US vs. China, NSC-68, and how times have changed

Written in 1950, National Security Council Paper No. 68 (NSC-68, here) was the founding US strategy document for the Cold War. Recognizing that the Republic stood in greater jeopardy than at any time before, it laid out the broad outlines of a plan to block further Soviet expansion.

China now looms large as America’s new almost-peer competitor. Unlike Moscow, Beijing does not have a ‘fanatic faith antithetical’ to Washington’s own, does not overtly aim for ‘absolute power and domination of the Eurasian landmass’ and Xi is not openly threatening ‘to bury’ the West like First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev did in 1956.

But clearly Washington is worried about Beijing’s much quieter, steadier ambitions, as well as its anti-Western ideology (see Document No. 9, which I discussed here), and is now trying to figure out how to respond. This is not easy. There is no NSC-68 2.0 yet, as far as we know. But we need one.

The original repays a slow read. The guys with that pen were smart, and had a sophisticated understanding of what was facing them. You can understand their strategy. In two words, it was values and force. Highlight the values of freedom that America represents, and back those values with military force. Attract and have the means to repel. And during the forty year Cold War 1.0, the US tried at least to execute on this approach.

Now, no good strategy survives first contact with the enemy. Vietnam was a disaster for both American values and its military. But in other ways, and alongside other tactical moves (which I touch on here) NSC-68 did work. Crucially, it left open the possibility for negotiation, which Reagan happily used when he faced a partner who could deliver.

The reason NSC-68 is worth re-reading today is that it reveals just how much more work the US has cut out for itself this time around. Washington, I think, is starting from a much weaker position. There are a bunch of reasons for this, which I think are worth exploring.

The first, and most obvious is that, as I’ve tweeted, while President Trump let loose the China hawks, as well as those of us who’ve been mugged by the new reality in Beijing, and respect to him for that, he is now the single biggest obstacle to a coherent, effective China policy. He would not have read past the front page of NSC-68. It’s not only us journalists, tech investors, and business people who have to follow the Tweeter-in-chief; his staff have to do as well. And that lack of leadership matters. The US government is under-staffed. Talent is patchier than it once was, as is real on-the-ground China expertise - at least that’s my perspective from way outside. There are, I’m sure many smart, knowledgeable and hard-working folk at the working level - and sometimes they pop up and give excellent speeches here, for instance. But culture eats strategy for lunch, and the White House culture is corrosive.**

But the problem is not just the nightmare boss.

Second, NSC-68 benefits from a clear and convincing difference between the US and the USSR: a free society versus slavery. It calls for the ‘timely and persistent demonstration of superiority of the idea of freedom’. You can hear echoes of this in Pence’s recent speeches, in calling attention to Xinjiang and other human rights abuses. This is necessary and right. And Beijing can be pretty much guaranteed to mismanage any crisis, bully any potential friends and scare everyone else, so in terms of PR, the CCP has its own problems.

But in terms of model-attractiveness, the comparison today is way less convincing. Beijing’s propagandists push things to ridiculous lengths, of course, but it’s impossible to find a developing country with a better growth performance in the last forty years. And as a Chinese citizen, if you don’t touch the third rail of Chinese politics (i.e. any political issue whatsoever), and can do without pork for a year or two, your life is pretty good. And many other countries can see that. At the same time, American foreign policy in the last two decades has not exactly bathed Washington in glory. And now we have American “diplomats” speechifying around the world about the evils of the CCP and the importance of freedom while their bankrupt boss is busy doing all he can to delegitimize the free press while considering accepting Putin’s invite to Moscow’s May parade.

Third the document highlights the challenges of mobilization in 1950 in a free society, where different groups push their own interests, and where the president has to negotiate with congress. The USSR had no such challenges given the Politburo’s complete control. But the drafters also take comfort in the unusual degree of unity at home in America, and the potential for everyone to ‘come together’ in the fight. The long American boom of the 1950-60s not only delivered automobiles and fridges, but contentment too - and with that social consensus. Today, we have growing inequality and division. The right-wing seems happy to blow-up bedrock institutions like the press, the intel community, FBI, dedicated public-servants, all to retain power. The ideologues sitting in Beijing can’t quite believe their luck at the viciousness of American politics.

Fourth, NSC-68 envisions the US committing to help mould a world which is supportive of US interests. So: the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, military aid to allies, the GATT & IMF frameworks, American troops abroad. Fast forward to today, and we have an administration which threatens to levy tariffs on European cars, a president who won’t publicly support NATO and mulls charging allies like Korea for US troop protection (just when Seoul is desperately romancing Kim Jung-un). And, of course, the classic: Withdraw from TPP, a US-led regional trade agreement which would have set standards that we want Beijing to follow. (I’ve pilled on the GOP in this piece, but this mistake was also fully shared with the Democrats.) Now, much of the strategy papers I read out of DC think tanks have “strong alliances” at the heart of them (see this very solid piece from Charles Boustany and Aaron Friedberg, for instance), and folk like Pompeo and Pence do say nice things about America’s allies, so maybe this is just a problem with President Charity-Embezzler. Another four years of him, though, will be corrosive.

Fifth, and last, NSC-68 argues that ‘a large measure of sacrifice and discipline will be demanded’ of America. But who in the US is willing to lay that out for the American people today? Tariffs have costs, organizing ‘secure’ supply chains outside of China have costs, banning Huawei will have costs, bolstering defenses in the Asia-Pacific region will be costly. And no one has even mentioned the possibility that we might one day have to ask American boys to die in defense of Taiwan. Instead, the GOP is happy to blow up the budget, again, with tax cuts for people and corporations who really do not need them.

There we have it. I could have called this piece, ‘Why Beijing will win’. But I didn’t, as I believe this is a long road and Washington has the capacity to get its shit together. But, boy, this is going to be a close thing.

** I’ve revised this paragraph from the original ‘published’ version. It was unfair, careless and used way-too-broad a brush. A thoughtful reader pushed back, thankfully, and I’ve tried to express the thought better in the revised paragraph.