Strategic analysts are not paid to be optimistic or idealistic, but to think dark thoughts, and George Friedman is a hotshot strategist. Or perhaps he is just reporting on the dark thoughts of other people, but his essays will sober you up in short order. One of them came to me today from Stratfor,” which stands, I believe, for “Strategic Forecasting,” and it described the war-planning interactions of the Chinese and American military strategists, all of which make a certain amount of sense if you avoid asking certain types of questions that only an idealist would pose anyhow.
It seems that the Chinese are building a navy that goes beyond any probable military purpose involving Taiwan. In fact, they couldn’t take over Taiwan because they lack, and aren’t building, an amphibious force. Instead, they are building a strong enough navy to challenge the United States Seventh Fleet, which is based in the Pacific. The Chinese have no immediate reason to anticipate a fight with the American government, but the US hegemony in the world has depended on its ability to project power anywhere on earth – indeed, in several places at once, if need be. It can invade other countries, but none of them can invade it. It can impose naval blockades without having to fight sea battles. It rules the waves and hence the world.
China (if I may refer to that government as if it were a single personality – a rhetorical device that I deplore but nevertheless cannot entirely avoid) must think about unpleasant dangers before they arise. One paramount danger is that the US Seventh Fleet, in a testy mood one fine day, might blockade China’s coast and interrupt its flourishing trade with other countries. At present, the US could do so – but China wants to make that impossible. Hence their new naval buildup.
Yet Friedman believes that their intention is not to outdo or even match the US navy (which would be prohibitively expensive) but only to develop weapons that could impair its functioning enough so such a blockade would be impossible. They are, Friedman supposes, following a strategy developed by the Soviets, who had planned a war in which they would isolate Europe by making it difficult for the US to cross the Atlantic. For this, needed only a some submarines and missile-armed Backfire bombers to counter the United States’ ships. In response, the US developed anti-submarine systems and an anti-missile system. That war, thank God, did not take place. But military strategists are still in business, planning the next one.
Friedman says that when Rumsfekd took over under George W. Bush, he supposed that the greatest threat to the United States was China. If Osama bin Laden convinced him otherwise for a while, that alternative threat has receded. (I can’t quite accept any such conclusion myself.) Now, since bin Laden has not triumphed, Rumsfeld can go back to his initial opinion and worry chiefly about China again. But the danger is not that the Chinese would force a naval battle; all they would hope to accomplish would be to
“force the US fleet out of the Western Pacific by threatening it with ground- and air-launched missiles that are sufficiently fast and agile to defeat U.S. fleet defences.
“Such a strategy presents a huge problem for the United States. The cost of threatening a fleet is lower than the cost of protecting one.”
True to his role as a strategist, Friedman discounts any possibility of solving this potential conflict before it becomes a real one. As he explains,
“This is not a matter of the need for closer understanding. Both sides understand the situation perfectly: Regardless of current intent, intentions change. It is the capability, not the intention, that must be focused on in the long run.”
What a depressing assumption! And what a dangerous one, too! Clearly, intentions and capabilities interact. There is a famous Roman maxim, “Si vis pocem, para bellum.” (If you want peace, prepare for war.) But it doesn’t work that way. I remember some research that Alan Newcombe did about twenty years ago in which he identified the countries that were preparing for war and then determined which countries then actually went to war. It was the well-prepared countries that went to war. The reasons are obvious. Each side, seeing the other preparing for war, thinks it must do likewise, and by creating mutual threats, they make war increasingly probable.
The world’s problems result from mistakes that are basically just theoretical errors. Somebody invented this theory about the value of preparing for war, and it has been propagated over the centuries as an important truth which should always be observed. But it’s wrong.
Perhaps I should tell the Chinese. Or the Americans. Really, if I could convince only one decision-maker, that interruption might give us a chance for a breakthrough. Who wants to convince Donald Rumsfeld? I’ll give you a prize if you succeed.