Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He is the coauthor (with Michael Beckley) of Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China and the author of The Twilight Struggle: What the Cold War Teaches Us About Great-Power Rivalry Today.
The most dangerous states in the international system aren’t necessarily revisionist powers that think that their trajectory points continually upward. It’s those countries that have been growing, rising for a long time, and then fear that they are peaking and are about to decline. Those are the countries that are inclined to take the biggest risks to try to improve their position in the the here and now before things get worse for them in the future.
- Introduction – 0:43
- Peaking Power Theory – 3:12
- The Original Cold War – 22:28
- China as a Peaking Power – 31:14
- American Policy Toward China – 41:56
About this time last year, Hal Brands and Michael Beckley published a controversial book called Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China. It was controversial because they argued the danger did not come from China’s ascendance, but rather its decline.
Fast forward to today and many from Fareed Zakaria to The Economist wonder whether China’s power has really peaked. It’s demographics are in decline and its post-pandemic economy is sputtering. Meanwhile, tensions have only managed to increase.
I’ve wanted to talk to Hal Brands for some time now. I actually came across another book he published last year called The Twilight Struggle: What the Cold War Teaches Us About Great-Power Rivalry Today before I read Danger Zone. The two books complement each other perfectly. The Twilight Struggle provides a detailed history of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, while Danger Zone discusses a growing rivalry with another Great Power.
For those who don’t know him already, Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He’s a well-known scholar of international relations that has an amazing grasp on the Cold War and the current tensions with China. Our conversation weaves between his basic ideas, Cold War history, and relations with China.
Now if you like this episode, please support the podcast as a monthly donor on Patreon or a premium subscriber on Apple Podcasts. You can also support the podcast with a 5 star rating on Spotify or Apple Podcasts. Like always you can send questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. But for now… This is my conversation with Hal Brands….
Hal Brands, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.
Thanks for having me.
Well, Hal, I was really impressed with the two books that you’ve written, really published both of them last year. I mean, you published The Twilight Struggle: What the Cold War Teaches Us about Great Power Rivalry Today in January and then you published Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China that was written with Michael Beckley just a few months later. I mean, it’s an impressive output.
Well, it helps to have friends and especially friends that will write books with you. So, the fact that I was able to do Danger Zone in partnership with Mike Beckley, who’s a terrific scholar and a great person, really made that both easier and more enjoyable to do as well.
I wanted to talk to you because I felt that these two books complement each other. The one, The Twilight Struggle, talks specifically about the Soviet Union and Danger Zone talks about China. It’s impressive that you were able to juggle both of those very broad topics in terms of international relations. One is in terms of history. The other one is in terms of current events and what’s impressive about it is that you’re challenging some basic ideas that we have in terms of ideas about world affairs, about international relations. So, where I’d like to be able to start is with an idea called the Thucydides Trap. Could you explain what it is and why you believe that it’s wrong?
Sure. So, the Thucydides Trap is an idea that was based on a particular reading of Thucydides’ explanation of what caused the Great Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. The basic idea is that you have a reigning power that is challenged by a rising power and as the power gap between them narrows and eventually disappears, tensions rise, hostilities escalate, and you ultimately get what political scientists would call a hegemonic war, a war to determine who would become the most powerful actor in the international system.
The reason I say it’s based on a particular reading of Thucydides is that it’s not actually clear that that mechanistic interpretation really explains what happened between Athens and Sparta back in the Fifth Century BC. There’s work by the great modern classicist Donald Kagan, who passed away a couple of years ago, arguing that the power dynamics were working differently than the Thucydides Trap argument implies. But nonetheless, it’s out there and it has become a very popular explanation for growing tensions and the possibility of war between the United States and China today. There’s a problem though, which is that if you look historically at what has caused some of the biggest wars in the international system, especially over the past a hundred plus years, it doesn’t quite follow the Thucydides Trap script.
So, in World War I, for instance, which is often held up as being a rough analog for the US-China rivalry, the challenge wasn’t that Germany thought it was going to be rising forever into the future. The challenge was that it thought that it was peaking vis-a-vis the group of rivals that it had created with its own behavior. So, particularly the United Kingdom, France, and Russia and that it had a limited moment of time in which to take advantage of the military strengths that it possessed. It wasn’t so much that you had a reigning power that’s being overtaken by a rising power.
It was a more complex set of dynamics and what that leads you to is the realization that the most dangerous states in the international system aren’t necessarily revisionist powers that think that their trajectory points continually upward – It’s those countries that have been growing, rising for a long time, and then fear that they are peaking and are about to decline. Those are the countries that are inclined to take the biggest risks to try to improve their position in the the here and now before things get worse for them in the future. So that’s what Mike and I call the peaking power trap as opposed to the Thucydides Trap.
So, you’re saying that a country that sees its own power in ascendance, that they’re continuing to grow economically, militarily, is going to wait out any attempt to be able to create war. It’s going to wait out any attempt to be able to create conflict because it thinks things are going to get better in the future.
Yeah, so imagine a China that believes that it will be immeasurably more powerful relative to the United States in the year 2050 than it is in the year 2023. That China should actually be quite cautious in international affairs because if the future is going to be better than the present, then the last thing you want to do is provoke war prematurely at a time when you have not yet reached the peak of your strength relative to your adversaries. So, the more confident you are about the future, the more cautious you should be in provoking a clash in the here and now because things are just going to get better for you over time.
But if you imagine a different situation where you’ve got a China that worries, that say, economically it’s going to be stagnating through the remainder of this decade and beyond, that worries that it has provoked the hostility of a coalition of countries in its region and beyond, including the United States, and so is very worried about what the world might look like in 2030 or 2035 or 2040, that China, especially if it has articulated very big ambitions for what it wants to achieve, which this China has, that China will be more incentivized to risk-prone, risk acceptant behavior in the here and now, because it will want to take advantage of whatever window of opportunity it has to lock in gains before it’s too late.
So, I imagine that the best example at the moment isn’t China, it’s actually Russia who just invaded Ukraine and is in a position where it’s again facing a demographic decline. It’s facing potential economic decline. It seems like it’s being closed in by Europe as well as some other neighbors. Is that an example of a declining power that’s acting aggressively?
So, one of the things we did in Danger Zone was pull together a compilation of basically all of the countries over the past 150 years or so that would fit the definition of a peaking power. Countries that were growing significantly faster in economic terms than the world average for at least seven years and then slowing down significantly after that. What we find is that in every case those countries start to act more aggressively because while they’ve been rising, their citizens having gotten used to the good life, they’ve begun to act more assertively in international affairs and so that starts to make rivals and enemies and then they get very nervous when things aren’t going so well and they become trickier and more inclined to lash out.
That includes democratic countries like the United States around the turn of the 20th century. It includes democratic states like France in the 1970s or Japan during that same decade. It also includes a lot of authoritarian states and Putin’s Russia is one of them. So, if you look back to the early 2000s, the Russian economy was going gangbusters, mostly on the backs of rising energy prices. You had a Putin that was pretty secure in his own rule. Things seem to be going well for Russia in a foreign policy sense. Then after 2008, the economic picture starts to erode. The political situation starts to get more fraught. There were demonstrations when Putin announced that he was coming back to the presidency in 2011-2012, and you start to see a turn toward a more mercantilist and also more aggressive international behavior.
So, one of the things we talk about in the book is that this peaking power trap is a decent explanation for the 2014 war in Ukraine and if you extrapolate further, there are definitely kind of window of opportunity dynamics at work in Putin’s decision to go whole hog and try to invade and conquer all of Ukraine in February 2022. Putin clearly thought that he had a window of military opportunity vis-a-vis Ukraine. He clearly thought he had a window of diplomatic opportunity because Europe was in the middle of winter when it was going to be reliant on Russian oil and gas. You had a political transition happening in Germany. You had French elections upcoming. You had the United States, which wasn’t looking particularly fearsome in the wake of a withdrawal from Afghanistan.
But we also know he was worried about a closing strategic window of opportunity because his aggression against Ukraine had mostly served to harden Ukrainian nationalism and push Ukraine closer to the West. So, when Putin looked at the situation in Ukraine, he probably saw that he had a finite moment of time in which to try to resolve the conflict by which he meant reorienting Ukraine away from the West and toward Russia on his terms. So, when you put those things together, I think it helps explain the invasion that he undertook a year and a half ago.
One of the thoughts that I have though is that this idea of the peaking power trap is very psychological. It’s not necessarily connected to reality. I mean, it can be if the way that you think about the world meets the way that the world really is, but that’s not always the case. I mean, how much of the time do peaking powers end up misinterpreting their position in the world and they end up thinking that they need to be able to act more aggressively when really that there really are brighter pastures or they maybe hold off making any kind of aggressive attempts because they think that there’s brighter pastures ahead when really things are about to go downhill?
Well, it’s a mixed bag and you can certainly identify cases where leaders just fundamentally miscalculate the balance of power or the prospects for successful aggression. That clearly happened to Putin in the run-up to February 2022. I don’t think it was destined that he was going to fail in Ukraine. But as a result of a variety of factors from the fact that the Ukrainian military was better than he thought to the fact that Ukrainian society was more cohesive than he thought to the fact that the Russians really had a cockamamie military plan that was drawn up on the back of a napkin by some FSB types. He just got fundamentally wrong the question of whether Russia would be successful in its assault on Ukraine.
But for me, what’s really scary actually, is that when you look back historically at some of the cases that we examine in Danger Zone policymakers in Imperial Germany before World War I or Imperial Japan in the run up to World War II actually had a decent understanding of the risks that they were running and they chose to run those risks anyways. There’s this popular notion about World War I that nobody knew it was going to be so bad. Policymakers just stumbled into a conflict that no one wanted. That’s actually not true. Policymakers in Germany understood very well during the July crisis in 1914 that they were running a serious risk at the very least of a war against France and Russia in Europe – a two front war.
They understood that there was a significant possibility, not a certainty, but a significant possibility that Britain would ultimately come into the conflict, basically turning it into a world war. So, they weren’t shocked by the turn of events that happened in early August when the war really kicks off in earnest. They also understood, by the way, that they were wagering everything on a single military campaign. They had this thing called the Schlieffen Plan, where they were going to wheel down into France, cutting through Belgium and try to knock the French out of the war within about six weeks so they could shuttle forces over to the eastern front and blunt the attack from Russia, which was expected to be slower to mobilize.
They understood this was a heck of a gamble and they understood that if it didn’t work out, they were going to be in a war from which they had no obvious means of escape. They did it anyways because they worried that the alternative, which was sort of accepting containment, economic and military, by this triple entente that Germany had helped to create through its own behavior. They thought that was going to be intolerable. So, they took this huge risk understanding that it might come out poorly.
I won’t go into detail in this other case, but the Japanese did the exact same thing. Prior to World War II, the Japanese understood they had a very, very small chance of winning an extended war against the United States. But they chose to take a huge risk in attacking Pearl Harbor because they thought the alternatives were worse. So, the lesson for me is that leaders in these cases sometimes take risks that we would find appalling, that we would struggle to understand ourselves, simply because they convinced themselves that the alternatives are less attractive still.
Japan is an example that really makes me wonder about the psychology behind it though, because when we get to decades later, we get to the 1980s, everybody’s talking about a rising Japan because it’s looking like an economic powerhouse. Even today, Japan is considered to be in a few decades long malaise economically, but it’s still the third largest economy in the world right now. It’s still an economic powerhouse at the end of the day. Did the leaders in the 1940s miscalculate with the fact that they’re actually in a position of decline or a position of vulnerability? That if they just would’ve adapted to a more liberal world order at that time, they would’ve actually had better times ahead?
Well, part of the problem is that by the time you get to the late thirties and early 1940s, there really is no such thing as a liberal world order. I mean, world order in any sense that we would understand. It had broken down during the 1930s and you had conflict already engulfing large swaths of Europe and Asia. Now, the Japanese had actually been interested in accommodating themselves to a more liberal international order. If you go back to the 1920s, if you go back to the period right after World War I, the Japanese had actually fought on the side of the allies during World War I, but mostly for their own reasons. It didn’t have much to do with the cause for which the rest of the allies were fighting.
Japan had kind of been… think of it as like a responsible revisionist power for about 20 years before that. It had expanded certainly, but nothing like on the scale that it would do during the 1930s and 1940s. What changes is that the international order falls apart beginning in the 1920s and into the early 1930s. So, you have a Japan that increasingly feels that it can only ensure its own security through mercantilist economic policy, going out and locking up resources and markets, backstopped by aggression, by physical conquest. Which is what Japan does, starting in Manchuria in 1931 and then spreading into other parts of China thereafter.
So, by the time you get to the summer and fall of 1941, which is when the Japanese leadership makes the critical decisions to push South into the European colonial possessions in an effort to get their hands on oil and to attack Pearl Harbor in the process, I think they actually have a fairly accurate understanding of what the future is likely to hold for them. They realize that once the US puts the oil embargo in place in mid-1941, Japan has about a year before it runs out of the stuff on which its war machine depends. It either has to accept economic suffocation at the hands of the United States or it has to find some way of getting its hands on additional energy resources, which pushes you down toward the Dutch East Indies among other places.
They also understand that the United States is in the process of turning itself into a military superpower. So, US rearmament didn’t start on December 8th, 1941. It started back in 1938 and then really more in earnest in 1940. So, by the time you get to mid-1941, the US is already laying the foundations for a navy and an air force that will be far superior to anything that Japan can come up with because the US has a gross national product that’s many times the size of Japan’s. So, the Japanese understand that they have a finite military window of opportunity. They’ve got the advantage because they rearm first, but that’s not going to last forever.
They understand that their alternatives are you either become a second rate power that has to disgorge some of the conquest Japan had made during the late 1930s and reconcile yourself to a regional order that is dictated by the United States and the European powers or you can take this massive gamble, try to grab as much territory as you can, digest it as quickly as you can, deal the United States such a strong blow at Pearl Harbor that perhaps the Americans will decide they don’t want to fight their way back across the Pacific and make peace. The Japanese understood that the latter course had a very low prospect of success. They sometimes compared it to something close to committing national suicide and as an effort to avoid humiliation and certain defeat.
It wasn’t that the Japanese didn’t understand what they were doing or they didn’t understand what the future held. It was that they chose one really nasty alternative to avoid one that seemed even uglier still. Now, the irony, and this gets back to your question, is that over a 50-year time horizon, things actually worked out fine for Japan. The country was utterly devastated during World War II, of course, and you don’t want to make light of those losses. But by the time you get to the 1980s, Japan is becoming the second most powerful national economy in the world. It is really thriving in an international order that is anchored by the United States. So, things do turn out okay for Japan, but only over a very, very long timeframe.
And things turn out well for Germany too over the long term.
Yeah, absolutely right and this is really fundamental to understanding why the post-World War II era is so much different than the pre-World War II era. Two of the countries that had most seriously and sometimes serially disrupted regional orders in critical parts of the world, Japan and Germany, were now integrated into a US led international order that provided for their economic security and it provided for their physical security. So, Germany and Japan in 1955 didn’t feel as though they had to take matters into their own hands to get access to raw materials and resources and to ensure their security. The United States was playing that role for them. They felt comfortable enough to become responsible members of the international community and the US security blanket was sufficient to convince other countries around them to allow this, which never would’ve happened otherwise.
So, let’s pivot to the Soviet Union because it’s a declining power that fought some wars during its decline, but never with the United States. It never challenged the United States directly – Maybe indirectly. When do you feel that the Soviet Union was at its peak when it would’ve been approaching the peaking power trap and that United States policy as well as Soviet policy had to adapt to it?
Yeah, so this is a really interesting question and it has a bunch of different elements to it. The first thing that’s worth saying is that one of the tricky things about power dynamics is that countries don’t peak in all dimensions simultaneously. The Soviet Union peaked relative to the United States and the West economically probably around 1969 or 1970. That’s our best guess in hindsight, but it doesn’t peak militarily against the West until probably the mid-1980s. So, you can be a country whose economy is stagnating, but you’re still pouring more and more resources into your military buildup. The reason this is relevant is that I actually think it describes China’s position today. I think that China’s going to find it harder and harder to close the gap with the United States economically in the coming years.
But it’s military might is going to continue to increase relative to America’s for at least the next eight or nine years and that’s where the danger comes from. Now the second part of this is why didn’t the Soviet Union start to behave in the rash fashion that we saw from Japan and Germany before World War I and World War II? I think it has a few different pieces in it. The first is that by constructing its Cold War Alliance system, carefully staking out red lines around the Soviet bloc, and then backing up those red lines with forward force deployments, permanent deployments of US troops, and with nuclear guarantees as well with promises that we would start a nuclear war to avoid losing a conventional one to the Soviet Union.
In Europe in particular, it was really hard for Soviet officials to come up with a way in which military aggression would make their lives better in 1983 or 1984. So, if you’re Germany in the summer of 1914, you’ve got this faint hope that maybe Britain will stay out of the conflict. That’s one of the things that helps tip the balance in Berlin when the critical decisions are being made. There was just no chance of this in the early 1980s because the United States had spent decades in building this free world security structure that was meant to remove any uncertainty about whether the United States would come riding to the rescue in a crisis. So, the perceived rewards for aggression are higher in the pre-1945 era than the post-1945 era because in the post-1945 era, you’ve got this US security system.
But the other thing that happens is that US policymakers actually try very hard to give the Soviet Union a soft landing. In the Reagan administration in particular, there’s a good understanding of the fact that the Soviet Union is in real trouble economically. There’s also an understanding that you don’t want a declining Soviet Union to become desperate and start lashing out.
So, while the Reagan administration works hard to keep the pressure on the Soviet Union by providing support to the Afghan Mujahideen in the 1980s, by deploying advanced weapon systems that were starting to tip the military balance back toward the United States, Reagan also goes out of his way to try to reassure the Soviets to say, ‘If you change your behavior, if you agree to arms control more or less on Western terms, if you allow greater self-determination and respect for human rights within the Soviet bloc, if you start pulling back from the third world, we’re not going to just exploit it ruthlessly. We will actually welcome you back into the international community. There’s a path for you to integrate into a thriving world order and perhaps even prosper from doing so.’
We know in fact that this is one of the things that Mikhail Gorbachev wanted. One of the reasons he was willing to pursue the path of diplomacy with the United States is he hoped that it would open the door to expand and trade in technology transfer from the west. So, there’s a degree of reassurance that goes hand in hand with this very strong measure of deterrence during the 1980s and it helps ensure that the Cold War ends peacefully rather than in one of these catastrophic crack ups like we had in 1914 or 1941.
I want to know more about containment because it’s the policy that the United States puts in place to be able to handle the Soviet Union both as it’s ascending as well as when it’s declining. And containment for me, I mean, I went to school after the Cold War was already over and it always had kind of a dirty connotation. I thought of it connected with the Vietnam War. I thought of it as the United States propping up dictators. So, I found it interesting the way that you describe it as an incredibly successful policy that was able to be maintained throughout the Cold War. Why don’t you describe it and explain why it was so effective during the Cold War?
Sure. So, containment was all the things that you mentioned. It featured, disastrous US military interventions in Vietnam and other places. It featured a lot of behavior that Americans wouldn’t necessarily be proud of today such as overthrowing flawed, but democratically elected governments in places like Guatemala and it was criticized on these grounds at the time. If you go back to the late forties and early fifties, containment absorbed criticism from every part of the political spectrum.
It got it from the old isolationist right, from people like Robert Taft who objected to NATO and some of the military commitments that went with it. It got it from the internationalist right, from people like John Foster Dulles who said that containment was too passive. It was futile. It was immoral to leave large swaths of the world under communist control. It got it from the progressive left from people like Henry Wallace who ran for president in 1948 on a program against containment and from the center left from people like Walter Lipman, who actually gave the Cold War its name to a certain extent in a book that he published that was a critique of George Kennon’s article that outlined publicly the strategy of containment in 1947.
The point that all these people made was that containment was going to prove very tiring for the United States. There was no obvious endpoint to the strategy. It just required holding the line and exerting pressure until the Soviet Union gave up the game and that it would require the United States to make both economic expenditures and moral compromises that would become difficult to sustain over time. All of those things were true. So, why then did the United States stick with it and why was containment successful? I think the answer in both cases is that containment wasn’t a brilliant strategy. It was the best of the bad alternatives.
If you think about the world as it existed in the late 1940s, the last time what we would think of as the free world confronted a challenge from a totalitarian foe in Nazi Germany, they had tried appeasement for a time, which didn’t work out, and then they had to fight a global war ultimately to defeat Hitler and his allies. Containment offered a third path. It offered a way of defeating another totalitarian rival without resorting to appeasement, which had helped bring on World War II or without having to fight World War III because the thesis was that if you could hold the line, if you could exert counter pressure against the Soviet Union, the strengths of the Western world would prove superior in the end and you would not have to fight the Soviet Union.
Now, that was based on an insight that George Kennon had, which was that the Soviet Union was a different type of totalitarian power than Nazi Germany was. The Soviet Union wanted to fundamentally remake the world, but it was not in a hurry to do that because it believed that its triumph was inevitable. It was willing to be patient in letting it come about. So, the insight was that when the Soviet Union came up against superior force at any point on the compass, it would retreat rather than provoke a confrontation. That was ultimately born out in the end, so the genius of containment really was that it paved the way to a geopolitical victory as decisive as anything the United States and its allies had managed during World War II, but for the most part, without the catastrophic bloodshed that had been required to defeat Hitler.
I don’t get the impression from either of your books that you think containment is the right strategy to be able to implement against China, against a peak China, but I would like to know what lessons containment has that we should be looking towards as we’re developing a strategy to implement towards China.
Well, one lesson is simply that it helps to know what you’re trying to achieve. The reason that Kennan’s writings from the late 1940s were so seminal wasn’t because they contained detailed policy prescriptions about what to do in the Iran crisis of 1946 or the Greece crisis of 1947. Basically, Kennon was saying, here’s where we ultimately want to go – the breakup or mellowing of Soviet power, roughly speaking. Here’s how we think we can get there. I think it’s important to have that kind of theory of the case in dealing with Russia or China or any long-term competitor today.
I think that we have been told by the last two presidential administrations that the United States is now in competition with China, which is true. But competition is really more just a description of geopolitical reality than it is a description of where we’re ultimately trying to go. Are we ultimately thinking that if the United States competes more effectively with China that will lead to some sort of stable coexistence over the long term? Do we think that this competition is going to last as long as the current regime in China persists? You can argue that one either way. Different people have different theories of the case about this, but those are the sorts of questions that’s important to answer. So that would be one lesson.
The second lesson, and maybe this is apt because we are speaking a few days after Tony Blinken, the Secretary of State went to Beijing to meet with Xi Jinping and some other officials there, would be that you have got to think of negotiation as a tool of competition rather than an alternative to it. So, during the Cold War, the United States met fairly regularly with Soviet counterparts. Every US president met his Soviet counterpart at the summit. During the Cold War era, there were more often than not negotiations going on over arms control or some other such issue and it wasn’t because American leaders were silly Peaceniks. It was because they understood that negotiation could play an important role in reducing the danger of war at the margin.
They understood that it could play an important role in slowing down the competition at times when the United States needed to take a breather after the Vietnam War. They understood that it was useful in maintaining domestic support for containment, maintaining allied support for containment by convincing publics in the United States and in Europe that it wasn’t the United States that was primarily responsible for the deterioration of relations with the Soviet Union. So, negotiation was properly viewed as a tool of competition, even though most American officials didn’t think until relatively late in the game that it could be a way of kind of transforming the relationship with the Soviet Union. I think that’s also an instrucive parallel for today.
One of the lessons I got was that it’s important to be able to pick your battles. When we say containment, it gives the idea that you’re trying to contain your adversary and you’re trying to compete with them on every single possible aspect, every single angle. But in reality, containment didn’t mean that you had to fight everywhere all at once. It meant that you were going to choose the places that you wanted to be able to defend and focus your resources on those places. So, Europe was strategically important. Korea at first wasn’t strategically important to my knowledge. It wasn’t until after the fall of China and there was a lot of political backlash that the United States felt that it was necessary to be able to defend Korea. But after that, Korea became strategically important.
It’s interesting because when we think about China right now, I feel like there’s an impetus to try to compete with China on every front rather than trying to decide which battles, which areas, which aspects we actually want to be able to compete on, and to try to focus our resources on those areas.
Yeah, so pick your spots is both good advice and advice that is devilishly hard to follow and the Cold War shows why. In instances where the United States did decide that it had to compete almost everywhere and it had to match every thrust blow for blow, it eventually comes to sorrow. Vietnam being the most grievous example of this. If you look at periods when US strategy is really, really successful, so in the late 1940s, for instance, it is often based on a recognition that resources are limited and not every part of the world matters equally. So, you have to be very selective about where you apply the resources that you have. In the late 1940s, the United States made a crucially important strategic decision that Western Europe mattered and China did not.
The United States uses the Marshall Plan. It uses NATO. It uses a military assistance program and a variety of other things to try to stabilize Western Europe from 1947 onward and it decides not to intervene in the Chinese Civil War to save the falling nationalist regime from Mao Zedong’s Communists. Now, the reason it’s more complicated than that though, is that figuring out what places matter and which don’t can sometimes be difficult in real time and Korea actually indicates why. The United States had mostly decided to write South Korea off by 1949 and 1950. The US had actually withdrawn its troops from South Korea during this period and Dean Acheson gave a speech in January, 1950 in which he candidly, but somewhat unwisely said that South Korea and Taiwan were outside the US Defense perimeter in the Western Pacific.
But then what happens? Well, Stalin reads the speech and he says to the North Koreans, ‘Okay. Go ahead and invade South Korea. The Americans probably won’t intervene or if they do, they won’t get there in time.’ So, then you have this invasion of South Korea that looks eerily like the invasion of Poland in 1939. It brings back all of these memories of the aggression that led to World War II.
So the United States decides that it has to intervene in Korea despite having previously thought the game wasn’t worth the candle, not because Korea was central to the material balance of power in the world – Korea was a, a very underdeveloped society at this point – but because Korea, by virtue of being attacked in this fashion had become critical to the psychological balance of power in the entire world. If you didn’t stand up to tanks crashing across an internationally recognized border on the Korean peninsula, what assurance were the Germans going to have that you would stand up to tanks crashing across the inter-German border in central Europe.
So, the United States intervenes in Korea. The war actually goes well. Then it goes terribly. By the time the United States manages to extricate itself in the conflict in mid-1953, the war has become extremely unpopular. But in retrospect, I think most people would say that intervening in Korea in the first place was the right thing to do. It helped stabilize the global balance of power. So, it all just goes to show that there’s inevitably a degree of uncertainty and a requirement for judgment and figuring out which places matter and which don’t. It’s not as though you can just look at the map and decide beforehand that this place matters and this place doesn’t. Even though those sorts of exercises are important, just as a way of getting you to think through priorities.
Do you think not intervening in China during the Chinese revolution was a mistake?
No, I think that given the size of the country, given the trends on the battlefield by the time you get to 1948-1949, and the level of effort it would’ve taken from the United States to affect the course of events there, it just seems like an epically huge lift. I think there are arguments that have been made that the United States should have been more unambiguously supportive of Chiang Kai-shek’s flawed, but mostly friendly government in the immediate post-war period rather than trying to broker cease fires and peace agreements with the communists, which the Communists for the most part just used to strengthen themselves. I think that’s a more reasonable critique. But by the time you get to the period when these decisions have to be made in real time, I think China was mostly a lost cause by that point for the United States.
So, everybody’s drawing parallels between China and the Soviet Union in terms of a new Cold War with China comparing it to the old Cold War with the Soviet Union. You’ve written about them both. What are the differences between China and the Soviet Union?
Well, there are huge differences between not just China and the Soviet Union, but kind of the world of 1947 and the world of 2023. China’s a more economically dynamic power for all of the problems that it has than the Soviet Union was at this point and really any point in its existence. The nature of the regimes is somewhat different, even though they’re both communist regimes. Chinese foreign policy is ideologically infused, but not in the same way that Marxist-Leninist concepts of Global Revolution infused Soviet foreign policy under Lenin and Stalin, and perhaps for some time thereafter. The geography of the competitions is different. The centerpiece of the US-China competition is likely to be in maritime Asia, whereas the centerpiece of the US-Soviet competition was really in central Europe.
The other big thing that’s different is just the state of the world is very different. That’s true not just with respect to obvious things like economic and technological interdependence, as important as that factor is, but with respect to the broader state of the international order. We often say that the global order is under strain today, and that’s true, but what made the Soviet Union so dangerous in 1946-1947 is that there was no global order. You had anarchy. You had revolutionary conditions in large swaths of Eurasia. There was no system of US alliances to provide stability in those regions.
There was no guarantee that the international economy was going to put itself back into functional shape after World War II. There was just a much higher degree of chaos with the potential for chaos in the international system back then than there is today. For that reason, I actually feel the US is better placed vis-a-vis China than it was against the Soviet Union in 1946.
So, what should the policy towards China be? I mean, if we’re not going to contain China the way that we did the Soviet Union, and I don’t see that as a realistic possibility because there’s such a strong trade partner with us in a way that the Soviet Union never was, what should the policy towards China be?
In reality, I think we are containing China, and I think the Chinese think that we are containing China and they’re not entirely wrong, because what the United States is trying to do is prevent China from destabilizing the Western Pacific through military coercion or military aggression. We are trying to prevent China from wiring the world’s 5G telecommunications networks and gaining all the geo-economic and geopolitical leverage that comes with that. We are trying to prevent China from seizing the high ground in the industries of the 21st century, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and so on and so forth. There is an effort by the United States and many American allies and partners to contain those aspects of Chinese influence.
Now, what makes it different? Here I wholeheartedly agree that containment isn’t going to be as uniform a phenomenon during this Cold War as it was during the last Cold War because of the complexity of the trade relationship, because of the complexity of global supply chains. It will also be more difficult, frankly, because the Chinese have offerings in dealing with developing countries that are different than the ones that the Soviet Union had and, in many cases, they’re more attractive. The Soviet Union had some ideological appeal for third world countries. China has a degree of genuine economic appeal for a number of developing countries, so we have to get ourselves in a position where we understand that you can try to contain the malign expression of a country’s power without it looking exactly like Cold War containment, vis-a-vis the Soviet Union.
But containment is actually a relatively old phenomenon. There were cases in which countries tried to contain their competitors by means short of war going back a long, long time. That’s sort of what is going on today.
Now, we’re not going to use the term containment because it inevitably evokes comparisons to the Cold War. People are uncomfortable with that for a variety of reasons. But if you look at what the United States is doing with respect to semiconductors, where we are basically saying we’re going to try to cut China off from the highest end semiconductors and the knowledge and inputs that are needed to make them, there is a degree of technological and economic containment. They are not as uniform, not as severe, as what we saw vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. But when Xi Jinping says that the United States is pursuing a strategy of containment and suppression vis-a-vis China, he’s not 100% wrong.
One of the problems with containing China is the fact that it has really begun to go out into the world, and not so much form alliances, but definitely established partnerships especially with the developing world. I mean, China’s involvement in Africa is something that many people know very well. Some people say that China has made greater inroads into Africa than the United States, although I think that’s a debatable contention still. Is it possible that China’s peak is still further ahead despite all of the demographic problems it has, despite potential economic problems, because it has the potential to be able to form partnerships around the world that would enhance its global power into the future?
Yeah, so there’s, there’s a couple things that are worth saying here. One is that the United States is not trying, nor would it be successful if it tried, to contain China in the sense of preventing it from having very extensive economic relationships with countries in Africa or elsewhere around the world. That’s just a given at this point. Now, the United States is trying very hard to contain Chinese influence in other aspects, so the Biden administration, if you just look at what’s been reported in the press, has tried a number of cases to prevent China from establishing military bases or logistical facilities in places like the UAE or Equatorial Guinea or other places around the world.
So, I think where US policy is going is saying there are certain aspects of Chinese involvement with the world that are inevitable, and frankly, that may not be that threatening to the United States. What the United States wants to focus on is containing those aspects of Chinese influence that would challenge America’s strategic position in a more fundamental way. With respect to the second part of the question, we have to keep in mind that a China that is peaking or that has peaked is not a China that is no longer going to pose challenges for the United States.
So, when you get to the final chapter of Danger Zone, the book that Mike and I wrote, I believe it’s called “Going Long” or something like that, and it’s basically about what happens after you get through this period of significant danger with China during the latter part of this decade. The message is that the Chinese challenge doesn’t go away. China’s still going to have a very powerful military. It’s still going to have the second largest economy in the world. Even if it’s no longer really narrowing the gap with the United States, it’s still going to have all these relationships that you’ve talked about. Now, some of these relationships will become harder to maintain.
So, with a China, that is no longer brimming with capital that it’s willing to lend, but is instead trying to get paid back for bad loans that it made in 2015 or 2020, that China’s going to have a harder time establishing networks of economic influence throughout Africa and beyond. But it will still be an economic player in these regions. So, the challenge is not going to go away. It’s going to be something that the United States has to deal with on a sustained basis. The question is when does the risk of a catastrophic disruption of the international system, great power war, become most severe? That’s, I think, the question that talking about peaking powers helps us answer.
We’ve been talking about China as a peaking power. Is the United States also a peaking power, especially in terms of relative power throughout the world?
I don’t think so. If I were looking at the underlying health of the two systems and I had to make a bet as to which system was going to perform better in general over the next 50 years, I would certainly bet on the United States. The United States has a better demographic profile than China does by a long shot. I think that the US economic model, while not without its flaws, is fundamentally healthier than China’s economic model. I think the US political system as wild and crazy and chaotic as it can be is more likely to produce good economic policies and sound foreign policy decisions than a Chinese system that is increasingly veering into personalistic one man rule.
I can go down the list and give you a variety of reasons why in relative terms, because those are the terms that actually matter in international politics, the United States is likely to find itself in a pretty good position vis-a-vis China 30 or 40 years from now. I’m worried about relative US military decline over the next decade. The United States has started to slowly rouse itself to the challenge of facing more aggressive great power rivals. But the key word there is slowly. The US Military Modernization Program that’s most facing toward China really won’t start to mature until the early 2030s. That’s true of a lot of US Democratic allies in the Pacific.
Depending on what the ultimate resolution of some of the budgetary questions that arose from the debt ceiling deal earlier this month are, the US may actually be short-changing its military spending in the near and medium-term as well. So if that’s the case, the US is going to find itself in a position of stark military decline vis-a-vis China in the Western Pacific in a way that could incline Xi Jinping to be more risk acceptant in the years to come. That’s an area where the power trends are not working in our favor at the moment and I think it’s actually quite dangerous.
So we’ve been talking about this as very much a binary relationship, the United States and the Soviet Union, United States and China. But there’s a lot of potential powers within China’s neighborhood. I mean, beyond just Russia, which is always a potential power, you have India, which is potentially the rising power in the world right now. It’s now the largest country in the world. It’s moving up the ranks of being one of the strong economies within the world. How does a declining power deal, not with the hegemonic power that’s already established, but with rising powers that are right on its doorstep. Is that another danger that’s potentially just as strong or an even greater worry?
Well, right now, China’s dealing with them poorly in the sense that China has managed to convince the vast majority of countries around its periphery that it poses a severe, perhaps existential danger to them. So, everywhere but Russia, which is another autocracy with a serious grudge against the US-led world order and is basically making common cause with China. If you look at Japan, if you look at India, if you look at the Philippines, if you look at South Korea, if you look at Australia, if you look at Vietnam, all of these countries are trying to hedge against or balance against China’s rise in some way or another usually by strengthening their ties to each other and to the United States. This is actually an old story.
So, the problem with being located within Europe or Asia is that when you become powerful and you become aggressive, you pose a mortal threat to countries on your doorstep. You give them all the incentive in the world to try to build up their own capabilities and to find powerful allies and where do they look? They look to the United States.
So, if you look at what Japan is doing in its alliance with the United States in terms of trying to turn its southwestern island chain into a series of strong points that will prevent China from getting access to the Maritime Pacific, if you look at the AUKUS deal with the UK and Australia, if you look at the quad, if you look at a variety of other things, more and more countries are looking for help from the United States and from each other and pushing back against Chinese power. One of the dangers that China is running into is that its own behavior is creating a ring of encirclement around it, which by the way, is what happened in Germany before World War I and has happened in a variety of prior cases as well.
Well, Hal, thank you so much for joining me today. Your book Danger Zone has gotten just enormous amounts of attention, but I really want to plug your other book, The Twilight Struggle. I thought it was a phenomenal book. It was just one of the best primers that I’ve come across on the Cold War. So, thank you so much for writing those. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Well, thanks Justin. I appreciate you having me and I enjoyed the conversation.
Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China by Hal Brands and Michael Beckley
“China’s Threat to Global Democracy” in Journal of Democracy by Hal Brands and Michael Beckley
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