In my last essay, “A Neflix Assessment of China’s Rise and America’s Advantage,” I used the word “never” to express a conviction — as in, China “will never dominate” the Indo-Asia Pacific “for one simple and unavoidable reason: everybody else.” In response, fellow War on the Rocks contributor Dean Cheng called this phrase into question, asserting I ought “never say never.” He argued strongly against such an absolute statement, which I must grudgingly admit is generally true. But Cheng went too far when he suggested “nevers should be reserved for changes in laws of physics – and even then, there are circumstances where it’s much more ‘extremely probable’ rather than ‘never.’” But there must some limits, right? Or is it possible the Black Flag of New Zealand might someday sit atop the fiery ashes of Beijing, following military (non-rugby) conquest?
Helpfully, Cheng’s rejoinder did chop down my essay’s errant tree. Yet he missed the argument’s forest: namely, that digital culture has led to a proliferation of think tank voyeurism, in which the visual is emphasized at the expense of the important. As such, I drew attention to America’s comparative advantage – demographics and allies – in a geostrategic net assessment.
Cheng dismissed demography, and wrote that my essay “points to China’s purportedly inauspicious demographics and lack of allies especially to explain why [China’s rise is constrained].” But isn’t this a fact? China faces serious demographic challenges and a vanishingly small stable of allies. Full stop. Both are exploitable, consequential American leverage points. Perhaps this could be expressed in a more relative way: China’s demographics do not look so weak when compared to Japan’s “graying” population, and their global allies are on par with those of North Korea.
Absolute or relative, demographics matter. When the head of the National Intelligence Council, charged with the official U.S. glimpse into the future, recently retired, he wrote a book on dominant strategic trends. Demographics featured prominently on 12 of 250 pages, particularly with respect to China. And when historian Williamson Murray penned an assessment of the threats military forces will face in the next decades, his first port of call was demographics. Strategists, whether oriented forward or backward, futurist or historian, know and employ demographics in their estimates.
Cheng also was “curious about what the U.S. military is teaching its strategists.” As we are a rowdy, diverse bunch, I certainly cannot claim to speak for the broader field. But I would say a common catechism in our community comes from Stephen Covey: “begin with the end in mind.” Cheng, instead, focused on tactical and mid-course examples to reject the relevance of allies, and stated: “great strategists like Napoleon were leery of allies,” and then bid us recall how personally difficult de Gaulle was, as well to remember the British stumble at Singapore in 1942.
But how did these stories finish? In the end, by the hand of a multinational alliance, Napoleon found himself “reduced to passivity” in a jail cell, on an island so insignificant even today it lacks an airport. And did he fail to notice who won the Second World War? De Gaulle was prickly, sure; the British took their lumps in battle, true; but wasn’t it “the Allies” that went on to strategic victory? Lawrence Freedman’s book on strategy highlights this very point: Alliances, or “combining with others,” are often “the most astute strategic move.” Or, for a second opinion, we could consult another British strategist:
To Churchill, there was only one thing worse than having allies — not having allies.
ML Cavanaugh is a US Army Strategist, a Non Resident Fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point, and has served in assignments from Iraq to the Pentagon, and Norway to New Zealand. A Contributor at War on the Rocks, he looks forward to connecting via Twitter @MLCavanaugh.
Image: White House