The professional bureaucracies of both the US and Chinese national security states encourage mistrust, jingoistic attitudes, pessimistic assumptions, and hawkish policies. This is a growing source of war risk, and the only near-term fix is a security dilemma sensibility.
Let me explain.
The Security Dilemma Sensibility
Some time ago, Kenneth Booth and Nicholas Wheeler wrote of a “security dilemma sensibility” that policymakers could (and should) cultivate in order to better manage the interactive processes that can lead to crisis and war, even between two actors who have only defensive intentions.
They described a security dilemma sensibility as:
an actor’s intention and capacity to perceive the motives behind, and to show responsiveness towards, the potential complexity of the military intentions of others…the ability to understand the role that fear might play in their attitudes and behaviour, including, crucially, the role that one’s own actions may play in provoking that fear.
I first came across their book while finishing my PhD, which I did on the side while working in Obama’s Pentagon. Like (hopefully) everyone who studies international relations, I’d learned about the security dilemma as an undergrad. It made sense that non-aggressive countries could inadvertently make themselves less secure by taking measures that would be misperceived by others as threatening, leading to counter-measures also perceived as threatening.
But a security dilemma sensibility really resonated with me as a practical extension of the original concept. And so I found myself trying to bring this sensibility to bear over and again—on the “Korea desk” in the midst of two North Korean attacks on South Korea; among a small group of policy nerds trying to make the “pivot to Asia” real; as a one-time defense strategist contemplating “emerging technologies”; and as a public critic warning about the ways the Trump-Kim nuclear crisis of 2017 could (and nearly did) go sideways.
My role in these things was inarguably negligible; with the exception of the North Korean nuclear crisis, none of the policy paths taken reflect my counsel. Nevertheless, the security dilemma sensibility strongly colored how I made sense of these wide-ranging problem sets.
The Feedback Loop Problem
I was reminded of all this while reading a piece in Foreign Affairs by Tong Zhao, whose research on China-related strategic questions is among the most insightful in the business. In the essay, Zhao argues:
The dynamics among China’s political leadership, its policy elite, and the broader public have generated an internal feedback loop that is not entirely within Xi’s comprehension or control. This could result in China’s being fully mobilized for war even without Xi deciding to attack Taiwan.
Recognizing the presence of policy feedback loops is important—they describe how we can imagine security dilemmas escalating into conflict spirals. And it’s not surprising that feedback loops would be present in a rivalry that is intensifying right in front of us.
In China, as in the United States, the opinion-makers are virtually all hawks. Everyone is outbidding everyone else. Above all, nobody wants to be seen as “weak” or naïve about the enemy. And all the while, the national security states of both sides are doing everything that politicians allow to optimize themselves for war.
Fueling this is ethnonationalism—in Washington as in Beijing. Reactionary politicians feed implicitly racialized nationalist policies to publics whom they refuse to feed political democracy or economic security. As Yuen Yuen Ang saw in 2022:
The only people who are winning [Sino-US competition] are the ardent radicals, the extremists, and the autocrats on both sides. It’s so easy to be nationalists…You just need to scream and say extreme things and get people roused.
Neither Chinese nor US officials exercise sufficient control of the violent forces they’re manipulating for political, strategic, and personal gain.
Proximate and Underlying Causes of War
We can’t afford to overlook the root sources of Sino-US confrontation, which include a nightmarish melange of exceptionalist nationalism on both sides, shifting patterns of capital accumulation under the previous economic order, and an unwillingness by either side to take a relational view of the other.
But being clear-eyed about the root causes of security problems doesn’t buy you out of taking seriously potential proximate causes of war, like feedback loops.
Now, I worry about whether China and the United States actually have defensive intentions. Xi Jinping’s jingoism has infected China’s governing regime, and the People’s Liberation Army is definitely taking seriously Xi’s priority to “be ready by 2027 to invade Taiwan.” And while it’s impolitic to point it out in Washington, there is good reason to think that the United States could be a revisionist actor too.
But even though it can be difficult to know whether to code states as having defensive or aggressive intentions, it is not hard to find policy elites within states who are unquestionably aggressive or unquestionably defensive.
The trouble is that even individuals harboring non-aggressive, security-seeking motivations are trapped in systems whose pressures and incentives are much bigger than them.
This is true at the nuclear level. We can reasonably say neither country has the desire to launch a first strike, yet the nature of today’s technologies and Sino-US nuclear postures have locked the two countries in a structural security dilemma. As recent research shows:
The shift in the conventional balance of force in the region and the U.S. development of lower-yield nuclear weapons has led to greater fears in China of U.S. limited nuclear use in a conflict. Chinese strategists increasingly believe that U.S. nonnuclear strategic capabilities threaten China’s nuclear forces.
This is also why feedback loops are an important phenomenon to grasp. The point of Zhao’s warning is that we ought to be trying to “understand how certain efforts to deter Beijing can inadvertently exacerbate the security challenge.” It’s a matter of urgency that US policy thinks through how to disrupt—rather than blissfully ignore—feedback loop dynamics within the Chinese system.
How? By cultivating a security dilemma sensibility.
Our policies need to do more than give us psychological comfort and optimize for a war that nobody can win. They need to self-consciously prioritize preventing war.
So for every new basing access agreement we announce, for every new tariff or economic restriction we unveil, for every new military exercise or arms sale we conduct, we must ask: How does this make us more secure? How does this feed into China’s distorted view of our intentions?
Similarly, when China makes moves we don’t like, we must ask: To what extent are they responding to what we are doing?
I know that many a policy wonk worships at the altar of Thomas Schelling and therefore tends to view life as an endless series of rational games where you as an individual are just constantly trying to get the best of everyone.
But that’s exhausting and unsustainable, and probably self-defeating. It impedes adopting a security dilemma sensibility. And ironically, even Schelling stressed the importance of reassurance and the idea that adversaries needed to believe not just your threats but that they can get on peaceably if they don’t challenge your resolve.