Russia, China, and Us: A Response to Mark Helprin

Lord Salisbury, Britain’s 19th century strategist and prime minister, famously remarked to a correspondent that “if you believe the soldiers, nothing is safe.” Alarms that experts raised from their own preoccupations, he believed, required tempering with common sense before such warnings could offer a reasonable guide for policy. Much of the discussion of American security over recent years brings to mind Salisbury’s observation. Mark Helprin’s “Indefensible Defense” in National Review’s June 22 offers a case in point.

Helprin, a defense consultant and veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces best known to the public through his novels, rightly distinguishes issues that dominate news cycles from what he thinks are the underlying currents that lead powers into collision.  A feckless governing class leaves these deeper problems “insufficiently addressed for being insufficiently immediate.” Helprin links American military strength, the nuclear calculus among leading powers, and challenges from China and Russia to call for higher defense spending and a more robust diplomatic approach. Present resources can handle other issues from regional wars and terrorism to weapons of mass destruction, but the strategic threats he describes pose an existential danger.  Indeed, he argues that conflict with China and Russia has already begun.

The response Helprin proposes involves a military buildup to facilitate a strategy of counter-pressure and deterrence. Wealth and industrial capacity make China America’s most dangerous rival and fuel its ambitions to reshape the global order to its own advantage by dominating Asia. Helprin, without explicitly drawing the analogy, sees the United States facing China in a new cold war.  Russia, under Vladimir Putin, has revived the old Cold War with aggression in Europe. Threats of nuclear war that have been dormant since the 1980s lay below the surface. Helprin accordingly takes Ronald Reagan’s demand for peace through strength as a guide to the current scene.

Deterrence and America’s historic strategy for waging war depend upon abundance. “Subtract the monumental preparations, cripple the defense industrial base,” Helprin warns, “and we will fail to deter wars that we will then go on to lose.” A defense budget just short of 3 percent of the United States’ gross domestic product cannot meet the present danger. It also, he argues, falls below historic spending levels from 1940 through 2000. Cuts risk naval superiority in the Pacific, ceding advantage to China. Helprin calls for providing the military “a rich variety, redundancy, and reserve of systems that in peacetime might be judged duplicative and unneeded” so those materials when needed “can be braided into the new instruments and new strategies necessary for victory and survival.”

Many of Helprin’s points deserve consideration. Not all threats pose equal danger and prioritizing them is the essential precondition developing an effective strategy. With the exception of rogue states and terrorism, since the Cold War ended nuclear weapons have fallen largely off the agenda for policy analysts. Bringing China’s strategic arsenal into the picture, as Helprin suggests, clarifies the challenge and sets a more useful agenda for arms control than a bilateral focus on Russia and the United States.

Helprin also notes that defense policy requires an industrial policy to ensure the means of producing weapons systems which require tools, skills, and materials. Many countries promote arms exports as much to keep production capacity available for their own needs as to earn revenue. Implicitly, Helprin makes a strong case for intentionally developing a defense industrial policy that matches goals and strategy rather than having one emerge by default though competing demands by armed services and congressional interests along with budgetary pressures. Taking that step would help prevent the country from entering the next war with whatever it happens to have rather than what the military actually needs.

Overall, however, Helprin’s analysis focuses on responding to perceived threats from China and Russia at the expense of what the United States seeks to achieve. Counter-pressure and deterrence are means to an end, not objects in themselves. His tone also frames questions in ways that curtail debate. A choice between patriots supporting a strong America and either quislings or isolationists fearful of engaging the world leaves scant room for thoughtful discussion. It also dodges important questions about limits and slants assessments of threats toward responses that risk increasing tensions without improving security.

Slow economic growth in the past 15 years compounded by the great recession limits what the United States can spend barring a crisis. Taking the period from 1940 to 2000 as benchmark for defense spending presents a skewed picture. Besides World War II, it encompasses the Cold War, a protracted conflict that raised peacetime military spending to contain the Soviet Union. The period also saw decades of sustained economic growth throughout the west that enabled high military outlays and spending on social programs without curbing personal consumption. Stagnant wages and slow growth make Helprin’s case a hard political sell, aside from the general disillusionment with failed military interventions in the greater Middle East.

Instead of spending more, the real challenge for leadership involves reforms to use available funds more effectively. Dick Cheney as defense secretary right after the Cold War and then Donald Rumsfeld in 2001 faced tremendous resistance to killing pet projects and defunding weapon systems that no longer met America’s military needs. (Cheney successfully cancelled the Midgetman missile but failed when it came to the Osprey helicopter-airplane; Rumsfeld succeeded in cancelling the Crusader artillery system.) Inter-service rivalries and congressional pressures to keep defense-related civilian jobs make reform difficult even without other pressures. Balancing the American military to meet current needs, however, demands it. Spending more simply avoids tough choices even if a political constituency for it existed today.

Certainly the United States needs an effective presence in the Western Pacific. Shifting deployments provides an immediate answer seen in the pivot to Asia. Changing budget priorities to better serve present missions rather than those of the 1980s or even the last decade is another step before spending more. Naval superiority means controlling the seas where you want and when you want, but not total dominance all the time. Even with a larger military, an attempt to secure everything risks securing nothing particularly well.

Approaching China primarily as a threat to be countered largely by a military response risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy of conflict. It also overlooks important limitations on China itself.  Geography checks its maritime reach beyond an arc stretching from Korea and Japan though Taiwan to the Philippines and Vietnam.  China starts any naval rivalry with the United States from an unfavorable position that compels it to pursue an asymmetrical approach that may deny or limit maritime access to a rival without securing control for itself.  And building ships and developing weapons technology only takes a navy so far. Operational experience matters, especially with complex systems like aircraft carriers. China does not match other smaller navies on that score, let alone the United States.

How much can China spend over the long term? Maintaining large naval and land forces at the same time strained France and the Dutch Republic in 17th and 18th century Europe, along with Germany before World War I. Whether China has the wealth to do better remains unclear. China depends heavily on exports for its earnings, but global demand has fallen and other countries with cheaper labor now compete for market share. Japan and South Korea went through a similar cycle of growth based on low wage manufacturing exports before reaching a plateau China now seems poised to reach. Recent political crackdowns show that China’s rulers understand tensions within their own country. The split between rich industrial regions along the coast and less wealthy rural areas of the interior point to weaknesses that analysts including Minxin Pei and George Freedman have noted. A pattern among wealthy elites of investing abroad to keep their money safe reflects their lack of confidence for the future. Adapting an old description of Russia, China is neither as weak nor as strong as it seems. Calculating on an exaggerated assumption of its strengths misleads no less than betting on weakness.

Neighboring states have responded to China’s encroachments on their own maritime claims with increased security cooperation. Japan has moved away from its post-World War II repudiation of war to build a more effective military able to operate beyond home waters. India, too, has a stake in preventing Chinese hegemony that prompts countering moves. China lacks the capacity to protect overseas holdings, like its stake in the Panama Canal and investments in Africa, rendering those positions more liabilities than assets. Assertive policies in East Asia counter themselves by rallying a balancing coalition, though that requires American involvement to keep tensions in check and prevent an unintentional clash.

Henry Kissinger rightly warns against defining relations with China largely in military terms. The decade before World War I provides a cautionary tale on handling tensions among rising and declining powers. Suspicion and latent confrontation escalated into catastrophe. The United States instead should combine upholding a balance of power in Asia with engaging China to give it an increasing stake in maintaining regional order. Otherwise, Beijing might adopt the spoiler’s role Vladimir Putin has embraced of causing trouble and embarrassment for Washington whenever possible. More a nuisance than a threat, such disruption makes handling other problems more difficult.

Far from amounting to a soft version of internationalism, a blend of engagement with balancing China leverages both relationships and military power to secure the American objective of a stable world order. Richard Nixon’s approach during the Vietnam War offers a guide. Supporting allies that carried the main burden for their own security kept commitments manageable. Shaping the geopolitical environment to divide adversaries—thereby weakening them—turned the balance of power in a more favorable direction at reasonable cost. Nixon’s approach to bringing policy in line with American interests and resources helped managed a low point in the Cold War. A similar line now might keep rivalry from becoming a confrontation with unpredictable consequences.