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Is Washington Up to The Task? | Focus

In the face of a rising China, America has a strategy in mind. But it’s unclear we can actually make it happen.

In February of 1946, less than a year after the end of World War II in Europe, George Kennan, a senior-level staffer at the American embassy in Moscow, dictated what would later become known as “The Long Telegram” to his secretary. Coming in at over 5,000 words, the document addressed two very simple questions: What did the Soviet Union want, and what should the United States do about it?

The USSR, Kennan argued, sought to export Marxism-Leninism around the world, and to muster its economic, political, and military strength to reshape world order in its favor. To prevent that, the United States would need to “contain” the spread of Communism by marshaling its own resources to counter Soviet influence. Kennan’s thought took elite foreign policy makers in Washington by storm, and he was appointed to establish and head the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, where he was instrumental in developing policies like the Marshall Plan.

The archetype of the policy intellectual—unelected but deserving some share in rule on the basis of extraordinary merit, academic but capable of seeing the “big picture”—is worth interrogating. Implicit in the notion that such figures actually exist and matter is the notion that if their arguments take hold, the state apparatus can coordinate its many constituent parts to both assemble and implement a strategy that corresponds to what they say. There’s no doubt that Kennan and his “containment” theory were influential (even if historians might quibble over the extent). The burgeoning national security state mobilized itself, as well as the diplomatic and economic power of the United States, to implement the strategy Kennan had outlined in the Long Telegram.  

This history matters quite a lot today, in light of the United States’ growing rivalry with China, and a book titled The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order by Rush Doshi, offers a guide for American strategy. Doshi, who based the book on his recent PhD dissertation, now serves as the Director for China on Joe Biden’s National Security Council.

The Long Game is a document in the vein of “The Long Telegram” and Doshi a policy intellectual, at least aspirationally, in the vein of Kennan. Like Kennan, he spent time in the United States’ arch-rival country, closely examined the thought of its leaders, and now bears a message for his own leadership class (which is listening) about what must be done.

An examination of the modern policy intellectual, particularly in light of past giants like Kennan, can be quite revealing of the current state of domestic politics and national security. There are two questions that emerge from such an examination. The first is whether or not today’s policy intellectual exercises the same influence as yesteryear’s. As he walks the halls of power, do the cogs in the national security machine respond to his recommendations?

If the answer to that is yes, then that’s all that needs to be asked. Even as Rush Doshi’s name may be obscure to many, if he is the architect of a grand strategy to counter China’s rise, a project that would surely reach into every corner of American life, then we should probably pay more attention to what he says.

But if today’s policy intellectual doesn’t exercise the kind of influence that, for example, Kennan did, then it’s crucial to ask: why? What has changed in the structure of the state?

It makes sense to begin that line of inquiry by tracing the argument of The Long Game. Doshi argues that over the past thirty years, following the Tiananmen Square massacre and the fall of the Soviet Union, the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party developed a “grand strategy”—meaning, as Doshi defines it, “a state’s theory of how it can achieve its strategic objectives that is intentional, coordinated, and implemented across multiple means of statecraft”—to displace the United States as the world’s preponderant economic and military power.

That strategy has been implemented in three stages: “blunting,” or the curbing of American power in China’s neighborhood; “building,” or the cultivation of Chinese power in its own neighborhood; and “expansion,” or the growth of Chinese power abroad and and eventual replacement of American hegemony with its own. The respective periods in which those practices were pursued were roughly, according to Doshi, 1989 to 2008, 2008 to 2016, and 2016 onward. Doshi also identifies three domains—military, political, and economic—in which the strategy has been implemented.

The section of recommendations that follows from Doshi’s analysis at the end of the book is fairly brief, but Doshi stresses that where possible, an American grand strategy to halt China’s rise should be “asymmetric.” This means emulating part of China’s own strategy: responding to situations in comparatively less resource-intensive ways (e.g. cheap sea mines in response to expensive submarines). According to Doshi, this is not only more economical but also far more politically viable than unpopular, expensive approaches to conflict and deterrence.

Paraphrasing Doshi’s own words, the United States can’t match the Belt and Road Initiative dollar for dollar, or meet China ship for ship in the South China Sea. That’s an important admission—Doshi admits that the US won’t always be able to mobilize resources towards its desired ends, given difficulties and political considerations at the domestic level. To some extent, Doshi seems to be pricing in the notion that the US is not capable of developing and implementing a grand strategy on the scale it did during the early Cold War.

It’s worth mentioning here that Doshi implicitly assumes that the United States has both a just claim to global hegemony, and a vital national security interest in maintaining it. He treats Chinese responses to the United States demanding participation in Asian regional international institutions as out of line. He seems to think that a world in which the United States does not conceive of its rightful domain as ending at—or even within—the borders of the Chinese maritime zone is inherently undesirable. Beyond normative assumptions, his case is weakest when he asserts that China wants to become the world’s hegemon itself, rather than simply carving a favorable place for itself in the international system. Doshi’s book is very good, but it isn’t without its flaws.

That said, however, I’m going to bracket my own critiques and embrace Doshi’s basic framework. Say that China does seek hegemony, that the Chinese Communist Party has been developing and implementing a grand strategy to achieve that goal for the past three decades, and that it is in the United States’ best interests to develop its own grand strategy to take China on.

If we take all of that as true, then Doshi’s approach comes across fairly well. The United States should find low cost ways of militarily deterring China in its neighborhood, such as purchasing cheap sea mines and increasing its reliance on unmanned vehicles for air and naval combat. It should seek to distribute its forces across the Indo-Pacific rather than concentrating them around aircraft carriers or military bases, both of which would be vulnerable to missile attacks, which would in turn cripple American capabilities. At the political and economic level, the US should seek to join and shape regional institutions, committing the necessary resources to winning friends in the region and bolstering the power of the dollar. There’s no guarantee that the US would succeed, but if we accept Doshi’s basic premise, these are the kinds of things high-ranking officials in the United States would want to do.

The question, then, is whether or not the United States has in fact developed (or looks to be developing) a grand strategy aligned with Doshi’s recommendations. Is the government following his advice?

With regard to the military, the evidence is mixed. In the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022 (NDAA), Congress has charged the President with developing a grand strategy to confront China. It also provides additional funding for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, which does research and develop some of the military hardware that Doshi recommends for an asymmetric strategy, such as unmanned submarines and surface vessels, as well as high-speed and precision strike missiles.

However, the United States military continues to be overburdened by expensive projects that are largely the result of interfering special interests. The F-35 fighter, for example, is not mentioned by Doshi as part of his recommendations, but it still consumes an enormous amount of the US military budget. Even if the plane worked exactly to spec, it would still be an expensive and marginal improvement, not at all a wise investment for any asymmetric or cost-effective strategy. The plane has also been dogged by development issues for two decades, over budget and behind schedule. But Lockheed Martin (the F-35’s principal developer)  needs cash, and the Pentagon sees it as a crucial part of the military’s future.

The recent AUKUS security pact, which will help Australia acquire nuclear submarines, is likewise a sign that the US government isn’t following Doshi’s recommendations. Nuclear submarines are quite expensive, and it could be years before the first Australian submarine is in service. And of course, with its high price tag, AUKUS is a major boon for the American defense industry. Doshi recommends that the United States play a part in arming its allies to deter China, but again, he recommends hardware that is both cheap relative to the challenge it’s designed to confront, and distributed rather than concentrated. Expensive submarines, of which there will only be a few, do not meet those criteria.

If the military dimension of US strategy is only partially in line with Doshi’s recommendations, then things look even worse in the realms of politics and the economy. The rhetoric is there, surely. Secretary of State Antony Blinken undertook a tour of Southeast Asia just days ago, and announced new initiatives to deepen the United States’ relationship with nations in the region. But beneath the surface, it’s hard to find anything as substantive as China’s own measures in the region, which include the establishment of a development bank and, of course, the Belt and Road Initiative, which finances development projects not just in the Indo-Pacific, but around the world.

The best claim that the United States has towards deepening political ties in the region is the Quad, a security arrangement between itself, India, Australia, and Japan. With three of the region’s largest economies, the Quad does represent a real check on Chinese influence. But the Quad is limited to four powers, and the countries in the immediate vicinity of China’s expansions in the South China Sea are not members. To that end, the US has failed to turn the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which countries like Indonesia and the Philippines are a part, into a robust international institution. Without tight political relationships (and, perhaps more importantly, their institutionalization), the US will be left alone to confront China, a power outside the region with limited legitimacy to rely on.

In terms of economic projects, Doshi is surely right that the US cannot match the Belt and Road Initiative dollar for dollar. Increased foreign aid is fairly unpopular (or, at least, paying for it is). But what Blinken seems to be offering is genuinely pathetic. During his recent tour, Blinken announced that the US would be helping some Southeast Asian countries develop an undersea cable to promote internet connectivity. The project’s government funding, however, is around $14 million, a tiny fraction of the approximately $760 billion allotted by the 2022 NDAA. Otherwise, Blinken mostly touted the “mobilization” of private investment. That’s something the government can encourage, of course, but what Blinken is selling both falls well short of what Doshi recommends and anything that would be decisively useful to draw Southeast Asian nations into the United States’ sphere. To return to the Kennan comparison, this is no Marshall Plan.

None of this is to suggest that Rush Doshi isn’t powerful. He’s almost certainly in the room whenever a major decision needs to be made on China, or when Joe Biden needs to consult with an expert who has spent years of his life reading Chinese foreign policy documents in the original Mandarin. But it does seem to be the case that there isn’t much room for a sharp policy intellectual to help formulate the government’s grand strategy.

Moreover, it doesn’t appear to be the case that a grand strategy—or at least the beginnings of something like one—are present in the United States’ current approach to China at all. And therein, I think, lies the answer to the second question I began this inquiry with, which is why that would be the case. I’ve written about the United States’ crumbling state capacity before, and as far as I can tell from my research in this case, it extends well into our foreign policy. Regardless of whether or not one endorses Doshi’s particular diagnosis of what China wants or what the United States should do about it, it’s rather clear that the government is simply incapable of mobilizing the resources needed to actually accomplish ambitious goals.

Interests like Lockheed Martin have ensured—through lobbying and the deliberate construction of jobs-bringing factories in most states—that the F-35 isn’t going anywhere, even if it’s nowhere near worth the ballooning costs. And Lockheed’s priorities are always going to be more weapons—not economic aid to the countries that need it, or the kinds of political ties that might make those weapons less necessary. Effective state mobilization requires resources that are clearly lacking in the economic and political domains, and only present in a mixed fashion in the military.

Sharp ideas for how to meet the challenges of our age are almost certainly doomed to be ground to bits by sclerotic institutions that can barely tolerate the notion of innovation. The country doesn’t necessarily need unelected wiz-kids running the show, but it’s not particularly confidence-inspiring to realize that American government is, on the whole, not capable of coordinating its many constituent parts in the pursuit of an ambitious goal.

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Make sure to read this Focus, in which Harry makes a similar argument about crippled state capacity in the context of domestic politics.

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