Trans-Pacific View | Security | East Asia

In Responding to the China Challenge, Biden Should Take a Lesson From JFK

Kennedy’s “flexible response” strategy for deterring and countering Soviet aggression in the 1960s could be used again.

In Responding to the China Challenge, Biden Should Take a Lesson From JFK
Credit: JFK Library

At the G-7’s June summit, U.S. President Joe Biden persuaded members to begin countering China’s rising influence. The summit’s communique laid the framework to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, retaliate against China’s “non-market economic policies,” and study COVID-19’s origins. These initiatives substantiate the bipartisan (and increasingly global) assessment that China is the foremost strategic challenge the United States and its allies will face this century.

For more than a decade, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has intimidated and aggressed in the South China Sea to obstruct the “freedom of the seas” and undermine Taiwanese sovereignty. It has sanctioned illegal and unfair economic practices and abused political and human rights. These actions encapsulate the CCP’s “Hundred-Year Marathon” to replace the United States as Asia’s primary power, re-establish control over “greater China” (i.e. Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Tibet), force its neighbors to conform to China’s geopolitical desires, and reform the international order in its image. The late Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father and also a pre-eminent China watcher, stated that China intends to “be[come] the greatest power in the world” not only via military force, but also through technological, economic, and political means.

Biden rightly identifies China as a complicated threat that will challenge U.S. hard and soft power. But how can Washington respond?

The 2018 National Defense Strategy labeled China a “great power competitor,” but offered no concerted approach for competing with China over the next century. The proposed “Cold War 2.0” approach compels Washington to adopt unnecessary objectives and repetitive policies because they once worked against the Soviet Union. Other experts have proposed a “co-evolution” or “competitive cooperation” approach. Yet how much “cooperation” can Washington stomach when Beijing acts in bad faith – and has no plans to change its behavior? Both strategies offer Biden an insufficient roadmap for countering China.

Fortunately, the United States’ 35th president, John F. Kennedy, sought to deter Soviet aggression and invasion against Western Europe in the early 1960s – much like how the 46th president wants to defend East Asia from Chinese aggression today. Kennedy’s “flexible response” strategy dominated the conflict continuum by “deter[ring] all wars, general or limited, nuclear or conventional, large or small.” It also recognized that multidimensional threats require multidimensional responses. The United States could deter the Soviet Union and maintain peace only by developing and deploying a swath of options and retaliations, ranging from political to economic to diplomatic, which ensured a proportional U.S. reaction to each Soviet transgression. Kennedy’s approach may help Biden craft a strategy that maintains peace, sovereignty, and a rules-based order in East Asia for our time.

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Succeeding Eisenhower and his “New Look” policy, which relied on strategic nuclear weapons to deter Soviet belligerency, Kennedy and his foreign policy team tackled the Cold War in a more vigilant and varied manner. Like Eisenhower, Kennedy recognized that shielding Western Europe from Soviet control remained a vital strategic interest. If the United States could not defend this region, it would not only lose its most important and longstanding allies, but also the Cold War. This failure would hinder Washington from creating and maintaining “the kind of world environment it desire[d]” and delegitimize its international authority and credibility. If the United States couldn’t defend Western Europe in its hour of need, how could it defend anyone else?

To preempt this credibility calamity, Kennedy sought to avoid war – at all costs. His main objective was to thwart any subversion of Western Europe from “taking initial root” by contesting and counteracting the spectrum of Russian aggression.

Deploying limiting and symmetrical responses to Russia proved difficult. Kennedy disliked and distrusted Eisenhower’s heavy reliance on nuclear weaponry to safeguard U.S. interests while the Russians wielded a “flexible set of tools.” This nuclear dependence meant Washington’s “only available riposte” was “so disproportionate to the immediate provocation” that it could either meekly retaliate against a major provocation or ignite a conflict over a small offense.

Kennedy rectified this balance by developing more strategic options and responses for the United States, so it could defend Western Europe without having to choose between a “humiliating retreat or all-out nuclear war.” His national security team developed the “flexible response” strategy, which was articulated in the June 22, 1962 “National Security Policy” drafted by State Department Counselor and Director of Policy Planning Walt Rostow. Although Kennedy never released or signed off on the policy, to preserve his own flexibility, the document served as the administration’s national security roadmap. The strategy’s focus on a “flexible response” was originally envisaged by then-former Army Chief of Staff General Maxwell Taylor in his 1960 book “The Uncertain Trumpet.” Taylor, whom Kennedy later appointed as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wanted the United States to pay “greater attention to controlling risks than costs” and preserve the “utmost flexibility in our plans and posture” by creatively developing “political, economic, diplomatic, psychological, and military actions” to counter Moscow.

Thus, when the Soviets tried to undermine Western Europe with their “more flexible set of tools… and a greater freedom to use them,” the United States could deftly respond with an arsenal of weapons as diverse and agile as Russia’s. These “weapons” ranged from withdrawing embassy personnel to targeted State Department press releases to withholding U.S. economic aid to expanding the mission set for special operations forces to modernizing the U.S. missile program. In short, strategic flexibility precluded Kennedy from being boxed in by disproportionate responses.

Like any historical analogy, comparing Kennedy’s flexible response toward the Soviet Union with a contemporary need to deter China is imperfect. East Asian security is not guaranteed by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) like it was for Western Europe. The United States is not fighting a “cold war” against the Chinese; China has never outright called the United States the “enemy.” Finally, the United States and the Soviet Union were not as economically interdependent as China and the United States are today.

Nor was Kennedy’s “flexible response” without its flaws. The administration’s proclivity for action prompted “a perpetual state of reaction to one crisis after another rather than working toward long-term goals,” according to Kennedy’s Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Paul Nitze. It also proved costly to cultivate varied tools for countering the Soviets.

Learning from these errors, Biden should adopt Kennedy’s “flexible response” strategy toward China to give “the United States sufficient flexibility to respond without either escalation or humiliation” to the Soviets, as Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis concluded. The United States needs to act and compete on all fields that are deemed critical to China’s development and aggression until the CCP conforms to international norms and ceases actions injurious to U.S. and allied interests.

Giving the president more than one retaliatory option is not a revolutionary foreign policy doctrine. But Kennedy’s approach is unique because it allows the Biden administration to analyze China’s “grey-zone tactics” and develop the most creative, cost-efficient, and risk-averse ways to counter the CCP’s destabilizing activities without escalating the conflict or failing to defend its allies. It reminds policymakers that U.S. strategy must responsively and flexibly counter the most pressing threats it faces from an adversary – static responses need not apply.

Based on Kennedy’s strategy, the Biden administration should pursue four key initiatives: (1) bolster its Pacific-based conventional military capabilities (e.g. establish tripwire forces, hold “operational security” wargames, and push for a “fortress mentality” among Asian partners); (2) diversify “grey-zone” retaliation measures (e.g. enhance allied East Asian computer systems’ resilience, prohibit U.S. government or military retirees from providing Chinese officials with information gathered from their public-sector experience, and re-tool U.S. Special Operations Command to focus on “compete and win” capabilities against China, instead of Middle East-focused “kill-capture missions”); (3) modernize missile systems; and, (4) curtail Chinese economic coercion (e.g. ensure domestic supply chains for critical products have less reliance on China and offer alternative terms to nations on the brink of asset appropriation because of China’s predatory lending).

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In the speech Kennedy was scheduled to deliver an hour before his assassination, he wanted to tell his Dallas Trade Mart audience that the United States “must do whatever must be done for the preservation and promotion of world freedom.” As China threatens peace, freedom, and the international order, Kennedy’s vision and strategy should become Biden’s mission.

Authors
Guest Author

Nick Danby

Nick Danby is an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy. He graduated magna cum laude with Highest Honors in History from Harvard University. At Harvard, he served as Professor Frederik Logevall’s research assistant for his two-volume biography on John F. Kennedy.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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