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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…

Xi’s Vision for Transforming Global Governance: A Strategic Challenge for Washington and Its Allies

Xi’s Vision for Transforming Global Governance: A Strategic Challenge for Washington and Its Allies

What does China's "community of common destiny," recently emphasized by Chinese President Xi Jinping, mean for the future of the international order? Liza Tobin unpacks what, precisely, this vision entails and what it might mean for the United States and its…

Military Exercises as Geopolitical Messaging in the NATO-Russia Dynamic: Reassurance, Deterrence, and (In)stability

Military Exercises as Geopolitical Messaging in the NATO-Russia Dynamic: Reassurance, Deterrence, and (In)stability

Military exercises are often viewed as geopolitical tools used to boost stability and enhance deterrence. However, they can sometimes have the exact opposite effect: increasing instability and contributing to dangerous levels of escalation. Nowhere is this…

Bill and Boris: A Window Into a Most Important Post-Cold War Relationship

Bill and Boris: A Window Into a Most Important Post-Cold War Relationship

Against the backdrop of an enormous power differential between their two countries, Clinton and Yeltsin established a close personal rapport. They used those positive feelings to interact effectively even when they were being frank in their disagreements, the…

From Engagement to Rivalry: Tools to Compete with China

From Engagement to Rivalry: Tools to Compete with China

To arrive at a new consensus, the United States needs to address the weaknesses in Americans’ knowledge of China while rethinking the connections between the ways China is analyzed and how policy is made.

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                    [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] => 2019-09-09 12:37:16 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-09-09 16:37:16 [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] => ) [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] => ) ) [1] => 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] => ) ) [2] => 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] => 2019-09-12 17:45:05 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-09-12 21:45:05 [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] => ) ) [3] => 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] => ) ) [4] => 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] => ) ) [5] => 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] => ) ) [6] => 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] => ) ) [7] => 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 assessments of Chinese ballistic- and cruise-missile capabilities. When these assessments are incorporated, it quickly becomes apparent how illogical the Pentagon’s F-35 procurement plans are. Moreover, given that the U.S. national debt recently eclipsed $21 trillion, the F-35’s range obsolescence and cost,[114] along with the even more expensive ships required to bring them to the fight (F-35B/C) and land- and sea-based missile-defense systems required in hopes of protecting the F-35s, one cannot help but wonder whether there are better options to counter China’s growing conventional warfighting superiority.[115] Potential Leap-Ahead Technologies In addition to describing the benefits of land-based missiles that are easy to disperse and hide, the Hammes article emphasized the importance of investing in autonomous systems and other emerging technologies, such as AI and additive manufacturing. “The convergence of advances in task-specific AI, advanced manufacturing, and drones,” Hammes wrote, “are creating a new generation of small, smart, and cheap weapons that have significant range advantage over America’s current arsenal of few but exquisite weapons.”[116] Other observers have come to similar conclusions when focused specifically on military operational challenges in the Western Pacific.[117] Semi-autonomous and autonomous systems, including AI-enabled lethal autonomous weapons systems, have great potential to help the United States and its allies regain their conventional military superiority in the South China Sea. This, of course, assumes that China does not gain overwhelming overmatch first, which could happen given reports suggesting Beijing has already fielded a reverse-engineered, 500-kilometer-range lethal autonomous weapons system to target adversary radars.[118] China has also already demonstrated a 56-unmanned boat swarm focused on targeting ships and has an exhibit at its military museum depicting “a UAV swarm combat system with swarms used for reconnaissance, jamming, and ‘swarm assault’ targeting an aircraft carrier.”[119] Hypersonic weapons are another promising innovation on the horizon. These weapons are envisioned to be able to reliably travel at speeds greater than five times that of sound.[120] The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is already working with the U.S. Air Force on multiple hypersonic weapons programs. Flight testing is expected to start in 2019, with initial prototypes built in 2022. If these weapons meet their potential, they will be able to defeat all current missile-defense systems while traveling at multi-thousand-mile ranges.[121] China claims to have successfully tested its first hypersonic weapon in August 2018.[122] A month earlier, Russia released a video purportedly showing its own hypersonic weapon test.[123] The potential upside of emerging technologies such as AI, AI-enabled lethal autonomous weapons systems, and hypersonic weapons is enormous. Successfully developing these capabilities is essential for future U.S. security interests, particularly given how heavily China and Russia are investing in them already. Specific to the ongoing problem in the South China Sea, though, it would be unwise to place in these new technologies all hopes of the United States regaining competitive conventional warfighting advantage in the near term. Most of the technologies are in their initial development phases. How they will perform in live combat conditions is far from certain. As has been described when discussing the potential of hypersonic weapons, “[I]t is nearly impossible to predict how a bunch of interconnected metal and electronics are going to behave moving at those speeds.”[124] In the case of AI-enabled lethal autonomous weapons systems, Defense Department Directive 3000.09 even appears to prohibit their development, as described earlier when highlighting the confusion over the “appropriate levels of human judgment over the use of force” criterion.[125] While some have suggested the directive could permit AI-enabled lethal autonomous weapons systems with approved waivers, the confusion alone has already delayed their development and is likely to continue to do so.[126] For this reason, it is essential to clarify Directive 3000.09 to ensure that the military services — particularly officials in requirements and acquisitions — understand that “human start the loop” lethal autonomous weapons systems are authorized. The potential for such systems to raise adversary escalation costs is immense, especially if fielded to the nation’s close-combat forces operating in thick vegetation and complex terrain within the “first island chain.”[127] [quote id="4"] Even if the U.S. military already had access to proven hypersonic weapons and AI-enabled lethal autonomous weapons systems, military innovation literature consistently highlights that technology alone is not sufficient to produce an increase in capability. How new technologies are integrated throughout military organizations, from doctrine development to employment concepts to manning and training, is ultimately what proves decisive.[128] For all of these reasons, the United States should continue to invest in developing these emerging capabilities, aggressively experiment with prototypes, war-game potential operational concepts, and seek to field the best technological innovations as quickly as possible. At the same time, however, U.S. policymakers should develop a plan that sets America and its allies on course to regain full-spectrum conventional warfighting dominance in the Western Pacific within the next few years. These emerging capabilities can then add to this dominance. Renegotiate or Exercise the Right to Withdraw from the INF Treaty The final option involves doing what the president recently ordered since Russia refuses to return to compliance with the treaty and China continues to express no interest in joining it: make clear that America will exercise its legal right to withdraw while expressing a desire to renegotiate the treaty should Moscow and Beijing choose to be responsible members of the international community.[129] To be sure, the INF Treaty’s Euro-centric focus has had a net-positive impact in Europe over the past 31 years, and most NATO allies strongly support maintaining the INF regime in some form. It is past time to address the treaty’s debilitating impacts on U.S. security interests in the Western Pacific. As Adm. Harry B. Harris explained to the Senate Armed Services Committee in April 2017:
I think there’s goodness in the INF Treaty, anything you can do to limit nuclear weapons writ large is generally good … But the aspects of the INF Treaty that limit our ability to counter Chinese and other countries’ cruise missiles, land-based missiles, I think is problematic … I would never advocate unilateral withdrawing from the treaty because of the nuclear limitation part of it, but I do think we should look at renegotiating the treaty, we should consider it, because … there’s only two countries that signed on to it and one of them doesn’t follow it, so that becomes a unilateral limitation on us.[130]
What are the best ways to go about accomplishing Adm. Harris’s goals? Pursuing INF Treaty renegotiation would inevitably be a complex and multifaceted endeavor. Reaching a bilateral agreement on the treaty in 1987 took more than six years and involved inching ever closer to nuclear war, complex alliance negotiations with NATO, and a nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. Regardless of the likely challenges to renegotiation, continuing to express a willingness to pursue such an endeavor is worthwhile, if for no other reason than as a good-faith gesture by the United States to the rest of the world. In the long run, this endeavor might be the only way to save the spirit of the INF Treaty from meeting the same fate as the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. When exercising America’s legal right to withdraw from this treaty in 2002 for reasons of U.S. national security, President George W. Bush explained that “we no longer live in the Cold War world for which the ABM Treaty was designed.”[131] President Bush’s observation is similarly applicable today regarding the INF Treaty. We live in a multipolar world, and it includes two revisionist, strategic-power competitors that routinely challenge U.S. interests. One of these powers, Russia, has ignored its obligations under the INF Treaty for nearly four years.[132] The other power, China, refused U.S. and Russian offers in 2007 and 2008 to become a treaty member and has fielded around 2,000 missiles that are not compliant with the INF Treaty and are holding at risk U.S. and allied forces in the Western Pacific. These hard truths should form the foundation of renegotiation efforts. Specifically, U.S. policymakers should make clear these three points going into such talks: To address these points, the United States could initially request a trilateral summit on the future of the INF Treaty.[134] At such a summit, Washington should offer five potential paths forward:
  1. All three nations advocate a worldwide ban on the missiles and launchers currently prohibited by the INF Treaty. This would require Russia to return to compliance and China — as well as other countries, such as India, Pakistan, and South Korea — to eliminate its inventories of these systems.[135]
  2. A new INF Treaty with three signatories: the United States, Russia, and China. This treaty would maintain the 1987 restrictions, as well as requiring Russia to return to compliance within a period of six months. China would have to begin destruction of missiles and launchers immediately, with all non-compliant missiles eliminated within four years, similar to the timeframe for the United States and Soviet Union to destroy all of their systems. All signatories would also participate in regular compliance inspections for a period spanning no less than 15 years.
  3. A three-signatory treaty akin to the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT) focused on numerical limitations on missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers, capping each nation’s inventory at no more than 100 weapon systems. This quantity would provide each nation a credible deterrent capability without giving any country an asymmetric offensive advantage.[136]
  4. A modified and re-ratified U.S.-Russian bilateral INF Treaty that permitted, as per Jim Thomas’s recommendations, relaxing limitations on land-based missile capabilities outside of Europe.[137] These modifications would also include permitting deployment of “forward-based, ground-launched systems (conventional weapons delivery only) outside that geographic area with ranges between 500 to 2,000 kilometers.”[138] These two steps would allow adequate targeting range to potentially counter the most pressing Chinese threats while still prohibiting land-based missiles with ranges of 2,000 to 5,500 kilometers. This latter constraint would likely address anticipated concerns of European allies by preventing Russian missile units from being permitted to move west of the Ural Mountains. Simultaneously, the constraint would likely allay Russian concerns that any future conventionally armed U.S. (or U.S. ally) ground-launched missile deployment would threaten Moscow.[139]
  5. If none of these pathways is deemed acceptable, an understanding that the United States will follow through on President Trump’s announcements and withdraw from the INF Treaty in 2019. Should this be the only pathway, the United States will then field ground-launched missile capabilities commensurate to those China currently employs. Additionally, the United States will be open to providing these weapons systems to mutual defense treaty allies and strategic partners in Asia. This path would also include a dual-track component similar to the one offered by NATO in 1979: If Russia and China ultimately agree to a new INF Treaty, then the United States would eliminate its newly fielded missiles while encouraging its treaty allies to do the same.
Unfortunately, it would not be a surprise if the proposed U.S. good-faith effort met outright resistance from Russia and China. Both nations’ actions over the past decade provide plentiful reasons to consider with skepticism the first four proposed pathways. Regardless of the low probability that Russia and China would agree with any of the four proposals, the United States would be well-served by one last good-faith attempt. U.S. allies and partners would likely welcome this approach as responsible and understandable. Additionally, achieving a decision on any of these five pathways would give the head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and policymakers in Washington the opportunity to enhance U.S. deterrence capabilities in the Western Pacific.[140] All of these pathways would also provide U.S. policymakers the ability to conduct diplomacy regarding Chinese economic and military expansion efforts from a position of conventional strength, which they do not possess today. And of the four potential options considered within this section — depend on nuclear superiority, seek conventional warfighting overmatch within INF Treaty restrictions, pursue potential leap-ahead technologies, and renegotiate or withdraw from the INF Treaty — to achieve the National Security Strategy’s goals, renegotiation or withdrawal is the only viable option in the near term. Adding a layer (or layers) to this option over the next five years with capabilities such as AI-enabled lethal autonomous weapons systems, focused specifically against potential adversary assault support platforms required to conduct a conventional military force invasion, should be a goal as well.

New U.S. Military Strategic Approach in the Western Pacific, 2018 and Beyond

While it would be ideal if Russia and China agreed to a three-party INF Treaty, or advocated a comprehensive worldwide INF Treaty or even a SALT-like one, this section proceeds with the assumption that both Russian and Chinese behavior over the past decade provide plenty of evidence to suggest that they would deem none of these pathways acceptable. This, then, leaves pathways four and five as the most likely probabilities. In either of these cases, the recommended military strategic approach for the United States in the Western Pacific would be similar. The overarching goal would be to increase U.S. conventional deterrence capabilities by drastically raising escalation costs should China contemplate attacking key American allies or continuing expansion efforts in the South China Sea.[141] Decreasing China’s probability for success calculus would be a concurrent goal. Simultaneously, the new strategy would make unmistakably clear to mutual defense treaty allies and regional partners that the United States has every intention of not merely maintaining but expanding its commitments in Asia. Further strengthening U.S. security relationships with treaty allies Japan and the Philippines would be central pillars of the strategy. For Japan, this would involve locating new ground-launched missiles within Okinawa Prefecture that could threaten Chinese military forces in the Western Pacific. Due to China’s ongoing military build-up and aggressive behavior, Japan’s Self-Defense Force is currently taking actions that would have been unthinkable to many only 10 to 15 years ago.[142] For example, the Japanese Self-Defense Force now has a surveillance radar site at Miyako, within Okinawa Prefecture; the Japanese are in the process of installing anti-ship missiles throughout their southwestern islands; and they are already working closely with U.S. units to ensure that these types of capabilities are interoperable between both nations’ militaries.[143] The new missile units would be in thickly vegetated areas or underground, and they would be road-mobile to complicate Chinese targeting efforts. Finding missile systems that routinely move within thickly vegetated areas would compel China to commit extensive intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance resources to the task. It would also incentivize China to invest in more missile-defense capabilities. Ultimately, for the U.S.-Japanese alliance, the long-term goal would be for these forces to be partnered and fully interoperable such that both nations’ military units possessed the capabilities and are able to deter and, if required, respond to Chinese aggression in the South China Sea as well as in the East China Sea.[144] Given recent tensions between the United States and the Philippines — which include President Rodrigo Duterte openly stating that America “cannot be trusted to fulfill its treaty commitments” — bolstering the U.S. security relationship with Manila would likely prove harder than doing so with Tokyo.[145] “Harder” is not hopeless, however. If new land-based missiles can provide U.S. policymakers with warfighting capability deemed strong enough to warrant granting the Philippines’ territorial claims in the Spratly Islands as part of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, the Filipino president might welcome this type of cooperation. [quote id="5"] Assuming this enhanced capability, combined with America’s nuclear superiority relative to China, achieves this Duterte goal, then multiple options exist for how the land-based missiles could be employed. A permanently based U.S. missile unit in the Philippines is likely to be a non-starter for Manila. Rotating such units into the Philippines on training exercises as part of the 2014 U.S.-Philippines’ Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement could be welcomed in concert with other confidence-building steps.[146] After all, Article 1 of the agreement explains that the pact is intended to ensure that both countries can satisfy mutual defense treaty obligations to “maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack,” and Duterte recently began allowing U.S. multi-domain task forces to conduct training exercises with the Filipino military toward this end.[147] He also approved further increasing exercises with U.S. military forces.[148] China is the only potential state-actor threat to the Philippines in the South China Sea. Perhaps even more welcome than only rotating U.S. land-based missile units through would be if Washington provided the capabilities for the Filipino military. On multiple occasions, Duterte has expressed displeasure with the quantity and quality of U.S. military aid to the Philippines.[149] Receiving new, conventionally-armed ground-launched missiles would almost certainly bolster Duterte’s confidence in the U.S. commitment to the Philippines. Once in the Philippines, missiles would ideally be deployed to Palawan Island, which ranges from approximately 333 to 750 kilometers from the Spratly Islands and is home to one of the agreed-upon coalition bases for the United States to use.[150] Deploying missiles underground or within Palawan’s thickly vegetated areas would, much like doing so in Okinawa Prefecture, greatly complicate Chinese targeting efforts. These missiles would also provide the Philippines an enduring ability to hold Chinese military forces in the South China Sea — such as the ones on Subi Reef — at risk. That is a significant capability gap typically only filled when a U.S. aircraft carrier is deployed in the region.[151] Even during these times, depending on U.S. aircraft carriers for support in or near the Spratly Islands is an increasingly risky proposition due to the PLARF’s increasing DF-21 capabilities.[152] Changing the INF Treaty would not require major modifications in relationships with U.S. allies and partners in Asia outside of Japan and the Philippines, although such changes could potentially create opportunities to strengthen those bonds. The new missile units could participate in routine joint exercises and coalition training. They would also reassure allies and partners of how seriously the United States is committed to maintaining peace and security in the Western Pacific.

Image 2: China's Militarization of Subi Reef [153]

This reassurance applies to potential U.S. missile units positioned in American territories in the Pacific as well. Moreover, this reassurance would apply for easily maneuverable U.S. close-combat units that are hard to track and locate and that are equipped with AI-enabled lethal autonomous weapons systems designed to destroy adversary landing craft and other platforms required to conduct an invasion.[154]

Possible Objections

Before considering likely objections from critics, it is important to emphasize — again — that the strategic approach proposed in this article assumes China will continue to refuse, at least initially, any effort to globalize the INF Treaty and that Russia will not resume compliance.[155] Since the 2007 and 2008 offers to China to join the INF Treaty, Beijing has expanded the PLARF’s land-based missile capabilities.[156] Further, this article assumes that China will not unilaterally decide to eliminate its thousands of ground-launched missile capabilities. These baseline assumptions are important when considering possible objections. Some will argue that modifying the INF Treaty as described in the fourth pathway or withdrawing from it altogether would lead to an arms race in Asia. But China has already decided to pursue this option and was not satisfied with a missile advantage in the tens or even hundreds. Beijing has obtained an estimated 2,000 missiles — the clear majority of which falls within the parameters banned by the INF Treaty. If China continues to refuse to globalize the treaty or to unilaterally and voluntarily eliminate its 2,000 missiles, then the United States has no choice but to pursue withdrawal from the treaty. Others are likely to argue that U.S. allies will not welcome Washington renegotiating, or worst case, withdrawing from the treaty, nor will they allow American ground-launched ballistic or cruise missiles to be forward-based in their countries. In the case of Europe, NATO’s Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, has supported the United States’ decision, stating, “[T]he treaty is not working if it’s only being respected by one side. The problem, the threat, the challenge is Russian behavior, which has been ongoing for a long time.”[157] Such an argument may have merit in South Korea amid ongoing “de-nuclearization” talks.[158]  However, given all that Japan is investing in its military, including for missile-defense systems, F-35As, long-range surveillance aircraft, land-based anti-ship missiles, naval combatant vessels, amphibious ships, and even creating an “Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade,”[159] it is  unlikely that Tokyo would deny such a request.[160] While Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshihide Saga, recently described potential U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty as “undesirable,” he also said, “[C]hanges in the global security environment, such as Russia’s significant violation … are serious issues in light of our country’s peace and stability.”[161] It is more likely that Japan would eventually ask to partner with the United States, having their own interoperable systems. As previously mentioned, the government in Manila might request an interoperable capability for the Filipino army, while possibly allowing new U.S. systems to participate in training exercises such as the recently completed Balikatan or KAMANDAG.[162] Australia, like Japan, has heavily invested in new advanced capabilities to help counter China’s aggressive actions. These capabilities, including an amphibious brigade, ships for this force, F-35As, and long-range surveillance aircraft, were carefully chosen to ensure maximum interoperability with the U.S. military.[163] Additionally, Australia has welcomed a semi-permanent, multi-thousand-personnel U.S. Marine force operating out of Darwin.[164] The proposed land-based missile units could become part of this semi-permanent force in the future, operated by the United States alone, in partnership with the Australian Defense Force, or possibly by only the Australian force. The U.S. military could also forward-base new capabilities in Guam, as it already does with long-range bombers, surveillance aircraft, submarines, and a variety of other capabilities, or position them in other U.S. territories in the Pacific.[165] Other critics might argue that renegotiating or following through and withdrawing from the INF Treaty in 2019 would risk stalling or even derailing “de-nuclearization” efforts with North Korea. In fact, the world will know in the coming months how committed Kim Jong-un is to dismantling his nuclear weapons program. If it is clear that he is serious and that the United States renegotiating or withdrawing from the INF Treaty could cause him to change course, then perhaps the United States might want to delay such efforts by a few months, while prioritizing elimination of nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula first. Even if this path is pursued, initial development efforts for a new Pershing II or similar missile should commence in 2019. After all, the United States is the only major power abiding by the INF Treaty. Simultaneously, the United States should set concrete timelines with North Korea on dismantling its nuclear program. If, within a year, Kim Jong-un has not demonstrated major dismantlement on the path toward complete elimination, and allowed international inspectors to confirm this, the United States should proceed with INF Treaty renegotiation or withdrawal efforts. [quote id="6"] Another potential objection is that renegotiating or withdrawing from the INF Treaty and creating new integrated ground-launched cruise- and ballistic-missile concepts of employment are not necessary to accomplish U.S. security objectives in the Western Pacific. Instead, those holding this belief might argue that all that is necessary to stop Chinese aggression and expansionary efforts is for the United States to confirm publicly that Filipino territorial claims within the Spratly Islands are part of the 1951 U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty.[166] As such, if China were to violate Filipino sovereignty, it would automatically be declaring war on the United States (and its superior nuclear arsenal). In other words, those making this argument would say that the United States simply needs to make clear to Beijing that Filipino claims in the Spratly Islands are the equivalent of American claims. And if these claims are violated, Matthew Kroenig’s “superiority-brinksmanship synthesis theory” directly applies, which China likely does not account for absent this public commitment from Washington.[167] Of the four possible objections, this one is the most interesting because it is all but impossible to know whether it would work. Kroenig’s historical analysis suggests that it would. Yet if public recognition by the United States of Filipino claims in the South China Sea were all that is needed to halt China’s expansion and militarization efforts in the disputed waters, then why hasn’t Washington already done so? It is likely that growing gaps in U.S. conventional warfighting capability relative to China are the primary reason this has not happened. U.S. policymakers likely believe, given the geography and relative differences in conventional combat power in the South China Sea, that depending on nuclear superiority alone is too risky.

Peace Through Strength

So where does the United States go from here on the INF Treaty? This article argued that the United States should continue to try to make a deal on a renegotiated INF Treaty while also making clear that if Moscow and Beijing do not both commit to doing so then Washington will, as the least preferred option, exercise its right to withdraw from the treaty in 2019. Simultaneously, the United States should field AI-enabled lethal autonomous weapons systems to its military forces. These capabilities are critical to restoring America’s full-spectrum conventional military warfighting dominance in the Western Pacific. I also reviewed how the United States and its treaty allies lost this dominance over the past few decades — how China took advantage of U.S. overconfidence in its unipolar moment and, since 2001, the overwhelming U.S. focus on counterterrorism operations in the Middle East to exploit gaps in the INF Treaty. China has fielded around 2,000 ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles — around 95 percent of which would violate the INF Treaty if China were a signatory — that hold at risk all U.S. bases, ports, and even deployed ships in the Western Pacific. China has also fielded a 500-kilometer range lethal autonomous weapon system. With this overwhelming advantage in conventional-strike capability, China subsequently embarked on an aggressive campaign to build and occupy islands in the South China Sea to expand its economic and military influence. Next, I described the National Security Strategy’s intent to restore American dominance in the Western Pacific. The article considered four potential options for the United States to regain its conventional warfighting advantage, alongside its nuclear superiority, in the region. I ultimately recommended the path that America is headed down, a dual-track withdrawal from the INF Treaty as the only viable near-term path to achieve the National Security Strategy intent, while encouraging fielding specifically focused AI-enabled lethal autonomous weapons systems to U.S. close-combat units as quickly as possible. Finally, the article considered the most likely objections to this recommendation. To be sure, it is unfortunate that China’s pursuit of a “projectile-centric” anti-access/area-denial strategy, in conjunction with Beijing’s increasingly aggressive economic and military expansion efforts in the South China Sea, has forced the United States into a position requiring INF Treaty renegotiation or withdrawal, as well as embracing AI-enabled lethal autonomous weapons systems. After welcoming and even encouraging China’s acceptance into the global economy shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and later offering to “globalize” the INF Treaty, one might have hoped that Beijing would have taken a different path. But China did not. It is also increasingly clear that China seeks to dominate the South China Sea, erode U.S. military alliances in Asia, and threaten the post-World War II rules-based international order, including with autonomous weapons. For the United States to achieve the objectives described in the National Security Strategy, thereby stopping China from achieving its goals, it must renegotiate or exercise its right to withdraw from the INF Treaty immediately. Simultaneously, the Pentagon should move as quickly as possible to equip close-combat units with AI-enabled lethal autonomous weapons systems to add another key layer to its deterrent capabilities. These actions are essential to future U.S. security interests in the Pacific. Acknowledgements: For helpful discussions and suggestions, the author would like to thank Michael Albertson, Elizabeth Charles, T.X. Hammes, Frank Hoffman, Ben Jensen, Matthew Kroenig, James Graham Wilson, Ryan Evans, an anonymous reviewer, and the Texas National Security Review editing team. Any remaining shortcomings are solely the author’s responsibility. Scott A. Cuomo is a Marine infantry officer and operational planner currently participating in the Commandant of the Marine Corps Strategist Program at Georgetown University. Image: Department of Defense [post_title] => It's Time to Make a New Deal: Solving the INF Treaty's Strategic Liabilities to Achieve U.S. Security Goals in Asia [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => its-time-to-make-a-new-deal-solving-the-inf-treatys-strategic-liabilities-to-achieve-u-s-security-goals-in-asia [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-04-09 17:54:58 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-04-09 21:54:58 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw [lead] => 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 units then threatened U.S., allied, and civilian ships and aircraft operating in the region. These Chinese forces are backed by the world’s best conventionally-armed, land-based missile force. U.S. Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty compliance and reluctance to field autonomous weapons has limited the Pentagon’s ability to counter Chinese actions. This article describes a new approach that enables achieving U.S. security goals in Asia. [pubinfo] => [issue] => Vol 2, Iss 1 [quotes] => Array ( [0] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => [A]ppreciate 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. ) [1] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => 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. ) [2] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => The U.S. has a clear overmatch against China in nuclear weapons capability; however...this overmatch does not extend to the most important conventional warfighting capabilities in the Western Pacific. ) [3] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => Specific to the ongoing problem in the South China Sea, though, it would be unwise to place in these new technologies all hopes of the U.S. regaining competitive conventional warfighting advantage in the near term. ) [4] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Ultimately, for the U.S.-Japanese alliance, the long-term goal would be for these forces to be partnered and fully interoperable... ) [5] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => For the United States to achieve the objectives described in the National Security Strategy, thereby stopping China from achieving its goals, it must renegotiate or exercise its right to withdraw from the INF Treaty immediately. ) ) [style] => strategist [type] => Strategist [style_label] => The Strategist [download] => Array ( [title] => PDF Download [file] => 1286 ) [authors] => Array ( [0] => 222 ) [endnotes] => Array ( [title] => Endnotes [endnotes] => [1] Evan Braden Montgomery, “Contested Primacy in the Western Pacific: China’s Rise and the Future of U.S. Power Projection,” International Security 38, no. 4 (Spring 2014): 115-49 and James Holmes, “Visualize Chinese Sea Power,” Proceedings, June 2018, 27-31. [2] David E. Sanger and William J. Broad, “U.S. to Tell Russia It Is Leaving Landmark I.N.F. Treaty," New York Times, Oct. 19, 2018, [3] Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, “U.S. to Terminate Arms-Control Treaty Over Russia’s ‘Violations,’” Oct. 21, 2018, [4] John Hudson and Paul Sonne, “Bolton Pushes Trump Administration to Withdraw from Landmark Arms Treaty,” Washington Post, Oct. 19, 2018, [5] “Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments,” State Department, July 2014,; Thomas Shugart and Javier Gonzalez, First Strike: China’s Missile Threat to U.S. Bases in Asia (Washington, DC: Center for a New American Security, June 2017); Karoun Demirjian, “Lawmakers Take Steps Toward Nullifying Nuclear Arms Treaty with Russia,” Washington Post, May 10, 2018,; H.R. 5515, “John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019,” July 2018, 1029–34, [6] “Advance Policy Questions for Admiral Philip Davidson, USN, Expected Nominee for Commander, U.S. Pacific Command,” April 17, 2018, [7] “Hearing to Receive Testimony on United States Pacific Command and United States Forces Korea,” Senate Armed Services Committee, April 27, 2017, [8] “Treaty Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Elimination of Their Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles (INF Treaty),” State Department, Dec. 8, 1987, [9] Shugart and Gonzalez, First Strike, 4. [10] Eric Sayers, “The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Future of the Indo-Pacific Military Balance,” War on the Rocks, Feb. 13, 2018, [11] Ankit Panda, “The Uncertain Future of the INF Treaty,” Council on Foreign Relations, Oct. 22, 2018, [12] This map has been reprinted here with permission from the RAND Corporation. The original can be found in Eric Heginbotham et al., The U.S.-China Military Scorecard: Forces, Geography, and the Evolving Balance of Power, 1996–2017, RR-393-AF, (RAND Corporation, September 2015), [13] See, for example, Jim Thomas, “Statement Before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces on the Future of the INF Treaty,” July 17, 2014,; Sayers, “The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Future of the Indo-Pacific Military Balance”; Patrick M. Cronin and Hunter Stires, “China Is Waging a Maritime Insurgency in the South China Sea. It’s Time for the United States to Counter It,” National Interest, Aug. 6, 2018,; Elbridge Colby and Jonathan F. Solomon, “Avoiding Becoming a Paper Tiger: Presence in a Warfighting Defense Strategy,” Joint Force Quarterly 82, no. 3 (2016), 24-32,; and  David Ochmanek et al., U.S. Military Capabilities and Forces for a Dangerous World: Rethinking the U.S. Approach to Force Planning (RAND Corporation, 2017), xii and 10-11, ttps:// [14] As one example, see the dialogue between Sen. Tom Cotton and Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr. in “Hearing to Receive Testimony on United States Pacific Command and United States Forces Korea,” Senate Armed Services Committee, April 27, 2017, [15] See, for example, Steven Pifer, “The Trump Administration Is Preparing a Major Mistake on the INF Treaty,” Brookings Institution, Oct. 19, 2018, [16] Defense Department, “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2017,” 57, [17] The gross domestic product comparative data are from the World Bank, [18] Gregory B. Poling and Conor Cronin, “The Dangers of Allowing U.S.-Philippine Defense Cooperation to Languish,” War on the Rocks, May 17, 2018,; and Cronin and Stires, “China Is Waging a Maritime Insurgency in the South China Sea.” [19] Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, “U.S. to Terminate Arms-Control Treaty Over Russia’s ‘Violations.’” [20] The image source is the Defense Department’s “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2017,” 11, [21] Michael J. Green, By More Than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific Since 1783 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 543. [22] Henry J. (Jerry) Hendrix, “At What Cost a Carrier,” Center for a New American Security, March 2013, 8, [23] T.X. Hammes, “The Future of Warfare: Small, Many, Smart Vs. Few & Exquisite?” War on the Rocks, July 16, 2014, [24] Thomas, “Statement Before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces on the Future of the INF Treaty”; Jeff Cummings, Scott Cuomo, Olivia Garard, and Noah Spataro, “Marine Warbot Companies: Where Naval Warfare, the U.S. National Defense Strategy, and Close Combat Lethality Task Force Intersect,” War on the Rocks, June 28, 2018, Additionally, for more information on lethal autonomous weapons, including those reported in China’s inventory, see Paul Scharre, The Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War (New York: W.W. Norton, 2018), 47–50. [25] Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, “U.S. to Terminate Arms-Control Treaty Over Russia’s ‘Violations.’” [26] Department of Defense Policy Directive 3000.09, “Autonomy in Weapon Systems,” May 8, 2017, [27] “Autonomy in Weapon Systems.” [28] Michael J. Mazarr, “The Real History of the Liberal Order: Neither Myth Nor Accident,” Foreign Affairs, Aug. 7, 2018, [29] National Security Strategy of the United States of America, White House, December 2017, [30] David Holloway, “The Dynamics of the Euromissile Crisis, 1977–1983” in The Euromissile Crisis and the End of the Cold War, ed. Leopoldo Nuti, Frederic Bozo, Marie-Pierre Rey, and Bernd Rother (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2015), 11–12; and Richard Rhodes, Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), 134–35. [31] Holloway, “The Dynamics of the Euromissile Crisis, 1977–1983,” 12–13. [32] Holloway, “The Dynamics of the Euromissile Crisis, 1977–1983,” 16–17. [33] Martin Walker, The Cold War: A History (New York: Henry Holt, 1993), 246–48. [34] Rhodes, Arsenals of Folly, 60–61. [35] Andrew Axelrod, “Hours After Assassin’s Release Ronald Reagan’s Family Publish Controversial Statement,” Life Aspire, Aug. 10, 2016, [36] Rhodes, Arsenals of Folly, 149. [37] Rhodes, Arsenals of Folly, 175. [38] Rhodes, Arsenals of Folly, 160–63. [39] Rhodes, Arsenals of Folly. [40] Rhodes, Arsenals of Folly, 162; and Ronald Reagan, An American Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990), 582–86. [41] Dmitry Adamsky, “‘Not Crying Wolf’: Soviet Intelligence and the 1983 Scare,” in The Euromissile Crisis and the End of the Cold War, ed. Leopoldo Nuti, Frederic Bozo, Marie-Pierre Rey, and Bernd Rother (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2015), 56-57. [42] Adamsky, “‘Not Crying Wolf.’” [43] Rhodes, Arsenals of Folly, 164. [44] Adamsky, “‘Not Crying Wolf,’” 56-57. [45] Rhodes, Arsenals of Folly, 165. [46] Rhodes, Arsenals of Folly, 166. [47] Rhodes, Arsenals of Folly, 166. [48] Reagan, An American Life, 550; and Melvyn P. Leffler, “Ronald Reagan and the Cold War: What Mattered Most,” Texas National Security Review 1, no. 3 (May 2018): 77–89, [49] Reagan, An American Life, 550; and Marilena Gala, “The Euromissile Crisis and the Centrality of the ‘Zero Option,’” in The Euromissile Crisis and the End of the Cold War, ed. Leopoldo Nuti, Frederic Bozo, Marie-Pierre Rey, and Bernd Rother (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2015), 161–62. [50] Reagan, An American Life, 554. [51] Reagan, An American Life, 586–87. [52] Reagan, An American Life, 11–13. [53] Rhodes, Arsenals of Folly, 212; Elizabeth C. Charles, “Gorbachev and the Decision to Decouple the Arms Control Package,” in The Euromissile Crisis and the End of the Cold War, ed. Leopoldo Nuti, Frederic Bozo, Marie-Pierre Rey, and Bernd Rother (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2015), 66–84; and James Graham Wilson, “The Nuclear and Space Talks, George Shultz, and the End of the Cold War,” in New Perspectives on the End of the Cold War: Unexpected Transformations? ed. Bernhard Blumenau, Jussi M. Hanhimaki, and Barbara Zanchetta (New York: Routledge, 2018), 35. [54] Rhodes, Arsenals of Folly, 212. [55] Rhodes, Arsenals of Folly, 69. [56] Rhodes, Arsenals of Folly, 219. [57] Howard A. Tyner, “Gorbachev Offers Gesture on Missiles,” Chicago Tribune, April 8, 1985, [58] Reagan, An American Life, 11–16. [59] Rhodes, Arsenals of Folly, 3–26 and 227–28. [60] Rhodes, Arsenals of Folly, 21. [61] Reagan, An American Life, 676, 685, and 710; Charles, “Gorbachev and the Decision to Decouple the Arms Control Package,” 81; and Svetlana Savranskaya, “Learning to Disarm: Mikhail Gorbachev’s Interactive Learning and Changes in the Soviet Negotiating Positions Leading to the INF Treaty,” in The Euromissile Crisis and the End of the Cold War, ed. Leopoldo Nuti, Frederic Bozo, Marie-Pierre Rey, and Bernd Rother (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2015), 90–91. [62] INF Treaty, [63] INF Treaty, [64] Panda, “The Uncertain Future of the INF Treaty.” [65] Sayers, “The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Future of the Indo-Pacific Military Balance”; and David T. Jones, “Asian Arms Control Attitudes Post-INF,” in The Reagan-Gorbachev Arms Control Breakthrough: The Treaty Eliminating Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force Missiles, ed. David T. Jones (Vellum, 2012), 263–76. [66] Jones, “Asian Arms Control Attitudes Post-INF,” 272–76. [67] “Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments,” State Department, 2018,; and Nuclear Posture Review, Defense Department (February 2018), 10, [68] Matthew Kroenig, “Washington Must Respond to Russia’s New Nuclear Missile,” Atlantic Council, Feb. 14, 2017, [69] John M. Donnelly, “Hill Wants Answers on Russia’s Fielding of New Missiles,” Roll Call, March 8, 2017, [70] “Consequences and Context for Russia’s Violations of the INF Treaty,” House Armed Services Committee, March 30, 2017,; and Jeffrey Lewis, “So Long, INF?” Arms Control Wonk, March 10, 2005, [71] “Hearing to Receive Testimony on United States Pacific Command and United States Forces Korea,” [72] Demirjian, “Lawmakers Take Steps Toward Nullifying Nuclear Arms Treaty with Russia.” [73] Stephen Biddle and Ivan Oelrich, “Future Warfare in the Western Pacific: Chinese Antiaccess/Area Denial, U.S. AirSea Battle, and Command of the Commons in East Asia,” International Security 41, no. 1 (Summer 2016): 7–48,; and Sayers, “The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Future of the Indo-Pacific Military Balance.” [74] Montgomery, “Contested Primacy in the Western Pacific”; Shugart and Gonzalez, First Strike; and Defense Department, “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2017,” 57, [75] Shugart and Gonzalez, First Strike, 4. [76] Eric Heginbotham et al., The U.S.-China Military Scorecard: Forces, Geography, and the Evolving Balance of Power 19962017 (RAND Corporation, September 2015), 47–54, [77] Heginbotham et al., The U.S.-China Military Scorecard. [78] Hendrix, “At What Cost a Carrier.” [79] Shugart and Gonzalez, First Strike, 2. [80] Shugart and Gonzalez, First Strike, 1. [81] Shugart and Gonzalez, First Strike, 13; T.X. Hammes, “America Is Well Within Range of a Big Surprise, So Why Can’t It See?” War on the Rocks, March 12, 2018, For more on the increasing lethality of such weapons, see 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, [82] Ian Easton, “China’s Military Strategy in the Asia-Pacific: Implications for Regional Stability,” Project 2049 Institute, Sept. 26, 2013, 13–14, [83] James Pearson and Greg Torode, “Exclusive: Satellite Images Reveal Show of Force by Chinese Navy in South China Sea,” Reuters, March 27, 2018, [84] Ben C. Solomon and Felipe Villamor, “Filipinos Get a Glimpse of Their Ruined City. The Chinese Get the Contract,” New York Times, April 10, 2018, [85] Helen Davidson, “Chinese Company Secures 99-Year Lease of Darwin Port in $506M Deal,” Guardian, Oct. 13, 2015, [86] Bernard Lagan, “Australia Fears China’s Military Might on Pacific Isle,” Times (London), May 1, 2018, [87] Aaron B. O’Connell, Underdogs: The Making of the Modern Marine Corps (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 46–48; and Edwin Howard Simmons, The United States Marines: A History (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1974), 136–37. [88] Cronin and Stires, “China Is Waging a Maritime Insurgency in the South China Sea. It’s Time for the United States to Counter It.” [89] Charles Krauthammer, “The Unipolar Moment,” Foreign Affairs 70, no. 1 (1990/1991), 23, [90] “China Officially Joins WTO,” CNN, Nov. 11, 2001, [91] Dale Rielage, “How We Lost the Great Pacific War,” Proceedings 144, no. 5 (May 2018), [92] William Braniff and Alex Gallo, “New Defense Strategy Requires Paradigm Shift in US Counterterrorism,” Hill, Jan. 27, 2018, [93] National Security Strategy. [94] National Security Strategy, 25. [95] National Security Strategy, 28. [96] National Security Strategy, 28. [97] “A Constructive Year for Chinese Base Building,” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Dec. 14, 2017,; Poling and Cronin, “The Dangers of Allowing U.S.-Philippine Defense Cooperation to Languish.” [98] This image can be found at the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative: [99] National Security Strategy, 45. [100] Matthew Kroenig, The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 189. [101] Kroenig, Logic of American Nuclear Strategy, 3–4. [102] Kroenig, Logic of American Nuclear Strategy, 192. [103] Kroenig, Logic of American Nuclear Strategy, 192. [104] Kroenig, Logic of American Nuclear Strategy, 154. [105] Kroenig, Logic of American Nuclear Strategy, 154. [106] Bill Hayton, “Is Tillerson Willing to Go to War Over the South China Sea?” Foreign Policy, Jan. 13, 2017,; Poling and Cronin, “The Dangers of Allowing U.S.-Philippine Defense Cooperation to Languish.” [107] Ross Babbage, “It Is High Time to Outmaneuver Beijing in the South China Sea,” War on the Rocks, Dec. 28, 2016, [108] Hammes, “America Is Well Within Range of a Big Surprise, So Why Can’t It See?” [109] Hammes, “America Is Well Within Range of a Big Surprise, So Why Can’t It See?” [110] Hammes, “America Is Well Within Range of a Big Surprise, So Why Can’t It See?” [111] Jeff Daniels, “Lockheed’s F-35 Deal Ratchets Up Pressure to Slash Production Costs,” CNBC, Feb. 3, 2017, [112] Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., “F-35C & Ford Carriers — A Wrong Turn for Navy: CNAS,” Breaking Defense, Oct. 19, 2015, [113] Sam LaGrone, “Keel Laid for Amphibious Warship Tripoli,” USNI News, June 20, 2014,; Robert C. Owen, “Distributed STOVL Operations and Air-Mobility Support: Addressing the Mismatch Between Requirements and Capabilities,” Naval War College Review 69, no. 4 (2016): 30–48, [114] Aaron Mehta, “Pentagon ‘Can’t Afford the Sustainment Costs’ on F-35, Lord Says,” Defense News, Feb. 1, 2018, [115] Robert Schroeder, “U.S. National Debt Exceeds $21 Trillion for First Time,” MarketWatch, March 16, 2018, [116] Hammes, “America Is Well Within Range of a Big Surprise, So Why Can’t It See?” [117] David Ignatius, “The Chinese Threat that an Aircraft Carrier Can’t Stop,” Washington Post, Aug. 7, 2018,; and Jeff Cummings, Scott Cuomo, Olivia Garard, and Noah Spataro, “Marines, Algorithms, and Ammo: Taking ‘Team of Teams’ to the Contested Littorals,” War on the Rocks, Dec. 14, 2017, [118] Scharre, The Army of None, 47–50. [119] Kelsey Atherton, “See China’s Massive Robot Boat Swarm in Action,” C4ISRNET, June 1, 2018,; and Elsa B. Kania, “Battlefield Singularity: Artificial Intelligence, Military Revolution, and China’s Future Military Power,” Center for a New American Security, November 2017, 23, [120] Patrick Tucker, “The US Is Accelerating Development of Its Own ‘Invincible’ Hypersonic Weapons,” Defense One, March 2, 2018, [121] Tucker, “The US Is Accelerating Development of Its Own ‘Invincible’ Hypersonic Weapons.” [122] Jessie Yeung, “China Claims to Have Successfully Tested Its First Hypersonic Aircraft,” CNN, Aug. 7, 2018, [123] Yeung, “China Claims to Have Successfully Tested Its First Hypersonic Aircraft.” [124] Tucker, “The US Is Accelerating Development of Its Own ‘Invincible’ Hypersonic Weapons.” [125] “Autonomy in Weapon Systems,” [126] Scharre, Army of None, 88–89. [127] Cummings, Cuomo, Garard, and Spataro, “Marine Warbot Companies”; and Jeff Cummings, Scott Cuomo, Olivia Garard, and Noah Spataro, “How the Marines Will Help the U.S. Navy and America’s Allies Win the Great Indo-Pacific War of 2025,” War on the Rocks, Sept. 26, 2018, [128] Michael C. Horowitz, The Diffusion of Military Power: Causes and Consequences for International Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), 5. [129] Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, “U.S. to Terminate Arms-Control Treaty Over Russia’s ‘Violations.’” [130] Megan Eckstein, “PACOM: U.S. Should Renegotiate INF Missile Treaty to Better Compete with China,” USNI News, April 27, 2017, [131] Wade Boese, “U.S. Withdraws from ABM Treaty; Global Response Muted,” Arms Control Association, July/August 2002, [132] “Trump Administration INF Treaty Integrated Strategy,” State Department, Dec. 8, 2017,; and Michael R. Gordon, “Russia Deploys Missile, Violating Treaty and Challenging Trump,” New York Times, Feb. 14, 2017, [133] H.R. 5515, “John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019,” 1029–34, [134] Assuming such a summit achieved positive progress with the three nations agreeing to one of the first three subsequently described pathways, or just the United States and Russia agreeing to the fourth pathway, then a subsequent summit would be held that includes Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. As former Soviet states, these are the only other three nations that are both legally bound by the treaty and that have participated in discussions associated with the treaty’s future. [135] Kelsey Davenport, “India Tests Long-Range Missile,” Arms Control Association (January/February 2017), [136] “Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I) (narrative),” State Department Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, [137] Thomas, “Statement Before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces on the Future of the INF Treaty.” [138] Thomas, “Statement Before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces on the Future of the INF Treaty.” [139] Thomas, “Statement Before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces on the Future of the INF Treaty.” [140] Sayers, “The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Future of the Indo-Pacific Military Balance.” [141] Thomas, “Statement Before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces on the Future of the INF Treaty.” [142] Tim Kelly, “Japan Eyes Defense Budget Hike to Fortify Island Chain Facing China,” Reuters, Aug. 31, 2015, [143] Steven Stashwick, “Japan Considering New Anti-Ship Missiles for Its Southwestern Islands,” Diplomat, March 1, 2018,; and William Cole, “US and Japan Fire Missiles to Sink Ship During RIMPAC,”, July 15, 2018, [144] For an explanation of the differences between compellence and deterrence, see Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008). [145] Poling and Cronin, “The Dangers of Allowing U.S.-Philippine Defense Cooperation to Languish.” [146] Poling and Cronin, “The Dangers of Allowing U.S.-Philippine Defense Cooperation to Languish.” [147] Poling and Cronin, “The Dangers of Allowing U.S.-Philippine Defense Cooperation to Languish”; Alyssa Morales, “U.S., Philippines and Japan Conduct Amphibious Landing in the Philippines,”, Oct. 8, 2018,; and Ben Werner, “U.S. and Philippine Militaries Will Increase Security Cooperation in 2019,” USNI News, Oct. 3, 2018, [148] Werner, “U.S. and Philippine Militaries Will Increase Security Cooperation in 2019.” [149] Nick Penzenstadler, “Philippines’ Duterte to U.S. over aid: ‘Bye-bye America,’” USA Today, Dec. 17, 2016, [150] Poling and Cronin, “The Dangers of Allowing U.S.-Philippine Defense Cooperation to Languish.” [151] Poling and Cronin, “The Dangers of Allowing U.S.-Philippine Defense Cooperation to Languish.” [152] Hendrix, “At What Cost a Carrier,” 8. [153] This image can be found at the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative: [154] Cummings, Cuomo, Garard, and Spataro, “Marine Warbot Companies”; and “How the Marines Will Help the U.S. Navy and America’s Allies Win the Great Indo-Pacific War of 2025.” [155] Thomas, “Statement Before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces on the Future of the INF Treaty”; and Panda, “The Uncertain Future of the INF Treaty.” [156] Defense Department, “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2017,” 57. [157] “NATO Chief Backs Trump, Says Russia Violating Nuke Treaty,” CBS News, Oct. 24, 2018, [158] While South Korea might not welcome new U.S. missile systems on the peninsula, the Republic of Korea Army already fields non-compliant INF systems. [159] Grant Newsham, “Japan Activates Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade: What Now?” Japan Forward, April 9, 2018, [160] “Japan’s 2017 Defense Spending to Hit $43.6Bn; Interceptor Missile System Procurement Likely,”, Dec. 23, 2016, [161] “Japan to Urge U.S. not to Leave Nuke Pact, Citing Possible Arms Race, North Korea Denuclearization,” Japan Times, Oct. 23, 2018, [162] Prashanth Parameswaran, “What Does a Bigger 2018 Balikatan Military Exercise Say About US-Philippines Alliance Under Duterte?” Diplomat, May 8, 2018,; and Morales, “U.S., Philippines and Japan Conduct Amphibious Landing in the Philippines.” KAMANDAG is an acronym for the Filipino phrase Kaagapay Ng Mga Mandirigma Ng Dagat, or cooperation of warriors of the sea. [163] Murielle Delaporte, “Aussie F-35A Drives Historic Shift to USAF Focus from USN,” Breaking Defense, April 3, 2018, [164] “Record Numbers of US Marines Arrive in Darwin for Six Months of Joint Training,” ABC News (Australia), April 24, 2018, [165] Adam Ashton, “Quietly, Guam Is Slated to Become Massive New U.S. Military Base,” McClatchy, Nov. 22, 2015, [166] Poling and Cronin, “The Dangers of Allowing U.S.-Philippine Defense Cooperation to Languish.” [167] Kroenig, Logic of American Nuclear Strategy, 3–4. ) [contents] => Array ( [title] => [contents] => ) ) [8] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 810 [post_author] => 242 [post_date] => 2018-11-12 05:00:26 [post_date_gmt] => 2018-11-12 10:00:26 [post_content] => The Communist Party of China announced in October that it had published a new book by Xi Jinping on his concept for a “community of common destiny for mankind” (人类命运共同体).[1] In its official English translation — a “community of shared future for mankind” — the phrase lands with a soft thud. It sounds equally fuzzy — if more grandiose — when translated more literally from Chinese. But China watchers would be wrong to dismiss the concept as vague or empty propaganda. As one of the party’s banner terms, it sheds light on Beijing’s strategic intentions and plays an important role in China’s approach to foreign policy issues as diverse as trade, climate change, cyber operations, and security cooperation. What, then, do Xi and other Chinese leaders mean when they call for building a community of common destiny? And why should anyone outside Beijing care? The phrase expresses in a nutshell Beijing’s long-term vision for transforming the international environment to make it compatible with China’s governance model and emergence as a global leader. Chinese officials make clear that the concept has become central in Beijing’s foreign policy framework and overall national strategy. China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, wrote in August 2018, “Building a community of common destiny for mankind is the overall goal of China’s foreign affairs work in the new era.” A prerequisite or pathway for building the community, he noted, is the establishment of a “new type of international relations” that supports, rather than threatens, China’s national rejuvenation.[2] Xi has highlighted the community’s crucial place in the party’s renewal strategy. In June, for instance, he exhorted Chinese diplomats to “continuously facilitate a favorable external environment for realizing the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation and promote the building of a community of common destiny.”[3] Although Xi has made “community of common destiny” a hallmark of his diplomacy, he did not coin the phrase, nor did he generate its core tenets. Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, used the terminology in 2007 to describe cross-Strait ties and in later discussions of China’s neighborhood diplomacy and peaceful development.[4] Chinese state media credit Xi with introducing it as a global concept in 2013 in Moscow, during his first international trip as president.[5] The aspirations it expresses echo and expand upon themes voiced by Chinese leaders since the early days of the People’s Republic. In 1954, Premier Zhou Enlai proposed in meetings with India the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence”: mutual respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-interference in internal affairs, equality and cooperation, and peaceful coexistence. Subsequent Chinese leaders, including Xi, have reaffirmed these principles as key tenets of Chinese foreign policy.[6] President Jiang Zemin’s “new security concept” in the late 1990s echoed the Five Principles and rejected the “old security concept based on military alliances and build-up of armaments.”[7] In a similar vein, President Hu proposed building a “harmonious world” in a 2005 speech to the United Nations. Hu affirmed his predecessors’ concepts and called for reforms to give developing countries a greater voice in global governance.[8] Each of these proposals reflects long-standing Chinese objections to features of the current international order, including U.S.-led security alliances, military superpower, and democratic norms. Xi, however, has gone much further than his predecessors to promote his vision for transforming global governance (全球治理变革). For Xi, China’s growing comprehensive national power (综合国力) means that Beijing has greater ability — and faces a greater urgency — to achieve its long-held aspirations.[9] In June 2018, at a Central Foreign Affairs Work Conference (a rarely convened forum in Beijing that issues seminal guidance to China’s diplomatic establishment), Xi made a crucial progression from his predecessors’ rhetoric. He called for China to “take an active part in leading the reform of the global governance system” (积极参与引领全球治理体系改革).[10] Previously, he and his forebears had more modestly called for China to “actively participate” in global governance reforms.[11] Xi linked his exhortation to his vision of building a community of common destiny. Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative, also launched in 2013, is the most visible means by which Beijing is executing his vision. In August, diplomat Yang Jiechi called Belt and Road an “important practical platform” for making the community of common destiny a reality. The multibillion-dollar plan aims to build physical and virtual connectivity between China and other countries, originally in Asia and now throughout the world.[12] At the 19th Party Congress in October 2017, the party amended its constitution to add two phrases: “pursue the Belt and Road Initiative” and “build a community of common destiny”[13] — elevating both the initiative and its underlying vision within the party’s long-term strategy. China’s success or failure in achieving its vision will depend in large part on how its proposals are received in other countries. Regardless of the ultimate outcome, Beijing’s pursuit of its goals has already had repercussions, as evidenced by the growing international attention toward the Belt and Road Initiative, both its failures and achievements.[14] Policymakers in the United States and like-minded countries seeking to defend and strengthen the principles of what they now refer to as the “free and open Indo-Pacific”[15] need to look carefully at China’s goals for reforming global governance as Beijing itself expresses them. [quote id="1"] Xi’s description of his concept in two speeches to the United Nations, at the General Assembly in September 2015 and in Geneva in January 2017, is a good place to start.[16] In the 2017 speech, Xi likened the community of common destiny to a Swiss army knife — a Chinese-designed multifunctional tool for solving the world’s problems. On both occasions, he proposed the concept as a better model for global governance in five dimensions: politics, security, development (economic, social, technological, etc.), culture, and the environment. In sum, the five dimensions reflect the extraordinarily wide range of arenas in which Beijing believes it must restructure global governance to enable China to integrate with the world while at the same time achieving global leadership. If Beijing succeeds in realizing this ambitious vision, the implication for the United States and like-minded nations is a global environment with striking differences from the current order: A global network of partnerships centered on China would replace the U.S. system of treaty alliances, the international community would regard Beijing’s authoritarian governance model as a superior alternative to Western electoral democracy, and the world would credit the Communist Party of China for developing a new path to peace, prosperity, and modernity that other countries can follow.


Xi’s description of the political dimension of the community includes emphasis on two terms that are worth examining closely: democracy and partnerships. Both highlight the link between China’s domestic political requirements and its push to reform the international system. “Democracy” is a core principle to which Beijing officially ascribes, both in international relations and domestic governance. In his 2015 speech to the United Nations, Xi said, “Consultation is an important form of democracy, and it should also become an important means of exercising international governance.” So what do the leaders of the world’s largest authoritarian regime mean when they advocate “consultative” democracy? In international relations, it means equality among sovereign nations regardless of regime type (i.e., authoritarian or democratic); a growing voice for developing countries (including China); and an absence of “dominance by just one or several countries,” as Xi put it in 2017. This reflects Beijing’s objections to Washington’s dominant international influence, along with its like-minded allies. For Beijing, democracy in international relations means shifting global influence away from Washington and U.S. allies and toward China and other countries that accede to its concepts. Chinese leaders advocate “consultative” democracy not only in state-to-state relations but also within states, arguing that it is a valid and even superior model. Chinese official media disparage Western democratic regimes as chaotic, confrontational, competitive, inefficient, and oligarchic.[17]  They assert that China has developed a more enlightened form of democracy in its “new type of party system” (新型政党制度).[18] In this system, the Communist Party is the sole political authority, but minority parties and nonaffiliated groups participate in parts of the decision-making process as outside consultants via the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.[19] They argue that other features of China’s political system, such as people’s congresses and consensus-building “inner-party democracy,” purportedly make China’s “democracy” more effective than Western electoral democracy.[20] There is, however, a clear contradiction between China’s articulation of “democracy” in international relations, which argues that all countries are equal regardless of size or political regime, and its approach in domestic politics, where a single party rules, minority parties serve as outside consultants, and dissenting voices are silenced. Nonetheless, the Communist Party is taking practical steps to disseminate its ideas abroad by providing political training to African leaders and young elites in topics such as party structure, propaganda work, and managing center-local relations.[21] Partnerships are another foundational element in Xi’s community of common destiny. They are key vehicles by which Beijing promotes international acceptance of its concepts. At the United Nations in 2017, Xi called for international partnerships based on “dialogue, non-confrontation, and non-alliance” and asserted that “China is the first country to make partnership-building a principle guiding state-to-state relations.” Partnerships are China’s alternative to U.S.-style alliances. Beijing prefers them because they do not confer treaty obligations and they allow the partners to cooperate despite differences in ideologies and social systems.[22] According to Xi, China had 90 such partnerships with countries and regional organizations around the world as of 2017,[23] and Beijing intends to continue expanding its “global network of partnerships.”[24] China and its partner often designate a name for the relationship, setting a positive tone and a basis for cooperation. A frequently used moniker is “comprehensive strategic partnership.” This has been applied to China’s relations with Australia, Egypt, the European Union, Indonesia, Iran, and many others.[25] Importantly, China and Russia have gone a step further, naming their ties a “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination.” The title reflects both the wide scope of the relationship (“comprehensive”) and agreement to collaborate on development strategies and international affairs (“coordination”).[26] China and the United States established a lesser constructive strategic partnership in the late 1990s.[27] However, successive U.S. administrations dropped the term, and the two countries no longer have a named partnership. That is probably just as well for the United States, because China often invokes the partnership to threaten retaliation when it perceives that its partner has violated “mutual trust.” In January 2018, on the eve of British Prime Minister Theresa May’s first visit to China, Beijing’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Liu Xiaoming, wrote in glowing terms of the “China-UK ‘Golden Era,’” which he called “the strategic definition of China-UK relations.”[28] But in September, Britain tarnished the golden glow by sailing the HMS Albion near the Paracel Islands, disputed features that China occupies in the South China Sea. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson warned that the action would harm bilateral ties. State-controlled China Daily filled in the details, admonishing London to “refrain from being Washington’s sharksucker in the South China Sea” if it hoped to make progress with China on a post-Brexit trade deal.[29] As others have documented, the U.K. experience is far from unique. A number of countries in recent years have experienced China’s economic coercion.[30] This phenomenon highlights the pretense in Beijing’s promises to offer its partners cooperation with “no strings attached” and its refrain that “major powers should treat small countries as equals.” If Beijing wishes to generate greater global acceptance of its model over the long term, it may need to adjust its narratives or its behavior to address, or at least distract from, these contradictions.


The solutions Xi proposes for the world’s urgent security crises can be summarized in two words that feature prominently in his speeches at the United Nations, as well as in other Chinese leaders’ statements: dialogue and development. Xi advocates resolving crises via dialogue between the parties directly involved. The United Nations, according to Xi, should mediate when necessary and, through its  Security Council, should play the central role in ending conflicts and keeping peace. For example, for Syria’s civil war, China consistently advocates political settlement as the only legitimate path to a solution.[31] The unstated alternative — Western powers intervening militarily in a dictatorship on humanitarian grounds — is highly worrisome to Beijing. Chinese leaders also argue that development is key to addressing the root causes of international problems such as terrorism and refugee crises. The notion that Chinese development assistance could bring renewal and stability to regions plagued by terrorism and refugee crises has appeal, especially in an era of stretched budgets in Western countries. Yet, China’s draconian crackdowns on what it calls “terrorism, separatism, and extremism”[32] within its borders are reasons to be circumspect about Beijing’s claims that it has developed better solutions for mankind’s problems. [quote id="2"] Furthermore, the United States and its allies should be clear on the significant change from the status quo that China’s proposals would impart. Beijing opposes “interventionism” and, as noted above, calls frequently for “partnerships based on dialogue, non-confrontation, and non-alliance.”[33] Beijing views U.S.-style alliances as outdated relics of the Cold War, overly antagonistic and out of step with contemporary international conditions. It is logical to infer that Beijing’s opposition to U.S. security alliances is also due to the coercive potential that coalitions of democracies represent. Xi’s speeches to the United Nations do not acknowledge any contribution of the United States and its allies to keeping the peace and enhancing global prosperity since World War II. Rather, he credits the United Nations and the global community writ large and proposes his community of common destiny as the framework for future success. Beijing’s objections to U.S. alliances reflect a deep-seated belief that the U.S.-led security architecture in Asia is a structural impediment to China’s development and security.[34] Chinese leaders’ strong aversion to chaos that could put China’s strategic interests at risk suggests that Beijing will not seek to overturn U.S. alliances suddenly. But over the long term, Beijing’s community of common destiny implies a future in which U.S. alliances are absent. Given Xi’s track record for moving more assertively than his predecessors to implement foreign policy preferences, the United States and its allies should be vigilant about Chinese attempts to discredit or meddle in their ties.


Xi claims that his community provides a better path for countries to achieve development and modernity than what the West offers. For Chinese leaders, development includes and goes beyond economics to encompass social development, technology, and innovation, and it can serve as a point of connection between countries to keep conflict at bay. According to Xi, two concepts crucial to the success of the Chinese development model are openness and markets. Ironically, these were precisely the terms Washington used earlier this year to criticize China’s economic practices. According to the Office of the United States Trade Representative, since joining the World Trade Organization in 2001 China has failed to adopt “open, market-oriented policies” in line with its accession commitments.[35] Clearly, there is a discrepancy in how Washington and Beijing are using the same terms. Chinese leaders continue to affirm their decision to join the World Trade Organization as the right strategic choice. And when they defend China’s commitment to openness, measures such as lowering barriers to China’s domestic markets and easing foreign equity restrictions are among the things they point to. For Beijing, “opening” does not mean what it means to Washington, which envisions a largely one-way process of China opening its doors to the world and progressively adapting to international norms. Rather, Beijing sees opening as a two-way process of integration with the global economy that is necessary for China’s rise — initially to acquire advanced technology and expertise and, later, to shape global norms, standards, and institutions in line with Chinese strategic requirements. China’s frequent calls to make globalization more “open, inclusive, and balanced” appear to be rooted in a belief that connectivity between China and the world will require the world to adapt to Beijing’s preferences as much as — or perhaps more than — the other way around. How does Beijing define “markets”? Chinese development is not premised on capitalism, either of the free-market or state capitalist sort. In Beijing’s telling, its success lies in its socialist market economy.[36] Deng Xiaoping pioneered the concept, arguing in 1985 that “there is no fundamental contradiction between socialism and a market economy” and that combining planning and market economics would “liberate the productive forces and speed up economic growth.”[37] Chinese leaders have made many adjustments to the balance between planning and markets, but the basic principle of combining the two still applies. In development, as in politics, Chinese state media express increasing confidence that China provides a path superior to what the West offers. These sources argue that “socialism with Chinese characteristics, compared with capitalism, is yielding better results.”[38] In his 2015 speech to the United Nations, Xi listed capitalism’s pitfalls: proneness to crises, a lack of moral constraints, and yawning wealth gaps. (Unsurprisingly, he did not mention China’s own struggles with these issues.) Countries can avoid capitalism’s snares by relying on, in Xi’s words, “both the invisible hand and the visible hand.” China’s “better way” combines markets’ ability to allocate resources efficiently with a strong role for the state in controlling key sectors, ensuring equitable social and economic outcomes, stabilizing markets, and solving large-scale problems.[39] Beijing goes further than touting its model as worthy of others’ emulation. Like in the political dimension, it proposes its concepts as a framework to reform global economic governance. China claims to speak on behalf of developing countries as a group, calling for reform of “unfair and unreasonable aspects of the current global governance system.”[40] In part, this means reforming institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and bolstering organizations with a larger voice for developing countries and emerging markets, such as the Group of 20, the BRICS emerging economies, and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. Over the long term, Beijing would like to diminish the U.S. dollar’s role in global finance and the leverage this gives Washington to squeeze other countries with sanctions and monetary policy.[41] China also seeks a larger role for itself and other developing countries in setting global rules, including in emerging domains such as cyberspace, deep seas, polar regions, and outer space.[42] There is certainly a need for a greater voice for developing countries in economic governance given their growing share in global GDP. Outside observers should be vigilant, however, about Beijing’s tendency to conflate its priorities and values with those of the entire community of developing nations. China’s professed commitment to respect each country’s individual choice of a development path and social system rings hollow when juxtaposed with its claims to speak for the majority of the globe. Its partners should insist that the “extensive consultation” China says is foundational in its external initiatives be truly two-way.


Outside observers tend to focus on the triumvirate of political, security, and economic drivers of China’s global engagement, glossing over a fourth arena that Beijing views as vital to its national rejuvenation strategy and global governance vision: culture. This is unfortunate, because culture is arguably the most far-reaching and, at least among China watchers in the United States, the least understood element of China’s foreign policy framework. China’s solution for achieving legitimacy at home and influence abroad hinges on more than economics backstopped by hard power and political maneuvering. Developing an “advanced culture” has long been a core element in the national rejuvenation strategy, and Xi has called for “more energy and concrete measures” to achieve this. In his words, China must do more to “develop a great socialist culture” and “cultivate and observe core socialist values” in order to build itself into a “great modern socialist country” by mid-century.[43] While Beijing’s primary focus is on China’s domestic population, the outside world is not exempt. Yang Jiechi wrote in August, “The culture of socialism with Chinese characteristics has contributed to the solution of the problems of mankind China’s wisdom and China’s proposals.”[44] According to Xinhua, the community of common destiny, manifested most visibly in the Belt and Road Initiative, “connects the Chinese dream with the aspirations of the whole world for peace and development.”[45] The implication is that China’s socialist culture has something to offer not only in China but globally. What does Beijing mean by its “culture of socialism with Chinese characteristics,” and how does that fit into its foreign policy? For external audiences, Xi frames the cultural component of the community of common destiny in terms of cross-cultural exchanges and respect for diversity. In his 2015 speech, Xi called for an increase in “inter-civilization exchanges to promote harmony, inclusiveness, and respect for differences” because “the world is more colorful as a result of its cultural diversity.” In 2017, he echoed those themes and added, “There is no such thing as a superior or inferior civilization.” (Xi did not pioneer these concepts; Jiang Zemin, for example, expressed similar ideas at the United Nations in 2000.[46]) At face value, these are pleasant-sounding, pluralistic sentiments that bring to mind exchanges of language, art, philosophy, and so forth to foster mutual understanding. [quote id="3"] But moments after denying the superiority of any culture, Xi suggested that China’s history and culture uniquely qualify it to propose a better model for global governance: “For several millennia, peace has been in the blood of us Chinese and part of our DNA,” Xi told the United Nations. According to Xi, China, throughout its history, has been committed to not only its own peaceful development but also the greater good of the world at large. The party’s claim that its community of common destiny will benefit the entire world is rooted in this depiction of China as an extraordinarily peaceful country. However, the party’s heavy-handed domestic policies, calibrated to ensure political allegiance in all forms of cultural expression, cast shadows on Xi’s claim to promote “harmony, inclusiveness, and respect for differences.” The party has made clear that its “culture of socialism with Chinese characteristics” and “socialist core values” must be the prime object of allegiance for all Chinese people, above any other religious, moral, artistic, or intellectual beliefs or loyalties. A recent example is Beijing’s restructuring of the “ideological sector” in mid-April to strengthen the party’s ability to ensure political allegiance. The film and press industries, formerly governed by the State Council, would henceforth report to the party’s Propaganda Department. Politburo member and department chief Huang Kunming, in explaining the change, cited the need to “enhance cultural confidence” and strengthen party leadership over filmmaking, screening, content enforcement, and international exchanges.[47]  Similarly, in 2015, the Politburo issued a statement that called on professionals in the arts and literature to focus on promoting “core socialist values” and noted that “strength of ideology and high moral standards” were “absolute requirements.”[48] Those examples pale in comparison to the ongoing efforts to ensure that all religions in China answer first and foremost to the party. At a conference on religious work in late April 2018, Xi exhorted fellow cadres to “guide religious believers to ardently love the motherland and the people.” Religious adherents must “subordinate themselves to, and serve, the highest interests of the country,” he said, and “actively practice socialist core values.”[49] The widely-noted extrajudicial detention of as many as a million Muslim Uighurs in “vocational education and training” centers in Xinjiang,[50] where detainees reportedly endure political indoctrination and torture, show the extreme measures the party will take to enforce its conceptions of civilization.[51] While the Uighurs’ case stands out in sheer scope and brutality, none of China’s five legal religions (Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, and the Protestant and Catholic branches of Christianity) are exempt from the Communist Party’s systematic attempts to compel allegiance. Chinese authorities reportedly are burning Bibles and crosses, shutting down and bulldozing churches,[52] drafting regulations to further restrict religious content online,[53] and instructing clergy from all five denominations to align their religious beliefs with socialist core values.[54] The requirement for party cadres to generate “ardent love” for the motherland is reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1949 dystopian novel 1984. In it, dissident Winston Smith succumbs to torture in the Ministry of Love and renounces his personal and political loyalty. As the book ends, Smith finally realizes that he loves Big Brother. Orwell’s 1984 is, of course, fiction. But China watchers should bear in mind that repression of religious, artistic, and intellectual expression is not merely a product of local authorities reacting to events and desperately attempting to maintain control. Rather, it is also a product of the party’s top-down strategy to instill adherence to its view of civilization and root out disloyalty to the cause of Chinese socialism. Culture — including the “great socialist culture” Beijing is trying to build — is an integral part of Xi’s community of common destiny. Much about how Beijing will seek to implement its views of culture into its foreign policy remains to be determined. Beijing’s record of crushing dissent at home could be a harbinger of its behavior overseas — or the Achilles’ heel in its attempts to build cultural “soft power.”


The final dimension of Xi’s community of common destiny focuses on the environment and, more specifically, on reforming global governance to promote “the building of sound ecosystems.” In his speech to the United Nations in 2017, Xi called on the global community to pursue a “green, low-carbon, circular, and sustainable way of life and work.” Further, he endorsed the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a plan to eradicate poverty; protect the environment; and foster peaceful, just, and inclusive societies.[55] Of the five dimensions, this is arguably where China’s long-term goals align most closely with near-universal aspirations for sustainable development. In a speech at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in 2015, Xi acknowledged that China’s decades of rapid economic growth have “taken a toll on the environment and resources.”[56] Although understated, this was nonetheless an admission of China’s shortcomings. Xi went on to enumerate steps China was taking to address environmental problems, such as increasing renewable energy capacity, and future benchmarks it had set, such as reaching peak CO2 emissions by 2030 or earlier. “This will require strenuous efforts, but we have the confidence and the resolve to fulfill our commitments,” Xi said in Paris. China’s abysmal track record of environmental management and immense difficulties transitioning to a more sustainable path are reasons to be skeptical. But Chinese leaders have made environmental progress a higher political priority in recent years. Since the 18th Party Congress in 2012, when Hu Jintao elevated “ecological progress” to a prominent position in China’s overall development plan (placing it alongside economic, political, cultural, and social progress),[57] leaders have taken more serious steps to limit pollution and protect the environment.  These include imposing tougher penalties on local officials who fail to meet pollution targets and establishing a system to hold individuals and companies that pollute the soil accountable for life.[58] Chinese leaders have made clear that building a “Beautiful China” is one of their midcentury goals for national rejuvenation, so the environment is likely to remain a political priority for years to come. In the political, security, development, and cultural dimensions, Beijing argues that its historical experience and remarkable modern track record of peaceful development qualify it to take a leading role in reforming the global governance system to make it more peaceful, equitable, and prosperous. But Xi’s claims in the environmental dimension are much more modest. The implication is that China has learned the hard way the importance of protecting the environment and that it must strive to work with the world for a cleaner future, albeit on China’s timetable. Certainly, some of Xi’s proposals in Paris appear designed to promote his community of common destiny, such as his call for a global governance mechanism on climate change and for developed countries to provide funding and technology to enable developing countries to fulfill environmental commitments. These are resonant with the community of common destiny’s emphasis on striving for a more fair and equitable international order that provides a greater voice for developing countries. Countries’ differing approaches to prioritization and speed of implementation will continue to create massive hurdles to progress, as the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords attests. But there is a kernel of hope in the fact that China’s end goal for the environment — as Xi puts it, to “make our world clean and beautiful by pursuing green and low-carbon development” — expresses a universal hope rather than a claim that China offers a unique and superior path to a better world. It leaves open a greater possibility of flexibility in China’s approach. In the environmental dimension, the United States and other countries can persevere in cooperation with China, highlighting long-term alignment in strategic interests despite important differences in timelines, approach, and priorities. As friction grows between Washington and Beijing on trade and many other issues, an area for cooperation could provide a valuable source for interaction that is genuinely win-win.

Policy Implications

Beijing’s attempt to build a community of common destiny presents a challenge for the United States and like-minded nations committed to the free and open international order.[59] What options do policymakers have to respond? An effective U.S. strategy would account for the comprehensive character of China’s aspirations. Washington is starting to move in this direction and broaden its focus beyond trade. At this juncture, several steps could help policymakers build a broader strategy on the foundation of a correct understanding of how Beijing operates and a fuller appreciation of the advantages that the United States and like-minded nations can bring to the competition. To begin with, China watchers have the opportunity to broaden how they inform policymakers and the public about Beijing’s own articulation of its global ambitions. U.S. observers frequently use the trinity of economic, political, and security factors to explain China’s motives, but this well-worn framework misses the full scope of Beijing’s aspirations for global leadership. By Xi’s own account, Beijing intends to realign global governance across at least five major dimensions: politics, development (to include economics, society, and technology), security, culture, and the environment. Early identification of emerging Chinese banner terms offers U.S. policymakers a greater chance to influence these concepts before repetition in Chinese leaders’ speeches, official documents, and laws cement their place in Chinese strategy. Awareness of these concepts would also help policymakers anticipate their Chinese counterparts’ talking points and avoid carelessly repeating them — and unintentionally signaling acceptance of Beijing’s proposals. To accomplish all this, governments and scholars can consider devoting more resources to monitoring and analyzing Beijing’s publicly available, high-level documents and authoritative media. Deeper understanding of the party’s rhetoric and use of information as a tool of statecraft can be incorporated into U.S. policymaking processes. [quote id="4"] Bolstering China-related expertise is only part of the solution, however. As has been argued in this journal, the United States lacks a sufficiently robust “team to take the field” — a cadre of individuals with the right combination of expertise on China, policy tools, and competitive strategy.[60] Beijing’s systematic fusing of categories that in the West are generally considered distinct has created strategic dilemmas for Washington and its allies. Examples of these blurred lines include Beijing’s effort to “fuse” its military and civil industrial bases,[61] the party’s intrusions into private and foreign firms,[62] and its growing use of political influence activities overseas.[63] These conditions are forcing Washington to reevaluate how it weighs the costs and benefits of engagement with China. Questions such as “Will it boost quarterly earnings?” and “Does it break any laws?” or “Is it state-owned or private?” produce answers that fail to account for hidden economic costs and national security risks. The U.S. government needs rigorous, cross-disciplinary frameworks to conduct this type of cost-benefit analysis. The creative thinking required to develop them is unlikely to emerge from government alone. As U.S. policymakers broaden the focus of competition with China beyond trade issues, engaging with innovative thinkers with diverse perspectives on competition in business, marketing, economics, science and technology, history, entertainment, and other fields can help them conceptualize the challenge, set priorities for addressing it, and devise effective strategies for competing with China. Finally, the United States has an opportunity to use public affairs and diplomacy to counter problematic elements of Beijing’s governance proposals. Many in Washington are reluctant to publicly dispute Beijing’s ideas, for fear of provoking China. But challenging Beijing’s proposals is not the same as merely “poking” China. Xi’s bid to build a community of common destiny is an invitation to a debate over the best approach to global governance and the validity of competing governance models. The United States brings significant advantages to the debate — including a competitive marketplace of ideas, a strong capacity for clear-eyed self-reflection, and a willingness to acknowledge its own shortfalls. Media rancor, political chaos, and foreign policy stumbles have understandably prompted many in the United States and other developed democracies to compare their systems unfavorably to Beijing’s. But this is shortsighted. Beijing’s need to exert rigid control over its media, corporations, officials, and citizens reveals vulnerability rather than strength. Its highly orchestrated, ostentatious campaigns to trumpet its vision are nothing to envy. In its public affairs and exchanges with Chinese interlocutors in bilateral and multilateral settings, the United States has an opportunity to listen carefully to China’s proposals — and clearly reject the ideas that are incompatible with the principles of a free and open order. Washington can argue vigorously for the order’s principles even while admitting that its stewardship of these principles is imperfect. Finally, Washington and others can consistently make clear that the free and open order is also open to China. Indeed, the order would be stronger — as would China itself — if Beijing chose to accept the invitation.   Liza Tobin has worked for twelve years in various capacities as a China specialist for the United States government. Currently she is part of a team that provides assessments of China’s strategy for the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Headquarters. She has published recently on China’s maritime strategy in Naval War College Review and War on the Rocks. The views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command or the U.S. government. [post_title] => Xi's Vision for Transforming Global Governance: A Strategic Challenge for Washington and Its Allies [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => xis-vision-for-transforming-global-governance-a-strategic-challenge-for-washington-and-its-allies [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-04-10 13:38:35 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-04-10 17:38:35 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw [lead] => What does China's "community of common destiny," recently emphasized by Chinese President Xi Jinping, mean for the future of the international order? Liza Tobin unpacks what, precisely, this vision entails and what it might mean for the United States and its allies. [pubinfo] => [issue] => Vol 2, Iss 1 [quotes] => Array ( [0] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => China’s success or failure in achieving its vision will depend in large part on how its proposals are received in other countries. ) [1] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => [T]he United States and its allies should be clear on the significant change from the status quo that China’s proposals would impart. ) [2] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => The party has made clear that its “culture of socialism with Chinese characteristics” and “socialist core values” must be the prime object of allegiance for all Chinese people, above any other religious, moral, artistic, or intellectual beliefs or loyalties. ) [3] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => An effective U.S. strategy would account for the comprehensive character of China’s aspirations. ) ) [style] => strategist [type] => Strategist [style_label] => The Strategist [download] => Array ( [title] => PDF Download [file] => 1293 ) [authors] => Array ( [0] => 242 ) [endnotes] => Array ( [title] => Endnotes [endnotes] => [1] Cao Desheng, “Xi’s Discourses on Mankind’s Shared Future Published,” China Daily, Oct. 15, 2018, [2] Yang Jiechi, 求是 [“Seeking truth”], Aug. 1, 2018, For more on the origins of China’s “new type international relations” and its related concept, “new type great power relations,” see Peter Mattis, “Nothing New, Nothing Great: Exploring ‘New Type Great Power Relations,’” Washington Journal of Modern China 11, no. 1 (2013): 17–38. Mattis shows that despite its “new” label, China’s “new type” proposals repackaged long-standing Chinese concepts of mutually beneficial cooperation, mutual equality, and demands for the United States to respect Chinese core interests. [3] “Xi Urges Breaking New Ground in Major Country Diplomacy with Chinese Characteristics,” Xinhua, June 24, 2018, [4] Jin Kai, “Can China Build a Community of Common Destiny?” Diplomat, Nov. 28, 2013,; Nadège Rolland, “Examining China’s ‘Community of Common Destiny,’” Power 3.0, Jan. 23, 2018, [5] Zhou Xin, ed., “China Focus: China Pursues World Peace, Common Development in International Agenda,” Xinhua, March 2, 2018, [6] Xi Jinping, The Governance of China (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 2014). See his Dec. 26, 2013, speech, “Carry on the Enduring Spirit of Mao Zedong Thought,” 32–33. [7] Jiang Zemin, “Promote Disarmament Process and Safeguard World Security,” speech at U.N. Conference on Disarmament, March 26, 1999, [8] “Hu Makes 4-Point Proposal for Building Harmonious World,” Xinhua, Sept. 16, 2005, [9] I benefited from Dan Tobin’s insights placing the Xi Jinping era in the context of Communist Party history. [10]Xi Urges Breaking New Ground in Major Country Diplomacy with Chinese Characteristics,” Xinhua. [11] “Xi: China to Contribute Wisdom to Global Governance,” Xinhua, July 1, 2016, [12] Xi Jinping, The Governance of China, vol. 2 (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 2017). See speeches on the Belt and Road Initiative, 543–53. Earlier speeches emphasize the Belt and Road Initiative in Asia, whereas more recent speeches emphasize its global scope. [13] “Full text of Resolution on Amendment to CPC Constitution,” Xinhua, Oct. 24, 2017, [14] For example, see “China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Debt Trap or Hope?” Straits Times, Oct. 20, 2018, [15] “American Leadership in the Asia Pacific, Part 5”: Hearing Before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity Policy, 115th Cong. (May 15, 2018) (statement of Alex Wong, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs), [16] Both speeches are found in Xi, The Governance of China, vol. 2, 569–75 and 588–601. [17] Li Laifang, “Enlightened Chinese Democracy Puts the West in the Shade,” Xinhua, Oct. 17, 2017, [18] Zhong Sheng [Voice of China], “Op-ed: China’s New Type of Party System Enlightens World,” People’s Daily, March 12, 2018, [19] “Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference,” PRC National People’s Congress, [20] Zhou Xin, ed., “China Focus: Chinese Democracy: How It Boosts Growth and Prosperity?” Xinhua, March 16, 2018, [21]William Gumede, “China Impact on African Democracy,” Namibian, Aug. 28, 2018, Also see Yun Sun, “Political Party Training: China’s Ideological Push in Africa?” Brookings Institution’s Africa in Focus blog, July 5, 2016, [22] Wang Yi, “Work Together to Build Partnerships and Pursue Peace and Development,” speech at China Development Forum luncheon, March 20, 2017, [23] Xi, The Governance of China, vol. 2, 588–601. [24] Wang Yi, “Forge Ahead Under the Guidance of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s Thought on Diplomacy,” Sept. 1, 2017, [25] China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs frequently references its named partnerships in official readouts of engagements with foreign leaders, posted on its website: For an example of another country referring to its named partnership with China, see “China country brief,” Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, [26] “Russia-China Partnership at Best Level in History: Putin,” Xinhua, May 26, 2018, Also see “Interview: Chinese Ambassador Expects China-Russia Partnership to See Wider, Deeper Future Development,” Xinhua, July 12, 2018,; and “China and Russia: Partnership of Strategic Coordination,” PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs, [27] “China, U.S. Pledge to Build Constructive Strategic Partnership,” PRC Embassy in the United States of America, [28] Liu Xiaoming, “The UK-China ‘Golden Era’ Can Bear New Fruit,” (London) Telegraph, Jan. 29, 2018, The op-ed was also posted on the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs website. [29] “UK Should Try to Have More Than One Friend,” China Daily, Sept. 6, 2018, [30] Peter Harrell, Elizabeth Rosenberg, and Edoardo Saravalle, “China’s Use of Coercive Economic Measures,” Center for a New American Security, June 11, 2018, [31] “Wang Yi Meets with Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Walid Muallem of Syria,” PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sept. 28, 2018, [32] “Full Transcript: Interview with Xinjiang Government Chief on Counterterrorism, Vocational Education and Training in Xinjiang,” Xinhua, Oct. 16, 2018, [33] Both speeches are found in Xi, The Governance of China, vol. 2, 569–75 and 588–601. [34] Timothy R. Heath, “China and the U.S. Alliance System,” Diplomat, June 11, 2014, [35] “2017 Report to Congress on China’s WTO Compliance,” United States Trade Representative, January 2018, [36] Qui Shi, “The West Once Again Gets It Wrong on China,” China Daily, Sept. 7, 2018, [37] Deng Xiaoping, Selected Works, vol. 3 (1982–1992) (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1994), 151–53. The 1985 selection can be found online at [38] Shi, “The West Once Again Gets It Wrong on China.” See also “China Focus: Socialism with Chinese Characteristics: 10 Ideas to Share with World,” Xinhua, Oct. 8, 2017, [39] Shi, “The West Once Again Gets It Wrong on China.” [40] “Xi Jinping: Strengthen Cooperation for Advancing the Transformation of the Global Governance System and Jointly Promote the Lofty Task of Peace and Development for Mankind” (习近平:加强合作推动全球治理体系变革 共同促进人类和平与发展崇高事业), Xinhua, Sept. 28, 2016, [41] Li Wen, “An International Strategy of Seeking One’s Own Self-Interests” (谋一己之私的国际战略),, Sept. 18, 2016, [42] Yang Jiechi, “Working Together to Build a World of Lasting Peace and Universal Security and a Community with a Shared Future for Mankind,” speech at World Peace Forum at Tsinghua University, July 14, 2018, [43] “Xi Urges Efforts in Building China into a Great Modern Socialist Country,” Xinhua, March 20, 2018, [44] Yang Jiechi, 求是 [“Seeking truth”]. [45] “Spotlight: Chinese Dream Connects Aspirations of the Whole World for Peace, Development,” Xinhua, Nov. 29, 2017, [46] Jiang Zemin, “Speech at the Millennium Summit of the United Nations,” Sept. 6, 2000, [47] “China Unveils Three State Administrations on Film, Press, Television,” Xinhua, April 16, 2018, [48] “CPC Leadership: Carry Forward Chinese Values Through Art,” Xinhua, Sept. 11, 2015, [49] “China Focus: Xi Calls for Improved Religious Work,” Xinhua, April 23, 2016, [50]Full Transcript: Interview with Xinjiang Government Chief on Counterterrorism, Vocational Education and Training in Xinjiang,” Xinhua. [51] Anna Fifield, “With Wider Crackdowns on Religion, Xi’s China Seeks to Put State Stamp on Faith,” Washington Post, Sept. 16, 2018, [52] Fifield, “With Wider Crackdowns on Religion, Xi’s China Seeks to Put State Stamp on Faith.” [53] “China Mulls Censoring Online Religious Content in New Draft Regulations,” Hong Kong Free Press, Sept. 11, 2018, [54] Zhang Yu, “Priests Search for Patriotic Elements in Scripts as China Promotes Religious Localization,” Global Times, May 31, 2018, [55] “Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” United Nations, [56] Xi Jinping, “Build a Win-Win, Equitable and Balanced Governance Mechanism on Climate Change,” speech at United Nations Climate Change Conference, Nov. 30, 2015, [57] “CPC Advocates Building ‘Beautiful’ China,” 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, Nov. 8, 2012, [58] “China Fines for Environmental Violations Up 48 Percent from Jan–Oct: Ministry,” Reuters, Dec. 5, 2017,; “China Sets Up Lifelong Accountability System to Control Soil Pollution,” China Daily, Jan. 18, 2017, [59] Statement of Alex Wong, deputy assistant secretary of state, in Hearing Before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity Policy, 115th Cong. (May 15, 2018). [60] Peter Mattis, “From Engagement to Rivalry: Tools to Compete with China,” Texas National Security Review 1, no. 4 (August 2018), [61] China’s plan to break down barriers between the defense and civilian industrial bases involves “military-civil fusion,” which aims to promote the free flow of technology, intellectual property, talent, and expertise between civilian and defense entities and to ensure that China develops a “strong army.” For more on this and the challenge it poses to the United States, see remarks by Christopher A. Ford, “Chinese Technology Transfer Challenges to U.S. Export Control Policy,” CSIS Project on Nuclear Issues, July 11, 2018, [62] See, for example, Simon Denyer, “Command and Control: China’s Communist Party Extends Reach into Foreign Companies,” Washington Post, Jan. 28, 2018, [63] For a thorough assessment of the party’s “united front” work to influence domestic audiences, see Anne-Marie Brady, “Magic Weapons: China’s Political Influence Activities Under Xi Jinping,” conference paper, Sept. 16–17, 2017, ) [contents] => Array ( [title] => [contents] => ) ) [9] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 763 [post_author] => 223 [post_date] => 2018-11-06 04:00:36 [post_date_gmt] => 2018-11-06 09:00:36 [post_content] =>

Those people — the map people, the logistics people, the intelligence people — have always been accused, by operational commanders, of thinking more than is good for them, but this time they’ve got it right.”

– Alan Furst, Kingdom of Shadows

  In 2018, both the Russian Federation and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) conducted their largest military exercises since the end of the Cold War. The role of such maneuvers in the larger geostrategic context has been brought to the fore by these activities and President Donald Trump’s decision, announced at his summit in Singapore with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, to suspend the U.S.-South Korea Ulchi Freedom Guardian military exercise.[1] Official statements about these military exercises typically stress their specified purpose of improving training, readiness, and interoperability among services and multinational forces.[2] But military exercises also convey powerful geopolitical messages intended to demonstrate how the capabilities on display enhance regional stability, deter aggression, and reinforce foreign policy goals.[3] However, I argue in this essay that they can instead do the opposite, in the sense of the classic security dilemma, as real or potentially adversarial states ratchet up the size and scope of their exercises and push exercise venues into militarily problematic areas. In other words, the risk of geopolitical instability that such exercises imply may not bring a corresponding deterrence reward. This is especially true across the increasingly tense NATO-Russia divide in the wake of the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, which is the focus of this paper. The elusive line between deterrence and provoking aggression has been explored in depth in analyses of tabletop war games or simulations in the German kriegsspiel style. The most notable are those conducted by the RAND Corporation involving a hypothetical Russian invasion of the NATO-member Baltic states. The results provided the impetus for a more robust alliance military presence in that region and in Poland.[4] Michael Kofman has discussed at length whether this shift from “reassurance” to “deterrence” makes sense and, importantly, posits that a critical variable in this calculation is the perception of the Russian threat. He also questioned whether “conventional deterrence by denial is possible on NATO’s eastern flank.”[5] Through my experience as an intelligence officer at the tactical and national levels, I became — and remain — acutely aware of the role that the threat, or at least the United States military’s assessment of the threat, plays in both planning and executing military operations. That includes exercises, a number of which I participated in. Later, as an academic researcher in geopolitics, I came to appreciate the influence of what Gerard Toal refers to as “thick geopolitics,” a concept that “strives to describe the geopolitical forces, networks, and interactions that configure places and states.”[6] Combining these two perspectives, in this paper I examine the strategic implications of NATO’s ongoing efforts to extend its reach eastward and, in some cases, northward,[7] by shifting its military exercise venues forward and including non-NATO “partners” in the alliance’s military operations and exercise agenda. The symbolism of these highly visible activities — which precede the Crimean crisis — is difficult to ignore, especially as they contribute to Russia’s geopolitical angst as regards its immediate neighborhood. Certainly, as Toal avers, the many multi-layered influences of location, distance, and place come into play here, especially given that some of these NATO-sponsored and member-state exercises take place along the Russian land frontier or its adjacent maritime zone and airspace. The reverse is also true, as Russia conducts large-scale exercises and other military demonstrations — what Mark Galeotti terms “heavy metal diplomacy”[8] — in that same contact zone. These exercises are viewed as threatening by many NATO states, some of which harbor unhappy memories of when this “thick geopolitical” landscape was dominated by Russia in its imperial or Soviet form.

Military Exercises as Geopolitical Messaging

Military exercises do not take place on tabletops. Instead, warships, troops, aircraft, armored vehicles, and logistical and engineer support units maneuver across land, sea, and airspace overseen by headquarters staffs practicing command, control, and communications. A combination of live firing of weapons; cyber activities; collection, processing, and dissemination of target information and intelligence data; and after-action assessments all make for a complex and demanding undertaking, often at considerable expense and some element of danger to the participants. These exercises also involve considerable fanfare in the host countries and, especially, strong visualization elements. As Roland Bleiker notes, “Images shape international events and our understanding of them.”[9] Certainly, images of warships, tanks, and live firing make for dramatic coverage, especially as they have become more incorporated in and widely disseminated via social media. These messages and images complement official foreign and security policy narratives and those of nongovernmental groups (e.g., think tanks and human rights organizations), and they should be seen as part and parcel of the larger geopolitical discourse. The Exercise Is the Message The annual Foal Eagle joint and combined forces maneuvers,[10] conducted by the United States and the Republic of Korea, are an excellent example of how military exercises can be used to message strategic posture. In addition to the complexity and scope of these maneuvers, conducting them on and around the Korean Peninsula has become a highly contentious element in relations between these two allies and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.[11] In its press release announcing the 2017 iteration, the Defense Department stated that Foal Eagle “is designed to increase readiness to defend South Korea, to protect the region, and to maintain stability on the Korean Peninsula.”[12] This is the template for the manner in which militaries typically describe their exercises and signal their import. And that language is understood to mean that readiness involves training, that protecting the region implies a specific geographical focus, and that stability (or, frequently, deterrence) is a desired strategic outcome. Geopolitical messaging is conveyed via military exercises through several means by the exercise planners and their superiors. First, is the decision of whether to hold exercises. That means that starting, suspending, or terminating them is a foreign policy and security policy statement in and of itself. This is certainly true in long-standing military relationships such as that between the United States and the Republic of Korea, wherein the form and scale of exercises have evolved since their inception shortly after the end of the Korean War. In fact, the major U.S.-South Korea exercise, Team Spirit, was canceled four times in the 1990s to facilitate negotiations to limit North Korea’s nuclear program.[13] Notably, the Bright Star exercises co-sponsored by the United States and Egypt since 1980 were suspended by President Barack Obama in 2013 in the wake of the military takeover of the elected Egyptian government. They have, however, since been reinstated.[14] The U.S. Central Command press release for Bright Star 2017 made no mention of the hiatus.[15] The Malabar naval exercises initiated by the United States and India in 1992 (and joined by Japan in 2015) presaged increased American interest in the Indian Ocean and Indian concerns regarding China’s growing presence in South Asia. Although these exercises have recently expanded significantly, they were suspended for a period after India tested nuclear weapons.[16] [quote id="1"] The same cyclical pattern of scaling down and ramping up military exercises as political circumstances change is evident in the U.S.-Philippines Balikatan exercise, which recently concluded its 34th iteration.[17] Disinviting the People’s Liberation Army Navy from the U.S.-sponsored 2018 Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval exercise was intended to signal U.S. displeasure at China’s increasing militarization of islands in the South China Sea. (The Chinese navy had participated in RIMPAC in 2014 and 2016.)[18] Meanwhile, Russia and China announced that their two navies would conduct a second round of joint exercises in the Yellow Sea, and the huge Vostok 2018 exercises involved Chinese troops for the first time as part of a long-term plan of greater military cooperation between the two countries.[19] Once it has been decided that exercises are to take place, geopolitical messaging is conveyed in several ways in their actual execution: Where the exercises are conducted, how many personnel are involved, what countries they are drawn from, and the types of weaponry employed are all key elements in strategic positioning or, one might say, posturing. Further complicating matters, the number, size, and scope of military exercises are growing — in some regions dramatically so — and at a time of heightened stress in the international system.[20]

The NATO-Russia Military Exercise Dynamic

Nowhere is this expansion of military exercises more evident and potentially de-stabilizing than in the NATO-Russia arena. Since Russia’s seizure of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in early 2014, tensions have risen steadily between Moscow and the West, with economic sanctions, mutual expulsions of diplomats and the closure of legations, and a barrage of mutual recriminations not seen since the darkest days of the Cold War. Russia’s interference in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, including the insertion of regular units of the Russian army into the fighting there,[21] and at least one major cyberattack on the Ukrainian power grid, banks, and government agencies, has exacerbated what was already a full-blown international crisis and catalyzed fears in the West — warranted or not — of a new and more capable Russian threat. Russia, meanwhile, harbors long-standing grievances concerning NATO’s expansion into the former Soviet states (the Baltic countries: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) and former members of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact in Central and Eastern Europe, which acceded to NATO from 1990 to 2004. Actions by NATO in the Balkan conflicts, especially the bombing campaign against Serbia, also invoked Russian fears of Western encroachment into what Moscow considers its sphere of influence. [22] These increasingly contentious relations have resulted in a significant expansion of military operations on both sides. Russian forces continuously operate close to NATO forces in and around Europe as well as in the Middle East, especially Syria. Partly, this is because the NATO alliance now adjoins Russia along a longer frontier. Four of the newer NATO member states have land borders with Russia proper (Estonia and Latvia) or its Kaliningrad Oblast exclave (Poland and Lithuania), whereas previously only Norway directly bordered Russia, and that was in the very remote far north. All of these new eastern frontiers have become increasingly militarized. For example, almost from the moment of their accession to NATO, the three Baltic countries — with no combat aircraft of their own — received air defense cover from their NATO allies, a continuing mission that involves frequent intercepts of Russian military aircraft transiting Baltic Sea airspace.[23] The alliance also agreed at its Warsaw summit in 2016 to rotate “battalion-sized battlegroups” into Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in what it termed an “enhanced forward presence.”[24] Samuel Charap argues that Russia has likewise raised the ante in its standoff with NATO by using “its military beyond its borders with unprecedented frequency since the invasion of Crimea in February 2014,” referring to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and Syria, and by its “brinksmanship in the skies and sea with NATO and other Western militaries.”[25] Finally, Russia’s extensive buildup of forces in Kaliningrad has significantly altered the military landscape in the Baltic Sea region.[26] As Dmitry Gorenburg has noted, the Russian Black Sea Fleet and its Crimea bases have been significantly upgraded, with more resources expected in the coming years. [27] Closing the Exercise Gap The upshot of this heightened military activity is that deconfliction and avoidance of the kinds of catastrophic accident that could lead to hostilities has become an increasingly serious matter. As will be discussed below, military exercises involving these forward-deployed units are an inevitable consequence of their placement.[28] That is to say, if one forward-deploys or bases forces in a given region, exercising them in these locations is imperative — and the chances of miscalculation or accidents rise commensurately. These exercises have generated considerable attention in both the mainstream media and in the national security and geopolitics commentariat. The Russian Federation and its allies have undertaken a number of large-scale military maneuvers designed to test their troops and weapons, demonstrate their ability to defend the homeland, and convey a message of resoluteness in so doing. Russia’s large Zapad (“West”) 2017 maneuvers generated unprecedented coverage in Western media, think tank analyses, and official sources. They provided a prime example of how these events shape the national security discourse between Moscow and NATO.[29] In keeping with the universal exercise rationale template, the Russian Ministry of Defense described Zapad 2017 as “a final stage of joint training of the Russian and Belarusian Armed Forces [involving] interoperability of staffs [in the defense of] territories of the Republic of Belarus and the Kaliningrad region of the Russian Federation [to prevent] their destabilization.”[30] Both in terms of its regional scope (the Baltic Sea region, western Russia, and Belarus) and the number of personnel and different weapons systems involved, Zapad 2017 certainly deserved the attention it received. But the ensuing frenzy, including concern that the exercise was intended to mask an actual invasion of the Baltics and Poland, exacerbated tensions throughout Europe even though that exercise occurs every four years.[31] Even before Zapad 2017, at least one American national security think tank raised the specter of an “exercise gap” between Russia and NATO, arguing that the former enjoyed a significant advantage.[32] Vostok (“East”) 2018, another quadrennial Russian capstone military exercise, has likewise received extensive coverage in Russia and in Western media, mainly, but not exclusively, because the numbers of troops and equipment engaged may have exceeded Zapad 2017 (there is some dispute about the numbers directly involved[33]), which would make it the largest since the end of the Cold War. But it also involved an “interstate-conflict scenario” with coalition adversaries,[34] closely resembling what Russia would face should it wind up in a fight with NATO, though the maneuvers took place at a far remove from NATO territory. As such, the geopolitical message conveyed by the exercises, in particular the added element of participation by Chinese military units, was more subtle, involving what could be characterized as an in-house assessment of how well Russian armed forces could generate and manage a large-scale conflict from the command-and-control perspective. [quote id="2"] Not to be outdone, NATO and its member states and partners likewise sponsor an expanding series of large and complex military exercises in close proximity to Russia’s western border and its adjacent seas and airspace.[35] Not surprisingly, this has provoked a negative reaction from Moscow. Indeed, since the annexation of Crimea, the schedule of military training events involving NATO and its member states, as well as non-NATO partners, has become increasingly ambitious.[36] As a consequence, the “exercise gap” has narrowed.[37] This was underscored by the alliance’s top leadership at the NATO summit in Wales in 2014,[38] reemphasized at the Warsaw summit in 2016,[39] and reaffirmed at the 2018 Brussels summit: “We continue to ensure the Alliance’s political and military responsiveness, including through more regular exercises.”[40] As is true in general of military exercises, these recent NATO exercises are intended to act as both training events and indicators of security policy and posture. That is, they signal the alliance’s determination to defend its member states. Thus, several major exercises were conducted in 2017 with the aim of “assuring” NATO states bordering or near Russia (especially strategically vulnerable Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland) and thereby “deterring” Russian aggression. The evolution of the annual Saber Strike exercise series is a good example. Initially, from 2011, this exercise involved about 2,000 personnel, with a focus on training troops from the Baltic countries to NATO standards as a means of integrating them into the alliance’s operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere.[41] By 2018, Saber Strike had grown to 18,000 participants, with a clear focus on “validating our [NATO’s] collective capability to rapidly respond to and reinforce Allies in a time of crisis.”[42] From whence that crisis might emerge is not stated, but reference is made to the fact that the exercise is “not a provocation of Russia,” leaving one to imagine another major external threat to the alliance. In the same vein, the biannual Anakonda exercises organized by Poland have grown enormously since their inception in 2006. The 2016 edition numbered 31,000 troops from 23 countries with the intent “to check the ability of NATO to defend the territory of the eastern flank of the Alliance.”[43] Again, absent an attack from Belarus or Ukraine, the obvious aggressor state would be Russia. But the clearest message yet that NATO intends to push the geopolitical envelope by means of military exercises came via Trident Juncture 2018, the alliance’s premier format. Not only is this the largest post-Cold War NATO exercise, with some 50,000 participants, but the venue, mainly in Norway, further extends the field of play. Hitherto, Norway, a founding NATO member state, had been careful to avoid antagonizing Moscow by allowing maneuvers in its far northern region, but, as Azita Raji notes, the mood in Oslo has clearly shifted toward taking a much stronger stance against what is perceived as an increasingly serious Russian threat.[44] Thus, Trident Juncture 2018 sends three geopolitical messages: that Norway takes its NATO commitment very seriously, that it will push back hard against Russian pressure, and that the alliance supports both of those positions.[45]

Can Anybody Play?

Significantly, over the past decade NATO has sought to integrate some non-NATO partners into operations and exercises, and in certain cases it has conducted large-scale NATO-, U.S.-, or European-sponsored events (including live-fire practice) on the territory of those non-member states, with resultant geopolitical implications. In the Nordic region, for example, Swedish and Finnish forces have participated in exercises with NATO, and NATO ground forces and aircraft have operated in Sweden and Finland proper in the two countries’ respective maneuvers.[46] Finnish and Swedish ground, naval, and air-force units participated in Trident Juncture 2018, with some NATO events taking place in both countries.[47] Such exercises and other steps that the two countries have taken to bolster their militaries have significantly altered the strategic situation in NATO’s favor vis-à-vis Russia in the Baltic Sea area while, predictably, provoking a negative response from Moscow.[48] Likewise, NATO has dramatically strengthened its military relationship with the Republic of Georgia through training assistance programs and major exercises. The highlight of these is the Noble Partner series, wherein U.S. Army forces (including tanks and other armored vehicles) recently deployed to Georgia from bases in Germany. Through participation in such exercises, some units of the Georgian army have met NATO operational standards and are included in NATO’s Response Force, a readily available and deployable contingency command for insertion in emerging-crisis situations.[49] Previously, Georgian troops had been involved in a number of NATO operations. With 32 of its soldiers killed in support of NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, Georgia’s casualty rate in that conflict is higher than that of any NATO country.[50] In the Black Sea region, the U.S. Navy has bolstered its presence both in exercises with Ukraine and NATO allies Romania and Bulgaria and through freedom-of-navigation visits. This was particularly evident in the Sea Breeze 2017 exercise, during which two advanced U.S. warships participated and also conducted a port call in the Ukrainian port city of Odesa. Russian news sources have featured prominent coverage of these NATO-Ukraine military maneuvers in the Black Sea. For example, Sea Breeze 2017 was not covered in the mainstream U.S. media (although it did appear in defense-related news outlets and on social media), whereas both Sputnik and RT (formerly Russia Today) had features on the maneuvers. Sputnik posted eight features on another U.S.-Ukraine exercise, Rapid Trident 2017, including articles in its German, Polish, Lithuanian, and Moldovan outlets. One can reasonably conclude that the signaling of military partnership, if not treaty obligation, is being received by Russia, and not favorably.

(In)stability: One Is Easy; the Other, Not So Much

If geopolitical “stability” is a stated goal of most military exercises, a working description of how such stability might be measured in the NATO-Russia context is necessary. Although there is no universally accepted definition to reference, the specifics of where the exercise takes place, how many personnel are engaged, which countries participate, and how certain types of weapons are involved can be used to make at least a rough assessment of the extent to which these events might be de-stabilizing. Using military exercises to advance the forward deployment of troops, naval vessels, and aircraft has been a feature of both NATO and Russian military planning and posturing since the Crimean crisis unfolded, and it shows no signs of abating. Incorporating more advanced weaponry in maneuvers in forward areas is especially destabilizing as it alters the military status quo ante. For example, NATO used the Tobruk Legacy exercise in July 2017 to deploy the Patriot anti-aircraft and anti-missile system to Lithuania, the first time that such an advanced system had been positioned in the Baltic region.[51] Not surprisingly, Russia viewed that move as provocative.[52] The missiles were withdrawn after the exercise concluded, but the idea of permanently basing them in the region remains very much alive. During a state visit to the White House on April 3, 2018, Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid advocated placing Patriots in her country.[53] On the other hand, since 2014, Russia has periodically moved its Iskander tactical ballistic missiles forward to Kaliningrad during exercises, prompting a warning from NATO that this presented a serious threat to the alliance and constituted a “pattern of continuing behavior to coerce [Russia’s] neighbors in Central and Eastern Europe.”[54] As it developed, these exercise deployments were, in fact, the prelude to the permanent basing of an Iskander brigade in Kaliningrad, a move that the chairman of the Russian Duma’s defense committee called “the answer to the deployment of military assets in neighboring territories.”[55] U.S. Navy vessels equipped with the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System have participated in the Sea Breeze exercise in the Black Sea to which, according to one U.S. Defense Department official, “the Russians are particularly sensitive.” That same official stated that the Russians must be “desensitized.”[56] For years, Russia has expressed this “sensitivity” by conducting low-level passes over NATO warships operating on the Black Sea, often dangerously close to the vessels, and by intercepting and approaching NATO maritime patrol and intelligence collection aircraft. Obviously, these incidents carry a very high risk of collision or might provoke hostilities. On April 19, 2018, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe and the chief of the Russian general staff held a rare face-to-face meeting to discuss “issues related to military posture and exercises … to foster predictability and transparency.”[57] Yet, despite previous such meetings, these encounters continued. Fight Where You Train? By pushing military exercise venues further forward, is NATO signaling that it is prepared to fight early in a conflict with Russia in exposed regions such as the Baltic countries? The viability of changing the NATO/U.S. imperative from “reassurance to deterrence” in that context has been extensively critiqued as problematic at best.[58] Yet, this has not forestalled the view among exercise planners and think tank analysts that it makes good sense to demonstrate at least some capability to engage the threat far forward (e.g., Saber Strike) despite the realities of military geography.[59] As I have written apropos the challenges of a high-end fight with Russia from an airpower perspective, conducting military exercises close to Russia’s heavily defended territory where NATO forces are at a serious disadvantage is a singularly bad idea: Airfields are static targets, and most of those closest to the eastern borders of NATO countries do not possess facilities hardened to withstand the inevitable attacks against them. They are also within easy range of any number of Russian offensive threats.[60] Moreover, because Russia has put in place the much-discussed anti-access/area-denial “bubbles” of sophisticated defenses around its western perimeter and extending well into NATO’s eastern flank, the alliance must confront a difficult question:[61] Is the geopolitical message that these exercises send essentially a bluff easily recognized by Russia as such and, therefore, unnecessarily provocative? Along these same lines, what is the point of conducting military exercises with non-NATO countries if the alliance is not treaty-bound to assist them in the event that they are attacked by Russia? One could argue that the increasingly tight bonds between NATO and Sweden and Finland bolster the alliance’s Baltic Sea flank and that both of those countries have capable militaries and long-standing cultural, political, and economic ties with many NATO states by virtue of their membership in the European Union.[62] To some extent, Russia facilitates this drawing together for common defense by sending mixed military-exercise messages of its own: In the Zapad 2013 exercise, Russian aircraft simulated what appeared to be an attack on military targets in Sweden, a charge denied by Russia’s Ministry of Defense. More recently, a Russian special forces operation on an island 24 miles from the Finnish coast signaled to Moscow’s neighbor that the threat is close by, a point about which the Finns hardly need to be reminded. [quote id="3"] Ukraine and Georgia present an altogether different geopolitical and strategic agenda that NATO and the United States seem determined to advance by, among other means, carrying out increasingly more complex military exercises in those countries. Certainly, the exercises and the official statements made about them also form an integral part of the messaging from NATO and its member states to Russia. NATO places a high premium on supporting these two partner states and is determined to assist them in deterring Russian aggression. The exercise messaging would suggest that the maneuvers are for training (especially interoperability), defense, and promoting stability. But is that how it is interpreted in Moscow? Do the exercises in Ukraine and Georgia suggest that NATO or the United States is prepared to fight there? Does that make any sense from a military perspective? Finally, does conducting such exercises promote regional stability? Interoperability between NATO and non-NATO members (in this case, Ukraine and Georgia) is a consistent element of messaging, appearing in the mission statement for Sea Breeze, Rapid Trident, Noble Partner, and other exercises conducted in the Black Sea region. Promoting interoperability with partner militaries such as those of Ukraine and Georgia makes a significant statement that the alliance is extending its remit and creating, de facto, an expanded military frontier into an unstable area with thick geopolitics. Simply put, why work toward greater interoperability unless the intent is to interoperate? The suggestion that these partners already operate with NATO outside the area and therefore should be able to operate by NATO standards makes sense. But when exercises are conducted in areas bordering Russia, that distinction will not be appreciated in Moscow. Among other things, such exercises involve actual combat units of participating NATO countries, bringing with them heavy and sophisticated weaponry. Sea Breeze 2017, for example, included a Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser and an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, among the most powerful warships afloat. These provided an opportunity for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to visit (and be photographed on) one of the ships at port in Odesa, where he could “emphasize … that this joint training is our response to ideologists, organizers and sponsors of hybrid wars” and that the “Head of State [Poroshenko] is confident that the training will become another resolute step towards achieving stability in the region.”[63] The parties fomenting hybrid wars and instability were not named, but, from where Poroshenko stood, the air distance to the Russian naval base at Sevastopol is only about 200 miles and is easily within the Crimean anti-access/area-denial zone that the Russians have since put in place.[64] Again, citing Dmitry Gorenburg, Russia is “mak[ing] it clear that the modernization of the Black Sea Fleet and the concurrent strengthening of Russian military presence in the Black Sea region [is] a priority to counter the threat it sees emanating from NATO and its partners in the region, including Ukraine.”[65] In a similar fashion, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence noted during the opening ceremony of Noble Partner 2017 in Georgia that “The strategic partnership between the United States and Georgia is stronger now than ever, and this joint exercise is a tangible sign of our commitment to each other to make it stronger still.”[66] Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili used the occasion of the Noble Partner 2018 kickoff to denounce Moscow for its role in the 2008 conflict that resulted in the secession of the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, saying that the participating troops “are standing on the territory of a country, 20 percent of which is absolutely occupied by our neighbor Russia.”[67] After Noble Partner began, perhaps responding to Margvelashvili’s statement (although he did not refer specifically to the exercise), Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned that admitting Georgia to NATO could trigger a “terrible conflict,” suggesting, at the least, that the presence of combat troops, including tanks and other armored vehicles from NATO countries, in a “frozen conflict” zone is viewed by Moscow as unacceptable and highly destabilizing.[68]

Conclusion: Is Exercise Always Good?

Despite the vast increase in the number and scope of NATO and associated exercises, in Western think tanks some still advocate “more big exercises.”[69] There is a strong contingent of exercise advocates within the U.S. national security establishment and among many allied governments.[70] Yet, as Michael O’Hanlon suggested in regard to the Korean theater, cutting back or even eliminating large-scale exercises can be offset by conducting more frequent training at the tactical level, using “state-of-the-art simulations,” or by conducting exercises outside the immediate vicinity, including in the United States.[71] The U.S. Air Force’s Red Flag exercises in Nevada and Alaska, which usually include units from other countries, are a good example of the latter. Although the lower visibility involved in small-scale exercises or those remote from geopolitically fraught regions reduces the demonstration effect in deterring an aggressor, they are also much less de-stabilizing, precisely because they lack the hyperbolic rhetoric surrounding highly publicized exercises such as Zapad 2017 and Trident Juncture 2018. Military exercises in Europe since early 2014 have frequently involved bringing troops, naval vessels, and aircraft from opposing sides within increasingly closer proximity to one another, and have introduced newer and more capable weaponry as part of the fielded forces. The official messaging behind these maneuvers usually makes reference to the need to train in real-world conditions and ensure that units from different militaries can operate efficiently with one another. Moreover, the defensive nature of the exercise is stressed, often with the claim that greater capability will promote geopolitical stability and deter aggression. But by incorporating non-member militaries in its exercises and other missions, NATO has ratcheted up the operational tempo of its forces in areas that Russia views as buffer zones and that are too close for its strategic comfort. Not surprisingly, Russia responds in kind and raises anxiety levels among NATO members and key non-NATO partners and, in some cases, increases the likelihood of inadvertent actions that could escalate into hostilities. Explaining the Russian rationale behind the huge Vostok 2018 exercise and other Russian maneuvers, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated, “The country’s ability to defend itself in the current international situation, which is frequently quite aggressive and unfriendly toward us, is absolutely justified and has no alternative.”[72] Not surprisingly, U.S. Navy Adm. James G. Foggo, who commanded NATO’s Trident Juncture 2018, said that the rationale from his perspective is much the same: “NATO is a defensive Alliance. We’re not looking for a fight, but we are committed to defense and deterrence. That’s what this exercise is all about: training to defend, and providing a deterrent effect, ready to respond to any threat from any direction at any time.”[73] Certainly, both NATO and Russia have legitimate interests in maintaining readiness, exercising command and control of complex military operations, and assuring both their citizens and allies that they are capable of defending against external aggression. But the danger here is that the two sides are caught in an increasingly complex and dynamic upward spiral of military brinkmanship that will be difficult to manage if present trends continue. If there is a way out of this dangerous course of events it might lie within the framework of the Vienna Document 2011, the latest version of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) agreement to which the United States, other NATO countries, and Russia (among others) are signatories. The document is “composed of politically binding confidence and security-building measures designed to increase openness and transparency concerning military activities conducted inside the OSCE's zone of application,”[74] which is essentially all of Europe (including Russia as far east as the Ural Mountains). It requires all participating states to notify other parties of military events above a certain threshold and to invite observers to these events. The central problem here, as articulated by Olivier Schmitt, is that the heightened level of geopolitical tension in Europe effectively precludes the necessary updates and modifications to the OSCE document that would make it a more effective instrument for containing, among other things, the unbridled growth of military exercises.[75] In Europe, a region with very thick geopolitics, the messaging incorporated into both NATO and Russian military exercises “risk[s] inducing a self-righteous bubble of understanding that is too far removed from the ground-level actualities in [the] post-Soviet space.”[76] NATO, in response to the entreaties of its eastern allied states and even non-member states, and at times because of ill-advised moves by Russia, has leveraged itself into territory that it would be hard-pressed to defend against a large, conventional Russian attack. Using their military exercises to message their interest in bolstering defenses in this inherently unstable geopolitical zone is a risky proposition, at best, for both NATO and Russia.   Acknowledgements: The author wishes to thank Gerard Toal for reading an earlier version of this paper, and Ryan Evans and an anonymous reviewer for their comments on the draft. Megan Oprea and Autumn Brewington provided much-needed editorial advice. Any shortcomings remaining are solely the author’s responsibility.   Ralph Clem is emeritus professor of geography and senior fellow at the Steven J. Green School of Public and International Affairs at Florida International University. He also served as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, retiring as a major general.   Image: North Carolina National Guard [post_title] => Military Exercises as Geopolitical Messaging in the NATO-Russia Dynamic: Reassurance, Deterrence, and (In)stability [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => military-exercises-as-geopolitical-messaging-in-the-nato-russia-dynamic-reassurance-deterrence-and-instability [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-04-10 11:34:22 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-04-10 15:34:22 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw [lead] => Military exercises are often viewed as geopolitical tools used to boost stability and enhance deterrence. However, they can sometimes have the exact opposite effect: increasing instability and contributing to dangerous levels of escalation. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of NATO and Russia. [pubinfo] => [issue] => Vol 2, Iss 1 [quotes] => Array ( [0] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Once it has been decided that exercises are to take place, geopolitical messaging is conveyed in several ways in their actual execution. ) [1] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => [S]ince the annexation of Crimea, the schedule of military training events involving NATO and its member states, as well as non-NATO partners, has become increasingly ambitious. ) [2] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => [W]hat is the point of conducting military exercises with non-NATO countries if the alliance is not treaty-bound to assist them in the event that they are attacked by Russia? ) ) [style] => strategist [type] => Strategist [style_label] => The Strategist [download] => Array ( [title] => PDF Download [file] => 1284 ) [authors] => Array ( [0] => 223 ) [endnotes] => Array ( [title] => Endnotes [endnotes] => [1] This decision seemed to catch the Pentagon and Seoul off guard. See: Helene Cooper and Mark Landler, “Trump’s Promises to Kim Jong-un Leave U.S. and Allies Scrambling,” New York Times, June 15, 2018, [2] For an excellent overview, see: Beatrice Heuser, “Reflections on the Purposes, Benefits and Pitfalls of Military Exercises,” in Military Exercises: Political Messaging and Strategic Impact, ed. Beatrice Heuser, Tormod Heier, and Guillaume Lasconjarias (Rome: NATO Defense College Forum Paper 26, February 2018), 9–25. [3] This paper concerns only major scheduled military exercises. Most militaries also conduct tactical training exercises and “snap” or “operational readiness” inspections, but these are difficult to enumerate and even more difficult to analyze. In the case of Russia, for example, see: Alexander Golts, “Rehearsals for War,” European Council on Foreign Relations, July 5, 2016, [4] David A. Shlapak and Michael Johnson, “Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics,” RAND Corp., 2016, For a broader discussion of war gaming, see: Jeffrey Appleget, Jeffrey Kline, and James J. Wirtz, “Do Wargames Impact Deterrence?” in Heuser, Heier, and Lasconjarias, Military Exercises: Political Messaging and Strategic Impact, 27–44. As war games relate to escalation dynamics, see: Jacquelyn G. Schneider, “What War Games Tell Us About the Use of Cyber Weapons in a Crisis,” Defense One, June 22, 2018, [5] Michael Kofman, “Fixing NATO Deterrence in the East Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love NATO’s Crushing Defeat by Russia,” War on the Rocks, May 12, 2016, [6] Gerard Toal, Near Abroad: Putin, the West, and the Contest Over Ukraine and the Caucasus (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017). [7] As this involves Norway’s decision to push its defense perimeter farther north, see: Tormod Heier, “Towards a New Robust Defence? Norway’s Exercises on NATO’s Northern Flank, 2008–2017,” in Heuser, Heier, and Lasconjarias, Military Exercises: Political Messaging and Strategic Impact, 163–85. [8] Mark Galeotti, “Heavy Metal Diplomacy: Russia’s Political Use of Its Military in Europe Since 2014,” European Council on Foreign Relations Policy Brief, Dec. 19, 2016, [9] Roland Bleiker, “Mapping Visual Global Politics,” in Visual Global Politics, ed. Roland Bleiker (New York: Routledge, 2018), 1. [10] Joint exercises involve two or more service components (air, ground, or naval), and combined exercises involve forces from two or more countries. [11] Herb Lin, “The U.S. and South Korea Should Conditionally End Large Joint Military Exercises,” Lawfare, Aug. 30, 2017,; Helene Cooper and Choe Sang-Hun, “U.S. and South Korea to Resume Joint Military Exercises,” New York Times, March 19, 2018, [12] Emphasis added in excerpt from “U.S., South Korea Launch Annual Foal Eagle Exercise,” Department of Defense News, March 3, 2017, [13] Robert Collins, “A Brief History of the US-ROK Combined Military Exercises,” 38 North, Feb. 26, 2014, [14] Michael R. Gordon and Declan Walsh, “General Says U.S. Wants to Resume Major Military Exercise With Egypt,” New York Times, Feb. 26, 2017, [15] “U.S., Egypt Kick Off Exercise Bright Star 2017,” U.S. Air Forces Central Command Public Affairs, Sept. 13, 2017, [16] Adarsha Verma, “The Malabar Exercises: An Appraisal,” Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, July 18, 2017, [17] Prashanth Parameswaran, “What Does a Bigger 2018 Balikatan Military Exercise Say About US-Philippines Alliance Under Duterte?” Diplomat, May 8, 2018, [18] Megan Eckstein, “China Disinvited from Participating in 2018 RIMPAC Exercise,” USNI News, May 23, 2018, [19] Tom O’Connor, “Russia and China Will Hold War Games in Asia, Checking U.S. Military Power in Pacific,” Newsweek, April 26, 2018, [20] Michael J. Mazarr and Michael Kofman, “Rediscovering Statecraft in a Changing Post-War Order,” Texas National Security Review 1, no. 3 (May 2018), [21] Ralph S. Clem, “Clearing the Fog of War: Public Versus Official Sources and Geopolitical Storylines in the Russia-Ukraine Conflict,” Eurasian Geography and Economics 58, no. 6 (2018), [22] There is a vast literature on this subject. For an overview, see: Andrew Monaghan, “The Ukraine Crisis and NATO-Russia Relations,” NATO Review (2014),; Kimberly Marten, “Reconsidering NATO Expansion: A Counterfactual Analysis of Russia and the West in the 1990s,” European Journal of International Security 3, no. 2 (June 2018),; Michael McFaul, “Russia As It Is: A Grand Strategy for Confronting Putin,” Foreign Affairs 97, no. 4 (July/August 2018), [23] The Baltic Air Policing mission involves heel-to-toe rotations of fighter aircraft to bases in Lithuania and Estonia. See: “NATO Air Policing,” Allied Air Command, accessed Oct. 30, 2018, [24] “Boosting NATO’s presence in the east and southeast,” NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), Aug. 14, 2018, [25] Samuel Charap, “Russia’s Use of Military Force as a Foreign Policy Tool: Is There a Logic?” PONARS Policy Memo 443, October 2016, [26] Fredrik Westerlund, “Russia’s Military Strategy and Force Structure in Kaliningrad,” Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI), FOI Memo 6060, May 2017, Briefing No 40 Kaliningrad by Fredrik Westerlund.pdf. [27] Dmitry Gorenburg, “Is a New Russian Black Sea Fleet Coming? Or Is It Here?” War on the Rocks, July 31, 2018, [28] Thomas Frear, Łukasz Kulesa, and Ian Kearns, “Dangerous Brinkmanship: Close Military Encounters Between Russia and the West in 2014,” European Leadership Network Policy Brief, November 2014, [29] Keir Giles, “Russia Hit Multiple Targets With Zapad-2017,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Jan. 25, 2018, [30] Emphasis added to this undated Russian Ministry of Defense press release on the Zapad 2017 Joint Strategic Exercise [31] Andrew Higgins, “Russia’s War Games with Fake Enemies Cause Real Alarm,” New York Times, Sept. 13, 2017, [32] Ian J. Brzezinski and Nicholas Varangis, “The NATO-Russia Exercise Gap,” Atlantic Council’s NATOSource, Feb. 23, 2015, [33] Michael Kofman questions the manner in which the much larger numbers were generated, but the publicity from the Russian Ministry of Defense stresses the record size. See his article “Assessing Vostok-2018,” Changing Character of War Centre, Russia Brief no. 3, September 2018, [34] Dmitry Gorenburg, “5 Things to Know About Russia’s Vostok-2018 Military Exercises,” Washington Post’s Monkey Cage Blog, Sept. 13, 2018, [35] NATO sponsors a set of exercises annually, and some of its member states or groupings of members do likewise. For an in-depth look at a NATO exercise and a Russian exercise, see: Thomas Frear, Ian Kearns, and Łukasz Kulesa, “Preparing for the Worst: Are Russian and NATO Military Exercises Making War in Europe More Likely?” European Leadership Network Policy Brief, August 2015, [36] Ralph S. Clem, “NATO’s Expanding Military Exercises Are Sending Risky Mixed Messages,” War on the Rocks, Oct. 10, 2017, [37] Ian Brzezinski and Nicholas Varangis, “The NATO-Russia Exercise Gap: Then, Now, and 2017,” Atlantic Council’s NATOSource, Oct. 25, 2016, [38] NATO, “Wales Summit Declaration,” news release (2014) 120, Sept. 5, 2014, - top. [39] NATO, “Warsaw Summit Communiqué,” news release (2016) 100, July 9, 2016, [40] Emphasis added to official alliance statement on the Brussels summit. See: NATO, “Brussels Summit Declaration,” news release (2018) 74, July 11, 2018, [41] “During Saber Strike, Baltic Countries Train with U.S., U.K., Canada,” Army News Service, June 13, 2012, [42] Undated U.S. Army (Europe) webpage on “Saber Strike 2018” exercise, [43] “The Anaconda-16 Exercises Begin,” Polish Ministry of National Defence, June 7, 2016, [44] Azita Raji, “The Perils of Playing Footsie in Military Boots: Trident Juncture and NATO’s Nordic Front,” War on the Rocks, Aug. 20, 2018, See also: Heier, “Towards a New Robust Defence?” [45] Ralph Clem, “Today, NATO Begins a Huge Military Exercise. Here’s What You Need to Know,” Washington Post’s Monkey Cage Blog, Oct. 25, 2018, [46] Richard Milne, “Sweden Gears Up for Biggest Military Exercise in Decades,” Financial Times, Sept. 7, 2017,; Brad Lendon and Zachary Cohen, “U.S. Air Force to Send F-15 Jets to Finland,”, Feb. 15, 2016, [47] Finnish Defence Forces, “Trident Juncture 2018 to Be Organized in October-November in Norway, Sweden and Finland,” news release, April 27, 2018,; Undated Swedish Armed Forces webpage on “Trident Juncture 2018,” [48] Sweden brought back military conscription in 2017 and is set to make major increases in its defense spending that will add significant troop strength, aircraft, and enhanced cyber capabilities. See: Gerard O’Dwyer, “New Swedish Government Advocates for Greater Defense Spending,” Defense News, Sept. 12, 2018. Finland, which already has compulsory service, likewise plans to increase its defense spending and add manpower. See: “Finland to Increase Troop Levels, Defence Spending Amid Heightened Tensions,” Reuters, Feb. 16, 2017, [49] “NATO Response Force,” NATO website, Jan. 16, 2017, [50] Denmark has the highest casualty rate of any NATO member state. [51] “U.S. Deploys Advanced Anti-Aircraft Missiles in Baltics for First Time,” Reuters, July 10, 2017, [52] “US Moves Patriot Missiles near Russian Border in 1st Baltic Deployment,” RT, July 11, 2017, [53] “Estonia Calls for Deployment of US Troops, Patriot Missiles,” Euractiv, April 5, 2018, [54] Vladimir Isachenkov, “Russia Is Putting State-of-the-Art Missile in Its Westernmost Baltic Exclave,” Business Insider, March 18, 2015, [55] Richard Milne and Kathrin Hille, “Baltic Concern Rises at Russian Missiles in Kaliningrad,” Financial Times, Feb. 5, 2018, [56] Victoria Leoni, “Navy Sends Destroyers to Black Sea to ‘Desensitize’ Russia,” Navy Times, Feb. 20, 2018, [57] “NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe Meets with Russian Chief of General Staff,” Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe Public Affairs Office, April 19, 2018, [58] Kofman, “Fixing NATO Deterrence in the East”; Ulrich Kühn, Preventing Escalation in the Baltics: A NATO Playbook (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 2018), [59] Clem, “NATO’s Expanding Military Exercises Are Sending Risky Mixed Messages.” [60] Ralph S. Clem, “Forward Basing NATO Airpower in the Baltics Is a Bad Idea,” War on the Rocks, April 18, 2016,; Ralph S. Clem, “Geopolitics and Planning for a High-End Fight: NATO and the Baltic Region,” Air and Space Power Journal 30, no. 1 (Spring 2016): 74–85, For a contrary view, see: Luke Coffey and Daniel Kochis, “Time for the Baltic Air Policing Mission to Become the Baltic Air Defense Mission,” Heritage Foundation, Oct. 2, 2017, [61] Luis Simon, “Demystifying the A2/AD Buzz,” War on the Rocks, Jan. 4, 2017, [62] Coffey and Kochis, “Time for the Baltic Air Policing Mission to Become the Baltic Air Defense Mission.” [63] Petro Poroshenko, “President on Sea Breeze 2017 Training,” July 17, 2017, [64] Loic Burton, “Bubble Trouble: Russia’s A2/AD Capabilities,” Foreign Policy Association, Oct. 25, 2016, [65] Gorenburg, “Is a New Russian Black Sea Fleet Coming? Or Is It Here?” [66] Author’s emphasis added to the statement. “Remarks by the Vice President to Noble Partner Participants,” U.S. Embassy in Georgia, Aug. 1, 2017, [67] “Georgia Slams Russia ‘Occupation’ Ahead of NATO War Games,”, Aug. 1, 2018, [68] Andrew Osborn, “Russian PM Warns NATO Admission of Georgia Could Trigger ‘Terrible Conflict,’” Reuters, Aug. 6, 2018, [69] Elisabeth Braw, “NATO Needs More Big Exercises, Too,” Defense One, June 14, 2018, [70] Lara Seligman, “Experts Question Wisdom of Canceling U.S. Exercises with South Korea, as Mattis Makes It Official,” Foreign Policy, June 26, 2018, [71] Michael E. O’Hanlon, “It’s Finally Time to Deal With North Korea,” New York Times, July 5, 2017, [72] Andrew Higgins, “300,000 Troops and 900 Tanks: Russia’s Biggest Military Drills Since Cold War,” New York Times, Aug. 28, 2018, Jack Watling correctly points out that the exercise also serves a domestic political purpose: highlighting Russia’s growing military might as a distraction from the country’s social and economic problems. “Russia’s Vostok-2018 Exercise Is About a Lot More Than War With NATO,” RUSI Commentary, Sept. 7, 2018,’s-vostok-2018-exercise-about-lot-more-war-nato. [73] NATO, “Exercise Trident Juncture 18 to Demonstrate NATO’s ability to Defend Itself,” news release, June 11, 2018, [74] State Department, “Overview of Vienna Document 2011,” [75] Olivier Schmitt, “The Vienna Document and the Russian Challenge to the European Security Architecture,” in Heuser, Heier, Lasconjarias, Military Exercises: Political Messaging and Strategic Impact, 269–84. [76] Toal, Near Abroad, 298. ) [contents] => Array ( [title] => [contents] => ) ) [10] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 696 [post_author] => 60 [post_date] => 2018-08-28 05:00:23 [post_date_gmt] => 2018-08-28 09:00:23 [post_content] => Editor's Note: In light of the public interest in U.S.-Russian relations, especially in the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s meeting with President Vladimir Putin in Helskinki this summer, the Texas National Security Review will be publishing a series of essays in our “Strategist” section on past U.S. presidents and their engagements with Soviet and Russian leaders. As many were decrying the lack of any formal record of the one-on-one meeting between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, the Clinton Presidential Library in July posted online nearly all of the declassified memoranda of conversation (“memcons”) from the in-person meetings and telephone conversations (“telcons”) between President Bill Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin from Jan. 23, 1993, to Dec. 31, 1999, when Yeltsin abruptly resigned from office and made way for Putin. With 18 memcons and 56 telcons available through the library’s website, it is possible to view directly the key discussions between these two leaders over time, from the early days when Clinton publicly backed Yeltsin in his bloody political standoff with the Russian parliament to their later disagreements over NATO enlargement and Kosovo, along with numerous conversations about arms control, Chechnya, Iran, and other global issues.[1] As someone who worked in the Clinton administration and has written about U.S.-Russian relations in this period,[2] I found that the documents allow a much deeper and broader understanding of three core features of the Clinton-Yeltsin interactions. First, the two leaders established a close personal rapport and used those positive feelings to interact effectively even when they were being frank in their disagreements, the most serious of which were over NATO enlargement and the Kosovo War. Throughout, from the 1993 political turmoil in Russia through the 1998 Russian financial crisis and beyond, Clinton offered Yeltsin his full personal support. Second, the two men used their meetings and phone calls to build trust in one another by explicitly referring to delivering on promises made in their prior conversations. This proved particularly important in their discussions of NATO enlargement. Clinton was trying to thread a needle: He sought to keep the issue from harming Yeltsin’s reelection bid in the summer of 1996 while ensuring that the United States responded to Central and Eastern European desires to join the Western alliance. Because Clinton believed the issue would affect his own reelection bid, he wanted to make clear to voters of Central and Eastern European descent in the Midwest before November 1996 that he was moving forward with enlargement. From 1994 to 1996, Clinton reminded Yeltsin often of his assurances about the timing. Third, and perhaps most important when their interactions are compared with those of other U.S. and Soviet (and later Russian) heads of state during the Cold War and after, an enormous power differential existed between the two countries in this period and was the backdrop to their conversations. Yeltsin’s Russia was extremely weak, a country in economic free-fall and strategic decline. Clinton’s America was enjoying its unipolar moment.[3] In no other era before or since has the Russian president been in such a weak position when meeting with his American counterpart, and the declassified memcons and telcons from this period show how that imbalance of power permeates the discussions. The meetings largely consist of Yeltsin agreeing to Clinton’s requests after some back and forth. But also clear is Yeltsin’s desire for Russia to be seen as an equal to the United States, something that was important for his predecessors and successors alike and a factor in U.S.-Russian relations often underappreciated by many in the West.

Clinton’s Support for Yeltsin and the Building of a Personal Rapport

In his first term, Boris Yeltsin needed Bill Clinton’s support as he battled domestic Russian opposition to his policies. It was not just financial support for Russia that was critical, although that assistance was important, including when Clinton publicly endorsed what became a $10.2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund announced in the midst of the 1996 Russian presidential campaign.[4] Clinton also offered Yeltsin complete public support when the latter used military force in a standoff with the Russian parliament in the fall of 1993. Clinton did so because he believed he needed Yeltsin — a Russian president committed to good relations with the West who could thereby enable the American president to shrink the U.S. defense budget to pay for cherished domestic programs. One of the first big moments in their relationship came in April 1993, when Yeltsin held a referendum that asked voters whether they trusted him, approved of his socioeconomic policies, and believed new presidential and parliamentary elections should be conducted ahead of schedule. Russia experts in the U.S. government thought that Yeltsin would lose overwhelmingly, and Clinton’s top Russia adviser, Strobe Talbott, wrote later that the president “followed the referendum as though it were an American election.” Remarkably, given the state of the Russian economy, 58.7 percent of voters affirmed their trust in Yeltsin and 53 percent approved his socioeconomic policies. Clinton happily threw his support behind the Russian president.[5] In a call the next day, Clinton told Yeltsin, “I’m about to issue a statement in support of your policies. I want you to know that we’re in this with you for the long haul.” Yeltsin closed the call by saying, “I hug you from the bottom of my heart.”[6] By September, however, parliamentary opposition to Yeltsin grew stronger. Clinton called Yeltsin early that month to convey his continued support amid the standoff in Moscow. In a follow-up call on Sept. 21, Yeltsin told him, “Bill, the Supreme Soviet [the Russian parliament] has totally gone out of control. It no longer supports the reform process. They have become communist. We can no longer put up with that.” He added, “I think there will be no bloodshed,”[7] which turned out to be mistaken. The battle between Yeltsin and the opposition legislators came to a head on Oct. 3, when Yeltsin ordered his military to shell the parliament building. A bloody clash between the executive and legislative branches was not exactly a sign of a healthy democracy, but Clinton phoned two days later to tell Yeltsin, “I wanted to call you and express my support.” Yeltsin responded, “Now that these events are over, we have no more obstacles to Russia’s democratic elections and our transition to democracy and market economy.” Yeltsin even mused that he might hold elections for president at the same time as parliamentary elections in December and told Clinton that he “might end up in the Guinness Book of World Records for standing for election three times in three years.” (He did not carry out this plan.) Yeltsin closed by telling Clinton once again, “I embrace you with all my heart.”[8] [quote id="1"] Clinton continued to emphasize his personal support for Yeltsin over the course of their terms in office. In late 1994, Russia invaded the breakaway province of Chechnya. Clinton expressed concern about the impact of this war on Yeltsin’s image. Referring to an upcoming speech by the Russian president to parliament, Clinton told him, referring to Yeltsin’s pivotal role during the August 1991 coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, “It is also an opportunity to remind the world of why you are the best hope for continued reform in Russia. I want everyone to see you as the person who stood on the tank and stood up for freedom.”[9] In the run-up to the first round of the Russian presidential election in June 1996, Yeltsin was growing desperate for financial assistance. He told the U.S. president, “Bill, for my election campaign, I urgently need for Russia a loan of $2.5 billion.” Yeltsin explained that he was not seeing results yet from the rescheduling of Russia’s debt by the group of major creditor countries known as the Paris Club, and the bulk of the recently announced IMF loan would not arrive until later in the year. “But the problem,” said Yeltsin, “is I need money to pay pensions and wages.” Clinton assured him, “I’ll check on this with the IMF and some of our friends and see what can be done.”[10] No matter what challenges they faced, domestically or in their relationship, they maintained a strong personal bond. In a telephone exchange in late October 1997, months after the two had met in Denver in June, Yeltsin told Clinton, “You know, I started missing your voice.” Clinton replied, “I miss you too.” (They had a similar exchange in February 1998 only three weeks after their previous call!)[11] Clinton saw Yeltsin as a significant figure in Russian history, and he tried to convey that at various points. At a meeting in May 1998, Clinton said, “You know, Boris, we really are working with the stuff of history here. I’m convinced that 20 years from now, when the Russian economy is booming, people will look back and say we were right; we did the right things. I just hope you get all the credit you deserve while you’re still around, because you’ve done a terrific job of leading your country during one of the two or three most important moments in Russian history.”[12] The greatest test of their personal relationship came during the Kosovo bombing campaign in March 1999. Clinton and his European counterparts believed that NATO needed to carry out airstrikes against Serbia to bring its leader, Slobodan Milosevic, to the bargaining table. Yeltsin was stridently opposed to any use of force, not just because of the close ties between Russia and Serbia but partly because, unlike the situation in Bosnia a few years earlier, this would mean military intervention in the internal affairs of a sovereign country. Russia’s ability to wield a veto in the U.N. Security Council meant that authorization for the war from that body would not be forthcoming.[13] In a phone conversation between the two men as NATO was about to launch airstrikes, Clinton, after rehashing all that Milosevic had done, told Yeltsin bluntly, “Basically, it will be your decision if you decide to let this bully destroy the relationship we worked hard for over six and a half years to build up.” He reminded Yeltsin of all his public and private support over the years, including providing economic assistance to Russia and his multiple visits to Moscow. “You may decide to let this get in the way of our relationship, but I’m not going to because I do not think he’s that important. I’m sorry he is a Serb. I wish he were Irish or something else, but he is not.” Clinton tried telling Yeltsin that maybe after a few strikes, Milosevic would seek diplomacy; after all, he had come to the table in 1995 to end the earlier Balkan war. Yeltsin would have none of it: “[O]ur people will certainly from now have a bad attitude with regard to America and with NATO. I remember how difficult it was for me to try and turn the heads of our people, the heads of the politicians towards the West, towards the United States, but I succeeded in doing that, and now to lose all that. Well, since I failed to convince the President, that means there is in store for us a very difficult, difficult road of contacts, if they prove to be possible.” He signed off with “Goodbye,” with no added embrace.[14] The latter part of the war led to quite an up-and-down in their conversations. In early May 1999, as they were coming to agreement on what needed to be done, Yeltsin told Clinton, “I owe you a bear hug.” Clinton replied, “Yes, I want a bear hug.”[15] Clinton called Yeltsin on June 10, after discussions between Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, and Milosevic appeared to end the conflict, and Yeltsin told him, “I would like to hug and kiss you, and I am sincerely glad that in such a difficult situation our friendship wasn’t broken.”[16] [quote id="2"] Alas, in the next few days, Russian forces occupied the airport in Pristina, and it looked like NATO and Russian forces might come into conflict. Clinton and Yeltsin spoke multiple times by phone. Clinton made clear that a failure to resolve the conflict would harm the upcoming Group of Eight meeting in Germany: “We were about to have in Cologne a celebration of Russia in the peace operation,” an angry Clinton remarked. “Instead, we face day after day, international embarrassment that Kosovo will be wrecked.”[17] Russia’s weakness and Yeltsin’s desire to be feted by his G-8 colleagues in Cologne were key factors in the ultimate resolution of the conflict but so, too, was the importance of the relationship the two presidents had built, a relationship that was tested over the years by the U.S. decision to expand NATO eastward.

Clinton’s Promises on Enlargement

Perhaps no issue provides a greater window into the nature of the relationship between the two presidents than their lengthy discussions from 1994 to 1997 about NATO enlargement. An undercurrent of their exchanges involved Clinton’s efforts to ensure that he did not harm Yeltsin politically while giving him a very bitter pill to swallow. Another recurrence was Yeltsin’s explanation of the damage this issue was doing to him while ultimately going along with Clinton’s various proposals. There was a brief moment in the fall of 1994 when Yeltsin believed that Clinton was reneging on a commitment not to rush the process and exploded at a Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) summit. The huge power imbalance between the two countries hung over the relationship and punctuated the presidents’ interactions.[18] In their meetings and phone calls, Clinton drove the agenda, as he did for nearly all of the issues they discussed over seven years. The two men genuinely got along, partly because they were similar political animals. But at the end of the day, the United States called the shots in the relationship. Clinton was always trying to make sure that Yeltsin knew he was giving him what he could, and Clinton expected Yeltsin to go along with his proposals. Generally, Yeltsin did. Throughout their conversations on enlargement, Clinton was eager for Yeltsin to know that the United States was keeping a promise Clinton made in September 1994 in one of their discussions in Washington (the declassified memcon of this exchange is not among the cache of documents recently released): namely, that he and his NATO colleagues would go slowly on expanding the alliance given Clinton’s (publicly unstated but understood) desire to see Yeltsin safely reelected in 1996. Meanwhile, Yeltsin focused Clinton’s attention on the domestic political ramifications of NATO enlargement. Interestingly, he did not raise the issue (as others later would) that the United States and its Western European allies had assured Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev during the 1990 negotiations over German unification that NATO would not expand eastward.[19] In October 1993, when discussions first began in earnest about NATO’s future, the possibility of enlargement seemed quite distant. Secretary of State Warren Christopher explained to Yeltsin at the latter’s country dacha that the United States planned to pursue the “Partnership for Peace,” which would include all members of the former Warsaw Pact, and NATO enlargement would be considered only as a “longer-term eventuality.”[20] Christopher told Yeltsin, “There could be no recommendation to ignore or exclude Russia from full participation in the future security of Europe. As a result of our study, a ‘Partnership for Peace’ would be recommended to the [January 1994] NATO summit which would be open to all members of the [North Atlantic Cooperation Council] including all European and [former Soviet] states. There would be no effort to exclude anyone and there would be no step taken at this time to push anyone ahead of others.” Yeltsin was obviously relieved. “This is a brilliant idea, it is a stroke of genius,” he said. “It is important that there is an idea of partnership for all and not new membership for some.” Yeltsin exclaimed, “It really is a great idea, really great,” adding, “Tell Bill I am thrilled by this brilliant stroke.”[21] In late December, a few weeks before Clinton was to meet Yeltsin in Moscow after the NATO summit, the two men spoke by phone. The primary purpose was to discuss the recent Russian parliamentary elections and for Clinton to remind Yeltsin of how the United States had delivered on the economic assistance announced at their first meeting, in Vancouver, the previous April. Clinton stated simply, “I will be in Brussels for the NATO summit and in Prague before I see you and will want to discuss Russian participation in NATO’s Partnership for Peace proposal.” Yeltsin responded that he had recently met with NATO Secretary General Manfred Woerner: “We discussed a plan of action for the countries of Eastern Europe to cooperate with NATO in a way that would not be at the expense of Russia and also a plan of action for Russia to join NATO.” While Clinton did not respond to Yeltsin’s comment, their discussion was quite cordial; after all, as far as Yeltsin understood, NATO enlargement was not on the table in a serious way.[22] While the Clinton Library collection does not contain the declassified memcon from the presidents’ January 1994 summit in Moscow, nor the specific discussion they had regarding NATO that September in Washington, Clinton’s top Russia adviser, Strobe Talbott, has written that in the latter meeting Clinton told Yeltsin that NATO was going to expand but tried to reassure him that he had no timetable yet. “We’re going to move forward on this, but I’d never spring it on you.” Clinton said there would be “no surprises, no rush, and no exclusion.” He then added, “As I see it, NATO expansion is not anti-Russia. … I don’t want you to believe that I wake up every morning thinking only about how to make the Warsaw Pact countries a part of NATO — that’s not the way I look at it. What I do think about is how to use NATO expansion to advance the broader, higher goal of European security, unity and integration — a goal I know you share.”[23] Clinton knew Yeltsin was not going to be happy, so he kept emphasizing that he was promising not to spring anything on Yeltsin and that “no exclusion” meant that Russia would be eligible to join someday. In reality, it was no exclusion in theory but not in practice. Russia was not going to become a NATO member. Even so, Clinton had reason to believe he was managing the process well; after all, Yeltsin told him in a phone call on Oct. 5, 1994, that “the Washington Summit proved a success.”[24] At their September meeting, Yeltsin asked Clinton to come to the CSCE summit in Budapest that December. The CSCE was being upgraded to the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe), and Yeltsin wanted to signal that perhaps there could be alternatives to NATO in addressing European security. Clinton agreed to go. He kept that promise even after the 1994 midterm elections resulted in a Republican takeover of both houses of Congress for the first time in four decades. His White House team scheduled a congressional reception the night of the Budapest summit precisely to try to keep the president from leaving town. But Clinton’s foreign policy team said he had to go, and he did.[25] It turned out to be the most disastrous public encounter the two presidents would have. On Dec. 1, the NATO foreign ministers announced that they would complete a study by the end of 1995 (i.e., a half-year before the 1996 Russian presidential election) on how NATO would enlarge. Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, who had gone to Brussels to sign Russia’s Partnership for Peace program document and a document on a NATO-Russia dialogue, was ordered by a furious Yeltsin not to sign. At the Budapest summit a few days later, Clinton gave what his deputy secretary of state, Talbott, described later as the “most in your face” manifestation of the U.S. position on NATO enlargement. In remarks Talbott said were drafted not in his office but within the National Security Council (where National Security Adviser Anthony Lake had been pushing NATO enlargement for more than a year), Clinton declared, “We must not allow the Iron Curtain to be replaced by a veil of indifference. We must not consign new democracies to a gray zone.” He added that “no country outside will be allowed to veto expansion.”[26] Yeltsin publicly responded, “Europe, not having yet freed itself from the heritage of the Cold War, is in danger of plunging into a cold peace.”[27] Clinton was stunned and angered by the tone of Yeltsin’s remarks. Talbott, who was not on the trip, thought he might be fired for not having adequately prepared his boss for what would occur.[28] Soon, however, Clinton had things seemingly back on track thanks in part to visits by others in his administration, including Vice President Al Gore, to see Yeltsin. In advance of his own trip to Moscow in May 1995, Clinton called Yeltsin to discuss NATO. “We recognize how sensitive this issue is for you. That is why I want to assure you that this process is proceeding along a path that is consistent with what you and I agreed upon last September and that Vice President Gore reiterated to you when he saw you in December.” Yeltsin responded, “I fully agree with you on that.” Clinton added, “For the future stability of Europe, it is important that Russia is a vital part of the new security structures that are emerging. That means OSCE, the post-COCOM [the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls established by the West after World War II] regime, the new NATO—all of them. None of this can develop normally unless Russia is involved in the process.” Yeltsin stated, “We’ll both have difficult discussions with regards to NATO, but I’m confident we’ll be able to find an acceptable solution for this issue.” Clinton then reported that Secretary of State Christopher and Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev had just described to him a proposal for the upcoming NATO foreign ministers’ meeting that would again affirm that there would be no acceleration of the enlargement process, announce a strengthening of the Partnership for Peace, and begin discussions about a NATO-Russia special relationship.[29] [quote id="3"] Nevertheless, the issue remained an enormous sore spot for Yeltsin and a domestic political problem. In a three-hour meeting at the Kremlin on May 10, 1995, Yeltsin asked for a better understanding of what Clinton was doing on NATO enlargement “because now I see nothing but humiliation for Russia if you proceed. How do you think it looks to us if one bloc continues to exist while the Warsaw Pact has been abolished?” He called it a “new form of encirclement” and repeated his plea to develop a new pan-European security architecture. “You and I are heading for elections,” Yeltsin said. “The extremists and hardliners are exploiting this issue for their own purposes — on both sides. I am being attacked from both the right and the left on this. We need a common European space that provides for overall security. So let’s postpone any change in NATO until 1999 or 2000. … But for me to agree to the borders of NATO expanding toward those of Russia — that would constitute a betrayal on my part of the Russian people.” Instead, Yeltsin said in desperation, “Let’s say that Russia will give every state that wants to join NATO a guarantee that we won’t infringe on its security.” When Clinton asked rhetorically whether the United States still needed to maintain a security relationship with Europe, Yeltsin fired back, “I’m not so sure you do.” Clinton tied his approach to the Victory Day ceremony for which he had come to Moscow and the lessons of history. “Our goal is for the U.S. to stay in Europe and promote a unified, integrated Europe.” He was doing that, he said, by trying to make the Partnership for Peace important, keeping open the door to Russian NATO membership, creating a special NATO-Russia relationship, and ensuring that the NATO membership review process was a deliberate one. Clinton reminded Yeltsin of how this process had unfolded, that he had told Yeltsin in January 1994 that NATO was open to taking in new members, and that in December NATO had agreed to study how to do it. Responding to that study would take the first half of 1996, said Clinton. For Yeltsin, this time frame was vital, because, the Russian leader noted, “my position heading into the 1996 elections is not exactly brilliant.” Clinton, however, had his own political concerns. He explained to Yeltsin that the Republicans were using NATO expansion in their effort to win over voters of Central European descent in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Ohio. He suggested to Yeltsin that they accept what each other needed to do politically. Yeltsin would not have to embrace expansion. Clinton would not say he was slowing down the process. And meanwhile Yeltsin should sign the documents for Russia to join the Partnership for Peace and to establish a NATO-Russian dialogue:
So here is what I want to do. I’ve made it clear I’ll do nothing to accelerate NATO. I’m trying to give you now, in this conversation, the reassurance you need. But we need to be careful that neither of us appears to capitulate. For you, that means you’re not going to embrace expansion; for me, it means no talk about slowing the process down or putting it on hold or anything like that.
Then Clinton told Yeltsin to sign the two documents. Yeltsin asked again that NATO move forward only after his election. Clinton reiterated the timetable, trying to reassure Yeltsin that nothing concrete would happen until after the summer of 1996. Yeltsin said they should publicly say they discussed the issue, understood each other, and would discuss the issue further at their next meeting. Clinton responded, “Good. So join PFP.” Yeltsin agreed.[30] A few months before the NATO leaders’ 1997 announcement in Madrid that the alliance was inviting Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic to join, Yeltsin made one last effort to shape the future at a small meeting with Clinton in Helsinki on March 21. He opened by acknowledging the inevitable. “Our position has not changed,” Yeltsin said. “It remains a mistake for NATO to move eastward. But I need to take steps to alleviate the negative consequences of this for Russia. I am prepared to enter into an agreement with NATO not because I want to but because it is a forced step. There is no other solution for today.” Yeltsin sought a legally binding accord, signed by all 16 NATO members, that would make clear that NATO decisions would not be made “without taking into account the concerns or opinions of Russia.” He also wanted assurance that no nuclear or conventional arms would move into the new members’ territory, “thus creating a new cordon sanitaire aimed at Russia.” Then he put on the table what he most wanted. “[O]ne thing is very important: enlargement should also not embrace the former Soviet republics. I cannot sign any agreement without such language. Especially Ukraine.” Recognizing he was unlikely to receive this, he changed tack slightly,
I propose that in the statement we could accept the fact that Russia has no claims on other countries. In fact, regarding the countries of the former Soviet Union, let us have a verbal, gentlemen’s agreement — we would not write it down in the statement — that no former Soviet republics would enter NATO. This gentlemen’s agreement would not be made public.
Clinton responded that he was “trying to change NATO.” He had language in the proposed agreement between NATO and Russia on nuclear and conventional forces. And he wanted to make sure they signed something before the NATO summit “so we can say to the world that there is a new NATO and a new Russia and that’s the right spirit,” to which Yeltsin agreed. But Clinton added that he couldn’t make an agreement on former Soviet republics: “it would be a bad thing for our attempt to build a new NATO, but it would also be a bad thing for your attempt to build a new Russia.” NATO was assisting the process of building an “integrated, undivided Europe,” Clinton argued what Yeltsin was proposing would mean “Russia would be saying, ‘we have still got an empire, but it just can’t reach as far West.’” Clinton didn’t want to come out of the meeting having discussed new lines being drawn in Europe, and he wouldn’t be able to go forward with a treaty because of Senate opposition. Yeltsin tried again, saying that the Duma would likely make this a condition of its ratification of a NATO-Russia charter. He asked Clinton to tell him what he wanted to hear “one-on-one — without even our closest aides present — that you won’t take new republics in the near future; I need to hear that. I understand that maybe in ten years or something, the situation might change, but not now.” Clinton shot back,
If I went into a closet with you and told you that, the Congress would find out and pass a resolution invalidating the NATO-Russia charter. I’d rather frankly that the Duma pass a resolution conditioning its adherence on this point. I just can’t do it. A private commitment would be the same as a public one. … I know what a terrible problem this is for you, but I can’t make the specific commitment you are asking for. It would violate the whole spirit of NATO.
Yeltsin tried one last time to get what he wanted, but to no avail, and so they moved on to other items. [31] At their last meeting, in Istanbul in November 1999, Yeltsin said to Clinton, “I ask you one thing. Just give Europe to Russia. The U.S. is not in Europe. Europe should be the business of Europeans. Russia is half European and half Asian. … Bill, I’m serious. Give Europe to Europe itself. We have the power in Russia to protect all of Europe, including those with missiles.”[32] This was, of course, not a statement the United States would take seriously, and it was hard enough for Russia to be taken seriously by the United States as an equal.

The Imbalance of Power and Russia’s Drive for Equal Status

Yeltsin’s desire to be seen as an equal, and Clinton’s efforts to provide window dressing to help with appearances, permeated their conversations throughout the two presidents’ time in office, and not only during their conversations over NATO enlargement. During the September 1994 Washington summit, Yeltsin said, “[T]here are some people in the White House and Congress who believe that Russia has lost its superpower status. Of course, not you personally, Bill.” Clinton responded, “I have tried in every way to relate to Russia and to you as a great power and to enhance your role, whether in the G-7 or bilaterally.”[33] Still, neither could escape the fact that the two countries occupied completely different status levels in the international system. At their May 1995 meeting in Moscow, Clinton said to Yeltsin, “You have to walk through the doors that we open for you.”[34] The Russians wanted to be treated as equals, and the idea of walking through doors the United States was opening for them made clear that they were not. The dynamic was such, however, that when Yeltsin got spun up on these issues, Clinton would soothe him. In a one-on-one meeting (with Talbott and Yeltsin’s assistant Dmitry Ryurikov as notetakers) in Moscow in April 1996, Yeltsin came into the meeting clearly angry because Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov had told him that the United States was trying to sideline Russia in the Middle East. Clinton said, “That’s not correct. No one’s sidelining anybody.” When Yeltsin said he was not convinced, Clinton reminded him of all they had done together since their first meeting three years earlier: “We’ve done a remarkable job in getting a lot done and also in being honest about our differences. My objectives are first, an integrated, undivided Europe; and second, a cooperative equal partnership with a democratic, economically successful Russia which is influential in the world.” He added, “I want historians fifty years from now to look back on this period and say you and I took full advantage of the opportunity we had. We made maximum use of the extraordinary moment that came with the end of the Cold War.” Yeltsin zeroed in on the one word that mattered to him: “The key word you just used was ‘equal’ partnership. This will restore trust and confidence.” Clinton explained how Russia could play an important role in the Middle East due to its influence with Syria and Hezbollah. Yeltsin appeared mollified.[35] One of the major issues in their relationship was Russia’s ascension to the group of advanced industrialized democracies. The G-7 was to become the G-8. Clinton faced significant opposition to this move from his own Treasury Department, which was concerned about diluting a body of the world’s leading market economies with membership for a country that did not yet have a market economy and whose gross domestic product was quite small.[36] At a larger meeting of the two leaders and their teams in April 1996 at the Kremlin, Clinton explained that the G-7’s work coordinating fiscal policy “among the world’s richest countries” was important and that if Russia were included, countries such as Mexico, South Korea, and Brazil would ask to join as well. Yeltsin argued, “Russia will be on the rise. I cannot agree to the ‘7 plus 1’ formula; I also understand that we cannot reach the level of a full G-8. You have to keep in mind that we are a great power, which affects how people think about this.”[37] A year later, at their March 1997 meeting in Helsinki, Clinton publicly stated:
We will work with Russia to advance its membership in key international economic institutions like the W.T.O., the Paris Club, and the O.E.C.D. And I am pleased to announce, with the approval of the other G-7 nations, that we will substantially increase Russia’s role in our annual meeting, now to be called the Summit of the Eight, in Denver this June.[38]
At a bilateral meeting of the two presidents and a small group of advisers in Paris in advance of the “Summit of the Eight,” Yeltsin raised the issue of how Russia’s economy was labeled. National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger explained that by law, Russia would be far worse off in terms of trade preferences being labeled a market economy than if it were designated a non-market economy or a transition economy. Yeltsin did not care for the designation, seeing it as an insult: “Russia is not a transition economy. We have transformed. It is a market economy.” Labels mattered to him; Yeltsin wanted Russia to be seen as a great power on par with the other leading world powers.[39]


These records are an important reminder that notes of presidential meetings and phone calls are not simply documents for scholars trying to make sense of history. They are critical in real time for officials who need to follow up on what their bosses have discussed. The recently released Clinton White House records show the distribution of these conversations, typically to the secretary of state, Deputy Secretary of State Talbott (who often was with the president for the meetings and phone calls), and the U.S. ambassador to Moscow. The role these documents play in developing policy is a major reason why there was so much concern when Donald Trump met with Vladimir Putin one-on-one for more than two hours in Helsinki in July 2018 with no notetakers present.[40] [quote id="4"] Reading these memcons and telcons as a narrative record of the seven years of interactions between Clinton and Yeltsin left me feeling rather sad. The two leaders certainly accomplished a great deal: Yeltsin ensured that Russian troops left the Baltic countries, worked to keep Russian entities from transferring missile technologies to Iran, and participated in the Implementation Force in Bosnia alongside NATO and under American command. The two presidents worked with their counterparts in Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine to transfer to Russia the strategic nuclear weapons those countries inherited upon the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is notable that many of their accomplishments occurred during their first terms and were largely issues related to the collapse of the Soviet Union such as the removal of Russian troops from the Baltics and the stationing of strategic nuclear weapons. They had big plans throughout their two terms for new arms-control agreements, but domestic political constraints got in the way. Ultimately, neither the United States nor Russia found a place for Russia in the basic architecture of European security. Meanwhile, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine ended up in a zone of insecurity, not able to join NATO and each with Russian military forces on its territory. A conversation at the end of their time together regarding Yeltsin’s successor was more hopeful than was warranted. In September 1999, Yeltsin informed Clinton by phone,
It took me a lot of time to think who might be the next Russian president in the year 2000. Unfortunately, at that time, I could not find any sitting candidate. Finally, I came across him, that is, Putin, and I explored his bio, his interests, his acquaintances, and so on and so forth. I found out he is a solid man who is kept well abreast of various subjects under his purview. At the same time, he is thorough and strong, very sociable. And he can easily have good relations and contact with people who are his partners. I am sure you will find him to be a highly qualified partner. I am very much convinced that he will be supported as a candidate in the year 2000.[41]
In their in-person conversation in Istanbul in November 1999, Clinton asked who was going to win the Russian presidential election the next year, and Yeltsin did not hesitate: “Putin, of course. He will be the successor to Boris Yeltsin. He’s a democrat, and he knows the West.” He added, “He’s tough. He has an internal ramrod. He’s tough internally, and I will do everything possible for him to win — legally, of course. And he will win. You’ll do business together. He will continue the Yeltsin line on democracy and economics and widen Russia’s contacts. He has the energy and the brains to succeed.”[42] On Dec. 31, 1999, Clinton called Yeltsin just after Yeltsin’s announcement that he was stepping down in favor of Putin, who of course went on to win the presidential election a few months later. In that final call, Clinton said, “You have guided your country through a historic time and you are leaving a legacy that will leave Russians better off for years to come. … Boris, I believe that historians will say you were the father of Russian democracy…” After telling Clinton once again that Putin would win and that he was a strong, intelligent democrat, Yeltsin ended their call as he had done so often over the previous seven years: “I would like from the bottom of my heart to embrace you.”[43]   James Goldgeier is a professor of international relations at American University, visiting senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the 2018-19 Library of Congress chair in U.S.-Russia relations at the John W. Kluge Center. You can follow him on Twitter: @JimGoldgeier. Image: FDR Presidential Library [post_title] => Bill and Boris: A Window Into a Most Important Post-Cold War Relationship [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => bill-and-boris-a-window-into-a-most-important-post-cold-war-relationship [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-01-17 13:05:13 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-01-17 18:05:13 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw [lead] => Against the backdrop of an enormous power differential between their two countries, Clinton and Yeltsin established a close personal rapport. They used those positive feelings to interact effectively even when they were being frank in their disagreements, the most serious of which were over NATO enlargement — a major sore spot for Yeltsin — and the Kosovo War, the greatest test of the two leaders' personal relationship. [pubinfo] => [issue] => Vol 1, Iss 4 [quotes] => Array ( [0] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => In no other era before or since has the Russian president been in such a weak position when meeting with his American counterpart. ) [1] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => No matter what challenges they faced, domestically or in their relationship, they maintained a strong personal bond. ) [2] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Perhaps no issue provides a greater window into the nature of the relationship between the two presidents than their lengthy discussions from 1994 to 1997 about NATO enlargement. ) [3] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => [N]otes of presidential meetings and phone calls are not simply documents for scholars trying to make sense of history. They are critical in real time for officials who need to follow up on what their bosses have discussed. ) [4] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => ) ) [style] => strategist [type] => Strategist [style_label] => The Strategist [download] => Array ( [title] => PDF Download [file] => 836 ) [authors] => Array ( [0] => 60 ) [endnotes] => Array ( [title] => Endnotes [endnotes] => [1] The documents are in two files labeled “Declassified Documents Concerning Russian President Boris Yeltsin.” The first covers the period from Jan. 23, 1993, to April 21, 1996, and can be found at The second covers the period from April 21, 1996, to Dec. 31, 1999, and can be found at The letters they sent one another have not been declassified. [2] James M. Goldgeier and Michael McFaul, Power and Purpose: U.S. Policy Toward Russia After the Cold War (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2003). [3] Charles Krauthammer, “The Unipolar Moment,” Foreign Affairs 70, no. 1 (1990/1991), [4] Paul Quinn-Judge, “Clinton Gives Yeltsin a Vote of Confidence; Declares Support for $9 Billion Loan,” Boston Globe, Jan. 31, 1996. The agreed-upon loan amount ended up being $10.2 billion. See Michael Gordon, “Russia and I.M.F. Agree on a Loan for $10.2 Billion,” New York Times, Feb. 23, 1996, See also the Clinton-Yeltsin discussion of the loan in Memorandum of Telephone Conversation, “The President’s Discussion with President Yeltsin on the Russian Election, Bilateral Relations, START II Ratification and NATO,” Feb. 21, 1996,, 357. [5] Goldgeier and McFaul, Power and Purpose, 125; Strobe Talbott, The Russia Hand: A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy (New York: Random House, 2002), 70. [6] Memorandum of Telephone Conversation, “Telcon with President Yeltsin of Russia,” April 26, 1993,, 51–52. [7] Memorandum of Telephone Conversation, “Telcon with President Boris Yeltsin of the Russian Federation,” Sept. 7, 1993; Memorandum of Telephone Conversation, “Telcon with President Boris Yeltsin of Russian Federation,” Sept. 21, 1993,, 95, 107. [8] Memorandum of Telephone Conversation, “Telcon with President Boris Yeltsin of Russian Federation,” Oct. 5, 1993,, 119–21. [9] Memorandum of Telephone Conversation, “Telephone Conversation with Russian President Yeltsin: Chechnya, START II,” Feb. 13, 1995,, 269. [10] Memorandum of Telephone Conversation, “Telephone Conversation with Russian President Yeltsin on CTBT, Chechnya, Economics, CFE and Russian Election,” May 7, 1996,, 26–27. [11] Memorandum of Telephone Conversation, “Telephone Conversation with Russian President Yeltsin,” Oct. 30, 1997; Memorandum of Telephone Conversation, “Telephone Conversation with Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Feb. 23, 1998,, 183, 253. [12] Memorandum of Conversation, “President Boris Yeltsin of Russia,” Birmingham, England, May 17, 1998,, 316. [13] John Norris, Collision Course: NATO, Russia, and Kosovo (New York: Praeger, 2005). [14] Memorandum of Telephone Conversation, “Telephone Conversation with Russian President Yeltsin,” March 24, 1999,, 432–36. Note that the document is dated 1998, but given the content and the placement in the records, it is clear the call was from 1999. [15] Memorandum of Telephone Conversation, “Telephone Conversation with Russian President Yeltsin,” May 2, 1999,, 472. [16] Memorandum of Telephone Conversation, “Telcon with President Yeltsin of Russia,” June 10, 1999,, 488. [17] Memorandum of Telephone Conversation, “Telephone Conversation with Russian President Yeltsin,” June 13, 1999,, 535. [18] For more on the impact of NATO enlargement on their relationship, see Goldgeier and McFaul, Power and Purpose. [19] See Mary Elise Sarotte, “Perpetuating U.S. Preeminence: The 1990 Deals to ‘Bribe the Soviets Out’ and Move NATO In,” International Security 35, no. 1 (Summer 2010): 110–37,; Mary Elise Sarotte, “Not One Inch Eastward? Bush, Baker, Kohl, Genscher, Gorbachev, and the Origin of Russian Resentment toward NATO Enlargement in February 1990,” Diplomatic History 34, no. 1 (January 2010): 119–40,; Joshua R. Itzkowitz Shifrinson, “Deal or No Deal? The End of the Cold War and the U.S. Offer to Limit NATO Expansion,” International Security 40, no. 4 (Spring 2016): 7–44, For arguments that the notion of promises or assurances are mistaken, see, for example, Mark Kramer, “The Myth of a No-NATO-Enlargement Pledge to Russia,” Washington Quarterly 32, no. 2 (2009): 39–61,; James M. Goldgeier, Not Whether But When: The U.S. Decision to Enlarge NATO (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1999); Steven Pifer, “Did NATO Promise Not to Enlarge? Gorbachev Says ‘No,’” Brookings Institution, Nov. 6, 2014, [20] “Secretary Christopher’s Meeting with President Yeltsin,” Moscow, Oct. 22, 1993, This document was posted by the National Security Archive at George Washington University earlier this year and was declassified through a Freedom of Information Act request I made many years ago. [21] For a discussion of this meeting’s importance for future developments, see James Goldgeier, “Promises Made, Promises Broken? What Yeltsin Was Told About NATO in 1993 and Why It Matters,” War on the Rocks, July 12, 2016, [22] Memorandum of Telephone Conversation, “Telcon with President Boris Yeltsin of the Russian Federation,” Dec. 22, 1993,, 144–45. Unfortunately, the declassified memcon from their meeting in Moscow in January 1994 is not included in the cache of documents recently made available by the Clinton Library. [23] Talbott, The Russia Hand, 136; Ronald D. Asmus, Opening NATO’s Door: How the Alliance Remade Itself for a New Era (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 90. For an explanation of how U.S. policy developed from January to September 1994, see Goldgeier, Not Whether But When. [24] Memorandum of Telephone Conversation, “Telephone Conversation with Russian President Yeltsin,” Oct. 5, 1994,, 227. Note that the document itself is dated 1993, but the content and the date on the transmittal memorandum make clear that it is from 1994. [25] Goldgeier and McFaul, Power and Purpose, 189–90. [26] Talbott, The Russia Hand, 141; “Remarks by the President at Plenary Session of 1994 Summit of the Council on Security and Cooperation in Europe,” White House Office of the Press Secretary, Dec. 5, 1994, [27] Daniel Williams, “Yeltsin, Clinton Clash over NATO’s Role,” Washington Post, Dec. 6, 1994, [28] Goldgeier and McFaul, Power and Purpose, 192. [29] Memorandum of Telephone Conversation, “Presidential Telephone Call,” April 27, 1995,, 281–82. [30] “Summary report on One-On-One Meeting Between Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin,” St. Catherine’s Hall, The Kremlin, May 10, 1995,, 290–96. [31] Memorandum of Conversation, “Morning Meeting with Russian President Yeltsin: NATO-Russia, START, ABM/TMD,” Helsinki, March 21, 1997,, 106–10. [32] Memorandum of Conversation, “Meeting with Russian President Yeltsin,” Istanbul, Nov. 19, 1999,, 562–63. [33] Memorandum of Conversation, “Meeting with President Boris Yeltsin,” Sept. 27, 1994,, 214–15. [34] “Summary report on One-On-One Meeting Between Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin,” St. Catherine’s Hall, The Kremlin, May 10, 1995,, 293. [35] “POTUS-Yeltsin One-on-One,” Presidential Ceremonial Office, The Kremlin, April 21, 1996,, 381–85. [36] Goldgeier and McFaul, Power and Purpose, 207. [37] Memorandum of Conversation, “Luncheon Meeting with Russian President Boris Yeltsin,” The Kremlin, April 21, 1996,, 11–12. [38] “The President’s News Conference with President Boris Yeltsin of Russia in Helsinki,” March 21, 1997, [39] Memorandum of Conversation, “Meeting with Russian President Yeltsin: NATO-Russia, Arms Control, Economics, Denver Summit of the Eight, Afghanistan, Iran,” Paris, May 27, 1997,, 148–49. [40] James Goldgeier, "Trump and Putin one-on-one is not a good idea. Here’s why." Monkey Cage blog, July 19, 2017 (revised and republished July 13, 2018), [41] Memorandum of Telephone Conversation, “Telephone Conversation with Russian President Yeltsin,” Sept. 8, 1999,, 548. [42] Memorandum of Conversation, “Meeting with Russian President Yeltsin,” Istanbul, Nov. 19, 1999,, 565–66. [43] Memorandum of Telephone Conversation, “Telcon with Russian President Boris Yeltsin,” Dec. 31, 1999,, 582–84. ) [contents] => Array ( [title] => [contents] => ) ) [11] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 677 [post_author] => 194 [post_date] => 2018-08-21 12:21:32 [post_date_gmt] => 2018-08-21 16:21:32 [post_content] => The U.S. National Security Strategy, published in December 2017, marked a historic break in U.S. policy toward China. The White House explicitly judged the policies of previous administrations to be a failure and closed the door on engagement as the primary mode of U.S.-Chinese relations. Before the Trump administration, U.S. policy was based on the assumption that a China governed by the Chinese Communist Party could be socialized within the international institutions of the West. Engagement at all levels — commercial, scientific, military, diplomatic, educational, and people-to-people — was expected to convince Chinese leaders of the benefits of accepting a liberal international order and persuade them to become, in the words of then-U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, a “responsible stakeholder” in that order.[1] This assumption had endured through seven U.S. presidencies, but the National Security Strategy explicitly judged, “This premise turned out to be false.”[2] The Trump administration’s new, more confrontational direction has generated more controversy than consensus. The emerging contours of the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy reflect a muscular commitment to enduring U.S. interests in a stable Asia-Pacific and to pushing back against Beijing’s revisionism. The statements Defense Secretary James Mattis made at the Shang-ri La Dialogue in June appear to be coming to fruition as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently announced $300 million for security assistance on top of $113 million for technology, energy, and infrastructure initiatives.[3] Many observers would support such measures, but other aspects of the administration’s policies have caused unease among some even as they achieved results. To begin with, the United States has withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the Obama administration had made the signature economic initiative of its Asia-Pacific rebalance. Meanwhile, the Trump administration successfully pressured China to enforce sanctions on North Korea but also generated fears of war. The administration’s trade actions and tariffs may not resolve the U.S.-China trade imbalances, but they appear to be pressuring China’s leaders, particularly Xi Jinping, in novel ways.[4] The strategic shift, however, has not yet addressed the first-order questions that have dogged U.S. policy in Asia under past administrations: Is the United States willing to use force in the region, and how feasible are U.S. objectives while the Communist Party governs China? The strategic shift in U.S. policy toward China has not been locked in either bureaucratically or politically. Although the Trump administration has reopened an important conversation that had been closed for decades, it ultimately may not be the one to build a new policy consensus on China. Washington’s friends in Asia worry that American partisanship may prevent future policymakers from recognizing the Trump administration’s achievements in the region.[5] Nevertheless, Washington and Beijing will not return to the old status quo. This moment in time marks a transition from seven administrations’ policy of engagement to a nascent, emerging position. Because the United States is not yet ready to resolve first-order questions about its policy aims, any strategy is transitory. For now, the best answers can only describe the tools and considerations that must be a part of the U.S. recalibration. To arrive at a new consensus, the United States needs to address the weaknesses in Americans’ knowledge of China while rethinking the connections between the ways China is analyzed and how policy is made. Chinese power is an issue the United States will grapple with for years to come, and the relative difference in power between the two countries is shrinking, especially along China’s periphery. Washington needs to be able to maximize its leverage and make the most of opportunities to affect the Chinese Communist Party-state. Taking advantage of political leverage will require affecting party leaders at a personal level. The vicious politics of the Chinese Communist Party opens up fissures among the leadership at least once every political generation. Such openings can and should be exploited to advance U.S. interests. Improving U.S. understanding of China and orienting the U.S. government toward identifying and exploiting opportunities will require paying greater attention to the ways the Communist Party seeks to shape foreigners’ understanding of China. Washington needs to be prepared to act and must reengage in a discussion of values that has been left on the sidelines for too long. Even if the Trump administration’s more competitive course of action is not maintained by subsequent administrations, an engagement-oriented approach will still require adjustments to better protect U.S. interests.

An Inevitable Break

A dramatic shift in U.S.-Chinese relations was on the horizon no matter who won the U.S. presidential election in 2016. The assumptions underpinning bilateral relations had long strained against day-to-day realities. The two most important assumptions were that U.S. engagement would lead to a more liberal China (if not the demise of the Chinese Communist Party) and that shared long-term interests would lead to cooperation.[6] The 2017 National Security Strategy was explicit about the failures of this approach. Most notably, American aspirations for a more liberal — even if not democratic — China collided with the hard facts of what the Chinese Communist Party was willing to do to survive. The National Security Strategy stated, “For decades, U.S. policy was rooted in the belief that support for China’s rise and for its integration into the post-war international order would liberalize China.” Even Richard Nixon justified engaging the Chinese Communist Party on the basis of hoped-for, long-term political change.[7] This hope became entrenched after the end of the Cold War removed the strategic logic of using U.S.-China relations as a counterweight to the Soviet Union. Commercial, rather than strategic, engagement would supposedly moderate and ultimately liberalize China’s politics and economy.[8] Signs that the Chinese Communist Party was resisting the direction U.S. policymakers had envisioned arose early in the post-Cold War era, but the rise of Xi Jinping has brought American hopes of political reform crashing down. Early on, the party relentlessly shut down discussion of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations of 1989 and jailed the movement’s student leaders. Chinese leaders also studied how best to use and shape market forces for the benefit of the Communist Party, giving the impression of regulatory liberalization while some in the business community became party members.[9] Signs of retrogression soon became unmistakable under Xi. The playbook for Xi’s leadership leaked out in what is known as Document No. 9 in the spring of 2013. The document identified perceived threats to the regime from, among other sources, universities, civil society, and the news media. Each has received special attention from the Xi government, and new regulations or legislation have expanded on the activities that must receive prior approval. The creation of concentration camps for Uighurs, the arrest of relatives of journalists who reported the story for a U.S.-government-funded news outlet, and the detention of Uighurs who are in contact with people outside China mark the extreme end of the party’s internal repression.[10] Lest readers think the Uighurs suffer from oppression by the Han Chinese majority rather than that of the party specifically, it should be noted that Beijing’s repression is broad. The party has cracked down on Chinese Christians while pressuring the Vatican to cede its authority to appoint church leaders in China.[11] Moreover, all Chinese citizens are subject to the ever-more invasive and comprehensive electronic surveillance slowly being integrated into a policy framework for inducing and coercing behavior the party wants.[12] Critics of the Trump administration’s aggressive approach argue that U.S.-Chinese relations after the Cold War were driven primarily by U.S. interests rather than a naïve hope that the Chinese Communist Party would liberalize. There was nothing wrong with past policy, these critics say, and U.S. presidential and policy statements about political liberalization did not represent what policymakers were actually thinking. As former U.S. ambassador to China J. Stapleton Roy observed about today’s debate, “Such critiques often fail to distinguish between the way Washington publicly justifies its policies, by referring to values, and the way it actually formulates them, by putting national interests first.”[13] Those interests, however, seemingly became formulaic assumptions that went untested as China evolved. U.S. policymakers and analysts had assumed or hoped that if the two countries shared long-term policy interests, cooperation would eventually result. For years, they proclaimed the same areas of overlapping interest: maintaining a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula, arresting climate change, working for non-proliferation, and building commercial ties. National Security Adviser Sandy Berger highlighted these points in a 1997 speech entitled “Building a New Consensus on China.” Engagement, he argued, was needed to maintain cooperation on “the spread of weapons of mass destruction; our increasingly complex commercial ties; stability on the Korean peninsula; and the health of the global environment.”[14] More than 20 years have passed since Berger’s speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, yet the same areas remain singled out for cooperation despite Beijing’s changing behavior, growing military power, and increasing internal political repression.[15] And among those cited interests, the record is mixed. [quote id="1"] Cooperation on stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction yielded uneven results, but key takeaways from U.S.-Chinese agreements never materialized. As Berger said in 1997, “China is neither as bad as some portray — [n]or as good as we would like.”[16] In 1985, Beijing and Washington signed a Civilian Nuclear Cooperation Agreement — a so-called 1-2-3 Agreement — to facilitate the transfer of U.S. civilian nuclear expertise and equipment to China to help modernize its nuclear industry. The agreement included a Chinese commitment to build an export control system to monitor and certify the export of sensitive and dual-use technologies. That system remains unbuilt more than 30 years later. Instead, U.S. officials work through a Ministry of Foreign Affairs that often is outranked and outgunned politically by the companies it must regulate, and that is assuming the ministry is even prepared and able to act on a U.S. request. Commercial ties between American and Chinese firms have grown increasingly complex. Both sides have benefited from continued expansion, but Chinese political pressure has also mounted on U.S. companies. Surveys of foreign multinational companies in China have found growing pessimism regarding the regulatory and policy environment despite confidence in the country’s economic future.[17] Robert Lighthizer, the U.S. trade representative in the Trump administration who was also deputy trade representative during the Reagan administration, argued nearly a decade ago that many of the promised benefits of China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) had failed to materialize. Proponents had argued that the trade deficit would shrink, that U.S. companies’ market access would improve, and that there would be no downside for the United States. Instead, the trade deficit grew. And while U.S. companies did get more access to Chinese markets, they continued to pay for that access through joint ventures and technology transfers. Between 2000 and 2009, the United States lost a third of its manufacturing jobs in a sharp decline that began after China joined the WTO.[18] One of the most significant failures following in the wake of China’s incorporation into the WTO has been the persistence of intellectual property theft and its movement up the value chain from cultural products, such as movies, to telecommunications and semiconductors.[19] When Robert Kapp, then president of the U.S.-China Business Council, testified before Congress in support of granting China permanent normal trade relations and supporting its WTO ascension, he argued that leverage would be gained rather than lost by integrating China. Beijing’s participation in the WTO, he said, would give companies recourse to “such offensive habits as the requirement that foreign companies transfer technology in order to do business in China.”[20] Today, however, forced transfer remains a key element of Beijing’s strategy to acquire foreign technology, and the scale of China’s intellectual property theft arguably has increased.[21] Sustained Chinese cooperation on North Korea, meanwhile, has been at least as much a product of U.S. pressure as solicitation and persuasion. Since the 1990s, the Chinese Communist Party leadership has consistently prioritized North Korea’s stability over preventing its nuclearization. The U.S. sanctions on Macao-based Banco Delta Asia, in late 2005, put pressure on Beijing and Chinese