Inflating the China threat

If you were focusing on Hurricane Isaac or the continued violence in Syria, you might have missed the latest round of threat inflation about China. Last week, the New York Times reported that China was "increasing its existing ability to deliver nuclear warheads to the United States and to overwhelm missile defense systems."  The online journal Salon offered an even more breathless appraisal: the headline announced a "big story"--that "China's missiles could thwart U.S."--and the text offered the alarming forecast that "the United States may be falling behind China when it comes to weapon technology."

What is really going on here?  Not much.  China presently has a modest strategic nuclear force.  It is believed to have only about 240 nuclear warheads, and only a handful of its ballistic missiles can presently reach the United States.  By way of comparison, the United States has over 2000 operational nuclear warheads deployed on ICBMs, SLBMs, and cruise missiles, all of them capable of reaching China.  And if that were not enough, the U.S. has nearly 3000 nuclear warheads in reserve.

Given its modest capabilities, China is understandably worried by U.S. missile defense efforts.  Why?  Chinese officials worry about the scenario where the United States uses its larger and much more sophisticated nuclear arsenal to launch a first strike, and then relies on ballistic missile defenses to deal with whatever small and ragged second-strike the Chinese managed to muster.  (Missile defenses can't handle large or sophisticated attacks, but in theory they might be able to deal with a small and poorly coordinated reply).

This discussion is all pretty Strangelovian, of course, but nuclear strategists get paid to think about all sorts of elaborate and far-fetched scenarios.  In sum, those fiendish Chinese are doing precisely what any sensible power would do: they are trying to preserve their own second-strike deterrent by modernizing their force, to include the development of multiple-warhead missiles that would be able to overcome any defenses the United States might choose to build.  As the Wall Street Journal put it:


The [Chinese] goal is to ensure a secure second-strike capability that could survive in the worst of worst-case conflict scenarios, whereby an opponent would not be able to eliminate China's nuclear capability by launching a first strike and would therefore face potential retaliation. As the U.S. Defense Department's Ballistic Missile Defense Review points out, "China is one of the countries most vocal about U.S. ballistic missile defenses and their strategic implications, and its leaders have expressed concern that such defenses might negate China's strategic deterrent."


Three further points should be kept in mind. First, hawks are likely to use developments such as these to portray China as a rising revisionist threat, but such claims do not follow logically from the evidence presented. To repeat: what China is doing is a sensible defensive move, motivated by the same concerns for deterrent stability that led the United States to create a "strategic triad" back in the 1950s.  

Second, if you wanted to cap or slow Chinese nuclear modernization, the smart way to do it would be to abandon the futile pursuit of strategic missile defenses and bring China into the same negotiating framework that capped and eventually reduced the U.S. and Russian arsenals. And remember: once nuclear-armed states have secure second-strike capabilities, the relative size of their respective arsenals is irrelevant. If neither side can prevent the other from retaliating and destroying its major population centers, it simply doesn't matter if one side has twice as many warheads before the war. Or ten times as many. Or a hundred times....

Third, this episode reminds us that trying to protect the country by building missile defenses is a fool's errand. It is always going to be cheaper for opponents to come up with ways to override a missile defense. Why? Because given how destructive nuclear weapons are, a missile defense system has to work almost perfectly in order to prevent massive damage. If you fired a hundred warheads and 95% were intercepted -- an astonishingly high level of performance -- that would still let five warheads through and that means losing five cities.  And if an opponent were convinced that your defenses would work perfectly -- a highly unlikely proposition -- there are plenty of other ways to deliver a nuclear weapon. Ballistic missile defense never made much sense either strategically or economically, except as a make-work program for the aerospace industry and an enduring component of right-wing nuclear theology.

Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt

Top ten things that would-be foreign policy wonks should study

It's August, which means that students in America (and plenty of other places) are heading off to college for the first time. Some of them are undoubtedly thinking about preparing for careers in international affairs. As a public service to those eager future Secretaries of State (and the parents worrying about their college choices) here's my Top Ten Things that Future International Policy Wonks Should Learn.

1. History. Trying to understand international affairs without knowing history is like trying to cook without knowing the difference between flour and flounder. Not only does history provide the laboratory in which our basic theories must be tested, it shapes the narratives different peoples tell themselves about how they came to their present circumstances and how they regard their relationship to others. How could one hope to understand the Middle East without knowing about the Ottoman Empire, the impact of colonialism, the role of Islam, the influence of European anti-Semitism and Zionism, or the part played by the Cold War?  Similarly, how could one grasp the current complexities in Asia without understanding the prior relations between these nations and the different ways that Chinese, Vietnamese, Koreans, Japanese, Pashtuns, Hindus, Muslims, and others understand and explain past events

But don't just memorize a lot of names and dates: seek out teachers who can help you think about the past in sophisticated ways. Among other things, it's useful to know how other societies see the past even if you don't agree with their interpretation, so make sure you read histories written by citizens of other countries. And if you're studying in the United States, don't just study "Western Civilization." The world is a lot bigger than that.

2. Statistics. Most high schoolers have to learn a certain amount of math, but unless you're going into a technical field, a lot of it won't be directly relevant to a career in international affairs.  But statistics is part of the language of policy discourse, and if you don't understand the basics, you won't be a discerning consumer of quantitative information and others will be able to dazzle you with data that may not be right. You can avoid this fate with a little study.

3. Foreign Language. If you grew up outside the United States and are headed for college, you probably already speak more than one language. If you're an American, alas, you probably don't. You should. I know that everyone is learning English these days, but learning at least one foreign language provides a window into another culture that you can't get any other way, and also provides a sense of mastery and insight that is hard to achieve otherwise. I'm not particularly good at languages, but I'd gladly trade my mediocre abilities in French and German for real fluency in one of them (or many others).  Don't make my mistake: get to the language lab and acquire some real skills.

4. Economics. Economists aren't the wizards they think they are (see under: 1929, 2007-08), but you can't understand world affairs these days if you don't have a basic grasp of the key principles of international trade and finance and some idea how the world economy actually works. I might add that some forms of economics (e.g., game theory) can provide some useful ways of thinking about strategic interaction, provided you don't push it too far. So take enough economics to be able to read the WSJ op-ed page and know when they are BS-ing you.

5. International Law. You might think that a realist like me would dismiss international law completely, but I took a course in the subject as an undergraduate and have always been grateful that I did. Among other things, it reaffirmed my suspicion that international law is a pretty weak instrument, especially when dealing with great powers. Nonetheless, states and other international actors use international law all of the time, and they certainly invoke it to try advance their own particular interests. So it's good to have some idea what international law is, how it works, and what it can and cannot do.  

6. Geography. We often hear that we live in "one world," but it's divided up into lots of regions, countries, areas, and physical configurations, and these variations matter a lot.   I don't know when or why we stopped teaching geography, but it is an important part of the world affairs tool kit.   I might not go so far as to say "geography is destiny," but just look at all the international issues that you couldn't begin to understand without a detailed knowledge of the physical characteristics of the region in question.   South China Sea?  The West Bank?  The new sea routes in the Arctic?  The list is endless, yet I'm often struck by how little geography most students seem to know these days. Here's a good test: if you were given a map of the world with all the country names removed, how many could you fill in? If you can't get at least 75%, time to get out that atlas and start brushing up. The exercise will also tell you which regions you may know well and which ones you need to learn a bit more about.  If you're still not convinced that geography matters , check out Robert Kaplan's new book.

7.  Get some culture. Education in international affairs tends toward the technocratic, as the previous items on this list suggest. But some appreciation for art and culture is essential.  The music, literature, and visual arts of different societies are where their collective souls reside, and more people have been inspired by poetry, art, and music than by the most compelling regression equations. If you don't know why Picasso, Kurosawa, Shakespeare, Solzhenitsyn, Austen, Ellington, Rushdie, Shankar, etc. matter, then you've missed out an enormous part of the human experience and your ability to understand what makes other societies tick will be impoverished.

 8. Learn to communicate. Based on some of the graduate students I see, I'm not sure this is something most colleges teach anymore. But not matter what path you end up taking in life, being able to write clearly, quickly, and without enormous effort is a huge advantage. I'm not saying you have to aspire to be a prose stylist on the order of George Kennan, Joan Didion, or Paul Krugman, but overcoming the fear of the blank page or screen and developing the ability to write a clear, well-organized argument is an enormous force-multiplier.

While you're at it, hone your ability to speak effectively and persuasively. Regardless of what sort of career you pursue, being able to present your ideas orally will be very valuable. And I'm not just talking about formal lecturing or giving a keynote speech, I also mean knowing how to brief your boss in five-minutes or less, and how to ask a good question. I go to lots of public lectures and seminars, and I'm often struck by how few people know how to ask a clear, sharp and penetrating question. If you master that skill, you'll stand out.

Formal training and activities like debate can enhance these abilities, but mostly they come from practice. Repetition also helps overcome stage fright, and being relaxed while you're speaking is easily worth 10 or 20 IQ points.

9. What about science?  Most of us had to take a lot of science in high school, and some of us continued to do so in college. Although in-depth knowledge of physics, chemistry, biology, computer science, etc., is not directly relevant to many aspects of international affairs, it is powerfully linked to a host of important political phenomena. How can one understand cyber-security, climate change, global pandemics, economic development, and a host of other issues without understanding the scientific knowledge that lies at their core? More importantly, a clear understanding of the scientific method helps protect you from the proud know-nothingism that is increasingly a badge of honor among some politicians. So stick with some science too. And by the way: if you happen to interested in topics where science is central (such as arms control or the environment), you'd probably be better off majoring in a relevant scientific field rather than politics or history.

10. Find your ethical foundation. Universities teach classes on ethics, but apart from favoring free speech and opposing academic fraud, they don't endorse any particular ethical stance.  So don't expect your college to teach you what is right or moral. Nonetheless, if you haven't figured these things out for yourself yet, college is a good time to get cracking on it.  You'll meet lots of people with different views on this subject, and engaging with them will help you sort out where you stand. What's your view of the good or virtuous life?  Where are the lines that shouldn't be crossed? How do you propose to handle the ethical tradeoffs that will inevitably greet you as you advance through life? And as you study, keep a sharp eye out for role models: which people strike you as admirable and worthy of emulation and which seem morally challenged? And on what basis did you decide?

Alert readers will have noticed that my list looks a lot like the classic liberal arts education.  True enough: in world that is both diverse and changing rapidly, a broad portfolio of knowledge is almost certainly the best preparation for a long career in the field. My list also leaves out various extracurricular activities that may be every bit as important as what you do in class, such as living for an extended period in a foreign country. But a solid knowledge of these fields and a serious effort to develop some key skills would serve you in good stead in a wide variety of global professions. And if you end up doing something entirely different, they certainly won't hurt.

And if you're just starting your freshman year, I hope you find the next four years challenging and inspiring. Learn as much as you can, because there will be plenty of tough problems for you to work on as soon as you graduate.