Far-reaching cyberattacks cloud the United States’ ability for strategic action. Conventional warfare and sea battles lead to dramatic losses for both sides. An array of other countries get pulled into a conflict that sees strategists resort to the most dangerous of measures. Ultimately, no one really wins.
The scenario may be speculative, but it’s all too real, says Adm. James Stavridis, former supreme allied commander of NATO who imagines these events as co-author of “2034: A Novel of the Next World War,” which publishes Tuesday. The book, written with novelist and combat veteran Elliot Ackerman, is what Stavridis describes as “a tale of cautionary fiction,” tapping into a rich tradition of Cold War storytelling — think John Hackett’s “The Third World War” or Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” — that made clear the apocalyptic disaster that war between the Soviet Union and the United States would represent.
“Part of why we never ended up throwing nuclear weapons at each other during the Cold War is that we imagined how terrible it would be, how gripping and societally destructive it would be,” Stavridis told Today’s WorldView.
Stavridis hopes he can stoke the public’s recognition of the grim consequences of Sino-U.S. escalation. His page-turner — “crisply written and well-paced,” as The Washington Post’s review describes it — involves a cinematic cast of characters: A sphinx-like Chinese defense attache who loves munching on M&Ms; a gnarled, three-fingered brigadier general of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard; a maverick U.S. fighter pilot gripped by World War II nostalgia; an overworked Indian American White House deputy national security adviser whose family connections in the motherland influence the course of the war.
Beyond the fiction, though, is a road map to war that could easily translate to the real world. “The novel lays out a pretty plausible ladder of escalation that goes from a conventional attack to a second conventional attack to a third conventional attack to America deciding to pull a tactical nuclear weapon and use it,” Stavridis said. “That’s more real [a prospect] than I wish it were.”
The action in “2034″ takes place 15 years from when Stavridis and Ackerman began writing the book, a framing of the future that allowed them to “create a world where the technology is roughly the same, but the underlying tensions are going to be coming to a head,” Stavridis said, acknowledging “the timeline of China’s advance, its military, its artificial intelligence capabilities, its cyber-capabilities.”
In their telling, China’s Belt and Road Initiative has expanded from its network of infrastructure and economic deals into a significant geopolitical enterprise that includes enhanced security relationships with countries such as Iran. The United States, meanwhile, has an unnamed female president who is intriguingly not affiliated with either of the two traditional political parties. The post-partisan administration she leads still cannot avoid the miscalculations and blind spots that see a maritime dispute explode into ruinous global war.
In Washington’s national security establishment, a growing body of policy papers and think tank reports chart similar terrain. The inexorable waning of U.S. military supremacy in the Asia-Pacific region will lead to a more tense standoff. Both sides will be — or already are perceived to be — drawing “red lines” over an array of interests, from freedom of navigation in the South China Sea to Chinese claims over Taiwan. The United States may feel compelled to redeploy more of its strategic assets to China’s neighborhood, while China may grow all the more insecure as Washington beefs up its security cooperation with Asian allies.
As strategists plot a burgeoning hemispheric great game, they are also reckoning with the risks of escalation. Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., the chief of staff of the Air Force, told reporters last year that a conflict with an adversary like China now would see “combat attrition rates and risks … that are more akin to the World War II era than the uncontested environment to which we have become accustomed” in recent decades.
“While planning to win a war with China remains necessary, it is no longer sufficient,” warned a 2016 report from the Rand Corp. “The United States must also consider how to limit war and its costs.”
Both U.S. and Chinese officials insist that they have no interest in provoking conflict or locking horns with the other in a new Cold War. But the hubris of great powers has often instigated calamity. “Nations are like people, and they can become overconfident in ways that lead them to make bad choices,” Stavridis said. “Certainly that’s been the case for the U.S. in many occasions.”
A disastrous Sino-U.S. war is not “preordained,” he added, pointing to moments in the novel “when either side could have pulled the keys out of the car.”
“Big doors can swing on small hinges,” Stavridis said.