The Debate

MAR or War?

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The Debate

MAR or War?

With accommodation and a focus on defense, China and the U.S. can avoid falling into the Thucydides Trap.

In a recent post for The Diplomat, Michael Haas describes my suggestion that the U.S. and China draw on Mutually Assured Restraint (MAR) to avoid falling into the Thucydides Trap, as “constructive” but subject to major criticism. His critique deserves examination, because the thesis he advances is widely held, and if true, means that the U.S. and China will slide towards a major war. Wars are always horrible, but in this case even merely preparing for one is highly troubling, as both nations face major domestic challenges that require they concentrate their resources and attention on nation-building at home rather than acquire armaments and force projections.

Under MAR, each party would limit its military build-up and coercive diplomacy as long as the other side does the same – and these self-restraint measures would be vetted. Thus, China would be free to take the steps it holds are necessary for its self-defense and maintaining its relations with its allies without proceeding to the point where it threatens other nations or the international commons. At the same time, the United States would be free to take the steps it holds to be necessary for its self-defense as well as those needed to both live up to its obligations to its allies in the region and maintain the international order.

Haas argues that MAR is infeasible given the grand strategies of China and the United States. He notes that a key tenet of MAR is that China must not “threaten other nations or the international commons.” However, Haas contends that China’s conception of adequate self-defense entails China maintaining the capacity to “establish a level of control over its immediate geopolitical environment and to deter any serious U.S. interference in its vital interests” – a strategic goal whose attainment, he believes, entails a degree of military capability that would necessarily represent a threat to China’s neighbors.

Further, Haas argues that China’s pursuit of regional control conflicts with the grand strategy of the United States. He maintains that U.S. involvement in the Asia-Pacific is intended to preserve an “expansive grand strategy of hegemonic engagement.” Thus, Haas concludes that there is an irresolvable tension between the two powers as both are pushing for hegemony in the region. Finally, he holds that even if the United States were only concerned with self-defense, this would entail at least some “forward military presence”—a presence that China would perceive as a threat to its goals.

Haas stops short of pointing out the inevitable conclusion of his analysis: that what we see here is, indeed, another case where a new power rises, the prevailing power cannot accommodate its rise, and, hence, war inevitably ensues. However, he does not spell out which core interests cannot be reconciled. The fact is that since its transition to state capitalism, China has shown no indication of seeking to replace the U.S. as a global power. In effect, it is quite content with the U.S. bearing the costs and risks of building stable governments in the Middle East, securing the flow of oil, and otherwise managing the global commons. Regarding Taiwan, both powers in effect have settled on a tacit acceptance of the status quo with China finding that it can quite effectively draw Taiwan into its orbit via economic cooperation and exchange. China would be extremely foolish to attack Japan’s mainland. Moreover, the United States’ core interests in the region are far from obvious. Surely it needs to live up to its commitments to various allies, but these can be renegotiated, and the remaining ones can be supported via the remote projection of force. There are some areas of conflict, but these pale in comparison to the areas in which the U.S. and China have shared interests, including preserving global financial stability, preventing nuclear proliferation, curbing North Korea, and countering terrorism. Hence the quest for finding peaceful ways of resolving remaining conflicts, such as matters concerning the Exclusive Economic Zone, and the contested islands, and free passage on the high seas. This is what MAR is all about.

Regarding Haas’s second point – that there is no meaningful distinction between offensive and defensive weapons – I grant that many weapons can be used for both purposes. Still, there is a difference between providing, say, the Syrian rebels with flack jackets or giving them the means for delivering chemical munitions. And, as Harvard’s Sean M. Lynn-Jones points out, one can observe whether a particular weapons system is more efficient at furthering an offensive strategy or a defensive one, and categorize it on those grounds. For example, though tanks can serve defensive purposes, they are essential for offensive maneuvers.

Similarly, Charles L. Glaser and Chaim Kaufmann – professors of international relations at George Washington and Lehigh University, respectively – point out that “Nearly all historical advances in military mobility – chariots, horse cavalry, tanks, motor trucks, aircraft, mobile bridging equipment – are generally considered to have favored the offense, while major counter-mobility innovations – moats, barbed wire, tank traps, land mines – have favored defense.”

In short, there are no iron laws of history. War is made in the minds of men and that is where it will have to be ended. We can find ways to not fall into the Thucydides Trap by pursuing various means of disengagement and accommodation, and focusing on defensive weapons. Verification that this pursuit of peace and stability is, indeed, the focus of both nations is a major step in this direction.

Amitai Etzioni is a university professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University. He served as a senior adviser to the Carter White House and taught at Columbia University, Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley. His latest book is Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human-Rights World.