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National security analyst Graham Allison on the state of the U.S.-China rivalry
In our series leading up to the inauguration, host Michael Morell evaluates the state of the field for top national security issues facing the U.S. in the next presidential term. In this episode of Intelligence Matters, Morell interviews Harvard professor of government Graham Allison about the enduring U.S.-China rivalry. Allison is a leading analyst of national security with special interests in nuclear weapons and China, and former assistant secretary of defense under President Clinton and special adviser to the secretary of defense under President Reagan. Allison describes a new climate change M.A.D. policy, China’s attempt to ascend to the centerpiece of the international order, and strategies to avoid a nuclear war with China.
- Mutually Assured Destruction (M.A.D.) climate change policy between U.S. and China under Biden administration: “I think a second M.A.D. will become more visible and a more important part of American policy. It would recognize that in climate terms, if either the U.S. or China, the two big greenhouse gas emitters- actually China emits almost twice as much greenhouse gases as we do right now. Either one of these two emitters can so disrupt the enclosed biosphere that neither of us can live in it.”China believes “this is going to be a Chinese century”: “Nobody has benefited more from working within the American led international order than the Chinese. But at the same time, they believe that their time has come, that this is going to be a Chinese century. That a culture and a civilization, which in their story for 4000 years was the leader and center of the universe, was displaced from that just a couple of hundred years ago by Westerners with technology that exploited and humiliated and imperialized China. They think that period is over and that China is now returning to its natural place as the centerpiece of the order. They believe that there’s one sun. Everybody else revolves around it.”Managing the Chinese rivalry to avoid “a nuclear war”: “The agenda for whoever is trying to manage global competitive coexistence. It would involve recognizing China’s a rival to us in every dimension. The rivalry is going to impact everybody everywhere. It’s competitive because it really does matter who’s number one in A.I. given its applications for intelligence and the military and many other arenas. We have to be sure we manage it sufficiently, that we don’t end up making a climate we can’t live in or have a nuclear war that destroys us all.”
Photo provided by Graham Allison
INTELLIGENCE MATTERS TRANSCRIPT FOR GRAHAM ALLISON
PRODUCER: PAULINA SMOLINSKI
MICHAEL MORELL: It’s great to have you on the show. It’s actually an honor to have you on the show because you are, in my view, one of the great statesmen of national security scholarship in the United States. So welcome to the program.
GRAHAM ALLISON: An honor for me to be with you.
MICHAEL MORELL: This episode is part of a series of episodes that we’re doing between the election and the inauguration. We’re going to cover all the key national security issues that are facing our nation. We started last week with H.R. McMaster, who gave us an overview of all the issues. Now we’re going to start taking a deep dive on each of them. We’re going to start today with China, an issue that I know you have been thinking a lot about and writing a lot about for some time now. Let me just let our listeners know that even though we’re taping this the Thursday after the election, we still don’t know who won. I think that’s a good thing for our discussion, because what I want to focus on is what should the United States do- not what will it do- under a particular administration? In putting together a China strategy, what’s the issue we’re trying to deal with? What’s the problem that we’re trying to solve?
GRAHAM ALLISON: The first place to start is to recognize that in the China challenge, we face a more severe challenge and a more complex challenge than we’ve ever faced before. Indeed, much more complex than the Soviet Union and the Cold War, where you and I have earned our bones. China is not just, as Washington now calls it, another ‘great power competitor.’ China is a specific and acute form of great power competitor, namely a thucydidean rival.
The defining characteristic of the thucydidean rivalries is the rapid change in the tectonics of power in which one state, the rising power, is not just threatening but actually displacing the other competitor, the ruling power, from positions and prerogatives that it’s become accustomed to over the period in which it’s ruled, often a century, and upending the international order of which it’s been the principal architect and guardian. This is a challenge to the identity of the ruling power ‘who we are.’ Americans think and believe that we are and deserve to be and need to be number one, because we’ve been shaping an order quite successfully. That’s now given us seven decades without great power war, a great achievement historically. The reality is that China is a meteoric rising power and that in many domains it has overtaken and displaced the U.S. from our position at the top of every pecking order. The implications of this for the international order are basically upending what we’ve been accustomed to as the American led international order. This will be the defining feature of all international challenges that the new administration will face for not just this administration, but as far as anybody can see.
MICHAEL MORELL: What are the objectives of our China strategy? What are we trying to achieve?
GRAHAM ALLISON: The place to start is where you and I, and our colleague Sandy Winnefeld, co-authored a piece recently, “American National Interest.” The first question to ask about international challenges in our foreign policy is what matters more for us than other things that really matter. The core of our national security interest is the survival of the U.S. as a free nation with our fundamental institutions and values intact. That’s the mantra that became refined in the Cold War and that you and I and many others cited over and over. ‘What’s essential for the survival of the U.S. as a free nation with our fundamental institutions and values intact? Can we live in a world in which China has a bigger GDP than we do?’ I hope so. ‘Can we live in a world in which China displaces us as the principal trading partner?’ I hope so. But will this be a different world and a more complicated world?
The answer is ‘absolutely right, you bet.’ What we care about in the first instance are vital American national interests. We care about the international operating system, that the Americans have led in building. It has allowed the U.S. and world to survive and thrive. It has also been challenged and stressed by the emergence of another power that will be equal to and in some dimensions have advantages over the U.S. Then we have our alliance system, which is a component of this, because in the period in which the U.S. was unipolar power, the U.S. had about half the world’s GDP. So a strategy that we could manage and pay for when we had half the world’s GDP is extremely different than the policies we have to manage where we have one seventh of the world’s GDP. We’re still a big, huge, powerful, I would say, the most single powerful nation on Earth. But we now have China, which is a serious thucydidean rival. We have other great powers, Russia, which remains a nuclear superpower, and we have the emergence of other powers who really matter, whether Japan or Turkey or Iran.
MICHAEL MORELL: What is the fundamental objective as we try to deal with China?
GRAHAM ALLISON: I would start with even a narrower objective, we want to guarantee the survival of the U.S. and our well-being. Now, what’s necessary for that? We’ve imagined it is the American led international order and the entire operating system. But I suspect we’ll discover that we will need to make some significant adjustments and adaptations. Let me just go back to the core. We as old Cold War warriors can remember when we finally got it into our head that even though we had a fierce rivalry with the evil empire, which I believe Ronald Reagan was right when he named it.
At the same time, we lived in what came to be known as a M.A.D. world in which M.A.D. stood for mutual assured destruction. As Reagan would always remind people, a nuclear war cannot be won because it would actually erase us from the map. It will therefore not be fought. We had to constrain our competition with and our rivalry, with an evil empire, to survive. In order to pursue whatever other objectives. If it turns out to be a Biden administration.
I think a second M.A.D. will become more visible and a more important part of American policy. It would recognize that in climate terms, if either the U.S. or China, the two big greenhouse gas emitters- actually China emits almost twice as much greenhouse gases we do right now. Either one of these two emitters can so disrupt the enclosed biosphere that neither of us can live in it. Another arena where we’re fierce rivals, but we have to find a way to live together.
What about the international order? I think that’s where the challenges will occur as we think about what’s the alignment and what are the alliances. In the book that I wrote Destined For War, I reproduced this seesaw in which you imagine the U.S. on one end of a seesaw and China on the other, each represented by the size of its GDP. What we discovered is that in the twenty first century, China has gone from being about a quarter of the size of our GDP to now larger than we are, by the metric that CIA says is the best yardstick, namely purchasing power parity. It’s lifted our feet off the ground on this seesaw. There’s a necessity, therefore, for us to have allies to sit on our side of the seesaw, to rebalance things. So when dealing with China, we can deal from an advantageous correlation of forces rather than from a position of inferiority.
MICHAEL MORELL: How do you think the Chinese see us?
GRAHAM ALLISON: I think the Chinese watch us with fascination. They study us. In fact, their leadership knows a lot more about the U.S. and our history and our strengths and weaknesses than I’m afraid many of the people in our leadership know about China. They understand that we’ve been the greatest power in the world- that maybe the world has ever known. That we’ve created an international order in which they thrived. Nobody has benefited more from working within the American led international order than the Chinese. But at the same time, they believe that their time has come, that this is going to be a Chinese century. That a culture and a civilization, which in their story for 4000 years was the leader and center of the universe, was displaced from that just a couple of hundred years ago by Westerners with technology that exploited and humiliated and imperialized China. They think that period is over and that China is now returning to its natural place as the centerpiece of the order. They believe that there’s one sun. Everybody else revolves around it. As they say, there’s one tiger in the valley, not two.
Their conception of us and their ideal- I’ve talked to most of the people in their leadership who work directly for Xi Jinping about this. They like the thucydidean rivalry story in the case of the U.S. and Great Britain. I focus usually on the rise of Germany at the beginning of the 20th century, and its threat to displace Britain. That was basically the primary cause of World War I. But at the same time, the Americans were rising, and we rose meteorically after the civil war. By 1900 we had a GDP bigger than Britain’s. By 1914, probably 25 or 30 percent larger. So Britain, facing two rivals at the same time, found it necessary to accommodate to the U.S. We were reasserting our position as the dominant power first in the Western Hemisphere and then ultimately displacing Great Britain from its position as the leader of the international order. We did so in a way that was very graceful and brilliant and smart because we distinguished between what’s called vital interest and things that are simply visible. They thought what was vital for them was the survival of Britain and its empire that included Canada, to which we were a plausible threat. They thought they could accommodate us on who would be the dominant power in the Atlantic. It turned out to be the U.S. I have a delicious chapter in my book called What If Xi’s China Were Just Like Us? Because Americans like to preach to other people about why they should be just like us. When we were emerging under Teddy Roosevelt to what he was confident was going to be an American century. Our behavior towards Great Britain, which they then had to accept and adapt to, was way more outrageous than anything Xi Jinping has done so far.
MICHAEL MORELL: Is there a name that you would give to that strategy? Second, what do you think are the key pieces of that strategy?
GRAHAM ALLISON: I’ve been thinking about this since I sent this book to the publisher more than four years ago. The book Destined for War, which was published just as Trump became president, is essentially the diagnosis of the problem that we face: this thucydidean rivalry.
The question is how to escape to the thucydidean trap. How can we defend and advance our interests and values facing a world that’s defined by the thucydidean rivalry. I think we have to find a way to hold- it is passing the Scott Fitzgerald test of a First Class Mind. The First Class Mind is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in your head at the same time and still function.
Our strategy is to hold in our head two contradictory ideas. One of which is the fiercest rivalry we ever saw. We really do want to compete and not just compete, but win in key arenas that are essential for our national interests. At the same time, we live in a world in which we both have superpower nuclear arsenals that could destroy each other. So if we have a nuclear war with China, you could actually imagine the outcome being both nations erased from the map. It’s impossible for anybody to really envision. But you and I thought about that a lot back in the Cold War. Secondly, we really do live in a contained biosphere and that greenhouse gases anybody puts up goes into the same biosphere and impacts the climate for everybody. We’re going to have to both be cooperating in areas where we face mutual existential threats that neither of us can deal with acting alone. That’s going to require a degree of coordination and cooperation.
At the same time, we’re each fiercely attempting to outdo the other as to who’s going to dominate A.I., who’s going to dominate quantum, who’s going to have the superior military forces? If you look at a scenario like Taiwan, can you both be a rival and a partner at the same time? I’ve been studying this in the business world. They have something they call coopetition, which they think is not that unusual. If you look at Apple and Samsung, they are two fierce competitors in selling smartphones. Actually, Samsung has a beat Apple in that in that market for the last four or five years. But at the same time, who is Apple’s biggest supplier of components for smartphones? It’s Samsung. I asked Tim Cook this ‘What’s going on here? How can your fiercest competitor be your essential supplier?’ He said life is complicated.
MICHAEL MORELL: Graham, finish a thought for me. If we get this right, what does it look like?
GRAHAM ALLISON: Unlike any period that you and I have ever seen before, this is going to be an instance in which the home front comes first. By this, I don’t mean Trump’s America First. I mean that we have to recognize, as we now see with the uncertainties about the outcome of the election, that our country is deeply divided. Lincoln, who said many wise things, never said anything wiser than when he said a house divided cannot stand. What we saw is a consequence of a house divided in our civil war, that more Americans killed more Americans in our own civil war than have ever died in any other war.
This is a fundamental problem we face at home. And in the same way that in the 1850’s or if you go back to Franklin Roosevelt when he came to office. We have to get our own house in order. That is all easy to say and extremely hard to do. But the bottom line of this first point is that if we fail to deal with our problems at home, we won’t have to worry about our problems abroad because we can never be stronger abroad than we are at home. Secondly, we have to recognize that China is a fierce rival on the one hand, but that we live in a world in which we have to survive with them. Third, if you go back to the seesaw analogy. The guy on the other side of the seesaw has four times as many people as we do, but currently they’re about a quarter as productive as Americans. So why couldn’t they be half as productive? They’re smart, they’re hardworking, so they’ll have a GDP twice ours. And they can have a defense budget or intelligence budget twice ours, where they will not be constrained by money. So we need other folks of weight to be on our side of the seesaw. There is a necessity for allies. It is absolutely the contrary of withdrawing from our alliance structure. We need to review, reexamine, and maybe zero base the alliance system because a lot of it is inherited from the Cold War or from before. It will be essential to have other nations allied and aligned if we’re to have a favorable correlation of forces.
Forth, going on at the same time is this notion of relentless globalization in which the combination of technology and consciousness is shrinking the globe. Now virtually everybody can connect to everybody. Everybody can see something that’s happening almost everywhere. That technological process can be slowed or diverted for a bit, but it’s happening. What’s happening simultaneously with this is that by engaging the whole globe, this has seen huge increases in well-being for everybody. Adam Smith taught us this about trade. Whereas if you and I trade, we can each have twice compared to if we tried to do it alone. This has happened in almost every arena. If you look at the advancement of knowledge, the advancement of technology, or the advancement of cuisine. What would life be like if we had only to eat food from North Carolina where I come from, or Ohio where you came from? Everybody’s lives have been enriched by a process of globalization, but we’re also becoming more conscious of the ways that it has downsides. We see this in the pandemic, but we also see this in it symmetrically advantaging China in some spaces. That’s another complexity.
The agenda for whoever is trying to manage global competitive coexistence. It would involve recognizing China’s a rival to us in every dimension. The rivalry is going to impact everybody everywhere. It’s competitive because it really does matter who’s number one in A.I. given its applications for intelligence and the military and many other arenas. We have to be sure we manage it sufficiently, that we don’t end up making a climate we can’t live in, or have a nuclear war that destroys us all.
MICHAEL MORELL: What does the world look like if we and China get this right? And what does the world look like if we don’t?
GRAHAM ALLISON: There’s a reason why you were a brilliant intelligence analyst, and I would rather be asking the questions to you. If we get this wrong, we could have the most catastrophic war history has ever seen. What I try to do in the book, Destined for War is locate the U.S. China rivalry on the map of history. I look at the last 500 years, I find 16 cases, in which a rising power threatened to displace a major ruling power. 12 of those cases end in war. Devastating war.
A great example is World War I. How in the world could the assassination of an archduke who is a second level official in Sarajevo in June of 1914 have created a conflagration that was so devastating that historians had to create a whole new category to describe it? That’s why it’s called World War I. In a thucydidean rivalry where Germany really was rising to threaten Great Britain’s position, as it had been the ruler of the world for 100 years. The sun never set on its empire. It was the ruler of the waves. As this occurred, this magnifies misperceptions, it multiplies miscalculations, and it leaves both parties vulnerable to some incident or accident, like the assassination of an archduke that triggers a cycle of reactions that in five weeks allowed an event that hardly mattered to most people to have dragged everybody into a war. The bad side of this would be a devastating war.
Unfortunately, I think if Thucydides were watching this drama today, he would say both the rising power and the ruling power look like they’re right on script, and they seem to be accelerating towards what could be the grandest collision of all times. A good pathway to that is described in the two pieces that you and your co-author wrote about Taiwan. I can easily imagine Xi Jinping deciding, especially if we go into an extended period of confusion and distraction here with our own domestic politics, deciding that he can do for his Taiwan problem what he’s done with the Hong Kong problem. Use force and solve it, which they’re doing quite successfully in Hong Kong. If they were to do that and we were to come to the military support of Taiwan, I think we could find ourselves, God help us, in a catastrophic war.
That’s the bad news. On the good news side. If we take the cases from history, 4 out of 16 cases, there was no war. One of those was the Cold War, where ultimately the contradictions in the crazy Marxist, Leninist, Soviet command and control system hollowed the place out to the point that it collapsed. China is trying, with its party led authoritarian government to make something work that certainly has never worked historically. I take my clues from Lee Kuan Yew, who managed a non-democratic Singapore. Lee Kuan Yew said China cannot be a democracy because if it were to, its governance would collapse. But at the same time, he told Xi Jinping repeatedly, and I talked to Lee Kuan Yew about this at some length, he told him, ‘What you’re currently doing is not going to work. You’re trying to take a 20th century operating system, this party led authoritarianism, and piece on to it 21st century apps. Where everybody has a smartphone. Everybody can see everything. Everybody can know everything. You can put up your firewalls. Everybody intelligent can get a VPN and then get around them. So this is simply not going to work.’
One possibility is the rivalry goes on for some period of time. We get our act together, a dysfunctional democracy today, but one that I’m hopeful and confident will get its act back together, as we’ve done several times before when we almost went over the cliff. That’s one story. An alternative story that the Chinese like better is, as I mentioned before, the accommodation that Britain made to the U.S. as we emerged to be first arrival, then to overtake Great Britain, and then ultimately to displace it. It’s hard for people like me, who’s a very red blooded American, to imagine.
History reminds us, that doesn’t end. There’s no final point in history. It evolves. And in the evolution, people’s minds and views change. Could we imagine a world in which 50 years from now, China is several times larger than we are, but we and an alliance system and China remain in some combination of rivalry and some degree of cooperation? And their system has evolved to allow more political freedom for their citizens? It sounds a bit romantic, but I can almost imagine that.
I think that what we’re in for is they can sense history doesn’t end. There is a rivalry, a necessity to coexist, and therefore to cooperate to some extent. Where it’s essential for our survival in a long-term competition where we will see whether we can make our democracy work successfully to deliver more of what people want than any other system of government. That’s what we believe. And their party leadership will try to see, if they can make a party led autocracy, deliver more of what people want then than any alternative system. If that were a fair competition- certainly there are some defeatist Americans who wouldn’t embrace that. But I would with confidence that our core beliefs in individuals, liberty, and demand for realizing what we say are they’re endowed rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness applies to all people, Chinese and Americans and everybody else.
MICHAEL MORELL: You mentioned a number of publications. Let me quickly go through them. The first is your terrific book, Destined for War. You mentioned an article that you and I and the Former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Sandy Winnefeld, recently wrote in Foreign Affairs. That title is “Why American Strategy Fails: Ending a Chronic Imbalance Between Ends and Means.” You mentioned two articles that Sandy Winnefeld and I wrote on China and Taiwan. Folks can find those at Naval Proceedings. The title of that of those are “The War That Never Was” and “The War That Never Was Part Two.” Graham, thank you so much for joining us. This is an incredibly complicated issue and it’s going to be something that people are talking about for a very, very long time.
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