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Approaching the Brink? Nuclear Decision-Making by US President Trump in 2020

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 “Fools, visionaries, sufferers from delusions, neurotics and lunatics have played great roles at all times in the history of mankind…. Usually, they have wreaked havoc.”-Sigmund Freud

“He likes me.” (New Year’s Day, 2020) US President Donald Trump explaining why Americans need no longer worry about North Korea

Though written before the nuclear age, Sigmund Freud’s early warning about non-rational decision-making in world politics remains valid. Indeed, in the midst of a steadily-expanding nuclear weapons and infrastructures, this warning has become even more prescient than before. Moreover, such expanding risks need not be confined to foolishness, delusion, neurosis or lunacy. In part, at least, these risks could rise between perfectly rational and well-intentioned national adversaries, and need to be analyzed, inter alia, within the still-evolving context of “Cold War II.”[1]

Exactly which national security risks confronting the United States are conceivably existential? Most plausible is the stubbornly complex problem of North Korea. Here, everything may first appear simple to US President Donald Trump, but would actually prove bewilderingly complex and daunting. In essence, during any upcoming periods of competitive risk-taking with Kim Jung Un, certain intersecting and reinforcing searches for “escalation dominance” by the two leaders could lead suddenly or incrementally to an inadvertent nuclear war. Most worrisome, in this regard, would be variable underestimations of enemy resolve and unforeseen synergies between US and North Korean policy decisions.

Immediately, Mr.Trump must make himself much better-informed about all pertinent nuclear conflict scenarios. Necessarily, whatever differences or nuances obtain between them, these narratives would develop within our persistently anarchic[2]or “Hobbesian” world system.[3] Correspondingly, both the Congress and the citizenry would need to maintain a close and preferably non-partisan watchover Trump’s discernible willingness to take nuclear war decision-making with seriousness of purpose.[4]In this matter, the American president would need to be reminded that no genuinely scientific estimates of nuclear war are logically possible.[5]The reason?  In science, accurate probability assessments must always be based upon the ascertainable frequency of pertinent past events.

Happily, there has never been an authentic nuclear war.[6]

I have been studying nuclear war and strategy for half a century. Following four years at Princeton in the late 1960s, long an intellectual center of American nuclear history and thought, I began to think about adding a personal contribution to the already-growing literatures of nuclear strategic thought. By the mid- 1970s, I was busily preparing an original manuscript on U.S. nuclear strategy and the corollary risks of nuclear war.[7]

At that time, I also became interested in certain very specific questions of presidential authority to order the use of American nuclear weapons.

I soon learned, among other things, that allegedly reliable technological safeguards had been built into all American nuclear command/control decisions, but that these safeguards could not apply at the presidential level. To an aspiring strategic scholar, this ironic disjunction didn’t make any intellectual sense, especially in a world where national leadership irrationality was not without precedent. For needed clarifications, I reached out to General Maxwell D. Taylor, USA/ret., a distinguished former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In impressively rapid response to my query, General Taylor sent off a detailed handwritten reply. Dated 14 March 1976, the General’s letter concluded soberly: “As to those dangers arising from an irrational American president, the only protection is not to elect one.”

Until now, I had never given any extended thought to this boldly truthful but distressing response. Somehow, I had continuously assumed that “the system” would operate according to plan. Always. Today, as the presidency of Donald Trump coincides with a North Korean nuclear standoff and still-expanding Iranian nuclearization, General Taylor’s 1976 warning takes on much greater meaning. Further complicating matters is Trump’s New Year’s Day 2020 observation about North Korean strategic progress. There was no need to worry, he offered reasuringingly, because Kim Jung Un “likes me.” And as if this might not be a compelling enough explanation, the president added: Kim Jung Un (a dictator who has murdered thousands of North Korean citizen’s) is “a man of his word.”

A primary question should now come immediately to mind. What should be done by the US National Command Authority if it should ever decide to oppose a presumptively inappropriate/irrational presidential order to launch American nuclear weapons? Could the National Command Authority reliably “save the day” by acting in an impromptu or creatively ad hoc fashion? Or should there already be in place various credible and effective statutory measures to (1)assess the ordering president’s reason and judgment; and (2) countermand any determinably wrongful order?

 In law, Article 1 of the US Constitution, Congressional war-declaring expectations of the Constitution notwithstanding, any presidential order to use nuclear weapons, whether issued by an apparently irrational president or by an otherwise incapacitated one, must be obeyed. All things considered, to do otherwise in such dire circumstances would be prima facie illegal; that is, impermissible on its face. And President Trump could sometime order the first use of American nuclear weapons even if the US were not under any specifically nuclear attack, a prerogative that would add yet another problematic layer of presidential nuclear authority.

 A further distinction, both strategic and legal, must be made between first use and first strike. There exists an elementary but vitally important difference. This vital difference has to do, in part, with distinguishing permissible self-defense from aggression.[8] The latter is a properly codified crime under international law.[9] It is, therefore, reciprocally prohibited by US law.

Where should American nuclear decision-making policy go from here? To begin, a coherent and comprehensive answer will need to be prepared for the following antecedent question: If faced with any presidential order to use nuclear weapons, and not offered sufficiently appropriate corroborative evidence of any actually impending existential threat, would the National Command Authority: (1)be willing to disobey? and (2)be capable of enforcing such seemingly well-founded expressions of authoritative disobedience?

In any such unprecedented nuclear crisis circumstances, all relevant decisions could have to be made in a compressively time-urgent matter of minutes. Such tight chronological constraints could quickly become pressing and overriding. What then?

More precisely, we must inquire, is the current US president reasonably well-prepared to deal with any such bewildering and consequential eventualities? If not, what shall we do to effectively remediate such an intolerable shortcoming? Significantly, there can be no more urgent strategic query.

. Though almost everyone might feel comforted if the escalating North Korean nuclear crisis were somehow to subside, there will inevitably arise certain other similar or plausibly more portentous atomic emergencies.[10] To respond purposefully, this country will require far more than a purely ad hoc or reactive policy decision from the White House. It will require intersecting foreign policy goals that are expressly identified and based upon calculable considerations of intellect or “mind,” not just on idle or banal political rhetoric.

There is one last but vital observation to be offered here. Whether in reference to some proposed military intervention or some other considered military action, the American president is always bound not only by US law, but by international law. The latter, which is discoverable in various customary norms as well as in bilateral and multilateral treaties, remains an integral part of American law.[11] Such “incorporation” is most prominently expressed at Article 6 of the US Constitution (the “Supremacy Clause”), and also at various major US Supreme Court decisions.[12]

Is US President Donald Trump remotely familiar with this or any other section of the Constitution?

The answer is obvious and distressing.

There is more. US President Donald Trump’s policies for dealing with adversarial nuclear threats must remain consistent with presumed American military requirements and with all corollary jurisprudential obligations. Inevitably, striking the necessary and optimal balance between both coinciding national imperatives will confront this president with tangible intellectual and ethical challenges of the very highest order and simultaneously, at the same time. It follows that Americans will soon need to take more seriously (1) Sigmund Freud’s early warning about psychologically compromised or disabled national leaders; and (2) the correlative hazards of an accidental or inadvertent nuclear war.

While all accidental nuclear wars would necessarily be inadvertent, not all inadvertent nuclear wars need be accidental. Indeed, the expectedly greatest dangers regarding Donald Trump decision-making “at the brink” would concern one form or another of miscalculation, a warning that while “ordinary” competitive risk-taking with Pyongyang or Tehran might not easily be avoided, the American search for “escalation dominance” should nonetheless be tempered by presumptively core considerations of national survival.

Going forward, there could be no greater “fool” in the White House than an American president who fancies himself a “very stable genius” but patently lacks all basic elements of needed intellectual preparation. Accordingly, to avoid “havoc” – an indispensable avoidance – the American president should first learn from classic military strategist Carl von Clausewitz’s On War concept about “friction.” This oft-quoted concept references the always vital difference between “war on paper” and “war as it actually is.” Although Donald Trump still reveals tangibly little intellectual capacity to understand differences between calculated threats of international violence and US military power, it is a deficit that must first be acknowledged before it can be remedied.

Therein lies the overriding strategic policy challenge to the United States. Unless it can be suitably met and overcome, America’s rapid approach to the “brink” could generate authentically catastrophic nuclear outcomes. Under assorted hard-to-fathom circumstances, for example, there could sometime evolve an insufficient understanding of (or attention to) certain hybridized adversaries by the Trump White House, e.g., Iran and Hezbollah. These plausible kinds of deficit could include, inter alia, various unforeseen synergies between state and sub-state adversaries.

For the moment, at least, America is endangered by a president who is plainly “over his head” in managing his nuclear decision-making authority It also goes without saying that American presidential obligations concerning this fearful authority are of the highest possible national and international urgency. Potentially, after all, these complex and multi-layered obligations are now literally coextensive with civilizational survival.

At no point should we regard any future presidentially-spawned atomic havoc as tolerable or forgivable.


[1]In orthodox political science terms, positing the expansion of “Cold War II” means expecting that the world system is becoming increasingly bipolar. For early writings, by this author, on the global security implications of just such an expanding bipolarity, see: Louis René Beres, “Bipolarity, Multipolarity, and the Reliability of Alliance Commitments,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 25, No.4., December 1972, pp. 702-710; Louis René Beres, “Bipolarity, Multipolarity, and the Tragedy of the Commons,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 26, No.4., December 1973, pp, 649-658; and Louis René Beres, “Guerillas, Terrorists, and Polarity: New Structural Models of World Politics,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 27, No.4., December 1974, pp. 624-636.

[2] With anarchy, international law remains a “vigilante” system, or, in other words, “Westphalian.” This latter reference is to the Peace of Westphalia (1648), which concluded the Thirty Years War, and created the now still-existing decentralized, or self-help, state system. See: Treaty of Peace of Munster, Oct. 1648, 1 Consol. T.S. 271; and Treaty of Peace of Osnabruck, Oct. 1648, 1., Consol. T.S. 119, Together, these two treaties comprise the Peace of Westphalia.

[3] The chaotic condition of Westphalian global anarchy stands in contrast to the classical jurisprudential assumption of solidarity between all states in a presumably common struggle against aggression and terrorism. Such a peremptory expectation (known formally in international law as a jus cogens assumption), is already mentioned in Justinian, Corpus Juris Civilis (533 C.E.); Hugo Grotius, 2 De Jure Belli Ac Pacis Libri Tres, Ch. 20 (Francis W. Kesey, tr., Clarendon Press, 1925) (1690); and Emmerich De Vattel, 1 Le Droit des Gens, Ch. 19 (1758).

[4]For the most part, the U.S. has been modernizing its nuclear arsenal primarily by upgrading existing weapon systems, rather than by deploying altogether new types of such weapons. The ICBM force is in a final phase of a decade-long $8 billion modernization program. Beginning in 2017, the U.S. Navy began to deploy a modified version of the trident II D-5 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). The U.S. Air Force has already begun Life Extension Programs for its air-launched cruise missile, as well as for the B-2 and B-52 bombers. In any event, prima facie,U.S. nuclear modernization efforts and plans undercut the publicly-stated U.S. goal of achieving “bold reductions” in Russian and U.S. nonstrategic nuclear weapons in Europe.

[5] For an early look at these problematic estimations, see: Anatol Rapoport, Strategy and Conscience (New York: Schocken Books, 1964), 323 pp.

[6] US atomic attacks during World War II do not constitute examples of a nuclear war; rather; they “merely” represent two instances of nuclear weapons use during a conventional conflict.

[7] This book was subsequently published in 1980 by the University of Chicago Press: Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics.http://www.amazon.com/Apocalypse-Nuclear-Catastrophe-World-Politics/dp/0226043606

[8]Punishment of aggression is a firm and longstanding expectation of international criminal law.  The peremptory principle of Nullum Crimen sine poena, “No crime without a punishment,” has its origins in the Code of Hammurabi (c. 1728 – 1686 B.C.E.); the Laws of Eshnunna (c. 2000 B.C.E.); the even earlier Code of Ur-Nammu (c. 2100 B.C.E.) and the law of exact retaliation, or Lex Talionis, presented in three separate passages of the Jewish Torah

[9] Since World War II, aggression has typically been defined as a military attack, not justified by international law, when directed against the territory of another state. The question of defining aggression first acquired legal significance with the Draft Treaty of MutualAssistance of 1923. One year later, the Geneva Protocol of 1924 provided that any state that failed to comply with the obligation to employ procedures of peaceful settlement in the Protocol or the Covenant was an aggressor. Much later, an authoritativedefinition of aggression was adopted without vote by the UN General Assembly on December 14, 1974.

[10] See, generally, Seneca, 1st Century AD/CE: “We are mad, not only individuals, but nations also. We restrain manslaughter and isolated murders, but what of war, and the so-called glory of killing whole peoples? …. Man, the gentlest of animals, is not ashamed to glory in blood-shedding, and to wage war when even the beasts are living in peace together.” (Letters, 95).

[11]  Note further the jus cogens principle that international law is ultimately deducible from natural law. In this connection, according to Blackstone, each state is always expected “to aid and enforce the law of nations, as part of the common law, by inflicting an adequate punishment upon offenses against that universal law….” See: 2 William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book 4, “Of Public Wrongs.” Lest anyone ask about the significance of Blackstone for current US national security policies, one need only point out that Commentaries are an original and core foundation of the laws of the United States.

[12] See especially The Paquette Habana, 175 US 677, 700 (1900); and Tel-Oren v. Libyan Arab Republic, 726, F. 2d, 774, 781, 788 (D.C. Cir. 1984) per curiam.

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018) https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy Some of his principal strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (The Institute for National Security Studies)(Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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Roads and Rails for the U.S.

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For those who expect the newly announced $2 trillion Biden infrastructure program to be a goodbye to potholes and hello to smooth-as-glass expressways, a disappointment is in store.  The largest expenditure by far ($400 billion) is on home/community care, impacting the elderly or disabled.  The $115 billion apportioned to roads and bridges is #4 on the list. 

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) keeps tabs on our infrastructure and their latest report (2020) gave it an overall grade of C-.  Although bridges worsened, this is a modest improvement on the previous report (2017) when the overall grade was D+.  If $115 billion in spending sounds adequate, one has to remember it costs $27 billion annually for upkeep.

Astounding it might be the backlog in spending for roads and bridges runs at $12 billion annually.  Go back 20 years and we have a quarter trillion shortfall.  Add all the other areas of infrastructure and the ASCE comes up with a $5 trillion total.  It is the gap between what we have been spending and what we need to.  Also one has to bear in mind that neglect worsens condition and increases repair costs. 

One notable example of maintenance is the Forth rail bridge in Scotland.  A crisscross of beams forming three superstructures linked together, it was a sensation when opened in 1890 and now is a UN World Heritage Site.  Spanning 1.5 miles, its upkeep requires a regular coat of paint.  And that it gets.  Rumor has it that when the unobtrusive painters reach the end of their task, it is time to start painting again the end where they began — a permanent job to be sure though new paints might have diminished such prospects.

Biden also proposes $80 billion for railways.  Anyone who has travelled or lived in Europe knows the stark contrast between railroads there and in the U.S.  European high-speed rail networks are growing from the established TGV in France to the new Spanish trains.  Run by RENFE, the national railway, Alta Velocidad Española (AVE) trains run at speeds up to 310 km/h (193 mph)  — a speed that amounts to a convenient overnight trip between Los Angeles and Chicago.

The hugely expensive new tracks needed can be considered a long-term investment in our children’s future.  But it will take courage to contest the well-heeled lobbies of the airplane manufacturers, the airlines and big oil.

If Spain can have high-speed rail and if China already has some 24,000 miles of such track, surely the US too can opt for a system that is convenient for its lack of airport hassle and the hour wasted each way in the journey to or from the city center.  Rail travel not only avoids both but is significantly less polluting.  

Particularly bad, airplane pollution high above (26 to 43 thousand feet) results in greater ozone formation in the troposphere.  In fact airplanes are the principal human cause of ozone formation.

Imagine a comfortable train with space to walk around, a dining car serving freshly cooked food, a lounge car and other conveniences, including a bed for overnight travel; all for a significantly less environmental cost.  When we begin to ask why we in the US do not have the public services taken for granted in other developed countries, perhaps then the politicians might take note.

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Congress and the Biden administration should end FBI immunity overseas

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Image source: U.S. Embassy in Uzbekistan

The FBI notably has an extended international presence running 63 offices in select countries overseas. The offices are called “legats” and are situated at the US Embassy in the host country. One of the major reasons for FBI’s international presence is fighting international terrorism.

The FBI legat personnel at the US embassies are fully accredited diplomats enjoying full diplomatic immunity but that poses several questions that are worth asking, such as: how is it possible for law enforcement to be diplomats and is that a good idea, legally speaking?

Police work should not enjoy diplomatic immunity because that opens the door to abuse. Does the FBI’s immunity overseas mean that the FBI attaches can do no wrong in the host country? How do we tackle potential rights infringements and instances of abuse of power by the FBI towards locals in the host country? The DOJ Inspector General and the State Department Inspector General would not accept complaints by foreigners directed at the FBI, so what recourse then could a local citizen have vis-a-vis the FBI legat if local courts are not an option and the Inspector Generals would not look into those cases?

This presents a real legal lacuna and a glitch in US diplomatic immunity that should not exist and should be addressed by Congress and the new Biden administration.

While FBI offices overseas conduct some far from controversial activities, such as training and educational exchanges with local law enforcement, which generally no one would object to, the real question as usual is about surveillance: who calls the shots and who assumes responsibility for potentially abusive surveillance of locals that may infringe upon their rights. It’s an issue that most people in countries with FBI presence around the world are not aware of. The FBI could be running “counter-terrorism” surveillance on you in your own country instead of the local police. And that’s not nothing.

When we hear “cooperation in the area of counter-terrorism”, as recent decades show, there is a great likelihood that the US government is abusing powers and rights, without batting an eyelash. That exposes local citizens around the world to unlawful surveillance without legal recourse. Most people are not even aware that the FBI holds local offices. Why would the FBI be operating instead of the local law enforcement on another country’s territory? That’s not a good look on the whole for the US government.

The legal lacuna is by design. This brings us to the nuts and bolts of the FBI legats’ diplomatic immunity.

Diplomatic immunity is governed by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961, under Chapter III on privileges and immunities. The US is also a state party to the Convention, along with most states around the world. While there could be some variations and disagreements on bilateral basis (including on weather for example one state could be hosted and represented through the embassy of another state in a third state), on the whole there is a universal consensus that the Vienna Convention sets the rules establishing diplomatic immunities and privileges.

Under the Vienna Convention, only top diplomats are given the highest degree of immunity from the law. This means they cannot be handcuffed, arrested, detained, or prosecuted by law enforcement officials of the country in which they’re stationed. Diplomatic immunities and privileges also include things like diplomatic “bags” (with very peculiar cases of what that could entail) and notably, protection and diplomatic immunity for the family of diplomats.

It is a universal consensus that not everyone who works at an Embassy has or should have diplomatic immunity.  Immunity is saved for diplomats whose role has to be protected from the local jurisdiction of the country for a reason. Not all embassy staff should enjoy diplomatic immunity. Granting law enforcement such as the FBI full legal immunity for their actions is bad news.

Only the top officials at an embassy are diplomats with an actual full immunity — and that’s for a reason.

It makes sense why a diplomat negotiating an agreement should not be subjected to local courts’ jurisdiction. But the same doesn’t go for a law enforcement official who acts as a law enforcement official by, for example, requesting unlawful surveillance on a local citizen, in his law enforcement capacity, while thinking of himself as a diplomat and being recognized as such by the law.

Law enforcement personnel are not diplomats. Dealing with extraterritorial jurisdiction cases or international cases is not the same thing as the need for diplomatic immunity. If that was the case, everyone at the export division at the Department if Commerce would have diplomatic immunity for protection from foreign courts, just in case. Some inherent risk in dealing with international cases does not merit diplomatic immunity – otherwise, this would lead to absurdities such as any government official of any country being granted diplomatic immunity for anything internationally related.

The bar for diplomatic immunity is very high and that’s by design based on an international consensus resting upon international law. Simply dealing with international cases does not make a policeman at a foreign embassy a diplomat. If that was the case every policeman investigating an international case would have to become a diplomat, just in case, for protection from the jurisdiction of the involved country in order to avoid legal push-back. That’s clearly unnecessary and legally illogical. Being a staff member at an embassy in a foreign country does not in and of itself necessitate diplomatic immunity, as many embassy staff do not enjoy diplomatic protection. It is neither legally justified nor necessary for the FBI abroad to enjoy diplomatic immunity; this could only open up the function to potential abuse. The FBI’s arbitrary surveillance on locals can have a very real potential for violating the rights of local people.  This is a difference in comparison to actual diplomats. Diplomats do not investigate or run surveillance on locals; they can’t threaten or abuse the rights of local citizens directly, the way that law enforcement can. Lack of legal recourse is a really bad look for the Biden administration and for the US government.

The rationale for diplomatic immunity is that it should not be permitted to arrest top diplomats, who by definition have to be good at representing their own country’s interests in relation to the host state, for being too good at their job once the host state is unhappy with a push back, for example. The Ambassador should not be exposed to or threatened by the risk of an arrest and trial for being in contradiction with the interests of the host state under some local law on treason, for example, because Ambassadors could be running against the interests of the host state, by definition. And that’s contained within the rules of diplomatic relations. It’s contained in the nature of diplomatic work that such contradictions may arise, as each side represents their own country’s interests. Diplomats should not be punished for doing their job. The same doesn’t apply to the FBI legats. Issuing surveillance on local citizens is not the same as representing the US in negotiations. The FBI legats’ functions don’t merit diplomatic immunity and their actions have to be open to challenge in the host country’s jurisdiction.

The FBI immunity legal lacunae is in some ways reminiscent of similar historic parallels, such as the George W. Bush executive order  that US military contractors in Iraq would enjoy full legal immunity from Iraqi courts’ jurisdiction, when they shouldn’t have. At the time, Iraq was a war-torn country without a functioning government, legal system or police forces. But the same principle of unreasonable legal immunity that runs counter international laws is seen even today, across European Union countries hosting legally immune FBI attaches.

Congress and the Biden administration should end FBI immunity overseas. It can be argued that for any local rights infringements, it is the local law enforcement cooperating with the US Embassy that should be held accountable – but that would ignore that the actual request for unlawful surveillance on locals could be coming from the FBI at the Embassy. The crime has to be tackled at the source of request. 

When I reached out to the US Embassy in Bulgaria they did not respond to a request to clarify the justification for the FBI diplomatic immunity in EU countries.

To prevent abuse, Congress and the Biden Administration should remove the diplomatic immunity of the FBI serving overseas.

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Competition and cooperation between China and the United States and the eighth priority

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In mid-March U.S. President Biden held his first press conference since taking office. Speaking about Sino-U.S. relations, Biden said: “I will prevent China from surpassing the United States of America during my term of office”. At the same time, he also stressed that he would not seek to confront China, but to keep up fierce competition between the two countries.

Focusing on competition between major powers is one of the important changes in U.S. foreign policy in recent years. As the strengths of China and the United States draw closer together, the United States increasingly feels that its own ‘hegemony’ is threatened. During Trump’s tenure, the United States has caused a trade war, a technology war, and even a complete disagreement with China in an attempt to curb China’s development momentum and erode Chinese positions.

The expansion of the competitive field and the escalation of the competitive situation have become the hallmarks of Sino-U.S. relations during this period. Although Biden’s policy line has made substantial changes to ‘Trumpism’, it still has much of its predecessor’s legacy with regard to its policy towards China.

The first foreign policy speech made by U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken listed China Challenge as the eighth priority, preceded by:

1) ending the COVID-19 pandemic;

2) overcoming the economic crisis, reviving the economy at home and abroad, as well as and building a more stable and inclusive global economy;

3) renewing democracy;

4) reforming immigration and creating a humane and effective immigration system;

5) rebuilding alliances, revitalising U.S. ties with allies and partners with the system that the military calls force multiplier;

6) tackling climate change and leading a green energy revolution;

7) securing U.S. leadership in technology; and

8) confronting China and managing the greatest geopolitical test of the 21st century, i.e. relations with China, which is the only country with economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to seriously challenge the international system and equilibria.

The eighth medium-term guideline for the national security strategy sees China as an important competitor. These guidelines clearly show that competition still sets the tone in the way President Biden’s Administration’s manages relations with China, as was the case in the previous four-year period.

At a press conference on March 26, 2021, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said the above statements were not surprising. It is clear that China and the United States are competing on different interest levels.

The key factor, however, is to compete fairly and justly and to improve oneself. The appeal to the other side is moderation and restraint, not life or death, or a zero-sum game. These words are along the same lines as Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s statement when he spoke about Sino-U.S. relations at a session of the National Congress of People’s Representatives of the People’s Republic of China (the Chinese Parliament). It is not only a response to the U.S. strategy of competition with China, but it also provides a model for the future way in which superpowers should proceed together.

The reality of Sino-U.S. competition is unavoidable, but competition can be divided into benign and vicious. The former is a winning model for “improving oneself and understanding the needs of the other side”.

Since Deng Xiaping’s reforms and opening up to international trade, China has begun its own reconstruction. It has continuously widened the scope for benign competition and has changed its mindset by actively embracing the world’s different political parties and participating in international competition. It has also inspired enthusiasm for innovation and creativity and made progress in various fields.

At the same time, development has also provided ample opportunities for countries around the world and injected growth momentum into the global economy: this is a typical example of China’s good interaction and common development with all countries around the globe.

Conversely, fierce competition means breaking rules and systems and even breaking the demarcation line to prevent or contain the opponent, and this is usually followed by fierce conflicts.

The two World Wars of the last century were extreme examples of violent competition between great powers: the first as a clash between capitalist imperialisms in search of new markets; the second as a result of mistakes made in the peace treaties that ended the Great War, plundering the losers and causing misery, resentment and chauvinistic desires.

In today’s world, competition without respect for the other side has not disappeared from the scene of history. Trump Administration’s frantic anti-China activity over the last four years has not only failed to make the United States ‘great again’, but has caused a linear decline in its national competitiveness, at least according to the World Competitiveness Yearbook 2020 published by the Lausanne-based International Institute for Management Development, which sees the United States dropping from third to tenth place. Besides the fact that its international image has seriously plummeted and Sino-U.S. relations have hit the lowest ebb since the establishment of diplomatic relations. It can clearly be seen that fierce competition will only restrain its promoters and ultimately harm the others, themselves and the international community.

In December 2020 General Mark Alexander Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (a body that brings together the Chiefs of Staff of each branch of the U.S. military and the Head of the National Guard Bureau), said in an interview that ‘great powers must compete. This is the essence of the world’.

There is no problem with this statement: it is not wrong, but it is important to maintain a state of competition and contact between major powers, precisely to ensure that it does not turn into conflicts or wars that are fatal to mankind and the planet as a whole.

The gist of the speech shows that some U.S. elites also believe that China and the United States should adhere to the principle of ‘fighting without breaking each other’. The importance and the overall and strategic nature of Sino-U.S. relations determine that no one can afford the zero-sum game, which is a lose-lose as opposed to a win-win game – hence we need to ensure that competition between the two countries stays on the right track.

Competition between China and the United States can only be fair and based on rules and laws. This is the basic rule of international relations, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations as its point of reference.

Regardless of the common interests of China, the United States or peoples in the world, both countries should make this system promote healthy and fair competition, thus turning it into the greatest value of sharing and cooperation.

China’s goal has never been to surpass the United States, but to advance steadily and become better and no longer a prey to imperialism and colonialism as it has been the case since the 19th century, when Great Britain waged the two Opium Wars (1839-1842 – 1856-1860) to have not only the opportunity, but also the right to export drugs to the Middle Empire – hence Great Britain was the first pusher empowered and authorized by the force of its weapons.

Although – by its own good fortune -the United States has never been England, it should not always be thinking of surpassing the others or fearing being overtaken by the others, but should particularly focus on Secretary of State Blinken’s first seven priorities and raise its expectations.

China should show its traditional political wisdom and manage Sino-U.S. relations in accordance with the principles of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation, so that Sino-U.S. relations can develop in a healthy and stable way for the good of the whole planet.

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