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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…

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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

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

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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…

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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

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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

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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

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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.

America’s Relation to World Order: Two Indictments, Two Thought Experiments, and a Misquotation

America’s Relation to World Order: Two Indictments, Two Thought Experiments, and a Misquotation

The State is undergoing a crisis of legitimacy owing to its inability to cope with novel problems of weapons proliferation, transnational threats including climate change, a fragile global financial infrastructure, cultural influences carried by electronic…

Rediscovering Statecraft in a Changing Post-War Order

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If Washington doubles down on U.S. military and geopolitical predominance, it risks transforming the emerging competitive era into something far more confrontational and zero-sum than it needs to be. If it hopes to retain its position of leadership, the United…

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                    [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 Northern Ireland Secretary of State 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 Tory 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 Tory 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 Tory 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, Northern Ireland Secretary of State 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, Northern Ireland Secretary of State 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] => 2019-05-21 07:05:21 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-05-21 11:05:21 [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] => [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] => ) [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, Northern Ireland Secretary of State 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, her Northern Ireland advisor, Airy Neave, had been killed by a splinter republican paramilitary group, the Irish National Liberation Army. [51] The British and Irish governments issued l “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 Northern Ireland Secretary of State 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] => ) ) [1] => 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] => ) ) [2] => 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] => ) ) [3] => 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] => ) ) [4] => 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] => ) ) [5] => 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] => ) ) [6] => 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] => ) ) [7] => 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] => ) ) [8] => 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] => ) ) [9] => 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 banks even as the equivalent of $24 million to $25 million of North Korean money — a small sum in the context of international relations — was frozen. The sanctions implicitly threatened Chinese banks doing business with North Korea and significantly restricted North Korea’s access to the international financial system, despite its access to China.[22] This pressure helped bring about another round of six-party talks. As pressure and scrutiny eventually lifted, Chinese companies renewed their efforts to skirt and undermine the sanctions regime.[23] The latest round of official Chinese cooperation began in April 2017 with the presidents’ meeting at Mar-a-Lago, during which Xi pledged to work with the Trump administration on North Korea. Beginning in June 2017, Beijing supported stronger sanctions in the U.N. Security Council five times, most notably in September and December.[24] As further cooperation failed to materialize, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on Chinese companies, linked possible U.S. trade actions against China to outcomes on the Korean Peninsula, and implied that Chinese banks that continue to do business in North Korea also would be sanctioned.[25] Chinese cooperation on climate change has also been less than forthcoming. Although a number of agreements have been signed, rarely have funding commitments to back U.S.-Chinese initiatives for climate change and energy cooperatives been present.[26] The much-heralded 2016 climate agreement with the Obama administration committed Beijing to meeting benchmarks that it had already established domestically.[27] This has left cooperation mostly to the private sector, with mixed results, both because of Beijing’s industrial policies and its condoning of intellectual property theft. For example, in 2005, the Chinese state-owned company Sinovel began working with the American company American Superconductor (AMSC) on wind turbines and electricity distribution. The relationship fell apart in 2011, however, when Sinovel paid a former AMSC employee to steal the U.S. company’s source code and Sinovel then reneged on $800 million in contracts with that same company.[28] Taken together, what does all this mean? It is not that U.S.-Chinese cooperation was a fiction but, rather, that the areas of cooperation were intrinsically problematic. Pretending that these joint efforts were genuine or were anything other than a U.S. vision of China’s interests resulted in a frail superstructure. U.S. policymakers and commentators had to overlook Beijing’s failure to honor its commitments and pretend that the absence of Chinese actions was not a deliberate choice but, instead, a sign that decisions had not been made.

Obstacles to a New Approach

Locking in a new approach to U.S. policy toward China will be more difficult than many critics of the past engagement policy seem to think. Americans disagree about not only the degree to which the policy must change but also the degree of competitiveness that will be required. Former State Department officials Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner have suggested that the way forward begins simply: “The first step is relatively straightforward: acknowledging just how much our policy has fallen short of our aspirations.”[29] Many old hands, however, dispute the assertion that U.S. policy toward China has fallen short or failed to deliver on its promises. The policy basically worked, in their view, and few adjustments are necessary.[30] Even supposing, however, that U.S. experts on China and U.S.-Chinese relations agreed on the need for new policy initiatives or even a fundamentally different approach, more significant barriers must be overcome to move forward with new plans. The first such barrier is the relatively low degree of knowledge about China and the Chinese Communist Party at senior levels of the U.S. government and among American society in general. Ratner noted in a podcast interview this year that while senior U.S. officials seem to understand Ukraine and Syria in fairly granular detail, they repeatedly need to be reminded about basic geography and policy regarding China. The constant need for education wastes time and energy, and it inhibits a more far-reaching discussion about how to address the illiberal challenges of a China led by its Communist Party.[31] Such limited knowledge also makes it difficult for the president and others to appreciate the quality (or lack thereof) of China-related materials. They would have to rely almost entirely on instinct to evaluate the arguments presented to them. [quote id="2"] The low level of knowledge also leads to analogizing about China rather than assessing China for what it is. Analogies are unavoidable in the absence of direct knowledge. But the carefulness required in structuring useful comparisons has not been employed when China is likened to Weimar Germany or Xi Jinping to Charles de Gaulle.[32] The late Ernest May and Richard Neustadt argued that historical analogies had limited value unless they were structured deliberately. Because historical analogies rip events out of their context, such analogies may mislead more than they inform.[33] Americans’ relatively low level of knowledge about China leads to a second barrier: the Chinese Communist Party’s messaging about U.S. policy toward China. The party presents the policy options for dealing with China as a binary choice. Yet, only occasionally are such decisions truly so limited. Even the most glaring choice, recognizing the People’s Republic of China or Taiwan (Republic of China), is not so clear-cut, in part because many countries maintain ostensibly informal, but robust, diplomatic ties with Taiwan. As Singapore’s former senior-most diplomat, Ambassador Bilahari Kausikan, described in a recent speech, “This technique of forcing false choices on you and making you choose between false choices is deployed within a framework of either overarching narratives or specific narratives. … The purpose is to narrow the scope of choices.”[34] One of the most notable false choices reinforced by Beijing’s messaging remains that between engagement and containment. Chinese Communist Party mouthpieces and propagandists regularly accuse the United States of containing China, employing a “Cold War mentality,” and stirring up the “China threat theory” to encourage other countries to demonize China. A final barrier to reaching a new policy position is that the United States — and presumably other countries that do not have as substantial a China-watching community — does not have a team to take the field. This is not so much a question of China-specific knowledge on the part of policy practitioners but, rather, the marriage of knowledge about China, policy tools, and competitive strategy. Too much of the existing talent has been conditioned by the long-held engagement policy. Engagement and competition require fundamentally different mind-sets and thinking through a different set of questions. Engagement as a policy direction presupposes that interaction is fundamentally good and that opening China to academic, business, and civil-society ventures is beneficial to U.S. interests. Competition, by contrast, raises first-order questions, such as whether there are long-term benefits to U.S. businesses operating in China or whether Beijing’s policies are incompatible with U.S. long-term interests. Building this team while transcending partisanship will not be easy. Americans inside and outside government have knowledge about China, policy, or strategic competition, but there are very few with expertise in all three. Ensuring that people with expertise in one or two of these areas gain the necessary additional knowledge requires not only time but also taking such individuals out of active roles while they focus on acquiring additional expertise.

A Toolkit for the Transitional Phase

Until a new China policy is more firmly locked in bureaucratically and a new consensus about China is reached, proposing an overarching strategy and set of objectives is premature. The U.S. discussion may be more open than it has been in years, but first-order questions about the ultimate objectives of China policy have not yet been reassessed and answered. The United States sits in a transitional phase, at least until the Trump administration solidifies bureaucratic policy guidance and a subsequent administration builds from its foundation. What directions succeeding administrations take, of course, may vary, regardless of whether they are Democratic or Republican. For the near future, it is more appropriate to assess U.S. policy tools and how to maximize leverage rather than trying to pin down an overall strategy. Washington needs to expand its toolkit beyond the military dimension, regardless of what the future holds for U.S. policy and U.S.-Chinese relations. U.S. economic and military predominance has maintained stability in East Asia for decades. In recent years, Beijing has undermined and challenged the credibility of U.S. power — or at least Washington’s willingness to use it. Beijing’s steady expansion and consolidation in the South China Sea from 2012 onward exposed the gaps in U.S. military power in the region and Washington’s policy of deterrence. The Chinese seizure of Scarborough Shoal and subsequent island construction showed that Washington was not prepared to use military force or to place U.S. sailors and pilots in harm’s way to push back against China. These dilemmas also highlight the necessity of strengthening Americans’ psychological willingness to use leverage wherever it might be found. Refrains about the limitations of U.S. influence have more to do with a lack of conviction than a lack of ability. Sens. Ben Cardin of Maryland and Marco Rubio of Florida put forward at least one alternative to using military force in China’s maritime periphery, but their bipartisan legislation to sanction Chinese firms engaged in island-building never went anywhere.[35]  Building U.S. capacity to compete with China more comprehensively and effectively will require a political-power-centric and opportunity-oriented research agenda, a concentrated effort to build leverage, and counterintelligence and counter-interference efforts to preserve the integrity of U.S. policymaking. A power-centric research agenda would evaluate the Chinese Communist Party’s susceptibility to pressure. Opportunities are fleeting, and attitudes change. One day, the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party may not have the loyalty of the People’s Liberation Army. Another day, he may have installed loyalists at the upper ranks. Leverage should be built over time and prepared for the moment when it can have the most impact. To make use of leverage at the point Chinese leaders are most vulnerable, the integrity of the U.S. policymaking system must be secure so that Washington can be ready to act when opportunity knocks. Each of these points is outlined more fully below.  A New Analytical Approach  First, U.S. policymakers need a different way of ordering their knowledge and thinking about China issues. Opportunities to influence the Chinese Communist Party in a significant way come along only once or twice in a political generation. The vicious “you die, I live” (你死我活) kind of politics that is practiced in China inevitably opens up leadership fissures. U.S. policymakers need to better understand how political power is wielded within the Communist Party. Shaping and responding to Beijing’s behavior requires influencing the individuals who decide policy. U.S. policymakers must understand the sources of Chinese political power to understand which ones Chinese leaders must control or neutralize in order to succeed and how, exactly, they do so. Understanding these leadership dynamics will facilitate Washington’s efforts to cajole or coerce Beijing by seeing opportunities as they arise. Most U.S. analysts examine the Chinese Communist Party through an institutional lens that largely excludes the human element of politics from the equation. The amount of rumor-mongering and deliberate disinformation fed to journalists makes it difficult to evaluate that human component of Chinese politics. Rather than try to sift the wheat from the chaff, those practicing the institutional approach focus on authoritative sources and the kinds of information that can be tracked through official media.[36] For example, in the discussion of Xi Jinping’s political power in 2014, one institutionalist narrowly evaluated Xi’s power according to how he had changed (or not changed) party slogans about the leadership core and collective leadership, concluding that Xi’s power was simply gifted to him by the party.[37] This approach ignored many of the reasons other analysts considered Xi powerful, because they related to subjective measures about elite networks, purges, and symbolic politics. It is critical to understand party institutions, but analysts cannot stop there on the assumption that Chinese politics has become institutionalized. The basic structure and guidelines within which the Communist Party operates are merely a starting point. The Chinese Communist Party is still ruling a country, and politics cannot be avoided. Resources — such as time, attention, and money — are limited, and they must be allocated according to political considerations. Wherever humans operate, there will be personal politics. The robust academic literature of organizational studies expresses the truism that no matter how meritocratic or rules-based an organization becomes, decisions about personnel at the leadership level will always be political. A healthy organization produces more potential leaders than it has positions to fill. Institutions, training, and promotion guidelines ensure a minimum level of competency and open the opportunity for promotion. Deciding who gets what position necessarily depends on personality, power, and networking.[38] The Chinese political landscape cannot be understood without reference to power. The age-old questions of “who decides?” and “who benefits?” are as important as the party lines in official propaganda and the content of party documents. Party leaders have empowered and undermined different party and state institutions, depending on the needs of the moment and their competitors’ strengths. Institutional arrangements to control state power, such as the Central State Security Commission, have also been created when organizational and technological change has given the party-state new capabilities to monitor, influence, or hurt the leadership. The institutions of the Chinese party-state need to be evaluated as more than mere technocratic expressions of rational governance.[39] [quote id="3"] Power also cannot be separated from individual politicians. Some Chinese leaders possess an intuitive sense of political symbolism and propaganda. Others know how to work the party bureaucracy. Still others carry meetings with the force of their personality. Human virtues and frailties are as much a part of the Chinese system as any other. Although no approach will describe a leader’s political instincts accurately and authoritatively every time, this human element cannot be dismissed. At the very least, important questions about how leaders exercise influence must be part of the discussion of contemporary China. Building Leverage Second, if political power is as personal as it is institutional within the Chinese Communist Party, then building leverage means focusing on what matters to individual leaders and the institutions that support them. The U.S. government has not pursued this path with any sort of regularity. The most obvious target is the vast wealth of Chinese party leaders. Not all of this wealth is tied up inside China. Some of it is entwined with China’s most significant multi-national companies or hidden in foreign banks, making the party leaders vulnerable to financial sanctions. The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, passed in 2016, provides legal authority to target Chinese Communist Party leaders and their agents. The act allows Washington to block or revoke visas as well as to sanction the property of those who are responsible for, or acted as an agent of someone responsible for, “extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.” Individuals can also be targeted if they are government officials or senior associates of government officials complicit in “acts of significant corruption.” Chinese abuses that qualify as gross violations and significant corruption have grown rapidly in the past several years, with examples including the detention and torture of the “709” rights lawyers — so named for the July 9, 2015, crackdown on lawyers and activists — as well as the detention of several hundred thousand Uighurs in concentration camps. Given the kind of direct pressure that could be brought to bear on Chinese leaders, such leverage must be used judiciously, if at all, on a day-to-day basis. Whether the stakes are sufficiently high depends on how clearly the administration outlines its objectives. Even within the previous engagement framework, a genuine opportunity to pressure the Chinese system toward liberalization — such as might have appeared in the early days of Deng Xiaoping and Hu Yaobang — could have constituted worthwhile use of such direct means to discredit opponents of political liberalization. Ultimately, the United States must build the knowledge and capacity to influence individual Chinese leaders knowing that such information could work under multiple policy frameworks, not simply the Trump administration’s strategic shift. The usefulness of such leverage also depends on what actions China may take in response. The same vulnerability of the Chinese system that creates opportunities for U.S. influence also creates risk. Communist Party leaders’ paranoia and self-awareness are filters for their perceptions: They see the United States as their principal foreign adversary and they know when they are exposed. They will act to shore up their position as Mao Zedong did with the Taiwan crisis in 1958 and by exploiting the Nixon-Kissinger gambit in 1971 and 1972, or as Deng Xiaoping did with Vietnam and the United States in 1978 and 1979 and in rebuffing American pressure after the June 4 incident at Tiananmen in 1989. Counterintelligence and Counter-Interference Third, any long-term strategy — especially one built around the idea of exploiting opportunities when they arise — must ensure the integrity of U.S. policymaking. This requires effective counterintelligence to prevent the penetration of U.S. policy circles for intelligence collection and building influence. The public record suggests that the state of U.S. counterintelligence — or that of other allied states — on China leaves much to be desired. Effective counterintelligence is not merely a question of capability but also one of integration with national strategy. As I and others in the U.S. intelligence community saw firsthand, counterintelligence functions are almost entirely separate from the rest of intelligence and policymaking.[40] Engagement as the dominant strain of China policy played down the need for counterintelligence — if interaction is good, the thinking went, then risk assessment of U.S.-China engagement is mostly unnecessary except in rare cases where U.S. laws were broken. The absence of a counterintelligence perspective meant that the Chinese Communist Party’s robust and comprehensive system for shaping foreigners’ perceptions went largely unnoticed, despite its demonstrable importance to party leaders.[41] The U.S. government has failed to prosecute or has bungled investigations into Chinese espionage often enough to warrant concern. The failures of counter-espionage may not, at first glance, appear relevant to the issue of Chinese Communist Party interference. Yet, the elements of the U.S. intelligence community and the Justice Department that perform counterespionage are the same ones that will take the lead on countering Chinese interference. If they have difficulty prosecuting (relatively-speaking) straightforward Chinese espionage cases, then countering Chinese Communist Party interference is likely to be too complicated for them.[42] Successful espionage prosecutions are the analytical, investigative, and legal training ground for the capabilities the U.S. government needs to deploy in order to counter the party’s covert, corrupting, and coercive interference. Failure to handle possible espionage cases well alienates many Chinese-Americans, who have reasonable concerns about rushes to judgment but whose cooperation is essential when Beijing tries to exploit the Chinese diaspora. Moreover, such weaknesses let those breaking the law in support of Communist Party interests know that the risk of consequences for their behavior is low. The U.S. government cannot be the only actor countering Chinese Communist Party interference. A democratic government’s resources focus on purely illegal activity. This means that academics, think tank researchers, and journalists have a significant role when it comes to exposing these operations and informing public debate.[43] In Australia, a handful of journalists reporting steadily since 2014 brought the issue of Chinese Communist Party interference in domestic politics to light and pushed it into the public discussion.[44] In New Zealand, one scholar cracked the news threshold by releasing a paper on the Communist Party’s united front work on the eve of last year’s election.[45] In the United States, a smaller number of people — primarily reporters for Foreign Policy (now at the Daily Beast) and the Washington Post[46] — helped put the party’s interference operations into public consideration. Without this attention, Australia arguably could not have overhauled its counter-espionage laws and passed legislation this summer aimed at transparency for elections and consequences for acting as a foreign agent.[47]

A New Starting Point

The toolkit outlined above reflects the requirements of crafting a long-term, competitive strategy. But rethinking the toolkit is only a beginning. A larger conversation is needed about this new period in U.S.-China relations. The past policy of engagement promoted ties of all kinds and at all levels, with only a few restrictions legislated by Congress or treaty commitments. Moving away from this approach will require new modes of thinking as well as reapplying American values to the question of how to engage with the Chinese party-state. First, recalibrating engagement with China requires a deliberate discussion of U.S. values, what those values mean, and how Washington should be prepared to act based on them. There is no substitute for this conversation. Vague assertions of supporting a liberal international order have proven insufficient as a lodestone for action. The absence of a U.S. response to Chinese aggression — not merely in the South China Sea but also with regard to intellectual property theft and coercion against U.S. citizens in the United States — emboldens the Chinese Communist Party. These issues demonstrate Beijing’s rejection of core democratic and capitalist values, suggesting the basic incompatibility of the two systems. Even if it were desirable to regulate all aspects of American interactions with the People’s Republic of China, public discussion would still be necessary. As noted above, government resources will focus on the illegal side of Chinese Communist Party activities, rarely if ever monitoring the broader scope of interaction. In a democratic state, there is no justification for sweeping government surveillance. This means that what is appropriate — rather than what is illegal — should be a matter of public debate. Is academic freedom in U.S. universities compatible with the values of the Confucius Institutes?[48] Should U.S. research labs collaborate with Chinese companies that work with the Chinese military? What degree of distance should Chinese organizations have from the party-state to be considered potential partners for U.S. organizations? These and similar questions cannot be divorced from American political and civic values. Second, the United States needs to hold up the standards that flow from U.S. values and policies. Far too often in this bilateral relationship, agreements and commitments have been allowed to slide. Statements of what cannot be are forgotten in the face of Beijing’s willingness to act, while U.S. leverage has been undermined by an unwillingness to act. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Alex Wong eloquently made this argument about the trade regime:
[Y]ou have to enforce the rules of free trade. You have to ensure that nations cannot abuse the rules, cannot force technology transfer, cannot prize their national champions, can’t steal intellectual property. If you don’t do this, if you don’t enforce the rules of free trade, what ends up happening is that over time, the free, fair, and reciprocal trading regime is weakened, and that’s to the detriment not just of the United States’s prosperity but to the prosperity of the region and the world as a whole.[49]
The most egregious example of not upholding standards is the lack of response to intimidation and coercion against U.S. citizens and residents on U.S. soil. During the Olympic torch relay ahead of the Summer Games in Beijing in 2008, Chinese security officials orchestrated violence against protesters and coordinated efforts to divert or block demonstrators in San Francisco. The U.S. government passed the identity of some of these Chinese officers to Australia so that Canberra could deny entry visas to them. But that appears to be the end of the U.S. response.[50] Rumors and reports of violence against practitioners of Falun Gong surface periodically, including at the Xi-Trump meeting at Mar-a-Lago in 2017. Education counselors from Chinese diplomatic missions visit Chinese students at U.S. universities or contact family members to intimidate them or request that they tell their child to take down social media posts. Yet, the full scale of the situation is difficult to ascertain. Many of the stories that come to journalists, scholars, and officials cannot be publicized, partly because the people involved fear retribution and it is often impossible to scrub identifying details while retaining the sense of injustice. Third, U.S. policymakers — as well as international affairs analysts and commentators — will need to become accustomed to the idea of asymmetric or sometimes disproportionate responses to Beijing. Reciprocity has gained traction, but the concept has little applicability beyond trade disputes.[51] The most contentious areas of U.S.-Chinese relations do not feature proportionate or reciprocal responses because the U.S. government and American society do not have a parallel structure to the Chinese party-state. For right and proper reasons, the U.S. government will not compete with the Chinese Communist Party in coercing overseas Chinese to adopt pro-U.S. behaviors. Unlike Beijing, Washington will not arbitrarily detain family members or seize business assets. Beijing’s denial of visas for foreign journalists does not lend itself to a tit-for-tat response. There are far fewer American journalists in China than Chinese journalists working for official media outlets in the United States. To create corresponding effects when an American journalist faces visa trouble would require alternative and probably disproportionate responses. [quote id="4"] Fourth, recalibrating U.S. policy toward China will entail costs. Individual, corporate, and even government interests almost certainly will be affected. The Chinese Communist Party was born out of a struggle, and its leaders fought their way up competitive ranks. Close to a million people enter the party each year after an arduous testing and interviewing regimen, and they continue to be evaluated throughout their careers.[52] Those who make it to the Central Committee are the .01 percent of party cadre. Beyond the rigorous evaluation and performance requirements, officials also need to worry about ambitious colleagues and blackmailers who seek to discredit them as they climb the greasy pole.[53] They and their willingness to compete should not be taken lightly. Already, in what appear to be the opening stages of a trade war, Beijing’s response to Trump administration actions has targeted U.S. farmers in areas supportive of Trump.[54] Simply put, competing effectively with China requires serious consideration; in particular, identifying America’s ultimate objectives in order to assess whether the sacrifices necessary to attain those goals are warranted.


Whatever the future holds for U.S.-Chinese relations, the status quo has been broken. The unaddressed inadequacies of engagement eroded the policy consensus around bilateral relations to such an extent that, even without a clear policy alternative, engagement has ended. Henry Kissinger, one of the original architects of the U.S. policy toward China that persisted through seven administrations, aptly described the current moment: “I think Trump may be one of those figures in history who appears from time to time to mark the end of an era and to force it to give up its old pretenses.”[55] Although it would be useful to begin building a new consensus, the partisan climate of U.S. politics seems to preclude the sort of meaningful discussion that would lock in a sustainable bipartisan consensus, even though the next generation of policy hands in both parties think a new China policy is needed. Americans can discuss the tools and animating ideas that are needed to manage U.S.-Chinese relations and protect U.S. interests from a “revisionist China.” The conversation has moved to the point where concrete ideas of how to better understand the Chinese Communist Party and China, and how to be more competitive, must be fleshed out and debated. For many years, the critiques of U.S.-Chinese relations may have been on point, but the recommendations fell short of offering something distinct from U.S. policy at the time.[56] The approach outlined above is simple. Opportunities should be sought to apply effective leverage on Communist Party officials leading China. The barometer for these opportunities measures the ebb and flow of power across party leaders and institutions. When these opportunities arrive, Washington needs to be prepared to act and to do so in ways that go beyond reciprocity as a guiding principle. Ensuring that everything is prepared for these moments is a job for counterintelligence. Without secrecy to preserve U.S. leverage and the psychological willingness to use it, no one will be prepared to pull the trigger on pressuring China. If any particular theme runs through the failure of U.S. policy toward China, it is the U.S. government’s unwillingness to act to uphold American values and Chinese commitments. The stakes and interests involved in resolving this problem surely outweigh partisan considerations.   Peter Mattis is a research fellow in China Studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation and a contributing editor to War on the Rocks. Mr. Mattis previously worked as a counterintelligence analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency before leaving government service to work as editor of the China Brief and to be a fellow at the Jamestown Foundation. Image: U.S. Indo-Pacific Command [post_title] => From Engagement to Rivalry: Tools to Compete with China [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => from-engagement-to-rivalry-tools-to-compete-with-china [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-01-17 13:05:49 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-01-17 18:05:49 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw [lead] => 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. [pubinfo] => [issue] => Vol 1, Iss 4 [quotes] => Array ( [0] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => U.S. policymakers and analysts had assumed or hoped that if the two countries shared long-term policy interests, cooperation would eventually result. ) [1] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => One of the most notable false choices reinforced by Beijing’s messaging remains that between engagement and containment. ) [2] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => The Chinese political landscape cannot be understood without reference to power. ) [3] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => [T]he United States needs to hold up the standards that flow from U.S. values and policies. ) ) [style] => strategist [type] => Strategist [style_label] => The Strategist [download] => Array ( [title] => PDF Download [file] => 837 ) [authors] => Array ( [0] => 194 ) [endnotes] => Array ( [title] => Endnotes [endnotes] => [1] For a comprehensive summary of these views, see, James Mann, The China Fantasy: Why Capitalism Will Not Bring Democracy to China (New York: Penguin Books, 2008), especially 1–28. [2] National Security Strategy of the United States of America, The White House, December 2017, 3, [3] “U.S. Pledges Nearly $300 Million Security Funding for Indo-Pacific Region,” Reuters, Aug. 3, 2018, [4] Mark Leonard, “The Chinese Are Wary of Donald Trump’s Creative Destruction,” Financial Times, July 24, 2018,; Xu Yimiao, “China Should Cut Its Losses in the Trade War by Conceding Defeat to Donald Trump,” South China Morning Post, Aug. 10, 2018, [5] For example, Bilahari Kausikan, “Trump’s Global Retreat Is an Illusion,” Nikkei Asian Review, Jan. 31, 2018, [6] Other lesser, but nonetheless important, assumptions included that the Chinese Communist Party could accept the U.S.-led international liberal order, that a more prosperous China would be a more peaceful China, that Chinese Communist Party leaders are persuadable and could put down their Leninist view of world politics, and that the party’s propaganda apparatus would remain a domestic actor, not an international subversive threat. [7] Richard M. Nixon, “Asia After Viet Nam,” Foreign Affairs, October 1967, [8] Mann, The China Fantasy, 101–12. [9] Yasheng Huang, “How Did China Take Off?” Journal of Economic Perspectives 26, no. 4 (Fall 2012): 147–70,; Kellee S. Tsai, Capitalism Without Democracy: The Private Sector in Contemporary China (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007); and David Shambaugh, China’s Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2008). [10] Adrian Zenz, “New Evidence for China’s Political Re-Education Campaign in Xinjiang,” Jamestown Foundation China Brief, May 15, 2018,; Simon Denyer, “China Detains Relatives of U.S. Reporters in Apparent Punishment for Xinjiang Coverage,” Washington Post, Feb. 28, 2018, [11] Wesley Rahn, “In Xi We Trust — Is China Cracking Down on Christianity?” Deutsche Welle, Jan. 19, 2018, ; Eva Dou and Francis Rocca, “Abide in Darkness: China’s War on Religion Stalls Vatican Deal,” Wall Street Journal, May 9, 2018, [12] Samantha Hoffman, “Social Credit: Technology-Enhanced Authoritarian Control with Global Consequences,” Australian Strategic Policy Institute, June 28, 2018, [13] J. Stapleton Roy, “Engagement Works,” Foreign Affairs 97, no. 4 (July/August 2018): 185. [14] “Remarks by Samuel R. Berger, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, Before the Council on Foreign Relations,” White House Office of the Press Secretary, June 6, 1997. [15] For example, Roy, “Engagement Works,” 185; Thomas J. Christensen, “The Need to Pursue Mutual Interests in U.S.-China Relations,” U.S. Institute of Peace, Special Report no. 269, April 2011,; Nina Hachigian, Michael Schiffer, and Winny Chen, “A Global Imperative: A Progressive Approach to U.S.-China Relations in the 21st Century,” Center for American Progress, Aug. 13, 2008, [16] Berger, “Remarks.” [17] Yoko Kubota, “U.S. Firms Say China’s Business Climate Is Warming, Survey Finds,” Wall Street Journal, Jan. 29, 2018,; “USCBC 2017 China Business Environment Member Survey,” U.S.-China Business Council, 2017, [18] Robert E. Lighthizer, “Evaluating China’s Role in the World Trade Organization Over the Past Decade,” testimony before the U.S.-China Security and Economic Review Commission, June 9, 2010, [19] Derek Scissors, “Sino-American Trade: We Know Where This Is Headed,” War on the Rocks, April 18, 2018, [20] “Accession of China to the WTO,” hearing before the House Ways and Means Committee, May 3, 2000. [21] “Report of the Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property,” National Bureau of Asian Research, May 2013, [22] Josh Meyer, “Squeeze on North Korea’s Money Supply Yields Results,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 2, 2006,; Jay Solomon and Neil King Jr., “How U.S. Used a Bank to Punish North Korea,” Wall Street Journal, April 12, 2007, [23] Report of the Panel of Experts Established Pursuant to Resolution 1874, U.N. Security Council Report No. S/2016/157, Feb. 24, 2016, [24] Laura Zhou, “United Nations Agrees More Sanctions on North Korea, But Is the World Running Out of Options?” South China Morning Post, Dec. 23, 2017,; “China to Enforce UN Sanctions Against North Korea,” Guardian, Sept. 23, 2017, [25] David Brunnstrom and Susan Heavey, “Trump Says China’s Stance on North Korea Influences His Trade Policy,” Reuters, Dec. 28, 2017, [26] Joanna I. Lewis, “The State of U.S.-China Relations on Climate Change: Examining the Bilateral and Multilateral Relationship,” Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, China Environment Series (2010/2011), 7, Article The State of U.S.-China Relations on Climate Change.pdf. [27] Mark Landler and Jane Perlez, “Rare Harmony as China and U.S. Commit to Climate Deal,” New York Times, Sept. 3, 2016, [28] Janan Hanna, Christie Smythe, and Chris Martin, “China’s Sinovel Convicted in U.S. of Stealing Trade Secrets,” Bloomberg, Jan. 24, 2018, [29] Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner, “The China Reckoning: How Beijing Defied American Expectations,” Foreign Affairs (March/April 2018), [30] For example, Jeffrey A. Bader and Ryan Hass, “Was Pre-Trump U.S. Policy Towards China Based on ‘False’ Premises?” Brookings Institution, Dec. 22, 2017,; Wang Jisi, J. Stapleton Roy, Aaron Friedberg, Thomas Christensen and Patricia Kim, Joseph S. Nye Jr., Eric Li, and Kurt M. Campbell and Ely Ratner, “Did America Get China Wrong? The Engagement Debate,” Foreign Affairs (July/August 2018) [31] Kelly Magsamen, Ely Ratner, and Ryan Evans, “To Compete with China, Can America Get Out of Its Own Way?” War on the Rocks, podcast, Feb. 7, 2018, [32] Rana Mitter, “Forget Mao Zedong, Xi Jinping Is More Charles de Gaulle,” South China Morning Post, Oct. 28, 2017, [33] Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers (New York: Free Press, 1988). [34] Albert Wai, “S’pore Should Guard Against False Binary Choices in Chinese Public Diplomacy: Bilahari Kausikan,” Today [Singapore], June 27, 2018, [35] “Rubio, Cardin Introduce Bill Targeting Chinese Aggression in South China Sea,” Office of Marco Rubio, March 15, 2017, [36] For a practical discussion of authority in Chinese sourcing, see Paul H.B. Godwin and Alice L. Miller, “China’s Forbearance Has Limits: Chinese Threat and Retaliation Signaling and Its Implications for a Sino-American Military Confrontation,” China Strategic Perspectives, no. 6 (Washington: National Defense University Institute for National Strategic Studies, 2013): 29–37, [37] Alice L. Miller, “How Strong Is Xi Jinping?” China Leadership Monitor, no. 43 (Spring 2014), [38] For a general reference, see, Charles Perrow, Complex Organizations: A Critical Essay (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1986), 14–20. For a Chinese Communist Party-specific reference, see Victor Shih, Christopher Adolph, and Mingxing Liu, “Getting Ahead in the Communist Party: Explaining the Advancement of Central Committee Members in China,” American Political Science Review 106, no. 1 (February 2012): 166–87, [39] Samantha Hoffman and Peter Mattis, “Managing the Power Within: China’s State Security Commission,” War on the Rocks, July 18, 2016, [40] For example, Michelle Van Cleave, “The Question of Strategic Counterintelligence: What Is It and What Should We Do About It?” Studies in Intelligence 51, no. 2 (2007): 1–14, [41] Peter Mattis, “An American Lens on China’s Interference and Influence-Building Abroad,” Asan Forum, April 30, 2018,; Anne-Marie Brady, Making the Foreign Serve China: Managing Foreigners in the People’s Republic (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003). [42] Examples of potential failures to prosecute successfully include incidents involving former FBI informant Katrina Leung and University of Management and Technology President Yanping Chen. Examples of apparent rushes to judgment include allegations involving Los Alamos nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, Temple University physics professor Xiaoxing Xi, and National Weather Service hydrologist Sherry Chen. [43] As a matter of disclosure, I should note that I have played a small, but long-standing, role in public conversations related to the Chinese Communist Party’s interference efforts, especially in Australia and the United States, since 2014. I have spoken with reporters and been cited in numerous related articles published by, among others, the Sydney Morning Herald, Australian Broadcast Corp., the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, the Economist, and Financial Times. [44] Kelsey Munro, “A Free Press Is a Magic Weapon Against China’s Influence Peddling,” Lowy Institute Interpreter, Dec. 18, 2017, [45] Matt Nippert and David Fisher, “Revealed: China’s Network of Influence in New Zealand,” New Zealand Herald, Sept. 20, 2017, [46] Respectively, Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian and Josh Rogin. [47] Matt Coughlan, “Parliament Passes Sweeping New Foreign Influence Laws,” Sydney Morning Herald, June 29, 2018,; John Garnaut, “Australia’s China Reset,” Monthly (August 2018), [48] Ethan Epstein, “How China Infiltrated U.S. Classrooms,” Politico, Jan. 16, 2018, [49] “Briefing on the Indo-Pacific Strategy,” State Department, April 2, 2018, [50] Zach Dorfman, “How Silicon Valley Became a Den of Spies,” Politico, July 27, 2018, [51] Task Force on U.S.-China Policy, “U.S. Policy Toward China: Recommendations for a New Administration,” Asia Society and University of California San Diego, March 9, 2017, [52] Jun Mai, “The Long, Arduous Process to Joining China’s Communist Party,” South China Morning Post, July 1, 2016, [53] Dan Levin and Amy Qin, “True or Faked, Dirt on Chinese Fuels Blackmail,” New York Times, June 17, 2013, [54] Alexander Kwiatkowski, “Trade War Hits Trump Heartland, With Mines, Farms as Targets,” Bloomberg, June 15, 2018, [55] Edward Luce, “Henry Kissinger: ‘We Are in a Very, Very Grave Period,’” Financial Times, July 20, 2018, [56] Peter Mattis, “A Shaky Case for Chinese Deception,” War on the Rocks, Feb. 19, 2015, ) [contents] => Array ( [title] => [contents] => ) ) [10] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 676 [post_author] => 144 [post_date] => 2018-08-21 12:13:58 [post_date_gmt] => 2018-08-21 16:13:58 [post_content] => Within states, the rise of populist, illiberal movements in the democracies of the West[1] and the increasing authoritarianism of China[2] at first appear to be unrelated developments. In the West, governments are losing their prestige, while the stature of China’s government has never been higher. The condition of Russia’s autocracy, meanwhile, continues to plunge. Its economy is growing weakly, and for the fourth year in a row life expectancy has declined. Yet the self-confidence and public approval of the Russian regime appear high. Surely these developments are so various that they could not be related to one another. Internationally, too, things seem to be moving in different directions. For the first time since the founding of the institutions of the current, post-World War II order, a European state has invaded a member of the United Nations and annexed its territory.[3] An East Asian state has relentlessly developed nuclear weapons in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions[4] and has successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile[5] in a campaign to expand its territory through the reunification of the Korean Peninsula. In contrast to these centralizing acts of aggression, a leading state has defected from the European Union[6] and secessionist movements are active in several other E.U. member states.[7] To complicate matters, the unity and cohesion of the North Atlantic Alliance is in crisis.[8] Surely these upheavals are so contradictory that their causes could not be similar. Many thoughtful commentators have observed that the apparent retrenchment of the liberal world order is a consequence of developments in the international system: the end of bipolarity,[9] the abandonment of Bretton Woods,[10] the weakening of U.N. Charter rules against intervention,[11] the rise of global terror groups,[12] the upsurge in the number of economic and political refugees,[13] and the novel policies of the Trump administration.[14] These writers are not wrong, exactly, but they have gotten the origins and dynamics of the breakdown of the liberal world order wrong: It’s not that these changes in the international order have prompted reactions in the countries that have commenced trade wars, weakened security alliances, and the rest. Rather, it’s that changes in the constitutional order of the constituent states of the international system have led to decisions and actions that are dismantling the world order that has been in place since 1949.[15] All these developments are, in fact, related to the deep change in the State that is underway. Nowhere is this more evident than in the United States, the leading industrial nation-state and the chief architect and defender of the current world order. It is no coincidence that the United States is not alone in experiencing the traumatic unsettling of its constitutional order, but it is difficult to understand the steady weakening of the international order without grasping first what is happening within America.

I. American Exceptionalism

American exceptionalism is usually defined as the rather preening claim that the United States is uniquely virtuous or wise. This is the inference doubtless intended by Ronald Reagan's speechwriter who bowdlerized John Winthrop’s address to his fellow pilgrims about “a shining city on a hill.”[16] This is also probably what President Barack Obama had in mind when he stated that all countries are exceptional[17] — that is, he didn’t mean that they are all paragons but, rather, he wanted to avoid offense by giving out a trophy to every team member who showed up. If the United States is exceptional, what is it an exception to? “The exception provides the rule” because it delimits the boundaries of the rule’s application. To what rule does America’s exception then provide a boundary?[18] The most famous remark in the study of the State and the exceptions to its rules was made by Carl Schmitt, who wrote, “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.”[19] That, presumably, is because determining the exception provides the limit of the application of the rule and determining rules and their application is the prerogative of the sovereign. That brings us to the first step in the analysis of “American exceptionalism.” By this hackneyed phrase I do not mean what makes the United States so much better than other states but rather what makes America so American, as opposed to Japanese or South African, and thus the answer must be a cultural, contingent one. If it is true that he who is sovereign determines what is exceptional, then it is striking that it is the United States’ innovative ideas about sovereignty that define the American state and what makes the United States a constitutional outlier among states. The U.S. Constitution reflects the idea that the State is a limited sovereign: There are certain inalienable powers that are reserved to the People and cannot be delegated to the State. Therefore, the State’s power rests on a compact with the empowering people, a contract whose terms limit the scope of the state’s potential as well as its actual authority. As a rule of sovereignty, it might be thought oxymoronic to proclaim a limited sovereign that cannot determine the extent of its own powers. Yet this is precisely what makes the government of the United States exceptional: It cannot determine the boundaries of its authority — these are set by the U.S. Constitution — beyond recognizing that there are some boundaries it cannot cross. This explains the unusual powers given to lawyers and courts in the American system: The rule of law is not merely an instrument of the State but the basis for determining its scope. It is all too common to neglect this remarkably innovative feature of the American state. Louis Hartz, among others, once argued that American constitutional ideas derived from those of John Locke.[20] For Locke,
equality is natural to human beings because at a minimum all people own the same property: their labor. Freedom is preferable to authoritarianism because the best governments are those that win the consent of the people. Religious toleration is a good idea because faiths that are free will be stronger than those that are coerced. [21]
Well, not exactly. Precisely because all people do not own the same property, or rather the property they do own, their labor, has value that varies enormously from person to person, from time to time, from place to place, it is hard to ground equality in the material endowments of human beings. Rather, what made equality seem “natural” in the Western liberal tradition is that all peoples’ natures were held equally subject to divine judgment, redemption, and salvation, a concept that would be nonsensical if every person were not endowed with the freedom of conscience, on the basis of which he or she is to be judged. One might say “all men are created equal because they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” The equality enshrined in the Declaration of Independence — a document that provides the basis for the U.S. Constitution — is said to be “self-evident,”[22] the Creator of mankind having determined that it is to be so. [quote id="1"] Freedom is not preferable to authoritarianism because the “best” governments win the consent of the people. The term “best” is too vague to support this assertion and can be easily manipulated to prove the opposite proposition (as it often has been). Rather, freedom is preferable to authoritarianism because coercion is incompatible with the exercise of the conscience, which is the ultimate basis for constitutional decision-making in America. Religious toleration is a good idea not because faiths that are free will be stronger than those that are coerced. Much of the history of Christianity and Islam seems to prove just the opposite. Rather, religious toleration is preferable to intolerance because intolerance suppresses the ability to determine facts and also suppresses the faculties of reflection and reconsideration, all of which are essential attributes of the individual conscience if it must make judgments for which it will be held accountable. A recent essay on the U.S. Constitution concluded,
Far from [being] a blueprint for democracy, the Constitution kept real power away from ordinary people while protecting wealthy investors and slave-owners. It had nothing to do with human rights or social equality.[23]
In reality, the U.S. Constitution explicitly provides a blueprint for democracy by creating republican structures far more democratic than anything else at the time and that were designed to protect democracy by enabling it to defend itself against imperial opponents and to keep it from decaying into license and anarchy. Unlike the laws in other states of the late 18th century, the U.S. Constitution does not exempt aristocrats from taxation. To observe that it has “nothing to do with human rights” or equality reveals how little the writer understands the complexity of his subject, in which rights are often inferred from affirmative grants of power — that is, when the rule provides its exception. Such assertions as the one I have quoted, which would have been trite in Charles Beard’s day, are today part of a more general war on the legacy of America’s constitutional history. That war — and that legacy — will be discussed presently. For now, I will take up briefly just why the Constitution, in fact, has everything to do with human rights and equality. To do this will require going beyond the customary claims that the historiography of America’s founding pits liberalism and human rights against republicanism and state power. As I have suggested, the liberal, human rights consensus in America regarding the constitutional status of property rights, social mobility, individual freedom, and popular democracy arose from shared commitments to the decisive role of the conscience in determining the individual’s fate. This might more aptly be called the “Protestant ethic,”[24] which is incompatible with insecure property rights and promises, rigid and inherited class boundaries, and coercive rules that suppress individual expression. It is similarly incompatible with the derivation of legitimate governmental authority from traditions and processes that privilege the few while denying the many equality before the law. In a review tracing the historiography of America’s founding, Michael Millerman described this founding as “Lockean Liberalism versus Republicanism.” According to Millerman, Lockean liberalism
insists that America was founded on principles that recognize an abstract, natural right to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of one’s private happiness. These natural rights are liberties that define a private sphere, to be protected from government interference. By contrast, [some argue that] Republicanism informed the Founders’ vision of what America is and should be. Republicanism elevates such notions as, ‘the common good,’ and ‘the public sphere’ above those of, ‘individual liberties’ and, ‘private happiness.’ Indeed, it can justify infringing on the latter for the sake of the former. Hence it is in conflict with Lockean liberalism.[25]
To anchor this in sacred American texts, it is often claimed that the liberal (Lockean) Declaration of Independence conflicts with the Republican (Machiavellian) Constitution.[26] This antinomy between liberalism and republicanism may indeed be relevant to British thought, where popular sovereignty is fully vested in the State and human rights are expressly granted, as in Magna Carta. But it gets wrong the American constitutional settlement and its most important element: that the purpose of putting the State under law is to protect human rights, and that the protection of human rights requires that the State treat its citizens equally. America’s peculiar constitutional innovation is to create a partial sovereign, removing from the State and irrevocably vesting in the People the power to determine the exception to the rules that govern the State. This constitutional structure implies an infinite list of human rights — actions that cannot be taken by the State — that can be inferred from the limited grant of governmental powers. A structure of enumerated powers, where any power not permitted is prohibited, necessarily implies a complement of unenumerated rights. This means the republic enlists Americans’ energies and its collective efforts and mutual obligations on behalf of individual rights. America is neither a conservative nor a liberal state but a state that seeks to conserve a liberal tradition. This is the American constitutional ethos. To understand this, we must see the Constitution as the embodiment, the instantiation, of the Declaration of Independence. Like most law students of my generation, I used to think that the Declaration of Independence had no legal status because it was not ratified like the Constitution. On this, as in so many things, the late Charles Black turned me around. I came to realize that the 1787 Constitution sought to create a state that was based on the Declaration, a state structure that could more perfectly execute the ideas of the Declaration than could the Articles of Confederation. Thus, the ratification of the Constitution also amounted to the ratification of the Declaration, nunc pro tunc. Indeed, this is why Abraham Lincoln alludes to the Declaration of Independence (“Four score and seven years ago”) when he makes the constitutional argument to refute secession. This also explains why the Declaration is a rich source for ethical argument — one of the six fundamental modalities of constitutional argument that collectively form the standard model taught today in first-year law classes[27] — just as the Federalist Papers are an abundant source for historical argument or the U.S. Reports for doctrinal argument. Ethical argument — the argument from the American constitutional ethos — is sometimes called “the argument from tradition.” This fits with my thesis that it is a liberal, human rights tradition that is conserved by the bulwarks and bastions, the watchtowers, moats, and high walls of America’s constitutional architecture. Indeed, you might say that the oath “to preserve, protect, and defend” is a pretty good metonym for “to fortify.” The American constitutional ethos is the United States’ unique paradigm of the liberal tradition that flows from the Reformation and the decisive role the liberal tradition gives to the individual conscience. If this tradition is prefigured in the late Renaissance[28] and the early Reformation,[29] then one might say that communism, with its focus on scientific orthodoxy and prediction, is a child of the Enlightenment two centuries later and that fascism, with its focus on the genetic basis for nationalism and collective behavior, is a child (if an illegitimate one) of Darwinian biology a century after that. The materialism of both these legacies is fundamentally incompatible with human consciousness (as Thomas Nagel has recently argued[30]) and thus with the role assigned to the conscience by parliamentarianism. The imperial state nations[31] that dominated the 19th century were the first modern states to unite the State and the nation. The industrial nation-states that came to dominate the 20th century also fused the constitutional order with nationalism. Thus, Americans whose state descends from a late-18th-century founding tend to forget that what is meant by a nation is a cultural, linguistic, ethnic, religious, and historic group — not a state. Indeed, there are some nations — like the Kurds, the Palestinians, or the Cherokee — that don’t have states. In the Bible, when Jonah’s fellow seafarers asked him, “Of what nation are you?” they were not inquiring about his citizenship.[32] Americans forget this because, in the United States, we make precisely this inquiry. In America, it is citizenship and not national origin that forms the basis for the nation. This is one important divergence from the constitutional traditions of Europe and one reason why fascism has never had much of a toehold in America. [quote id="2"] Marxism and fascism embrace progress, whether it be the progress of science or the steady winnowing of the survival of the best adapted. Both ideologies claim to rely on science and the social sciences, which are themselves thought to be indicia and drivers of progress. The Anglo-American liberal tradition, by contrast, embraces pluralism, the idea that we can never be too sure of any orthodoxy and must perforce tolerate dissent. It is skeptical of progress but always open to incremental change. This ideology has its roots in tolerance — that we conserve competing values over time by giving them a chance at their turn of Fortuna’s wheel. The liberal tradition assumes that, at any one moment, one not only can be wrong but, to some degree, almost certainly is. Certain progress, however, demands certainty. Thus, Marxism and fascism were illiberal in the sense that they wished to destroy the impediments to progress, which, it was said, included dissent and free debate. The liberal tradition not only had different sources than its enemies in the Long War that began in 1914 and ended in 1990 — it had different constitutional methods and assumptions as well.

II. The Outer Critique

This description of the American constitutional ethos has lately been under attack, both as to its outer manifestations abroad and its inner legacy for the American people. These critics deny that America’s values, political system, and history — the American constitutional ethos — are really unique and worthy of admiration. While conceding that the United States possesses certain exceptional traits — some dubious, it is said, like gun ownership; some mystifying and inexplicable (to their critics), like high levels of religiosity — this critique asserts that U.S. action abroad has nothing to do with this ethos. Instead, America’s international history, like that of every other state, has been determined primarily by power and the competitive context of the international system. This is the “outer” assault. (The “inner” assault will be dealt with in the next section.) The indictment has six counts. First, it is said that while Americans claim they are exceptional and indispensable — two different points, by the way — many states and many nations have made this claim. In fact, according to one such critic, “Among great powers, thinking you’re special is the norm, not the exception,”[33] and it is true that American “exceptionalism” is rarely carefully defined beyond the most general and anodyne terms. Second, although Americans like to think their country behaves better than other states, and certainly better than other great powers, this is false. The United States has an expansionist history that began with its conquest of the North American continent. The Allied strategic bombing campaigns in World War II killed 353,000 Germans,[34] and approximately 330,000 Japanese civilians were killed by American bombs.[35] The United States dropped more than seven million tons of explosives during the war in Indochina[36] and should be held responsible for the more than 600,000 civilian deaths in that war.[37] In the past three decades, U.S. military action has been directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of 250,000 Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Balkans.[38] U.S. drones tracking terrorists in at least five countries have killed an unknown number of innocent civilians. Third, while the United States proclaims its devotion to human rights and international law, it has refused to sign most human rights treaties, including the Ottawa Landmines Treaty,[39] and is not a party to the International Criminal Court.[40] Nor has the United States energetically moved in the direction of decommissioning its vast nuclear arsenal, as it committed to do, in principle, when it acceded to the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). In the face of such facts, how dare the United States claim to be devoted to the rule of law. Fourth, the United States has often made common cause with some of the worst dictators and human-rights-abusing regimes. Nor has its own record been without blemish: The abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and the Bush administration’s reliance on torture and preventive detention are well-known. President Obama’s decision to conduct drone warfare without judicial warrants and even to wage war with questionable congressional authority suggests that such abuses are not a partisan or unusual matter. How dare the United States claim to be committed to human rights and due process. Fifth, U.S. claims to have defeated aggression in the 20th century ring hollow when the history of 20th-century conflicts is actually consulted. Although Americans tend to congratulate themselves for winning World War I, there are scholars who think the U.S. entry into the war only once the great European empires were thoroughly depleted was really aimed at succeeding those empires as the master of the international scene.[41] Woodrow Wilson may have proclaimed the war a fight to make the world “safe for democracy,”[42] but anyone can see in retrospect — it is asserted — that it was really the opening salvo in an effort to build an American empire in Europe. Critics also argue that, although Americans similarly congratulate themselves for having won World War II, most of the fighting was done in Eastern Europe and the main burden of defeating Hitler’s war machine was borne by the Soviet Union.[43] And while Americans also tend to think they won the Cold War all by themselves, they ignore the contributions of the courageous dissidents whose resistance to communist rule produced the “velvet revolutions” of 1989.[44] Sixth, although President Bill Clinton said that the United States was “indispensable to the forging of stable political relations,”[45] and his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, even referred to the United States as “the indispensable nation,”[46] we will soon find out whether this is really true. Like the little boy who finds himself at the head of a marching band and thinks he is leading it through the streets, should the little boy turn down an alleyway, the band will go on without him. What states look to the United States for moral and political leadership today, critics ask? As Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, remarked, today America doesn’t have “that many” friends.[47] Thus runs what one may call the “outer critique”: the exposé of the true history (it is said) of America’s interaction with the international system. Now let us engage these critiques, seriatim. It may be best to concede that every society and every state not only claims to be exceptional but is, in fact, exceptional. However, they are exceptional not in the way that Obama proclaimed: that every state, like every child, is “exceptional.”[48] Instead, what makes a society exceptional is simply what defines it in contrast to other societies. What makes a Japanese or an Australian not a Frenchman or a Ugandan is a function of his or her country and its culture and history. What makes a state exceptional is its unique constitutional ethos — the way it deploys its sovereignty to achieve legitimacy in the eyes of its people and territorial integrity in the face of its adversaries. This account of exceptionalism does not make the United States or any other state uniquely virtuous or successful, although the constitutional institutions that each state creates will channel the virtue of its citizens and martyrs and can accelerate its successes. It really does not say much at all except that it is important to determine the “nature of the exception” — how the state determines who will decide the ambit of law. In the case of the United States, this is its greatest legacy — not the hamburger, not the Corvette, not jazz or baseball — but the daring constitutional innovation by which the State was put under law. That America has sometimes failed to live up to that legacy only means that it is fallible. Indeed, the self-criticism that points out these flaws is actually a necessary part of such a pluralist, yet individualist, system. Now let us try a thought experiment as we work our way through the various charges of the “outer” indictment against the United States. Let us imagine the present as if the past simply omitted the role of the United States in world affairs. Such a thought experiment is merely a heuristic device to overcome the Anachronistic Fallacy that underlies so much of both the outer and inner critiques of American behavior. That Fallacy occurs when we transport our current context — not just its technology and wealth but its attitudes and mores — to earlier periods. Why, for example, didn’t earlier societies treat infectious diseases more successfully? Koch’s postulates weren’t “discovered”; they were formulated using ideas that had been present in many cultures for centuries. Should we reproach our ancestors for not having figured this out earlier? Or must we concede that without something like these postulates, the causal connection between disease and germs isn’t apparent? The Anachronistic Fallacy enshrines itself in an attitude that everything about the present can be held fixed and imported into the past even though the present is a result of the past.[49] [quote id="3"] It is true that by purchasing the Louisiana Territory from France and by pacifying lands through countless aggressions and defensive battles against the native population of the continent, the United States created an empire on our island continent. It is also true that along with these strategic accessions, including those of the Mexican War, the United States brought the American political culture westward. Would the West and Southwest have been better off today if California and Texas had remained under a European emperor like Napoleon or the Mexican dictator Santa Ana, even if we assume that his attitude toward slavery was preferable? Even if we concede that the life of the Native Americans was better before their defeat, despite their own internecine campaigns of ethnic cleansing against each other,[50] would this way of life have prevailed against the Spanish conquistadors? It didn’t in South America, where the native populations were better armed and organized to resist invasion than their northern counterparts. Have those states fared better with the legacy of Iberian colonial culture? Has the rule of law prospered as a guiding principle in politics even at the hortatory level? I am aware of the critique that American meddling and exploitation in Latin America have given rise to a structure of plunder that is responsible for the chronic poverty and underdevelopment there. Without addressing the economic merits of this description — which is sometimes reduced to “We’re poor; it’s their fault”[51] — does it lead to the conclusion that the U.S. presence in the hemisphere prevented its liberal practices and traditions from flourishing in Latin America? Those revolutionary leaders who expelled the European colonialists in the early 19th century felt otherwise.[52] The strategic bombing campaigns against Germany and Japan had elements that today one might think of as war crimes — the pitiless attacks against urban populations, for example. But those campaigns, fought with less precision and with cruder aerial weapons than are now deployed, played a crucial role in the defeat of the fascist dictatorships. Would those wars have been won without the Americans (and without their sometimes ruthless tactics)? If it is true, as I believe, that the atomic weapons used against Japan discredited Japanese fascism in the eyes of its own people, what would have been the outcome had there been no Manhattan Project? Besides the United States, only Germany had the technology, organized technocracy, and wealth to create nuclear weapons during World War II — suppose it had? If the Americans had not fought in the Pacific, would China and Korea have been liberated? If so, by whom? It is worth recalling that the Soviet Union did not even declare war against Japan until the Americans had used the atomic bomb against Hiroshima.[53] The U.S. mission in Vietnam did not achieve its war aim of preserving the South Vietnamese regime, but it did buy time for the other states in the region. No less an authority than Lee Kuan Yew[54] stated many times that without the U.S. effort in Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and perhaps even the Philippines would have become communist states.[55] His point is that the widely assumed discrediting of the “domino theory” only possesses a superficial credence because the United States did in fact intervene in Southeast Asia. The American occupation of Iraq was a fiasco, but can it really be assumed that the world would be safer today if Saddam Hussein and his psychopathic dynasty were still in power in Baghdad? Based on the testimony of his own scientists, Saddam planned to seek nuclear weapons at the earliest possible moment after sanctions were loosened[56] — sanctions that were themselves unraveling before the U.S. invasion.[57] Is it even conceivable that there would have been an agreement with Iran to cease production of nuclear weapons if Saddam were still in power? With respect to the suffering of the Iraqi people that the invasion and its aftermath brought, it seems highly relevant that, however much they rightly condemn the U.S.-led coalition’s failures during the occupation, a large majority of Iraqis, when polled in the early months of the occupation, supported the coalition’s invasion and removal of Saddam, saying it was “worth it.”[58] U.S. drones and special operations forces do inadvertently kill civilians. But are the number of civilian casualties not dramatically reduced by using drones and special forces instead of high-altitude bombing?[59] Is it true that countries that suffer from terrorist attacks, countries that implore the United States to aid their armed struggles, would be better off if America ceased trying to cripple those malevolent and savage terror networks? Would there be fewer Muslim deaths if the Islamic State still reigned over much of Iraq and Syria? Is Syria today better off because the United States chose not to intervene in force? What about the claim that the United States is hypocritical in its promotion of human rights and international law? It is true that America, along with other democracies, has refused to sign a number of human rights treaties that have been signed by dictators. However, scholars have persuasively argued that this is because the United States actually enforces those treaties in its domestic courts and therefore has to be very careful about its commitments.[60] Dictators, on the other hand, can sign whatever they please, knowing that such treaties amount to nothing but scraps of paper in their judicial systems. Is it really the case that the cause of human rights around the world would be further advanced today without the American efforts that fostered these rights? Without the Helsinki Accords?[61] Without the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Landmines are useful in military defense because they persist — that is, they do not fail when a tactical position is lost, and they do not require the presence of troops to maintain a position in order to give fire. This is also why landmines pose a humanitarian problem. Long after the battle is over, they continue to explode when innocent civilians set them off. As a matter of technology, however, this does not have to be the case. Timing mechanisms can be used that cause landmines to deactivate within as little as a few hours or as long as 30 days, which is the maximum allowed under the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, to which the United States is a party.[62] By contrast, the Ottawa Convention of 1997, the Landmines Treaty, to which the United States is not a party, bans only anti-personnel mines and freely permits all types of anti-vehicular mines.[63] Yet few members of the public seem to realize that anti-vehicular mines can be every bit as dangerous to civilians as anti-personnel mines. Indeed, persistent anti-vehicular mines kill innocent civilians trying to use roads, thus preventing refugees from returning to their homes and keeping humanitarian assistance from reaching them. The public seems to be generally unaware that this treaty bans only one class of explosives or that the U.S. policy of deploying time-sensitive mines — mines that effectively turn themselves off — would do far more to reduce civilian casualties if it were universally adopted. In any case, it has been U.S. policy not to use any persistent landmines since 2010 and this policy covers all mines, those that target persons and as well as vehicles.[64] But why doesn’t the United States simply cease using landmines? To do so would mean removing mines from the 38th parallel that separates North from South Korea — virtually the only place where the United States currently deploys mines. It is a no man’s land where a highly dangerous and unpredictable regime has more than one million active soldiers in its military, with 70 percent of its ground forces positioned south of the Pyongyang-Wonsan line, most less than 100 miles from Seoul.[65] Without mines, no realistic conventional force could protect South Korea’s capital — which is less than 35 miles from the Demilitarized Zone — from a surprise attack by North Korean forces. Would it really be a step toward peace on the peninsula to remove this barrier? Suppose the United States stopped trying to defend South Korea. Would the Canadians and Swedes, who have been the most critical of the American deployment of landmines, be willing to take up these responsibilities with their own forces? Would South Korea long be content to remain a nonnuclear power when it becomes clear, as it will, that North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons has been in service of that state’s aggrandizement? Would Japan? Surely the resulting nuclear proliferation to these states would not bring about a safer and more humane world. [quote id="4"] What about the International Criminal Court? What is America afraid of? That it would lose its impunity to commit war crimes? In the first place, it is important to remember that even if the United States were a party to the treaty that created the International Criminal Court, the jurisdiction of that tribunal would engage only when the United States fails to prosecute its war criminals. Yet, in 2005, U.S. military tribunals handed down stiff sentences to prison guards who abused Iraqi prisoners.[66] Of course, there is more to it than that. In fact, the U.S. government fears prosecutions by the court — unlike those prosecutions that are authorized and instructed by the U.N. Security Council, whose tribunals the United States supports — because it fears these would tip the balance against American intervention in marginal theaters, eroding the already vanishing public support in America for humanitarian intervention. Today, the world order depends upon American soldiers to protect human rights in Kosovo, Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti, and many other places. The spectacle of U.S. soldiers being tried before a foreign tribunal for acts committed while in the service of such interventions should give pause to anyone who wishes to persuade Washington to undertake those missions. It is difficult enough to muster public and congressional support for such deployments. The tragedies in Somalia, for example, led directly to the horrors in Rwanda because once American soldiers had been murdered and mutilated in Mogadishu there was no political will to engage them again in an African humanitarian mission. U.S. missions only make things worse, it is often said. So, suppose the Americans didn’t go abroad. Consider what life would be like now in the Balkans. When President Lyndon B. Johnson overruled the unanimous opinion of his advisers to press for the creation of the NPT regime, he may well have hoped that someday the world would be rid of nuclear weapons. This hope is enshrined in the treaty. But would the world be safer — would there be fewer states with nuclear weapons — if the American nuclear deterrent that protects so many other states was withdrawn? For technological and economic reasons, the United States may be the one nuclear power that could dispense with its nuclear arsenal. If it did, would the net number of nuclear powers actually decrease in the frenzy of rearmament that would ensue? The fourth charge of this “outer” indictment implies that war crimes, torture, and extrajudicial killings are as American as apple pie. Many states have resorted to torture — Britain in Ireland, France in Algeria, Israel in Palestine — and often on a scale considerably greater than the American abuses. It seems worth noting that the U.S. abuses, at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo for example, were not exposed simply by intrepid journalists and litigators but by the U.S. Armed Forces themselves. The point isn’t that the American constitutional ethos ensures that the United States will not commit terrible wrongs but that it makes it possible — indeed depends upon — the United States owning up to its errors and attempting to avoid their repetition. In fact, a nuanced and accurate assessment of American action, when it succeeds in upholding the professed values of its ethos as well as when it fails, is both consistent with our constitutional principles and a necessary guide to a stronger footing in establishing a global order that reflects those values. The charge that drone warfare amounts to extrajudicial killing not only misunderstands changes underway in the nature of warfare,[67] it also fails to comprehend the constitutional system by which actors other than courts play a role in waging wars and in ensuring their lawfulness. Addressing the fifth charge that the United States entered World War I to further its economic interests and to provide the basis for an American imperial role in Europe, it is hard to credit that anyone familiar with Wilson’s policies truly believes him to have been seeking such a role in Europe (or anywhere else). The suggestion is not only ahistorical, it is laughable. The principle of self-determination with which Wilson is most prominently associated is anathema to the very concept of empire, as the empires that began World War I discovered for themselves. Nor is it germane to the question of the American contribution to the defeat of the Nazis in World War II to observe that the great sufferings and sacrifices of the Soviet Union are also responsible for the defeat of Germany. Again, consider a counterfactual: Is there a military strategist or historian alive who believes the Soviet Union could have successfully resisted Germany without American aid, without a second front, and without American strategic bombing? Aerial bombing of German cities forced Germany to move its fighter aircraft away from the Russian front, giving Soviet arms air superiority. Perhaps equally important, Germany was compelled to move its 88mm anti-aircraft guns back to Germany when these were the most effective anti-tank weapons against Russian forces.[68] As for the Cold War, the United States, of course, did not win it alone. Far from it. Indeed, U.S. strategy was to build alliances so that it could win with the help of others. But rather than solicit the opinion of critics who decried the American policy of containment at the time, why not ask the dissidents themselves in the states that were liberated? Do they believe that without the American presence in Germany the Berlin Wall would have come crashing down? Why not ask Angela Merkel, who grew up in East Germany?[69] Finally, although it may seem hubristic to cast the United States as “the indispensable nation,”[70] to use this claim as a slur raises many questions. For example, indispensable to what? I’ve tried to give a number of examples in which American participation abroad, often in the face of powerful domestic opposition, has proved a decisive force for good. But perhaps the more important question today is, if not the United States — if not U.S. leadership of the world order that was established with America’s allies after World War II — then to which state should that leadership be committed? To the European Union? To China? To Russia and Iran? To a deadlocked U.N. Security Council? Perhaps the proffered answer is that there should be no leader, that the world we seek should be multipolar. Well, that has been tried. The multipolar world brought us both World War I and World War II. No single state was powerful enough to prevent either of those conflicts. Is it just a coincidence that the number of wars in the world, and the number of deaths both of soldiers and civilians, has dramatically declined since America took up its role as leader of the Alliance?

III. The Inner Critique

This essay began by discussing the subject of constitutional law and now has strayed into strategy. Such is the stuff of the “outer critique” because it claims that America’s diplomatic and strategic initiatives have been a sham, that it’s just old-fashioned rent-seeking, in contrast to the inspiring claims made by the architects of the current world order. Thus, it should not surprise anyone that the “inner critique” focuses on discrediting the heroic myths of America’s own history. For law, strategy, and history are intertwined in a way that the separated academic disciplines tend to obscure. As disciplines, each has its own understanding of causal dynamics, and practitioners are loath to increase, rather than reduce, the multiplicity of causal accounts by suggesting that some factor outside their own field is at work. Within each subject — law, strategy, and history — academics and analysts expect economic or political or perhaps sociological causes to account for developments. They are unlikely to see any necessary relations among these three classical ideas themselves. They do not appear to depend upon each other. Historians record how events in one arena can affect events in another. A war is won, and the peace conference that ends the war writes the ensuing international law in the victor’s terms. Or a war is lost, and a new constitutional structure is imposed. The first happened after World War II in San Francisco;[71] the second, at about the same time, in Tokyo.[72] Thus, the outcomes of strategy change law — and it becomes history. Or, a revolution changes the constitutional order of a state, replacing the aristocratic armies of the 18th-century territorial state with the mass armies of conscripts of the imperial state nation, enabling Napoleon to conquer Europe. Thus, constitutional law shapes strategy, and this too is called history. Or, new developments come into play — a new religion drives migration across a continent or technological innovation creates a mobile cannon — and an empire falls, and with its strategic collapse, its laws also die. While such examples are familiar, we are inclined to see their inter-relationship — the relationship among law, strategy, and history — as the byproduct of cause and effect, the result of developments of which history is simply the record. But history is not brought into being by context, whether strategic or legal. History brings context into being. And as this context unfolds, strategy and law are made manifest in events. It is therefore hardly surprising that the “inner critique” would be an attack on the American perception of its own history.
For law and strategy are not merely made in history — a sequence of events and culminating effects — they are made of history. It is the self-portrayal of a society that enables it to have an identity. Without this self-portrayal, this identity, a society cannot establish its rule by law because every system of laws depends upon the continuity of legitimacy, which is an attribute of identity. Furthermore, without such a self-portrayal, no society can pursue a rational strategy because it is the identity of the society that strategy seeks to promote, protect, and preserve. One might say that without its own history, its self-understanding, no society can have either law or strategy, because it cannot be constituted as an independent political entity.[73]
The view of American history that forms the basis for the “inner critique” claims that the U.S. national narrative is born in original sin, three sins, actually: slavery, the theft of land, and genocide. On this telling of the American story, the United States has grown powerful owing to monstrous crimes. That history cannot provide Americans with a common morality, or common heroes, or a common etiquette where national symbols, like the American flag or an unsingable national anthem, are concerned because to make common cause with these cultural artifacts is to drink the draughts that have poisoned U.S. history from the founding. This account has significant implications for world order and for the U.S. defense of that order. Indeed, the connection between the inner and outer critiques now becomes clear: They are a combined effort to dismantle the foundation of America’s international behavior, which is America’s confidence in the constitutional ethos that makes the United States exceptional. As the writer I quoted at the outset of this essay put it,
The American myth is at a crossroads. Our old stories will not save us. We need a new way to understand ourselves … Our new story would admit that much of our democracy has grown despite the rules and myths of the Founders and the frontier, not because of them. Freed of those rules and myths … we would be less eager to use our war machine and to spend so much of our wealth upon it. More aware of our own sins, we would feel less driven to avenge them abroad.[74]
One seldom sees such a frank admission of the synergy of outer and inner critique. And it’s not hard to see the sort of constitutional rules the author has in mind. At one point in his essay, he complains that the Constitution forbids legislatures from abrogating private contracts as if this was a telling exposé of the class bias of the Constitution’s ratifiers (very few of whom were creditors) and not in fact a rule that actually protects the availability and lowers the costs of credit in a developing economy. In any case, this is hardly what is exceptional about the U.S. Constitution. What made the Constitution unique among modern states is the decisive role it gives to law and, in constitutional law, to the individual conscience. It is true that the Constitution forbids the federal and state governments from coercing the press or establishing religious orthodoxy, including requiring a religious test for office; that it protects free speech and requires the equal protection of the laws for all persons — not just citizens — and insists on due process in the application of its rules. The constitutions of many countries do these things. More importantly, America’s Constitution limits the scope as well as the application of state power. It does not allow the State to determine where its citizens shall live, whom they shall marry, how many children a family can have, or what profession or trade to pursue not through the granting of rights but through the withholding of power. It does not define the “nation” as an ethnic or religious or racial group but as a body of citizens. It does not enshrine a popular democracy with the power to oppress by means of the law but, instead, aims to protect democracy with complicated structures — like the protection of civil contracts, including marriage[75] — that safeguard human rights. By these means it seeks to transmute deadly political questions into legal ones. [quote id="5"] The original, unamended Constitution was written in the context of a particular way of life that was shared by the European societies that had colonized the Americas. That worldview was patriarchal, racist, and imperialistic, and America lives with its consequences and, for some few, even its ideology — although that worldview is no longer widely held in those countries. The Three-Fifths Compromise, for example, is often cited as a constitutional concession to the Southern states that allowed for counting slaves in determining the census, which was the basis for representation in the House of Representatives.[76] But it is also true that this provision, similar to the decision to count children and women in the census, aligns with the idea that a male head of family represents the household — including any slaves who lived there. That slaves were counted only as three-fifths of a person was resented and objected to by white Southerners,[77] only 5 percent of whom ever owned a slave. Indeed, this figure underscores the conclusion that racism and patriarchy, rather than mere slavery, were at the heart of the dispute that divided the Union: Perhaps as many as a third of white Southerners were members of households that owned slaves and thus subordinated them regardless of ownership.[78] This does not exonerate that generation but simply gives a clearer description of the cultural basis for American constitutional practices. A Constitution cannot be better than its people, but it can provide for the ways in which the People can change because their values are not only reflected in law, they are shaped by it. Bear in mind that, in the 18th century, when the original constitution was drafted, most of the world’s slaves were owned by Europeans, Africans, and Ottoman Muslims. Many more slaves were brought through the trans-Atlantic slave trade to European colonies elsewhere (especially Brazil) than to North America.[79] Slavery itself — the conquest of captives who were sold into bondage and traded like chattel — was an ancient practice that thrived in many countries and in the empires of native peoples in the Americas. American and British opinion that despised slavery was a notable advance. What made American slavery both so odious, however, and has left such a pernicious legacy was the racial element in American slavery, a result of 18th-century globalization and the slave trade with Africa, something that was deplored in the Declaration of Independence. There was no room in such an institution for an Epictetus. Thus, even freedmen were held by the U.S. Supreme Court to be ineligible for citizenship because race came to determine rights.[80] Yet in other ways, the United States appeared more progressive than its peer countries at the time, for instance, in imposing no property ownership requirement to vote in federal elections.[81] It required an internal war, the most costly in American lives of all U.S. wars combined, to correct this terrible and degrading defilement, but correct it the Americans did. Would the American continent have remained unsettled by Europeans if the Anglo-Dutch colonies had never been established? Even assuming harmony among Native American tribes, such an assumption seems uninformed. Is it reasonable to suppose that the other powers that coveted an American empire for themselves would have forborne the conquest of land from the Native Americans they found here? Or that slavery would not have come to the continent when those powers arrived with their own customs and practices? Were those countries less patriarchal, racist, and imperialist than Britain and the Netherlands? Was that the lesson of the French in Haiti or the Spanish in Latin America? And what exactly does “land theft” mean for states for whom conquest was legitimate under the law of nations, and for those native tribes whose nomadic practices defied the conventional concept of land ownership? Let me be clear: My plea for historical realism cannot excuse slavery or genocide, acts that have been condemned for millennia. It cannot condone Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s or President Andrew Jackson’s racist policies. But it might give us a fuller picture of the intentions of Gen. Robert E. Lee, who detested slavery but shrank from the civil war he believed would attend immediate abolition,[82] and President Sam Houston, who was a protégé and supporter of Jackson’s but who was adopted by the Cherokee and fought to expose the behavior of government agents against them.[83] For the purposes of this essay, the question is not whether America’s history is pristine but whether that history would have been better in some other country’s hands and, given how history unfolded, what efforts America has made to overcome its negative legacies because that overcoming is an essential element in the ethos I have described above. If a people lose confidence in or despise or become disgusted by their history, it will result in their national enervation. It is evident that that is what the writer quoted above and many other critics of U.S. national security policy want. Perhaps this might be wise in some instances. You may want an aggressive society enervated, as the Germans and Japanese were after World War II. But a world order cannot be led or protected by a psychologically enfeebled society. With its allies, the United States created the current world order — the Charter of the United Nations, the Bretton Woods international financial system, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The United States did not act alone and could never have succeeded by trying to impose a post-war order. The United States sought, by benefiting others, to secure itself. Thus, the enervation of the United States can be costly to many states and is not just a matter of one actor sitting out the dance. That is why the criticism that U.S. policy has been self-serving is so beside the point. Of course U.S. policy was self-serving; it would have been unsustainable otherwise. U.S. leadership attempted to serve American interests, however, by embedding the interests of other states in the United States’ calculus of costs and benefits. Such leadership imposes costs that will not be willingly borne by a society that believes its principal legacy is shame. In fact, such a society will turn inward toward the accumulation of material advantage because this is the surest means by which it can reassert its self-respect. Because of its pessimism and self-loathing, it will come to resent other states and hold them in contempt as the only way of salvaging its own history. With its allies, America has created and led the current world order because it has been strategically successful — it is rich and powerful — and because it has put that leadership in service of democratic and humane principles — the source of its reliance on law. To give an unrealistic and fanciful account of America’s history — for the fancy of some of its critics reflects their resentments and obsessions as fancies do — is to deny the true sources of that order to undermine it. And because strategy and law are made of history, this process works both ways: If the critiques are historically uninformed and naïve, then the defenses must take care not to degenerate into cheerleading,[84] but must be historically well-formed and sophisticated enough to avoid anachronism. This is not simply a matter of research; it also requires imagination, for most peoples in the late 20th and early 21st centuries have been spared and can scarcely imagine the atrocities that would have befallen them without U.S. leadership.[85] This is not to say — I emphasize — that American history is unblemished, or a more morally admirable one than that of other societies. Far from airbrushing the past, America must take its historic wrongs — for example, against African Americans and Native Americans at home and against Southeast Asians and Filipinos abroad — and study them to create a future that is more humane and more inclusive. When it functions as it was designed to work, the operation of the American constitutional ethos requires criticism, debate, and decisions according to conscience.

IV. Disillusion Leads to Dissolution

Unfortunately, the loss of common ground — even the willingness to engage in debate and discussion with those with whom one disagrees — can be facilitated by the decentralized U.S. constitutional system with as-yet uncalculated consequences. Thoughtful analysts such as the liberal James Fallows[86] and the conservative David Brooks[87] have celebrated the regeneration of the United States through the renewal of localities. While there are many inspiring stories — and not just in the United States,[88] because the devolutionary change in the constitutional order I have described elsewhere[89] is not limited to America — there are also grounds for concern about the “new localism.”[90] Fission is what happens when the nucleus of a large atom splits into smaller nuclei. When an atom undergoes nuclear fission, a few neutrons are ejected from the reaction. These free neutrons then react with other isotopes, like uranium 235, and cause more fissions. This is the phenomenon known as a chain reaction. This “fissioning” is what is happening, at a varying but often accelerating pace, within the political society of the United States. In 2004, the writer Bill Bishop described a development he called “the Big Sort,”[91] which traced the self-segregation of Americans into like-minded, evermore ideologically polarized communities. At the regional level, the sorting has been distinctly bicoastal, with New England, the mid-Atlantic, and Pacific regions growing more Democratic, while the West, Texas, and the South grew more Republican. At the same time, America’s coastal cities are becoming better educated, wealthier, and more cohesive while much of the center of the country is hollowing out. In most states, this trend has picked up momentum in the last 25 years. Just three states had less political polarization in 2012 than in 1992.[92] Like-minded people are clustering together, and clustering together seems to make people even more like-minded. Data from the 2016 presidential election show that this sorting is actually increasing: Although the Democratic candidate decisively won the popular vote, she carried only 487 of the 3,141 counties.[93] Four years before, Barack Obama won 689.[94] In 20 years, one-half the population will live in eight states; the 16 most populous states will have about 70 percent of the population. This means that 34 states will have about 30 percent of America’s people. [quote id="6"] This raises concerns that the people in two-thirds of the states (34) — the number required to call a constitutional convention or propose constitutional amendments — could amount to far less than two-thirds of the population and, similarly, that the population of three-quarters of the states — 38 states — could ratify the results even though they contain far less than three-quarters of the population. Whatever the formal consequences of this demographic and political sorting, there is a real threat to America’s common tradition when states that have become overwhelmingly representative of particular minorities — and I include white Anglo-Saxon Protestants — achieve overwhelming political power in the various states. For one thing, this could bring about a reversal of the constitutional dynamic of the last century and a half by which human rights were made uniform across all the states. Right now, a shoplifter or a bank robber arrested in Wyoming is read the same Miranda rights as one arrested in Florida. The same standards are applied banning prayer in schools, or forbidding the criminalization of abortion, or prohibiting the use of narcotics. This could change. Already, some states practice capital punishment while others do not — even though in most foreign states there is a uniform rule with respect to this question. In some instances, this fissioning of the national project might encourage welcome reform — I am thinking of the decriminalization of certain drug use. But there is also deadly risk to the American constitutional project in such market-driven variation, which treats the citizen more like a consumer than a member of the national polity. For example, I need hardly observe that racializing discourse would add an accelerant to this fissioning that could prove fatal to the American project.

V. Overcoming

Reflecting on the effort to create a world order after World War II, Dean Acheson wrote that his task was “just a bit less formidable than that described in the first chapter of Genesis. That was to create a world out of chaos; ours, to create half a world, a free half, out of the same material without blowing the whole [thing up] in the process.”[95] Acheson’s hope was to craft political and economic arrangements that would bind the anti-communist world through the benefits conferred by free trade, stable currencies, and the example of liberal democracies that flourished in the atmosphere of tolerance and open debate. Since the end of World War II, this world order has achieved more, perhaps, than Acheson could have hoped for. The United States has contributed money and ideas to expand trade, fight disease, encourage the development of new technologies, and increase the scope and lower the cost of global transport. Most importantly, America has risked its own safety to guarantee the safety of other states. It was American leadership of that world order that ended the Cold War, that reversed the Iraqi annexation of Kuwait, that finally halted the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, and that brought peace between Israel and Egypt. It is hardly implausible to say that had the American state not developed as it has, the world would be poorer, less free, and, above all, less hopeful. America can vindicate its role in defending the world order if it can maintain confidence in its constitutional and strategic values. Those values reflect the American assumptions that alliances are a strategic asset (America’s first foray into world affairs was the Monroe Doctrine, guaranteed by the British Royal Navy[96]); that public policy abroad, like policy at home, must reflect America’s values, because the assertion of U.S. interests is the assertion of U.S. values; that security, wealth, and freedom flourish in environments that aim to nurture them and therefore are not the result of a mercantile competition that assumes that one person’s gain is another’s loss. America will succeed because constitutional innovation and free markets and ingenious technology are endeavors America is good at. But if America betrays its constitutional ethos — what makes it exceptional but cannot by itself make it exceptionally virtuous or good — it will lose confidence and won’t even try. The weakest link in U.S. national strategy is a growing lack of confidence in America’s institutions, its heritage, and its goals. When America has succeeded as a country, it is because it has relied on a sense of purpose and a shared belief that it can and will do the right thing because — not in every case and every time — it has subscribed to the ideals of the American constitutional ethos, and it has taken pains to convince others that it would act in accordance with that ethos. Without this sense of past achievements and of struggles overcome, America will necessarily fail, because it will have defeated itself. Other states, motivated by different principles, will take up this role. As William Burns, former deputy secretary of state, put it, “We can shape things or wait to get shaped by China and everybody else.”[97] Indeed, one can already see in the backlash that triumphed in the 2016 presidential election, the disabling of those steps — like the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement— that would have been positive steps in countering the de-stabilizing rise of China.

•          •          •

The rise of populist movements in the West, the rise of China in the East, and the growth of social media all have converged to undermine America’s commitment to democratic republics, which are the structural form of the U.S. constitutional ethos, an ethos of liberal values that the United States has championed in the international system. The rise of these movements is widely taken to be an implicit criticism of that system. As has been observed earlier in this paper, it is an illiberal reaction to the unresponsiveness of the democratic political process. This reaction is supercharged by the growth of social media that bypasses the traditional processes of party politics and representative government. Perhaps equally important, social media platforms also bypass the intellectual gatekeepers of the mainstream media, upon which Americans have relied for a factual consensus to ground political debate. Champions of this development claim to be disenchanted with the corruption of the republican structure of representation. Thus, both populism and its developmental companion, social media, are fueled by disgust. As Jack Balkin has put it, populists are angry about the democratic shortfall of government,[98] and social media reflects anger about the unrepublican shortcomings of representation. The evidence, however, might be characterized differently. One might say that only a few political scientists care about democracy per se — or republicanism for that matter — and, while they obsess about the unrepresentative nature of the Senate and the loss of civic virtue in politicians, the public is not similarly preoccupied. Rather, what motivates contemporary populists and social media movements are the expectations that their members should be treated like customers and consumers rather than citizens, and thus that they bear no responsibility for reforming the system through their own participation, other than simply going on to another carrier or vendor to satisfy their needs. This attitude, reflected in various surveys, is especially worrying among the young.[99] Not only is there an illiberal “cohort shift,” with young citizens today being more skeptical about democracy than their parents were at the same age, but Millennials are also more likely to denigrate democratic institutions and to express a preference for a shift — to the right in some places, to the left in others — away from their liberal democratic heritage. In such a situation, the legitimacy of the State is put into play. It is a commonplace to say that the governments of the West are dysfunctional, but are there agreed-upon ends they are not functioning to achieve? A debate between Sanford Levinson and Balkin on this subject quickly revealed that “dysfunctional” was largely a label for “unable to pass the legislation I favor and that, I concede, is widely opposed.”[100] The admiration and confidence accorded the governing operating systems of the democratic republics are waning, but it is not their functionality as operating systems so much as their legitimacy — the relationship of the State to the People — that is responsible for this. The industrial nation-state is increasingly unable to make the claim that it will improve the material well-being of its people, and this claim has been the basis of the legitimacy of this constitutional order for more than a century. In fact, with regard to the spread of nuclear and chemical weapons; the growth of global terror networks, international criminal conspiracies, and hacking threats; the frequency and virulence of epidemics; climate change; the fragility of national financial institutions; the protection of national morals and culture; and the use of law to enforce moral codes, the State seems increasingly to be at a loss. [quote id="7"] This is why the rise of China is salient for the constitutional order of democratic republics. China provides an alternative, undemocratic, unrepublican form of government that does seem to be able to affirm its basis for legitimacy. The Chinese regime appears capable of increasing the total wealth of society steadily, consistently, even dramatically, while increasing the economic opportunities available to its people. As such, it is a harbinger of the new constitutional order of states that tends to treat its citizens as consumers.[101] Globally, Millennials are much more positive about President Xi Jinping and his ability to invest in the future, and they appear less troubled by his repression of political opposition and debate.[102] China’s rise in the international order is directly proportional to its success domestically, a success that depends upon jettisoning the basis for legitimacy that undergirds the other great states of the world. By contrast, in the United States the increase in racial antagonism and alienation, increasing income inequality and hostility to leading elites, considerable illegal immigration and the largest levels of legal immigration since 1890, and the executive’s increasing reliance on discretionary law enforcement all testify to an unraveling of the compact that forms the basis of democratic republics, the triumphant variant of the constitutional order of industrial nation-states. Calling this “dysfunction” is a misnomer. It is instead the transition from one constitutional order to another. One dreadful consequence of these developments is the growing, concomitant hatred of various groups within society. The white supremacists at Charlottesville are indeed more vile than the antifa mob at Berkeley, because racial and religious prejudice is uniquely odious, but both are marinated in hatred for the other. The threat to the rest of society arises, as Machiavelli observed, from the fact that tyranny comes to power by promising to crush the elements that the people hate. So what is to be done? The first step is to recognize that what is happening in the United States is happening everywhere and that it is a fundamental, not a transient, development. That development is the challenge to the current constitutional order of the United States and other dominant states by a new form of the State.[103] Absent this recognition, America is condemned to dealing with its problems piecemeal and ineffectively. But armed with this awareness, America can instead craft its own version of the coming constitutional order, just as it did with its predecessor within which we now live. Second, America must recognize those common threats that beset the world order: climate change, networked terror, an increasingly febrile and fragile international financial system, and the proliferation of technologies of mass destruction that could lead to the use of nuclear and biological weapons. Failure to deal with all of these matters is destroying the legitimacy of the industrial nation-state. Third, the United States must use those techniques it is best at: assimilation and tolerance against terror; the ingenuity of markets and innovative technology to manage climate change and global financial connectedness; deterrence and — if necessary — intervention by an alliance against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. America knows that it knows how to do these things because it has done them successfully in the past. If it is true that the international order is shaped by the most successful and dynamic constitutional order, then America must look to its domestic polity to begin these initiatives. As much as such efforts may cause unease, America must find a way to bring together the concerns of protesting students, grieving and outraged African-Americans who are victims of state violence, marginalized sexual groups of varying self-identification, working-class persons frustrated by apparently unstoppable immigration and evaporating economic opportunity, families discouraged by the coarsening of American life, and religious communities that feel themselves at war with the larger culture, along with the currently dispirited liberal advocates of tolerance, dispassion, and debate. That will mean inventing a constitutional order based on the traditional values of America’s democratic republic and legitimating its structure through an equal responsiveness to the concerns of those currently alienated from that structure and to those who are alienated from the apparent shifts in that structure. In this task, the sheer bloody-mindedness of the current administration may be a solvent, dissipating the hardening molds of distrust and making possible a new era of faith in the American enterprise. As a start, the United States should consider some regime of reparations for African-Americans — who regardless of their relationship to the practice of racial slavery still labor under its legacy — and Native Americans whose treaties with the United States remain to be honored. It is not simply a matter of obligation to these groups so much as it is a matter of self-respect. The way to redress foreign wrongs is to recover American self-confidence so that the United States can lead the international order to a prosperity and security that embraces all states that wish to participate in that order. Although it has been routinely misinterpreted by American politicians — or perhaps because it has been so misinterpreted — I want to close with a reflection on John Winthrop’s famous speech charting a vision for the American colonists in 1630. He said to the passengers of the Arbella, “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.”[104] By this Winthrop emphatically did not mean that the excellence of America’s example would be the marvel of the age or that the virtue of the immigrants he addressed would make their enterprise a success. On the contrary, he knew that Europeans expected this experiment to fail. This is what Winthrop meant when he warned that “the eyes of all people are upon us.” His words were a caution to the new Americans to behave themselves, to take up their grave responsibilities and face their equally grave challenges with a decent respect for the opinions of mankind. An elected legislature was established. Ministers were prohibited from holding political office. Harvard College was founded six years later.[105] All this was done without a formal charter from the British government. No one can say where the American experiment is headed. Its strife and failures have also been a part, perhaps an indispensable part, of its triumphs. Its legacy — the American constitutional ethos — has redeemed its history. Now that ethos must create history anew.


In this essay I have argued that what makes the United States exceptional is also what makes it indispensable going forward as the states of the world adapt a new constitutional order to cope with the challenges that are overwhelming the industrial nation-state. The alternative is not a return to the halcyon days of national identity secured by laws that privileged a dominant ethnic or national group’s values in the governance of the State, not because these laws were morally wrong, though in some places and at some times they certainly were by the contemporary standards of today (for what other moral standards can we authentically apply?), but because such constitutional regimes cannot manage the challenges of the 21st century. The alternative is an illiberalism of both the left and the right that will infect the emerging market-states of the world just as fascism and communism infected the industrial nation-states of the last century. American exceptionalism does not make the United States uniquely virtuous or especially virtuous, for that matter; it merely makes the American state capable of adaptation according to rules that rely on the conscience. The constitutional challenges that currently beset states are responsible for the various, seemingly contradictory, crises that are occurring globally; these challenges can be resolved favorably to the values of the liberal tradition that ground the American constitutional ethos. Only a recognition of that ethos and its reinvigoration will enable the United States to play a positive role in leading the world to that resolution.   Acknowledgements: I should like to thank two remarkable research assistants, Andrew Elliott and Philippe Schiff, for their outstanding efforts on this essay; and I would also like to thank Megan Oprea, Autumn Brewington, and Ryan Evans for their editorial assistance at the Texas National Security Review. Of course, any errors of fact or judgment that remain, despite their help, are mine alone. Philip Bobbitt is Herbert Wechsler Professor of Federal Jurisprudence and Director of the Center on National Security, Columbia Law School and Distinguished Senior Lecturer at the University of Texas. Image: Wikipedia Commons [post_title] => America’s Relation to World Order: Two Indictments, Two Thought Experiments, and a Misquotation [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => americas-relation-to-world-order-two-indictments-two-thought-experiments-and-a-misquotation [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-01-17 13:06:24 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-01-17 18:06:24 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw [lead] => The State is undergoing a crisis of legitimacy owing to its inability to cope with novel problems of weapons proliferation, transnational threats including climate change, a fragile global financial infrastructure, cultural influences carried by electronic communications, and an undemocratic regime of human rights law. These fatal inadequacies are summoning forth a new constitutional order, the latest in a series of century-spanning archetypal regimes that have arisen since the Renaissance and the collapse of feudalism. A backlash against the harbingers of this new order, however, is crippling the development of those modes of action that are required to deal with the underlying crisis. In the United States, this crippling reaction has operated in tandem with a formidable critique of America’s right to lead an international order that has brought unprecedented prosperity and low levels of warfare to the world. This backlash is as much a reaction to the critique of the United States’ political and cultural heritage as it is to the governing techniques that are harbingers of this new constitutional order. Only a restoration of faith in America’s constitutional and strategic heritage — its exceptional ethos — will make possible the preservation of liberal traditions of governing in the new world that is being born. To accomplish this, we must answer the critiques by identifying what is the animating American quality that entitles the United States to compete for leadership. [pubinfo] => [issue] => Vol 1, Iss 4 [quotes] => Array ( [0] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => [F]reedom is preferable to authoritarianism because coercion is incompatible with the exercise of the conscience... ) [1] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => The liberal tradition assumes that, at any one moment, one not only can be wrong but, to some degree, almost certainly is. ) [2] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => [W]hat makes a society exceptional is simply what defines it in contrast to other societies. ) [3] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => The principle of self-determination with which Wilson is most prominently associated is anathema to the very concept of empire... ) [4] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => If a people lose confidence in or despise or become disgusted by their history, it will result in their national enervation. ) [5] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => Like-minded people are clustering together, and clustering together seems to make people even more like-minded. ) [6] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => The industrial nation state is increasingly unable to make the claim that it will improve the material well-being of its people... ) ) [style] => strategist [type] => Strategist [style_label] => The Strategist [download] => Array ( [title] => PDF Download [file] => 838 ) [authors] => Array ( [0] => 144 ) [endnotes] => Array ( [title] => Endnotes [endnotes] => [1] E.g. the Front National in France (see James McAuley, "As France's Far-Right National Front Rises, Memory of Its Past Fades," Washington Post, Jan. 26, 2017,, the M5S in Italy, the ÖVP and FPÖ in Austria (see Jon Henley, "Rise of Far-Right in Italy and Austria Gives Putin Some Friends in the West," Guardian, June 7, 2018,, and the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) in Britain (see Alex Hunt, "UKIP: The Story of the UK Independence Party's Rise,", Nov. 21, 2014, [2] See Xi Jinping’s removal of presidential term limits (Steven Lee Myers, "With Xi's Power Grab, China Joins New Era of Strongmen," New York Times, Feb. 26, 2018, and China’s massive and invasive domestic surveillance program (James A. Millward, "What It's Like to Live in a Surveillance State," New York Times, Feb. 3, 2017, [3] Steven Lee Myers and Ellen Barry, “Putin Reclaims Crimea for Russia and Bitterly Denounces the West,” New York Times, March 18, 2014, [4]Alex Beuge et al., “A Guide to North Korea’s Advance Towards Nuclear Weapons,” Guardian, Nov. 29, 2017, [5] Josh Smith, “How North Korea’s Latest ICBM Test Stacks Up,” Reuters, Nov. 28, 2017, [6] Letter from U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May to E.U. President Donald Tusk, March 29, 2017, [7] Will Martin, “This Map Shows the European Regions Fighting to Achieve Independence,” Independent, Oct. 2, 2017, [8] See, among many commentators, Robert Kagan, “Things Will Not Be Okay,” Washington Post, July 12, 2018, [9] Alan S. Alexandroff and Andrew F. Cooper, eds., Rising States, Rising Institutions: Challenges for Global Governance (Brookings Institution Press, 2010). [10] Richard Hurowtiz, “What We Can Learn From Bretton Woods,” Weekly Standard, July 1, 2017, See also G. John Ikenberry, “The End of Liberal International Order?” International Affairs 94, no. 1 (January 2018): 7–23, [11] Jayshree Bajoria and Robert McMahon, “The Dilemma of Humanitarian Intervention,” Council on Foreign Relations, June 12, 2013, [12] See, e.g., Janet Daley, “Islamic Terror Could Kill Off the West’s Liberal Values,” Telegraph, July 30, 2016, [13] “Figures at a Glance,” U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, June 19, 2017, [14] Kori Schake, “The Trump Doctrine Is Winning, and the World Is Losing,” New York Times, June 16, 2018, [15] For a history of the constitutional orders of the modern state, see Philip Bobbitt, The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History (New York: Knopf, 2001). Industrial nation-states first appeared in the last third of the 19th century and by the end of World War I had largely supplanted the imperial state nations of the great powers that dominated the 19th century. We still live within this constitutional order, but elements of its challenger, the informational market state, are already evident — for examples, see Philip Bobbitt, Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-First Century (New York: Knopf, 2008) — and have provoked the backlash to which I refer. This essay is not about a new constitutional order, nor is it principally about the backlash that is taking place in many societies. Rather it is about the role of the United States in managing this transition in the face of powerful critiques of its past actions. [16] Ronald Reagan’s election-eve address, “A Vision for America,” Nov. 3, 1980, [17] “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism,” Obama said in an April 4, 2009, news conference. White House transcript is available at: [18] All persons born in the United States are eligible to serve as president, except those who would be younger than age 35 when inaugurated. The exception provides the rule that one must be 35 years of age to be president. [19] Carl Schmitt, Politische Theologie, 8th ed. (1934), ch. 113 (“Souverän ist, wer über den Ausnahmezustand entscheidet”). [20] See, generally, Louis Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America 2nd ed. (Wilmington, MA: Mariner Books, 1991). [21] Alan Wolfe, “Nobody Here but Us Liberals,” New York Times, July 3, 2005, [22] Declaration of Independence, 1776, para. 2. [23] J.M. Opal, “America Should Never Be ‘Great Again,’” Time, April 5, 2017, [24] Max Weber, Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus [The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism] (1905). [25] Michael Millerman, “The Historiography of America’s Founding: Lockean Liberalism versus Republicanism,” Telos, July 16, 2013, [26] See, e.g., Luigi Marco Bassani, “The Bankruptcy of the Republican School,” Telos 124 (Summer 2002): 131–57. [27] See generally Philip Bobbitt, Constitutional Fate: Theory of the Constitution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), and Philip Bobbitt, Constitutional Interpretation (Hoboken, NJ: Blackwell, 1992). The six fundamental forms of constitutional argument — or “modalities” of argument, as they are sometimes called — are: historical, textual, doctrinal, structural, prudential, and ethical. [28] Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, ed. and trans. Peter Bondanella (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); Philip Bobbitt, The Garments of Court and Palace: Machiavelli and the World that He Made (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013), 10, 16. [29] Martin Luther, Martin Luther’s 95 Theses (2008), ebook available at [30] Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 8, 13–16, 127–28. [31] My terminology for the constitutional order that achieved dominance in the 19th century; it sought popular allegiance on the grounds that the State would exalt the nation by fusing it with the State. See Bobbitt, Shield of Achilles, 144–204; also Philip Bobbitt, Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twentieth Century (New York: Knopf, 2008), 26 et seq. [32] Jonah 1:8. [33] Stephen M. Walt, “The Myth of American Exceptionalism,” Foreign Policy, Oct. 11, 2011, [34] Richard Overy, The Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War Over Europe, 1940–1945 (New York: Viking, 2014), 304–7. [35] Michael Tillman, Whirlwind: The Air War Against Japan 1942–1945 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), 256. [36] Michael Clodfelter, Vietnam in Military Statistics: A History of the Indochina Wars, 17921991 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1995), 225. [37] Guenter Lewy, America in Vietnam (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 442–53. [38] I am by no means convinced of these figures, to say nothing of the blithe assumptions of “direct or indirect responsibility,” but they are a customary feature of the critique and it would not change minds if the numbers were significantly less (even if more accurate). [39] Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction; see treaty status information at [40] For a summary of the U.S. policy toward the court per an Obama administration National Security Strategy, see: [41] See Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (New York: Harper, 1980), 362; Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (New York: Knopf, 1948), 266; and “Trials of the Great War 1914–2014: War and the American Century,”; Craig Calhoun, Frederick Cooper, and Kevin W. Moore, eds., Lessons of Empire: Imperial Histories and American Power (New York: New Press, 2006); Michael Mann, Incoherent Empire (London: Verso, 2003). [42] 55 Cong. Rec. 1, 120 (1917). [43] Walt, "Myth of American Exceptionalism." See also Ishaan Tharoor, “Don’t Forget How the Soviet Union Saved the World From Hitler,” Washington Post, May 8, 2015, [44] Walt, "Myth of American Exceptionalism." [45] A National Security Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement, White House (July 1994), 5, [46] Interview by Matt Lauer with Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, “Today Show,” Feb. 19, 1998, [47]Remarks by President Donald Tusk on E.U.-NATO cooperation, European Council, July 10, 2018, [48] Schake, "Trump Doctrine Is Winning." [49] Note, this is not the same as saying we must not judge an earlier society by our current moral, political, and aesthetic values; as I remark later in the essay, “Who else’s judgments would we apply,” the consciousnesses of earlier cultures being so inaccessible to us. [50] See Jeffrey P. Blick, “The Iroquois Practice of Genocidal Warfare (1534–1787),” Journal of Genocide Research 3, no. 3 (2001): 405–29, [51] “Author Changes His Mind on ’70s Manifesto,” New York Times, May 23, 2014, [52] See Simón Bolívar’s Letter from Jamaica, Sept. 6, 1815. “As long as our countrymen do not acquire the abilities and political virtues that distinguish our brothers of the north, wholly popular systems, far from working to our advantage, will, I greatly fear, bring about our downfall. … Although I seek perfection for the government of my country, I cannot persuade myself that the New World can, at the moment, be organized as a great republic. Since it is impossible, I dare not desire it; yet much less do I desire to have all America a monarchy because this plan is not only impracticable but also impossible. Wrongs now existing could not be righted, and our emancipation would be fruitless. The American states need the care of paternal governments to heal the sores and wounds of despotism and war.” Selected Writings of Bolivar, trans. Lewis Bertrand (New York: Colonial Press, 1951). Accessed via Brown University Center for Digital Scholarship: [53] Though violent clashes had occurred in 1939 between the two powers. [54] First prime minister of Singapore and leader of the People’s Action Party that campaigned for Singapore’s independence from Britain. [55] See, e.g., Lee Kuan Yew, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story, 19652000 (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 467, 573. [56] See statement by David Kay on the interim progress report on the activities of the Iraq Survey Group, hearing before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, House Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on defense, and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Oct. 2, 2003, [57] David Rieff, “Were Sanctions Right?” New York Times, [58] Richard Burkholder, “Gallup Poll of Iraq: Liberated, Occupied, or in Limbo?” Gallup, April 28, 2004, [59] Daniel L. Byman, “Why Drones Work: The Case for Washington’s Weapon of Choice,” Brookings Institution, June 17, 2013, [60] See Oona A. Hathaway, “Between Power and Principle: An Integrated Theory of International Law,” University of Chicago Law Review 72 (2005): 469, 499. “States that are more likely to engage in domestic enforcement of the terms of international legal agreements are therefore less likely to commit to them in the first place, all other things held equal.” [61] See Michael Cotey Morgan, The Final Act (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018). [62] Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons; see Protocol on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Mines, Booby-Traps and Other Devices, Technical Annex 3(a). [63] See Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction, Art. 1, § 1(a). [64] For more on U.S. policy on landmines, see: [65] Dave Majumdar, “North Korea’s Army by the Numbers: 4,300 Tanks and 200,000 Lethal Special Forces,” National Interest, Feb. 1, 2018, [66] See, for example, “Graner Gets 10 Years for Abu Ghraib Abuse,” Associated Press, Jan. 16, 2005,; “Harman Found Guilty for Abu Ghraib,” Army News Service, May 19, 2005,; “Two More Soldiers Sentenced for Abu Ghraib Abuse,” Army News Service, Feb. 10, 2005, [67] See Philip Bobbitt, “The ACLU Goes to War,” Just Security, Nov. 25, 2016, [68] See Antony Beevor, “Freedom Sweeps Europe — But at What Cost?” Guardian, Sept. 10, 2009,; see also Antony Beevor: “Hitler’s anger with Goering over the Luftwaffe’s inability to stop Allied bombers getting through, forced Nazi Germany to withdraw the bulk of its fighter squadrons and its 88mm anti-aircraft guns from the eastern front to defend the Reich. By 1944, there were just 1,200 heavy anti-aircraft guns left for the whole of the eastern front, yet more than 7,000 back in Germany. And if these 88mm anti-aircraft guns, which were also the most devastating anti-tank weapons of the whole war, had not been withdrawn from the eastern front, even more Soviet soldiers would have died. But the most decisive contribution to the outcome of the war was the withdrawal of Luftwaffe fighter formations from the eastern front to defend German cities. This gradually tipped the balance of air superiority on the eastern front away from the Luftwaffe, to such a degree that by 1944, it could hardly send any reconnaissance flights over Soviet lines. This allowed the Red Army to prepare the huge deceptions which culminated in Operation Bagration, the destruction of Army Group Centre in Belorussia, the most devastating victory of the whole war.” Antony Beevor, email message to author. [69] Werner Reutter, “Who’s Afraid of Angela Merkel? The Life, Political Career, and Future of the New German Chancellor,” International Journal 61, no. 1 (2005/2006): 214, 216, [70] See footnote 31. [71] Multilateral Treaty of Peace with Japan, Sept. 8, 1951, 3 U.S.T. 3169. [72] Surrender by Japan, Terms Between the United States of America and the Other Allied Powers and Japan, Sept. 2, 1945, U.S.–Japan, 59 Stat. 1733. [73] See Bobbitt, Shield of Achilles, 5–6. [74] Schmitt, Politische Theologie (emphasis added). [75] Brief for the United States on the Merits Question, United States v. Windsor, 570 U.S. 744 (2013) (No. 12-307), [76] See Paul Finkelman, “How the Proslavery Constitution Led to the Civil War,” Rutgers Law Journal 43, no. 3 (2013): 405, [77] South Carolina and Georgia both voted for a proposal to count slaves “as equal to Whites in the apportionment of Representation.” See Madison Debates, “Wednesday, July 11, 1787,” Yale Law School Avalon Project, [78] Information from the 1860 Census is available at [79] See Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database estimates here: [80] Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857). [81] Akhil Amar, America’s Constitution: A Biography (New York: Random House, 2012), 66–67. [82] “In this enlightened age, there a few I believe, but what will acknowledge that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country.” Robert E. Lee, Dec. 27, 1856. See: [83] In 1830, Houston began representing the Cherokee nation and other Native American tribes in Washington. See his absorbing series of articles for the Arkansas Gazette defending Native American rights and exposing the exploitation of Native Americans by U.S. officials. Jack Gregory and Rennard Strickland, Sam Houston with the Cherokee, 18291833 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1967); Amelia Williams and Eugene C. Barker, The Writings of Sam Houston, 18131863 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1938). [84] An observation urged on me by my research assistant Andrew Elliott. [85] I am indebted to my research assistant Philippe Schiff for this point. [86] James Fallows and Deborah Fallows, Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America (New York: Pantheon, 2018). [87] David Brooks, “The American Renaissance Is Already Happening,” New York Times, May 14, 2018, [88] “This trend is accelerating and moving outside the U.S. … Copenhagen, Hamburg and Kings Cross in London are held up as good examples. … [M]illennials are more collaborative … and want to create a new narrative from what they see at the national level.” “The Untold Good News Story of America Today,” BBC News, June 18, 2018, [89] Philip Bobbitt, “The Decay and Renewal of the American Constitutional Order,” in Nation, State and Empire (Engelsberg Seminar, 2017). [90] Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak, The New Localism: How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism (Brookings Institution Press, 2018). [91] Bill Bishop, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart (Wilmington, MA: Mariner Books, 2008). [92] Ron Johnston, David Manley, and Kelvyn Jones, “Spatial Polarization of Presidential Voting in the United States, 1992–2012,” Annals of the American Association of Geographers 106, no. 5: 1047, [93] “Thanks to a Bad Map and Bizarre Math, Breitbart Can Report That Trump Won the REAL Popular Vote,” Washington Post, Nov. 15, 2016, [94] “Obama Won a Record-Low Share of U.S. Counties — But He Won Them Big,” NBC News, Dec. 4, 2012, [95] Dean Acheson, Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department (New York: W.W. Norton, 1969), "Apologia Pro Libre Hoc" (1987). [96] See Jay Sexton, The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2011). [97] Dexter Filkins, “Rex Tillerson at the Breaking Point,” New Yorker, Oct. 16, 2017, [98] Jack M. Balkin, “Constitutional Rot” in Can It Happen Here? Authoritarianism in America, ed. Cass R. Sunstein (New York: Dey Street Books, 2018). Also published by Yale Law School as Public Law Research Paper no. 604, [99] See Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk, “The Danger of Deconsolidation,” Journal of Democracy 27, no. 3 (July 2016): 5, [100] Sanford Levinson and Jack M. Balkin, “Democracy and Dysfunction: An Exchange,” Indiana Law Review 50 (posted online Aug. 8, 2016). Also published by Yale Law School as Public Law Research Paper no. 579, [101] Charles Rollet, “The Odd Reality of Life Under China’s All-Seeing Credit Score System” Wired, June 5, 2018, credit. [102] Richard Wike, Jacob Poushter, and Hani Zainulbhai, “China and the Global Balance of Power,” Pew Research Center, June 29, 2016, [103] For a discussion of market-states in the context of contemporary international politics, see Philip Bobbitt, “States of Disorder,” New Statesman, March 1, 2016, As constitutional orders are differentiated by their claims to legitimacy, one way to understand the industrial nation-state and its competitor the informational market-state is to specify their respective bases for legitimacy. Very roughly, the nation-states say, “Give us power and we will improve your well-being by using law to tame the operations of the market,” while market-states say, “Give us power and we will maximize your opportunities by using the market to make the society richer and more spacious.” [104] Winthrop’s speech can be read at [105] Harvard College was founded in 1636: ) [contents] => Array ( [title] => [contents] => ) ) [11] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 583 [post_author] => 171 [post_date] => 2018-05-15 04:35:01 [post_date_gmt] => 2018-05-15 08:35:01 [post_content] =>

Politics is the art of the possible.

–Otto von Bismarck, 1867

  The furor over Russia’s poisoning of a former spy in Britain reflects a worrying, and accelerating, trend: America’s relations with its primary rivals appear to be entering a period of lasting crisis. With new U.S. tariffs, trade disputes, clashes over international rules and norms in the South China Sea, and growing reports of Chinese influence-seeking, the competition with China is intensifying. Meanwhile, the Russian poisoning case and dozens of other provocations from Moscow have produced a situation of deep hostility that has been described as “even more unpredictable” than the Cold War.[1] The new U.S. National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy fittingly reflect this emerging strategic moment, offering a narrative of bellicose great powers that seek to expand their influence, shape the world according to their interests, and gain greater sway over the international order. Both strategies anticipate precisely the sort of aggressive rivalries we are seeing today. The National Security Strategy paints a dire picture of China and Russia challenging “American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity” while being “determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence.”[2] The National Defense Strategy warns of the “reemergence of long-term, strategic competition” with “revisionist powers.”[3] Some great power relationships are indeed reverting to a more tooth-and-nail kind of competition. China and Russia are ever more determined to claim the status and influence they believe is their due. But the response likely to emerge from these strategies, a reaction with deeper roots in U.S. foreign policy than the views of any one administration, deserves a more significant debate. That rejoinder calls for a reaffirmation of U.S. military and geopolitical predominance, accompanied by a defense build-up to empower a direct and ongoing confrontation with Russia and China in their own backyards — all in the name of a sprawling and uncompromising interpretation of the rules and norms of the post-World War II order. Unfortunately, such an approach is likely to fail, transforming the emerging competitive era into something far more confrontational and zero-sum than it needs to be. The National Security Strategy's renewed reference to “peace through strength”[4] and the National Defense Strategy's attendant focus on restoring military supremacy reflect a habitual and ongoing American post-Cold War quest for predominance.[5] Yet, while military strength is important to deter hostile powers, trends in key regions and challenges to U.S. power projection make it virtually impossible to recapture the level of military superiority the United States enjoyed for the last three decades. Nor is it capable of stemming the tide of change: American primacy is visibly eroding,[6] world politics are increasingly multilateral,[7] and other major powers are noticeably less willing to accept American dictates. Paradoxically, too, America’s military strength and martial tradition have, in some ways, contributed to the growth of these emerging challenges by displacing America's ability to effectively engage in the nuanced balancing of interests that are so central to international politics. In the post-9/11 era of persistent counterterrorism operations, the United States has tended to view every challenge as an outright threat, every problem as subject to the application of military power, and every contest as something to win rather than to manage.[8] This is not to say that American leadership is doomed, or that the post-war international order the United States worked so hard to build — the set of institutions, rules, and norms that have helped provide a stabilizing force in world politics since 1945[9] — is destined to come to an end. In that regard, the call by the authors of these strategy documents for continued U.S. leadership is welcome and reassuring, and many of their specific policy prescriptions would help reaffirm that leadership. But clinging to visions of predominance and absolutist conceptions of U.S. goals poses great dangers to global stability during a time of turbulent transition that will only be survived through more flexible and pragmatic leadership. During our years of exposure to U.S. national security processes, policies, and officials, we have watched as U.S. economic, military, and political dominance has underwritten a missionary approach to the international system. That approach is not only unsustainable given the shifting balance of power, but it ultimately represents one of the dominant fault lines between the United States and other major powers. We are not proposing anything close to retrenchment. American leadership, a rules-based international order, and an extended network of alliances and partnerships that help keep the peace, remain valuable not just to the United States but also to small and middle powers alike. The heart of the American strategic challenge is how to reset the balance between ideology and pragmatism in foreign policy without killing off the key norms of conduct or the essential foundations of U.S. global engagement. The United States will have to make the present order truly multilateral in order to retain its leadership, keep dissent within the international system rather than forcing it outside, and accommodate competition. More than at any time in the last 70 years, dogmatism will be the enemy of strategy. The resulting challenge constitutes what is arguably the most difficult balancing act that U.S. foreign policy has confronted since 1945 — and perhaps, at any time in the country’s history.

The Church of American Foreign Policy: Overdue for a Reformation?

Today, the malign intentions of states that wish to challenge the status quo are not the only factors increasing instability and raising the risk of conflict. After more than two decades of an ideological, values-driven approach to international affairs, the tone and tenor of American foreign policy can seem to have more in common with theology than statecraft. In approaching countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, or Libya and issues ranging from human rights to nonproliferation to the promotion of democracy, difficult choices of balance and priority are presented as normative absolutes. Increasingly after 1989, the imperative to forcibly extend the liberalism of the Western order has been viewed as self-evident. As that order became more institutionalized and rule-based, and as American leadership of it became — for a time — more unquestioned, Washington (and other ambitious advocates of a more fully liberal order, particularly European nations and NATO members) has come to equate strategic judgments with moral imperatives. One risk of confounding strategy with morality is that the architect and enforcer of such an order loses the ability to compromise. Absent any meaningful checks on American power, forcible democracy promotion, humanitarian intervention, the unbridled extension of alliances, and global campaigns against extremism came to dominate U.S. foreign policy. Critics of the ambitions of an ideology-driven U.S. foreign policy, from George Kennan to Andrew Bacevich, warned for decades about the hubristic missionary spirit at the core of U.S. global strategy.[10] “We seem to be in one of those periodic revivals of the American missionary spirit,” New York Times editor Bill Keller argued as recently as 2011, “which manifests itself in everything from quiet kindness to patronizing advice to armored divisions.”[11] This trend helps explain the marriage of neoconservatives and liberal interventionists, which played a major role in justifying the Iraq War. Despite their differences, these two groups agreed on the most elaborate vision of rule enforcement and value promotion. [quote id="1"] The story of the liberal turn of the post-war order in the 1990s was thus, at least partly, one of mission creep and of the gradual acquisition of a far more uncompromising, indeed pious, tone and tenor.[12] These changes to the post-war order eventually found expression in the enlargement of NATO, which was justified as a right rather than a strategic judgment; humanitarian intervention in Kosovo; the emergence of a doctrine of a Responsibility to Protect (R2P), interpreted to overrule the sovereignty of other countries;[13] rhetorical support for the Arab spring, leading to intervention in Libya;[14] political backing for the Eastern European color revolutions;[15] and material support for pro-democracy nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in dozens of other states.[16] The post-9/11 embrace of a “global war on terror,” the plunge into nation-building in Afghanistan, and the choice to invade Iraq all flowed from the same maximalist instinct. One depressing sign that this kind of missionary overreach continues today is the fact that the United States will spend, in 2018 alone, $45 billion in Afghanistan[17] — more than the 2017 budget of the Department of Homeland Security, $10 billion more than the budgets of either the Department of Housing and Urban Development or the Department of Justice, and nearly twice the budget of the Department of Energy. Unlike the post-World War II order, which was principally underwritten by great powers and, eventually, by middle powers, this vision of foreign policy activism was one held primarily by the United States and a handful of its allies. Over time, the demand for purity in rule-making and enforcement has achieved a sort of religious fervor. Allowing such an uncompromising and moralizing vision to take the wheel of the post-war order was a strategic mistake, sparking the widespread perception that the United States was ideologically driven to advance regime change abroad, including the unilateral employment of force, whether permissible by international law or not. It signaled to some rivals that the United States reserved the right to challenge the survival of their regimes at any moment, and thus tempted them to believe that their security was only guaranteed by military power, in particular nuclear weapons. The National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy offer sensible warnings about the dangerous implications of this dynamic, implications such as Russian efforts to disrupt Western democracies and North Korean nuclear ambitions. But as we consider means of addressing these risks, it is worth keeping in mind that the seeds of that harvest were sown in part by America’s own post-Cold War missionary tendencies. The stability of any international order ultimately depends on the leading powers seeing one another as abiding by shared and predictable rules of the game. These powers must also believe that the international order is willing to recognize their interests on some level.[18] With the unipolar moment over, the system cannot be considered legitimate if the rules are interpreted by one power as it sees fit, even if the underlying intent is to promote what that power views as the greater good. This fundamental objection to the conventional American mindset is held most passionately, of course, in Moscow and Beijing, but varying degrees of the same frustration are evident in the statements and policies of a host of other countries, such as India, Brazil, South Africa, Germany, and France.[19] It is a false assumption that the middle powers, which are important to the order's endurance, underwrite, or subscribe to, American unilateralism in action and in interpretation of the rules. What we are seeing today, therefore, is not only the rise of militaristic predator states, but also the insistence of other self-defined great powers that the United States both restrain its missionary impulses and interpret the rules of the post-war order in a way that does the least possible damage to their interests. The great danger of the post-Cold War American mindset is that the United States has lost the ability to take seriously or grant any legitimacy to these types of strategic objections. After all, one must grant adversaries some degree of legitimacy even to engage in basic diplomacy, let alone to create the foundations for stable strategic relationships. Yet Washington only seems capable of detecting normative wrongs and decrying them as sinful. If the United States responds to demands by other major powers for an independent voice by doubling down on a moralistic and uncompromising vision, then this emerging era of competition will become more perilous than it already is.

Misreading History: Pragmatism, Absolutism, and Order

Part of the irony of the U.S. mindset is that it harkens back to a conception of the post-war order that never really existed, mistaking it for something far more uncompromising than it ever was and drawing the wrong lessons from history. American discourse on the international order conflates three very distinct phases: the post-World War II period, the post-Cold War period,[20] and the present, yet-to-be defined phase. During the Cold War, while Washington’s policy outlook certainly began to acquire a more missionary character, the prevailing order was principally underwritten by the great powers left standing amid the ashes of World War II. The system prized sovereignty, spheres of influence, deterrence, and a balance of terror between the leading superpowers.[21] To be sure, the United States led in the creation of the institutions and norms of the post-war order, and has labored diligently to preserve them, for both self-interested and altruistic reasons.[22] The resulting institutions — the U.N. system; the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade/World Trade Organization structures; international economic institutions like the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and G-20; and hundreds of smaller and more discrete organizations, treaties, and conventions — bolstered U.S. strategy over the decades. Associated norms, rules, and conventions began to build a sense of quasi-legalistic obligation at the foundations of world politics. But it remained a Westphalian order first and foremost, one built on the rule of sovereignty, a live-and-let-live spirit of mutual accommodation, and some degree of collective attention to shared problems.[23] It quite consciously attempted to balance great power interests with universal and nondiscriminatory rules, rather than simply enforcing such rules without regard to those interests.[24] That order was founded with World War II as its backdrop, and thus had the management of great power competition in mind. At its inception, therefore, and for much of its history, the post-war order never was conceived of as constitutional, absolute, or without exceptions. Balancing where its dictates would be enforced — and when they would be intentionally overlooked — was a central preoccupation of U.S. foreign policy. The emphasis on human rights provides a leading example. The managers of U.S. foreign policy have upheld this ideal, but they also have set it aside at various times for different reasons: a sense that long-term democratization demanded compromise, as in South Korea or Taiwan; a conviction that worse rights violations would occur without U.S. support, as was the case in Vietnam and Central America; or the demands of short-term national interests, admittedly sometimes craven, as in U.S. policy toward Iran and Chile.[25] Washington’s emphasis on creating a post-war order that is based on institutions, rules, and norms was therefore balanced with a recognition that these aspirations had to be aligned with a real world that would only imperfectly reflect them. In the gap would go statecraft, an effort to herd key members of the international community toward those important normative goals — but always with the recognition that the allowance for exceptions would be as important as the rules themselves.[26] Push too hard, hold too inflexibly to the ideals, and the whole thing would collapse. The statesmanship required to balance these multiple considerations — that is to say, the acceptance of inconsistencies in the rules and norms of the order — was not limited to achieving liberal goals like human rights. The global trade regime reflects the same pattern, having developed amid traditions of industry-protecting, quasi-mercantilist behavior, and occasional bouts of protectionist fervor.[27] In regard to the norm against interstate aggression, the United States and its friends offered clever legal justifications (and sometimes not even those) for what looked like outright aggression in Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere. The presence of American forces in Syria, to take the leading current example, has involved sustained combat operations on the territory of another state outside any discernible national or international legal basis.[28] [quote id="2"] During the Cold War, Washington was forced to live with uncomfortable strategic half-measures. The military balance as well as the risks of nuclear war, escalation, and miscalculation, imposed a sober approach and restraint in the face of Soviet and, later, Chinese vital interests. There was no way to stop Soviet intervention in Hungary in 1956 or in Czechoslovakia in 1968. It may not be how we remember it, but the Cold War’s lasting accomplishment was maintaining a time of peace between adversarial superpowers that possessed the ability to destroy the world. Despite the global competition, collaboration took place to resolve disputes, manage conflicts among allies or client states, and avoid dangerous gambits like the Cuban Missile Crisis. There was no need to refer to “spheres of influence” to recognize the simple reality that the closer one gets to the borders of a rival, or the more vital their interests at stake, the more one has to treat with care whatever rules or norms are at play.[29] The imperative not to normalize an undesirable reality in international politics was always there, but policy and strategy recognized objective realities. Like any set of rules, therefore, the post-World War II order has endured, and in some ways, flourished as much through its exceptions as its uncompromising enforcement. That flexibility allowed the United States to avoid fundamental breaks with key states. It overlooked human rights violations, the stretching of nonproliferation norms, and occasionally bellicose behavior even by the Soviet Union as part of this careful balancing act. This approach recognized that for any order to endure, all the leading powers must endorse it to some degree — and they will never do so if the application of its norms proves fundamentally inimical to their vital interests.

The Russia Problem

Gradually during the Cold War and then with much more energy after 1989, this pragmatic tenor of American leadership — a willingness to compromise on the road to greater order and community — transformed into a much more uncompromising mindset of missionary zeal. This shift has helped produce some real dangers, one of which was the failure to secure the post-Cold War peace with Russia. That failure resulted in a cycle of engagement and disappointment that eventually helped drive U.S.-Russian relations into their present abyss. Undoubtedly, a large share of the blame can be placed squarely on the shoulders of the Russian elite. However, it was the United States’ decision to take a decidedly missionary, rather than strategic, approach to Russia that played an important role in the current breakdown in U.S.-Russia relations. Arguably, the United States should not be blamed for taking advantage of the Soviet Union’s collapse in seeking to advance a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace.[30] However, this was meant to be a slogan — not an ideology that led to perpetual NATO expansion, democracy promotion, and half-hearted bids for the former Soviet sphere. Nor was it ever consciously defined as a strategic concept. Taken too far and too quickly, some of these policies have resulted in negative-sum gains for all concerned. The United States never made a serious effort to establish a security framework in Europe in which Russia had a stake. Washington vacillated between ignoring Moscow as a defunct great power and naively seeking to convert Russian elites to Western values, rather than securing post-Cold War peace via structured settlement, negotiation on issues in dispute, and a strategy that planned for its inevitable return as a power in Europe. In any scenario, Russia would have taken decades to complete a successful transition from being an imperial power to a constructive participant in a collective regional order, as did Britain and France at one point in their own histories. And yet, the United States took little notice of the long-running determinants of Russian strategy or foreign policy that would come into play in that transition. Russia had always sought buffer states in Europe to accommodate for its lack of depth and history of costly wars fought on Russian territory.[31] This history, together with a natural inclination to establish regional hegemony, predictably yielded a zero-sum outlook in Moscow when it came to the expansion of military or political blocs. A national security elite rooted in the Soviet experience would have always proven resistant to liberal democracy, and struggled to respect the independence of former Soviet republics. These convictions did not need to be indulged by the United States — but they did need to be understood, planned for, and accommodated in a strategy designed both to advance liberal values and acknowledge Russian imperatives. It was precisely this sort of nuanced approach that a post-Cold War United States, certain of its values and fueled by a unipolar moment, never managed to acquire. Instead, a host of well-meaning policy elites accepted Russian absence from European politics as a green light to engage in what Timothy Snyder terms the “politics of inevitability,” believing that the cycle of history was somehow stopped, and that Russian weakness could be taken as a license for strategic malpractice.[32] NATO intervention in Kosovo demonstrated that the alliance now saw itself as able to dictate security terms in Europe unconstrained by international institutions in which Russia had an equal voice.[33] The long-term consequences of the unilateral use of force in Europe at a time of Russian weakness and insecurity would only be realized years later. Tearing up the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty destroyed what Moscow thought was a pillar of strategic stability at a time when the conventional military balance was entirely in America’s favor.[34] Reframing NATO as a mechanism for out-of-area operations in support of American-led interventions made an equally powerful impression on Russia. A hodgepodge of efforts to promote democracy, political meddling, and NATO expansion ever further despite Russian warnings contributed to an elite consensus in Moscow that the West would only stop when faced with use of force. This is not a myopic argument about blowback from NATO expansion alone, but the inherent cumulative effect of American policies, many of which were uncoordinated, on U.S.-Russian relations.[35] Russian President Vladimir Putin signaled the upshot of this cumulative effect in his 2007 address at the Munich Security Conference.[36] Years of efforts to engage Russia and lectures on the benefits of Western integration, Putin’s broadside made clear, had in no way caused Russian leadership to redefine its fundamental national security assumptions, its outlook on the former Soviet space, or its enduring suspicion of Western intent. Simply put, more than 10 years ago, Russia’s obvious frustrations and public warnings should have made it clear to Western officials that American foreign policy, together with European desires to expand their own supranational political institutions, would lead to conflict in Europe. This was evident to leading Cold War strategists in the 1990s, well before Putin took power or anyone in the West even knew his name.[37] After many years of failure to get its interests taken seriously by Washington, Moscow thought the Russia-Georgia War made its concerns and outlook clear. Yet after 2008, a different group of American policy elites took the helm, still missionary in outlook, and holding on to the belief that with a few transactions in areas of mutual interest, Russian elites somehow could be convinced to abandon longstanding precepts of Russian strategic culture. Washington was then once again caught flatfooted over the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014. The architects of these post-Cold War U.S. policies will insist that their intentions were good, that each of these actions was aimed at upholding some rule or norm of the international order, that Russia need not have been offended, and that it all would have been different if Moscow had made different choices. Some will admit that mistakes were made. But even those who do still cast Russia as the essential problem. They use renewed confrontation with Russia as a strange kind of retroactive justification for the policies that played a hand in creating that confrontation in the first place. It goes without saying — and we must stress this point — that Russia’s historic strategy for attaining security at the expense of others, its paranoid and narrow strategic culture, and its elite-driven decision-making process all constitute the real nub of the problem. But it is precisely because of those realities that almost every aspect of this conflict was predictable. Russia’s spate of aggressive assaults on the post-war order do not exculpate U.S. policymakers for not only failing to secure the post-Cold War peace, but also for failing to prepare for Russia’s inevitable return as a major power in the international system, and in particular a military power in Europe. The harsh realities of Russian interests and intentions only reinforce the dangers of a post-Cold War policy toward Russia fueled by hegemonic overreach and missionary absolutism, rather than by an effort to deal with Russia as it is. Many of Moscow’s demands need not threaten the security of the West and those that do must be vigorously countered. But America’s approach to Russia in the wake of the Cold War looks like an almost willful 30-year effort to ignore Russian prerogatives, threats, and internal mobilization in the name of the rules and norms of the post-World War II order — an order that, as Moscow is busily reminding us (and as Beijing is likely to do as well), simply cannot endure if other powers don’t subscribe to it. The only reason Russia has not left this order entirely — as an aggrieved Japan once withdrew from the League of Nations in the 1930s[38] — is that it has few options in the way of allies today, remains dependent on the global financial system, and appears still to crave some degree of international legitimacy.[39] While Russia has not taken such fundamental steps as abandoning the United Nations or even many international treaties, there is growing evidence that Moscow perceives itself to be unconstrained by existing rules and norms. If anything, Russia seems increasingly unconcerned about its reputation, credibility, and legitimacy in the West. This is likely due not simply to desperation, but to the perception that there is little the West can do to impose its will. Russia has become unbridled in its use of political and cyber-enabled information warfare against the United States and its allies. Its military campaign in Syria has demonstrated that Russia is able to independently and effectively project power in another region, reaffirming that Moscow is still a great power in the international system and that it was underestimated in 2015. [quote id="3"] One of the barriers to the necessary course correction in U.S. strategy is that the missionary sensibility now guiding much of America’s foreign policy is grounded in some very real — but also very qualified — truths. America’s role is different from that of other great powers.[40] American values do travel. Soft power, a network of allies and partners, and a leading role in the order's governing institutions do constitute some of America's greatest advantages. Many other countries, perhaps most, do believe that their interests are better served with Washington at the helm than Beijing or Moscow — or no one at all. Equally important is that, despite the preponderance of American power in the post-Cold War period, small and middle powers do not see the United States as a threat.[41] The post-war order has strongly benefited U.S. interests, in ways ranging from the creation of institutions that help stabilize the global economy to wrapping U.S. power and purpose in legitimizing multilateral context.[42] Such realities account for why so many other countries are willing to overlook the occasional hypocrisy, give the United States credit for good intentions, and remain firmly wedded to the order Washington cobbled together in the aftermath of World War II. They are also a major reason why Russian and Chinese calls to balance American power have long gone unheeded, and why, despite the inherently unstable nature of a unilateral system, it has continued for over 25 years. Yet how to maintain the current order, and American leadership, after the demise of unipolarity could prove the most vexing question of this looming transition. Continuing this post-Cold War pattern of standing too straight-backed at the altar of the shared order, holding too inflexibly to its rule set, will at best produce a brittle and unsustainable system — and at worst, magnify the dangers of unfathomably destructive wars.

Rebuilding the City on a Hill

Part of the danger of a missionary attitude, then, is that it damages America’s ability to take the interests of other major powers into consideration and encourages the adventurist promotion of Western values and the enforcement of rules in ways guaranteed to manufacture continual disputes and crises. A theological approach to foreign policy has warped Washington’s judgment and, combined with the immense power at its disposal, impelled the United States to take more risks than its interests would dictate.[43] Ask a typical group of U.S. national security hands behind closed doors whether Washington should go to war over Ukraine, Georgia, or Syria, or to ensure free navigation in the South China Sea — as both of us have done on numerous occasions — and they are likely to laugh uncomfortably and shake their heads. And yet the inherent value of defending the norms established by the post-war order imbues each of these things with a supposed precedential value that supersedes the strict national interests involved. This is not the first time that secondary issues have taken on primary importance because of their symbolic value. The Cold War was full of such examples. But there is a perilous difference between fighting off a global ideological menace in far-flung places with little inherent significance and defending abstract global norms along the borders of other great powers. The nature of the credibility imperative has changed, and yet the United States is sliding quickly back into Cold War thinking that, because general principles matter, everywhere and everything matters — even issues and places of far more intrinsic importance to our competitors than to us.[44] Jack Snyder argues that the myth of “cumulative losses,” which often appear in the form of unsubstantiated domino theories (i.e., that any setbacks in international affairs will necessarily escalate into a cascade of defeats) is a recurring theme among policy establishments heading towards over-extension and strategic insolvency.[45] It is, of course, true that some of the states testing the boundaries today do have malign, or at least aggressive, intentions. The United States cannot simply disregard Russian aggression in Ukraine or meddling in Western political processes, or declare itself unconcerned with the potential for Chinese aggression against Taiwan. Our recommendations are designed to sustain, not abandon, a broadly shared, rules-based order. Even without the prompting of exaggerated domino theories, some rules must be enforced if and when the violations are profound enough. But an approach guided by statecraft rather than theology urges the United States to ask critical discriminating questions in the process of making such judgments. Which are the rules that must be rigidly enforced? What norms must be forcibly advanced? How, precisely, should the United States go about both of those tasks? There is a good reason why some form of compromise and respect for mutual interests has been part of every successful program to manage rivalry. Merely saying some things matter less than others is not tantamount to saying nothing matters. If Washington is not careful, a refusal to temper U.S. ambitions will produce a series of unnecessary and exhausting wars that, in the most tragic of ironies, end up generating the only scenarios likely to pose a truly existential threat to the U.S. homeland. It is time to finally abandon the crude, unqualified domino theories and credibility obsessions that plague our policy establishment. Russian annexation of Crimea is not a prelude to an invasion of NATO. Lithuania is not Ukraine. And none of them is Germany. In order to deter other powers and make room for compromise, the United States should stop lecturing these nations about what their interests ought to be and instead determine which of those interests America can live with and be willing to grant those interests some measure of political legitimacy. To refuse to admit the legitimacy of a rival’s core interests is to make the conflict total, rendering it impossible to offer them assurances that if they refrain from undesired actions, we will forgo punishment. There is a profound difference between delegitimizing enemies when at war, which is commonplace, and delegitimizing countries with whom you wish to avert war, thus reducing your own space for compromise, settlement, and any incentive they might have to negotiate. Without such assurances, effective deterrence becomes both difficult and expensive. As Thomas Schelling has argued, the “pain and suffering” embodied in deterrent threats “have to appear contingent on” a potential aggressor’s behavior.[46] Adversaries who assume that the United States will punish them no matter what they do have no incentive for restraint. Ideological purity also limits America’s options for resolving disputes by making it difficult to compromise or broker imperfect deals out of fear of political backlash at home. The missionary mindset makes the United States unwilling to surrender one iota of freedom of action (by constraining missile defense deployments, for example), or institutionalize anything but the purest enforcement of rules. This makes most treaties or compacts impossible to pass and creates a host of constraints that result in Washington only having the “big stick” to use as its principal means of management. This pattern has accelerated since 1989: The United States has become constitutionally incapable of signing, ratifying, or upholding limited deals to manage complex problems — whether that’s the Agreed Framework with North Korea, a series of climate accords, or the nuclear deal with Iran. But dismissing diplomatic half-measures in favor of the big stick is a strategy with little coercive value against powers with similarly sized sticks and a growing allergy to American dictates. If something like the entirely sensible post-Cold War U.S.-Russian arms agreements were to give way to a world without any arms control, for example, U.S. interests would only suffer.

The International Order: Back to the Old Testament

What, then, is the alternative? The answer does not lie in one of the variants of retrenchment on offer today.[47] The U.S. role as the leader and hub of a flexible but still meaningful rule-based world order — including the deterrent power of a potent and globally-postured U.S. military — underwrites peace and stability. The general U.S. strategy of “deep engagement” has benefited both U.S. interests and global economic and political security,[48] and the commitments to such engagement found in the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy are heartening indeed. But there is a readily-available middle ground between retrenchment and predominance: The United States should remain internationally engaged while abandoning the dangerous implications of the missionary mindset that has prevailed for more than three decades. A more humble and restrained version of U.S. engagement would have several basic characteristics. First, it would require greater power-sharing in setting and enforcing rules in the international order, ranging from trade and finance to regional security.[49] As more states become determined to have a voice in the setting and enforcement of rules in the post-war international order, and as they acquire the power to make their voices heard, that order will have to become more legitimately multilateral if it is going to survive.[50] Keeping the other major powers vested in the system is an essential component of any strategy to constrain them and contain the competition; the lower their stake in the current order, the shorter its lifespan will be. There is some evidence that a shared order, with leadership coming from more corners of the world, could work. Consider Europe’s drive to save the Paris climate deal absent America,[51] Japan’s leadership of a rump Trans-Pacific Partnership,[52] or China’s desire to lead and change, rather than destroy, established international institutions.[53] [quote id="4"] A more multilateral order can work, but Washington must find a way to make it work, because an order based solely on American unipolarity is not sustainable. Simply put, American power, both relative and absolute, is insufficient to underwrite the order as it is currently conceived and being enforced by its own policy community. The more stakeholders and centers of leadership, the more resilient the current order actually will become, but this of course means the United States will have to learn to share the steering wheel. Otherwise the United States risks discrediting its leadership and surrendering even more influence to others. It is Beijing’s quest to take charge of the current order, rather than destroy it and make enemies of its beneficiaries. That is what ought to worry Washington the most. Second, a revised approach would counsel patience rather than urgency in the promotion of key norms and values. The great insight of U.S. Cold War strategy was that America’s job was not to force a value change on the Soviet Union. It was instead to establish and safeguard an international system that ultimately would outlast and envelop the Soviet Union. The United States channeled conflict with the Soviet Union to distant proxy wars, where escalation dynamics could be controlled and the stakes to both parties were far from existential. In the process, beginning with Dwight Eisenhower’s rejection of an outright “rollback” strategy,[54] successive U.S. administrations displayed a recognition of Soviet core interests, and a realization that the United States could not prevail if it competed so hard that it provoked the other side into a cataclysmic war. In the end, the Soviet Union’s own internal contradictions caught up with it, as cynicism and dysfunction consumed the system from the inside. Over time, it voluntarily signed up for the institutions of a system that would contain the competition, such as the Helsinki Final Act of 1975. Arms control, transparency, and confidence building treaties followed. In the end, the Soviet Union ceased being a revolutionary power and became a satisfied power in Europe. The same concept — taking steps to gradually and inexorably create a context that produces desired changes rather than dispatching military forces or implementing economic sanctions to force those changes overnight — can and should be the starting point for a revised conception of the international order. With properly employed statecraft, values that Americans believe to be self-selling goods, from free markets to human rights to democracy, ought to prove attractive of their own accord. U.S. policy can sponsor and support these outcomes with a continuing and powerful strategy for liberal value promotion. But the primary goal of such a strategy would be to encourage established and emerging trends toward liberal values rather than force them into infertile soil. In the process of executing this strategy, the United States should eschew military intervention for humanitarian purposes except in select cases. Those would include situations in which the United States can obtain fairly universal endorsement in the form of such signs as U.N. Security Council support. This rule would generally avoid throwing American weight behind region-wide revolutions, especially those that are likely to wash up on the doorsteps of other great powers. Washington should not cease being a beacon for democracy, but it also should think carefully about where democracy promotion is liable to engender political crises that could translate into security contests. The United States can amply fulfill its commitment to liberal values without disregarding the sovereignty or interests of other major powers. It can craft closer and more overtly supportive partnerships with rising democracies, boost foreign aid to developing countries that are building nascent democratic systems, expand humanitarian assistance missions and programs, and advance technical assistance and human capital development programs around the world. Third, the revised approach to U.S. engagement would prioritize diplomacy and statecraft over military power. Secretary of Defense James Mattis — like many recent secretaries of defense — has spoken repeatedly and passionately about the importance of placing diplomacy at the forefront of U.S. national security strategy, and the need to invest in the tools required for such an emphasis.[55] Multiple diplomatic initiatives are now underway, from the Indo-Pacific-inspired engagement of India and Japan to negotiations with North Korea to close cooperation with NATO on enhancing deterrence. Read in isolation, however, and considered alongside recent boosts in defense spending,[56] the new strategy documents seem to convey a vision in which the United States amasses military might to reaffirm U.S. dominance while avoiding hard political choices, essentially doubling down on raw power to compensate for loss of influence. In an era when leading competitors are discovering effective means of bolstering their influence outside the military lane and below the threshold of conflict, while also investing heavily in the capacity to offset U.S. power projection in their regions, this approach seems destined to disappoint. Despite some emerging concepts such as “multi-domain operations,” “dynamic force employment,” and “joint lethality,” there is little in the new National Security Strategy or National Defense Strategy to suggest a rethinking of how the United States integrates the military with other instruments of national power. Direct competition, contesting regional balances of power with Russia and China, and a capability-centric approach continue to dominate the national security mindset. In these documents, Washington recognizes the rise of great power competition, and the erosion of America’s military power, but not the need to change its strategy or outlook on the international order. As a consequence, the “whole of government” approach we so often hear espoused often turns out to be little more than a whole of Pentagon approach: The military toolkit is not used in integrated combination with non-military approaches, but as a substitute for them. Placing statecraft before military power would amount to a tacit acknowledgement that the United States is overburdened by an expansive alliance network in which the credibility of extended deterrence is every day more difficult. Arming the regional adversaries of powers like Russia and China, or further expanding existing alliances, will have profound consequences, as these great powers have both the will and the power to enact stronger and destabilizing countermeasures. This requires exercising judgment in the choice of weapon systems and forces deployed on Russian or Chinese borders. It demands choosing deterrence over dominance in such theaters as the South China Sea, aiming to block potential Chinese aggression with far less expectation of power projection.[57] It also means indefinitely deferring NATO membership for some countries, a proposition many in Western circles find uncomfortable. However, it does not preclude creating other forms of affiliation, cooperation, and partnership beyond what has become a myopic fixation on NATO expansion. As this last example suggests, the fourth and final characteristic of implementing a revised approach in U.S. strategy will be to confront hard choices and make painful compromises in dealing with Russia and China. These are major, resilient, and nuclear-armed adversaries, and there is no getting around the fact that these illiberal states will have a say in the order, just as the Soviet Union did before them, and just as the great powers did in the eras prior to the Cold War. Absolutists will respond that any compromise on the order’s rules and norms is tantamount to surrender.[58] In some of the more pitiless conceptions of a global order, that is certainly true: An unapologetic great power-centric order would embrace value-free spheres of influence. Some believe that this is the Manichean choice that confronts the United States in Europe and Asia and that no acceptable middle ground exists on which Russia and the West, or China and the United States, can each see their vital interests upheld while the rules and institutions of a shared order persist. There is now a tragic degree to which this has become a reality. For the foreseeable future, the U.S.-Russian relationship will be adversarial and the potential for cooperation or engagement extremely small. In order for relations to stabilize, some form of settlement must come into place concerning Ukraine. And that may take a while. The current confrontation is not only likely to be the new normal, it is also certain to continue as long as Putin is in power. There is no deal to be made with him for two reasons. First, there is a broad political consensus in Washington that, after interference in the 2016 elections, Putin is de facto beyond the pale, and any condominium with him would be tantamount to betrayal. The second is more practical: Congressional sanctions passed in July 2017 make the confrontation structural, and it is rather difficult to see any scenario in which these sanctions are lifted absent Putin’s departure. Even if the executive branch were so inclined, Congress has dramatically curtailed its ability to make any deals with Russia. For much of the policy establishment, the confrontation with Russia is, if not personal, highly personalized when it comes to Vladimir Putin. However, Washington can begin thinking about how to position itself in such a way as to avoid repeating this same tragic cycle after Putin’s departure. Were he to stay, the problem would remain much the same. U.S. policymakers need to take heed not to indulge in some fantasy that a new Russian leader, or elite power structure, will be willing to redefine how Russia conceives of its security. Russia not only should be constrained, but also dealt with — and the only effective way to strike the necessary balances will be through statecraft rather than missionary confrontation. Absent a change in approach, the same fate will befall U.S.-Chinese relations, as many in Washington prepare for a confrontation with Beijing over its regional and global ambitions. From the perspective of the missionary mindset, China too has sinned, by failing to liberalize as its economic power grew and refusing to behave “responsibly” in the international system — code for not behaving like a classical great power.[59] The real complaint is that American missionary expectations have been unfulfilled: China is not simply “joining” the U.S.-led order as it stands, subordinating its own objectives, and interpretations of its interests, to American and Western models. Such an outcome should never have been expected. China’s history, size, and self-conception mean that it ultimately wants no one but itself to determine at least the Asian regional order. This is not, again, to suggest that the United States must accede to China’s view of the regional order, and quietly accept any behaviors Beijing undertakes. Some Chinese provocations would be incompatible with central rules and norms of any meaningful international order: paramilitary aggression against the Senkaku Islands, military adventurism to claim sovereignty in the South China Sea, an unprovoked attack against Taiwan, or accelerated economic espionage and coercive industrial policies against outside companies. The United States should lead multilateral processes to deter such actions (though not always with military threats, even in the case of military aggression). But such negotiations can unfold in a mutually respectful dialogue between two great powers who retain fundamental respect for each other’s prerogatives. The risk today is that the U.S. national security dialogue on China is becoming increasingly overheated and theological, nominating China for the role of ideologically motivated militarist. The new National Defense Strategy already paints China as having a sinister, shared vision with Russia, to “shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model.”[60] If the result is a replay, in different terms, of the refusal to take Russian interests seriously that unfolded after 1991, then China, like Russia, will be likely to break with the rules of the post-war order in a more overt manner. The conflict will then become total and ideological, just as it has with Russia. Yet, if the United States has failed to cow or isolate Russia, the prospects for doing so with China are virtually nonexistent. [quote id="5"] The truly dangerous dynamic here does not reflect the cliché of the Thucydides trap — the idea of an explosive relationship between a rising and an established power.[61] It is rather the reality of transforming any broad and nuanced strategy into a religion. When a predominant power, convinced of its indispensability, and viewing the world through the lens of moralism rather than statesmanship, holds so tightly to an immovable reading of shared rules and norms, it can provoke unnecessary opposition and perhaps even trigger a disaster.[62] Correcting America’s approach to these two rivals would require seeking a serious, renewed dialogue with Moscow and Beijing about what a stable regional order would look like. It would also mean taking seriously each country’s interests and ambitions rather than dismissing their legitimacy under the shadow of global rights and wrongs. This new approach would lay down a few hard and fast rules designed to sustain the fundamentals of a rule-based order — prohibitions on outright territorial aggression, destructively predatory economic policies, and actions taken to disrupt and fracture the politics and societies of other states — but otherwise it would be open to compromise and half-measures. At the same time, it would work even more energetically to gain truly multilateral support for that narrower set of rules. America would need to acknowledge that arguments about how to achieve a shared goal (such as Iranian or North Korean denuclearization) are not tantamount to norm violations, and cease, for the most part, trying to coerce others into favored American tactics through such tools as “secondary sanctions.”[63] This fresh approach to U.S. engagement would require admitting that, increasingly, the United States will have to compromise on some of its own favored policies to get the deals it wants. A new consensus limiting Russian-style political interference, for example, is likely to require painful concessions on U.S. efforts to promote democracy abroad. A revised strategic mindset would redouble efforts, and offer bold compromises, in order to achieve or renew bilateral arms agreements with both Russia and China. The changing military balances in Europe and Asia-Pacific call for regional security arrangements, treaties, and political agreements on behavior in global domains, such as cyber or space. A more robust American military presence should be coupled with stabilizing initiatives in conventional arms control and measures to drive the competition into stable deterrence rather than security dilemmas and spiral decision-making models, which Washington can doubtfully afford to sustain. Russia’s break with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty may mean that this agreement will not survive, but Washington can only gain by looking for new ways to restrain Russian force modernization and expanded force posture in Europe. As the single superpower with both global responsibilities and burdens and a normative vision for the international order, the United States has everything to defend, and only stands to lose from an uncontrolled competition. History offers valuable lessons here. Although the period of détente (1969–1979) failed to stop the Cold War, in part because of unrealistic expectations that it would do exactly that, it had a profoundly stabilizing effect at a time of transition in the global balance of power. This period led to formal arms control agreements, recognition of political borders, military confidence-building measures, and economic and cultural exchange along with an acknowledgment of the importance of human rights.[64] The Soviet Union sought to reduce tension on its Western borders at the same time as the United States was dealing with an objective loss of global superiority. Then, as now, the policy establishment was looking to find its footing in the face of American decline in its predominance in both military and political spheres. Détente didn’t last, but it was profoundly beneficial for Washington, and by engaging Moscow, it set in motion a host of processes that would ultimately lead to the Soviet Union’s demise. Today, similar forms of political, economic, and military agreements can be part of the recipe for reducing tensions with Russia and structuring the competition such that the United States retains leadership without eroding the order — that is, if the settlements become a way of reestablishing the order rather than forsaking it.[65] The challenge with this time period, unlike 1980, which saw the end of détente and a reinvigorated Cold War competition at a time of Soviet stagnation, is that history seems unlikely to repeat itself. Setting aside Washington’s problems with Russia, rogue states, and international terrorism, China alone has the range of power and ambitions to confront the United States with a competition it would struggle to resource and sustain. Hence the United States should revisit stabilizing periods like détente, when deals and compromises were made with adversaries, and restore that element of pragmatism to its strategic outlook. In sum, then, a new U.S. approach to international affairs would include treating Russia and China with a degree of political respect and legitimacy, rather than as miscreants opposed to the true and right vision of the future. This does not mean that the United States should abandon its efforts to hold them to some standard. Quite the contrary. It is only by reining in its absolutism and behaving in a more multilateral and flexible fashion that the United States is likely to gain the global support it needs to sustain the most essential rules of the post-war order. And it is only by addressing the rising grievances of these two potentially dangerous revisionist powers — rather than simply declaring those grievances illegitimate — that the United States will begin to create the basis on which China and Russia themselves feel able to compromise. At the same time, to succeed in the intensifying competition now underway, the United States will have to face the reality that if it does not get its own economic, political, and social house in order, it will be increasingly weak and vulnerable regardless of its military prowess. Americans have now elected four presidents in a row who claimed that making America strong internationally meant, first and foremost, attending to the domestic sources of national power. Yet pressing issues like exploding debt, entitlement reform, a crumbling infrastructure, criminal justice reform, climate change, political polarization, and information security, to name a few, continue to beg for solutions. But that will require the political will to conceive of bold answers. Major progress on several of these issues would do more to set back the ideological challenge of China and Russia and reaffirm the American model as the one to emulate, than any conceivable addition to the defense budget. The strategic moment, in other words, demands a lighter and more flexible touch abroad combined with bold action at home. Left unattended, however, the missionary mindset of U.S. foreign policy is likely to drive the nation in precisely the opposite direction. America’s experience in creating and then managing the post-World War II international order has repeatedly disproven the idea that it must choose between appeasement and war, or between value promotion and compromise. In his seminal 1961 speech, John F. Kennedy rejected these rigid formulations, arguing that
each of these extreme opposites resembles the other. Each believes that we have only two choices: appeasement or war, suicide or surrender, humiliation or holocaust, to be either Red or dead. Each side sees only ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ nations, hard and soft policies, hard and soft men.
Instead, he believed that “diplomacy and defense are not substitutes for one another” and that “as long as we know what comprises our vital interests and our long-range goals, we have nothing to fear from negotiations at the appropriate time, and nothing to gain by refusing to take part in them.”[66] This is the vision that America must rekindle, and it is this kind of America that is missing from the world stage.   Michael Mazarr is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. He also serves as an adjunct professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He holds A.B. and M.A. degrees from Georgetown University and a doctorate from the University of Maryland School of Public Affairs. He has been a faculty member and associate dean at the U.S. National War College, president of the Henry L. Stimson Center, senior vice president for strategic planning at the Electronic Industries Alliance, senior fellow and journal editor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, legislative assistant for foreign affairs and chief writer in the office of Representative Dave McCurdy, and special assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He served seven years in the U.S. Navy Reserve, in both enlisted and commissioned ranks, as an intelligence specialist. He has authored over a dozen books, including North Korea and the Bomb (1995) and Unmodern Men in the Modern World: Radical Islam, Terrorism, and the War on Modernity (2007). The views expressed here are his own. Michael Kofman is Director of the Russia Studies Program at CNA Corporation and a Fellow at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, D.C. Mr. Kofman directs the Russia Studies Program at CNA, where he specializes in the Russian armed forces and security issues in the former Soviet Union. Mr. Kofman is also a fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point, and a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. Previously he served at National Defense University as a Program Manager and subject matter expert, advising senior military and government officials on issues in Russia/Eurasia. He has published numerous articles on security issues in Russia/Eurasia, along with analyses for the U.S. government. Mr. Kofman holds a M.A. in International Security from the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, and a B.A. in Political Science from Northeastern University. ISSN (Print): 2576-1021 ISSN(Online): 2576-1153 Image: Wikimedia Commons [post_title] => Rediscovering Statecraft in a Changing Post-War Order [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => rediscovering-statecraft-in-a-changing-post-war-order [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-01-17 14:16:57 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-01-17 19:16:57 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw [lead] => If Washington doubles down on U.S. military and geopolitical predominance, it risks transforming the emerging competitive era into something far more confrontational and zero-sum than it needs to be. If it hopes to retain its position of leadership, the United States will have to make the present international order truly multilateral. [pubinfo] => [issue] => Vol 1, Iss 3 [quotes] => Array ( [0] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => Over time, the demand for purity in rule-making and enforcement has achieved a sort of religious fervor. ) [1] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => [T]he post-war order never was conceived of as constitutional, absolute, or without exceptions. ) [2] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => [I]t was the United States’ decision to take a decidedly missionary, rather than strategic, approach to Russia that played an important role in the current breakdown in U.S.-Russia relations. ) [3] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Adversaries who assume that the United States will punish them no matter what they do have no incentive for restraint. ) [4] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => Simply put, American power, both relative and absolute, is insufficient to underwrite the order as it is currently conceived. ) ) [style] => strategist