Fantasy on the Right: China, Nuclear Weapons and IQ
Mark Helprin concludes his May 13, 2008 Wall Street Journal warning about China with an elegy to America: “That beneath a roiled surface is a power limitless yet fair, supple yet restrained.” Well, let’s begin with the word “Limitless.” The last 50 years have demonstrated something about America on the nuclear weapons issue: The reality isn’t Limitless anymore. Not for America. Not for any country. America sacrificed thousands of men and billions of dollars in Vietnam and went home rather than actually start a thermonuclear war. On that issue, America did the right thing: Quit.
It isn’t 1945 anymore, and it isn’t 1945 anymore for a reason: Chinese and Russian nuclear weapon engineers are too good at what they do. No one will ever see China as a reprise of Japan circa 1945; Hiroshima never happens in Peking. Moscow never becomes a replay of Berlin. We know that precisely because we know about nuclear weapons.
So the end of Mr. Helprin’s article is just wrong. America’s strength is not limitless; China and Russia both have nuclear weapons aimed at America’s children just as America has nuclear weapons aimed at their children. America will not invade Russia and China even though at some future date America may look up and see the moral equivalents of Saddam Hussein running Russia and China. Iraq could be invaded; Russia and China will not be invaded. There is a limit to what America will do to China and Russia. There is a reason Russia and China will never surrender The Bomb.
The end of Mr. Helprin’s article is wrong. What about the beginning and the middle? The are interesting, but they are dangerous. The beginning presents a fact that will grow to be as important as any fact in the human universe. China grows richer, China grows stronger.
I have read that Napoleon observed, “See China, she sleeps. Let her sleep. When she wakes she will shake the world.” Well, here we are.
Mr. Helprin urges America to use its economic muscle. America today has an advantage but its “sharp nuclear reductions and China’s acquisitions of ballistic-missile submarines and multiple-warhead mobile missiles will eventually come level.” The change in the relationship between The US and China is treated as if it were inevitable, but, Mr. Helprin believes it is not inevitable.
The key for him is economic: China’s advantage in its torrid advance is cheap labor, America should respond with its advantage, technology labeled “automation.” His ambition: Compete economically, deter China from taking certain military options, protect America’s allies and maintain a favorable balance of power. His version of The Problem: America does not recognize the immediacy of the threat. Far from being an imperialistic aggressor America has been too restrained.
He puts it in historical context: If America were to allocate the average of GNP that America devoted to the military between 1940 and 2000 America would have $800 billion a year to build and maintain a navy and land forces.
“And there we will be, if we are wise, not with 280 ships but a thousand. . . As opposed either to ignominious defeat without war, or war with a rising power emboldened by our weakness and retirement, this would be infinitely cheaper.”
In a non-nuclear world America’s $800 billion trumps everything. America is the successor to the British Empire that the Greatest Generation wanted it to be: The World Policeman.
In a nuclear world the $800 billion does not trump everything. China has not and does not need the $800 billion to force America into a condition the Greatest Generation never could have anticipated: Mutual Assured Destruction. The Chinese potential to destroy America now rests on a handful of land missiles 45 minutes away. Suppose that China responds to America’s 1000 ships with the comparative handful of ships that China can afford, but it makes those handful capable of carrying and delivering nuclear weapons.
What Mr. Helprin, and the American Establishment does not note is that we have been here before. Mr. Helprin’s focus on the economics of The Challenge is the same as the focus for 50 years of intelligent, white, patriotic, democratic intellectuals. The assumption is that Russia then, and both Russia and China now can be safely “controlled”, “steered”, “led”, “threatened” by America because America has a much bigger economy than Russia and China. But 50 years ago the U.S. could have destroyed both Russia and China without being destroyed itself. America no longer has that security.
The key is that nuclear weapons have not been, and will not be, so expensive that a much smaller economy can not produce enough of the things to threaten America. There is a reason Mutual Assured Destruction has become part of the common vocabulary.
Assume that China sees America’s insistence on a thousand ships as a threat against it. And assume further that while there may be a certain amount of dissonance around the issue, the Chinese recollection of Anglo-American racism in Asia guarantees a united Chinese determination to match the blond threat with their own threat.
There is a bottom line truth to nuclear weapons. America can not have a world in which the American three year old is infinitely safe and the Chinese and Russian three year olds are infinitely vulnerable.