Avoiding The Next Big One
2034: A Novel of the Next World War, by Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis, is a startling book. Not because of the general scenario it lays out—few students of politics and international affairs will be surprised by the suggestion that great power conflict between China and the United States is a realistic possibility in the years ahead—but because of the way in which the novel paints the story (really, the stories) of how a “cold” conflict could foreseeably advance to outright kinetic exchange. The crises and reciprocal escalations laid out in this book may be imagined, but as a quick glance at the biographies of the authors should reinforce, they are not at all divorced from the realm of history, logic, and strategic fact. Many of the seeds of the novel’s imaginary future conflict have already been sown in our real-life world of today.
But it would be quite the mistake to interpret this work as a deterministic account of what the authors perceive to be the most likely path ahead, let alone the most desirable one. It is neither. It is rather an evocation of certain worst-case scenarios—what if our adversaries pull ahead of us in key areas of cyber and stealth technology? what if cooler heads do not always prevail within national security and defense establishments? —with the clear authorial intention of prompting serious people in positions of power and influence today to seriously rethink the road we are on with respect to China.
Much of the setup of the novel is concerned with empire and overreach, how one era of international primacy gives way to another. We read of Athens and Persia, the Crown and the Raj. We read also of the world that is dawning, the world in which the subcontinent has risen to assume not just an equal, but an advanced station amongst the powers of the Earth. A longer and more complex version of this novel would likely have a similar story to tell about where we could expect certain “rising” African nations to be by the year 2034, or soon after. The upshot, though, is simple: We do not live in a world of US hegemony anymore, or if we do, we very soon probably will not. The unipolar moment is giving way to bipolarity once again, with Russia, Iran, Turkey, and a few other unaligned states doing what they can to maximize the realization of their own (largely regional) interests in and around the margins. This is not necessarily the end of world order as we know it, but it is something to be grasped.
And my takeaway as a concerned and patriotic American is that grasp it we must. I am no friend of the ruling government in China, a repressive regime built on lies and the bodies of purged “enemies of the state.” (Often former officials whose usefulness to their superiors has expired.) I think that what the Chinese Communist Party has done to the Uyghur Muslim population deserves the designation of genocide, and I am humbly aware (largely in the sense of epistemic humility) that there are likely many other brutally oppressed groups, sects, and individuals within China who do not enjoy the same level of media and NGO attention as has lately fixed upon Xinjiang province. The “People’s Republic” of China is a closed, totalitarian society (certainly in the Arendtian sense, and more and more so in the Orwellian), and its government routinely commits unjust acts of intimidation, coercion, and rendition/disappearance/assassination against dissidents and perceived hostile forces, all in a so-far-successful effort to keep the ruling CCP elite in power, under the increasingly consolidated command of Xi Jinping. Control, order, and discipline are the operative terms when Chinese government officials speak of ends. Freedom and the space for pluralistic human flourishing do not factor in.
So, when we compare the moral legitimacy of each regime, its suite of ends and means, there is no question in my mind that the United States maintains the high ground, by a lot, now and into the future. This despite our many mistakes and shortcomings both at home (widespread exclusion of underclass groups from full enjoyment of American life, and a persistent inability—or is it an unwillingness? —to effectively help individuals from such groups rise to a firmer social and economic footing) and abroad (starting wars we don’t have plans to finish, killing civilians and making additional enemies in the process).
But though we possess the more legitimate aims of advancing human freedom, championing republican democracy, and upholding a liberal, rules-based international order, we should not make the mistake of thinking that we can use our powers to project our ideals whenever and wherever we want. (See Iraq, Afghanistan.) There is a real world that we live in, a world that has not escaped History in the Fukuyaman sense. We must face its facts, and we must read the course of human events. The fact is, China has risen, and it has done so using a combination of state control, widespread surveillance, limited employment of market mechanisms, and revolutionary communist ideology (even if very few people in China and its government actually believe it full-stop, it still has its uses, particularly when enemies need to be identified and “dealt with,” whether in propaganda or by state security forces.) Reading the course we see that, through leapfrogging effects, copycat methods, and espionage campaigns, to say nothing of population size and imagined-historical self-conceptions, the Chinese military will soon be able to hold its own against our own, particularly near the Chinese mainland.
And that brings us to the humbling heart of the book: Taiwan and the South China Sea. Wearing my idealist hat, I want to say—and have recently said—that Taiwan is a country, and will remain so, under the guarantee of US and allied force of arms. I’ve felt the same way about upholding “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea. Upon reading 2034 and being forced to sit with just some of the consequences that could, or would, or will follow from maintaining that posture, I am less sure about this idealistic position.
I am less sure because the novel actually enriched my understanding of the Chinese point of view, purely from a great-power nation-state perspective. Both contested zones are very close to the Chinese mainland. Taiwan is an embarrassment to the CCP (as it should be [i]) and the South China Sea is a proving ground for force projection and the display of “national greatness.” Much as it pains the idealist in me to say this, I think we need to devise a framework in which we let these areas go, while mitigating the most harmful effects of doing so.
I suggest from the armchair that we could do this by issuing visas and establishing pathways to citizenship in the US and allied nations for all residents of Taiwan who do not wish to be assimilated into the PRC, under a policy of “covered retreat.” I suspect that many of the island’s 23.6 million residents would want to participate. I have few concerns about the liberal and open nations of the world (to include Canada, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, the U.K., and the countries of Europe, as well as, hopefully, allies in Central and South America and Africa) being able to do this. Sure, there would be some administrative, economic, and even social and cultural challenges to account for, but at its best this consortium of nation states—operating on good will within the liberal order of treaties, alliances, and international organizations—could overcome them.
Similarly, in the South China Sea (as to be distinguished from the Philippine Sea and the western Pacific Ocean), the United States should probably move toward a less aggressive policy of patrolling and projecting force into the region. I encourage my fellow Americans to look at a map of the area. It’s not our backyard—it’s theirs. I don’t want to incentivize the regular presence of Chinese military vessels in the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, off the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, or in the neighborhood of Hawaii and other overseas territories. We can ward off such unwelcome visits by ceasing our own provocations—the authors of 2034 seem to agree that this is what they are—on the doorstep of the Chinese mainland. No militaristic great power will tolerate them forever.
Some will challenge the posture of “Far East Asian” renunciation that I here advocate, perhaps even going so far as to call it “appeasement.” Such persons might think me naïve for suggesting that the PRC/CCP will stop at Taiwan and the Spratly Islands and similar currently contested territories. But I am not suggesting that. Perhaps after the fall of Taiwan (qua territory) and the conquest of the South China Sea the PRC will continue on a path of territorial conquest, menacing Vietnam or the Philippines. Or Brunei, Indonesia, or Malaysia. It’s possible, and were it to happen the U.S. would again have to do what it could to either ameliorate the evil around the edges (more visas and resettlement assistance programs, building international consensus against further Chinese aggression, etc.) or, in the case of egregious aggression, to mount a direct response. We’d be in the best position to take the lead in organizing such a response if we weren’t engaged beforehand in controversial force-projection exercises ourselves, which the CCP will invariably point to on the world stage as they try to justify their own actually aggressive actions. (See their record of finger-pointing and deflective antics at the UN and the recent Alaskan summit.) Give them nothing, and their actions will be naked.
The flipside of renouncing our pretensions to police the coastal seas of East Asia must then be establishing a clear but more credible zone of containment around China, and a protective zone around United States territories and those of our regional allies (Japan, Australia, South Korea, etc.). Taiwan I view as strategically indefensible under the U.S. umbrella, unfortunately, short of the threat or use of nuclear weapons (keep in mind that a threat must be credible to be effective), which I cannot countenance after a cost-benefit analysis when “covered retreat” remains an option [ii] (though I remain open to counterarguments). This is not appeasement, but prudential deference to the realities of a rising great power that will assert its regional interests (territorial interests, in their view) in line with its historical imagined self-conception. Some well-intentioned democrats have suggested making mainland democratization a prerequisite for ceding Taiwan or giving up navigation claims to the South China Sea, but I am less sanguine about the prospects for the democratization of the PRC anytime soon. Ethno-nationalist authoritarians maintain a firm, technologically-enhanced grip on Chinese society, and I see few signs of successful domestic opposition. (See this recent interview with pro-democracy activist, scholar, and former political prisoner Jianli Yang.) Human tragedies may well ensue if China maximizes its aggression under the new arrangement I propose, but the United States cannot remedy all human tragedies. All we can do is draw a set of more realistic red lines, the crossing of which we will actually be willing and able to do something about.
But reading 2034 has made it crystal clear to me what we must not do, insofar as we can help it, and that is go to war with China. Not now, not in the future. As Francis Fukuyama recently wrote, “If there is one single objective for American foreign policy to aim at in Asia, it is to prevent a U.S.-Chinese military conflict from ever occurring.” Certainly we must do our best not go to war over something like an avoidable incident in a far-flung sea (a direct attack on the United States or an ally would be a different matter); an incident (perhaps even an accident) which leads to a challenge, which leads to a response, which leads to an escalation—that is how we climb the force ladder to nuclear hell. Yet as 2034 hauntingly demonstrates, such a ladder is not hard to start climbing. And even harder to stop.
We must act like the “bigger” nation that we are. We must consolidate and pare down what we assess to be in our “vital national security interest,” while fortifying our abilities to defend those actual vital interests that do remain. As we do so, we must not lose sight of what matters most: the preservation of our own open, free, liberal, and pluralist society, as well as our own constitutional order, against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
As I try to imagine my way into our uncertain future, the space between now and 2034, I see serious problems as well as immense promise. Some of the problems I have already elaborated upon. But the promise is American renewal, the kind of re-energization of society, culture, government, economy, and politics that would make the authorship of books like 2034 less necessary, less urgent. I hold out hope that being reminded of our limitations abroad might inspire us to do more where we can do more, which is at home. As Dr. Yang says at the end of his American Purpose interview, “A student of mine back in China recently told me that Trump and the poor performance of American democracy has made Xi Jinping great again. If the United States is to project its soft power, it must lead by example. The most important thing Americans can do is to make American democracy great again—call it ‘MADGA.’”
The path of problems, and the path of promise. An oversimplification, to be sure. But still I wonder, which will we choose?
Shanon FitzGerald is Assistant Web Editor at Liberty Fund. You can find him on Twitter @shanonjfitz.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the views of Liberty Fund, Inc. Nevertheless, Econlib is proud to publish this article and others like it—representing a range of perspectives—because US-China relations will be one of the major economic and geopolitical issues of the years ahead.
[i] Taiwan gives the lie to the CCP claim that “Western” democracy is not suited to the unique historical and social conditions of mainland China. Prior to 1949 Taiwan was unified with mainland China, and today Taiwan is democratic. The barrier to Chinese democratization is the CCP itself, not any purported social fact about the PRC population.
[ii] Under this scenario, multinational conventional forces (backed by multinational ICBM arsenals) would need to be positioned in the area to prevent PRC aggression during the period of Taiwanese depopulation and relocation. Of course, much physical and cultural capital would have to be left behind, and while this is tragic, I think it decidedly less so than the plausible alternative: the subjugation of the entire Taiwanese population under tyrannical CCP rule. See the recent history of Hong Kong. In the final analysis, souls matter more than soil.