Structuring for the Long Game with China — and Russia


After President Eisenhower took office in 1953, he moved to reposture America and its military for what was expected to be a long confrontation with an increasingly assertive and malign Soviet Union.

His effort came six years into the Cold War when there wasn’t a consensus about the threat the nation faced as factions in his own party wanted to wrap up the costly war in Korea and invest at home. 

Eisenhower’s challenge was to create that consensus; defend the nation, its interests and allies against a vastly larger force; and do it in a way that was economical enough to free resources for new investment at home. It also gave him bureaucratic cover to execute the strategy he already had in mind — that America’s approach toward the Soviet Union was too militaristic with unsustainable defense spending that would undermine economic growth.

Today, as the relationship between the world’s democracies and China and Russia rapidly devolve into a new Cold War, Washington must look to Ike to build a long-term strategy against both.

Eisenhower’s Project Solarium — named for the White House’s glass-enclosed porch — has become a paragon of good planning, most recently manifested as the Cyberspace Solarium Commission to improve the nation’s cybersecurity. Reflecting his respect for strategic planning as a process, Ike convened three teams that developed competing strategies to align the US government to advance the nation’s diplomatic, economic and information interests in the new war to contain Soviet expansionism. 

The resulting strategy reorganized government, spurred new agencies for international development and information, fueled new investments and sensitized industry, Wall Street, academia and citizens to the threat and their role in countering it.

The New Look — criticized by some today — shaped a US military that relied on America’s nuclear arsenal to counter the numerical advantage of Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces along with covert operations to keep Moscow off balance, freeing resources for Eisenhower’s ambitious domestic infrastructure investment. 

Whoever wins the presidency in November must craft a similar long-term approach toward China — as well as Russia — and shape a force needed to deter, and if necessary, defeat both, but on a budget. The magnitude and prolonged nature of the challenge demands better organization at home and closer alliances of similarly focused nations aboard.

If President Trump is reelected, he is unlikely to change course, but rather continue even more chaotically. If, however, former Vice President Joe Biden wins, he must move quickly to populate his administration with talented doers and convene parallel reviews for the same reasons Ike did.

First, while the Democratic party — and the nation — has become more hawkish toward China in the wake of Beijing’s actions, it still lacks a consensus about the nature of threat facing the nation and how best to respond. On that score, Kurt Campbell and Eli Ratner wrote a powerful essay about reckoning with China in the March issue of Foreign Affairs that some strategists see as the latter day equivalent of George Kennan’s Mr X Article of 1947 in the same publication. 

Second, the progressive wing for the party wants to cut defense spending by 10 percent — from $740 billion this year — and use the money for healthcare, poverty, social justice, police reform and other priorities. Biden has already unveiled more than $2 trillion for high technology, education, infrastructure and green energy. Another $1 trillion is expected. As former Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns wrote recently in The Atlantic — the nation must retrench, restore and reinvest. With the national debt soaring and the change of inflation looming, it will be difficult to keep spending high on new priorities and defense.

Third, the coronavirus pandemic, and the Trump administration’s mismanagement of it, has thrust healthcare to the top of Democratic party’s agenda. If elected, Biden will have to act fast and big, adding significant cost to the trillions spent since March.

As China exerts its influence globally, the US government must undertake a necessary restructuring to maintain the edge in a multidimensional competition that is already playing out across every field — diplomatic, economic, military, information, technology, industry, finance, medicine, education, entertainment and culture. There is much thoughtful work on how to organize for the competition, among them Tom Mahnken of Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, Hal Brands of the Hudson Institute and others.

If you’re facing authoritarian adversaries able to align all elements of their national power to achieve their global aims, it’s time to retool your game as well.

US capabilities that have been gutted, like international aide and cooperation, must to be resuscitated. Existing departments, including the Department of Homeland Security created after 9/11 must be reconsidered and new organizations created to better coordinate technological and economic resources and more effectively communicate facts in a social media age against authoritarian powers that expertly flex their intelligence, cyber and information services to disseminate damaging disinformation.

The National Security Act of 1947, which founded and still guides the Defense Department, needs revision to yield a more agile, streamlined and effective organization. A greater focus is needed on grey zone operations where China and Russia achieve aims without fighting, including perhaps creating a modern equivalent of the Office of Strategic Services. 

Quickly improving the nation’s cybersecurity must be a top priority as porous networks benefit adversaries or criminals.

A smaller budget driven by new investment at home, soaring budget deficits and massive debt means hard choices that have long been avoided must now be confronted. Is it realistic Washington and Beijing will exchange conventional long-range, hypersonic missile volleys? At that point, would the conflict be deterred by nuclear weapons or end in a nuclear exchange?  

Could nuclear weapons, as during the Cold War, become more central in deterring conventional, cyber or biological weaponry that can strike America? 

Can America afford to keep deployed troops in Asia, Europe and the Missile East? With resources tight, will DoD shed missions to focus on what’s needed for China and Russia? Will the Middle East allow Washington to focus on Asia?

Driving the new strategy must be a tough, principles-based stance toward two authoritarian nations that have demonstrated they only understand strength, reversing two flawed assumptions. China didn’t become freer and more responsible as it got richer just as Russia didn’t collapse because it was demographically doomed. And both Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin will be in charge for many more years.

Beijing used its wealth on capabilities with which to intimidate neighbors, became more repressive at home and belligerent worldwide as Russia has exerted considerable influence via hybrid means — cyber, disinformation, extortion, bribery and targeted killings.

China, however, is the bigger threat, emerging as the malign, territorially acquisitive bully that critics long warned it was, bent on matching or surpassing America as the world’s leading power as early as 2030. 

It has been at war against Washington in cyberspace for a dozen years, stealing US military secrets, intellectual property and information on Americans to gain advantage, supercharge its economy or exploit in the future.

China is organized, has a plan and has been expert at ensconcing itself at the heart of critical international organizations overseeing technology and standards to glean insights and steer outcomes that benefit Beijing. America’s pullback from the United Nations and other bodies — like the World Health Organization — only increases Beijing’s influence.

The Trump administration deserves credit for increasingly sanctioning Chinese officials over Hong Kong and atrocities toward Uighurs, and companies like Huawei, ZTE and soon TikTok and WeChat. 

It is rightly questioning the freedom afforded scientists, journalists, students, companies and financiers operating in the United States, especially those with direct links to the Communist Party or People’s Liberation Army. So are America’s allies that are also moving to punish its human rights abuses and reject Chinese 5G gear — because of US pressure. 

China vows harsh retaliation against those who call out its bad behavior, targeting: Australian agricultural products like beef; British soccer, cars and banks; French luxury goods; German cars; Norwegian salmon; Swedish telecoms gear; and US politicians, high-tech companies as well as the NBA, which muzzled its criticism as a result. 

Over the past two decades, China has extended its reach worldwide to allow it to both garner influence and exert tailored pressure when needed to force opponents to back down — in compliance with Beijing’s goals and governance. 

China is now, quite literally, everywhere and moving not only to benefit itself, but actively undermine the United States and its allies, a threat that can no longer be taken lightly.

That said, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s comments last week declaring engagement as a broken strategy, setting unrealistic goals like breaking the Chinese Communist Party or resorting to language so shrill that it gives Beijing the ability to portray the United States as the bully are counterproductive. Ditto on strong-arming allies to side with America against China.

Continued engagement is critical, but can’t be an end it itself. Nor can the United States afford to alienate allies, making them susceptible to a Chinese charm offensive.

Given the one thing that gets China’s attention is when the world comes together against it, Washington must work quietly to bring allies to its side into a principles-based Great Wall of Democracies and help them align their governments and coordinate responses. That will allow them to maximize pushback on Beijing’s bullying while mitigating the economic impacts of targeted retaliations. 

Identifying Beijing’s seemingly innocent tentacles and severing them as necessary and rigorously enforcing the kind of reciprocity that characterizes normal relations between law-abiding nations.

There’s trepidation about tangling economically with China given its penchant for using trade as a weapon, prompting trading partners to avoid confrontation. But the trade blade cuts both ways as China needs markets for its goods. 

Xi’s conviction that Chinese economic growth will be spurred by more ardent communism and increased centralized planning will only hurt Beijing. Xi has been warned China’s meteoric economic rise stems from Deng Xiaoping’s embrace of open markets, entrepreneurship and competitive innovation. 

While a weaker China presents challenges, it also will make it easier to pressure. 

The next administration will have to lead in the face of those who will find every justification for inaction. Beijing’s apologists will dismiss or worse justify its misdeeds actions, noting all rising powers are similarly guilty or it had no hand in designing the current system. Some will argue the cost of pushing back is simply too high and could spark a confrontation, a fear Beijing perennially stokes. Or better to accommodate Beijing to secure economic benefits, climate or regional security deals.

These are all false bargains. An authoritarian superpower that does not abide by its commitments and in the 21st century lives by the dictum that might, in all its forms, makes right cannot be trusted until it changes course. 

Here, China has made it clear that there is no “win-win” when it brutally suppresses its minorities, wants to seize territory from its neighbors and silence critics worldwide. 

America and its allies must still engage and work with China to achieve concrete goals, but push back firmly and consistently to change Beijing’s course, which now challenges or subverts norms and weaponizes every field. They can no longer afford to compromise their principles in the name of trade or engagement as doing so emboldens Beijing.

While the former Soviet Union did not constitute an economic threat, China is a financial and industrial superpower and confronting it will impose costs on nations, their companies and citizens in the near term. There is understandable trepidation about confronting China. The cost of goods will rise as profits fall and companies are excluded from the market they exchanged their trade secrets to access.

Still, trade can continue, and even flourish, as long as Beijing abides by its obligations and commitments. The better its conduct, the more trade and trust it can enjoy. But if it behaves badly, it must pay a sustained price. China has a big economy, but not as big as the economies of America and its allies together.

As Mahnken rightly points out, the most important lesson from Eisenhower is how he waged the Cold War — creating institutions, forging alliances, investing in science, technology, and innovation, focusing on a strong economy and being mindful about political warfare as well as internal security. America and its allies need an equally diverse set of instruments today in facing China and Russia — or Iran or North Korea.

America and its allies can no longer operate without being properly organized for an increasingly challenging future that, like the Cold War, will confront leaders with potentially existential questions as they stand up to Beijing, help it change and avoid miscalculation that causes a war.

Too much time has been wasted, too many signs ignored and too many actions not taken. The sooner this important change happens to confront the new realities China and Russia constitute, the better.

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