Thoughts on Strategy from a Career Ambassador

Remarks given at the National War College

Sep 05, 2012

National War College Class of 2013

Introduction to Strategy Course

Friday, August 17, 2012, 8:30 am - 10:00 am

Thoughts on Strategy

 Remarks by J. Stapleton Roy


Let me begin by congratulating you on beginning your year at the National War College. I was a graduate of the Class of 1975. The world was very different then. Barely into our first week, we watched the drama of a presidential resignation unfold, leaving the United States with an unelected president and vice president for the first time in our history as a republic. The Soviet Union was still an ominous superpower competitor. Our position in East Asia was uncertain with the collapse of our position in Vietnam during our spring trip. We had gained enormous strategic advantage from our breakthrough to China, but we had not yet consolidated the gain by establishing diplomatic relations with Beijing. The dollar was weak, and our economy was entering a period of super-high inflation. We had a lot to think about.

The world has changed enormously since those eventful years. But there is just as much to think about today. That's why this year will be so important for you. Your time at the National War College will provide one of the rare, if not the only, year in your careers when you can do serious, in depth, reading and thinking about the challenges facing our country. Each of you will find your own best way to get maximum advantage out of this year. In my case, my year at the War College was made particularly valuable by the opportunity to discuss a wide range of issues with classmates whose experiences were very different from my own. I am sure that will still be the case today.

You will be expected to do a different type of thinking in the course of this year. You are entering a stage in your careers where you must begin to integrate political, economic, and military factors into your understanding of the issues facing our country. One of the exciting things about working in the U.S. government is that you represent one of a tiny handful of countries whose interests span the globe. We have embassies or interest sections in virtually every country in the world. Our military forces are located in every continent. As the second President Bush put it, we are a country that has the capability "to strike at a moment's notice in any dark corner of the world."

This year will give you the opportunity to delve into lots of dark corners, expand your minds, and gain vast amounts of useful knowledge in the process. In the future you will be expected to engage in big thinking, by which I mean the ability to see individual developments in the context of a larger picture. Senior officials in the government, whether civilian or military, are at their best when they can grasp the interconnections between the domestic and foreign considerations that affect the fate of our country. Based on my experience, such integrated thinking is the goal you should set for yourselves during this brief but stimulating year.

My purpose in being here today is to offer some reflections on strategy. I must warn you that I am not an academic specialist on strategy; nor do I lay claim to being a great strategic thinker. What I can offer to you are some thoughts, based on four and a half decades of experience in the U.S. government, on how strategic thinking relates to service at senior levels of the government, whether in the civilian or military branches.

I have found the concept of strategy most useful in two senses: First, in defining an objective that provides the framework for determining the appropriateness of the measures employed to achieve the goal. To cite an example, during the six years from 1972 to 1978, U.S. senior officials repeatedly explored with Beijing the possibility of retaining some sort of U.S. official relationship with Taiwan as part of the arrangements for establishing diplomatic relations between the United States and the People's Republic of China. Beijing consistently rebuffed these efforts, considering them inconsistent with its strategic goal of preserving the concept that China could have only one official government. We got around this obstacle through two unprecedented actions: the establishment of the American Institute on Taiwan; and the passage of the Taiwan Relations Act. These two steps enabled the United States to retain its extensive economic and cultural links to Taiwan without the trappings of an official relationship.

Defining a strategic goal provides for consistency in behavior. In the first Gulf War in 1990-91, the U.S. strategic objective was to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait, not to overthrow Saddam Hussein. When the goal was achieved, the war ended.

Second, the words "strategy" or "strategic" are useful in describing an integrated approach that brings together many different components of national power: military, economic, diplomatic, and psychological.

Let's take an example from history. During the Korean War, after the Chinese entered the fray, General MacArthur's prime concern was how to bring pressure on the enemy in order to restore the U.S. position. To accomplish this, he favored attacks on the Chinese Communist sanctuaries across the Yalu River in Manchuria. U.S. national strategy at the time, however, as determined by President Truman and the Joint Chiefs in Washington, was to avoid actions that might trigger a Soviet response in Europe and lead to a wider conflict. Not surprisingly, these differing viewpoints led to sharp differences between Washington and the field that eventually led to General MacArthur's removal from his command.

During the Cold War, which covered over three-quarters of my career in the U.S. government, U.S. national strategy was primarily focused on stemming the spread of communist governments subservient to Moscow or Beijing. Throughout this period, the United States was the single most powerful military country in the world. But during the first 25 years after World War II, we were psychologically insecure. After our victory in World War II, communism had steadily increased its sway over large chunks of Eurasia. At great cost we blocked communist expansion on the Korean Peninsula, but communism was still on the march elsewhere, mounting challenges in Malaya, in Indochina, in Indonesia, and, closer to home, in Cuba. We had arrayed against us both the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. Overall, the communist bloc controlled an enormous amount of population and territory and had formidable military forces.

When the relationship between Moscow and Beijing changed from one of cooperation to one of rivalry and active contention during the late 1950s and early 1960s, the bipolar confrontation between the Free World and the Soviet bloc was transformed into a triangular situation. Undoubtedly, this was better than having a unified communist bloc arrayed against us. But the United States was unable to take full advantage of the situation because of the implacable hostility between the United States and China, which provided no opening for even limited détente. We also found that despite their hostility toward each other, China and the USSR were prepared to cooperate against us in supporting Vietnam.

In 1981 I attended a small luncheon hosted by Deng Xiaoping in honor of former U.S. President Gerald Ford. The lunch took place two years after the Chinese border conflict with Vietnam in the spring of 1979. At the lunch, President Ford pressed Deng as to whether, in the light of the subsequent worsening of relations between China and Vietnam, it had not been a mistake for China to support Vietnam against us since Vietnam had ended up opposing Chinese interests. Deng rejected this proposition. At the time, he said, the United States had been an enemy of China, and it was reasonable for China to support another enemy of the United States in opposing us. Had we been friends at the time, Deng said, the situation would have been different.

The trip by President Nixon to Beijing in 1972 radically altered that situation. It symbolized that the United States and China were now in a position to cooperate in opposing the Soviet Union. At the time of the Nixon visit to China, I was serving in the U.S. embassy in Moscow and personally witnessed the devastating impact our new relationship with Beijing had on Moscow's view of the strategic balance.

The decision by President Nixon to seek an opening to Beijing served two strategic purposes. The first was to improve our ability to deal with the Soviet threat. The second was to pave the way for the establishment of normal diplomatic relations between the People's Republic of China and the United States. Without this second objective, both countries would have been severely constrained in dealing with each other. This, in fact, was the case during most of the 1970s before we completed the process of establishing diplomatic relations at the beginning of 1979.

The short term consequences of this strategic masterstroke were immediate and positive. The breakthrough represented the turning point in the Cold War, both psychologically and in terms of power realities. The completion of the normalization process over thirty years ago made possible the broad engagement between China and the United States that followed.

No one at the time foresaw the longer term consequences: the breakup of the Soviet Union; the enormous growth of China's economy; the development of vibrant trade and investment ties across the Taiwan strait; and the frequent meetings between top leaders of China and the United States.

These far-reaching positive consequences vindicated the strategic vision that lay behind the decision. Certainly, the actions that had to be taken by both sides were too momentous to have been justifiable for narrow tactical purposes. On the Chinese side, Chairman Mao had to begin dealing with the country that embodied the ideological principles to which he was most opposed. On our side, we had to take three painful actions, inconceivable if a major national interest had not been at stake: break diplomatic relations with the friendly government on Taiwan; end a security treaty with that government; and withdraw our military forces from Taiwan.

We are now facing an even greater challenge in managing our relations with a rapidly rising China. Let's postulate that our strategy for dealing with a rising China involves three components: avoiding war; insuring that we are strong enough to meet our alliance obligations and defend our vital national interests; and maintaining a stable and mutually acceptable balance between cooperation and competition in the relationship. This, in fact, is pretty close to the reality.

The question, then, is how do we formulate a coherent strategy to accomplish these goals? In addressing this question, we will confront the classic security dilemma: on the one hand, efforts by a country to heighten its own security can be provocative to others and lead them to respond with similar measures; on the other, real or seeming weakness can invite provocative behavior by those eager to enhance their own positions. In other words, seeking too much or too little security can both have negative consequences.

This is a real dilemma in managing relations with strong or rising powers, not just a theoretical one. All of you who are students of history are aware of the problems caused when rising powers challenge the positions of established powers. Both Germany and Japan rose to great power status during the latter half of the 19th century. In each case, their respective rises were major contributing factors to the two devastating world wars that marked the first half of the 20th century.[1]

The classic case is provided by Germany and Great Britain in the quarter century leading up to World War I. Britain and Germany were friendly countries in 1890; so friendly in fact that there was a movement in England to foster cooperation among the "Teutonic powers," consisting of the British empire, Germany, and the United States, based on similarities in culture, values, and institutions.

Instead, by 1910 Great Britain and Germany were enemies. Partly this was the result of British resistance to Germany's quest for great power status. But historians have placed the lion's share of the blame on Kaiser Wilhelm II. Driven by domestic factors, he set the explicit and publicly announced goal of developing a navy of sufficient power to threaten the Royal Navy, the navy whose superiority was a vital factor in maintaining the security of the British empire. Kaiser Wilhelm also sought colonies and bases that encroached on British spheres of influence and control. In a sense, Imperial Germany took delight in goading the British by its actions and words, stimulating both resentment and counter actions by the British.

At the same time, attitudes in the British Foreign Office were a significant contributing factor. By 1907, the idea had taken hold among British senior officials that conflict was inherent in the relationship between Britain and Germany. This reinforced the conclusion that Britain had to assume the worst about Germany and act on that basis, even in the absence of any proclamation of ambitious German designs against its neighbors. These assumptions had the effect of diminishing the role for diplomacy in managing the Anglo-German relationship, thus paving the way for the enormously destructive war that followed in less than a decade.

The governments of both China and the United States are aware of these lessons from history and are determined not to let history repeat itself. As a first step, China developed the concept of "peaceful rise" or "peaceful development." This concept is intended to signal explicitly that China, as a rising power, will not make the mistakes that brought Germany and Japan into conflict with their neighbors, with disastrous consequences for both.

The United States government is also seized with this question and is trying to lay out a policy framework for dealing with it. At a conference last March commemorating the 40th anniversary of President Nixon's trip to China in 1972, Secretary of State Clinton noted that China and the United States, two nations with long traditions of independence, now have relations that are "thoroughly, inescapably, interdependent." This new circumstance, in her words, requires "adjustments in our thinking and in our actions on both sides of the Pacific."

As she put it, "The United States is attempting to work with a rising power to foster its rise as an active contributor to global security, stability, and prosperity while also sustaining and securing American leadership in a changing world.” She added that "we are trying to do this without entering into unhealthy competition, rivalry, or conflict." In her view, China and the United States "are, together, building a model in which we strike a stable and mutually acceptable balance between cooperation and competition.” She returned to this theme at the conclusion of her remarks when she said that "we are now trying to find an answer, a new answer, to the ancient question of what happens when an established power and a rising power meet."

It is not simply the United States that is talking in this fashion. China's top foreign policy official, State Councilor Dai Bingguo, in his remarks to the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue two months ago, addressed very similar themes. The focus of his remarks was on the imperative of building a new type of China-U.S. relationship so that we can break what he called the "iron-clad law" of history that dooms established powers and rising powers to "go to war, hot or cold alike." He also recognized that this new type of relationship should balance competition and cooperation. In his words, it "is impossible for China and the United States not to have any competition. But such competition should be healthy and galvanizing to each other. It should be understood in the context of cooperation."

In describing how to build this new relationship, State Councilor Dai used language strikingly similar to that of Secretary Clinton. Dai noted that "China and the United States are more interdependent than any established power and emerging power in history." He added that "this convergence of interests and mutual dependence provides the foundation on which China and the United States should and can build a cooperative partnership."

Who can doubt that this is a worthy objective? Nevertheless, we would be fooling ourselves if we think that it will be easy to make the adjustments necessary to structure such a new type of relationship.

Indeed, Secretary Clinton directly addressed some of the obstacles  in her remarks last March. As she put it: “Some in the United States make the case that as China grows more prosperous and wields greater international power, the U.S.-China relationship will automatically turn adversarial. Others believe that as China's economy grows, the United States will inevitably experience decline as a result.” “Meanwhile,” Secretary Clinton noted, “some in China fear that the United States is determined to contain China's rise and limit its progress in order to advance U.S. interests at China's expense.” Indeed such attitudes exist in both countries. Even if they are based on misperceptions, they make it more difficult to sustain constructive U.S.-China relations over the long term.

Fortunately, both China and the United States have defined a framework for the relationship that, in principle, should make the challenge of stabilizing bilateral ties manageable. In the two U.S.-China Joint Statements issued on the occasion of presidential visits in November 2009 and January 2011, the United States welcomed a strong, prosperous, and successful China that plays a greater role in world affairs. This amounts to saying that the United States is not trying to block China's rise. Similarly, in the Joint Statements China welcomed the United States as an Asia-Pacific nation that contributes to peace, stability, and prosperity in the region. This amounts to saying that China is not trying to drive the United States out of the western Pacific.

In terms of declared policy, therefore, China and the United States have adopted non-confrontation postures in defining relations with the other. The question for both parties is whether they can adhere to these positions over time as China grows stronger and more influential. A stronger China will undoubtedly see itself as again becoming the central player in East Asia. For our part, the United States has long been a Pacific power with formal alliances and strategic ties throughout the region. As President Obama made clear during his visit to the region last November, the United States intends to remain actively engaged in the region.

This is the heart of the strategic problem. Both Washington and Beijing consider good bilateral relations of vital importance. But their growing strategic rivalry has the potential to evolve into mutual antagonism. The hard reality is that China and the United States will not be able to lessen strategic mistrust unless and until they are prepared to address a central question: is there an array of military deployments and normal operations that will permit China to defend its core interests while allowing America to continue fully to meet its defense responsibilities in the region and protect vital U.S. interests?

For the moment, we have not yet found the answer to this question, so let's examine it more closely. Thanks to its successful development strategy, China now has the second largest GDP in the world and has reached a level of affluence unprecedented in the last two hundred years. Obviously, it needs to protect the wealth it has accumulated over the last three decades.

This means that China has a fundamental national interest in providing better protection to its territory and especially its coastal regions. Not surprisingly, it is busy developing the military capabilities to do so. In the process, it is acquiring military assets that will make it more costly for the United States to carry out military operations in a hostile environment in the western Pacific.

U.S. military planners are understandably disturbed by China's growing military capabilities. The policy dilemma is that there is an inherent contradiction between declaring, on the one hand, that we welcome a strong, prosperous, and successful China, while seeking, on the other, to retain the same air and naval dominance in the western Pacific that we have enjoyed for the last seventy years. If we attempt to do so, this will amount to setting a security objective that is incompatible with a fundamental Chinese defense interest.

The other side of the coin is that China needs to take care not to set defense objectives that are incompatible with fundamental U.S. interests. The United States has defense obligations to assist our allies in Japan and South Korea if they are attacked, and we need to retain the ability to do so. We are also required by law to treat coercive measures against Taiwan as a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States. Washington clearly needs to retain credible military capabilities to meet its security commitments. If China pushes its military development to the point where the U.S. ability to meet its defense commitments in East Asia is undermined, then Beijing will be pursuing a goal that is incompatible with a vital US national interest.

The question is whether an accommodation can be found between these two extremes that will permit China and the United States both to maintain strong military forces in the western Pacific without constantly treading on each other's toes. Finding a solution to this problem is the key to building a strategy that can meet the three strategic objectives cited earlier, that is: avoiding war; insuring that we can protect our fundamental security interests; and building the new type of Sino-U.S. relationship – one that strikes a stable and mutually acceptable balance between cooperation and competition – that top leaders on both sides see as necessary in order to avoid a drift towards confrontation.

Where do we stand in this process? The answer is that in both China and the United States there is a disconnect between our respective defense responses and our declared strategic goal of preventing a drift towards confrontation in the U.S.-China relationship. This disconnect undermines the coherence of the overall strategy.[2]

The Chinese approach is based on developing what they call counter intervention operations, which are aimed at sharply increasing the risks for U.S. forces operating, in a hostile environment, in areas adjacent to Chinese territory. The U.S. term for this emerging PLA capability is anti-access/area denial.

We are responding with a concept jointly developed by the U.S. Air Force and Navy called Air Sea Battle. Based on publicly available material, this focuses on three objectives: defeating enemy surveillance systems; destroying enemy launching systems; and countering enemy missiles and other weapons. Since this concept is based on attacking capabilities on the China mainland, it is essentially a formula that could quickly escalate to all-out war.

Even if conflict on this scale in unlikely and preventable, this action-reaction process holds the potential for what one writer has called a "military capabilities competition" of unlimited duration. This not only has serious budgetary implications but is also certain to increase mutual mistrust between Washington and Beijing. In other words, our actions and our strategic goals are not yet in conformity with each other

Can we afford an arms race with China of indefinite duration? The answer depends on the vigor of the U.S. economy. In the short term, the answer is undoubtedly yes. In every measure of national strength we have the edge on China. Over time, however, there is no room for complacency. China's challenge to the United States differs significantly from the Soviet threat that we faced during the Cold War. The USSR never displayed the economic vitality necessary to overtake and surpass the United States in terms of the size of its economy.

In China's case, it has for an extended period been advancing in multiple areas that contribute to comprehensive national strength. Some estimates envisage that China's GDP could surpass that of the United States within the decade.

There is no question that China faces daunting problems in sustaining its rapid growth, not the least of which is the challenge of maintaining domestic stability in the face of needed economic and political reforms. Nevertheless, it would be risky for U.S. policy to be based on expectations regarding the potential impact of China's structural weaknesses.

Particularly worrisome is the fact that while the United States still has the largest GDP in the world, we are not allocating our resources in ways that maximize our advantages in developing and sustaining comprehensive national strength. Many learned commentators have pointed out that our political system has never been vaunted for its efficiency in responding to problems, and yet we have done all right in the past. This is true of course. Our system of governance was deliberately designed to prevent the concentration of power that if rightly used, can produce greater efficiency. But we have never before in our history faced a rising power with the potential that China now has to accumulate wealth and power.

This underlines the point that we cannot bring our advantages fully to bear unless we do two things: first, restore the health and credibility of our economy; second, reverse the impression that we are a declining power. So our top priority in facing the challenge of a rising China must be to get our domestic house in order.

Let me conclude with a final observation. How we define our strategic objectives is of immense consequence. If the United States defines its national security goals in terms of preserving unchallengeable supremacy for the indefinite future, there will be several inevitable consequences: First, none of the world's other power centers will support such an objective, putting us at odds with potential friends and allies. Second, if our goal is perpetual hegemony, China's rise, or the rise of any other country, becomes a threat to our dominant position, regardless of how they behave.

If, on the other hand, the U.S. goal is defined as ensuring the security and well-being of the American people, this leads to a different set of consequences. Most importantly, this would signal U.S. acceptance of the concept of a world in which other countries have an equal right to pursue the prosperity and security of their people through means other than force and conquest. In this case, the United States need not feel threatened by a stronger and more prosperous China provided that China behaves responsibly. The goal of U.S. China policy, then, would not be to hold down China but to maximize prospects for responsible Chinese behavior. Obviously, good U.S.-China relations would contribute to this.

These are two very different foreign policy goals. The first presupposes an eventual confrontation with China not because of its behavior but because of its increase in its wealth and power. The second assumes that a strong and self-confident United States can coexist with a stronger China as long as Beijing behaves responsibly.

Either way, China's growing strength and influence will pose a daunting test for our foreign policy skills. Indeed, this may be the principal strategic challenge that will affect your careers. I am confident that your experiences here over the coming year will improve your ability to meet that challenge.

[1] The following three paragraphs draw on material in Power and Restraint: A Shared Vision for the U.S.-China Relationship, jointly edited by Richard Rosecrance and Gu Guoliang; and On China, by Henry Kissinger.

[2] The following four paragraphs draw on material in PacNet #33, May 31, 2012, “The Evolving Maritime Security Environment in East Asia: Implications for the US-Japan Alliance,” by Michael McDevitt.



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