Should U.S. Scramble?
Image Credit: The White House

Should U.S. Scramble?


Arguing against the declinist mood in U.S. politics these days, Robert Kagan, in “Not fade away: Against the myth of American decline,” recalls the triumph of the Cold War as a confidence-booster for worried Americans.

The challenges confronting the United States today, Kagan contends, “are not greater than the challenges the United States faced during the Cold War,” when Washington worked to contain Soviet expansion by cultivating ties with war-depleted countries in the Soviet Union’s neighborhood. Today, having established strategic alliances with several of China’s neighbors, the United States is in a more favorable position than China, whose emergence as a rising power started from a “relatively weak” base. According to Kagan, Beijing faces considerable limits due to its geostrategic location, and it’s China’s turn to scramble, while the United States needs only to “stand still,” to “hold on to what it has” and secure its position. If the United States was able to succeed in the Cold War, the argument goes, conditions would appear to favor the U.S. now, as well.

There’s some merit in this, but also grounds for skepticism over the idea that the United States can afford to stand still in the face of China’s increasing competition and influence. Indeed, China’s scramble today in some ways bears a striking resemblance to the U.S. scramble half a century ago, suggesting a bumpy road ahead for any nation that Beijing deems to be standing in its way.

The foundation of U.S. success in the Cold War was its ability to translate economic growth into military capabilities and “soft power” capacity, something the Soviet Union failed to do because of the underlying weaknesses in its economy and overinvestment in the military. In contrast, for all the unease created by rapid increases in China’s military spending, the Chinese defense budget has been kept at a far more sustainable level than that of the Soviet Union. It’s also worth recalling that back in the 1980s, increased investment in the country’s military complex forced the Soviets to halt the production of some other civilian goods. The Chinese defense budget isn’t proving such a drain on resources, and isn’t shackling the economy the way Soviet efforts did. Indeed, while the Soviet economy lagged in comparison with the United States, China’s has been projected to surpass the U.S. in terms of GDP by 2025, by some estimates. As a result, China has the luxury that the United States once had, namely of being able to throw a little money around to try to build support in its neighborhood.

The fact that China is currently surrounded by a web of U.S. alliances in East Asia and the Pacific may seem comforting for the United States, but there are a number of caveats. For a start, many of the closest U.S. allies in the region are also enmeshed in a web of interdependence with China, which explains their reluctance to upset Beijing.

But there’s another interesting point that is sometimes overlooked amidst the understandable attention paid to China’s moves in East Asia. Just as the United States worked hard to develop alliance and influence in Cold War Europe, the Middle East and East Asia, China has been investing economic and political capital in courting Latin America, engaging Europe, expanding its presence in the Middle East and buying off Africa. China, then, may find ways to jump any diplomatic fence erected around it.

But there’s another parallel that should trouble the United States. Ultimately, what brought about the Soviet collapse was a combination of domestic policy failures, which long undermined the country before over exertion on foreign soil exhausted Soviet energy, pushing it into a downward spiral. And the United States today could find itself on its own downward spiral, as it confronts a troubled economy marked by huge deficits and a divided political system that has at times ceased to function. Of course, the Soviet Union problem was exacerbated by a centralized model that contrasts with the U.S. liberal democratic system. But the outcome will remain the same: the accumulation of power by one nation, to the detriment of a distracted and declining force.

The good news for the United States is that China’s attempt to sell its image abroad and wield its own soft power has met with limited success. The U.S. model still holds more sway, from Europe to much of East Asia and in between. But to retain this dominance, the U.S. must press home its advantages. U.S. global influence can be fostered only if the U.S. system itself is able to function and deliver on promises that other systems can’t.

This shouldn’t mean the United States turning inward and retreating from global commitments. Rather, the United States needs to be able to showcase its resilience – at home and abroad – if it is to continue to maintain its appeal. This will mean Washington demonstrating that it is both able and willing to defend global assets, and that it will stand by values that it supposedly holds dear – including an open global trading system, free and fair access to the global commons, and respect for the rule of law.

By reaffirming its commitment to Asia in recent months, Washington is shifting the focus of international attention back to China’s backyard, compelling China to reassess its ambitions in its neighborhood. But this strategy will only succeed if the Obama administration and its successors can prove that such reengagement is serious and durable, and that it is more about substance than public announcements.

All this means that the United States must respond to China’s scramble with its own scramble, both at home and abroad. Standing still just isn’t an option.

Le Thuy Trang is a researcher at the Foreign Policy and Strategic Studies, Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam.

May 27, 2012 at 01:06

@greg. just because there is light security presence in China doesn’t mean it is not. you know there heavy censorship over there. so what do you think is that?

May 26, 2012 at 03:44

The total debt of USA = $16 Trillion, china only has 1.1 Trillion, therefore, just a small slide of the pie.

Stop bragging about how china would mess up the US economy by redeeming those Treasury bills. Try it and see how fast china will sink, like a rock to the bottom.

Oro Invictus
May 25, 2012 at 16:29


Greg, attempting to deny basic fact (or, at least, the closest equivalent to certitude one can reach in the inherently murky and subjective realm of geopolitics) hardly makes one more inclined to treat one with anything other than dismissal; saying that the PRC’s internal security is “light” or that its spending is less than that of its national defense does nothing more than prove you to be completely removed from the reality of the situation. Similarly, saying that the military has no influence upon civilian matters is patently ridiculous. Forgive me if I seem harsh in my refutation of your statements, but I will not entertain such nonsense, for giving it any sort of credence would be tantamount to ignoring the issues facing the PRC and making light of the plight of those within it.

May 25, 2012 at 14:40

The daydreamers even on the way to…..’heaven’(!!) are still dreaming and bragging. Maybe due to their ignorance or their being in denial? The Japanese economic collapse in the 80s will pale in comparison with the soon coming down of the red titan’s economy!Just keep in mind that rampant inflation, export faltering, no domestic consumption market, troubled fixed-asset investment, bad debts, real estate bubble, middle-income trap, political instability, evil expansionist ambitions & extreme nationalism, etc. will bring this dragon down for good ! Good luck on the journey to …’heaven’!BTW, China’s economic implosion will have a very little impact on the US’s economy.

May 25, 2012 at 13:08

Stop dreaming.Japan collasped economically due to having to obey the diktat of Pax america under the Plaza Accord to revalue its currency in order to allow America to be competitive being a vassal and conquered state.

It had to obey being a semi colonial country under American occupation economically and militarily with more than 150 american bases and an extra territorial constitution drafted by the occupying power up till today in order to allow American product to be competitive

China is fully independent and even now is diversifying into domestic and S.American and African Markets as well.

Even Japan and S.Korea is negotiating FTA with China as they know where their bread will be buttered in future.

America is trying its TPP but unfortunately is a debtor country.

Japanese and Koreans will pivot soon as can be seen in the free exchange rate being negotiated.

May 25, 2012 at 05:20

You could make your points better with a much shorter essay.

While you’re right about the US is quite different from the Soviet Union, but its military spending is far more than its publicly-stated nominal amount ($5,000+). After accounting for all expenditure items, the total is close to $1 trillion (

You’re also wrong about PRC in at least two of your arguments. China’s military has never had a major influence in domestic or diplomatic affairs – it has always been civilian control. Also the urban legend that China spends more on domestic security than national defense (so-called “stability-maintenance” spending) is just that: a legend. The first guy who came up with the numbers and arguments just put together various spending including police, healthcare and other social spending and called it “stability maintenance” expenditure and compared it to defense spending. This contrasting numbers had such an appeal among China-bashers, it has just became an unquestionable fact. Anyone who has lived in China knows that Chinese police or other security presence is so light compared with other developed countries. These days, there are so many false accusations and fictions about China such that if one really wants to get close to truth, be careful.

May 25, 2012 at 04:58

Apparently you’ve drunk too much Kool-aid from the western mainstream media these days. These kinds of wishful thinking come and go in the last 30 years. The funny thing is these analysts/pundits coined some fancy terms (“middle income trap” and such) and fed down to the average Joe.

Don’t hold your breath on China’s economy.

May 24, 2012 at 06:47

You are hugely misinformed if you think China isn’t also an iron fist in a dragonskin glove.

The belief that China is unique and all peace loving is shown to be nothing more than retoric, by any pne who can read a Chinese english newspaper.

Don’t be so gullible.

May 24, 2012 at 00:35

While some is hailing for hostility, the G2 by Zbigniew or G2+1 is getting closer to reality.

Barack or Mitt, who can do it better in the next 4 years!

May 24, 2012 at 00:25

China’s RE bubble?

“China’s housing situation differs dramatically from that of the United States. The U.S. bubble started with too much borrowing (mortgages issued at 95 percent or more of a house’s supposed market value), which caused a rise in housing prices far beyond the well-established trend of the previous 40 years and sparked the construction of far more houses than there were families to buy them. In China, mortgage borrowing is modest; price appreciation was mainly a one-off growth spurt in an infant market, rather than a deviation from established trend; and there is a desperate shortage of decent housing.

Since 2000, the average house in China has been bought with around 60 percent cash down, according to research by my firm, GK Dragonomics, and the minimum legal down payment has been something in the range of 20 to 30 percent — a far cry from the subprime excesses of the United States. House prices rose rapidly, but that’s partly because they were artificially low before 2000, when state-owned enterprises allocated most of the housing and there was no private market. Much of the home-price appreciation of the last decade was simply a matter of the market catching up with underlying reality. And despite articles about “ghost cities” of empty apartment blocks, the bigger truth is that urban China has a housing shortage — the opposite of what typically happens at the end of a bubble.

Nearly one-third of China’s 225 million urban households live in a dwelling without its own kitchen or toilet. That’s like the entire country of Indonesia living in factory dormitories, temporary shelters on construction sites, basement air-raid shelters, or shanties on city outskirts. Over the next two decades, if present trends continue, another 300 million people — equivalent to nearly the entire population of the United States — will move from the countryside to China’s cities. To accommodate these new migrants, alleviate the present shortage, and replace dilapidated housing, China will need to build 10 million housing units a year every year from now to 2030. Actual average completions from 2000 to 2010 were just 7 million a year, so China still has a lot of building to do. The same goes for much basic infrastructure such as power plants, gas and water supplies, and air cargo facilities.”

Very well put by Arthur Kroeber.

May 23, 2012 at 20:12

How’s that bubble doing in China’s real-estate market? Pop goes the dragon…there is no such thing as superpower China. Just another hyped threat to keep Americans competitive. Just like Japan of the 90’s. The strategy works though.

Oro Invictus
May 23, 2012 at 17:35

While I agree that, should the US seek to forward its interests, it can ill-afford to become complacent, the arguments of this article that the US is beginning to parallel the Soviet Union are… Unconvincing, to say the least. Indeed, it is particularly odd to attempt to form this comparison when the risk factors explored are far more readily seen in the PRC than in the US:

First off, saying that military budgets are a far greater drain on US resources when compared to the PRC is questionable, particularly when attempting to portray the bilateral dynamic as that between the Soviets and the US. While it is undeniable that the US spends a much greater amount on national defense both relatively and quantitatively when compared to the PRC, the error in comparing this to the Soviet military is that the Soviets had to continue investing such sums in their military, even as their economy faltered, just to keep up with the US. The US is under no such requirement to retain a decisive military edge over the PRC; the US could drastically reduce its defense budget (and, I would argue, it should to a certain extent) and still remain well ahead of the PRC military for the foreseeable future. Indeed, even if there were not decades worth of advancement separating the US and PRC militaries, the fact that the US’ R&D infrastructure is statistically far more efficient (both time- and resource-wise) than that of the PRC would still place the US in the better of positions of the military-economic dynamic when compared to the PRC.

Even more damning to the argument in regards to military expenditure is that, while the US military has a vast deal of pull in US policy-making, they remain (constitutionally and practically) subservient to civilian authorities, whereas the Soviets and the PRC had much weaker separation between military and civilian power structures (which is to be expected in autocracies). Whereas the US military can heavily influence policy and economic systems via lobbying and the like, it still remains a (relatively) separate entity from the economy; the Soviet and the PRC militaries, on the other hand, wield disproportionate power over the economy through interconnections with SOEs, which both prevents fiscal flexibility and restricts the civilian leadership’s ability to determine the allocation of resources to the military (that is to say, whereas the US military is an extension of the government and dependent on the economy, the Soviet and PRC security establishment were/are an integral part of their overall economies and governments [one might even argue the military is, effectively, an equal entity to the civilian leadership in these systems]). In many respects, the military-economic-political situation of the Soviet Union and the PRC can be best likened to the Roman (and, later on, Byzantine) Empire(s).

Even more damning is that, for as much as the PRC spends on its national defense, it spends even more on internal security; even more significant is that, for every increment of growth in the PRC economy and its accompanying growth in the military budget, the internal security budget has grown by an even greater relative amount. This is not only the same case as with the Soviet Union, but also is completely unlike the US security resource allocation model (further disassociating the US situation from that of the Soviets). On a note of interest, this is also another parallel to the Roman Empire (though, to be fair, the outpacing of internal security resource allocation to national has always been a warning flag for nations). As incidents of internal dissent increase in the PRC (“mass incidents” and whatnot, which carry their own connotations for the PRC’s future as well as further increasing the degree of similarity to the Soviet Union), it does not seem far-fetched that this disparity in resource allocation will only become worse as time goes on.

It is also somewhat amusing to compare US domestic policy to the Soviets in the face of how much greater the resemblance is to PRC domestic policy; indeed, the massive infringements on human rights and rule of law, in addition to the aforementioned security structure, should immediately make one take notice of the similarities between the PRC and Soviet Union. However, more important is considering issues of rampant corruption, factional battles between and within various departments (including the highest echelons of the CPC), and the lack of judicial or press independence. I should not have to point out how the fall of Bo and the case of Chen mirror events within the Soviet Union, nor how vast reverberations felt throughout the PRC by both events indicate a nation which is far from stable at best and on the cusp on irreversible upheaval (not necessarily in the form of some “overt” revolution or economic/political collapse) at worst.

I suppose my point, by all that, is that while I am not saying the US is without flaw nor completely free from danger, it is a grievously erroneous statement to say that the US resembles the Soviet Union, even less so that the PRC does not resemble the Soviet Union by a much greater degree. Such statements, aside from their errors in analysis (or, perhaps I should say overreaching subjectivity), serve as alarmist pieces which can strengthen nationalistic and xenophobic rhetoric on both sides of the equation. Perhaps, though, my biggest issue I take with this piece is that it suggests the US “scramble”, when the history of past US “scrambles” have been oft been destabilizing for the world; this is not to say that the US is especially destructive when it scrambles due to some inherent quality (though its unparalleled championing of competition does complicate matters), but that its position as foremost power means any such “scrambling” will have massive geopolitical implications. Indeed, if the US decides to “scramble” it will almost certainly outpace the PRC in such a way to lay to rest any doubts about its primacy; but it will also almost certainly leave the state of international affairs a seething mass of instability in its wake.

May 23, 2012 at 17:24

China is on the verge of economic collapse like Japan in 1980′s. Don’t be just boastful & cocky like an idiot! Too small domestic consumer market to save the day,plus export faltering, troublesome fixed-asset investment, middle-income trap, rampant inflation, political crisis, all of these will bring the red dragon down very soon. Just wait& see. Too much evil ambitions only scare away other countries in the region! Just think about it!

May 23, 2012 at 13:17


That the PRC treats its people and allies as it does suggests a similar level of control and manipulation would be exerted over the area in which it seeks hegemony, to the point of the effective finlandization–or, if resistance to PRC policy is made, the outright conquest–of its neighbors and near abroad.

May 23, 2012 at 13:13


none of this is preordained. While the US has certainly taken hits, as have other nations, its “fall” is not something that is bound to happen; while “After America” by Mark Steyn has some good points, even he makes the supposition that:

China is dangerous not (as many argue) because of its strength but because of its weakness. As I wrote in America Alone, the People’s Republic has a crude structural flaw: thanks to its disastrous one-child policy, it will get old before it gets rich, and, unless it’s planning on becoming the first gay superpower since Sparta, the millions of surplus young men whom the government’s One-Child Policy has deprived of female companionship is a recipe either for wrenching social convulsions at home—or for war abroad, the traditional surplus inventory-clearance method of great powers. That’s actually worse news than if China was cruising to uncontested global hegemony—because it means that Beijing’s calculations on how the Sino-American relationship evolves are even less likely to align with ours. China has to maximize its power before demographic decay sets in. In other words, it has strong incentives to be bold and to push, hard and fast. And, when it happens, Washington will be taken by surprise by something that was entirely inevitable.

Steyn, Mark (2011-08-08). After America: Get Ready for Armageddon (p. 19). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

I think that a good measure of the intentions of any nation as to the world around it is how it treats its people and its allies; thus far, at least generally, the United States has stood firm in its commitments to its allies as well as to its own people; while it’s education system may not be the best and while it’s healthcare system does need fixing, the greater mass of the people of the United States are relatively unmolested by their government save for taxes, etc.

on the other hand, the PRC has an internal security apparatus larger than its army, has conducted multiple purges of its government within recent years due to power struggles and is thoroughly corrupt–as the Bo Xilai and Chen Guancheng incidents have demonstrated. Furthermore, the PRC has no allies to speak of, and its sole pseudo-ally, North Korea, is treated as a weird combination of vassal-state and living barrier between democratic influence and the PRC; the PRC has also threatened the use of force more openly and with greater frequency over much less than the United States which (in the case of Afghanistan) fought a legitimate war (Iraq notwithstanding, being a “let’s trump daddy” for George the Lesser) and in the case of Iran–which has no weapons program–was merely backing up an ally.

May 23, 2012 at 01:13

Just like Pax Ameicana China will have more soft power when its economy and military muscle grows as night follow day.
America abused its position by being the big bully of the world after Pax Britanica
.Thank goodness it is over.Its so called soft power covered wiyth an iron glove(military power) destroyed Iraq,Afghanistan,etc and numerous govts throughout history.
U.S. is scrambling now into the rabbit hole.It is pivoting into itself.

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