Extremely long-term strategizing involves so much complexity and uncertainty that one cannot conceive of goals in anything but large generalities. Luttwak is, very reasonably, highly materialistic on this score, and says that Grand Strategy is largely about trying to maximize the resources and various forms of capital under the sure command of future decision makers, but even more importantly the relative advantage one has over one’s potential rivals. It’s worth it to take oneself down a notch if it takes your adversary down two. But the positive side of the coin of Grand Strategy involves economic growth, a large and high quality population, the accumulation of lots of cutting-edge military hardware and advanced intelligence capabilities, and the right set of international alliances.
So, you might simplify greatly and say that Grand Strategy is, “Make Decisions So As To Be As Much Stronger Than Your Competitors As Possible In The Future”. Doing that, and assuming everyone else is also trying to do that, is very Realpolitick.
But there’s a catch that is similar to what Heartiste says about super-alpha Paul Walker, “Rules governing human interaction break down and recombine into strange new polarities, nearly the inverse of the laws that regulate most biocommerce between the sexes.”
Likewise, Luttwak contends that at the higher levels of Grand Strategy the logic of ‘get big or get stomped‘ reverses paradoxically. If you pursue military agrandizement so monomaniacally and consistently with realpolitick that you start to seriously threaten your neighbors and competitors then, if they are smart enough and act in time, you will provoke them into forming an alliance of resistance dedicated to doing whatever is necessary short of nuclear war, but including crushing your economy, to prevent you from getting big enough to dominate. Luttwak says that the ‘realists’ are in fact fooling themselves with a delusion in regards to imagining themselves as actors with ‘free will‘ and that the sequence of international power politics is much more deterministic as all the actors are in fact, “… trapped by the paradoxes of the logic of strategy, which imposes its own imperatives …”
In other words, pursuing the action of rapid and massive growth in your military capabilities ends up being counterproductive in that it stimulates reactions by your counterparties which will lower your overall competitiveness. Trying to get ahead one notch encourages your competitors to get ahead two notches. Of course, if you [are] able to get so big, so fast, while those counterparties fail to summon their will and organize, then you pass a tipping point and really do get to dominate and stomp. The resistance-of-rivals-to-your-expected-future-power graph is a bell curve, running from indifference to near-conflict but then back to resignation and acquiescence or even effective subservience.
What characterizes the realm of strategy is the impossibility of achieving straightforward results by straightforward action, because others exist and others react in between the two.
But short of that, the ideal thing to do for an emerging great power (China, in this case) would be to artificially suppress your military aggrandizement and try to influence perceptions about your country in the direction of ‘friendly’, ‘trustworthy’, ‘peaceful’, ‘non-confrontational’, ‘cooperative’ and especially ‘non-threatening’ growing out of ‘objectively not interested in domination because not interested in military power’.
Then the people that could stop you will be lulled into just ignoring you as you are able to devote all your resources grow your economy to colossal proportions. All butter, no guns. And then, after you’ve built your Mt. Everest of butter, you can use it later to buy yourself a world-class regionally-dominating military in short order, too quickly to be stopped. And then you can stomp and dominate with it. Suckers!
That’s what you could do, but the bottom line of Luttwak’s book is that China is making a huge unforced error in this regard by not doing this, and in fact, doing the opposite. China is pursuing a Realpolitick National Strategy of ‘get stronger fast’ (it’s no coincidence that Kissinger’s latest book, ‘On China‘, is a collection of flattery over growth which encourages them to do this) at the expense of more subtle Grand Strategy considerations, ‘but be careful not to provoke your counterparties into reaction’.
China is doing it wrong in two ways, especially since a well recognized ‘behavioral shift’ in 2008 coinciding with the Global Financial Crisis. First, it is growing its Armed Forces rapidly, with impressive annual military budget increases that sometimes even exceed their stellar pace of economic growth.
Second, in what Luttwak calls its ‘Premature Assertiveness’, China has pursued very obnoxious, aggressive, and confrontational policies with regard to territorial, maritime, and airspace disputes with other nations in the region. It constantly makes stubborn and uncompromising maximal claims over everything ,and it has taken risky and threatening actions over every trivial pile of rocks in the ocean that ever had a Chinese subject sing a poem in which he dreamed about stepping foot there or maybe just fishing in the general vicinity.
Contradicting the conventional wisdom as to its ‘purely commercial’ rationale, it does this whether or not there is actually any indicated of hydrocarbon reserves nearby, which emphasizes the military and regionally hegemonic motives of behavior.