and politicians, but the American technology and financial sectors (as well as U.S. universities) are still heavily invested in Beijing.[36] Opposition from allies and domestic critics might be overcome, of course. And if, as seems increasingly likely, China emerges in the coming decades as a global military challenger as threatening as the Soviet Union once was, then the United States will probably have to move to a more confrontational policy eventually. But doing so would require, at a bare minimum, concerted public education and diplomatic campaigns laying out the case for why such a stark shift in policy is merited. If the Trump administration pivots to comprehensive pressure without laying the groundwork at home and abroad, the result could be to weaken American competitiveness rather than to strengthen it.

Toward a Collective Pressure Strategy

Dealing with an increasingly confident, assertive China is arguably the most difficult geopolitical challenge America has faced in a generation. It will prove more difficult still if Washington cannot decide what it is ultimately trying to accomplish. We have outlined four strategies: accommodation, collective balancing, comprehensive pressure, and regime change. The extreme strategies of accommodation and regime change are overly risky and likely to fail, perhaps catastrophically. The middle two strategies, collective balancing and comprehensive pressure, are more promising, but each still involves significant challenges and risks. So how should America proceed? It bears repeating here that these strategies are ideal-types. They illustrate the range of options and clarify the logics and assumptions underpinning them. But they are not straightjackets, and a real-world strategy might end up occupying the space between certain options or even combing aspects of them. This is particularly likely because the real world is messy and the future is hard to foresee. Both collective balancing and comprehensive pressure rest on plausible logics, but they hold different assumptions about the sustainability of U.S. primacy. Informed experts hold diverse opinions on this topic, so we can only make informed guesses about which will ultimately be borne out by events. Political and diplomatic constraints complicate things further. Even if one believes, for example, that comprehensive pressure is the ideal strategy, it may not be possible to get the domestic and international buy-in necessary to make that strategy effective, at least in the short term. Strategic analysis requires clearly delineating options and the ideas behind them, but strategy must be implemented even when clarity is wanting. For these reasons, we favor a hybrid approach fusing elements of collective balancing and comprehensive pressure. This strategy, which we call collective pressure, would seek to build a coalition of allies and partners strong enough to deter or simply hold the line against Chinese revisionism until such a time as the Chinese Communist Party modifies its objectives or loses its grip on power. If China continues to challenge critical elements of that order, and if Chinese power continues to grow in dangerous ways, the United States would gradually intensify the pressure. It would lead the coalition in efforts to reduce China’s geopolitical, economic, and ideological influence; weaken its power potential; and exacerbate the strains under which Beijing operates. The first step in such a strategy would be a massive transparency campaign designed to publicize the Chinese Communist Party’s coercive activities, unfair economic practices, growing military capabilities, political repression, and human rights violations. A transparency campaign would aim to make clear that the United States remains a friend of the Chinese people but is concerned about the party’s covert, corrupt, and coercive behavior. Most importantly, such a campaign is essential to building both the international support necessary for effective balancing and the domestic support necessary for a stronger pressure campaign. [quote id="5"] The second step in a collective-pressure strategy would be a concerted effort to rally a broad, winning coalition in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. Changing the alignment decisions of regional states is difficult given relative power trends. It would, therefore, require a new U.S. approach. Simply highlighting Beijing’s malfeasance is not enough. Washington must provide an attractive and reliable alternative. To this end, the United States would clarify its alliance commitments, including to the Philippines; reenergize efforts to build greater regional military capability; rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership; and actively support efforts by regional states to defend their sovereignty. Rather than criticizing allies and partners, this approach would seek to attract and empower America’s friends. A third step — essential to accomplishing the second — would be to situate the United States itself to compete more effectively with China. Washington should refocus its military, particularly the U.S. Navy and Air Force, on preparing for potential contingencies with China. This includes making critical investments in long-range strike, undersea warfare, active and passive missile defenses, shore-based anti-ship missiles, and other capabilities that will be critical to defeating Beijing’s anti-access/area denial strategy and honoring U.S. security commitments in a crisis. Meanwhile, the United States would move to protect against Chinese intellectual property theft (or impose greater economic and diplomatic costs in response to such theft) and avoid defense industrial dependence on China. The U.S. government would also need to improve interagency processes to address cross-cutting challenges, such as China’s United Front activities and support for authoritarian governments abroad.[37] Finally, the United States would undertake a bipartisan public education campaign about the need to take the China challenge seriously by reinvesting in American education and innovation. As with the other options, a hybrid strategy of this sort carries risks. Even a modest shift toward comprehensive pressure would raise bilateral tensions and force difficult discussions with some international partners and domestic stakeholders. And because this strategy is still rooted in collective balancing, it carries some of the risk inherent in that approach, especially the possibility that Washington will find it impossible to build a coalition sufficient to deter Chinese revisionism. A hybrid strategy, critics could claim, would be akin to leaping halfway across a chasm. Yet, a strategy of collective pressure also addresses some of the weakness in each of the ideal-type approaches it combines. Although collective pressure assumes that the Chinese Communist Party is unlikely to become a responsible stakeholder, it leaves the door open for Beijing to adopt more cooperative approaches, or for dynamics within China to bring about a mellowing of its external behavior. Moreover, this strategy would still be rooted in America’s greatest asymmetric advantage — its global network of allies and partners — but does not rely on them entirely. It also has the benefit of gradually making American officials — and American society — accustomed to a harder-edged strategy, rather than asking them to make that shift suddenly. Implementation of collective pressure would be metered by how far and how fast critical domestic and international audiences can be persuaded to go. Ultimately, if Beijing grows significantly more accepting of risk and its power markedly increases, then collective pressure leaves the door open for a toughening of China policy — and prepares the ground for doing so. A hybrid approach is thus appealing because it offers greater competitive pressure than a pure strategy of collective balancing can provide, while avoiding the most escalatory, diplomatically counterproductive, and politically divisive elements of comprehensive pressure. Reasonable observers can disagree about where to strike the balance between collective balancing and comprehensive pressure. They may even prefer altogether different strategies. What is essential now is that this debate be more structured and rigorous than it has been to date. Competition itself is not a strategy. Advocates of any strategy should make clear what they aim to achieve, how they intend to do it, and what the accompanying risks are. We believe a collective-pressure strategy offers the best way forward. But regardless of the approach advocated, it is past time to stop circling the China problem and start a more analytically rigorous debate over what to do about it.   Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, and a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. His most recent books are American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump and The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order (co-authored with Charles Edel).   Zack Cooper is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, an associate at Armitage International, and an adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown University. He is writing a book on strategic competition that explains how militaries adapt during periods of rise and decline.   Image: [post_title] => After the Responsible Stakeholder, What? Debating America’s China Strategy [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => after-the-responsible-stakeholder-what-debating-americas-china-strategy-2 [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-05-24 11:40:50 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-05-24 15:40:50 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw [lead] => Now that the responsible stakeholder approach to China is essentially defunct, how should America respond? There are four options — accommodation, collective balancing, comprehensive pressure, and regime change. [pubinfo] => [issue] => Vol 2, Iss 2 [quotes] => Array ( [0] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Rather than becoming a responsible stakeholder in a U.S.-led system, China appears increasingly determined to compete with Washington for primacy in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. ) [1] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => Forcing an all-out confrontation would be a strategy born of panic, not realism. ) [2] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Collective balancing, then, would hinge on America’s ability to maintain a coalition of countries sufficient to deter or counteract Chinese revisionism. ) [3] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => Consequently, it might be necessary for the United States to take a sharper posture toward China, by adopting a comprehensive pressure strategy reminiscent of Washington’s containment of Moscow during the Cold War. ) [4] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Although collective pressure assumes that the Chinese Communist Party is unlikely to become a responsible stakeholder, it leaves the door open for Beijing to adopt more cooperative approaches, or for dynamics within China to bring about a mellowing of its external behavior. ) ) [style] => strategist [type] => Strategist [style_label] => The Strategist [download] => Array ( [title] => PDF Download [file] => 1466 ) [authors] => Array ( [0] => 9 [1] => 113 ) [endnotes] => Array ( [title] => Endnotes [endnotes] => [1] Robert Zoellick, “Whither China? From Membership to Responsibility,” Remarks to the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, Sept. 21, 2005, [2] The logic of post-Cold War strategy toward China is discussed in Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner, “The China Reckoning: How Beijing Defied American Expectations,” Foreign Affairs 97, no. 2 (March/April 2018),; Hal Brands, “The Chinese Century?” National Interest no. 154 (March/April 2018), [3] On Chinese assertiveness, see Nien-Chung Chang Liao, “The Sources of China’s Assertiveness: The System, Domestic Politics or Leadership Preferences?” International Affairs 92, no. 4 (July 2016): 817–33, [4] Quotes from Gordon Watts, “President Xi Warns ‘No One Will Dictate to Chinese People,’” Asia Times, Dec. 18, 2018,; “Xi Jinping: ‘Time for China to Take Centre Stage,’”, Oct. 18, 2017, See also Elizabeth Economy, The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018); China Military Power: Modernizing a Force to Fight and Win (Washington, DC: Defense Intelligence Agency, 2019); Aaron L. Friedberg, The Authoritarian Challenge: China, Russia, and the Threat to the Liberal International Order (Washington, DC: Sasakawa Peace Foundation, 2017), [5] The figures can be found at World Bank, “GDP (constant 2010 US$),”; and Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Military Expenditure Database,, both accessed January 2019. [6] National Security Strategy of the United States, December 2017, [7] “Advancing a Free and Open Indo-Pacific Region,” U.S. Department of State, Nov. 18, 2018,; “Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America,” U.S. Department of Defense, January 2018, [8] Charles L. Glaser, “A U.S.-China Grand Bargain? The Hard Choice between Military Competition and Accommodation,” International Security 39, no. 4 (Spring 2015): 49–90, [9] Lyle Goldstein, Meeting China Halfway: How to Defuse the Emerging US-China Rivalry (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2015). [10] See, on the general logic of this assertion, Robert Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 194. [11] Josh Rogin, “Pence: It’s Up to China to Avoid a Cold War,” Washington Post, Nov. 13, 2018, Also see Ely Ratner, “There Is No Grand Bargain With China,” Foreign Affairs, Nov. 27, 2018, [12] Chris Buckley and Steven Lee Myers, “4 Takeaways from Xi Jinping’s Speech Defending Communist Party Control,” New York Times, Dec. 18, 2018, [13] See Marc Trachtenberg, “A ‘Wasting Asset’: American Strategy and the Shifting Nuclear Balance, 1949–1954,” International Security 13, no. 3 (Winter 1988/89): 5–49, [14] For example, Nicholas Eberstadt, China’s Demographic Outlook to 2040 and Its Implications (Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute, 2019), [15] Edward D. Mansfield and Jack Snyder, “Democratization and the Danger of War,” International Security 20, no. 1 (Summer 1995): 5–38, [16] Providing for the Common Defense: The Assessment and Recommendations of the National Defense Strategy Commission (Washington, DC: U.S. Institute of Peace, 2018), [17] This interpretation of the relationship between regional hegemony and global primacy follows John Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: Norton, 2014). [18] On the importance of the BUILD (Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development) Act and reforming U.S. development finance efforts, see Daniel Kliman, “To Compete with China, Get the New U.S. Development Finance Corporation Right,” Center for a New American Security, Feb. 6, 2019, [19] Gregory Poling and Eric Sayers, “Time to Make Good on the U.S.-Philippine Alliance,” War on the Rocks, Jan. 21, 2019, [20] Ashley Townshend, “Duterte Deal with China over Scarborough Shoal exposes US failure,” CNN, Oct. 31, 2016, [21] Zack Cooper, “Flashpoint East China Sea: Potential Shocks,” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, Center for Strategic and International Studies, April 27, 2018, [22] “Japanese PM Abe’s Adviser Says China Could Gain, US Lose from Japan-South Korea Feuds,” Straits Times, Jan. 24, 2019, [23] Brahma Chellaney, “Divided Asean Spins Its Wheels as Great Powers Become Back-Seat Drivers in Southeast Asia,” South China Morning Post, Aug. 19, 2018, [24] Lawrence H. Summers, “Can Anything Hold Back China’s Economy?” Washington Post, Dec. 3, 2018, [25] Eric Heginbotham et al., The U.S.–China Military Scorecard: Forces, Geography, and the Evolving Balance of Power 1996–2017 (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corp., 2015), [26] James Mattis, “Resignation Letter as Secretary of Defense,” Defense Department, Dec. 20, 2018, [27] Heginbotham et al., U.S.-China Military Scorecard. [28] Trachtenberg, “Wasting Asset,” 41. [29] See Derek Scissors and Daniel Blumenthal, “China Is a Dangerous Rival, and America Should Treat It Like One,” New York Times, Jan. 14, 2019,; Assessing and Strengthening the Manufacturing and Defense Industrial Base and Supply Chain Resiliency of the United States, Department of Defense, September 2018, DEFENSE-INDUSTRIAL-BASE-AND-SUPPLY-CHAIN-RESILIENCY.PDF. [30] For consideration of the range of options, see Aaron Friedberg, “A New U.S. Economic Strategy toward China?” Washington Quarterly 40, no. 4 (Winter 2018): 97–114, [31] Thomas Mahnken, Ross Babbage, and Toshi Yoshihara, Countering Comprehensive Coercion: Competitive Strategies Against Authoritarian Political Warfare (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2018), 6061; Hal Brands and Toshi Yoshihara, “Waging Political Warfare,” National Interest no. 159 (January/February 2019). [32] Assessing and Strengthening the Manufacturing and Defense Industrial Base and Supply Chain Resiliency of the United States, Defense Department. [33] David Chance and Roberta Rampton, “‘Death by China’ Economist Ascendant as Trump Pushes Tariffs, Hits China,” Reuters, March 8, 2018, [34] Brendan Cole, “Mike Pompeo Tells China to Own Up to How Many It Killed in Tiananmen Massacre,” Newsweek, June 4, 2018, [35] Daniel Blumenthal, “The Unpredictable Rise of China,” Atlantic, Feb. 3, 2019, [36] Zack Cooper and Annie Kowalewski, “The New Washington Consensus, ” Asan Forum, Dec. 21, 2018, [37] Alexander Bowe, “China’s Overseas United Front Work,” U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Aug. 24, 2018, Overseas United Front Work - Background and Implications for US_final_0.pdf. ) [contents] => Array ( [title] => [contents] => ) ) [9] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 1298 [post_author] => 264 [post_date] => 2019-02-02 05:00:38 [post_date_gmt] => 2019-02-02 10:00:38 [post_content] => Public policy is traditionally thought of as the work of governments, however, private actors — including universities, health care providers, and a range of other private infrastructure operators — have long played important roles in shaping both society and national security. And while these institutions have typically operated under regulatory frameworks that set basic operating standards and compel information sharing with governments, they also make important choices on their own that affect millions of lives. Now, tech companies are counted alongside these institutions, but with a scope that is far wider — spanning the globe and crossing innumerable governmental jurisdictions — even if it is effectively virtual and doesn’t involve driving specific healthcare decisions or determining security at a particular power plant. Such dynamics raise important questions both for how governments should interact with tech companies to set behavioral guidelines as well as for the companies themselves, which will inevitably determine how to manage social challenges outside of a strict regulatory framework. One of the most important of these policy areas is counter-terrorism. Private actors have long taken part in counter-terrorism efforts: Banks, critical infrastructure operators, and airlines are important elements in societal efforts to protect against terrorism. But terrorist use of the Internet has brought an entirely new class of private actors to the forefront of the fight. Social media companies, both individually and in concert with one another, have developed robust operations to prevent terrorists from abusing their platforms. Like all counter-terrorism programs, these efforts are imperfect, but they represent a significant new component of the societal response to terrorist violence. As the head of Facebook’s effort to counter abuse by terrorists and hate organizations, I have a unique vantage point on the intersection of social media and counter-terrorism, and the following essay, though it does not argue for Facebook’s position on any particular issue, certainly reflects my experience at the company. For the most part, tech companies have voluntarily initiated their counter-terrorism efforts. Nonetheless, there is an ongoing debate about what governments should require of private companies when it comes to matters of counter-terrorism. But focusing on regulation as the primary mode through which society can address terrorist activity online is misplaced. Indeed, the singular focus on government as the only actor in counter-terrorism operations online is outdated. Many tech companies actively counter terrorists online — and the effects of that work are almost certainly broader and more important to overall online counter-terrorism efforts than anything required by government regulation. The question of whether or not governments should require tech companies to conduct counter-terrorism operations is, of course, politically important. However, the voluntary efforts made by these companies are likely to have a far greater impact on addressing the problem of terrorist exploitation of the Internet. For example, in the first nine months of 2018, Facebook removed 14.3 million pieces of content related to the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and their affiliates, only 41,000 of which were flagged by external sources, primarily regular users. The overwhelming majority of the content removed came as a result of Facebook’s voluntary internal efforts. Regardless of the future regulatory environment, these efforts are likely to remain critical. This is why the most important counter-terrorism questions involving Internet technology companies are what the scope of those voluntary activities should be and the best ways to implement them. [quote id="1"] Despite the importance of company actions, counter-terrorism experts tend to focus their recommendations narrowly to government actors rather than addressing tech companies directly. One reason for this is that very few counter-terrorism policy professionals have experience working in social media companies, whereas many of them have experience working in government. These individuals therefore have relevant domain expertise about violent groups and about how government counter-terrorism efforts function, but they have little knowledge about corporate policymaking processes, the backend of web technology, or operating at the scale of today’s social media companies. Companies, for their part, have been too slow to disclose information about their counter-terrorism efforts, which is crucial to closing the knowledge gap and enabling the counter-terrorism policy community to offer more useful guidance. The failure of tech companies to be more transparent about their ongoing efforts also reinforces the outdated belief among counter-terrorism policy experts that they are not taking any action or simply do not care about the problem. The counter-terrorism policy community has been understandably slow to recognize the shift within tech companies to more aggressively address terrorist content online, in part, because these companies were late to address the threat. During that period of prevarication, counter-terrorism policy experts urged companies to do more and, in many cases, urged governments to force companies to do more. But in the wake of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) aggressive exploitation of the Internet, many companies began to tackle the problem, and thus the important questions facing the counter-terrorism policy community have shifted. Rather than continuing to simply call for companies to do more, it’s important for the counter-terrorism policy community to speak directly to the policymakers inside companies to inform and influence how they approach counter-terrorism. Leaders at all levels inside tech companies are making critical decisions about how to define, identify, and take action against terrorist actors. These decisions have tremendous reach and, in many cases, are without precedent. Counter-terrorism policy experts should tailor analysis and recommendations to these decision-makers within tech companies and to the challenges they face. In order to do that, policy experts and policymakers need a shared lexicon for understanding the ways that terrorists use the Internet and how that manifests on different types of digital platforms. They also need a shared understanding of the scope of the policy questions faced by tech companies and the tradeoffs inherent in those policy choices. This essay endeavors to provide both, with the hope that the framework will help policymakers in technology companies, improve interactions between tech companies and the traditional national security community, and inform government policymakers considering how to structure a productive regulatory framework. This essay does not argue that certain solutions are better across the board than others, but it does highlight key questions, illustrate tradeoffs, and encourage the counter-terrorism policy community to address some of the specific questions faced by people working on counter-terrorism inside social media companies.

The Problem: How Do Terrorists Use the Internet?

While it is tempting to think of terrorists as using the Internet as if it were a monolithic entity, such thinking is counterproductive. The reality is that terrorists use a wide range of different digital platforms for different purposes. Analysts know this, of course, and should lean into this granularity to drive a much more nuanced conversation about the threat posed by specific online behavior on particular platforms, and the techniques companies can employ to manage it. The following is both a typology for thinking about terrorist use of the Internet and a lexicon for breaking down the activities terrorists engage in on various types of technology platforms. Terrorist Functions Online Generally speaking, terrorists use the Internet in much the same way as other people: They send messages, coordinate with people, and share images and videos. The typology below attempts to describe terrorist behavior online in terms of the generic functions the underlying technology facilitates. So, instead of “attack planning” or “propaganda distribution,” the framework below uses terms like “content hosting” and “audience development.” Here’s why: Technology companies never build products to facilitate “attack planning,” but they do think about how to enable “secure communication.” To build a terminology bridge between the counter-terrorism and tech communities, we need language that speaks to how generic Internet functionality that is usually used for positive social purposes can be abused by bad actors.[1] Content Hosting Modern terrorist organizations produce a wide range of propaganda in the form of imagery, videos, and audio files. Prior to broadband Internet, this sort of material was distributed manually, either in the form of printed material or pressed into video tapes, cassettes, or DVDs. Since the advent of broadband, terrorist organizations have moved those repositories online, first via file-sharing sites where users could download media and, subsequently, via services that enable large-scale file-sharing and video-streaming. Groups like ISIL still use a variety of cloud services as media repositories and consistently use video-streaming services to distribute propaganda material. Others, like Hamas and the Atomwaffen Division, have their own websites. Not every Internet platform is well suited for hosting content. Video and audio streaming sites are used for this purpose, as are cloud-based file repositories. Some offer unique capabilities including the ability to livestream video from a phone or camera. Social media platforms that facilitate easy video and image hosting can also be used for this purpose. Audience Development Terrorists need an audience for all sorts of reasons: to directly engage the population they want to influence, to attract media attention in order to indirectly engage the population they want to influence, and to identify potential recruits. ISIL famously used Twitter for this purpose in 2014 and 2015 because the platform offered a vast audience for ISIL’s sophisticated propaganda and easy access to journalists who, in writing about that propaganda, served as inadvertent enablers. Terrorist groups think about audience development differently depending on their goals, their ideology, and their theory of victory. Although ISIL is ideologically rigid, it imagines itself as the vanguard of a vast populist movement, whereas ISIL's ideological cousin, al-Qaeda, is less ideologically stringent but conceives of its near-term audience more narrowly. These differences influence the groups' respective rhetoric but may also drive the type of digital platform each uses for developing its audience. Organizations like ISIL aim to recruit en masse, but smaller organizations looking to establish an elite core of actors may instead concentrate on audience development within a target population. Despite the glaring lack of studies comparing how terrorists use social media versus mass media, traditional mass media is likely still a critical method for conducting audience development. Nonetheless, new digital platforms are clearly useful to these groups. Brand Control Terrorism has famously been called “propaganda of the deed.” The desire of terrorist groups to control their political messages creates a need for well-branded information conduits that can be used to validate the initial distribution of propaganda. Thus, spokespeople, dedicated media production houses, and reliable information-distribution channels online are critical. Modern terrorist groups have used dedicated web forums (e.g., al-Hesbah), official web pages (e.g., Atomwaffen, Hamas, and Hezbollah), Twitter handles, and, most recently for ISIL, Telegram channels to help cue to their target audience that the materials being distributed there are authentic. Maintaining brand control requires consistency, which gives technology platforms a particularly important role to play in disrupting this effort among terrorist groups. Secure Communication Despite occasional “lone wolf” attacks, terrorist violence is usually conceived of, planned, and executed as part of a group. As such, secure communications between conspirators are paramount. The ubiquity of encrypted messaging tools has lowered the bar for communicating securely and thus prompted increased scrutiny of platforms that provide encrypted services. However, terrorists have long used a variety of techniques to ensure secure messaging on the Internet. Al-Qaeda famously employed “email dead drops,” in which users would share account log-in information and leave messages for one another as drafts, thereby avoiding scanning while messages were in transit. Obscurity is often a tool for security: It can be facilitated via fake accounts, multiple accounts, and secret web forums only accessible to invited members. Counter-terrorism professionals might breach these techniques, if they know where to look. Steganography, or the practice of leaving a hidden message in plain sight, is often overlooked. Such messaging might come in the form of using a pre-determined but innocuous code word to send a message or obliquely referencing some shared experience to authenticate oneself online. For example, consider senior al-Qaeda commander Atiyah abd al-Rahman's instruction in 2005 to the commander of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, on how to identify one another on Islamist chat forums: “I am ready to communicate via the Internet or any other means, so send me your men to ask for me on the chat forum of Ana al Muslim, or others. The password between us is that thing that you brought to me a long time ago from Herat.”[2] American officials ultimately captured Atiyah's letter to Zarqawi, but they likely did not know what Zarqawi's present to Atiyah had been and thus would be unable to determine which chat thread on a crowded forum was important. Community Maintenance Terrorist groups often rely on “in-group” social dynamics to reinforce antipathy to “out-group” members. As such, restricted spaces where propaganda can be shared, watched in unison, and discussed, are often critical. In the real world, terrorist groups use meetings, meals, religious sermons, and rallies to build this sort of in-group cohesion. Online, closed groups in messaging applications, restricted spaces on social media platforms, and branded online forums serve to separate in-group participants from outsiders. In some cases, community maintenance can be accomplished in more open digital environments using symbols and phrases that denote in-group membership. Making such public signs is much easier, however, after the basic in-group lexicon has been established in more closeted environments. These closed spaces also offer a way to reinforce and normalize an ideological worldview that endorses violence as a means to an end. This function may be particularly important for less institutionalized radical movements, such as white supremacists, as opposed to the more structured organizations jihadists tend to create. Such environments serve not only active terrorists, but also a circle of potential supporters who may some day serve as recruits. Dedicated salafi-jihadi and white supremacist web forums are often used for this purpose, but closed groups in social media platforms or messaging applications are also used. Financing Sustained terrorist campaigns cost money. Digital tools offer mechanisms for both fundraising and financial transfers. The core problem with electronic money transfers is security, which has driven many terrorists to use cash or to transfer money via criminal networks, in the form of illicit goods, or through traditional money-changing networks like hawalas. But some groups do use electronic transfers, either hoping to avoid scrutiny via obscurity or, in recent years, by using crypto-currencies. In the digital space, terrorist groups may use traditional financial senders such as Western Union, electronic transfers between banks and online payment systems (e.g., Paypal or Venmo), direct fundraising for charities, or person-to-person transfers using platforms like GoFundMe or Messenger Payments. Terrorists may also facilitate financial transfers online by sharing account numbers and digital passwords for more traditional exchanges. Information Collection and Curation Terrorist groups also use the Internet to collect information. Militants use online mapping tools to plan attacks, monitor news, and identify potential recruits. Various platforms can be used for these purposes, including social media, traditional media, search engines, and specialized tools for identifying critical infrastructure and other sensitive targets. All of these tools are used by everyday people to find grocery stores, old friends, and the quickest ways to get across town. What About the Platform? It is important to recognize that some online platforms are better suited for some of the functions listed above than others, which means that terrorists often use multiple platforms for their activity online. For example, in 2014, Twitter was widely used by ISIL for audience development and brand control, but because Twitter does not allow users to upload long videos or create content repositories, ISIL propagandists used YouTube,, or other platforms for content hosting. They would then post links to the content hosting site on their chosen audience-development platform. Likewise, a terrorist might use Facebook for audience development, but convince a target for recruitment to shift to Telegram to communicate securely if the recruit showed promise. There are broader ways to think about platform preferences as well. For example, community maintenance does not require a mainstream social platform because adherents are already interested in the group’s ideology and therefore are likely willing to adopt a new tool. But audience development requires utilizing platforms with an audience or active users already in place. Telegram, for example, has become a key tool for many terrorist organizations, but it is effectively only useful for brand control, community maintenance, and secure communication. It is not ideal for audience development or content hosting. [quote id="2"] The challenge for my platform, Facebook, is that a user can credibly perform all of these functions there. This is primarily a testament to Facebook's success at building a suite of tools that everyday users want to use. But it creates challenges because that suite of tools can be used in various nefarious ways by bad actors. Consider the following assets Facebook provides: no platform has a bigger user-set for audience development; it is easy to create specialized groups for community maintenance purposes; most (but not all) forms of media can be uploaded for content hosting; and persistent accounts can be used for brand control. Among other implications, this suite of functionality means Facebook needs a wide range of countermeasures to prevent misuse. Just as platforms vary in their utility for various functions, terrorist groups vary in the value they place on specific functions. Al-Qaeda has always conceptualized itself as a smaller, more elite organization than ISIL, thus it was slow to abandon the use of web forums that were well suited to community maintenance and brand control, even after the rise of social media networks. ISIL, by contrast, long aimed to build a broad social movement and encourage so-called lone wolf attacks. Compared to al-Qaeda, it historically risked its brand control as a result of focusing so heavily on audience development and content hosting, relying on platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. For example, ISIL has embraced unofficial media groups producing pro-Islamic State propaganda more so than al-Qaeda. Over time, ISIL came to understand the importance of brand control and has embraced Telegram as a core tool for achieving that goal. Policymakers, in both government and corporate settings, and the wider counter-terrorism policy research community must understand how terrorists use specific platforms in order to effectively prescribe countermeasures. For example, platforms used for content hosting should prioritize mechanisms to identify terrorist propaganda — various techniques for content matching are likely to prove useful. But these techniques will not be as important for platforms used to maintain a group’s community, communicate securely, and organize financing. For those platforms, identifying behavioral signals or information-sharing with partners may be more important. Platforms that support numerous functions will need to develop a variety of techniques. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem and the counter-terrorism policy community must not make the mistake of suggesting otherwise. Tech company decision-makers are well aware of the differences between platforms and, in a very different way, so too are the terrorist groups that use them.

Counter-Terrorism Questions for Technology Companies

Companies developing a counter-terrorism policy need to build a strategy that is adaptable enough to keep pace with changing dynamics in the real world and evolving technical realities. They must consider the tactical implications both to terrorists and to their far more numerous benign users. They also must consider how their choices will impact more traditional counter-terrorist actors, whether in government or nonprofits. The purpose of this section is to focus on some of the key challenges counter-terrorism policymakers at technology companies face. It is crucial for counter-terrorism policy experts to understand the variety of factors that shape how a company responds to terrorism on its platform. These factors vary widely, and include the following: Against this backdrop, online platforms must make a series of strategic policy choices and operational decisions for addressing terrorist activity online, with far-reaching policy impacts. The purpose of describing these issues is not to argue for any one particular solution. Rather, it is to illustrate how these choices may manifest for policymakers within tech companies so that the traditional counter-terrorism community can consider and, hopefully, better advise this new crop of policymakers emerging within tech companies. This list of questions, and potential solutions, is not intended to be comprehensive. However, it is illustrative of the key strategic and operational issues and potential solutions facing technology companies as they construct counter-terrorism strategies. Strategic Choices How to Determine Who Is a Terrorist? One of the most fundamental policy decisions technology companies face is how to determine who is a terrorist. There are several options, each with its own pros and cons. One option is to rely on international designation lists, such as those maintained by the United Nations or European Union. This approach allows companies to lean on institutions that theoretically reflect the global community’s collective wisdom and allows a technology company to avoid making decisions that may be perceived as political. The problem with this approach is that international organizations, and the lists they generate, in reality reflect a politicized consensus developed after much political wrangling. Moreover, the lists are updated very slowly, and often reflect a lowest-common-denominator approach. This generally means that such lists include the most prominent global terrorists but exclude militant groups that receive less global attention or are only relevant in specific locales. Companies that want to address a wider range of terrorists using their platforms might instead decide to rely on designation lists maintained by various governments around the world. This approach avoids the lowest-common-denominator issue and can align a company with legal authorities around the globe. The problem is that some government actors designate non-violent political groups as terrorists, so this approach may lead a company to censor groups based on a regime’s political agenda. A company may try to rely only on terrorism lists from specific governments, for example, from their home country or from other democratic states. But this approach forces companies to determine which countries are suitably democratic. In addition to risking that a government will block a particular service from operating in its jurisdiction, this approach would also mean that companies, not political institutions, would be making key decisions globally about which governments are legitimate. A final option is that companies can designate terrorist organizations themselves. This approach offers companies a mechanism to resist government pressure to crackdown on peaceful opposition groups, but it requires companies to do extensive analytical work, come up with a clear definition of terrorism, and assert a designation role traditionally reserved for governments. How to Structure Basic Content Standards? It may seem easy for a company to simply “prohibit terrorism” on their platform, but putting in place a robust policy is far more complex. Companies must, for example, determine whether to construct restrictions at a content, account, or user level, as well as what sort of engagement with terrorist content or groups is acceptable and what is not. Content-level restrictions proscribe support for terrorism within individual pieces of material online. “Content” differs by platform, but on Twitter it would be a tweet; on Facebook, a post, comment, or similar piece of user-generated information; and on YouTube, a single uploaded video. Even at the content level, companies must determine what sort of material violates their rules. One mechanism is simply to prohibit formal propaganda produced or explicitly designed to advance the message of a terrorist or terrorist group. This is a powerful approach against groups like ISIL that produce a high volume of branded formal propaganda, but it is less valuable to counter informal propaganda, which is common among a range of terrorists, including white supremacists and localized ISIL supporters in some areas of the world. However, targeting informal propaganda may create implementation challenges as this material is more difficult to identify. Removing content produced by terrorist organizations may seem straightforward, but companies must also determine how far to take that approach. For example, should they remove praise and support for terrorist groups, even if it seems to come from people without any official ties to the group or people who support a group’s political goals but not its violent tactics? Removing such support from social media will tend to produce more equity across organizations, including those with less formal support structures, but it also generates ambiguity. What exactly does “praise” mean? Does it apply even when the terrorist group is doing something seen as positive for a community — for example, providing disaster relief or negotiating a ceasefire? This approach may also implicate regular users in complex political situations who may express support for a group widely understood globally as a terrorist organization, like Hezbollah, that nonetheless maintains local political legitimacy. Companies must also determine whether to allow some content from terrorist groups on their platforms in specific circumstances. This might come in the form of political campaigning by groups like Hezbollah or the Milli Muslim League, or Sinn Fein during an earlier time period. Platforms may also choose to allow terrorist content when it is shared for purposes of counter-speech — pushing back against the narrative of terrorist groups — or by mainstream media or academics. Content clearly condemning terrorism, raising awareness about terrorism, or advancing the study of these groups has obvious social value, but allowing even this content carries risks. Adversarial terrorist groups may use such policy carve-outs to obfuscate their true intent when posting content, and terrorist supporters may still engage dangerously with content when it is shared by a legitimate actor for legitimate purposes. Moreover, any complexity in a policy regarding terrorist propaganda will slow enforcement decisions. [quote id="3"] Some companies may determine that it is inefficient or ineffective to simply prohibit terrorist content from being shared on their site. Rather, they deem it better to remove accounts that represent terrorist entities or that demonstrate support for terrorism. The most straightforward way to do this is simply to remove an account after a certain number of content violations. The benefit of this approach is simplicity. It also ensures the account is judged directly on its own online behavior. Some companies may want to assess accounts using a broader set of indicators to determine whether removal is warranted. This might include the account’s IP address, its engagement with other dangerous accounts, patterns of friending behavior, or other account-level metadata, as well as technical signs gathered with anti-spam techniques that indicate an account was created disingenuously or reflects a previously removed account. Importantly, metadata-based tools may work even when content is encrypted, making them potentially very valuable for encrypted platforms. The most aggressive approach to imposing content standards focuses on the user directly. This means that a real-world person is simply not allowed to use a platform, regardless of who they interact with or what they post. This approach is straightforward for notorious terrorists like Osama bin Laden but is more complicated when it comes to more obscure terrorists like, for example, members of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party. User-level restrictions also raise important practical questions. Should a prohibition extend only to leaders of a terrorist organization or to all members? How should those categories be defined and what is the evidentiary standard for determining whether someone falls into either category? Moreover, even in the best of circumstances, a company will not be able to create, or reasonably enforce, a comprehensive list of the world's terrorists. Despite this final problem, establishing stringent restrictions at the user level does offer a consistent standard for removing terrorist users on a given platform if the company becomes aware of them. How to Manage Government Content Removal Orders? Governments often report content to social media companies if they deem it illegal or unacceptable per the company’s terms of service. The differences between the two types of requests are important and result in very different kinds of referrals to a technology company. The former, if legitimate, is a legal order that carries the weight of law and usually comes from a judge. The latter is simply an administrative referral that may come from a communications regulator or Internet referral unit. Companies must determine how to respond to these referrals, with each approach carrying pros and cons. Legal Orders The simplest approach for social media companies is to abide by government declarations that the flagged content on their platform is illegal and remove it. This approach may appeal to smaller companies in particular that do not have the resources to make in-house judgments about potential terrorist content or a legal team to validate that an order is legally binding. The downside, however, is that it risks potentially allowing governments to censor unpopular political views online. It also raises the possibility of companies erroneously taking action on orders from entities that do not actually have the legal standing to order content removal. A company may also simply decide to ignore government legal orders. This approach limits, for example, the ability of authoritarian governments seeking to censor content, but raises the possibility of missing genuinely dangerous content on the platform. It also increases the risk that a government may sanction or block that platform, which obviously has important implications both for the business and for the ability of citizens to express themselves. This approach does not require extensive resources, however, which is a major advantage for companies with limited capacity. A middle-ground approach is to review all government referrals against the company's own terms of service, assuming they exist. This limits the risk of both facilitating government censorship and leaving up dangerous content, but it requires time and internal resources that may only be available to larger companies. It could also lead to the company opposing a government legal order, which may involve extensive litigation or result in the platform being blocked in that country. Tech companies may also try to apply a legitimacy standard to take into account human rights and adherence to rule-of-law in an effort to distinguish legitimate legal orders from illegitimate ones. In order to operationalize this approach, companies would likely have to evaluate orders at the country level — meaning orders from certain countries would be respected while orders from other countries would be ignored. They would also assess the legal validity of the order itself. This approach will inevitably create controversy when a company rejects certain legal orders while accepting others. Administrative Referrals Companies have similar options for responding to administrative referrals from governments, although the legal implications here are obviously different. As knowledge about terrorist use of the Internet has grown more prominent, both states and bodies like the European Union have developed specialized programs to identify terrorist content online and refer it to tech companies. Some companies may treat government referrals in the same way they do legal orders and remove the content in question immediately. This approach is valuable for small companies with limited capacity, but opens the door to extensive, and potentially politicized, government censorship because such administrative orders do not require legal review. Likewise, companies could decide to ignore government referrals entirely, either by refusing to accept such referrals or deciding not to act on such information. This would limit the ability of a government to use companies as a means of exercising censorship, but creates the genuine risk of missing dangerous content since governments — which maintain expertise on terrorism — are more likely than regular users to refer actual terrorist content to companies. [quote id="4"] A middle-ground approach would require reviewing government referrals against the company's own terms of service. This limits the risk of government censorship and of leaving up dangerous content, but it requires time and internal resources that, again, may only be available to larger companies. Companies may also decide to split the difference and abide by legal orders to remove content but review administrative referrals against their terms of service. These more nuanced approaches typically require more sophistication from the company, including legal, policy, and operations teams working in concert at a global level. This kind of coordination may be feasible for larger companies but is very difficult for smaller platforms. When a company receives a legal order or referral from a government, it must also determine whether removals should be applied only within the boundaries of that country or globally. Removing content globally will likely satisfy the government more fully and avoids the odd scenario of data accessibility varying by location or via a Virtual Private Network. But this approach effectively gives any country the ability to project its own legal framework onto other countries, which may result in content that is legal in many places being removed because of the dictates of more repressive systems. Only removing content locally prevents governments from imposing a global censorship regime based on local law. But this creates obvious workarounds through Virtual Private Networks or other techniques that will allow the proscribed content to still be accessed within the country demanding removal. Reviewing referrals against internal terms of service helps obviate this issue because if the content does violate a company's terms of service, it is reasonable to apply that decision globally. Operational Choices The policy choices discussed above are foundational, but good outcomes require more than just policy — that policy must be applied effectively. The operational counter-terrorism choices facing technology platforms vary dramatically. They depend on the nature of the product itself, how terrorists use the product, and the resources a company has to invest in countering the problem. And, as with many problems, it is not always clear that throwing more resources at combatting terrorist activities online will dramatically improve outcomes. The broader counter-terrorism community often fails to consider the operational tradeoffs facing companies developing online counter-terrorism programs. This problem is heightened by the techno-utopianism long touted by Silicon Valley, which has created the misconception that simple technical solutions exist for most problems. Unfortunately, that does not reflect reality. In truth, decision-makers inside tech companies must balance different counter-terrorism priorities and make bets on the utility of investing in various programs with uncertain outcomes. The operational issues facing tech companies can be broken down into four broad categories:
  1. How to find potential terrorist material?
  2. What to do when potential terrorist material is found?
  3. Should appeals be allowed and, if so, how should they work?
  4. Should counter-speech efforts be supported? If so, how?
At a high level, these questions may seem simple. In practice, they are more complex. The most important, over-arching operational challenge for tech companies is scale. Facebook took action on 14.3 million pieces of content related to ISIL or al-Qaeda in the first nine months of 2018, finding 99 percent of that content itself. Facebook’s policy team writes exacting rules and rigorous implementation guidelines for identifying and removing content but does not take part in most removals. Instead, machine-learning classifiers and a team of more than 15,000 reviewers — 200 of whom are specialists on terrorist groups and other dangerous organizations — take action on content. But achieving consistency and accuracy is challenging when these processes play out globally with all the complexities of culture, language, and political context, not to mention simple human error. Even if mistakes only occur in a small percentage of cases, the massive scale of the Internet means there will nevertheless still be a high number of errors. Likewise, sometimes seemingly obvious solutions do not pan out. Facebook, for example, allows users to report terrorist material they encounter, but this is a very inefficient way to find terrorist content. Only 41,000 of the 14.3 million pieces of content against which action was taken were the result of reports that originated outside Facebook. Though it might seem like Facebook should prioritize user reports of terrorist content, the reality is that these reports often simply point to content that users do not like rather than to actual terrorist content. Flagging content internally is a far more accurate and efficient way to identify terrorist content online. This creates what amounts to a customer-service problem: Facebook obviously wants to be responsive to the concerns of users, but focusing on external reports — from both users and governments — means focusing on the lowest scale, least precise methods of identifying terrorist content. How to Find Potential Terrorist Content? The best methods for identifying terrorist content largely depend on how a platform defines terrorism and the content that violates its standards, as well as how the platform itself is built. It is useful to think about detection methods as falling into two sub-categories: human approaches and automated approaches. Human approaches have the advantage of flexibility: People can adjust what they are looking for and quickly identify new behavioral patterns by terrorists. Automated techniques are valuable in that they scale to a global audience. However, they are not as nimble as human approaches and can potentially be circumvented by adaptive adversaries. Many of the bigger tech companies, Facebook included, utilize both human and automated techniques. Human Approaches As discussed above, referrals of terrorist content from governments and inter-governmental organizations can be fruitful. Relative to user reports, government referrals are generally precise — meaning they actually point to terrorist content — but they are low in volume. A company may use government reports to identify and remove terrorist content, and in doing so may mitigate external pressure from those governments, but this approach is extremely limited in scope. Moreover, government referrals almost always focus on content hosting, audience development, and brand maintenance functions. Governments may be aware of other activities conducted by terrorists online, but generally do not want to squander valuable intelligence sources or reveal the methods they use to identify such behavior. Tech companies may also work with external teams to identify terrorist content. For example, YouTube uses a “Trusted Flagger” program while Facebook contracts with a range of vendors to provide targeted referrals of terrorist content.[3] A company could decide to provide specialized tools or API access to facilitate the work of such partners. Like government referrals, referrals from these external teams tend to be high quality. Importantly, they can usually be produced in higher volume than government referrals. Nonetheless, these reports are still relatively small in scale and tend to focus solely on content hosting and audience development functions of terrorist groups. [quote id="5"] For many technology platforms, user reports are a critical way of maintaining a relationship with users concerned by material they see on the platform. These reports provide a method of redress that, at best, provides both useful information to the platform and gives the user a sense of ownership and responsibility. In the real world, counter-terrorism programs remind citizens, “If you see something, say something.” User reports reflect the same general instinct online. Moreover, users in the aggregate see far more content than either governments or external teams. The problem with user reports is twofold: First, users often report benign content or information they simply do not like. This means that the platform must invest significant resources to identify which reports are useful, a process that is costly, time-consuming, and may distract from higher-value efforts. Second, users must be motivated to report things. This is unlikely in closed spaces where terrorists conduct community maintenance or communicate securely because only individuals likely to support the terrorist cause will be present in such spaces. The human approach does not always rely on external information sources. Platforms can also use internal teams of specialists to identify terrorist content. These teams may have better technical tools than outside sources, which allows them to identify a wider range of terrorist behavior than the content hosting and audience development identified by governments, users, and external teams. Nevertheless, they cannot match the scale of user reports, let alone the scale of automated techniques described below. Given the limitations on how much content these internal experts can identify, platforms have to determine whether investing in these teams makes sense or whether employee time should be reserved for other tasks. Automated Approaches There are many automated methods that can be used to identify potential terrorist content, and all of them have costs and benefits. Some are only useful with certain types of content while others are unreliable unless used in conjunction with human reviewers. While such techniques are critical to a robust counter-terrorism effort online, they are not foolproof. Content matching is one of the simplest automated detection techniques available. This approach creates a “digital fingerprint” of known bad files, whether images, video, audio, or text. These digital fingerprints, known as “hashes,” manifest as unique strings of numbers, letters, and symbols that correspond to a given file. Those hashes can then be matched against hashes created when content is uploaded to a particular platform. Many hashing techniques allow a company to catch an image or video that has been altered, but these techniques do sometimes miss content that a human being would recognize as fundamentally the same. Content matching is particularly effective in countering terrorist groups that regularly release formal propaganda. The technique does have limitations, however: It requires creating hashes from content uploaded to a platform and will not work on content that has been encrypted. It also does not work for newly created content, whether live-streamed or otherwise produced in the real world and then uploaded. Content matching also requires making a range of policy choices, most notably setting thresholds for how similar a piece of content must be to another known piece of bad content to which it has been algorithmically matched in order for it to be removed or reviewed. Setting a lower threshold will capture more bad content but is more likely to result in false positives, while setting a higher threshold will result in fewer false positives but is more likely to miss some terrorist content. Optical recognition technology allows platforms to scan for logos, weapons, and other potentially worrisome indicators in an image or video — even if the overall image or video does not match a known digital fingerprint. This technique is more sophisticated than content matching and thus harder to deploy for small companies. Like content matching, optical recognition also generates confidence scores that rate the likelihood that something identified by the algorithm is, in fact, worrisome. However, this technology can only scan content that has been uploaded to a platform, requires extensive training data, and will not work on encrypted content. Many terrorist organizations use hashtags to identify their content or insert propaganda into mainstream conversations. ISIL, for example, often coordinates “raids” using hashtags on specific platforms. Platforms can identify these hashtags in various ways, for example, by monitoring terrorist communications where hashtags are discussed, by systematically identifying hashtags commonly associated with terrorist content and then using them to search for other content, or by identifying key themes and issues targeted by terrorist actors and searching for related hashtags. The benefit of hashtag tracking is that it allows quick tactical disruption of terrorist propaganda distribution. But hashtags are used on some platforms more than others and can easily be changed by terrorist organizations. Hashtag-based detection also requires strong coordination with a team of human experts to be sustainable. [quote id="6"] Text classification, another automated approach to flagging terrorist content, uses machine learning techniques to identify text that is similar to content already determined to support terrorists. Text classification can be very useful for detecting potential terrorist content, but because of nuances in language it may not be precise enough to reliably delete content without some human oversight. Such approaches also require a large corpus of training data, which may be difficult to acquire for smaller companies. All of the approaches above rely on assessments of content itself, which is only possible if it is not encrypted. But some platforms may be able to identify dangerous accounts based on account-level behavior, such as having relationships with suspect accounts, using worrisome IP addresses, using bots to auto-create accounts, or acting in conjunction with other accounts that have demonstrated similarly problematic behavior. Because platforms differ, these behavioral signs are likely to vary significantly by platform. One advantage of this behavioral approach to tracking and countering terrorist activity online is that it can be used on some encrypted platforms because it does not rely on content. But such an approach can generate high rates of both false positives and false negatives — and those rates cannot be verified in an encrypted setting. Most techniques to identify terrorist content are implemented by single companies on their own platform. However, some companies have begun sharing signals of potential terrorist content with one another. The most notable example is the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism's  hash-sharing database, which allows companies to benefit from their colleagues' work in other companies.[4] This is particularly important when terrorist groups use multiple platforms in coordination with one another. Such collaboration offers small companies a quick way to develop a relatively sophisticated counter-terrorism program, but it is not a panacea for the reasons described above. The most sophisticated efforts to identify terrorist content rely on machine learning that looks at a variety of signals to determine whether a piece of content supports terrorism. These techniques develop a confidence score indicating the likelihood that a piece of content supports terrorism. These tools are very powerful because they can holistically assess content. However, they require extensive training data as well as difficult policy decisions to set thresholds for taking action based on the confidence scores produced by the algorithm. These tools must also be carefully maintained to sustain accuracy, which means human beings continuing to train and retrain existing algorithms. In short, even the most sophisticated machine-learning techniques require continued human maintenance to work as intended. What to Do After Finding Potential Terrorist Content? In the real world, deciding how to take action on content depends on various factors, including the context under which it was uploaded and the confidence with which an algorithmic classifier suggests it supports terrorism. This paper does not capture all of that variation. It does, however, describe an assortment of actions that can be taken and discusses the variety of circumstances in which those actions might be used. Inherent to this discussion is the notion that terrorist content might be shared for legitimate reasons by academics, activists decrying extremism, or journalists. The notion that there are legitimate reasons to share terrorist propaganda significantly distinguishes this kind of content from other types of harmful content found online, most notably child pornography. Legal regimes proscribe sharing or possessing such content regardless of circumstance. As a practical matter, this means that reviewing terrorist material by a company often requires a more nuanced assessment of context than when it comes to child pornography, which can slow down the review process and increase the likelihood of human mistakes. This section is therefore broken into two parts: first, a discussion of the relative pros and cons of allowing human beings or automation to “decide” when to take action on a given piece of digital material; and, second, to assess those actions themselves. Human Beings and Automation Human beings assess context far better than computers, particularly when considering the linguistic breadth of the Internet and cultural specificities related to terrorism. Companies can hire people with specialized language and cultural skills, who can apply some level of judgment or cultural nuance in reviewing content. But human judgment carries costs as well. Many companies simply do not have the resources to hire large teams of human reviewers, and those that do must struggle to ensure that those teams apply policy consistently at scale. Moreover, human beings are fallible, they get tired, they have personal biases, and the work of reviewing the intense content that terrorist groups often produce can be exhausting and disturbing. Automation avoids many of these pitfalls: Computers do not get tired or make “mistakes” in the traditional sense. Algorithms, perhaps counterintuitively, also have some advantages for small companies because, once trained, they do not require the large human teams necessary for human review. But automated systems are only as good as the training data and labeling exercises used to program and maintain them. A poorly trained algorithm may have a systemic bias around certain types of content or certain organizations and, as a result, can produce false positives and false negatives, just as humans do. This carries real risk: Counter-speech campaigns sometimes purposefully emulate the visual style and language of terrorist propaganda, which might confuse some automated detection techniques, but not a human being. In other words, enabling an algorithm to remove content does not obviate the need to make difficult policy decisions. It just changes how those policy choices manifest. A policymaker must decide whether the computer should remove content when the confidence indicates a particular likelihood that it supports terrorism. Is a 95 percent likelihood the right threshold? How about 90 percent? Eighty percent? Fifty percent? Those decisions all lead to the inevitable result that benign content will be removed erroneously. The question is how many of those “false positives” are acceptable. Ultimately, people set these standards, not computers. What Actions Should Companies Take? In addition to determining who or what should make the final decision about a suspected account or piece of content, companies must also determine what action to take. The simplest choice is to remove the flagged content or account. Removal is also appealing because it constitutes a consistent and visible action against terrorist material. However, when it comes to account removals, companies must determine how many instances of content violation should trigger removal. Should it be one? What about false positives? That could lead to immediate account removal. Perhaps it should be two or three? Or five or 10? Should some violations be deemed more egregious than others, or is every instance of support for terrorism equal? If removal does not seem appropriate, platforms can instead limit the visibility of the content or account. This may be a useful tactic in situations when a human or algorithm is not completely confident that the material in question supports terrorism. Such limitations could even be employed on a temporary basis until a more definitive judgment can be made. Once again, these techniques, especially the more nuanced ones, will be much easier to implement for larger companies than smaller ones. [quote id="7"] The Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism maintains a database of more than 100,000 visually distinct images and 10,000 visually distinct videos that can be used by participant companies to identify dangerous material on their own platforms. But companies must decide whether to utilize this database. It may seem like a no-brainer, but smaller companies have to make difficult decisions about where to apply limited engineering resources. Even if they decide to focus on counter-terrorism, they may determine that other techniques will be more fruitful and so decide not to spend the resources to contribute to this hash-sharing database. Finally, companies must determine whether to refer a potentially dangerous account or piece of content to law enforcement. Not every violation of a company's terms of service deserves law enforcement attention and companies have obligations to protect user information, except in extenuating circumstances. So, companies must determine a standard for when to refer an account to law enforcement. Should they limit such referrals to accounts associated with specific groups? Should they have clear evidence of an imminent attack? What does “imminent” really mean? Should they refer individuals coordinating propaganda? Should they provide information about individuals when the only reasonable real-world action would have to come from the military rather than law enforcement? How certain should a company be that the account-holder in question poses an actual threat? Should Appeals Be Allowed? Even the best policies are still fallible because there will always be errors that result from both false positives and false negatives. A company must, therefore, decide whether and how to allow for redress by users. Appeals systems create policy questions of their own, however. How long should a user have to appeal? How difficult should it be to appeal? Should the user be able to introduce new evidence to an appeals process in order to justify that their intent in posting violating content was actually benign? Should the same review teams that made the potential error assess the appeal, or should companies establish an independent review body? These tricky questions are made harder because appeals of decisions involving terrorist content put a company in the uncomfortable position of potentially communicating directly with a terrorist group or their agents during the course of the appeal. Indeed, at the scale of the Internet, not only are erroneous removals inevitable, so too is the erroneous reinstatement of terrorist content and accounts after having been removed correctly. A company must decide whether the risk of inadvertently reinstating terrorist behavior is worth the value of giving the larger digital community the ability to seek redress. Should Companies Support Counter-speech Efforts? If So, How? Counter-speech programs have a long and complex history in counter-terrorism. Critics question their effectiveness and suggest that efforts to “counter violent extremism” are used as cover to monitor minority communities.[5] And yet, the promise of counter-speech efforts that proactively turn people away from radicalization is compelling. Many Internet companies were founded to empower and promote speech, thus counter-speech work has an obvious appeal compared to censorship. The challenge for technology platforms is twofold: Tech companies cannot communicate credibly directly against violent extremist organizations, and companies often have legal and political incentives not to favor one political ideology over another. Nevertheless, there are a range of options for supporting counter-speech efforts short of simply producing and distributing messages directly. The simplest approach is that companies can support civil society groups — students, non-governmental organizations, and activists — to develop their own campaigns against extremism. This might mean providing financial support but could also include providing training and resources as well. Offering advertising credits is a simple way to empower non-profits to expand their reach. Tech companies may also decide to introduce counter-speech to users when they engage with particularly worrisome content or concepts online. The Jigsaw Redirect program, for example, introduces counter-speech messages when users search for terms that suggest they are interested in extremist groups.[6] Finally, tech companies might also develop ad-targeting tactics for non-profits engaged in counter-speech efforts just as they would with a small business trying to reach new customers. The challenge in this case is determining which users are potentially at risk of radicalization, which could easily lead to bias.


This essay has developed a new typology for thinking about how terrorists use the Internet and has illustrated some of the strategic- and operational-level decisions that policymakers at technology companies face as they develop counter-terrorism programs. In doing so, it hopefully has established parameters that will help produce fruitful conversations between the traditional counter-terrorism policy community and a new crop of policymakers within technology companies. It is worth briefly pointing out some areas this essay has not addressed: This discussion has not, for example, wrestled with how companies should communicate with their users about counter-terrorism work, transparency more generally, the value of various metrics for measuring success, structures and dynamics for sharing information with academics and other researchers, or the utility (or lack thereof) of broader concepts like deterrence in digital counter-terrorism. This essay has only partially raised critical issues like encryption and the persistent tension between privacy and security. It does not wrestle with the specific challenges raised by a host of emerging technologies, including crypto-currencies, live-streaming, online video gaming, and virtual reality. It also sidesteps an issue that can be central for tech companies developing counter-terrorism programs: the perception that an aggressive program against non-state militant actors effectively benefits state actors. This is a key issue, but one that is outside the scope of this paper and has already been widely discussed in other venues. Regardless, the counter-terrorism policy community can and should productively weigh in on all of these issues. [quote id="8"] Indeed, the counter-terrorism research community should not accept the categorizations in this paper as fixed. They should be interrogated and improved on. That said, any critique must account for the tradeoffs inherent in choosing specific counter-terrorism approaches and the differences between technology platforms and the companies that run them. Failure to acknowledge, for example, that scanning content contains privacy tradeoffs, that growing review teams leads to management challenges and inconsistent enforcement, that small companies have vastly different capabilities than large ones, and that specific technical solutions are better suited for some platforms facing specific types of counter-terrorism challenges than others may produce satisfying rhetoric, but little else. Counter-terrorism policymaking online, like most policymaking, is about balancing tradeoffs. The counter-terrorism community must acknowledge those tradeoffs to productively influence real-world decision-making. The importance of having constructive discourse about digital threats cannot be overstated. The tech community was regrettably slow in taking counter-terrorism efforts seriously. But basing policy recommendations on that historical tardiness rather than on the contemporary challenge of how best to respond is worse than unhelpful — it is counterproductive. The largest technology platforms have made great strides countering terrorist content and, although they can still do better, have genuinely committed to addressing the problem. In order to improve, they need specific guidance from the counter-terrorism policy community on how to improve. Researchers simply demanding that tech companies “do more” is no longer helpful. It suggests limited practical knowledge about the issues and should be seen for what it is — a surface-level political argument rather than useful policy guidance. Of course, outdated policy analysis can also spill into counterproductive regulatory efforts. Regulatory policy that explicitly constrains or implicitly disincentivizes voluntary counter-terrorism efforts by tech companies — even if it compels some forms of productive engagement between companies and government — risks making the terrorism environment online worse, not better. Perhaps even more importantly, smaller technology platforms are carefully watching the engagement between larger platforms and the policy community. As large platforms push terrorists deeper into the shadows of the web, smaller platforms will be a more important part of the counter-terrorism effort. It should be everyone's goal to bring these platforms into the conversation, not scare them away. We must convince them that such engagement is productive rather than just an exercise in exposing a digital platform to criticism or penalty. Digital counter-terrorism efforts are daunting and therefore humbling. The scale of the challenge is massive, and every success is mitigated by adaptive adversaries working to circumvent new rules and enforcement efforts. Tech companies should have humility in the face of such a monumental challenge and reach out to the traditional policy and counter-terrorism community for advice and guidance. Policymakers and academics must have a sense of humility as well. Studies of terrorism online are hampered by incomplete data and usually only measure content-hosting and audience-development functions, which can mislead the public and policymakers about where companies should focus their efforts. To put it bluntly, researchers cannot reliably measure how much content terrorists post online because of the confounding effect of platform countermeasures. Researchers do not see what terrorists post. Rather, they see what is left after platform countermeasures are employed. For the major platforms, this is usually a small subset of what was posted originally, and it means that there is a fundamental bias in nearly all studies of terrorist content online. This bias was not nearly as severe in the years before platforms began to respond to ISIL’s broad exploitation of their platforms, but that situation has now changed. If counter-terrorism analysts fail to mention this dynamic in their research, they mislead themselves and their readership about what terrorists are doing online and what platforms are doing to counter terrorist activity. At the same time, companies need to be more transparent about their policies and their enforcement of those policies. Whenever possible, they should provide access to data that researchers cannot otherwise get a hold of. But researchers must recognize that such sharing creates privacy risks of its own and, in some cases, is directly restricted by existing privacy constraints on tech companies. Tech companies and researchers should also endeavor to utilize shared terminology and conceptual frameworks, such as the typology presented above. Digital counter-terrorism efforts will not and should not be driven primarily by governments, even in a more aggressive regulatory environment. Regulation may eventually set some baselines for these efforts but treating regulation as a panacea is a mistake. Indeed, regulatory efforts that compel companies to focus on narrow aspects of the problem may actually create more problems than they resolve. Regardless, companies will continue to be primary actors in the counter-terrorism effort. The operative question is not whether they should work to improve, it is how, precisely, they should go about doing so. Counter-terrorism researchers should recognize this, and tailor their recommendations not just to regulators working to set baselines, but to the corporate policymakers who want to do far more than the bare minimum.   Brian Fishman leads efforts against terrorist and hate organizations at Facebook. He is the author of The Master Plan: ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the Jihadi Strategy for Final Victory (Yale University Press, 2016), and is the former director of research at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. The views expressed in this paper are Mr. Fishman’s alone. [post_title] => Crossroads: Counter-terrorism and the Internet [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => crossroads-counter-terrorism-and-the-internet [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-05-24 11:47:14 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-05-24 15:47:14 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw [lead] => Brian Fishman, who leads the effort against terrorist and hate organizations at Facebook, argues that counter-terrorism researchers need to tailor their recommendations to the corporate policymakers inside tech companies who want to do far more than the bare minimum. [pubinfo] => [issue] => Vol 2, Iss 2 [quotes] => Array ( [0] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Counter-terrorism policy experts should tailor analysis and recommendations to these decision-makers within tech companies and to the challenges they face. ) [1] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => Policymakers, in both government and corporate settings, and the wider counter-terrorism policy research community must understand how terrorists use specific platforms in order to effectively prescribe countermeasures.  ) [2] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Removing content produced by terrorist organizations may seem straightforward, but companies must also determine how far to take that approach.  ) [3] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => When a company receives a legal order or referral from a government, it must also determine whether removals should be applied only within the boundaries of that country or globally.  ) [4] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => A company may use government reports to identify and remove terrorist content, and in doing so may mitigate external pressure from those governments, but this approach is extremely limited in scope.  ) [5] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => Most techniques to identify terrorist content are implemented by single companies on their own platform. However, some companies have begun sharing signals of potential terrorist content with one another.  ) [6] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => How certain should a company be that the account-holder in question poses an actual threat? ) [7] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => The tech community was regrettably slow in taking counter-terrorism efforts seriously. But basing policy recommendations on that historical tardiness rather than on the contemporary challenge of how best to respond is worse than unhelpful — it is counterproductive.  ) ) [style] => strategist [type] => Strategist [style_label] => The Strategist [download] => Array ( [title] => PDF Download [file] => 1469 ) [authors] => Array ( [0] => 264 ) [endnotes] => Array ( [title] => Endnotes [endnotes] => [1] For other frameworks, see: The Use of the Internet for Terrorist Purposes, (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime: New York, 2012),; Maura Conway, “Determining the Role of the Internet in Violent Extremism and Terrorism: Six Suggestions for Progressing Research,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 40, no. 1 (Spring 2017): 77–98, [2] “Atiyah’s Letter to Zarqawi,” Dec. 11, 2005 (10 Dhu al-Qida 1426), Combating Terrorism Center Harmony Program [3] For more information, see: “YouTube Trusted Flagger Program,” Help Center, YouTube, accessed March 10, 2019,; Monika Bickert and Brian Fishman, “Hard Questions: Are We Winning the War on Terrorism Online?,” Facebook Newsroom, Nov. 28, 2017, [4] For more information, see the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism website: [5] For a useful review of the various critiques of countering violent extremism programs, see: Robin Simcox “Can America’s Countering Violent Extremism Efforts Be Salvaged?,” War on the Rocks, Dec. 17, 2018, [6] For more information on the Jigsaw Redirect program, see, ) [contents] => Array ( [title] => [contents] => ) ) [10] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 780 [post_author] => 228 [post_date] => 2018-11-27 10:08:15 [post_date_gmt] => 2018-11-27 15:08:15 [post_content] =>


The fundamental problem facing U.S. national security — and indeed grand — strategy is clear: The United States seeks to extend deterrence to dozens of allies in parts of the world that are increasingly shadowed by Russia and China, each of which fields survivable nuclear arsenals and conventional forces that are more and more formidable in their respective regions. An increasingly powerful China seeks ascendancy in Asia and ultimately beyond, while Russia has recovered some of its military potency and aspires to upend or at least substantially revise the post-Cold War European settlement.[1] Both China and Russia have developed strategies and forces designed to enable them to attack or suborn U.S. allies or partners and make such an effort potentially worth the risks and costs. Their aspirations place them at odds — or at least in tension — with U.S. interests in defending its alliance architecture, and their increased capability to pursue these aspirations makes them more dangerous and the possibility of war with them more likely.[2] In the face of these challenges, Washington wants to deter and, if necessary, defeat attacks on its allies by Russia or China. The problem is that these alliances are, while of course important, still fundamentally secondary interests for the United States. Yet Washington wisely seeks to defend them from states that have the assured ability to conduct nuclear strikes on the American homeland, which, naturally, represents the profoundest type of peril to the nation’s ultimate primary interest: its survival as a functioning society. In light of the mutual vulnerability of the United States on the one hand and Russia and China on the other, the disincentives to large-scale use of nuclear weapons are of the gravest and most direct sort. No one could rationally seek general nuclear war, which would be tantamount to suicide. In this context, the influence of nuclear weapons derives from the perception of a willingness to risk their use at scale — in effect, to be more willing to court destruction. Coercive leverage derives from establishing a superior position about which state is more resolute in risking nuclear Armageddon.[3] But such a competition is not only about resolve in some pure or abstract sense, disconnected from events or acts. Rather, resolve is not an immutable value, but is shaped and formed by a host of factors, and thus is itself subject to manipulation. A state’s willingness to fight is, in other words, not simply a product of an unchanging judgment of the import of a given stake. It is also formed by assessments about the difficulty of and degree of risk assumed by fighting, the connection of the equity at issue to other interests, the perceived nature of the opponent as well as the scale and ambition of its aims, judgments of justice and legitimacy, and so forth. The more these sorts of interests are — or can be — implicated in a given contest, the more likely a state will be willing to risk, fight, and endure, even if the contest is initially or nominally focused on a relatively peripheral interest. The Union fought more resolutely than it otherwise might have against a South that had attacked Fort Sumter first, and the United States fought much more ferociously against a Japan that had launched a dastardly surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and conducted its ensuing aggression with notorious brutality. In particular, the more aggressive, brazen, illegitimate, unjust, or inherently menacing one state’s behavior seems, the more likely it is that it will generate the willingness of the other state to assume some additional risk of nuclear Armageddon. Put another way, the more capable a state is of attaining its aims through means that appear less escalatory, the less it will need to rely on its resolve to risk general devastation. Conversely, the less capable a state is of pursuing its aims through less escalatory measures, the more it will need to rely on its willingness to court mutual suicide. Thus, the ability to fight successfully without having to seriously escalate is a great source of advantage because it permits one to prevail even with a deficit of resolve. This is crucial for the United States. In a pure contest of resolve against Russia over Eastern Europe or against China over Taiwan — or even against Pyongyang over the Korean Peninsula — it is not clear that the United States would prevail. But Washington need not and should not permit such a pure contest to appear plausible. Indeed, for many years after the end of the Cold War, Washington enjoyed a situation in which resolve was largely immaterial to plausible contingencies touching on threats to U.S. allies. While Russia had survivable nuclear forces and China a modest strategic deterrent, neither had the conventional forces to mount serious assaults on U.S. allies that would enable them to push the onus of escalation onto the United States, and thus to create a more favorable contest of resolve.[4] China might have reminded the United States that it could destroy Los Angeles in the pursuit of subordinating Taipei, but such a threat was not coercively useful without the conventional forces to sustain a blockade or an invasion of Taiwan. Few imagined that China would leap immediately to destroying Los Angeles when such an act, by its manifest disproportion and unreasonableness, would very likely have triggered the most fearsome sort of retaliation.


The post-Cold War period, however, is over. The increased conventional military power of Russia and China, and China’s maturing nuclear deterrent, have changed the situation. Each is pursuing a variant of what is fundamentally a fait accompli strategy. In a situation of mutual vulnerability to large-scale nuclear attack, the fait accompli is the most attractive offensive strategy for a power that is weaker than its opponent, as China and Russia are relative to the United States and its allies. The fait accompli strategy works by moving or attacking in a way that forces the defender’s counterpunch to have to be so costly and risky as to seem not worth the benefit of reversing it. It is most insidious when the violence needed to succeed with the fait accompli is less grievous, making the very great response needed to eject the attacker seem not only too perilous but also unjust. As a consequence, in a nuclear world, advantage in the deadly competition in risk-taking between two states armed with survivable arsenals will thus accrue to the side that can take action and hold territory — and then push the onus of responding onto the other side in such a way that the sort of escalation required to remedy the situation is simply too costly and risky. [quote id="1"] In Europe, Russia’s conventional forces can now rapidly seize territory in places such as the Baltic states and eastern Poland, while Moscow’s large and variegated strategic and nuclear forces provide ample options for controlled strikes designed to “spook” NATO into terminating a war before the alliance could bring its greater strength to bear to reverse Russian gains.[5] In Asia, meanwhile, China is developing a conventional military that will be able to compete for — and could be able to establish — superiority over the United States and its allies in substantial areas of the Western Pacific, as well as a nuclear force that could increasingly be used in more limited, controlled ways to attempt to deter U.S. vertical or horizontal escalation.[6] The two cases are similar but differ in the greater Russian degree of reliance on nuclear weapons. The nub of the challenge from Russia lies in Moscow’s potential ability to transform its temporary and local conventional advantages with respect to the Baltic states and eastern Poland into permanent gains through the threat of a nuclear escalation that both sides fear but that, Moscow may reckon, the West would fear more. The challenge from China, meanwhile, appears likely to lie more in its potential ability to attain practical conventional superiority over the United States with respect to East Asia and to use its nuclear and strategic forces to dissuade Washington from meaningfully escalating, including to the nuclear level, in order to negate or reverse that superiority. Both, however, involve ways in which a potential U.S. adversary could use its military forces to create durable positions of advantage. Moscow or Beijing might plausibly calculate that such uses of military force would be exceptionally difficult and demanding to roll back or dislodge. This would shift the onus of escalation onto the United States and its allies and would allow for the use of nuclear and other strategic forces to deter the United States from taking the potentially escalatory and dramatic actions needed to achieve its more limited objectives, such as the restoration of an ally’s territorial integrity.


If U.S. grand strategy is to remain predicated on the defense of its allies, the United States needs to deal promptly and resolutely with this thorny set of problems. While Chinese and Russian provocations against U.S. interests have mostly been confined to the “gray zone” thus far, a perception that strategies such as these could advantageously be pursued may lead to more direct and clearer challenges, especially if the relevant regional military balances shift away from Washington and its allies.[7] Sub-conventional “salami-slicing” is an attractive strategy when one fears the consequences of pushing much harder or further. If Beijing or Moscow judges it can push more ambitiously or assertively without risking a plausible and sufficiently painful U.S. response, then it is likely to do so. If the United States is resolute and clear enough, however, gray-zone problems will remain manageable — that is, if the United States retains a military advantage with respect to its allies and established partners (such as Taiwan) vis-à-vis Russia and China. If it loses that advantage, gray-zone provocations are likely to transform into far more direct and menacing assertions of power by Moscow and Beijing. To prevent this, the United States should want a defense posture that demonstrates to potential opponents that such challenges would not succeed or, failing that, would be too costly to be worth the candle. Ideally, this would entail a U.S. ability directly to defeat outright any aggression against its allies or interests, as essentially was the case during the unipolar period that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. This standard may be difficult to achieve, however, given the dramatic growth of Chinese power and the more modest, but still significant, recovery of Russian military power, the proximity of plausible points of conflict to them and their distance from the United States, and the diffusion of U.S. military effort and focus across multiple theaters. It may be especially difficult to do so rapidly or without requiring significant forms of escalation that may seem a bridge too far for U.S. decision makers absent evidence of a much higher degree of Chinese or Russian malignity or ambition. The United States should therefore aim to field a military posture of conventional forces that makes attack against U.S. allies and territory at best futile and at minimum a necessarily very brazen, destructive, and aggressive act.[8] Compelling the adversary to conduct aggression in this way is far more likely to catalyze U.S. and allied resolve to pursue the kinds of military actions necessary to defeat such an assault, for instance through a much larger counteroffensive, including conventional strikes into an adversary’s territory. This conventional posture should be designed not only to achieve the important but limited aim of repelling an adversary’s attack and denying the fait accompli but also to shift onto the opponent the onus of more dramatic forms of escalation — above all to the nuclear level. That is, U.S. conventional military operations need to be ferocious enough to degrade a capable opponent’s ability to pursue and consummate its attack on U.S. allies, but they should also be framed and implemented in such a way as to compel the other side to have to face the choice of conceding or dramatically escalating. If China can take over Taiwan quickly, cleanly, and with relatively little damage, this is likely to make a large and ferocious U.S. counteroffensive seem disproportionate, thereby lessening the probability that it would happen and that other states would support it. Conversely, if Beijing can hope to conquer Taiwan only through a massive, bloody, and patently aggressive offensive — and might well fail at that — then the sorts of U.S. actions needed to help Taiwan are likely to seem much more reasonable and palatable, thereby increasing the likelihood that Washington would take such actions and that others would support those efforts.


This is primarily a challenge for U.S. and allied conventional forces. But U.S. (and allied) nuclear forces also play a central role. The U.S. nuclear arsenal should be designed to demonstrate to potential U.S. opponents — most importantly Russia and China — that dramatic forms of escalation against key U.S. interests, including but not exclusively nuclear escalation, would be too costly and risky to pursue and ultimately would be self-defeating. This involves demonstrating to potential foes that attempts to transgress core American interests, or to use nuclear weapons for military effect, or seeking to favorably manipulate the fear of escalation to Armageddon would not redound in their favor — and would ideally work against them. This should contribute both to deterring them from using nuclear weapons as a way to reverse a limited conventional defeat but also from crossing fundamental American and allied red lines short of employing nuclear weapons. This, of course, rules out the adoption by the United States of a “no first use” pledge, which would be especially inadvisable given the growth of Chinese conventional military power.[9] At the same time, however, U.S. nuclear strategy should seek to avoid unnecessarily or inadvertently triggering a large-scale nuclear war. That is, U.S. nuclear forces should both exercise significant and ideally decisive yet targeted coercive influence but avoid prompting escalation to broader strategic war. U.S. nuclear forces should deter (and, if pressed, coerce) while simultaneously promoting rather than detracting from a fundamental strategic stability — the understanding that U.S. actions are not intended to deny the other side a basic retaliatory capability.[10] Together, this means the United States should want a nuclear strategy, force, and posture focused on the ability and preparedness to use nuclear weapons in discriminate, tailored, and controlled ways. The logic of any such nuclear employment should focus on escalation advantage: to demonstrate Washington’s willingness to escalate to the nuclear level, and to continue escalating if grave provocations continue, but also its readiness to restrain further escalation and ultimately deescalate if the opponent is prepared to comply with reasonable demands. Accordingly, Washington should want a nuclear arsenal that can provide varying options for controlled, graduated forms of nuclear escalation in line with this basic logic that allow for different potential employment strategies (such as tit for tat or intensifying escalation), since the optimal targeting strategy is likely to vary based on the particular contingency. To be most coercively useful, such strikes should be designed to influence (or complement other efforts to influence) the sub-nuclear conflict in ways that shift the burden of escalation further onto the adversary and thus be advantageous to the United States. [quote id="2"] That is, the ideal nuclear employment strategy is one that not only demonstrates political will but also, along with U.S. and allied conventional efforts, affects the sub-strategic battle in ways that make an adversary’s counter- or further escalation less attractive. For instance, the United States would benefit from having nuclear options that could heavily damage a Chinese invasion flotilla designed to assault U.S. allies in the Western Pacific and that could exercise similar effects against Russian forces attacking or directly supporting an incursion into the Baltics.[11] Such capabilities would enable the United States not only to demonstrate its resolve to cross the nuclear threshold, but also markedly increase the degree of escalation the opponent would have to undertake to remedy the loss and continue the fundamentally offending action (such as the invasion of a U.S. ally in the Western Pacific or in Eastern Europe). This role would be especially important if the United States lacks plausible conventional options for exercising such an effect, especially without undertaking separate, dramatic forms of escalation (for instance by significantly expanding the scope of the battlefield or hitting new, especially sensitive classes of targets). The U.S. military fielded these types of capabilities during the Cold War but abandoned them in the post-Cold War era. This was defensible in an era of untrammeled U.S. conventional superiority; it is not in one in which the Russians and Chinese may have plausible theories of victory against U.S. allies and important partners. From a targeting perspective, this puts a premium on being able to strike at differing sorts of targets depending on the stage of escalation — to be able to strike effectively at what the opponent values but also to communicate at stages of escalation short of general war a meaningful degree of restraint. Accordingly, nuclear weapons that could significantly damage or impair such targets, but with lessened collateral damage, would be particularly attractive. Such weapons that would be especially useful in this context might include those with a lower yield, those that could be employed in ways that would create less radioactivity, and those that would travel on trajectories and from platforms that would be less likely to generate an opponent’s fear that they were part of or precursor to a general or attempted disarming attack. Furthermore, this nuclear strategy puts a high value on an exquisite, responsive, resilient, and supremely capable nuclear command, control, and communications (NC3) architecture.[12] At the same time, limited use would not substitute for the ability to conduct large-scale and general nuclear strikes. Rather, the effectiveness of discriminate options would in fact depend upon their connection to that possibility. Consequently, the United States would need to retain the capacity to destroy Russia and China’s most valued targets, including their industrial bases and national leadership in their protected redoubts. While attacks on leadership should, as a general principle, be withheld until the very last stages of escalation, it is crucial for the United States to be able to destroy an opponent no matter where he goes, especially at the end of a chain of deliberate escalation when an adversary has had the opportunity to hide and defend himself. Accordingly, the United States needs capabilities to assuredly — and, ideally, promptly and with reduced collateral damage — destroy even targets in hardened and deeply buried facilities. It is vital to underline that this is critical for retaliatory strikes — and thus for stability — and far less, actually, for more aggressive nuclear strategies, which can aspire to decapitating enemy leaderships before they have a chance to seek safety or concealment. Notably, this nuclear strategy does not emphasize or rely on the ability to attack an enemy’s strategic nuclear forces or command-and-control. While it does not exclude the potential value of having options to degrade an opponent’s strategic arsenal or command-and-control ability (for instance, to make an opponent’s counter-escalation options less attractive), it generally counsels restraint regarding pursuit of strategic counterforce capabilities, let alone their employment, particularly in light of the countering responses such pursuit is likely to engender. Communication with the adversary before and during a conflict is crucial to the effectiveness of such a strategy, since ultimately it is predicated on persuading — indeed, coercing — an adversary to agree to end a war on terms acceptable (and ideally favorable) to the United States without triggering escalation to a level of war beyond what anyone would want. Accordingly, Russia and China need to understand the logic of U.S. nuclear strategy. It is not about denying their retaliatory capability nor confined to large-scale options. Rather, it is about demonstrating to them in the most painful terms that the United States has the resolve and the ability to impose progressively greater — and ultimately the greatest — damage and risk on them if they transgress core American and allied interests, and that it has the capabilities to make such a strategy plausibly implementable on bases that will play to American, rather than their, advantages. U.S. declaratory policy should reflect this. Ambiguity about the precise conditions under which the United States would employ nuclear weapons and how it would do so are advisable for familiar reasons, but greater clarity about and emphasis on the options the United States possesses and will possess to pursue the strategy laid out here would be helpful. This may involve less changes in the wording of formal statements than shifts in how the United States exercises its forces, for instance, by building in contingencies involving deliberate escalation, and allowing the circulation of reports of such exercises.


The basic point is to make clear to Moscow and Beijing that Washington is prepared to respond to dramatic escalation on their part with plausibly implementable strategies of its own. This is especially important because the stakes over cognizable contingencies today are lower than they were during the Cold War (primarily because neither China nor Russia poses the kind of totalistic threat that many viewed the Soviet Union as representing). More apocalyptic strategies are more credible when defeat itself would seem apocalyptic, as it did to many during the Cold War. When limited defeat over peripheral interests would not appear to constitute such a catastrophe, more credible strategies are needed. The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review represented an important and commendable starting point in this direction, especially with its decision to develop a low-yield warhead for U.S. submarine-launched ballistic missiles, but the U.S. military will need to go further. [quote id="3"] The premise for all this is that limited nuclear war is possible. Crossing the nuclear threshold would be staggeringly dangerous, as things always might get completely out of control, leading to an apocalyptic exchange. But this is not the same as saying that such escalation to total war would necessarily happen. This is fundamentally for two reasons: because combatants under the nuclear shadow would always have the strongest possible incentive to avoid triggering the apocalypse, since doing so would almost certainly result in their own destruction, but, at the same time, advantage at the nuclear level (the highest imaginable) would be dominating. Thus the side willing and able to escalate to the nuclear level and come out ahead would have a commanding edge. Accordingly, even as the United States should seek to minimize the degree to which it relies on nuclear weapons in its defense strategy — for both strategic and moral reasons — its defense strategy must nonetheless reckon with the reality that limited nuclear war is possible and, unless anticipated and provided for, could well be an attractive and even rational course of action for opportunistic or motivated opponents. In closing, it is worth emphasizing what the logic of this strategy would be. The United States is wisely committed to sustaining its grand strategy of alliances in key regions of the world, a strategy that is most conducive to preserving an enduringly favorable balance of power and thus international order for Americans. This is a fundamentally conservative approach, one that seeks to defend what is established rather than transform the world or upend regional orders. This requires a defense strategy and posture that will deter a rising and increasingly assertive China and an alienated and more capable Russia. That, in turn, requires that Beijing and Moscow believe the United States might realistically put its strategy into effect despite the attendant risks and the relatively lower stakes compared with those at issue in the Cold War. In a situation of substantial mutual vulnerability over stakes that are important but not truly central to the United States, the best strategy to serve U.S. political ends is one focused on advantageously managing escalation in a way that seeks to keep or shift the burden of dramatic escalation onto Moscow or Beijing. This is highly suited to a strategy focused on defense rather than expansion or transformation, and thus is the best way to achieve the goal Hans Morgenthau set out for a wise foreign policy, that “the task of armed diplomacy [should be] to convince the nations concerned that their legitimate interests have nothing to fear from a restrictive and rational foreign policy and that their illegitimate interests have nothing to gain in the face of armed might rationally employed.”[13]   Elbridge Colby is director of the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security. He was deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development from 2017 to 2018.     Image: Ministry of Digital Development, Communications and Mass Media of the Russian Federation [post_title] => Against the Great Powers: Reflections on Balancing Nuclear and Conventional Power [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => against-the-great-powers-reflections-on-balancing-nuclear-and-conventional-power [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-04-10 13:36:54 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-04-10 17:36:54 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw [lead] => The toughest and most important challenge for U.S. defense strategy is how to defend vulnerable allies against a Chinese or Russian fait accompli strategy, particularly one backed by nuclear threats. Here's how the United States should think about how to defeat such a strategy, and what it means for America's conventional and nuclear forces. [pubinfo] => [issue] => Vol 2, Iss 1 [quotes] => Array ( [0] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => The increased conventional military power of Russia and China, and China’s maturing nuclear deterrent, have changed the situation. ) [1] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => Together, this means the United States should want a nuclear strategy, force, and posture focused on the ability and preparedness to use nuclear weapons in discriminate, tailored, and controlled ways. ) [2] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => The basic point is to make clear to Moscow and Beijing that Washington is prepared to respond to dramatic escalation on their part with plausibly implementable strategies of its own. ) ) [style] => strategist [type] => Strategist [style_label] => The Strategist [download] => Array ( [title] => PDF Download [file] => 1285 ) [authors] => Array ( [0] => 228 ) [endnotes] => Array ( [title] => Endnotes [endnotes] => [1] For China, see, "'China Seeks Hegemony': America's Pacific Commander Offers a Military Warning," Wall Street Journal, Feb. 24, 2016,; Ely Ratner, "Rising to the China Challenge: Prepared Statement Before the House Committee on Armed Services," Feb. 15, 2018,; for Russia, see, A. Wess Mitchell, "Remarks at the Atlantic Council," Oct. 18, 2018,; Christopher S. Chivvis, "Russia's Determination to Revise the Post-Cold War Order," RAND blog, Sept. 30, 2016, [2] National Security Strategy of the United States, December 2017,; “Summary of the National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge,” January 2018, [3] As classically laid out in Thomas C. Schelling’s Arms and Influence (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966) and The Strategy of Conflict (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960). [4] See RAND scorecard report on China, for instance: Eric Heginbotham et al., The U.S.-China Military Scorecard: Forces, Geography, and the Evolving Balance of Power, 1996–2017, (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2015), [5] Karl Mueller, David A. Shlapak, Michael W. Johnson, and David Ochmanek, “In Defense of a Wargame: Bolstering Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank,” War on the Rocks, June 14, 2016, ; Nuclear Posture Review (Defense Department, February 2018), [6] “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2018,” Department of Defense,; Robert O. Work, “So, This Is What It Feels Like to Be Offset,” Speech at Center for a New American Security, June 21, 2018, [7] Joseph L. Votel, Charles T. Cleveland, Charles T. Connett, and Will Irwin, “Unconventional Warfare in the Gray Zone,” Joint Force Quarterly, no. 80 (January 2016),; Hal Brands, “Paradoxes of the Gray Zone,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, Feb. 5, 2016, [8] Jonathan F. Solomon, “Demystifying Conventional Deterrence: Great-Power Conflict and East Asian Peace,” Strategic Studies Quarterly 7, no. 4 (Winter 2013): 117–57,; Elbridge Colby and Jonathan Solomon, “Facing Russia: Conventional Defence and Deterrence in Europe,” Survival 57, no. 6 (2015): 21–50,; Elbridge Colby and Jonathan F. Solomon, “Avoiding Becoming a Paper Tiger: Presence in a Warfighting Defense Strategy,” Joint Force Quarterly, no. 82 (July 2016), [9] Elbridge Colby, “Nuclear Weapons Aren’t Just for the Worst Case Scenario,” Foreign Policy, Aug. 4, 2016, [10] For more on views on strategic stability, see Elbridge A. Colby and Michael S. Gerson, eds., Strategic Stability: Contending Interpretations (Carlisle Barracks, PA: U.S. Army War College Press, 2013), [11] For a recent treatment of the problem of limited nuclear war and potential scenarios involving it, see John K. Warden, “Limited Nuclear War: The 21st Century Challenge for the United States,” Livermore Papers on Global Security no. 4 (July 2018), [12] “Nuclear Matters Handbook 2016,” Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear Matters, ch. 6, accessed Nov. 26, 2018, [13] Hans J. Morgenthau, “Another ‘Great Debate’: The National Interest of the United States,” American Political Science Review 46, no. 4 (December 1952): 978, ) [contents] => Array ( [title] => [contents] => ) ) [11] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 745 [post_author] => 222 [post_date] => 2018-11-26 04:30:15 [post_date_gmt] => 2018-11-26 09:30:15 [post_content] => The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty is remembered as one of President Ronald Reagan’s most important strategic accomplishments. By deploying land-based intermediate-range cruise and ballistic missiles to Europe, Reagan was able to get Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to the negotiating table and eliminate that class of nuclear weapons, thereby making America’s European allies more secure as well as boosting comparative U.S. advantages in air and sea domains. And while the INF Treaty deserves its hallowed place in American Cold War history, “history” is the key word. Today, the treaty forces strategic liabilities on the United States that are increasingly unacceptable — especially given the rise of Chinese military power.[1] These liabilities seem to be understood in the White House. President Donald Trump has said that he intends to withdraw the United States from the treaty, citing Russian violations of the agreement dating to 2014.[2] How and whether this would occur is still unclear, but, crucially, the president also expressed a willingness to remain committed to an INF-type treaty, if Russia agrees to return to compliance and China finally becomes a signatory.[3] National Security Adviser John Bolton has reportedly expressed a similar sentiment.[4] The White House arrived at this position after Congress and military leaders publicly voiced concerns about the treaty. In light of Russian violations of its treaty obligations and China’s growing asymmetric advantage in land-based missiles threatening U.S. interests in Asia, the latest National Defense Authorization Act requires the president to determine if the “prohibitions set forth in Article VI of the INF Treaty remain binding on the United States as a matter of United States law.”[5] In April 2018, the incoming commander of U.S. Pacific Command (what soon became U.S. Indo-Pacific Command) told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.”[6] A year earlier, his predecessor told the same committee that the INF Treaty, signed in 1987, was one of the primary reasons for Chinese dominance in the disputed waters.[7] Reagan and Gorbachev agreed in the treaty to prohibit their militaries from possessing, producing, and flight-testing ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles that could hit targets at distances of 500 to 5,500 kilometers.[8] This prohibition applies to both nuclear and conventionally armed missiles. China possesses an arsenal of land-based conventional and nuclear intermediate-range missiles that threaten U.S. basing facilities and ships in the Western Pacific.[9] These missiles are also a threat to U.S. allies and partners in the region that allow American military forces to operate from their territory. If China were a signatory to the INF Treaty, approximately 95 percent of these missiles would be illegal as they fall within the range prohibition.[10] Beijing is not a signatory, however, and has made clear that it has no desire to be.[11] Hence, China has a strategic asymmetric advantage over the United States in the Western Pacific.

 Map 1: How China's Land Attack Capacity Has Grown Between 1996 and 2017 [12]

Many scholars and analysts of international security have joined the growing number of senior U.S. military leaders publicly acknowledging this Chinese threat.[13] Members of Congress have voiced concerns as well.[14] Before the president’s October comments about withdrawal, such discussions had not generated a sense of urgency to act. And even since President Trump’s intent to withdraw from the INF Treaty was reported, arms control advocates have continued to push for the United States to remain committed without adequately accounting for the treaty’s debilitating impact on U.S. security interests in Asia.[15] This must change if the United States is to regain its military dominance and associated deterrent capabilities in the Western Pacific. To be clear, China’s ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles are among the U.S. military’s core conventional-warfighting challenges in Asia today. Beijing has exploited Washington’s compliance with the 31-year-old INF Treaty in three primary ways. First, it has fielded thousands of ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles that put at risk the U.S. military’s forward-basing posture in the Western Pacific, along with American ships at sea in the region. These include around 2,000 conventionally armed, land-based short-range ballistic missiles (those with a range of 300 to 1,000 kilometers), medium-range ballistic missiles (1,000 to 3,000 kilometers), intermediate-range ballistic missiles (3,000 to 5,500 kilometers), and ground-launched cruise missiles (range of more than 1,500 kilometers).[16] Second, while China has fielded relatively inexpensive ground-launched missiles, the U.S. military has attempted to counter or offset them with exponentially more expensive missile-defense systems, as well as short-range, low observable tactical aircraft, ships, submarines, and long-range bomber delivery-based platforms. In other words, the United States is on the wrong side of an exponential cost-curve imbalance when it comes to trying to deter China conventionally. This approach would not have been as problematic in 1987, when the United States' gross domestic product was 18 times the size of China’s.[17] It is today though. The United States' gross domestic product is now only one and a half times the size of China’s. Worse, except for the option of limited-capacity long-range bombers, employing the other capabilities would require putting thousands of Americans in harm’s way well within range of China’s ground-launched missiles. [amcharts id="chart-12"]

(Data taken from the World Bank)


[amcharts id="chart-11"]

(Data taken from the World Bank)

Third, China is simultaneously leveraging its asymmetric advantage in ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles to increasingly build and occupy key terrain within what Beijing considers its “blue soil” marked by the “nine-dash line” in the South China Sea. That includes emplacing advanced area-denial systems such as HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles and YJ-12 supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles. China views this terrain as vital to its interests for military and economic purposes and claims historical rights to it. These claims continue despite the Philippines — a U.S. mutual defense treaty ally for 67 years — and multiple U.S. partner nations doing the same, despite the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, and despite the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruling in Manila’s favor in Philippines v. China.[18] With Russia continually refusing to return to compliance and China unlikely to become a party to the INF Treaty, the Trump administration had four policy options. First, Washington could have continued to surrender U.S. conventional warfighting superiority in the Western Pacific and leaned ever more heavily on its nuclear deterrent. Second, the United States could have deepened and broadened investments in sea- and air-launched missile delivery platforms — which are not proscribed by the INF Treaty — in an attempt to regain conventional superiority. Third, Washington could have looked to emerging technologies, such as hypersonic weapons and artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled lethal autonomous weapons systems, as possible alternative solutions. Finally, the United States could have sought to somehow renegotiate the INF Treaty or, failing that, exercised its right to withdraw from the treaty in order to field ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles. It seems that the Trump administration determined the fourth option was the soundest, including leaving the renegotiation option on the table.[19]

Map 2: China is increasingly militarizing artificial islands in the South China Sea.[20]

Given where things stand, U.S. policy responses going forward should be anchored in three main goals: First, seek to maximize America’s alliances and security partnerships in Asia, which represent asymmetric advantages.[21] Second, when doing so, appreciate that for the $13 billion cost of a single new U.S. Gerald Ford-class aircraft carrier, China can field an estimated 1,227 DF-21D “carrier killer” medium-range ballistic missiles.[22] By shifting U.S. military acquisition priorities away from “few and exquisite” to “small, many, and smart” systems,[23] America could complicate Chinese targeting processes and political leaders’ calculus of risk escalation as well as increase interoperability opportunities with allies. Third, as part of the shift in acquisition strategy, prioritize relatively low-cost and quickly fieldable long-range, conventionally-armed, ground-launched weapons systems, including ones capable of operating autonomously after a human “starts the loop.”[24] To achieve these goals, the United States should remain open to renegotiating the INF Treaty to account for an increasingly multipolar world. If such efforts prove untenable, the United States should finalize the president’s tentative decision to withdraw from the treaty. As President Trump has indicated,[25] this is certainly not the optimal course, but it is still a better option than the status quo. U.S. policymakers should also clarify the intent of Defense Department Directive 3000.09, “Autonomy in Weapons Systems.[26] Specifically, they should clearly define what is meant by “human judgment” when the policy says that “[a]utonomous and semi-autonomous weapon systems shall be designed to allow commanders and operators to exercise appropriate levels of human judgment over the use of force.”[27] Simultaneous with these efforts, the United States should work with treaty allies and potential partners in Asia to leverage these types of weapons to offset Chinese asymmetric advantages. Washington will also have to enhance its strategic communications and operational war plans to account for the increased capabilities. Some critics might argue that these suggestions merely replicate what China is doing to the United States and its allies. This is not the case. Instead, the proposed solutions are based on a multipolar international system in which the Western, rules-based international order that has existed since the end of World War II is in jeopardy. While appreciating these realities, the strategy seeks to ensure that the United States can maintain its mutual defense treaty obligations, assure regional partners, and deter further Chinese military aggression in the Western Pacific.[28] Simultaneously, the strategy seeks to provide increased escalation options for U.S. policymakers with the continued goal of securing American interests and maintaining peace in Asia. [quote id="1"] The remainder of this article proceeds in six parts. Before looking ahead, I begin with a history of how the United States arrived at its disadvantageous position. Only then can one fairly analyze possible options to enable the American military to restore full-spectrum conventional — in parallel with nuclear — warfighting dominance in the Western Pacific in accordance with the latest National Security Strategy.[29] Next, the four potential options discussed above must be weighed. Based on that analysis, I recommend a new strategic approach for the U.S. military in the Western Pacific rooted in renegotiating or exercising America’s right to withdraw from the INF Treaty. Then, I consider possible objections to the recommended strategic approach. Finally, this paper summarizes the recommended way forward to provide policymakers with the best chance for achieving America’s security interests in Asia.

Blunted Edge: How America Lost Its Conventional Dominance in the Western Pacific

To understand America’s perilous position in Asia, one has to wind back the clock 40 years to explore the INF Treaty, which was a product of strategic challenges in Europe. The late 1970s and early 1980s ushered in one of the tensest periods of the Cold War. Most Americans of a certain age and those who work in national security likely have seared in their minds images of U.S. helicopters lifting evacuees from a rooftop in Saigon in 1975. America’s defeat in Vietnam was followed a year later by the Soviet Union fielding the SS-20 “Saber” intermediate-range ballistic missile in Europe.[30] The Soviet military leadership believed that deploying this advanced missile system was essential to ensuring that the Warsaw Pact had equal or greater ability than the United States to deliver nuclear strikes in the European theater. This would enable the Soviet Union to undermine “the credibility of the U.S. nuclear guarantee to Western Europe.”[31] After extensive debates and deliberations, NATO’s leadership announced a dual-track decision on Dec. 12, 1979, in response to the Soviet SS-20 fielding: The United States would deploy 108 Pershing II intermediate-range ballistic missiles and 464 Tomahawk ground-launched cruise missiles in Britain, Italy, West Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands, unless the SS-20s were removed.[32] Five weeks earlier, 52 U.S. diplomats and citizens were taken hostage in Tehran, starting their 444-day detention inside an Iran that had just transitioned from a strategic Western ally to a fierce opponent.[33] Twelve days after NATO’s announcement on the Pershing II and Tomahawks, Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan.[34] Cold War tensions were arguably higher than at any point since the Cuban missile crisis. After campaigning on increasing military might and statements such as “peace is not obtained or preserved by wishing and weakness,” Ronald Reagan was elected U.S. president on Nov. 4, 1980. He received 489 electoral votes, the highest number in history by a non-incumbent.[35] Between 1981 and 1987, the Pentagon’s budget increased in real terms by 45 percent.[36] On March 23, 1983, Reagan announced his Strategic Defense Initiative, the bold and controversial proposal often referred to as “Star Wars,” which he described as having the “ultimate goal of eliminating the threat posed by strategic nuclear missiles” by “means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.”[37] On Sept. 1, 1983, Korean Air Lines Flight 007 departed New York en route to Seoul via Anchorage. The Korean flight veered 360 miles off course and into Soviet airspace,[38] where a Soviet Sukhoi-15 and MiG-23 intercepted it. Shortly thereafter, KE007 crashed into the Sea of Okhotsk, killing on impact all 269 passengers, including 61 Americans, one of whom was U.S. Rep. Larry P. McDonald.[39] Reagan described the incident as “an act of barbarism” and a “crime against nature.”[40] Soviet leaders suggested that the event was a “pre-planned American provocation” and that the United States was “on a collision course with the Soviet Union.”[41] Tensions escalated even higher later in 1983. NATO exercise Able Archer, executed Nov. 2 through Nov. 11,[42] focused on practicing the coordination requirements within the alliance’s command structure to authorize the use of nuclear weapons. In a key difference from previous exercises, this one involved actual U.S. and NATO leadership.[43] Soviet intelligence closely followed these leaders’ movements and assessed that they indicated a U.S. intent to “ensure a reliable first nuclear missile strike.”[44] Soviet leaders responded by ordering the forward-loading of tactical nuclear weapons onto aircraft in East Germany capable of striking into West Germany.[45] The situation escalated to the point where one analyst described the United States and Soviet Union as “apes on a treadmill,” inadvertently stumbling ever closer to nuclear war. Further intensifying matters, the first 16 Tomahawk missiles that were part of the 1979 dual-track decision arrived in England on Nov. 14.[46] Eight days later, the first Pershing II missiles arrived in West Germany. Soviet leaders responded by walking out of pre-scheduled INF talks and lifting a voluntary moratorium on their own intermediate-range nuclear weapon deployments.[47] Fortunately, the tensions never reached a boiling point. Reagan’s fervent beliefs that “no one can ‘win’ a nuclear war” and his desire to engage with Soviet leadership were the primary reasons.[48] From his initial days in office, Reagan wanted to reduce the risks of nuclear war, including by cutting U.S. and Soviet arsenals, eventually to zero. As early as November 1981, he offered Soviet leaders a zero-zero plan to eliminate all INF-range missiles in Europe.[49] When the Soviets continued to refuse these offers, however, Reagan, together with NATO leaders, shared that the alliance would proceed with the Tomahawk and Pershing II deployment. Reagan became increasingly convinced, as he explained to the British Parliament in June 1982, that “our military strength is a prerequisite to peace.”[50] In logic that is almost inconceivable more than three decades later, the tension-filled stumbling toward nuclear war in November 1983 helped provide for the United States what Reagan later described as “its strongest position in two decades to negotiate with the Russians from strength.”[51] This position of strength was soon reinforced by a key change within the Soviet Union. In March 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist Party.[52] Similarly to Reagan, Gorbachev believed that “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”[53] He also believed, perhaps in part due to the Soviet Union’s deep economic challenges, that these facts “made meaningless the arms race and the stockpiling and modernizing of nuclear weapons.”[54] When he made these comments, Washington and Moscow possessed the combined equivalent of “1.5 million Hiroshimas” worth of nuclear weapons.[55] And on the central front in Europe, roughly 975,000 Warsaw Pact troops stood opposite NATO’s 814,300 soldiers.[56] Something had to give. [quote id="2"] In April 1985, Gorbachev announced that he was suspending SS-20 missile deployments in Europe.[57] He met with Reagan for the first time at the Geneva summit in November.[58] Five months after this breakthrough summit, tragedy struck in the Soviet Union when a nuclear reactor exploded at the Chernobyl power plant.[59] The explosion caused more than 4,300 casualties.[60] The accident reinforced for Reagan and Gorbachev just how tenuous the proposition of mutually assured destruction really was and why it was so important to make serious progress on nuclear weapons reductions.[61] This belief served as the foundation for their signing the INF Treaty in December 1987.[62] Over the next four years, the Soviet Union and United States eliminated 1,800 and 800 ground-launched missiles, respectively, with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers.[63] After the Soviet Union’s demise in 1991, the United States decided to maintain the treaty with the Russian Federation and the other Soviet successor states, and the compliance inspection regime continued until 2001.[64] Of note, due to concerns from Japan that the Soviet Union might remove missiles aimed toward Western Europe east of the Urals and turn them toward Tokyo, American negotiators insisted that the treaty ban both signatories from possessing a single missile within these ranges anywhere in the world.[65] Additionally, in the late 1980s, China’s emergence as a major world power — one that would eventually field around 2,000 missiles banned by the INF Treaty — was not anticipated.[66] Thus, China’s inclusion as a treaty signatory was never considered. Nearly 30 years after Reagan and Gorbachev signed the INF Treaty, the U.S. State Department determined in July 2014 that Russia had violated its commitment when developing the SSC-8 ground-launched, intermediate-range cruise missile.[67] Since then, Russia reportedly has deployed the illegal missile system on training exercises.[68] In March 2017, U.S. Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed the violation and deployment in a House Armed Services Committee hearing.[69] He also explained that there is no reason to believe that Russia intends to resume compliance with the INF Treaty, which arguably should not have been a surprise given that as early as 2005, then-Russian Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov proposed to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that both countries should jointly withdraw from the treaty as it was no longer consistent with contemporary security conditions.[70] A month later, in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing about Chinese ballistic and cruise-missile developments, the head of Pacific Command reconfirmed the Russian violation of the INF Treaty and agreed with Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas when he stated, “that means the United States is the only country in the world — the only country in the world — that unilaterally refuses to build missiles that have a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers.”[71] A year after this exchange, when commenting on the INF Treaty language in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, Republican Rep. Michael R. Turner of Ohio said that “you cannot have a treaty with oneself, and that’s the situation we’re in … we need to recognize reality.”[72] China’s Strategy Over the past two decades, China has aggressively pursued and heavily invested in land-based missiles as part of an anti-access/area-denial strategy.[73] This strategy has focused on countering U.S. military capabilities in the Western Pacific, including forward bases throughout Japan and Guam, as well as locations of frequent rotational positioning in the Philippines and Australia.[74] Pentagon estimates indicate that China possesses around 1,200 conventionally armed short-range ballistic missiles, 200 to 300 conventionally armed medium-range ballistic missiles, an unknown number of conventionally armed intermediate-range ballistic missiles, and 200 to 300 conventionally armed ground-launched cruise missiles.[75] In 2015, RAND estimated that China’s ballistic missiles have improved guidance systems that allow them to strike within minutes fixed targets accurate to within only a couple of meters.[76] These missiles are all part of China’s “projectile-centric strategy,” which includes close integration of cyber, counterspace, counter-air, and electronic warfare capabilities. It seeks to take advantage of China’s geographic “home turf” position relative to the United States, to exploit American and allies’ lack of depth (particularly given the concentration of forces in Japan), and to leverage financial asymmetries such as the aforementioned “carrier killer” medium-range ballistic missile versus U.S. aircraft-carrier cost imbalance.[77] Notably, this strategy also seeks to exploit the United States’ obligation to abide by the INF Treaty, while China has no such hindrance. Put another way, China has successfully employed a relatively inexpensive “projectile-centric strategy” against America’s cost-prohibitive and transitory platform-based delivery (i.e., aircraft, ship, and submarine) alternative.[78] Additionally, China is executing this strategy with a PLA Rocket Force (PLARF), the strength of which is around 100,000 people, which is approximately 10 times the size of the U.S. 20th Air Force, America’s main ballistic-missile unit.[79] What does all this mean when it comes to potential conventional military conflict between the United States and China? In 2017, Thomas Shugart and Javier Gonzalez, two active-duty U.S. Navy fellows assigned to the Center for a New American Security and Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, respectively, conducted an extensive modeling and simulation effort to find out. The results showed the “potential for devastation of U.S. power projection forces and bases in Asia.”[80] While using only about 20 percent of the PLARF’s short-range ballistic missiles, 25 percent of its medium-range ballistic missiles, and 34 to 95 percent of its ground-launched cruise missiles (depending on source), the simulation demonstrated that within minutes after launch the following U.S. capabilities in Japan could be struck: all major command fixed headquarters, almost all U.S. ships in port, nearly every runway at all U.S. airbases, and more than 200 aircraft that were trapped due to runway cratering.[81] Shugart and Gonzalez’s realistic modeling and simulation effort confirmed this 2013 assessment of China scholar Ian Easton:
The Chinese military may achieve strategic effects that until recently were only achievable through the use of nuclear weapons . . . during the Cold War, both NATO and Warsaw Pact forces tasked nuclear missile units with the mission of destroying the other’s key air bases. The PLA plans to achieve the same effect with a relatively small number of ballistic missiles armed with conventional runway penetrating submunitions.[82]
Such dire predictions are likely why the incoming and outgoing heads of U.S. Pacific Command expressed in congressional testimony their serious concern with America’s continued commitment to the INF Treaty. In conjunction with implementing its “projectile-centric strategy,” China is steadily increasing its economic and military influence in the South China Sea and beyond. The most recent electronic warfare, HQ-9 surface-to-air missile, and YJ-12 supersonic anti-ship cruise-missile deployments in the Spratly Islands are just a few examples of the influence extension. A recent fleet naval exercise, including a Chinese aircraft carrier sailing near Taiwan, was another.[83] Beyond these military actions, China is leveraging its growing economy to buy influence in key locations in Asia as well. After U.S. special forces helped the Filipino Marine Corps destroy the Islamic State of the Levant (ISIL)/Islamic State Province in East Asia in Marawi last year, Chinese investors swooped in to help rebuild the town.[84] Further south, Chinese businesses are heavily investing in Darwin, Australia.[85] Darwin is home to a deep-water port and multiple nearby strategic airfields and bases that the U.S. military uses and that were used extensively in World War II. Additionally, in April 2018, Chinese investors bid to build an airfield and shopping mall complex on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands.[86] Between August 1942 and February 1943, in the first offensive U.S. land battle in the Pacific during World War II, 1,490 Americans were killed in action, with 4,804 others wounded, seizing Guadalcanal from the Japanese.[87] One of the mission’s main purposes was to establish an airfield to enable the Allied “island hopping” campaign to continue further to the west. Cumulatively, China’s steady pressure over multiple decades, steps often just short of instigating a war, have left U.S. policymakers in an extremely tenuous position. In response to China’s increasingly aggressive actions, they have had three options: They could begrudgingly accept Chinese gains; protest by means of increasingly less effective and more dangerous freedom-of-navigation exercises; or hope that America’s nuclear superiority alone will prevent China from ever attempting to seize Taiwan, disputed territory within the Senkaku Islands, or other claimed territories in the South China Sea.[88] Unipolar Moment, Counterterrorism, and U.S. Priorities, 1991 to 2017 After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the decisive U.S.-led military victory expelling Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait in 1991, numerous scholars and foreign policy analysts argued that the bipolar order of the Cold War had been replaced with America’s “unipolar moment.” In a Foreign Affairs article titled “The Unipolar Moment,” Charles Krauthammer wrote:
It has been assumed that the old bipolar world would beget a multipolar world with power dispersed to new centers in Japan, Germany (and/or “Europe”), China and a diminished Soviet Union/Russia. [This is] mistaken. The immediate post-Cold War world is not multipolar. It is unipolar. The center of world power is an unchallenged superpower, the United States, attended by its Western allies.[89]
Such unipolar euphoria continued throughout the 1990s and into the early 21st century. Part of this euphoria included U.S. officials’ desire to further integrate China into the global economy. At the time, China’s military expansion was not a major concern. Instead, further opening the Chinese economy to Western markets was a top priority.[90] For this reason, the U.S. encouraged and welcomed China’s entrance into the World Trade Organization in November 2001. In the winter of 2001, the United States was newly engaged in war in Afghanistan. After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, countering terrorism was America’s foremost national security priority. Terrorism remained the steady priority for nearly 17 years, consistently consuming a preponderance of U.S. policymakers’ attention and budgeting resources in campaigns that expanded from Afghanistan to Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Niger, Mali, and other undisclosed locations. The U.S. Navy’s senior intelligence officer in the Pacific recently described the Defense Department’s priorities since 2001 in an article titled “How We Lost the Great Pacific War”:
Moving limited resources from the desert to the fleet was a challenge. Every year brought a new fight in the Mideast, which, while never an existential issue for the nation, carried the urgency of real-world operations. Saying no to U.S. Central Command for anything required steeling the soul for bureaucratic battle.[91]
Given the primary national security focus in U.S. Central Command and the Middle East since 2001, combined with enduring INF Treaty constraints on the United States and the overly lengthy celebration of America’s unipolar moment, China could not have picked a more appropriate strategy to deliberately and patiently reassert itself in the Western Pacific.

U.S. Goals in the Indo-Pacific in the Future

During a January 2018 speech at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis announced, “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.”[92] Mattis’s remarks came on the heels of the National Security Strategy released in December 2017 that specifically calls out China (and Russia) for wanting to shape international affairs in ways that are antithetical to America’s values.[93] Additionally, the strategy explicitly states that “China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region … and reorder the region in its favor.”[94] The strategy also recognizes that those who believed that welcoming China’s rise and encouraging its integration into the global economy would lead to Beijing liberalizing and accepting the post-World War II international order have, unfortunately, been proven mistaken. After describing how China is openly challenging U.S. values and interests in Asia, the National Security Strategy describes multiple broad objectives for addressing the problem. First, the strategy directs that the United States must retain overmatch against potential great-power competitors. Overmatch is explained as a combination of “capabilities in sufficient scale to prevent enemy success and to ensure that America’s sons and daughters will never be in a fair fight.”[95] The United States has a clear overmatch against China in nuclear weapons capability; however, as Adm. Davidson, Thomas Shugart, and Javier Gonzalez have cautioned, this overmatch does not extend to the most important conventional warfighting capabilities in the Western Pacific. This is critical because the strategy further states that the United States “must convince adversaries that we can and will defeat them — not just punish them if they attack the United States.”[96] [quote id="3"] As things stand, however, it is highly unlikely, for all the reasons described in Shugart and Gonzalez’s “First Strike” report, that Chinese leaders fear the United States and its allies defeating them in a traditional conventional sense. Further, given the ongoing U.S. failure to stop Beijing’s expansionary efforts in the South China Sea — which since early 2017 have included building “about 72 acres, or 290,000 square meters, of new real estate at Fiery Cross, Subi, and Mischief Reefs in the Spratlys, and North, Tree, and Triton Islands in the Paracels” — along with not being willing to include Filipino claims in these disputed waters as part of the U.S.-Philippines mutual defense treaty, it is also likely that Chinese leaders do not believe American policymakers will resort to nuclear war to halt future expansion.[97]

Image 1: China's militarization of Fiery Cross Reef [98]

Options for Ensuring a Favorable U.S. Military Balance in Asia in the Future

The preceding sections’ analysis makes clear that the United States and its allies no longer have full-spectrum conventional overmatch in the Western Pacific. Additionally, the analysis describes how China maintains an increasingly dominant advantage in the conventional capabilities that arguably matter most in the region given geography: ground-launched short-range ballistic missiles, medium-range ballistic missiles, intermediate-range ballistic missiles, and ground-launched cruise missiles. The National Security Strategy directs that the Pentagon “will maintain a forward military presence capable of deterring and, if necessary, defeating any adversary, while strengthening our long-standing military relationships and encouraging the development of a strong defense network with our allies and partners.”[99] This section analyzes the four primary options available for achieving these goals: prioritizing a favorable nuclear warfighting capability balance without seeking to regain conventional overmatch against China; seeking to regain conventional warfighting overmatch under the current INF Treaty restrictions; seeking advantages in potential leap-ahead technologies, such as hypersonic weapons and AI-enabled lethal autonomous weapons systems, to offset inferiority in traditional conventional warfighting; and the United States renegotiating the INF Treaty or exercising its right to withdraw. Depend on Nuclear Superiority In his new book, The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy, Matthew Kroenig argues that states that possess nuclear superiority over others “are more likely to achieve their goals in international crises and less likely to be targeted with military challenges in the first place.”[100] This argument is the foundation of Kroenig’s “superiority-brinksmanship synthesis theory”:
A robust nuclear posture reduces a state’s expected cost of war, increasing its resolve in international political disputes, and thus providing it with a coercive advantage over states more vulnerable to a nuclear exchange. When political conflicts of interest emerge, nuclear inferior opponents are less likely to initiate a military challenge and more likely to back down if the crisis escalates.[101]
Kroenig’s book provides more than 70 years’ worth of insightful analysis to support his argument. This analysis includes comparisons between the impact of nuclear versus conventional warfighting superiority in determining outcomes of international crises. Kroenig concludes by explaining that “conventional military power matters in international politics, but not to the exclusion of the nuclear balance.”[102] Kroenig further emphasizes that in crises among nuclear-power states, “the nuclear balance was generally more central than the conventional balance.”[103] Beijing’s ongoing grab for power and influence in the South China Sea presents an interesting case study for Kroenig’s theory. It appears that China is consistently accomplishing its goals against the United States and its allies despite Washington having an advantage of approximately 2,000 nuclear warheads when it comes to either nation’s ability to strike the mainland of the other.[104] Why might this be the case? Five points can help explain why the ongoing China case might be an outlier to Kroenig’s theory. First, Chinese leaders appear to have mastered the concept of brinkmanship as explained by former U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles: “The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art … If you try to run away from it, if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost.”[105] This ties directly into the second matter: For the past 17 years, Chinese leaders have known that the U.S. military has been focused on the Middle East and that the South China Sea has not been a vital American security interest. Further, between 2008 and 2016, U.S. political leaders went out of their way not to identify China as a potential rival and great-power strategic competitor in the South China Sea, including when President Barack Obama refused Filipino requests to confirm that the bilateral mutual defense treaty between the United States and the Philippines applied to the Spratly Islands similarly to what Obama had agreed to do “for the U.S.-Japan Mutual Security Treaty and the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.”[106] Third, given the analysis within Shugart and Gonzalez’s “First Strike” report, Chinese leaders know they can destroy the majority of U.S. power-projection capabilities in the Western Pacific within days, if not minutes, of a conflict breaking out, regardless of their nuclear inferiority. Fourth, Chinese leaders know that the United States has a limited capacity of long-range conventional bombers. While these bombers can be launched from outside the PLARF’s missile range and still reach the Chinese mainland, most are vulnerable to China’s increasingly advanced integrated air-defense systems. This assumes, of course, that U.S. policymakers believe the stakes involved in countering a given Chinese action are worth risking American lives. And thus far, they have not been.[107] Fifth, and specific to China’s nuclear inferiority relative to the United States, Chinese leaders have avoided crossing thresholds that they know are more likely to trigger nuclear retaliation, such as attempting to invade Taiwan. All five points have allowed China to methodically expand its military, economic, and even diplomatic influence in the Western Pacific. If the United States and its allies do not pursue a fundamentally different approach, there is no justifiable reason to believe Beijing will halt its aggressive expansionary actions in the South China Sea. Significant nuclear inferiority alone has yet to slow China’s actions. Seek Conventional Warfighting Overmatch Within INF Treaty Restrictions   In a recent article titled “America Is Well Within Range of a Big Surprise, So Why Can’t It See?” T.X. Hammes describes a hypothetical scenario in 2020 that leaves the United States helpless, outside of employing nuclear weapons, to respond to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.[108] Similar to Shugart and Gonzalez’s “First Strike” report, Hammes describes how easily U.S. forward bases and port facilities could be eliminated within the opening phase of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. A graphic within his article illustrates China’s overwhelming long-range, ground-launched conventional strike advantage over the United States — even if U.S. aircraft carriers are already at sea. Beyond this range imbalance, Hammes focuses on the value of relatively inexpensive, ground-launched cruise missiles, of which China has approximately 200 to 300 with ranges in excess of 1,500 kilometers. He assesses that the ease in moving and hiding these missiles would make them “immune to most pre-emptive strikes.”[109] His article concludes with a disturbing warning:
By remaining focused on offensive operations employing air, land, and sea legacy systems that have been dominant in their domains for over 70 years, the Pentagon risks going the same way as the armored knights and battleships. Rather than continue to invest in systems which are already range obsolete, it is essential for defense analysts to rethink their current procurement strategy.[110]
While range obsolescence is a serious concern for these U.S. conventional capabilities, their cost perhaps provides reason to be even more worried. The Hammes graphic includes the approximately 625-mile range of the F-35 “A” and “C” variant jets. These aircraft cost around $95 million (F-35A) to $122 million (F-35C) per plane.[111] The Marines’ F-35B, not shown in the graphic likely due to range limitations, costs around $122 million each. The F-35As are intended to operate from air bases well within range of Chinese ballistic and cruise missiles. The F-35Cs are envisioned to operate from the Navy’s new $13 billion Gerald Ford-class aircraft carriers.[112] The Marines’ shorter-range F-35Bs are projected to operate from $3 billion amphibious assault ships and, assuming the aircraft’s high maintenance and sustainment costs can be greatly reduced, expeditionary advanced bases that will, in theory, be harder for China to target due to anticipated difficulty in locating the sites.[113] Each service’s F-35 operating concept briefs well until challenged with realistic as