Interview: Sarah C. Paine
A scholar of the 20th century explains the conflicts of the 21st.
I first encountered Sarah C.M. “Sally” Paine, a scholar of naval policy and military history, in a video interview she did with my friend Dwarkesh Patel. I was immediately struck by her ability to place both current events and 20th century history into a single cohesive framework, and to explain that framework in language that was both simple and useful. At a time when the world is falling into a new cold war, and the threat of a hot war is looming, we need analysts like Paine who have a deep understanding of how we succeeded — and where we failed — the last time we faced similar challenges.
So I reached out to Paine, and we conducted a lengthy email interview, which you can read below. Among other things, we discuss the types of great powers, the nature of the global order, the rise of the China-Russia axis, the objectives of Xi and Putin, the challenges of internal U.S. and European politics, and what the U.S. needs to do next. I found her arguments to be extremely persuasive, and also extremely sobering.
Paine is currently a professor in the Strategy and Policy Department at the U.S. Naval War College. She is also the author of several books, including The Wars for Asia, 1911–1949 (which I am currently reading), The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895: Perceptions, Power, and Primacy, and The Japanese Empire: Grand Strategy from the Meiji Restoration to the Pacific War.
The ideas expressed in this interview are hers alone.
N.S.: I'm especially interested in your ideas on "maritime" vs. "continental" powers, and on the idea of a global maritime order. Can you give me a quick intro as to what this means?
S.P.: A maritime power can, if necessary, defend itself primarily by sea, while a continental power cannot. This relates to geography: an island power like Britain can be invaded only by crossing the sea, whereas France, which also has a long coast facing the open ocean, has an equally long border facing Germany and the Low Countries. Both France and Germany have repeatedly invaded across that border and so require armies to defend it. Regardless of whether they buy large navies, their geographic positions are continental because of this landward vulnerability.
Historically, the great civilizations of Eurasia were all continental empires. Maritime empires came later. The former focused on expansion into contiguous territories, while the latter focused on the expansion of trade. For the latter the territory was secondary to the trade—they took territories that produced the products traded or that served as bases en route to the trade. Maritime empires, such as the Dutch Republic, were interested in maintaining a system of universal international laws so that all could trade in safety. Hugo Grotius, the founding father of international law, was a citizen of the Dutch Republic. Continental empires focused on carving the world up into spheres of influence, each a legal world unto itself, and often fighting to expand at each other’s expense.
The Industrial Revolution upended empires of both types by producing compounded growth. Maritime empires, already focused on trade, were far better positioned to adapt to this change than were continental empires bent on dominating territory. Moreover the advent of nationalism that gradually spread globally, starting in revolutionary France and the Napoleonic Wars, made the costs of empire unsustainable as dominated peoples resisted. Maritime empires eventually figured out that negotiating common rules for interaction was far more wealth producing than hanging on to hostile territories.
The rules-based international order took off after World War II. After the conspicuous failure of World War I to stabilize Europe, the conscripts of that war, whose adulthood had been spent navigating the Great Depression, rose to strategic leadership positions in the Second World War. Their solution to world war and global depression was institution building on a global scale including the UN, the International Monetary Fund, NATO, and the predecessor institutions of the European Union (the European Economic Community) and the World Trade Organization (the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade). They built strong institutions to create forums to hash out problems verbally rather than to fight them out militarily.
This emerging global order is fundamentally maritime because the oceans are the world’s original global network potentially connecting everyone to everything. In 2020, an article from the Center for International Maritime Security suggested a 66-70-80-90-99 rule highlighting that 66 percent of global wealth comes from or not far from the sea, 70 percent of the globe is oceanic, 80 percent of its population is coastal, 90 percent of goods arrive by sea, and 99 percent of digital traffic goes by submarine cable.1 This reflects the change in the currency of power from land to commerce. The incoming global maritime order focuses on compounding wealth by minimizing transaction costs, while the outgoing order of competing, wealth-destroying, continental empires focused on undermining each other. The old system destroyed wealth, the new one creates it.
N.S.: How do maritime powers tend to behave differently from continental ones?
S.P.: Historically geography forced continental powers to raise large armies or be devoured by their neighbors. Border security had to be the government’s priority. This created a tendency to orient the economy toward supplying the army and large standing armies stationed at home tended to influence political institutions in authoritarian directions. Ancient Athens, whose long walls transformed Athens into an island impregnable by land, and Great Britain had a level of national security that continental powers could not attain. This comparative security allowed the governments and peoples of Athens and Britain to focus on compounding wealth through trade. This then incentivized government institutions to protect and promote trade, with leanings toward democracy given the large number of stakeholders. Neither at its height had a large, coup-generating standing army in its capital. Both used their wealth to fund a navy to protect their ocean access and sea routes, and to defend by sea.
N.S.: And what are the key elements of the maritime order as it exists today?
S.P.: By global order, I mean the international legal rules, applying to both state and non-state actors, and the institutions that develop, amend, and administer these rules. The key elements of the existing maritime order are: international institutions, treaties, and laws that each country decides whether or not to join. These institutions are not the creation of a single hegemonic power but reflect the contributions of all members. They are effective only in so far as we all agree to support and abide by them. The institutions and laws are a work in progress and will probably always remain so as conditions change and succeeding generations adapt.
N.S.: Why are maritime powers less subject to military coups and authoritarianism? I can certainly think of times when maritime powers were taken over by military dictators -- the militarists in 1930s Japan, Oliver Cromwell, Suharto in Indonesia, and even a coup in Athens in 411 B.C. Do we have data showing that maritime powers are less prone to authoritarianism?
S.P.: I do not have data on whether continental or maritime powers are more susceptible to coups. I would guess that countries with large standing armies with a big presence in the capital and lacking strong legal institutions would be more prone to coups. Since World War II, both maritime and continental empires have been in retreat. No maritime empires remain, only continental empires like China and Russia. Since World War II a maritime rules based order, composed of countries with both continental and maritime geopolitical positions, has gained strength based on the post-war institutions: UN, GATT (now WTO), European Community (now EU), the World Bank, etc. To the extent that countries follow the rules, they suffer fewer coups. Coups by definition are a breakdown of the rules of succession.
N.S.: Also, following up on what you said about the post-WW2 order: If the rules-based order based on maritime trade brings greater prosperity to the world and greater power to maritime powers, why are we now seeing the resurgence of authoritarian continental powers like China, Russia, and Iran?
S.P.: What benefits a dictator personally and the population the dictator dominates differ. Dictators by definition want to monopolize political power. Xi Jinping, Vladmir Putin, and other dictators’ primary goal is to remain in power not to improve the prosperity of their people. Indeed to stay in power, they will need to squelch the ambitions of their citizens who naturally would seek political power at least commensurate with their economic contribution to national prosperity. Xi Jinping disagrees and has been arresting his most successful entrepreneurs—he does not want an alternate power base.
With the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991, there was a rare moment when the peoples of Central Europe could choose: East or West. They overwhelmingly chose the West because of the West’s far greater prosperity and freedom than ever offered by Russia. For a couple of fleeting decades, the Russians focused inward to reconstitute their country which enabled the Central Europeans to build their domestic institutions to survive the onslaught when Russia would return to try to dominate them. Their standards of living rapidly rose as they increasingly played by the rules of international law and law generally. Likewise, China under Deng Xiaoping focused on internal development. Now China is back, attempting to dominate its neighbors. Its growth rates have rapidly declined for this and other reasons.
The tragedy is that dictators seek unattainable goals that ultimately ruin their own citizens by depressing economic growth and potentially sparking wars. Dictators at best depress domestic growth in their attempt to control their own populations and at worst rapidly destroy wealth when they set off wars to dominate their neighbors.
N.S.: Let's talk about some factors leading to the decline of the rules-based order that the U.S. and its allies imposed during and after the first Cold War.
How much did the U.S. damage the rules-based order by invading Iraq, thus encouraging countries like Russia and (possibly) China to launch their own aggressive wars of choice?
S.P.: There are two parts to the question: First, how much did the U.S. damage the rules based order by invading Iraq? I have no idea how to quantify such an answer. The rules-based order is what survives because a preponderance of nations follow it. Bush Senior strengthened the world order in Gulf I, which concerned repelling an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. He did so by careful consensus building with allies who supported and funded the war. His son damaged the world order by taking unilateral action in a preemptive war of choice against Iraq despite the profound disagreement of many close allies. How much damage? Who knows. His wars then proved very difficult to exit, gobbling up scarce resources for decades.
Indeed, the United States damaged itself with protracted large-scale deployments of conventional forces to distant places, to theaters surrounded by multiple authoritarian countries intent on precluding the furthering of democracy near them. They were the veto players to Bush Junior’s plans. The objective of democracy was not feasible. The opportunity costs of wasting the resources in Iraq rather than in feasible objectives at home were high—as we see in our bitter and widening social divisions. Judicious investments at home would have been preferable to expensive pipedreams abroad.
The second part of the question concerns whether the Iraq War encouraged Russia and China to launch their own wars of choice. Embedded in this question is the very American assumption that other countries’ actions are a function of what the United States does or does not do. Americans flatter themselves with their assumptions about their own self-importance. Russia and China are continental empires governed by rulers intent on remaining in power for life. Putin and Xi focus on the expansion of territory and personal power—objectives independent of U.S. actions. In their calculations prior to invading others, U.S. weakness is of more interest than U.S. aggression. Both accept aggression as the norm of their preferred international system—the antithesis of the rules-based system that they seek to overthrow. Putin suffered few Western penalties for his 2008 Russo-Georgian War or his 2014 invasion of Ukraine. That would be far more important to his calculations than the War in Iraq. Likewise, the outcome of the War in Ukraine would be of interest to China as it calculates the international reaction to an attack on Taiwan.
N.S.: How much did internal U.S. political polarization and economic dysfunction matter?
S.P.: A lot. The famous twentieth century historian of the West, Arnold Toynbee, wrote that “Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.” The Republican Party is in the process of committing suicide and its suicide threatens us all. A multiparty system and the respect for differing opinions form the bedrock of democracy. When only one opinion is acceptable and others are either shouted down or threatened with violence, that is called dictatorship—when the nastiest person least willing to play by the rules dictates to everyone else.
The unwillingness of so many Republican representatives to certify the 2020 election—that elected them by the way—is a violation of their oath of office to uphold the Constitution. Those who lose elections must accept their loss. That is how democracy works. Try harder to win legally the next time. Telling the truth, playing by the rules, and treating others with civility are also fundamental to the family values that Republicans claim to espouse.
Democracies outperform dictatorships in global war and in peacetime economic growth in large part because of their citizens’ capacity to engage with each other’s differing ideas through argument, counterargument, and rebuttal, and engage not based on gotcha-moments over unfortunate word choices but based on a thoughtful engagement with the available evidence supporting one’s views AND a willingness to change one’s views as new evidence becomes available. Reassessment is not a flaw but a virtue. As Putin and Xi illustrated daily, dictators tend to double down on bad decisions and to eliminate their critics, focusing first on the most accurate ones.
If Donald Trump had been allowed to overturn the 2020 election, there would be no Ukraine today, Russian armies would be on Poland’s borders, and the West would be in a much weaker position to defend itself. The Republican Party needs to return to its core values of protecting U.S. national security and democracy. If this is impossible because the inmates have taken over the asylum, then those focused on defending our national security and democracy need to form another political party. Perhaps the Republic Party, like the bygone Whig Party, has run its course.
To fix America, Americans need to listen to each other, accommodate each other, compromise with each other, vote, and accept the outcome of votes.
N.S.: Let's talk about Russia and China for a bit. How much do you think Russia actually threatens Europe? If Ukraine falls, are the Baltics next? How about Poland? Would this answer be different had Ukraine quickly collapsed in 2022?
S.P.: Russia threatens Europe because its leaders aim to recreate the Soviet empire and cannot coexist with democracy. Conversely, democracies pose an existential threat to dictators. If democratic leaders win free elections, why can’t dictators? Answer: apparently their citizens do not support them. Dictators’ solution: squelch the nearest democracies—Ukraine or Taiwan for Russia and China respectively. For decades Europe tried playing nice by buying Russian energy and welcoming its dark money, but invasions came anyway.
There is no non-military solution to Russia. If Ukraine falls, Moldova and the Baltic States will be next and then comes Poland. Meanwhile, Russia will continue its aggressive information warfare that inflames the social divisions across the West. Russia has leveraged social media to encourage Western citizens to turn on each other and on their neighbors, rather than on the real culprits who are the dictators who pose the actual existential threat.
If Ukraine had collapsed in 2022, the situation of the West would have been dire. China would have looked at a country the size Texas falling to Russia. Why not go for Taiwan? Other countries looking on, with their many and varied territorial grievances, might think, why not go for it? Then the rules-based order that allows us to travel the globe with pieces of plastic called credit cards honored and allows both the weak and the powerful to expect their contracts to be fulfilled—that global order would have been on its way out. And this would ultimately impoverish us all. Dictators bring enormous wealth and power to themselves personally, but not to their citizens, let alone to their neighbors.
For Russia, Ukraine is simply a menu item—the appetizer before getting on with the meal. It is not the dessert that signals the meal is over. If Ukraine prevails and cleans up enough of its domestic corruption to get on track for European Union (EU) membership, it will beg the question: why can’t Russia clean up its corruption too? Why can’t those Russians living outside the two privileged cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg live like Europeans? Why do its most popular opposition leaders wind up targeted with weapons-grade toxins, gunned down, or parked in prison for vindictively long sentences? Why must Russians live nineteenth-century banana-republic lives? The answer is: dictatorship. This is how those under dictators live. Kim Jung-un’s North Korea is how they wind up after several generations of compounded poverty.
For dictators, democracies are inherently threatening both because fair elections preclude dictators and because the parasitical nature of dictators means living standards in dictatorships fall over time. Dictators feed off the labor of their citizens to project growth-stifling power at home and wealth-destroying power abroad. Democracies are not interested in territorial expansion but in economic growth. Dictatorships cannot leave them alone because they regard the high living standards in democracies as an indictment and mortal threat to themselves. Therefore, democracies must defend themselves. There is no way to be accommodating enough for dictators like Putin or Xi.
The West needs to get behind Ukraine and regularize both military and economic aid and prepare for the long haul of globally depressed growth rates courtesy of Russia and China’s decisions to challenge the wealth-producing global order—the order that recently made China rich. Supporting Ukraine is cheap compared to the alternative of opening the floodgates to dictatorial expansion.
N.S.: As for China, how much territorial ambition do they have beyond the conquest of Taiwan?
S.P.: China claims an entire Indian province, most of South China Sea, and is damming the headwaters of Southeast Asia’s river systems. China’s ambitions reach beyond territory to the global order itself. The Belt-Road Initiative is global. It is not about making money—it is about extending influence. China wants far more than just neighboring territory and compliant neighbors—it wants a world order with Chinese characteristics. FYI: democracy is not a PRC characteristic. It is a Taiwanese characteristic that China wants to snuff out for the same reasons that Putin is intent on snuffing out Ukraine.
The West won the last cold war by sticking together, compounding economic growth at home, and engaging in a strategy of assisted suicide for the communists. Without market pricing communist systems grossly misallocated capital and labor for lack of accurate valuations of either. The West worked to compound these economic burdens. Putin and Xi lack the powerful ideology that communism once was and are down to anti-Westernism. As the formerly colonized world works more closely with them, they will have a chance to compare the sins of the formerly colonizing West with those of the currently colonizing East. They will find that small and medium-size countries can only find safety in numbers and those numbers come through the rules of the evolving rules-based international order and the international and regional institutions that underpin it.
N.S.: I've argued that due to a combination of U.S. political divisions and China's overwhelming power, Ukraine can't count on the U.S. to be its steadfast friend and supporter going forward, and Europe has to step up if Ukraine is going to have long-term guarantees of sovereignty and security. Do you think that's basically correct? What are the biggest reasons Europe isn't doing more to help Ukraine right now?
S.P.: Chinese power is not an impediment to aid to Ukraine; on the contrary, it makes aid to Ukraine imperative lest the West’s failure to unite against a dire threat to its security in Europe encourages China to kick off a regional war in Asia, and other lesser powers to follow suit for their own regional grievances.
I am not an expert in the complicated domestic politics of the many and varied countries of Europe. I can speak to the reasons why some Americans (the doubters) fail to see the need to do more. Some of these reasons probably apply to Europe too:
(1) The doubters assume that their personal prosperity does not hinge on world events. Yet the ships and cables that deliver the trade and information that connect us all depend on the freedom of navigation that depends on a world order upholding the freedom to navigate and to share information. That world order is based on sovereignty: the rule that the big cannot ingest the small. If we live in peace, the transaction costs of delivering the goods and information are minimal and the wealth compounds. Now that Russia and China are at war with the international system, the transaction costs are rising. For these reasons, economic growth will not match the high growth rates of the inter-Cold War period that has just ended. Capitulating to Russian and Chinese territorial appetites will not preserve the system, only accelerate its decline. Our prosperity does hinge on world events, so we had better pay attention and align our wallets.
(2) Opportunities in wartime are ephemeral, proving the adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Either provide aid at the right time or the price tag soars. The doubters do not anticipate that if Russia wins this one and China wins the next one, it will be far more difficult to protect their physical let alone economic security. They cannot imagine a seismic change of the international system. Yet World War I took down the monarchies of Russia, Germany, and Austro-Hungary and put fascism and communism on steroids. Think of Greece’s ruined Parthenon that stands in mute testimony to a world order destroyed.
(3) The doubters have become jaded by the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan where local partners were unable to do the fighting. Ukrainians, by contrast, are doing the fighting and fighting well. The doubters are probably unaware of “the principle of continuity” in warfare, derived from Carl von Clausewitz’s classic, On War. Ukrainians have massively degraded Russia’s military at the cost of pennies on the dollar for the West. Give Russia a breathing space and it will reconstitute its forces to return for an even deadlier land grab as it did after its initial landgrab in 2014. So, keep the pressure on—follow the principle of continuity. Give Russia no breathing space. This is a proxy war for the West but not for Russia, which has already lost more military personnel than in its bankrupting, decade-long war in Afghanistan.
The value of victory is existential for Ukrainians and Putin, but not for the Russian people. Ukraine poses no threat to their existence. Leverage this asymmetry in the value of the object to keep Ukraine in the fight. The Russian army has a history of breaking: it broke in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5) when the value of the object was far greater for the Japanese and Tsar Nicholas II than for the Russian people. It broke again in World War I for a lack of competent generalship and adequate supplies (sound familiar?). It survived World War II only through massive U.S. Lend-Lease aid, an effort that China is not about to duplicate. Meanwhile, as Russia throws ever more resources into Ukraine, it cannot protect its long borders elsewhere. And this may ultimately constitute a genuine national security threat to Russia not the dystopian fairytale about supposed Ukrainian Nazis.
(4) The doubters, like all of us, prefer good news to bad news. But the bad news is real: Russia is going to be a problem for the long term. For the situation to change requires Russian leaders to change their minds, a highly unlikely event for a very long time. When Putin dies or is overthrown, there will be a destabilizing leadership struggle. Succession is an inherent weakness of dictatorships. After Joseph Stalin suddenly died, Soviet leaders immediately called off the Korean War in order to focus on their internal power struggle with each other. It then took years for the narrowing list of contenders to consolidate power. No one can predict when Putin’s last day on the job will be.
(5) Finally the opportunists wish to use the war in Ukraine against domestic opponents. Apparently some Republican Party members prefer a Ukraine loss to portray as a Joe Biden loss in the upcoming presidential elections. Imagine if U.S. politicians had done this in World War II to undermine Franklin D. Roosevelt. Then it took the attack on Pearl Harbor to quell the isolationists who incorrectly thought that war could not come to them. Europeans should understand better than Americans the costs of allowing big countries to run roughshod over small ones. Europe became the battleground of two world wars for a failure to face problems sooner rather than later. Europeans are cognizant of the threat. They are working together. But it takes time for 27 European Union (EU) members and 31 NATO members to come to agreement. When they do, their agreement is powerful.
A Ukrainian victory could come through the collapse of the Russian army or Putin’s inevitable succession, but both could take time. In the meantime, keep the aid flowing and the sanctions tightening so that the compounded effects of the economic growth that fails to occur in Russia puts Russians on track for a North Korean existence. Those who undermine the rules-based order get a global time out—no equal participation until the destructive behavior ceases. If the problem cannot be solved, this is how to manage it—gradually widen the gap in living standards between the free and unfree worlds. This is how the last Cold War was won.
N.S.: Another question. You've talked about how in great-power conflicts, the side with the most and best allies typically prevails. Currently, China — the world's largest manufacturer by far, and second-most-populous nation — is in a de facto alliance with Russia, Iran, and North Korea. Is that a dominant coalition? If not, what U.S.-led coalition could conceivably overmatch it?
S.P.: No this is not the dominant coalition. China plus failing states Russia, North Korea, and Iran is not a winning team. Much of the population is starving in North Korea. Iran is a theocracy—a medieval form of government following medieval practices—like killing over clothing. Even China is now engaged in wealth stifling policies under Xi Jinping. Moreover, China is an awful ally. It does not believe in the equality of states, rather that China should dominate any “allies.” Prime allies are not North Korea, but South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and all of Europe (minus Belarus and several others of little economic consequence). The global rules-based order enshrined in international organizations and treaties is the winning system.
China became an economic powerhouse when it rejoined this maritime trading order and played by the rules of international law. It is now back to its historic paradigm of China at the center and all others must kowtow to the emperor in Beijing. Western investors are fleeing, sanctions are multiplying, its internal housing/loan bubble is imploding, its most talented entrepreneurs are imprisoned, its internal repression is growing, while genocide against its Muslims continues. Manufacturing moved into China over the last thirty years when China played by the rules, and now it is moving out as China jettisons the rules. India, Vietnam, Mexico and many other countries are more than happy to help fill the gap.
Currently, Russian and Chinese brutality are propelling their weaker neighbors to cooperate with each other and to seek out strong friends. The most powerful alliances are based on existential threats—the type that Russia and China are now posing.
N.S.: Let's follow up on the idea of what happens if China and Russia prevail in their respective neighborhoods — Russia conquering Ukraine and perhaps dominating Eastern Europe, and China conquering Taiwan and dominating East Asia. Can you spell out explicitly how American prosperity suffers in that scenario? And would there be any direct security threat to America?
S.P.: Russian conquest of Ukraine and Chinese ingestion of Taiwan would mark the beginning not the end of the feast on other people’s territory. Both Russia and China envision an authoritarian world order, dividing the world into massive spheres of influence—spheres yet to be created. Small- to mid-sized countries (i.e. most countries) beware. They will lose their equal sovereign rights under the present rules-based world order in which the rules apply to the weak and strong alike. Instead we will all regress to the ancient world in which the strong do what they can while the weak suffer what they must. There will be no recourse to international law or institutions, just to the psychopathic emperors entrenched in Russia and China. An authoritarian world order at best will stifle economic growth and creativity, and at worst it will usher in a succession of wars as intended victims resist these plans.
In the United States, both China and Russia have already begun the cyber war, by targeting the government, universities, corporations, journalists, professors, and citizens with cyber theft. Both countries target their own citizens in the United States to silence them and sometimes to blackmail, kidnap, poison, or kill them. If their territorial aggrandizement proceeds, the areas of the globe subject to their authoritarian model will grow along with the menu of targeted individuals that will increasingly include U.S. citizens who dare criticize either.
Since the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court Citizens United ruling, allowing the wealthy—including foreign governments—to make unlimited anonymous contributions to U.S. political campaigns, we have no idea which of our public representatives are beholden to dark money from foreign dictators. We also do not know how many of our public representatives have been honey trapped by Russia, which is famous not only for the defenestration of former Putin supporters, but also for taking intimate photographs to blackmail victims—in this case presumably to cast desired votes. We should have a hot line for the latter to break such foreign influence that endangers us all.
Prosperity, ours along with that of others, depends on minimizing the costs of our many business transactions with each other. Regulating these transactions is the origin of international law. If we play by the rules, the credit cards work, we can plan, partners cannot renege on contracts, the pricing is market based, etc. As Russia and China expand, leveling one country at a time, the amount of wealth destroyed will be massive, as Ukraine illustrates, while any war-ravaged territory taken will not be capable of generating wealth for decades. China’s and Russia’s plans are negative sum—there will be less aggregate global wealth for every territory they take and this will ruin their victims and ultimately impoverish us all as it shrinks the area where the rules still apply.
When the last Cold War ended, Russia and China ceased funding insurgencies, the civil wars died down, and the world achieved unprecedent growth, benefiting the rich and poor alike. Americans are shocked that these comparatively peaceful and prosperous years are over. The transaction costs are rising because Russia and China no longer intend to play by the rules. This is the long-term threat to our economic prosperity and national security.
The immediate security threat for the United States is that the authoritarians may win through the ballot box with the election of Donald Trump, an admirer of Putin and other authoritarian leaders. Trump will fast-track this authoritarian dystopia.
N.S.: Also, regarding our list of allies, the U.S. has been drawing a lot closer to India, which is the most populous country in the world, a rival of China, and a potential platform for manufacturing investment. Do you see that partnership developing into some sort of alliance?
S.P.: India is allergic to the idea of alliances. It was one of the founders of the non-aligned movement. Expect that to continue. Throughout the Cold War, India had very friendly and productive relations with Russia, but strained relations with the United States. U.S. segregation appalled Indian leaders, who understood full well that segregation applied to them. For good reason, they were also bitter about Western colonialism generally. Nevertheless, Chinese aggression is propelling India to cooperate with the United States, which now has an increasing number of citizens of Indian origin who can bridge communications between their native and adopted countries.
Alliances and partnerships are more a function of common enemies and the lethality of the threat than of shared values. The Grand Alliance of World War II included the British Empire, the United States bent on eliminating empires, and the Soviet Union bent on eliminating capitalists. Yet the three shared a common, lethal primary enemy in Hitler and the alliance survived precisely until Hitler’s death, when the unifying shared common enemy was no more. Arguably China is the primary adversary of both India and the United States and this forms the basis for security cooperation. Should the threat become lethal to both (not just one), expect the cooperation to deepen.
N.S.: And following up on my question about Europe, do you think Europe is doing enough to hold up its end of the NATO bargain, in terms of spending the necessary money and producing the necessary armaments to help Ukraine and other East European states resist Russian power? If not, how can we get them to step up more?
S.P.: I am not an expert on the many countries of Europe, so I cannot explain their domestic impediments to expeditious funding for Ukraine. Both the United States and Europe have been slow to ramp up miliary production. But this takes time. In World War II, the United States funded a two-ocean navy only in 1940 and those ships did not arrive in theater until 1943 at a time when the United States had a massive manufacturing base that it no longer possesses. Ukraine of course is gearing up production as fast as it can, particularly of drones. To take back territory, Ukraine must own the skies over its troops otherwise Russia will slaughter them. Conversely if Ukraine owns the skies, the tables will turn and Russian troop morale will be unlikely to hold—they have no compelling personal reasons to fight to take Ukrainian territory while Ukrainians have existential reasons for fighting to regain and protect their own territory.
There are two ways for Ukraine to retrieve territory: shatter the morale of the Russian army, in which case the mine fields will not matter, or shatter Putin’s domestic monopoly of power through the protraction of the war beyond the patience of his followers. Stalin wound up dead behind a bedroom door that no one opened until they were sure he must be dead. The sycophants were sick of the purges. The ensuing succession cat fight meant an instant end to the Korean War that had long stalemated. As Putin runs out of lieutenants to blame for his miscalculations, perhaps the survivors will tire of the defenestrations.
Leaders in all democracies need to explain to voters the lethality of the threat, the impossibility of compromise, and the cost-effectiveness of aid to Ukraine given the stakes. Putin and Xi have “unlimited objectives” meaning they intend to overthrow the international rules-based order, not simply to reform it (a limited objective). Compromise with adversaries pursuing unlimited objectives is called appeasement because the compromise positions them to return for the kill. For decades the West tried to compromise in its strategy of “transformation through trade” tried in the 1990s up through the completion of Nord Stream II. Russian invasions simply gathered force: Georgia 2008, Ukraine 2014, and Ukraine 2022. Compromise takes two. Putin and Xi have made clear their ambitions. Either we organize with our partners to defend ourselves or the dictators will continue picking us off one by one.
N.S.: Let's talk about how much military strength the U.S. really has. I have been banging the drum about this, but it feels like no one is listening, and it feels like people in the defense, Congressional, and foreign policy establishment are complacent. The U.S. has no civilian shipbuilding industry to speak of, and our Navy is getting massively outproduced by China in terms of number of ships and submarines per year. Our munitions production has struggled to reach one-tenth of what it was in the mid-1990s, and I can't imagine our drone and missile production is much better. It seems like in any protracted conventional war, China will be able to outproduce us, the way we outproduced the Axis powers in World War 2. Is this an accurate assessment, in your view? Are people in the establishment sufficiently concerned about this? And if the answer to both of those questions is "yes", what is being done to remedy the situation, and what more can be done?
S.P.: These are all excellent questions that I cannot answer because these are not areas of my expertise. You need to interview someone with expertise on production, production timelines, logistics, bottlenecks to production, etc. You also need to interview someone with expertise on the combined industrial capacities of the United States and all of its likely allies. Wars over the nature of the international system are global and involve alliances.
Here are some points to consider: In World War II, it took the United States several years to gear up production. The United States never fought on the main front of World War II, which was the Russian front in Europe and the China front in Asia. I define the main front to be where the Axis and Allies (Russia) deployed the preponderance of their forces. Unlike in World War I when Russia fell for lack of arms and food, the United States through Lend-Lease supplied both the Russians and British. It is crazy to let a partner's army go down for lack of supplies—Ukraine's current predicament if Congress does not get going.
Japan in World War II had a productive capacity only a fraction of that of the United States, but managed to give the United States a real run for its money even as Japan conducted campaigns throughout China. In other words, those with comparatively small industrial bases can wreak havoc. Like China today but unlike the United States then or now, Japan lacked many of the key resources for war, most notably oil (and also food), which was ultimately the ruin of Japan. Without energy, armies, ships, and planes cannot move far.
The Axis lost World War II for a combination of many reasons—not just a single reason such as production. These reasons included their own overextension of trying to gobble up and hold more than was possible, gobbling in the most alienating way imaginable, and, in so doing, transforming failing states (famine- and purge-ridden Russia and disintegrating China) into lethal adversaries. Russia has just transformed Ukraine into a lethal adversary and supercharged European defense cooperation. If China reduces Taiwan to rubble, expect the same transformation in Asia. China's unprovoked threats have already spurred unprecedented, and until recently politically impossible, Japanese and Korean security cooperation. If China continues its menacing approach to foreign policy, it will wind up with two additional nuclear neighbors.
Wars turn on many instruments of national power, not just the military. In global wars, the side with the most effective alliance system typically wins. The side that most effectively leverages diplomacy to share and coordinate resources and campaigns does better over time—daily we see the diplomacy in action as allies step in to provide incremental aid to Ukraine while U.S. politicians try to hash out an aid/border deal. In the world wars, the theaters of conflict were not only land campaigns, but blockades to throw enemies back on their own dwindling resources, finance, propaganda, government-private sector production coordination, etc. There was a major civilian component concerning production, home-front support, and, most importantly, on strategy: how to coordinate these resources and when and how to deploy them. World War II also turned out well for the West due to all the wartime planning for post-war reconstruction and institution building, planning that requires careful civil and military input and coordination—planning that was totally absent in the War in Iraq,
We are at a pivotal moment in our country's history. Will our leaders do their job, which is above all to protect our national security or will they continue with their scorched-earth strategies against each other that leave our governmental institutions hamstrung? It is time for the articulate among them to speak to Americans, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt did in the Great Depression, to explain the stakes, the choices, the trade-offs and the consequences and back up their recommendations with evidence. Roosevelt did not dumb down his radio talks about impending bank holidays, but detailed the issues and supported his recommendations with evidence. Voters were far less well educated then than they are now. Not only politicians but journalists need to quit the unsupported ad hominem attacks on each other and instead lay out the trade-offs to be made and the rationale for them.
N.S. Thanks. Final set of questions. Looking out at the U.S. media and opinion landscape, what are the key things that you think Americans don't yet understand about the current geopolitical situation, that they most need to understand?
S.P.: Americans most need to understand:
1. The connection between their personal well-being with a rules-based order at home and abroad. The most efficient and least violent way to run transactions between individuals and states is through laws. The alternative is wealth destroying armed chaos. Russia’s approach to Syria and Ukraine illustrates what happens when there are no rules: the places where Russia intervenes become smoking ruins. What it loots goes to its tiny governing elite, which lacks the wealth to replace the wreckage it leaves behind.
2. The difference between posturing and governing. Making the headlines by creatively insulting one’s political opponents does not solve problems; rather it derails solutions by deepening political divisions. Governing entails engaging both the argument and the counterargument, considering the best evidence supporting both, and then compromising to produce legislation that reflects not a minority but the diversity and complexity that is America. As columnist Mark Shields observed, “Politics is additive.”
3. A win-win strategy is much more likely to succeed than a winner-take-all approach. Reduce the debt, not by defunding the IRS but by collecting the taxes that are legally due. Before Russia escalates to a Baltic invasion and points westward, arm the Ukrainians. Make a border deal to staunch the flow of illegals, who are illegal and should abide by U.S. law by entering legally.
4. The difference between opinion and evidenced-based conclusions. Solving U.S. problems requires data to inform decision making. “News” reporting has gravitated toward opinion and prediction, rather than the collection of information about events, decisions, and research findings—the necessary data for others (not the reporter) to form conclusions to guide choices.
5. The imperative to get beyond “crotch” politics. Too many Americans obsess over limiting bathroom access, personal pronoun use, rare cases of transgender amateur sports participation, and intervening in other people’s health care. As they fiddle these tunes, the world around them burns: If Ukraine loses, the international order will crumble; if Americans on the bottom two-thirds of the social pyramid consider their economic prospects stymied, social unrest will grow; if illegal immigration is ignored, divisions between border- and non-border states will widen; if climate change is not addressed, costs of climate disasters will mount; if the United States fails to hold free and fair elections and if losers refuse to accept defeat, democracy will not survive in the United States. The Declaration of Independence laid out the core U.S. values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Democracy is the basis for all three.
N.S.: And can you talk about what specific actors can do here to improve the situation? What can people in the technology industry do, business-wise or politically, in order to support the needed changes? How about the D.C. establishment, the media, or just normal everyday Americans?
S.P.: Don’t re-elect let alone donate to Trump or those who declined to certify the 2020 election. They failed their most important official responsibility: to honor their oath of office to uphold the U.S. Constitution. Without the rule of law, democracy is dead. If we do not follow the laws, then what? Our whims? The local crime boss? How can those who considered themselves fairly elected have refused to certify the election results for the same ballot that elected them? Don’t like the results? Attract more voters in the next election. Don’t like the laws? Amend them. Kicking over the chessboard is not the answer.
Both private companies and public servants should think about border security and supply chain security together. Failing states on U.S. borders threaten U.S. security. Consider a multi-decade, incremental effort to encourage investments in Central America that would profit U.S. businesses, create livelihoods there, bring supply chains closer to home, and, in so doing, gradually staunch the flow migrants—in a win-win strategy.
Create a free on-line media pool limited to highly informative daily articles—not predictions about the future or moral judgments about the present, but fact-driven reporting. It should cover Congressional legislation, Supreme Court decisions, the voting records of legislators, the resumes of candidates, important research findings, and, lest we play half-court tennis and ignore the other side of the net, follow political and economic developments across the globe. The Associated Press got its start during the Mexican-American War, when New York City newspapers “pooled” their resources so they could afford to cover the war. Make the internet work for voters instead of the trolls. Currently we are operating in an information vacuum left by the demise of local newspapers, the print press in general, and TV news viewership. Younger generations no longer rely on them.
For Americans generally, some neglected platitudes: Be kind to each other. Encourage others not to be mean. When others say something nice about someone, let that person know. Thank those who should be thanked. Try to forgive the little things and focus on the big things. For those who are senior, look out for those who are junior. For young and old: do not be afraid to change your mind. Reassessment is a virtue not a fault. Intransigence in the face of opposing evidence is a harbinger of senility.
For those concerned about American greatness, consider its origin. Was it leadership by the rudest and crudest people in the room? Decisions based on gut feeling rather than a careful examination of the available evidence? My-way-or-the-highway, scorched-earth politics? Or was it the capacity to think beyond the next election or annual report to the next generation? To think big. To act with optimism and faith in others. American greatness used to be based on innovation, top-notch experts in all fields, personal liberty not to tell others what to do but to make one’s own choices, honesty and integrity as core values, a commitment to service, and to quote the Republican Party’s greatest leader, “malice toward none with charity for all.”
The greatest generation of Americans were not the veterans of World War II who raised the Vietnam generation, but their parents, the veterans of World War I and the Great Depression, who applied can-do optimism and thought big to solve big problems. Despite the intense partisanship of the McCarthy era, in a few short years the Truman administration was instrumental in creating the Marshall Plan, the International Monetary Fund, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the National Security Council, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the U.S. Air Force, programs and institutions that fostered unprecedent global economic growth, allied cooperation, and U.S. grand strategy, and held the peace in the West for three generations until Putin decided to overturn the global chessboard to impose on us his dystopian continental world of landgrabs, torture, murder, looting, and wanton destruction.
Now it is our watch. Time to plan, legislate, and act.
The rule is an adaptation of Wedin’s which was an adaptation of U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus’s. Lars Wedin, “Sweden and the Blue Society: New Challenges for a Small Navy,” Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), 17 Sept 2020 http://cimsec.org/sweden-and-the-blue-society-new-challenges-for-a-small-navy/45585