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Amitai Etzioni on Avoiding War with China

Jun 29, 2017

The result of a war with China? "At best we have to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on weapons nobody will use which are badly in need of nation building at home; at worst, we get into a war with a major power that has nuclear weapons."

Podcast music: Blindhead and Mick Lexington.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi. I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City. Today I am talking with Professor Amitai Etzioni. Professor Etzioni is university professor and director for the Institute of Humanitarian Policy Studies at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He is also author of the new book, Avoiding War with China: Two Nations, One World.

Great to have you on the line here, Professor Etzioni.

AMITAI ETZIONI: A delight to be with you.

For those who are not familiar with communitarianism, can you just give a sense of what that means?

Sure. We are all familiar with the language of human rights, individual rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Our argument is that these are sacred, but they are a very incomplete moral language because they don't answer the question of what we owe each other, what responsibilities—not instead of rights, but in addition to rights—what do we owe our children, our spouses, our community, our country, even the world? So communitarianism comes from what community seeks to augment the moral language of human rights by enriching it with a language of rights and responsibilities.

Now once you accept that, then a lot follows because there is some tension between rights and responsibilities. For instance, we have tension between security and privacy, or public health and privacy. So once you accept that we have two fundamental moral responsibilities—our rights and our social and moral responsibilities—then the conversation starts asking, "Are we going to find one direction or the other?" Much of our work goes to sorting out when is community too demanding, too oppressive, and when are we neglecting the common good.

DEVIN STEWART: How did you come to become a communitarian?

AMITAI ETZIONI: Well, I grew up in Israel in a communal village, and as long as I can remember we had a debate about is the community too communal, should it be less communal. There were surrounding other villages that differed; some were much more communal; some were less communal. That was my daily bread at least since I was six years old.

How does communitarianism shape your views on international affairs, generally speaking?

AMITAI ETZIONI: In the best of all worlds we will have one day a global community in which we will all act the way we do today in the national community where we try to resolve our differences in a—so political processes rather than fighting with each other. Not all nations are solid. Once you have a solid community like we at least used to have in the United States or France or Germany, you do not worry about different parties, different groups fighting other, and you expect them to solve their differences through some kind of a public dialogue and process. We surely would like to see the world move in that direction where nations treat other as if they were a member of a larger global community.

It is, of course, not my dream only, what Kant talked about in his peace theory and President Wilson tried very much to bring about. It's a long-standing dream. Of course we are miles away from it—light years away from it—but at least we should have a clear aspiration.

DEVIN STEWART: Let's talk about your new book, Avoiding War with China. Why did you feel the need to write a book about avoiding war with China? Are you worried that such a thing might happen?

AMITAI ETZIONI: Steve Bannon, who is the major strategist in the Trump White House, stated that we are going to be at war with China within five or ten years. Most of my colleagues in international relations think that when a new power arises, such as China, and an old power, like the United States, is not willing to accommodate the new power, war will ensue.

My focus actually is on the United States' relationship to China, not on China. I spent 50 years studying the United States, so I am interested especially in the book about how we deal with China, rather than on much about China itself.

I started looking into that and I came to a very surprising finding, which was actually first published in an article that got quite a bit of attention, that the U.S. Pentagon has been preparing for a war with China and developed a very detailed program called AirSea Battle, which includes attacking the China mainland, and is buying a lot of hardware—F-35s and nuclear submarines and destroyers—preparing for such a war, without this strategy being reviewed by the Obama White House.

I want to emphasize here, make this as clear as possible, I am not faulting the Pentagon. It is the job of the Pentagon to examine the horizons, see if there are new threats, and then suggest ways to defeat or cope with these new threats. But these positions of the Pentagon are supposed to go to the National Security Council, and then other positions should be consulted, like the State Department, intelligence community, and then the president makes a decision and tells the Pentagon to either desist or proceed. The Obama White House never had such a view of our China military policy. And of course the new administration quite openly gives the military a much freer hand than any administration in my experience. So there are very serious reasons to worry about that.

At best we have to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on weapons nobody will use which are badly in need of nation building at home; at worst, we get into a war with a major power that has nuclear weapons. So, any way you look at it—all I want is a public debate about what should be our China policy. I think we debate already more which bathrooms transgender people should be able to use than our China policy.

DEVIN STEWART: Why didn't the Pentagon submit the plans to the National Security Council?

AMITAI ETZIONI: That's an interesting question, and I don't know the answer. I know that they were not reviewed and the Pentagon proceeded. I am not even sure they never submitted it. Once before I've seen a situation where the Pentagon sent to the White House a truck full of documents, and somewhere in the truck was a document they were not particularly anxious to be reviewed. As you know, the way the White House works, they have one or two people assigned to deal with an agency, and they have to attend meetings and such. They are very limited in their capacity, so they can be easily overwhelmed and overlook things as they dash from one crisis to another.

DEVIN STEWART: You're looking at the U.S. foreign policy establishment. Can you give me a sense of how likely such a war would be?

AMITAI ETZIONI: As I say, the Trump strategist thinks it's extremely likely. My academic colleagues think it's at least a 75 percent probability in the next ten or 20 years. John Mearsheimer, a very highly regarded political scientist, thinks it is almost inevitable. So all I can share with you is what other authoritative people think.

Can you give me a sense of what scenarios would lead up to such a war? What would it look like?

Yes. The Pentagon feels correctly that in the past when the United States had to establish a presence in the area, that it, for instance, tried to protect Taiwan from a Chinese attack, tried to prevent China from grabbing islands which are contested or putting military bases on those islands, or whatever China was up to with the United States, if approved it could send an aircraft carrier into the area, and China would desist because it clearly felt there was no way it could cope with whatever an American aircraft carrier carries.

Then China developed—that's the point the Pentagon emphasized—anti-ship missiles. They made our aircraft carriers sitting ducks, and we suddenly lost our capacity to project power into that region because we relied very much on aircraft carriers.

The Pentagon concluded—and it's quite clearly spelled out in their published documents—that therefore any war with China would have to start with a major blitz and bombing of mainland China because that's where the anti-ship missiles are. And of course they expect that China will not sit idle as its mainland is attacked. So the most likely way a war is going to start is with trying to wipe out those anti-ship missiles
DEVIN STEWART: In your view, is that your sort of worst-case scenario?

AMITAI ETZIONI: Any war is worst-case scenario because—and maybe that's the most important part of my book—if you examine objectively the issues, the differences between the United States and China, you find that there are surprisingly few real objective differences. The economies are extremely intertwined—we benefit from trading with each other; both countries are very concerned about the proliferation of nuclear weapons; they are at least as concerned as we are about climate control; they are very concerned, oddly enough, about Muslim terrorism because they have their own Muslin group which engages in terrorist acts. So you would be surprised how difficult it is to find an issue between us and China which could not be settled with diplomatic give-and-take—and not a lot of give-and-take—because the interests are so similar.

Now, the one exception is you can take any small little thing and turn it into a major symbolic issue, and see that any small concession you make to the other side is a sign of appeasement and betrayal. So I'm not denying if you start to use the symbolic issues that you could find a bone of contention. But otherwise we have many more serious differences with Russia, especially regarding Jihadists, than with China.

DEVIN STEWART: So identifying those areas of mutual interest sounds like a good step. Are those the ways that you would recommend to avoid the war in the first place?

AMITAI ETZIONI: Absolutely. And then also, as I report in the book, we met with a group of Chinese and American scholars, and we came out with a platform of what we called "mutually assured restraint." And we listed a bunch of matters we could take to reduce the tension between the two nations and avoid drifting toward war.

But now we have a whole new development, and that is that there seems to me very wide agreement that North Korea may well, within a year or two, have nuclear weapons mounted on intercontinental ballistic missiles which could hit the United States. That is a major security concern to us. It is really very difficult to assume that we could attack North Korea without it causing huge damage to South Korea. Really the only realistic avenue for us to stop North Korea is if you could gain the collaboration of China.

Now China is very reluctant to do that because for it to trace the arms of North Korea has very considerable cost. So the question I ask in the book is: "What could we offer to China that does not cause us great cost of pain which would compensate them for the risk and cost they would incur if they really put their arm on North Korea?" And it turns out there is a list of things which are really quite reasonable that we could give which they care a lot about—and not at a high cost to us—which I think would allow such a bargain to take place.

DEVIN STEWART: Can you give us a sense of what types of things China and the United States would give one another to have a compromise?

AMITAI ETZIONI: Yes. China has to stop the flow of gasoline to North Korea and stop trading with them until they give up their nuclear weapons. So that is what they have to give.

First of all, they are extremely concerned that if North Korea collapses we will move our troops to the border with China, and they don't want our troops on the border with China. We should commit ourselves—and I see no reason we wouldn't—that if they help us disarm North Korea, we will not move our troops to the Yalu River.

Second, they are very concerned about anti-missile batteries we put in South Korea because they believe—not without reason—that those may be used not only against North Korea but also against Chinese missiles. The whole idea of mutual deterrence is based on the assumption that if you hit me, I can hit you back. Now if you hit me and I try to hit you back and you're going to stop me with your anti-missile defenses, then I'm a sitting duck.

So you see, we surely can promise that if they disarm North Korea's nuclear program there would be no reason for us to keep the anti-missile batteries in South Korea.

There are other items like this, but they all have the same quality; they are things that China cares about a great deal and we don't, and therefore they make easy things to give them if they're willing to incur the basic risk and challenge of putting their arm on North Korea.

DEVIN STEWART: How are these recommendations being received in Washington?

AMITAI ETZIONI: That is a very interesting question you raise. On the one hand, I testified before Congress and such. At the moment there is really very little dialogue about any foreign policy issue because of the peculiar nature of this administration.

On the other hand, it looks like, without necessarily being a result of careful deliberation or systematic strategy, the Trump Administration is kind of stumbling in that direction. What happened is initially during the campaign and the beginning of the administration Trump was very bellicose about China, and kept arguing that somehow China owes it to the United States to pressure North Korea, and that went nowhere.

Recently the Trump Administration has been almost flattering, calling on China to help offer those concessions, but those are mainly on trade rather than their worries. But it looks to me, though the Trump Administration is hardly predictable, that it seems to be inching in the right direction.

I understand one of the main recommendations or conclusions of your book is to begin a public dialogue in the United States about how the United States views China and what type of relationship we want. Has that process begun, and what types of questions should the public ask itself?

I'm delighted, and something which happens to an author like me once in a lifetime, or never, that in the June 19 issue of The New Yorker they reviewed five books on China, including mine, which is an excellent way of starting the dialogue. Of course not one book, but two, three, or four. If you can get places such as The New Yorker, ride up this issue on a flagpole, then we should be well on our way to inviting the public to discuss these issues.

The main thing we need to discuss is what are the issues on which China and the United States have very similar, complementary interests, and what are the issues on which we differ. Are these serious matters or can we settle them surprisingly easily; what are the costs of war to both sides; and are we willing to live with a China that would be different from us? Because there are some people who argue we should go to war with China not because they are dangerous, but to force them—the way we tried to do in Afghanistan and Iraq—to become a liberal democracy. That is a particularly unfortunate way of thinking because there is just no way that we can force China to become a liberal democracy; something we failed to do in much smaller countries, in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In fact, the one thing that surprised me most when I did the book was I read, I think, all the public documents I could find on our war plans with China at the Rand Corporation and many others. One thing they all lack: What happens the day after we supposedly win? What are we going to do then? Are we going to occupy and try to control China the way we did in Iraq and Afghanistan, which I think is an absurd idea? They are a huge country. Are we going to walk away, and how do we expect China to act if we defeated it but let it be? So the most important question we need to debate, even if we win by use of force, is "Then what?"

I think that will lead us very quickly to the conclusion that we should go a long way, we should go an extra mile, to resolve our small differences with China in a peaceful, civil manner.

DEVIN STEWART: Amitai Etzioni is author of the new book, Avoiding War with China. Professor Etzioni, thank you so much for talking with us today.

AMITAI ETZIONI: My pleasure. Excellent questions. Thank you very much.

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