Edward Luttwak never writes a dull book. His most recent, The Rise of China vs. The Logic of Strategy, is no exception. It is a mixture of objective analysis, policy recommendations, and much railing at fools and strategic illiterates (of whom there seem to be many). It is often difficult to tell where the high-class analysis ends and the railing at fools begins. As a result Luttwak seems to beg not a few important questions. But he always addresses the right sort of questions.
We can summarize his thesis as follows. Ultimately, the often-paradoxical logic of strategy will triumph over the vagaries of politics, culture, and classical economics. China’s apparent rise to dominant global power, which now seems inexorable, is already in the process of being checked due to this inexorable logic. Resistance to a rising power will increase proportionately to the degree to which other states in the international system feel threatened.
[B]ecause of its inherent magnitude, quite independently of China’s conduct on the regional and international scene, the very rapid growth in its economic capacity and military investment must evoke adversarial reactions, in accordance with the logic of strategy.
Other things being equal, when a state of China’s magnitude pursues rapid military growth, unless the resulting shift in the power-balance passes the culminating point of resistance inducing the acceptance of some form of subjection, it causes a general realignment of forces against it, as former allies retreat into a watchful neutrality, former neutrals become adversaries, and adversaries old and new coalesce in formal or informal alliances against the excessively risen power…. [I]ncreases in China’s relative military strength must continue to increase resistance to its political influence and thus reduce it, as its potential targets find allies and form coalitions.
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At some point in this progression—everything else being equal—the combination of countervailing forces will become superior to that of the fast-rising power. Although it is theoretically possible for a nation to increase its power substantially in a relatively non-threatening way and thus to avoid a massive countervailing reaction, great powers typically exhibit a form of what Luttwak calls strategic autism that precludes them from adopting this sensible course. China is no exception to the rule. Han Chinese strategic culture, contrary to received wisdom, is particularly ill-suited to smooth relations with the “barbarian” world. Quite the opposite is true. Chinese leaders are already acting in ways that will accelerate rather than diffuse resistance to their rise. An informal anti-China alignment of powers in the Asian-Pacific region has begun to emerge, involving most prominently Japan, Australia, India, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Mongolia. The United States, despite major policy divisions within its government, has begun to serve as the hub of this coalition, if not yet its coordinator.
The governments of nearby states that fear for their very independence, the governments of more secure states that are nevertheless unwilling to accept the rising international authority of a China that remains authoritarian in its own governance (as in the case of Australia, for example), and the governments of the United States, the Russian Federation, and India—that seek to resist the long-term emergence of a global Chinese hegemony—are all now reacting to the rise of China with self-strengthening measures, including some increase in relevant military capabilities, but mostly by coalescing against China in various pairings and combinations. (The American and Russian governments are not converging to be sure, but each is definitely converging with India, a functional substitute in some degree.)
The logic of strategy itself presages the slowing down or even partial reversal of China’s rise, with the former more likely if Chinese policies are more conciliatory or downright emollient, and the latter if they are more alarming. None of the above presumes any form of provocative or threatening behavior by the Chinese. It all derives from the reactions necessarily evoked by the very rapid growth of a power that is very great to begin with. Given China’s dimensions, its rapid growth is destabilizing in itself, regardless of its conduct. Recent suggestions that China is in need of an Otto Von Bismarck to direct its foreign policy in less counterproductive ways therefore miss the point: the essential problem is not China’s conduct but the growth in its all-around magnitude.
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Luttwak’s strategic argument confounds the two major poles of strategic thought about how to deal with China. (We paint these schools broadly; there are obviously many shades in between.) The first general position, represented by Henry Kissinger as well as many liberal internationalists, is much taken with the sophistication of China’s strategic culture and its astonishing rise to power, and thus favors a policy of engagement and full integration of China into the global economy. This strategy is supposed to reassure Beijing that it is not being encircled and contained by an anti-China coalition determined to overthrow the regime. A happy, prosperous China is presumed to be a non-threatening China, however powerful it becomes. Luttwak rejects this policy course because it ignores the objective logic of strategy, that opposition will inevitably rise to check the growth of Chinese power, especially when China gives every indication that it seeks economic domination, not integration, along with effective military superiority and a concomitant degree of overbearing political influence. For Luttwak, the only serious question dictated by the logic of strategy is not whether other powers will try to resist Chinese hegemony, but by what means they will do so, and how effectively.
The second common strategic position views China as a power bent on revolutionizing the international system in order to achieve its place in the sun, analogous to Wilhelmine Germany or the Soviet Union—one that will may well resort to force if it cannot achieve its objective by bluster and intimidation. The preferred policy solution to the Chinese threat is one of military deterrence and active containment that seeks to weaken and eventually transform the regime into a less threatening, ideally democratic form. Luttwak rejects this course on several grounds, although he agrees that China is greatly ambitious and that a democratic China would be less threatening. The hawkish view neglects the fact that Great Power war—the traditional means of deciding such matters—has now been ruled out as an option of state policy. The destructiveness of war between states possessing large nuclear arsenals has gone beyond the point where any rational advantage can be achieved by resorting to force, save under very prescribed conditions. Great power leaders of all stripes, the Chinese included, recognize this fact. Further, China’s economy, unlike that of the Soviet Union, is too big and diverse to try to spend into bankruptcy through an arms race or a militarily aggressive containment posture—and such a posture would also serve to alienate potential partners, most notably the Russian Federation. There are no direct military means that will address the source of China’s power—its extraordinary 8-10% economic growth rate.
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Strategic competition and conflict have not gone away despite the existence of nuclear weapons, according to Luttwak, but they have shifted from the realm of geopolitics to what he calls geo-economics, where the clash of national economic systems replaces the clash of arms. Luttwak suggests that the most sensible policy would be to find ways to constrain the PRC’s economic growth to a more manageable range, say, 4-5% per year, which perforce would reduce China’s ability to build up its military and wield overwhelming diplomatic clout. He is not perfectly clear as to the timing and precise means by which this strategy would be implemented, but he believes that the logic of strategy points to a shift to the geo-economic realm. At some points in his analysis, he indicates that a counter-economic strategy should be implemented only if diplomatic action and other means to negate China’s military buildup have failed; but in other places, he suggests that this approach should be the main line of advance, simply. Whatever the timing, a counter-economic strategy could include measures such as restricting Chinese imports, denying raw materials to China, and stopping whatever technology transfers China would still need in that future. In extreme circumstances, such as a Chinese attack against Taiwan or massive violence against the non-Han populations, outside powers might enact a more comprehensive trade embargo.
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In the military realm, luttwak argues that those powers concerned about China should do enough (but just enough) to negate the intimidation factor caused by the Chinese military buildup, and otherwise to check Chinese adventurism. Luttwak argues that this is rather easily accomplished—assuming the United States stops embarking on quixotic, horribly expensive counterinsurgency and nation-building campaigns in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, a course Luttwak disdains. A sensible comprehensive strategy of economic containment and a visible but minimalist military response would truncate Beijing’s ability to assert global dominance while also lessening proportionately the resources that other powers, including the United States, have to mobilize in order to maintain a balance of power. “[T]he strategic aim of the United States and other like-minded powers cannot be to outmaneuver and defeat China, but rather to dissuade its own self-defeating pursuit of military aggrandizement in the best interests of the peoples of the world, and China’s first of all.” Luttwak believes China will temper its ambitions in time:
For what it is worth, the present writer is confident that China will not ultimately disrupt the equilibrium of world politics, because the Chinese themselves will moderate their conduct as they advance culturally as well as economically (two different translations of The Iliad are now on sale). The de-provincialization of a culture at once ancient, exceedingly authoritative, uniquely insular, and also ill-suited for the pursuit of happiness in a world of independent states, will take time, to be sure. Geo-economic containment would find its best application in providing an interim solution to preserve the world’s equilibrium without worse forms of conflict.
There is much here for the student of strategy to reflect on—particularly since, at least upon superficial examination, not all of Luttwak’s arguments seem to fit together. He would counter, I suppose, that he is merely reflecting the complexities and paradoxes of strategy. For those of us who are inclined to more conventional lines of thought, we might benefit from examining discretely some of his most important assertions about the nature of strategy and see where that takes us, even at the risk of being added to Luttwak’s long roster of fools.
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First, let us consider Luttwak’s argument about the paradoxical, non-linear logic of strategy. His basic argument is set out in some detail in Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace, originally published in 1987, revised and enlarged in 2001. In ordinary human affairs, according to Luttwak, things proceed and scale in a commonsense, linear fashion. The more money I have, the more things I can buy. Within the sphere of strategy, however, where human relations are conditioned by armed conflict, actual or possible, another and quite a different logic is at work, by inducing the coming together and even the reversal of opposites. Thus, as the Romans said, to have peace, prepare for war; thus, as Clausewitz wrote, “everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult”; thus, when the destructive power of a class of weapons reaches near-infinity, the military utility of those weapons drops to near or absolute zero. Luttwak once penned an essay with the title, “Why We Need More Waste, Fraud, and Mismanagement in the Pentagon.” He was not arguing for ripping off taxpayers or arranging cushy posts for Colonel Blimps; he wanted to drive home the point that “efficiency” in government or business is not the same as “effectiveness” in military affairs.
One of the major paradoxes of strategy is that, beyond a certain strategic threshold—the culminating point of success, another Clausewitzian concept—additional effort does not carry the same proportionate reward. What characterizes the realm of strategy is the impossibility of achieving straightforward results by straightforward action, because other powers exist and react in between the two. More becomes less. Indeed, to seek to go beyond the culminating point is to risk catastrophic failure. To use a classic example: Napoleon and Hitler temporarily conquered massive amounts of territory by invading Russia but, by outrunning their lines of supply and facing the winter season, they went beyond the culminating point of success. Their armies were overextended and vulnerable to decisive strategic riposte. Tactical and operational success led ultimately to strategic defeat. The Soviet pursuit of strategic superiority in the 1970s, which seemed to put the Kremlin on the verge of world domination, led to economic bankruptcy and the collapse of the Soviet system.
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By contrast, weakness (if not too weak) can generate strength. For instance, as noted below, Wilhelmine Germany should have recognized that “a weaker army and navy are better than stronger ones if they exceed the culminating level ofsystemically acceptable strength, evoking more-than-proportionate adversarial reactions, both symmetric and asymmetric.” Luttwak believes that the United States, now in relative decline, has become a much more attractive partner to nations like India than it was when it was at the absolute peak of its post-Cold War power.
Luttwak’s exploration of Clausewitzian complexities and paradoxes, and particularly the notion of a culminating point of success, has been a major contribution to the field of strategic studies. For the student of strategy, the challenge is to avoid taking this valuable insight too far. First, the culminating point in any particular strategic dynamic is not fixed: it is not a specific line on the map, or a precise percentage of GDP devoted to defense spending, beyond which one must not dare go to avoid triggering overwhelming forces of resistance. While statesmen must appreciate the risks of going too far, they can also use the tools of strategy wisely to create favorable conditions that allow them to extend the growth of their power substantially without bringing the paradoxes of conflict fully down upon their heads. These tools include a shrewd assessment of the likely reactions of their adversaries. Germany and Japan were not destined to lose World War II simply because their actual and potential enemies had greater populations and industrial power. Different policies and strategic choices, such as a German focus on the Mediterranean theater before taking on the Soviet Union, might have led to a much different outcome. To use a different example: the Reagan Administration successfully increased American economic growth, based on tax cuts and other free-market principles, which permitted the United States to undertake a significant military buildup without damaging the economy.
Perhaps more to the point, there are surely risks associated with falling short of the culminating point of success, just as there are with pushing unwisely beyond it. In World War I, the Western Allies arguably failed in grand strategy by accepting an armistice before they had invaded Germany proper and ensured that the German people, as well as the German political leadership, understood that they had been defeated. Or, from the perspective of smart strategy, one could argue that the Allies did go far enough in 1918, had they later constructed the sort of post-war security system that would have prevented the remilitarization of a revanchist Germany. Winston Churchill argued that the United States and Britain had stopped short of the culminating point of grand strategic success at the end of World War II by not advancing further, whether in the Balkans or Central Europe, a course which would have given them maximum strategic leverage over the Soviets in negotiating a post-war settlement.
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Such particular judgments are a matter of debate, of course, but we can surely say that some strategies enable one to achieve more than others, due to the proper appreciation and manipulation of circumstances. Accident and chance also enter the equation; they may improve as well as work against one’s prospects of success. Certain statesmen and military commanders have a feel for the underlying direction of things—”There is a tide in the affairs of men/Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” More is sometimes more, sometimes a lot more. Through his emphasis on not exceeding the culminating point of success, Luttwak’s strategic thought tends to encourage caution rather than boldness, to focus on the dangers of overextension rather than on the rewards of strategic opportunism, particularly when it comes to the use of force. He seems inclined to take money off the card table after winning a hand or two—or not to put money on the table to begin with—rather than to put that money to work for higher stakes. It is not surprising that he wrote a book lauding the sophistication of Byzantine grand strategy and recommending it to an American audience.
Back to the immediate matter at hand, that of China and strategic overstretch: Luttwak argues that China’s current heavy-handed drive for comprehensive hegemony, in violation of the logic of strategy, is “over-determined” and thus not easily reversed. That means resistance to the rise of China is bound to accelerate, too. Luttwak’s treatment of Chinese strategic culture is perhaps the strongest part of the book and worth close and careful study (on this see also Charles Horner’s Rising China and its Postmodern Fate: Memories of Empire in a New Global Context ). For our purposes we summarize a few of Luttwak’s main points.
First, along with other great powers, China is “autistic”—the demands of managing a sprawling and diverse nation bring to the fore leaders who typically lack experience or perspective on international affairs. Great-power autism reduces the ability of the regime as a whole to appreciate mounting hostility caused by its actions. Second, there are strong historical residues in Chinese foreign policy that derive from the old tributary model of the international system and the presumption of China’s central position in that system. This worldview inspires heavy-handed conduct and further induces Beijing to underestimate evidence of mounting resistance from the outside world. Third, there is a deep-seated popular and elite resentment of outside powers. This derives from the century or so of China’s pre-1949 weakness but perhaps ultimately from the many centuries of Han subjection to culturally inferior alien conquerors. As a result there is powerful emotional opposition to the very idea of limiting China’s military aggrandizement. Fourth, account must be taken of the influence of the People’s Liberation Army and the military-industrial establishment, which would resist the abandonment of China’s military growth. Fifth, there exist multiple organizations within China, such as the Administration of Fishery and Fish Harbor Supervision, able and willing to pursue expansionism for their own purely internal motives.
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Finally, there is the peculiar phenomenon that Luttwak terms China’s “acquired strategic deficiency syndrome” (ASDS) “whereby both ordinary common sense and even a weary awareness of the paradoxical logic of strategy are displaced by a distinct tendency to rely excessively on deception, stratagems large and small, and ‘barbarian-handling’ techniques that devolve into gamesmanship.” This generates “unwarranted confidence in the ability of the Chinese government to dissuade resistance by strategic deception…. China’s ASDS favors ultimately counterproductive tricks and maneuvers that can only add” to the external distrust of China’s intentions.
All of these factors lead Luttwak to conclude that the Chinese will persist in their counterproductive path and that the paradoxical logic of strategy will lead inexorably to a check to the growth of Chinese power—”everything else being equal.” But a closer examination of Luttwak’s argument suggests that he is quite concerned that everything else may not be equal, and that there is a path to China’s ultimate domination of the global stage (or, at the very least, to the defeat of the United States and other powers now seeking to prevent that dominance).
It turns out that, according to the logic of strategy, there is not only a culminating point of success but also a culminating point of resistance. In the case of the latter, a massive shift in the power balance leads to the collapse of the defense, rather than to its strengthening. In such a situation, Luttwak says, “China’s relative power as compared to each of its weaker neighbors [would pass] beyond the relevant tipping point, to impose the acceptance of subjection in some form.” Bandwagoning, to use the jargon of international relations theory, would replace balancing as the dominant strategic trend. Faced with the impending overthrow of the balance of power, lesser nations would decide that if they can’t beat China, they must join it, or at least not resist it. “It is possible, of course, that the United States might wait too long before acting—that it might wait past the tipping point marking the advent of China’s economic hegemony,” Luttwak warns. “In that case, Chinese economic retaliation could inflict sufficient pain to leave the United States bereft of allies, if not to force its own economic capitulation.”
There seem to be several paths to such a catastrophic outcome for the United States—or a path to victory by China.
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If they were truly wise, Luttwak argues, the Chinese would focus primarily on economic growth and deliberately restrict their ability to project military power offshore or to otherwise present a classic strategic threat to the region. Luttwak explores the case of Wilhelmine Germany, which by all rights should have become the dominant Eurasian power of the 20th century. By 1890 Germany had overtaken Britain in industrial innovation and in winning global markets and accumulating capital. It had the world’s most advanced industries, best universities, richest banks, and the most harmonious society, thanks to its welfare state. German political and cultural influence was expanding correspondingly all over the world. German superiority in all things was only a matter of time—if Germany had recognized that only these nonmilitary abilities had any real value. For Germany to reach its true place in the sun, Berlin should have adopted “a militarily nonthreatening and diplomatically conciliatory grand strategy.” The German army should have been configured unmistakably for defensive purposes, not for offensive action. The German navy should have been limited strictly to avoid threatening British maritime superiority. These measures would hardly have disarmed Germany, for even a reduced army less capable of mounting large-scale offensive operations could have defeated any invasion of Germany and secured all its territory, including its eastern lands.
The Germans failed to appreciate the paradoxical logic of strategy, however. By becoming too strong, they actually fatally weakened their grand strategic position, bringing about a countervailing coalition that eventually brought them down. The fatal mistake was to behave in a way that united Britain with it traditional adversaries, Russia and France. Although the British paid a high price for their victory, they succeed in overturning a future of German economic and political domination and in perpetuating Britain’s great power status for decades to come.
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Or so Luttwak reasons. It is an interesting question whether a nation actually could achieve global domination by adopting “a militarily nonthreatening and diplomatically conciliatory grand strategy.” The student of strategy is pressed to come up with a modern example. The United States probably came the closest to such a benign hegemony after World War II, but even it had to create a world-wide military infrastructure and to use force not infrequently. Certainly this was enough to “threaten” the Soviets and their allies and displease a good bit of the so-called non-aligned world.
In any event Luttwak clearly does not expect China to follow a benign course. The more likely path to Chinese success, as Luttwak lays things out, would be for the United States and its allies to take make major strategic errors, specifically by taking their eyes off the ball, that is, the necessity to constrain China’s economic growth. They would thereby neglect the necessary geo-economic countermeasures until they were too late. They would exaggerate the military threat posed by China and overemphasize the role of force in the competition with the PRC. China’s increased military power must be offset in some fashion, to be sure, but because great-power war is not a realistic possibility, this must be done judiciously, according to Luttwak. The United States and its allies would damage their economies, perhaps severely, by trying to engage in an arms race with China. Unlike the Soviet Union, China possesses the wherewithal to stay even or possibly forge ahead in such a race without greatly stressing itself.
More importantly, in Luttwak’s view, a major military build-up aimed at China, coupled with the formation of a formal strategic alliance led by the United States, would perforce also be seen as a threat by the Russian Federation. In retaliation, Moscow and its client states in Eurasia could provide China with secure land-based access to markets and strategic resources, alleviating China’s potential geo-economic vulnerabilities to a sea-based coalition. A Sino-Russian arrangement would allow China to continue to grow economically at an exorbitant rate and to underwrite its bourgeoning military power.
If the United States and its allies restrain themselves properly, however, the Russians will have strong incentives to acquiesce in, if not fully support, the geo-economic containment of China. The autocrats in the Kremlin may be a strategic nuisance elsewhere, but in the central theater of Asia they need to be on our side, or at least not against us, with respect to China. Luttwak, we should note, was an early and persistent critic of the enlargement of NATO to the east, on similar grounds-that it unnecessarily reintroduced an element of strategic competition with the Russians when there were bigger fish to fry.
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Luttwak’s general judgment on this matter is of considerable interest. American national security policy since the 1940s has been based, consciously or not, on the insights of Yale University geographer Nicholas Spykman. To simplify matters: Spykman argued that American security depended on preventing the Eurasian continent from falling into the hands of a single hostile power or coalition of powers. They strategic key to this contest was the ability of the United States to assemble a viable coalition of powers along the rimlands and marginal seas of Eurasia, and to operate militarily along the rimlands where it must. The implication of this strategic approach was that a major continental power like the Soviet Union—or even a Russian-Chinese alliance—could be successfully contained if an American rimland alliance system remained viable. A corollary to this judgment was the probability that the pressures created by the rimland alliance would eventually drive the Russians and Chinese apart. Luttwak suggests that this equation may have been changed fundamentally by the enormous and projected growth of the Chinese economy and the options that a working arrangement with Russia would create to work around the rimlands’ ability to contain this continental alliance. Students of strategy would be well advised to examine this possibility carefully.
This brings us back to Luttwak’s point about nuclear weapons and the impossibility of great power war. He acknowledges that the logic of strategy evokes corresponding reactions that may still be warlike even in the nuclear era, but insists that great powers can no longer achieve purposeful aims by actual warfare, except on a small scale, such as strictly localized military actions, maritime provocations, and such. Effective forms of combat that could theoretically achieve strategically significant results are inhibited.
This reflects an even broader conclusion by Luttwak about the strategic disutility of the use of force in general. Luttwak is hardly a pacifist but, in his understanding of the paradoxical logic of strategy, force has its greatest effect when it is not used. As he concluded from his study of Byzantine grand strategy:
Avoid war by every possible means, in all possible circumstances, but always act as if war might start at any time. Train intensively and be ready for battle at all times—but do not be eager to fight. The highest purpose of combat readiness is to reduce the probability of having to fight…. Don’t think like the Romans, who viewed persuasion as just an adjunct to force. Instead, employ force in the smallest possible doses to help persuade the persuadable and harm those not yet amenable to persuasion.
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This may be sage advice in general—but if there can’t be a “real war” with China because of the existence of nuclear weapons, why does the growth of Chinese military power matter at all? How can the democracies consistently prepare for war seriously when they are told by experts like Edward Luttwak that world wars can no longer happen? If that is so, shouldn’t we all just become more mature and realize that there are no grounds to be intimidated by new Chinese aircraft carriers, amphibious task forces and anti-satellite weapons? If all we have to worry about is military posturing and the smallest possible doses of force—for example, minor incidents in the South China Sea or collisions of surveillance airplanes playing chicken—then comprehensive military power really doesn’t much matter and affairs can be left to diplomacy, subversion, and the latent threat that nuclear forces might be unleashed. Even if China should gain Taiwan, whether by force or intimidation, so what? The Chinese would gain no real strategic advantage thereby and Taiwan is, after all, admittedly part of China.
The student of strategy might counter that it has yet to be proven that nuclear weapons have completely ruled out Great Power war. The exact boundaries between the “acceptable” use of force, and that which would lead to the obliteration of civilization, remain unclear. There was actually quite a bit of large-scale use of force, or credible threats of force, during the Cold War, sometimes involving one superpower proxy against another, or one superpower fighting the other’s proxy. We do not know for certain if a direct conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union might have been waged at a level below that of general nuclear war—just as we don’t know the precise boundaries of a future conflict between China and its neighbors, or between China and an American-led coalition. But we can say the potential for that conflict exists and we cannot rule out the possibility that emotion, misjudgment, or ambition will overcome the cold calculus of strategy. We cannot rule out the possibility that China might react aggressively to “peaceful” efforts to contain it economically, especially if it involved American-led maritime efforts to restrict the supply of oil or other raw materials. Luttwak himself notes in much detail disturbing indications that the Chinese are capable, perhaps prone, to strategic misjudgments and to the use of force.
None of this should be taken as a judgment that we should ignore Luttwak’s general advice about being cautious about the use of force and about the manner in which it is used. Nor should we assume that a future war with China is inevitable. But such a war is possible, and nations in the region will base their diplomacy on their perception of its likely outcome. Conflicts could emerge from a variety of circumstances. If war occurs, the United States would want to have some convincing means to control escalation such that it, and not China, has the best options to achieve meaningful strategic objectives while avoiding resort to general nuclear war. Deterrence would still be the object of American defense policy—but if one believes that war is a real possibility, that will be no small task. It will probably require a substantial military investment coupled with a sophisticated diplomatic strategy. It is hard to believe that without that investment—more than Luttwak would care to admit—and the demonstrated ability to apply force effectively, “the Chinese themselves will moderate their conduct as they advance culturally as well as economically.”
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Luttwak, of course, insists that geo-economics now trumps all. He introduced the argument in an essay in The National Interest magazine in 1990, when the German and Japanese economic models were generally assumed to be the wave of the future, supplanting not only the Soviet-style command system but also the American entrepreneurial/free trade model. But to my mind at least this neo-mercantilist argument has been disproven by events, even if pure free trade is no panacea.
Based on historical experience, the student of strategy might well conclude that China’s economy is likely to slow significantly at some point over the next decade or two, even without the application of geo-economic containment (Luttwak recognizes the possibility of much slower Chinese growth but does not think it probable). Trees do not grow to the sky, as the saying on Wall Street goes. America’s rise to become the world’s leading industrial power in the late 19th and early 20th century was hardly smooth—it was marred by crashes and depressions. It is hard to believe that the mandarins of the Chinese Communist Party will be so wise as to create economic soft landings forever. Their own model of “capitalism with Chinese characteristics” may prove as flawed in its own way as that of Soviet Communism. The slowing of the Chinese economy, particularly if it involves a very hard landing, will inevitably lead to major social disruptions and questions about the legitimacy of the regime (as it did in the United States during its uneven rise to economic primacy). The Chinese leadership will have to decide whether it will seek to save that legitimacy through external adventurism or through strategic moderation. The paradoxical logic of strategy will be sorely tested.
Such thoughts are stimulated by adventuring into Luttwak’s world, which is always worth exploring even if one wants to be sure to carry one’s own ropes and ladders.