Zachary Keck

How Richard Nixon Would Deter China

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Zachary Keck

How Richard Nixon Would Deter China

By using the “madman theory,” the U.S. and its allies could inject a degree of risk into China’s strategic calculus.

How Richard Nixon Would Deter China
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In the latest issue of Foreign Policy magazine, the Center for a New American Security’s Elbridge Colby and Ely Ratner have an article arguing, rightly in my opinion, that America’s excessive concern with trying not to antagonize China is facilitating Beijing’s more assertive diplomatic posture.

In their own words: “While preventing inadvertent war in Asia is obviously a worthy goal, it is just as important to discourage China from believing that it can employ economic, military, and diplomatic coercion to settle international disagreements without triggering a serious response. Making the risk of escalation too low will at some point start running counter to U.S. interests.”

They continue: “Why? Because China is taking advantage of Washington’s risk aversion by rocking the boat, seeing what it can extract in the process, and letting the United States worry about righting it. Beijing’s playbook of tailored coercion relies in part on China’s confidence that it can weather ephemeral international outrage while Washington takes responsibility for ensuring the situation doesn’t get out of control.”

To help illustrate their point, Colby and Ratner turn to early Cold War crises. Specifically, they point out that Nikita Khrushchev’s perception — stemming from the Berlin Crisis and Vienna Summit — that John F. Kennedy was overly concerned with stability and maintaining cordial superpower relations led the Soviet Premier to challenge the U.S. on a number of occasions, most notably the Cuban Missile Crisis. Similarly, China today rocks the boat in the South and East China Seas, confident that the U.S. will take prudent action to ensure the situation doesn’t get too out of control.

The solution? Colby and Ratner argue that “the United States needs to inject a healthy degree of risk into Beijing’s calculus …. [By] communicating that Beijing has less ability to control escalation than it seems to think. China must understand that attempts to roil the waters could result in precisely the kinds of costs and conflicts it seeks to avoid.” In practical terms, this means “the United States should pursue policies that actually elevate the risks — political, economic, or otherwise — to Beijing of acting assertively.”

They are not the first to advocate this approach. During the early Cold War, the strategist Thomas Schelling famously spoke of threats that “leave something to chance.” As he explained them, the party making threats that leave something to chance says not just that it may or not carry out a threat if a certain action is taken, but that it cannot completely control its own response. Some of the examples Schelling used to illustrate his point were crises that lead to inadvertent war and limited wars escalating into general ones.

The purpose of threats that leave something to chance is to inject a degree of uncertainty and risk into the calculus of the target. For Schelling, writing during the Cold War, the target of the threat was the Soviet Union. What Schelling felt threats that leave something to chance could prevent the Soviet Union from initiating crises or pursuing limited wars for fear that these could escalate into a general war with the United States. Colby and Ratner similarly argue that the U.S. must seek to inject a higher level of risk into China’s calculus to prevent it from initiating frequent crises in the South and East China Seas.

The question, of course, is how the U.S. can go about doing this? One place the Obama administration could look for inspiration is the Richard Nixon administration. During Nixon’s presidency, he and Henry Kissinger sought to increase the level of risk adversaries perceived in the United States by playing up the notion that Nixon himself was an irrational madman who couldn’t be controlled. As Nixon explained the “madman theory” in the context of the Vietnam War:

“I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, ‘for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry — and he has his hand on the nuclear button’ and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.”

The primary challenge for using this approach toward China today is that President Obama’s reputation is the complete opposite of a madman. That is, he is known for being cool and deliberate in making decisions. Trying to convince China that its actions might provoke President Obama into taking irrational action will therefore not be viewed as credible.

To my mind, there are two possible ways to get around this challenge, both of which involve bringing in a third party.

In the first scenario, the Obama administration could seek to create the perception that the White House does not have strong control over the military. Although the U.S. has a strong tradition of civilian control over the military, there is a widespread perception that the Obama White House and the military have frequently clashed. And, in the case of the policymaking process for the Afghan Surge, there is the perception that the military went around the White House in various ways to get its preferred policy approved. Thus, the White House could seek to utilize these existing perceptions to sell the notion that the U.S. military in the Pacific could precipitate a conflict in response to China’s provocations without the president’s approval.

The more plausible option, in my opinion, is to seek to make ally leaders into the “madmen.” Most notably, the Obama administration could work with its counterparts in Tokyo to play up the notion that Shinzo Abe is slightly irrational and prone to defy the U.S., particularly in dealing with China. At the same time, the U.S. could continue to reaffirm that, although it cannot control Abe, its treaty obligations would most likely force it to intervene in the event of a Sino-Japanese conflict.

There is already a strong basis for making both of these cases, given Abe’s recent visit to the Yasukuni Shine against U.S. wishes, as well as America’s continued reaffirmations that the Senkaku Islands are covered by the U.S.-Japan defense and security treaty. This provides a very solid foundation for the U.S. and Japan to work together in using the madman theory to deter China.

The major drawback for the U.S. however, is that Japan could actually entrap it in a conflict that Washington has little interest in fighting. Thus, this option is only viable if U.S. policymakers have the utmost trust in the Japanese policymakers. And trust is not a quality frequently seen in international politics, even among allies.