America should speak softly and carry a big stick -- but we need a bigger stick

No US Air Force commander will allow the F-22 Raptor anywhere near Russian air defenses in Syria as they do not know how good they are and do not want to find out. Photo: Reuters

No US Air Force commander will allow the F-22 Raptor anywhere near Russian air defenses in Syria as they do not know how good they are and do not want to find out. Photo: Reuters

[The essay first appeared in Asia Times on Dec. 17, 2016. I argue that America needs to re-establish unchallenged technological superiority as a precondition for convincing Russia and China to behave responsibly. We should speak softly and carry a big stick. The problem is the stick. America’s edge has eroded alarmingly during the past twenty years. The temptation is to shout shrilly and wave a small stick. That will get us nowhere].

Russia, China and America never will be friends; at best they will be peaceful competitors rather than warlike adversaries. To maintain the former rather than the latter circumstance is the proper goal of American policy.

It would be dangerous for America to pursue the Wilsonian (and neo-conservative) vision of internal transformation of Russia and China, with the goal of turning them into American-style democracies.

The second-most dangerous thing America could do would be to abandon the world stage. World stability depends on a strong America, that is, an America that is economically vibrant and technologically superior.

It is whimsical to speak of a Russian-Chinese-American “alliance” in the sense of the European “Holy Alliance” after the Napoleonic Wars. America, Russia and China never will be allies. China and Russia can be “equal partners” with America, provided that America is more equal than China and Russia. By this I mean that China and Russia are powers that have legitimate interests that deserve consideration, so long as America retains a decisive edge in military technology – something that cannot now be taken for granted.

Relatively speaking, America’s big stick has shrunk noticeably, and there is a temptation to speak loudly by way of compensation.

Misconceptions about Russia and China abound and could have tragic consequences. Democracy is integral to American culture, which (as I have tried to show) flows from our self-conception as an almost-chosen people. Individualism is stamped indelibly on our national character, and our national avatar is the lone pilgrim.

Russia and China are not like us, and Russians and Chinese do not see the world the way we do. Russia and China are not nation-states but multi-ethnic empires. In that respect they bear a certain resemblance to the United States, which is a multi-ethnic republic rather than a nation-state in the usual sense of the word.

To construct a state from different ethnicities – a one, out of many -requires a culture with some universalizing character. The peculiar ways in which Russia and China were unified is the key to their character.

Like America, they evince a peculiar balance of resilience and fragility. Of the three America is by far the most successful. There is no guarantee that this will continue, to be sure; as in the past, America will require monumental efforts to remain the most successful among the great powers.


Consider first the parallels in geography. Russia expanded from a relative small core of territory in the 16th century to the world’s largest sovereign nation during the 18th century.


Its imperial expansion always has been both its strength and weakness. There never have been enough Russians in Russia: Tatars, Turks, and other Muslims have been hard to assimilate since the 18th century expansion that brought them into the Russian empire.


Chinese culture is 5,000 years old, but the seed-crystal of modern China, the Zhou Dynasty of 1,000 BCE, occupied only the Wei and Yellow River plains.


The Chinese empire gradually expanded by assimilating its neighbors, often by force: the unruly barbarians on the imperial border who did not learn the Chinese characters, adopt Chinese dress, and become civilized were exterminated or driven westwards. That may explain the fall of Rome; the Huns and other tribes were dislodged.


The similarities to America’s expansion during the 18th and 19th century are inescapable. Most of the expansion, of course, favored slavery.


“Manifest Destiny” was a slogan of the slave party, and the Mexican War was supported by the slavery interest and opposed by anti-slavery Whigs like the young Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant. In that respect America’s 19th-century expansion was imperial and unstable until the Civil War eliminated slavery and uprooted the source of divisiveness.

Russia and China, like the United States, absorbed a vast territory and ruled it on the strength of a unifying culture. The US, China and Russia are inherently fragile but also have surprising resilience.

European and American elites spoke of a collapse of the American empire after the fall of Vietnam, and the Western intelligentsia at the end of the 1970s expected Russia to win the Cold War. Henry Kissinger certainly did; so did then German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt.

Few expected the United States to come roaring back under Ronald Reagan, win the Cold War, and emerge as the world’s only “hyperpower” during the 1990s.

After the Century of Humiliation bounded by the 1st Opium War of 1848 and the Communist Revolution of 1947, few expected China to become the world’s largest economy (which it either is or will be soon).

After losing more than a fifth of its population in the Second World War, Russia nearly won the ensuing Cold War, and after the collapse of Communism and predictions of a Russian “implosion,” Russia has returned as a world power.

Here the similarity ends.

That said, there are radical differences among the three cultures. America is apocalyptic; Russia is messianic; and China is pragmatic. By apocalyptic, I mean that Americans define themselves with respect to an unattainable point in the future, the goal of a Christian pilgrimage whose endpoint always hovers beyond the horizon. In a recent essay for Tablet Magazine I tried to identify what was unique in American culture:

America’s journey is the Christian pilgrimage that cannot end with an earthly goal. Thus, Huckleberry Finn is an exemplar of Christian literature as much as is The Pilgrim’s Progress. The journey is motivated not by the destination but by the restlessness of the pilgrim. There is only one possible conclusion to Huck’s adventure: His journey must resume, as he announces in the book’s last line: “But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”


America is apocalyptic in the original sense of the Greek word: resolution lies beyond the visible horizon. The central trope in American culture is the pilgrimage to the Promised Land, and its character type is the pilgrim on a journey towards redemption.

Our culture is Protestant, individualistic and antinomian. All our protagonists have problems with authority. We celebrate the cowboy who rides off into the sunset, the private detective who walks alone, the Western sheriff who won’t quit his job at high noon – the individual pilgrim on a journey to salvation.


Our national archetype is the pilgrim. Russia’s national archetype by sharp contrast is the penitent: the Russian national drama is Pushkin’s Boris Godunov (the pretender to the throne who murders the true czarevich), and its national novelist is Dostoevsky.

Western analysts tend to portray a Russia in crisis. They are correct, but this characterization conveys no information of importance, for Russia has been in perpetual crisis since its founding. Russia has always been on the verge of crisis. It has always relied on tax revenues from its political uncertain west in order to finance profitable adventures in the east.

As Eugene Rosenstock-Huessy wrote in Out of Revolution, Russia and America are continents which have had to be organized during the last 150 years:

But in Russia the problem was somehow first solved from the “frontier” toward the Baltic coast. It was as if Texas or Utah and Nevada had tried to annex the 13 colonies. In conquering Finland, in dividing Poland, in vanquishing the free people of the Caucasus, in getting the Baltic provinces from Sweden, the Russians inherited an old investment in political and social tradition.

They found a surplus for taxation more easily in the Teutonic order, the German harbors and universities, the Polish craftsmen and peasants, and the Jewish traders. For Russia, the conquest of new western districts spared organizing the purely Russian regions.

Historic purpose

Rosenstock-Huessey explains that the Russian moujik “was no stable freeholder of the Western type but much more a nomad, a pedlar, a craftsman and a soldier. His capacity for expansion was tremendous.”

In 1581 Asiatic Russia was opened. Russian expansion, extending even in the 18th century as far as the Russian River in Northern California, was by no means czaristic only. The “moujik”, the Russian peasant, because he is not a “Bauer” or a “farmer”, or a “laborer”, but a “moujik”, wanders and stays, ready to migrate again eventually year after year.

Russia combined a sense of its historic purpose as the successor to the fallen Byzantium and a messianic sense of a civilizing mission as it flung its political power across the Eurasian continent. The whole enterprise was incompetently organized and subject to continuous failures, but it had a grandiosity that evoked a sense of imperial pride among Russians as well as an astonishing capacity to absorb pain.

Russia defeated Napoleon and Hitler. Its scientists beat the United States into space in the 1950s after reproducing German missile technology on their own. The US won the space race only because the German team led by Werner von Braun was playing for us. Again, Russia nearly defeated America in the Cold War.

The colonization of the Western border territories also provided the Russian Empire with many of its greatest leaders. Rather than revolt against czarist expansion, many of the most ambitious men of the Baltic, Polish, and Caucasian colonies became the most fervent exponents of empire. Dostoevsky himself wrote:

I suppose that one of my Lithuanian ancestors, having emigrated to the Ukraine, changed his religion in order to marry an Orthodox Ukrainian, and became a priest. When his wife died he probably entered a monastery, and later, rose to be an archbishop. This would explain how the Archbishop Stepan may have founded our Orthodox family, in spite of his being a monk. It is somewhat surprising to see the Dostoevsky, who had been warriors in Lithuania, become priests in Ukraine. But this is quite in accordance with Lithuanian custom. I may quote the learned Lithuanian St. Vidunas in this connection: “Formerly many well-to-do Lithuanians had but one desire: to see one or more of their sons enter upon an ecclesiastical career.”

To be Russian is to feel part of a great, holy and collective enterprise, whose purposes are so compelling that great crimes may be committed in its furtherance. The Russian Empire was a project as mad as it was grandiose. It required leaders with ambitions larger than life and utter disregard for human suffering to manage its lurch from crisis to crisis.

We do not hear of “Ivan the Reasonable.” The archetype of the Russian leader is the bloody-handed tyrant who nonetheless is capable of a degree of Christian repentance, as in Pushkin. On the Russian scale of tyrannical bloodthirstiness, Vladimir Putin might rate a “2” if Ivan the Terrible and Stalin rate a “10.”


Individualism is not a Russian character trait. To require that Russians emulate America in matters of democracy and human rights really is a Protestant attempt to evangelize the Orthodox. Anglophone Protestantism is individualistic in its most fundamental premise, that the source of revelation is the communication of God’s word directly from Scripture to the individual. Orthodoxy has no such concept; in its embrace the individual fits into the collective as closely as Russia’s matryoshka dolls.

The expression “paranoid Russian” is a pleonasm. To be Russian is already to be paranoid, because the imperial project always is at risk of going to pieces, and the losers in the distribution of imperial power always are looking to avenge themselves.

The Russians are chess players. Chess is the ultimate paranoid’s game, and it is not surprising that several of history’s greatest chess players (e.g., Alekhine and Fisher) were paranoids in the clinical sense. Paranoia is the inability to distinguish the random from the intentional. On the chessboard, though, nothing is random. Every move has a purpose. Unfortunately, Americans play the chessboard as if it were Monopoly. We have no overarching strategic objective and simply seek to accumulate local advantages.

For that reason it seemed quite reasonable to the George W. Bush administration in February 2004 to support the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine; after all, don’t we Americans want to support democracy everywhere? Ukraine’s oligarchs played musical chairs, and Vladimir Putin concluded that America was out to dismember Russia.


Chinese identity is difficult for Westerners to grasp. Until quite recently few Chinese spoke the Imperial court dialect, or Mandarin. Most spoke one of the nearly 60 dialects still spoken in China. But all wrote with the same characters. China’s imperial expansion allowed the peoples incorporated into the empire to retain their own spoken language, but required all to write with the characters.

Chinese whose languages are as different as Welsh and Hungarian write the same characters but cannot understand a word of each others’ speech, although Mandarin is now understood by most Chinese thanks to a centralized education system and electronic media.

Literacy was the foundation of the Chinese empire. At the turn of the Common Era (CE), China had achieved literacy rates of 30% while Europe’s was close to zero; the only people in the world with a higher literacy rate were the Jews.

Chinese children are given a brush and a bottle of ink at age six, and informed that their childhood is over: They will spend three or four hours a day during the next five years of their lives simply learning to read and write. With the exception of the Jews, China has produced the most educationally-intensive effort at socialization of any people in history.

No Chinese mother sang a lullaby to her child with the Imperial characters, which are an abstract representation of thought without sound. For most of Chinese history, lullabies and love songs were sung in the dozens of dialects that Chinese speak at home.

Imperial coercion

Since the Communist Revolution and the growth of electronic media, Mandarin, once merely the official court dialect, has become intelligible to a majority of Chinese. But most Chinese still speak a regional variant of Mandarin, and many only speak dialect, particularly in the South.

Chinese culture is in some respects an instrument of imperial coercion. Chinese have two identities, one for public life in the Empire, and one in their families. The first is conducted in the written ideograms, the second mostly in dialect.

At one level China is the most unified culture in the world, requiring years of effort on the part of children to acquire the written culture. At another level China never was unified. It is the perfect Ciceronian state, held together by common interest, namely the need for domestic peace and order.

St. Augustine admonished Cicero that common interest did not suffice: what gives cohesion to states is a common love. That is what China lacks. Its families, tribes, clans and peoples tolerate the Emperor who sits in Beijing, but they do not love him, or each other. He is necessary to prevent chaos (and the Chinese have a vivid memory of what chaos in the form of warlordism is like), but they do not love him.

As Italian sinologist Francesco Sisci observes, China developed no sense of “rights and obligations” in the sense of Roman and later Western usage. One does not do one’s duty to the state in the expectation that rights will be conferred in return. Instead, one obey’s the Emperor’s whim and hopes to be rewarded.

On the surface, the glue that binds Chinese society together is exceptionally strong, with a deep and ancient culture that requires enormous effort to acquire during childhood. But China always remains subject to centrifugal forces. The Emperor in the Forbidden City must always fear the rebel province that tears the fabric of the Empire. China fears foreign intervention that might encourage rebel provinces.

That may seem paranoid, but China only recently endured the “Century of Humiliation” (from the First Opium War of 1848 to the revolution of 1947) with repeated and devastating foreign interventions.

China’s attitude towards the world is paranoid, but even paranoids have enemies: China fears Western attempts to promote independence in Tibet, or to radicalize the Uyghur Muslims in its extreme west, or to build up Taiwan as an alternative state.

China will go to war to preempt any attempt to dismember it. Its fixation on the South China Sea, where its historic claims to sovereignty are dubious, reflects the old Chinese proverb, “Kill the chicken while the monkey watches.” If we are willing to go the brink for a few empty reefs, Beijing is saying, think of what we would do for Taiwan or Tibet.

In so many words, that is what Xi Jinping told President Obama in December 2014 at the APEC Beijing Summit. China, Xi explained, is a people and a territory; the population might rise 10% or fall 10% but there always will be many Chinese. China as a territory is sacred and inviolable, he added, and that is why Beijing never will give up the South China Sea.


China’s borders today are substantially the same as they were under the Tang Dynasty circa 700 CE. It is hard to think of China as an expansionist power, given that it has done very little expanding in a millennium and a half.

China devotes enormous resources to protecting its borders (surface-to-ship missiles, diesel electric submarines, satellite killer missiles, cyberwar capability) and relatively little to its land army. China spends barely US$1,500 to equip an infantryman; the US spends 13 times as much. China is investing heavily in fourth-generation interceptors and fifth-generation stealth aircraft, but has no specialized ground-attack aircraft like the American A-10 or Russian SU-25.

Its goal is to close the technology gap with the United States and one day surpass it. America’s erstwhile allies in the region have taken note, and the Philippines has already offered to switch to China’s side.

What appears in the West to be a courteous gesture to religious freedom (visits by the Dalai Lama) or hospitality to political refugees (official US funding of the World Uyghur Congress) are viewed in Beijing as evidence that the West is keeping open its options to attempt to destabilize and dismember China.


I do not mean to minimize the risks associated with the weakening of America’s global strength. Under the best of circumstances Russia and China are dangerous competitors who require careful management; under the worst of circumstances – well, we do not want to think about the worst of circumstances. We came closer to a nuclear exchange with Russia in 1983 than most people involved with the matter care to admit. But there is no reason that America’s relations with Russia as well as China cannot remain peacefully competitive, and not entirely adversarial.

There are two basic rules for dealing with Russia and China which, if respected, will avoid tragic mistakes.

The first is that America must always negotiate from strength – real and overwhelming strength, not bluster. That means maintaining an insuperable edge in military technology. During the Reagan administration, Russia and China lagged so far behind in computation that they had no hope of defeating American arms, and the promise of the Strategic Defense Initiative frightened them. During the past 15 years America has spent US$5 trillion on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars while gutting basic defense R&D. That has to reverse drastically.

The second is that America should NOT attempt to destabilize Russia or China – for example, by supporting restive Muslims against the Moscow and Beijing regimes. That is a view held by some in the US intelligence community.

We do not have quite the same interest as Russia or China in these matters. Their Muslim populations are entirely Sunni, and they are happy to ally with bloody-handed Shi’ites, e.g., Iran and its ally Hezbollah. There is room for cooperation on counterterrorism with Russia and China, but it will be a fraught negotiation rather than an easy confluence of interests.

In short: Russia and China should remain in awe of the technological and economic prowess of the United States, and the inventiveness that a free society can muster best.

That has been America’s advantage from the outset. If we lose our scientific and technological edge to China (which now graduates twice as many STEM doctorates as do we), the game is over.

America’s problem is simple: we wasted US$5 trillion in Iraq and Afghanistan and neglected basic R&D and investment in cutting-edge defense and aerospace technology. For the first time since World War II our technological supremacy is at risk.

It is dangerously wrong-headed to dismiss the Chinese as imitators rather than innovators. As China strove to catch up with the West it was cheaper to imitate than innovate, but that is no longer true in many industries. China is full of innovators. Anyone who doubts Chinese capacity to master the most creative challenges of Western culture should hear Yuja Wang play Beethoven.

After their long humiliation, the two other powers want to flex their muscles and exhibit their power

For example: Russia’s S-400 (and soon-to-be-deployed S-500) may already be able to defeat American stealth aircraft. No US Air Force commander will allow the F-22 “Raptor” anywhere near Russian air defenses in Syria; we do not know how good they are and do not want to find out.

When politicians demand that someone get tough with Putin, it is unclear just what they mean. America might not win an air battle with Russia. We certainly don’t want a ground war in Ukraine. It is not at all clear what the US could do in the short run if it wanted to get tough.

By 2018, China will have Russia’s S-400 air defense system with a 400-kilometer range, enabling China to sweep the skies above Taiwan. The “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” as American strategists sometimes characterize the island, will fly aircraft only with the tacit permission of Beijing.

The goal of American policy should be to persuade the rest of the world that no-one could hope to win a war against a technologically-superior American military, while at the same time making clear that the United States will not try to make our competitors insecure within their existing borders.

The nature of the Russian and Chinese empires makes them inherently unstable, and outside intervention in their internal affairs will be viewed as an existential threat. We had cause to wish to break up the Soviet Union, and we succeeded. We reduced the Soviet Empire to Russia. Sending a message that we do not want Russia to exist in its present form is perhaps not the wisest course of action.

We now have just the opposite state of affairs. China is rapidly closing the technology gap with the United States, as gauged by the progress of its space program. Russian air defense systems already may be able to engage US stealth aircraft. Russia and China now feel that they have the opportunity to show the United States that it no longer is the dominant superpower. After their long humiliation, the two other powers want to flex their muscles and exhibit their power.

American won the Cold War in large part because Russia could not compete with American digital technology. What seemed like a devastating Russian advantage in surface-to-air missiles in 1973 became a decisive American advantage in avionic countermeasures by 1983, when Israel destroyed almost 90 modern Soviet aircraft flown by Syria in the Bekaa Valley.

By the mid-1980s Russian military leaders concluded that American superiority in computation, avionics and (prospectively) missile defense were overwhelming.

We should draw the lesson that Russia and China well may find areas of strategic cooperation with the United States, but that their incentive to seek such cooperation will rise in direct proportion to America’s technological edge.



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