Evan Thomas is the author of “Ike’s Bluff” and “First: Sandra Day O’Connor.”
I am a child of the Cold War; I remember the duck-and-cover drills and the look on my father’s face during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. However scary terrorism might be, it is nothing compared to nuclear holocaust.
So I had an alarming, back-to-the-future sensation reading an article titled “How to Win America’s Next War” in the spring issue of Foreign Policy magazine. The article was written by Elbridge Colby, who was the lead Pentagon official in developing the 2018 National Defense Strategy. Its predecessor, the Quadrennial Defense Review, usually read like “More of the Same,” but this one is different, in part because it bears the direct hand and support of Jim Mattis, the former defense secretary, as well as his deputy (and now secretary nominee) Patrick Shanahan, who overrode the status quo bureaucracy.
The gist of the Pentagon’s strategic review is that the military needs to shift its primary focus away from fighting terrorists and rogue states to prepare to fight Russia and China. Colby’s argument in Foreign Policy is not quite Winston Churchill’s 1938 book, “While England Slept.” Still, it is an argument for waking up.
Russia and China, again? Russia has increasingly played the role of malevolent spoiler, trying to disrupt democratic elections with trolls and bots. Meanwhile, China has been looking less and less like a global trading partner and more and more like a high-tech hegemon bent on domination by taking over global networks. Both nations (and the United States, for that matter) are turning the Internet into a cyberconflict zone. But, until I read Colby’s article, I had not realized the degree to which both Russia and China have revitalized and reshaped their militaries to threaten the Pax Americana that has guaranteed global free trade and the spread of democracy since World War II.
With the end of the Cold War, the United States became — for a time — the planet’s dominant military power. Under the old model, it could use its far-flung bases and control of the air to strike back. In the conflicts in the Balkans and Operation Desert Storm in the 1990s, we launched overwhelming air campaigns only after, as Colby says, we were “good and ready.” But in recent years, while we were grinding away at small wars-without-end in Afghanistan and Iraq, Russia and China were building weapons systems that could quickly wipe out our forward bases and make the cost of counterattacking in, say, Taiwan, prohibitively high. (For instance, the Chinese have our naval and air facilities on Guam targeted with dozens, if not hundreds, of missiles, up from zero in 2003.) Both China and Russia already have, or in China’s case, soon will have, the capacity to create a fait accompli. By making it too costly for the United States to “take back” Taiwan or Estonia, our rivals can go on to intimidate and coerce our allies in places such as Japan, the Philippines or Poland.
Churchill supposedly liked to say that America could be counted on to do the right thing after trying all the alternatives. The United States arrived late, but ultimately just in time, in World War I and World War II. But the reality of modern warfare, with longer-range missiles and cyberattacks, means that the United States needs to be able to fight Russian or Chinese aggression right away — to at least blunt their attacks and raise the cost. The risk of doing otherwise is especially stark when facing a nuclear power. There would have been no D-Day to liberate Europe if Hitler had possessed nukes.
Despite its headline — “How to Win America’s Next War” — Colby’s article offers few suggestions on precisely how to blunt a Chinese or Russian attack. Still, alarmist headlines aside, the point is not to engage in a war but to avoid one. The old truism — that the best way to avoid a war is to be prepared to fight one — has a special and specific meaning in the scenarios envisioned by the Pentagon’s strategic review. The only condition under which the United States would actually fight is if China or Russia seized territory, invading the Baltics or Taiwan, for example. The Pentagon officials who wrote the National Defense Strategy are not arguing for a preemptive strike (the sort of war reportedly envisioned from time to time by Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, against North Korea or Iran). If China and Russia stay on their side of the line, they have nothing to worry about.
Preparedness for a conventional war against China and Russia actually makes an all-out nuclear war less likely. The autocrats who run Russia and China are opportunistic and increasingly aggressive. By tempting them, through our own inattention or complacency, to seize territory, we risk creating exactly the sort of conditions that can spin out of control into a greater conflagration. Sometimes the best way to achieve stability is to back assertion with strength, to draw a line in the sand and mean it.