Anti-Imperialism/Foreign Policy

Could America Win a New World War? What It Would Take to Defeat Both China and Russia

This author treats nuclear weapons as an inconvenience that contending states will have to work around. He is with the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, once headed by Paul Wolfowitz, with Madeleine Albright as an alumnus. Figures.

By Foreign Affairs

When it comes to international relations, 2022 has been an exceptionally dangerous year. During the first two months, Russia massed thousands of troops along Ukraine’s borders. At the end of the second one, Moscow sent them marching into Ukraine. China, meanwhile, has grown increasingly belligerent toward Washington, particularly over Taiwan. After U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taipei in August, Beijing carried out a furious set of military exercises designed to show how it would blockade and attack the island. Washington, in turn, has explored how it can more quickly arm and support the Taiwanese government.

The United States is aware that China and Russia pose a significant threat to the global order. In its recent National Security Strategy, the White House wrote that “the [People’s Republic of China] and Russia are increasingly aligned with each other,” and the Biden administration dedicated multiple pages to explaining how the United States can constrain both countries going forward. Washington knows that the conflict in Ukraine is likely to be protracted, thanks to the ability of Kyiv and Moscow to keep fighting and the irreconcilability of their aims, and could escalate in ways that bring the United States more directly into the war (a fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear saber rattling makes readily apparent). Washington also knows that Chinese leader Xi Jinping, emboldened by his appointment at the 20th National Party Congress in October to an unprecedented third term, could try to seize Taiwan as the war in Ukraine rages on. The United States, then, could conceivably be drawn into simultaneous conflicts with China and Russia.

But despite Washington’s professed focus on both Beijing and Moscow, U.S. defense planning is not commensurate with the challenge at hand. In 2015, the Department of Defense abandoned its long-standing policy of being prepared to fight and win two major wars in favor of focusing on acquiring the means to fight and win just one. This policy shift, which has remained in place ever since, shows. Large quantities of the United States’ military equipment are aging, with many aircraft, ships, and tanks that date back to the Reagan administration’s defense buildup in the 1980s. The country also has limited supplies of important equipment and munitions, so much so that it has had to draw a large portion of its own stocks down to support Ukraine. These problems would prove particularly vexing in simultaneous conflicts. If the United States found itself in a two-war situation in eastern Europe and the Pacific, the commitment would likely be lengthy in both cases. China’s expanding interests and global footprint suggest that a war with Beijing would not be confined neatly to Taiwan and the western Pacific but instead stretch across multiple theaters, from the Indian Ocean to the United States itself. (China might launch cyberattacks, or even missile strikes, on the U.S. mainland in an attempt to blunt U.S. military power.) The United States needs to create deep munitions reserves, stockpile high-quality gear, and come up with creative battlefield techniques if it hopes to win such fights.


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