The big question of this century for the American foreign policy establishment is what to do with China. The journal “Foreign Affairs” recently devoted an entire issue to the question. The articles covered the gamut of the United States needing to build up muscle on the one hand to completely withdraw from Asia on the other. For my contribution, I will rely on three academic works to come to a simple conclusion.
First, British meteorologist Lewis F. Richardson, who wrote some of the first mathematical equations for weather forecasting, turned his attention to arms races and wars in his classic “Deadly Quarrels Statistics” in 1960. He was the first to predict that the outcome of international disputes would depend on a fatigue factor. This factor would intervene decisively, especially in a long and interminable dispute, when the scale of military expenditure reached too high a cost in relation to the economic resources of a country.
Second, Yale economic historian Paul Kennedy wrote in his book “The Rise and Fall of Great Powers” (1987) that the military and economic strength of countries constantly changes relative to that of national rivals. These changes are the result of differential national growth in economic capacity and technological innovation. The successful management of these changes depends on a coherent and flexible strategy.
Third, to these material factors of dynamic power, Ray S. Cline, in his “World Power Trends and US Foreign Policy” (1980), added the importance, not only of strategy, but of national will.
These three points have crossed the history of the last century. By the end of World War I in 1917-18, the main remaining fighters – Britain and France against Germany – had all reached the point of complete fatigue. Germany and France were experiencing massive trench mutinies, and the British were hanging on in large part by tapping into the resources of their colonies. The American intervention in 1917, alongside Great Britain and France, with 3 million new soldiers supported by the immense American industrial base, tipped the scales towards their victory.
The United States, with its industrial base again, was “the arsenal of democracy” during World War II. The commander of the Japanese navy, Admiral Yamamoto, understood that given this industrial base, the Japanese would be finished if they could not deliver a coup de grace to the American forces of the Pacific at Pearl Harbor in 1941. a decisive defeat against the Japanese Navy at Midway the following year. With that, although heavy fighting ensued, the war in the Pacific was over. In Europe, despite all the military prowess of Hitler Germany, the American economic giant proved too powerful and Germany collapsed.
The same story repeated itself in the Cold War (1946-1989) between the United States and the Soviet Union. With an economy twice the size of the United States, the Soviet Union accumulated twice the military strength of the United States, although America retained a great technological advantage. Over time, the massive military strength of the Soviets weighed on its economy. By the 1980s, its economy had come to a halt. Desperate for Western technology to restart its economy, the Soviet Union abandoned the Cold War in favor of America.
In all of these twentieth-century “bickering”, the superior resources of the American economy won out in what historians call “the American century.”
Faced with China’s challenge today, however, we cannot claim the same obvious advantages. At the end of the Cold War, the size of the Chinese economy was one-third that of the United States. Today, it has reached two-thirds. In addition, China’s economic growth rate is double our own. What is even more worrying is its tremendous growth and the acquisition of sophisticated technologies. Whether the Chinese economy will soon overtake America’s is the big question facing the United States. Simply put, the two key factors in America’s advantage over the Soviet Union – its economy and technology – cannot automatically be assumed in the case of China.
Moreover, I hesitate to say, one more factor in our favor over the last century shows real fatigue in this one – our national will. Since 2001, the armed forces of the United States have waged constant fighting in the Middle East. Whatever the significance of our current withdrawal from Afghanistan, the inescapable impression around the world is that our national will is eroding.
Drawing on ideas from the three scholarly works of Richardson, Kennedy and Cline, I draw one conclusion: it should be clear that meeting the challenge of China alone is too risky, if not dangerous. We will have to do it with friends and add their resources to ours to achieve what we have achieved over the past century.
Tim Lompéris is a resident of Maryville, former military intelligence officer, author and professor emeritus of political science at Saint Louis University. He worked in the Vietnamese resettlement program from 1975 to 1976. Email him at [email protected]