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A Return to Containment: Kennan and the Responsible Use of Power – Part 4

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A Return to Containment: Kennan and the Responsible Use of Power - Part 4

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Written by Stewart J. Melanson PhD exclusively for SouthFront



The focus of this 5-part series is the role of the US MIC in influencing US policy for the period from the end of the Cold War (1991), which marked the start of US global hegemony, up to the present.  Since the MIC declared in 2017 that US global hegemony was no more, there has been rapid escalation in strategic competition between the US and China.  This New Cold War with China (and Russia), requires major investment in the US military to modernize both conventional and nuclear forces and is already in progress; as per the 2018 US Nuclear Posture Review LINK and the 2020 update to the 2018 National Defence Strategy. LINK

A New Cold War means a return to large military budgets after 3 decades of US hegemony where it was a constant struggle for the Pentagon to justify maintaining a massive military in the absence of any rival capable of challenging US supremacy.  This has now changed as China has risen to become a near-peer adversary to diminished US power.  And the US military establishment must rise to China’s challenge:

“Over the past several years, the department had to recover from the crippling effects of sequestration inadequate funding… years of budget uncertainty,” Esper said. “We also placed insufficient attention on the high-end fight, which many believed was behind us with the Cold War. The good news is that we are now on the road to recovery by first restoring the readiness of the current fleet, and second, by divesting from legacy systems and lower priorities in order to modernize the force.” LINK

The “good news is that we are now on the road to” a New Cold War with China that will justify big military budgets for decades to come.  And given Chinese ambitions to supplant the US in naval supremacy, long-term commitment to increased funding of the Navy will be required if the US is to maintain maritime dominance or ‘overmatch’ – this is due to the high costs and long timelines to upgrade and build capital ships along with the costs of on-going maintenance of the fleet. According to Mark Esper: “We are now at a point where we can and, indeed, we must chart a new path to a future fleet, that will maintain our naval superiority“. 

In Part 1, I argued that the MIC had a hand in influencing US policy to undermine its own hegemony while allowing China to rise to become a worthy adversary in a New Cold War. While this may serve the interests of the MIC, it may also be the more desirable outcome.  However, for there to be another ‘long peace’, then US foreign policy must stay true to the principle of preventing war that was at the core of Kennan’s Policy of Containment.  Preventing war is also in the best interests of the MIC.

Review of MIC Basis of Power and Self Interest

The basis of MIC power is primarily economic, and the larger the economic footprint, the greater the power of the MIC to influence policy.  The largest arms contractors can afford to hire well connected lobbyists to influence Washington decision makers, as well as buy the loyalty of politicians through generous campaign donations that ensures a voting record favorable to arms manufacturers.

Further, the economic benefits of military contracts can be strategically spread across multiple key Congressional districts.  Similarly, the Pentagon has many military bases located in congressional districts across the US that represent a significant proportion of these districts’ economic activity.

Downsizing the military can have negative consequences in districts that benefit from military related economic activity while increasing the military budget can benefit these districts.  The economic impact of changes in military expenditures in combination with campaign contributions is a strong motivator for lawmakers to vote according to MIC interests:

  • Vote in favor of increasing military spending
  • Vote against any military budget downsizing

The problem for the MIC is if there is a long period of relative peace and few threats, the public will expect a ‘peace dividend’ that will repurpose a large proportion of the military budget towards non-military programs – this was the issue following the end of the first Cold War where the US achieved global hegemony with no near-peer rival.

Hegemonic Stability Theory

According to Hegemonic Stability Theory, the hegemon will use its dominance to shape the international system according to its will and by definition, the hegemon has the power to do so.  The theory further argues it is in the interests of the hegemon that the international system be beneficial to all nations to ensure their willing compliance – this will have an additional stabilizing effect and preserve hegemonic dominance. LINK

A stable international system enforced by a benevolent US hegemony should minimize conflict – the elusive world peace.  Further, the long sought after ‘peace dividend’ becomes reality.  Over time the stable international environment will bring into question the need for large military expenditures on a global scale.  General global disarmament allows for a smaller US military while still maintaining military supremacy – freed up funds can then be repurposed to address other pressing issues.  This state of affairs is clearly not in the best interests of the MIC.  But there is the question of whether benevolent hegemony can persist over time.  To do so, the wielder of hegemonic power must resist the corrupting influences of power.

The problem is that the allure to break the rules of the international system presents a temptation hard to resist.  With supreme military advantage, the US can exempt itself and allies from the rules that it applies to others with little concern for repercussions, at least initially.  If the hegemon’s behavior is increasingly anarchical and oppressive, then the system loses legitimacy and progressively breaks-down as more and more nations rise to oppose the hegemon’s oppressive rule.  The break-down of the international system is of great concern as it destabilizes the system of global security making global conflict and nuclear war more likely.  Such developments are also not in the best interests of the MIC.

Hegemonic Stability Theory assumes it is in the hegemon’s best interests to preserve its hegemony and the international system will be structured accordingly.  But what if US global hegemony does not serve the best interests of those that hold the reigns of power, as they are far better served by a different international order?  In contrast to a US hegemonic world order, the first Cold War was a relatively stable period, the ‘long peace’, maintained by the balance of power between the two superpowers.

The long peace was possible because the two superpowers were comparable in both strategic and conventional forces and despite close calls, neither dared risk a direct confrontation that could lead to their mutual destruction.  It was a time of ‘peace through strength’ for the duration of the Cold War, meaning decades of large military budgets to contain the Soviet threat without igniting a global war.

If global hegemony leads to tyranny and destabilization LINK and great power rivalry leads to unstable alliances that in turn lead to a world war LINK, a bipolar superpower rivalry looks pretty good in comparison:

With the relative decline of US, China and America can enter into bipolar relationship much like the US and the USSR during the Cold War… [Kenneth Waltz, architect of Defensive Realism] posits bipolarity as the most stable of international configurations… balancing between the US and China brings the international distribution of power into an equilibrium and averts the risk of war. LINK

According to Hegemonic Stability Theory, the US MIC will use its influence in an attempt to direct US policy to reshape the international system to its liking – a return to Cold War superpower rivalry:

  • Use the First Cold War as a template to guide actions and policy – a known quantity that worked
  • Use its influence to formulate US policies that will undermine its own hegemony to purposely attenuate US power enough to accommodate a near peer rival
  • A potential rival must not be thwarted from achieving near-peer status with the US
  • Once a rival achieves near-peer status, initiate a New Cold War with that rival

Does the MIC possess sufficient influence over US foreign policy to reshape the international system according to its will?  Ever since Eisenhower’s speech warning the public of the MIC’s potential to accumulate “unwarranted influence”, It is generally accepted the MIC wields substantive influence over US policy.   In fact, the US military have been an integral part of US foreign policy planning:

the National Security Act of 1947… created the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), National Security Council (NSC), and… the Department of Defense (DoD). While the law subordinated the military to a civilian secretary of defense, it… officially incorporate[ed] military personnel into the foreign policy decision-making process… the new process also cleared the way for the JCS and DoD to influence grand strategy and policy planning. One early example was NSC-68, which described a strategy to contain the Soviet Union and informed Cold War policy for decades. LINK

The 1947 National Security Act (NSA) institutionalized direct involvement of the MIC in the decision-making process of the executive branch – MIC involvement in drafting and adoption of NSC-68 served to entrench the MIC as a major power broker over law-makers that controlled the purse strings.

NSC-68: Entrenchment in the Political Sphere of the Military-Industrial Complex

NSC-68 was a collaborative effort of the State Department, Pentagon and the NSC that was presented to President Truman in April 1950 LINK.  The primary thesis was:

that the Soviet threat would soon be greatly augmented by the addition of more weapons, including nuclear weapons, to the Soviet arsenal. They argued that the best course of action was to respond in kind with a massive build-up of the U.S. military and its weaponry. LINK

NSC-68 outlined several policy scenarios: return to isolationism; war; diplomatic efforts with the Soviets; or “the rapid building up of the political, economic, and military strength of the free world” – to attain sufficient strength to deter Soviet aggression.  NSC-68 also characterized Soviet intentions as sinister “to impose its absolute authority over the rest of the world.” This precluded a return to isolationism as the US would eventually become a target of Soviet designs neutral or not.  The best policy option was to stand up to Soviet expansionism as defender of the free world.  To do so required significant additional investment in the military.  Initially, some policy planners expressed their opposition:

former ambassadors to the Soviet Union George Kennan and Charles Bohlen, argued that the United States already had a substantial military advantage over the Soviet Union… However, the invasion of South Korea by Soviet and Chinese-backed North Korean forces in June 1950, and continuing charges by Congressional critics that the Administration was soft on Communism, quickly settled matters …NSC 68… became policy. LINK

The context of the drafting of NSC-68 was one of growing public alarm over Soviet subjugation of Eastern Europe, successful detonation of a Soviet nuclear device, Soviet blockade of West Berlin and communist victory in China.  The outbreak of the Korean War (June 1950) convinced the American public that communism was a global threat that needed to be thwarted – 78% of Americans supported US involvement. LINK Growing public hostility towards Communism was mirrored by Congressional leaders that accused Truman of being “soft on Communism”.

American concerns over Communist aggression and the hawkish mood in Congress assured NSC-68 became policy which primarily was to maintain clear military advantage to deter the Soviet Union from starting a war that could escalate to nuclear war – peace through strength.  Superpower rivalry was to remain in the ideological and economic spheres (a Cold War).  The consensus among the authors of NSC-68 was that the US military fell far short of the needed strength to act as a deterrent and this could only be remedied by a major increase in military spending.  Acting on this consensus, “Truman almost tripled defense spending as a percentage of the gross domestic product between 1950 and 1953 (from 5 to 14.2 percent).” LINK

The massive increases in military spending enhanced MIC influence over lawmakers as it served to increase military related economic activity in Congressional districts – good economic times improves incumbent re-election chances.  NSC-68 adoption assured massive year-over-year funding which entrenched the MIC as a major power broker in Congress and even the very fabric of American society:

… we have been compelled to create … an immense military establishment… The total influence-economic, political, even spiritual-is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the Federal government… LINK

NSC-68 marked the beginning of the MIC golden age that would span four decades; i.e. the duration of the Cold War, which would come to an abrupt end in 1991.  The collapse of the Soviet Union meant that the US stood alone as the world’s sole superpower.  In the absence of any peer threat, the MIC struggled to justify large military spending.  The US may have ‘won’ the Cold War, but the MIC found itself on the short-end of the stick – if only there could be a return to the good old days of the Cold War.

What the MIC needed was a new near-peer adversary to start a New Cold War – with its promise of a new golden age of budget-busting military spending.  Eventually, MIC prayers were answered, it just required a bit of ‘strategic patience’ and … a plan.

2018 National Defence Strategy: From Trump the Isolationist to New Cold War Warrior

Just as NSC-68 served as the blueprint for the first Cold War, Trump’s 2018 NDS served as a blueprint for a New Cold War, but with roles reversed; China as main threat and Russia as the secondary threat. LINK Trump as Cold War Warrior is quite the evolution from when he campaigned on better relations with Russia and extricating the US from foreign conflicts which resonated with a rising populist movement opposed to foreign interventions:

“Many Americans looked at the policies of the past decades and saw that the U.S. acting as the global sheriff did not benefit them,” Bremmer said. “It was trillions of dollars wasted in Iraq and Afghanistan, with thousands of American lives lost … and they don’t want to see that anymore.” LINK

In an April 2016 foreign policy speech at the Center for the National Interest, Trump spoke of the need to explore cooperation with Russia in areas of mutual interests such as fighting terrorism:

We desire to live peacefully and in friendship with Russia and China. We have serious differences with these two nations, and must regard them with open eyes, but we are not bound to be adversaries. We should seek common ground based on shared interests.

Russia, for instance, has also seen the horror of Islamic terrorism. I believe an easing of tensions, and improved relations with Russia from a position of strength only is possible, absolutely possible. Common sense says this cycle, this horrible cycle of hostility must end and ideally will end soon. Good for both countries.

 Some say the Russians won’t be reasonable. I intend to find out. LINK

While such campaign rhetoric played well to the populist movement that would sweep Trump into office, the Washington political establishment viewed Trump as a threat to the status quo:

…Trump has talked mostly about disrupting the world order, without saying what would replace it. Yet if the U.S. simply recedes from its superpower role, Russia, China and Iran and others would gladly step in to fill that void LINK

Trump’s rise to become frontrunner for GOP nomination ‘frightened the horses’ enough to prompt leading GOP national security leaders into action, publishing an open letter of rebuke in an effort to prevent Trump from becoming the GOP nominee.  The letter presented a list of objections to a Trump nomination and below I provide two objections of interest:

His vision of American influence and power in the world is wildly inconsistent and unmoored in principle. He swings from isolationism to military adventurism within the space of one sentence.

 His admiration for foreign dictators such as Vladimir Putin is unacceptable for the leader of the world’s greatest democracy. LINK

Despite this, Trump shocked pundits when he won the GOP nomination.  How could an outsider have gotten so far as to secure the GOP nomination?  Clearly, the establishment had underestimated the strength of the populist movement backing Trump’s bid.  Having secured the GOP nomination, Trump’s foreign policy messaging changed.  Speaking on national security in Philadelphia, Trump articulated his intentions on foreign policy and the role of the US military, including reversing the Obama mandated military budget reductions (sequester):

Today, I am here to talk about three crucial words that should be at the center of our foreign policy: Peace Through Strength… Instead of an apology tour, I will proudly promote our system of government and our way of life as the best in the world – just like we did in our campaign against communism during the Cold War…

 China has grown more aggressive, and… Russia has defied this Administration at every turn. Putin has no respect for President Obama or Hillary Clinton.  History shows that when America is not prepared is when the danger is greatest. We want to deter, avoid and prevent conflict through our unquestioned military strength…. As soon as I take office, I will ask Congress to fully eliminate the defense sequester and will submit a new budget to rebuild our military. LINK [Excerpt of speech delivered Sept. 7, 2016 before the Union League of Philadelphia]

The language is more Cold War than isolationist, identifying China and Russia as adversaries – a walk back from earlier statements about improving relations with Russia – certainly cooperation with Russia would throw a wrench in the MIC’s New Cold War plans.  The audience Trump was addressing, members of the Union League of Philadelphia, is of interest not only for the Union League’s support of the military, but also the circumstances of their founding – the US Civil War:

Founded in 1862 as a patriotic society to support the Union and the policies of President Abraham Lincoln [and] laid the philosophical foundation of other Union Leagues across a nation torn by civil war. The League has proudly supported the American military in each conflict since the Civil War. LINK

During a time of a deep divide in American society and politics, this choice of Philadelphia, home of the Constitution, and audience of Unionists, is suggestive of the concerns over the future unity of the Republic.  The US military oath is to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic …”  While external enemies have been identified, US society has become polarized with an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality that is being stoked by the main stream media.  Is there an enemy within?  This is a topic I will discuss in Part 5, here I focus on external threats.

Trump sets the tone of his speech at the very beginning with emphasis on “Peace through strength”.  Trump then states his intent to not apologise for but to “proudly promoteour way of life as the best in the world – just like we did in our campaign against communism during the Cold War”.  Diplomats pay close attention to the choice of words used in political speeches as it tells them of intent.

The language of international relations is imbued with historical reference and philosophical and ideological terminology that conveys a deeper meaning readily understood by those familiar with history and the language of diplomacy.  Take for example a Nov. 6, 2019 commentary by Kay C. James, President of The Heritage Foundation, titled “Peace Through Strength”:

The America that we cherish and hope to pass on to the next generation depends on … a military strong enough to protect it and everything it stands for. Without that kind of military might to defend us from our enemies and to deter potential adversaries, everything that America is and was meant to be could be lost — our freedom, our prosperity, and our very way of life

Unfortunately, our adversaries are spending heavily to increase their capabilities while our armed forces are understaffed and using equipment that’s outdated and on the verge of retirement. China and Russia are both working to overtake the United States as the dominant world power. We know that their purpose is not to use their militaries for defense, but to put more of the world under their control.

While some may want to argue that we already spend too much on our military, an honest look at the shortages in our ranks and equipment shows the very real need for increased and sustained funding. LINK

The language mirrors that used in Trump’s address to the Union League, which is not coincidence, they are communicating the same message.  A strong military to protect the American way of life is necessary to “deter, avoid and prevent” aggression.  And who are we to fear, well, the usual suspects – Russia and China.  Is military spending too high?  The counterpoint is that failure to invest in the military risks failure in defending the American way of life.

This is an ideological argument and goes back to the early years of the first Cold War when Eisenhower spoke of the danger of ‘unwarranted influence’ of the MIC, but also acknowledged its necessity: “we have been compelled to create … an immense military establishment and … recognize the imperative need for this development.” And this will remain the case for as long as it takes to win the ideological war (strategic patience):

United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” …a compromise between an all-out war of superpowers and a passive peace strategy [appeasement] that would invite opportunistic Soviet aggression. Be patient. Show strength. Wait for the inevitable fall [of the Soviet Union]. LINK

And according to Robert Kaplan’s “A New Cold War Has Begun”, strategic patience is needed once-again – “The United States and China will be locked in a contest for decades. But Washington can win if it stays more patient than Beijing.” https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/01/07/a-new-cold-war-has-begun/  The title reflects the adoption by the Trump administration of the 2018 National Defence Strategy which is at its core, a blueprint for the New Cold War.

Trump and the New Cold War

The world order was disrupted in 2017 when the US military establishment acknowledged the end of US hegemony and the return to great power rivalry.  But according to a Homeland Security brief of the 2018 NDS, it would not be great power rivalry to replace US hegemony, it would be a New Cold War superpower rivalry with China and Russia:

… the United States must bolster its competitive military advantage–which the NDS sees as having eroded in recent decades–relative to the threats posed by China and Russia. It further maintains that ‘inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.LINK

According to the NDS document, the US military had atrophied during Obama’s second term while Russia and China made rapid gains towards achieving near-peer status with the US.  Importantly, “inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern”. The threat of terrorism and oppressive US hegemony having reached the end of their utility, the time was right to reshape the international system.  And it would be the Trump administration to oversee the change with plenty of help from the military establishment; “No modern President has appointed so many generals to Cabinet postsLINK

To set the tone, Trump’s Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a former Navy SEAL said “…the world is safer when America is strongerLINK.  Trump campaigned on the slogan ‘America first’ and yet a member of Trump’s cabinet states the ‘world is safer’ instead of ‘America is safer’.  Clearly, the US was not going to retreat from the world stage, and that included China’s shores.  In a 2005 article by Robert Kaplan titled “How We Would Fight China” published in the Atlantic:

For some time now no navy or air force has posed a threat to the United States. …This will soon change. The Chinese navy is poised to push out into the Pacific—and when it does, it will very quickly encounter a U.S. Navy and Air Force unwilling to budge from the coastal shelf of the Asian mainland. It’s not hard to imagine the result: a replay of the decades-long Cold War

[A] functional substitute for a NATO of the Pacific already exists, and is indeed up and running. It is the U.S. Pacific Command, known as PACOM… Quietly in recent years, by negotiating bilateral security agreements….

American business and military interests are likely to run in tandem toward a classically conservative policy of deterring China without needlessly provoking it… Our stance toward China and the Pacific, in other words, comes with a built-in stability—and this, in turn, underscores the notion of a new Cold War that is sustainable over the very long haul. LINK

It seems the threat of a rising China has been foreseen for some time, including an ‘Indo-Pacific NATO’ in response and yet it was only recently that policy with China substantively changed.  The 2017 US National Security Strategy declared China’s peaceful rise to great power status had not gone as planned and a more confrontational policy towards China was needed (which was embodied in the 2018 NDS). LINK

A Return to Containment: Kennan and the Responsible Use of Power - Part 4


On the surface, the sudden change implies the US did not anticipate in advance that the US would enter into strategic competition with China. But this is unlikely. An essay in the New York Times by The College of Staten Island’s Modern China Studies Group, makes clear that a future Cold War with China was anticipated well before the release of the 2017 National Security Strategy:

ideological and cultural factors make China a threat. For neo-conservatives in the Bush Administration, the mere factor that China still sticks to communism makes view it adversely. Samuel Huntington has added a cultural factor: in the clash of civilizations, the “unholy alliance between Islamic and Confucian civilizations” is the most fundamental threat to the West. For people using this logic, the sensible response from the U.S. is, in the short run, a containment policy. LINK

At the time of Clinton’s Presidency, a particularly stark warning to the West was published: The Coming Conflict with China by Richard Bernstein and Ross H. Munro, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1997.  in a review in Foreign Affairs, this polemic on China was roundly criticized as overly pessimistic on the future of US-China relations. LINK However, the authors have proved to be prescient on long-term CCP ambitions such as taking control of the of the South China Sea by annexing small islands and island groups such as the Spratly Islands and then militarizing them.  This is precisely what has happened.

According to the authors, China’s grand strategy is to dominate the Asia-Pacific region, an assessment that is supported by China’s trajectory to dominate the region economically and leveraging its economic advantage to fund its military at a level greater than all its neighbors combined:

East Asian spending has increased from $92.8 billion in 1990 to $363 billion in 2019. Much of this growth in expenditure has been driven by China. In 1990, China constituted 23.6 percent of total East Asian expenditure. As of 2019, this number stands at 70.5 percent… in the broader regional context, the Chinese military… constitutes 52.2 percent of the total cumulative spending across all of Asia (including those in the Middle East). LINK

Robert Kaplan who in 2005 authored “How We Would Fight China” has extensive ties with the US military/intelligence establishment as a consultant to the Marines, Air Force, FBI, NSA, CIA and the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.  Kaplan is also influential according to Foreign Policy magazine, naming Kaplan as one of the world’s “top 100 global thinkers” for the years 2011 and 2012.  It is implausible that Kaplan would not have discussed his views on China in his capacity as consultant.  Clearly, at the very least, the MIC fully anticipated the possibility of a New Cold War with China.  Yet while China’s power grew, the eyes of the public were kept focused on Putin and the threat of Russian imperial ambitions:

Welcome to the New Cold War… Vladimir Putin states that a unipolar world with one sovereign is unacceptable. So is this a war of empires? Yes it is… This is about the US pushing NATO and missile defense right up to Russia’s border, a supreme threat to its national security.  Will the US renounce Brzezinski’s control over Eurasia…?  Not likely… it is clear that the US establishment still wants full spectrum dominance. LINK

Zbigniew Brzezinski, published in 1997 “The Grand Chessboard”, a doctrine that asserts Eurasia to be the ultimate prize in geo-political competition.  The main themes were encapsulated in a Foreign Affairs article published just prior to release of the book – Brzezinski, Z. (1997), A Geostrategy for Eurasia, Foreign Affairs, 76(5) LINK

Another work also published in 1997 is Bernstein and Munro’s “The Coming Conflict with China” which painted the Chinese Communist Party as deeply anti-American and a major threat to the US.  Basically, an argument for the need for a Cold War style containment of China.  As discussed above, the authors predicted correctly China’s intentions in the South China Sea and yet the US did not take any action to thwart China until after Chinese occupation and militarization of islands in the disputed waters.

2017: Goodbye US Hegemony, Hello China, Glad You Could Join us for a New Cold War

During the Obama administration, two National Security Strategy (NSS) documents were released – one in 2010, the second in 2015.  The Council on Foreign Relations reviewed NSS 2015 and viewed it as mostly a stay the course continuation of the 2010 NSS – Russia a bigger threat then China:

The instincts here are sound: the United States “welcomes the rise of stable, peaceful, and prosperous China,” and will continue to cooperate with that country on multiple fronts. At the same time, ongoing U.S. “rebalancing” will reassure U.S. partners in Asia and offer a hedge against possible Chinese aggression.

 …and pledges to deepen its cooperation with the EU in countering Russian aggression in Ukraine, which has violated longstanding “international rules and norms.” The United States will “continue to impose significant costs” on Russia, but it will avoid a Cold War, keeping the “door open” to greater collaboration “in areas of common interests, should it choose a different path.” LINK

In contrast to hostile US policies towards Russia to impose significant costs”, NSS policy towards China remained one of cooperation which kept China to a large degree out of US gunsights – Obama gave the threat of international terrorism a higher priority than China.  What is odd is that Pentagon Naval planning was not in step with Obama’s NSS 2015.  Bryan McGrath, a former US Navy commander, was team lead and primary author of the US Navy’s 2007 Maritime Strategy “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea Power” or CS21 2007; CS21 was revised in 2015 (CS21 2015) which was a public document and elicited a hostile response from China:

Several Chinese naval and defense experts commented on the strategy in Chinese media. The commentary was notably hostile.  Typical responses were: “Makes groundless accusations against China’s legitimate actions;” “represents a Cold War mentality;” … “the intentions of the United States to maintain its maritime hegemony have not been reduced in the slightest;” “obviously targeted at ChinaLINK p.79

Perhaps the hostility had something to do with statements such as this:

In CAPT John McLain’s view, “CS21 was a product of a GWOT [Global War on Terrorism] mindset at the national/DOD level. By 2011, we recognized that there were other emerging challenges that did not fit cleanly within that worldview (e.g., an emerging China).” LINK p.9

Obama policy with China was cooperative while the Pentagon planned for the eventuality of strategic competition with China – and kept low key until 2017.  When Trump took office in 2017, the White House and the Pentagon were once again on the same page.  A series of planning and policy documents were published in the public domain that shared consistent messaging – US hegemony was no more and interstate rivalry more than terrorism was the new priority.  Further, China was now the primary threat:

  • 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS)
  • A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, 2017 (V.1.0) and 2018 (V2.0)
  • 2018 National Defence Strategy NDS)
  • 2018 National Military Strategy (NMS)

Obama’s National Security Strategy was focused on Russia and asymmetric war to fight terrorism.  With the elevation of China as a primary threat, the prospect of military confrontation with two near-peer rivals simultaneously was a concern.  James Mattis, Trump’s secretary of defense, gave testimony to Congress that the US military was very capable in managing any single threat, but lacked capability to face multiple simultaneous threats; i.e. coordinated hostile actions of Russia and China:

A military that is small in numbers therefore has a limited ability to address numerous threats in many places at once, regardless of how qualitatively good the force is. Numerical shortages could be offset by the contributions of allies, but America’s partners have underinvested in their militaries even more so than has the U.S. since the end of the Cold War. LINK

Mattis found Congress receptive and Trump’s proposed expansion of the military budget had broad bi-partisan support.  In a 2020 assessment of Trump’s 2018 NDS by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS):

The NDS received a lot of support in Congress and the broader national security community. The challenges that it identified built on what the Obama administration had been discussing after 2014 and on many analyses by outside experts. LINK

I must question the statement that the 2018 NDS “built on what the Obama administration had been discussing after 2014”.  Obama’s policy was to seek cooperation with China, in contrast, Trumps 2017 NSS determined China’s peaceful rise to great power status had not gone as planned and a more confrontational policy was needed, and this is reflected in the 2018 NDS.  Prior to 2017, the MIC was well aware of the threat China posed but official policy allowed China to rise largely unimpeded to near-peer status – The MIC would welcome such a development for reasons already discussed.

Of interest is the close association of demonizing China with US military recognition of loss of hegemonic dominance coinciding with elevation of China to enemy #1 that must be contained.  In just one year, US China policy changed from Obama’s policy of cooperation to a New Cold War rivalry with China – remember that foreign policy resides with the executive and so Obama’s NSS 2015 was official policy.

If MIC intent was to end US hegemony to accommodate a near-peer rival, it is then understandable that the Pentagon would take the unusual step to publicly concede the loss of US supremacy.  This is a necessary step in efforts to condition the public for return to Cold War superpower rivalry:

Views of China have grown more negative in recent years across many advanced economies, and unfavorable opinion has soared over the past year, a new 14-country Pew Research Center survey shows… in Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United States, South Korea, Spain and Canada, negative views have reached their highest points since the Center began polling on this topic more than a decade ago. LINK

The average of polled nations for 2019 was 63% negative perception of China.  The figure jumped 15% in 2020 to an average of 78% having a negative perception of China – indicating efforts to condition the public for strategic rivalry with China are a success.  Trump should also be delighted by poll results regarding who should be world leader:

  • 91% of respondents said it is better for the world if the US is the world’s leading power
  • Only 6% of respondents said it is better for the world if China is the world’s leading power

LINK [take note that this is comparing the US to China, US global standing has taken a big hit since the Bush era of ‘pre-emptive defence’ and the ongoing tendency for unilateralism]

MIC Intervention During the Trump Presidential Campaign

I had previously mentioned Bryan McGrath, author of “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea Power”.  McGrath also led the consulting team that projected a need for a 355 ship Navy that was referenced as part of the 2019 National Defense Appropriations Act which outlined the current naval ship build programs adopted by the Trump administration.  In an October 2020 Congressional report:

The goal of achieving a 355-ship Navy is broadly consistent with a goal of achieving a 350-ship fleet that was articulated by the Trump campaign organization during the 2016 presidential election campaign. The Trump Administration continues to identify the achievement of a Navy of 355 or more ships… as a high administration priority. LINK

This implies the Trump campaign adjusted its messaging to be consistent with Pentagon planning to address China’s rapid Naval build program.  But this is not all.  What is noteworthy is that McGrath was one of the co-coordinators of the open letter to oppose Trump’s bid for the GOP nomination.  McGrath followed up the open letter with an article dated March 4, 2016 titled “NEXT STEPS: HOW TO PUSH BACK AGAINST TRUMP” LINK In the article McGrath refers readers to “Dan Drezner’s laudable effort at the Washington Post”:

Look, this isn’t rocket science. I don’t want to see a president elected who would torpedo America’s standing in the world and trigger the worst civil-military conflict since Truman fired MacArthur in the process. LINK

Sometime after this effort to take down Trump, the Trump campaign altered their messaging to align with Pentagon planning.  This was not a coincidence and I invite reader comments.

The 2020 US Election: Trump or Biden?

For the MIC, it is quite possible that it may not matter who gets in because, in keeping with the spirit of the 2020 election, the ‘fix’ is already in:

the new survey suggests that American public attitudes toward China have hardened for good, which indicates that the Trump administration’s aggressive approach could become the new norm, burying nearly 50 years of engagement kicked off with President Richard Nixon’s famous visit to Beijing in 1972 …

That could hem in any effort by a… Joe Biden administration to chart a more moderate course toward China…  Trump is defining the 2020 electoral agenda in other ways. He has ramped up his … Sinophobic rhetoric … and accused his rival of being soft on Beijing … forcing Biden to respond to his lead, rather than merely reacting to his challenger’s attacks. LINK

Trump accusing Biden of being “soft on Beijing” should have a familiar ring given that for the entirety of Trump’s first term, the main stream media waged a relentless media campaign accusing Trump of being Putin’s puppet or an agent of the Kremlin.  Now it was Trump’s turn and in Biden’s case, there may be real collusion between China and the Biden family.

Stewart J. Melanson PhD

Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Email: sjm@melansonwire.com


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