Emma Ashford: Hey Matt! It’s a busy week. Are you riveted to the news from Glasgow this week? The world’s leaders are in Scotland debating what to do about climate change—after flying there on their private jets? of course.
As a proud Glaswegian, of course, I’m happy to see world leaders descend on my city and to see how U.S. climate envoy John Kerry adapts to traditional Glaswegian pastimes such as deep-frying everything, sunbathing when it’s cold outsideTraffic cones are placed on the roadways. Duke of Wellington’s head.
Matthew Kroenig: Yes. I am watching. The meetings were so exciting that some world leaders even managed. stay awakeDuring the course of the proceedings.
Many climate change experts see the summit as a disappointment. How do you view it?
EA: Well, at least U.S. President Joe Biden showed up, even if he didn’t manage to stay awake. Perhaps he was simply catching up on sleep after a long night at the pub. And his Chinese and Russian counterparts didn’t even do that. But I’ve been hearing some more optimism about the summit than I had anticipated. I had assumed—going into the summit—that it would be largely meaningless, resulting in another Paris-style accord where countries simply agreed to do the things they were going to do anyway.
However, there have been some significant progress on a few big-ticket items such as the discussions about a global carbon trading platform.
MK:While I can see some promising signs, I cannot help but feel that there are also some negatives.
China is the world’s biggest polluter, producing 28 percent of global carbon emissions, and President Xi Jinping didn’t even bother to show up. It makes a mockery out of the argument that China’s cooperation is essential to solving climate change. And it raises even more questions about the possibility of Beijing engaging in a wider range global challenges.
EA: Yeah, it’s notable that the one area of progress—the carbon trading talks—is an issue on which China has been relatively forthcoming. Brazil appears to be the greatest problem, at least for the moment.
China remains the largest climate change problem that must be solved. Keep in mind that in the run-up to Glasgow, Beijing made no new climate commitments and instead just reiterated existing policies, such as limiting global warming to under 2 degrees Celsius and shifting to a better mix of renewables and nuclear power rather than the country’s current coal-heavy energy mix.
That said, China’s emissions are about half of the United States’ when you look at it on a per capita basis. China is the biggest polluter because it’s an extremely populous, industrial country. That’s not easy to fix even if it were a priority for the Chinese leadership.
MK:China’s dependence on dirty energy is the real problem. However, I agree that it is difficult to reduce emissions anywhere. People around the world want a better standard of living. To run a modern economy, energy is essential. Renewables have not yet met this challenge. It is incongruous that as leaders do their “blah blah blah” in Glasgow, as activist Greta Thunberg calls it, Biden is asking OPEC to pump more oil,Europe is preparing for a winter fuel scarcity, and China is building more coal-fired power plants.
EA:We have Senator Joe Manchin in the United States trying to save America’s coal industry through reconciliation bill negotiations. Many countries find domestic politics difficult and require hard changes that few governments are willing to make. As our fellow political scientists might describe it, climate policy is a global collective action problem, layered on top of the world’s worst two-level games.
That’s why I’m so skeptical that we’ll see progress on climate at the political level, and I’m thrilled to see a focus on areas such as carbon trading, which are less politically costly—and therefore more likely to work.
I’m also skeptical of the fact that they’re promoting environmentally friendly “vegetarian haggis” at COP26. I’m sure it’s more environmentally friendly, but it’s also an abomination and an insult to good taste.
MK:Haggis is not a good choice for me, so that is a climate-change measure I could support.
EA:Those are tough words Matt. Still, it’s nice to see my hometown in the news and to see world leaders have to endure the same conditions I did to attend my first Boyzone concert back at the dawn of time.
MK: If I don’t have to eat haggis, I won’t make you eat the delicacies from my hometown of StMmmmm. Louis, Missouri, such as deep-fried ravioli. Mmmm.
Let me now turn to the positive news from Glasgow. I also think there is promise in a global carbon market—so long as China also plays by the rules. Washington will not be keen to limit its energy consumption and economic growth, if that means it has to unilaterally constrain its major competitor.
I also think Biden’s Build Back Better World (B3W) plan has potential. It adds a green hue to initiatives started in the Trump administration to unleash private sector investment for infrastructure in the developing world and to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
EA: I’m not sure about B3W. For one thing, while I admire the White House’s message discipline, perhaps we could vary the branding a little at some point? It’s getting monotonous.
More importantly, however, I’m not sure that this infrastructure spending will be particularly useful in pushing out Chinese funding or undermining the BRI. I think it’s more likely that developing countries will just take both sets of funding. Not to mention that U.S. financing with strings—in this case, so-called green development—will always be less attractive than Chinese financing with no strings.
MK:China was the only country that invested in infrastructure for many years, in many countries. I believe the free world should offer an alternative. As we’ve seen in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, China’s infrastructure investment also comes with its own, I would argue more insidiousThere are no strings attached.
Well, since we’ve now solved climate change and global economic development, are there any other easy issues we should polish off this week?
EA:There have been a few conferences in the United States that I found interesting. First, I was fortunate enough to be a part of a large conference. the future of realism and restraintWashington, U.S. foreign policies. Second, we had National Conservatism Conference. It was held in Orlando, Florida, though not physically within the Magic Kingdom, as you might expect if you’ve been watching U.S. politics in recent years.
I mention these because I think both conferences highlighted a growing diversity in views on U.S. foreign policy—the old post-Cold War Washington foreign-policy consensus is shattering.
I was particularly interested to know that. Sen. Ted Cruz’s speech at the NatCon ConferenceHe embraced a forward-leaning, aggressive foreign policy, which was why he was widely criticized. It’s a reminder that there’s a growing core of Republican voters who are far more restrained on foreign policy than in recent decades.
MK:I think Republicans are looking for a new platform for foreign policy. You are right that Reaganism, as practiced since the 1980s, is dead, but Trumpism doesn’t quite work either. I believe the party needs a Reagan/Trump synergy. The military and security pillar would include “peace through strength” and border security as part of national security. In economic policy, there would be a shift from free trade to fair trade—especially with regard to China’s unfair trade practices. And, despite some of Donald Trump’s rhetoric, I think the Reaganesque focus on American values and exceptionalism still resonates.
This is in line with your discussions about realism and restraint being the guidelines for a future U.S. Foreign Policy.
EA: I think there’s some definite common ground on the right for restrainers on the question of U.S. military commitments overseas, particularly in a shift away from the endless wars of the 2000s and 2010s. But as a free trader, I’m also somewhat concerned about the Republican shift toward protectionism. I’d like to see less military intervention and more diplomatic and economic interaction. I worry that the national conservatives are pushing for less military intervention. Less global economic interaction
Either way, it’s a sign of how far we’ve come in the last few years: The United States has withdrawn from Afghanistan, the Biden administration has opened talks with Russia, and groups on both the left and right are talking about how to change U.S. foreign policy for the better. It’s a moment of openness that we haven’t seen since the 1990s.
MK:It is reflective of the historical moment. inflection point. We are entering an exciting new era. Both sides are looking for answers that will work in this new environment.
EA:We might just be able to plunge into a new foreign-policy consensus. You’ve been very patient letting me talk about climate and foreign policy, so why don’t you go ahead and tell us all about the new U.S. Defense Department report on China’s military buildup?
MK: I’m happy to begin. The main news was that China could double its nuclear warheads, from 200 to 1,000 by 2030. In recent months, the Defense Department had said China could double—or even triple or quadruple—its arsenal within the decade. These predictions were dismissed by some as alarmist. However, the new report essentially says China’s arsenal will now quintuple in this time period. It goes to show that China’s nuclear buildup is proceeding even more aggressively than the Pentagon expected just a few months ago.
EA:This report consists of two major pieces. The first, which is grabbing all the headlines is the capabilities section, which has mainly focused on the nuclear issue. You’re right that the buildup is faster than expected and is something we should undoubtedly watch closely, though I’m not sure there’s a qualitative difference in China having 500 nuclear weapons or 700 or even 1,000. Once we’re locked into mutual deterrence, numbers matter less than posture and specific capabilities. This was the central insight that allowed both the United States of America and the Soviet Union to mutually decrease their arsenals in late Cold War.
The second section of the report, however, was about intentions. I found that to be more interesting. According to the report, China wants to displace America from Asia and considers U.S. alliances incompatible with its preferred regional order. China perceives the United States as trying limit or control its rise. To be honest, I find this more concerning than the capability piece. It suggests a strong possibility for miscommunications and misunderstandings that could lead towards conflict.
MK: The problem is not misunderstanding—Washington and Beijing understand each other quite well. China wants to dominate the region, and the United States and its allies and partners don’t want to be dominated.
The question becomes one of strength. Can Washington and its allies develop a military strategy that will deter Chinese aggression and build the capabilities necessary to do so? My timing was impeccable, and it just so happens that the same day the Pentagon report was released, I published a new Atlantic Council report, “Deterring Chinese Strategic Attack,” in which I outline a strategy and the capabilities needed to keep China at bay.
EA:Congratulations on the report! But I think you’re wrong about misunderstandings. If the Defense Department report is right, then China is modernizing and becoming more assertive because Beijing thinks the United States is trying to contain it—and that Washington is trying to contain it because its modernization and assertiveness are perceived as threatening. That’s a classic security spiral: the idea that a U.S. military buildup might make China nervous, so it starts a military buildup that makes the United States even more nervous, so it adds some more military assets, etc. Security spirals are a leading cause for war.
I’m not sure that taking the steps you outline in your report—from ending the United States’ strategic autonomy approach to Taiwan (i.e., making a concrete commitment to defend the island) to improving U.S. capabilities in East Asia—will do anything to unwind the spiral.
MK: What does it mean to “contain” China? If you think Washington wants to stop Beijing from engaging in armed aggression against its neighbours, then you are absolutely right. The United States should seek to contain China.
If China doesn’t intend to project military force against its neighbours, then it shouldn’t be worried.
EA: Except, historically, that’s not how most great powers have interpreted similar moves. The British and German naval buildsups that led to World War I are the most well-known examples of a security loop.
MK: This goes to show that many U.S. foreign-policy debates revolve around whether analysts think the “deterrence model” or the “spiral model” better explains the world. As you’ll recall, according to theory, the difference depends on whether one thinks the adversary is a security-seeking or revisionist power. Xi appears to agree with me whenever he talks of Taiwan’s return, even if it means using force. If that is true, then the deterrence model works and a U.S.-allied buildup leads towards peace.
EA: If you’re wrong, we’ll all die in a nuclear fireball.
MK:If you’re wrong, we’ll all die in a nuclear fireball! Harrumph. Well, at least we agree the stakes couldn’t be higher.