Opinion

Opinion | Niall Ferguson

In defense of ambivalence

Mandatory Credit: Photo by ROMAN PILIPEY/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock (9212992g) Donald J. Trump and Xi Jinping US President Donald J. Trump visits China, Beijing - 09 Nov 2017 US President Donald J. Trump (C) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) listen to the Chinese military orchestra during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, 09 November 2017. Trump is on an official visit to China from 08 to 10 November as part of his 12-day tour of Asia.
PILIPEY/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock
President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping listen to the Chinese military orchestra during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, in November.

As the year 2017 draws to a close, the world has seldom been so binary. You either love Donald Trump or you loathe him. You either adore Brexit or abhor it. This polarization has been fostered by the giant online social networks of our time and the phenomenon that students of networks know as “homophily.” In plain English, birds of a feather flock together.

Facebook encourages you to like or not like what you see in your Newsfeed. Twitter allows you to retweet or like other people’s tweets or block those users who offend your sensibilities.

In this binary world, there is not much room for ambivalence. I have had a tough time this year explaining even to friends why I can like some aspects of the Trump administration while at the same time disliking others.

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A good occasion for more ambivalence is the Trump administration’s new National Security Strategy, published last week. As usual, there were plenty of commentators ready to denounce it and to predict the imminent end of days. In reality, this new document is a great improvement on the last administration’s essays in “strategic patience.”

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Gone are the highfalutin but vacuous proclamations of virtue that were President Obama’s signature tune. Instead, we have a muscular and unambiguous identification of the principal threats to the United States, and a clear commitment to meet those threats by force if necessary.

The idea that this document will destroy the “liberal international order” supposedly established in 1945 and unleash World War III is absurd. On the contrary, it was high time to call out China, which has become increasingly brazen in its assertion of power, not only in the South China Sea but further afield too.

This was Obama’s 2015 National Security Strategy: “The scope of our cooperation with China is unprecedented. . . . The United States welcomes the rise of a stable, peaceful, and prosperous China. We seek to develop a constructive relationship with China that delivers benefits for our two peoples and promotes security and prosperity in Asia and around the world. We seek cooperation on shared regional and global challenges. . . . While there will be competition, we reject the inevitability of confrontation.”

Compare and contrast with the 2017 edition: “China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor. . . . China gathers and exploits data on an unrivaled scale and spreads features of its authoritarian system, including corruption and the use of surveillance. It is building the most capable and well-funded military in the world, after our own. Its nuclear arsenal is growing and diversifying.”

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I know which I prefer. I also agree wholeheartedly that it was naive to assume — as the last three administrations did — that including Russia and China “in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners.” A new report on China’s “sharp power” by the National Endowment for Democracy shows just how wrong this was.

Those who worry about the alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin last year ought to welcome the National Security Strategy’s tough talk about Russia. Those who feared Trump would terminate NATO should be reassured.

What worries me is that this is a fundamentally old-fashioned document. Its main preoccupations are with threats posed by established nation states — China, Russia, North Korea, Iran — to the United States and its allies. The document says much less about the new threats that all nation states now face.

Earlier this year I participated in an eye-opening conference at the Hoover Institution convened by former secretary of state George Shultz. At the age of 97, Shultz remains astonishingly forward looking. As he argues, cyber warfare has the potential to disrupt vital infrastructure without warning. A new strain of influenza could devastate the world’s population with astonishing speed. Nanotechnology could fundamentally alter the calculus of conflict by threatening conventional forces with overwhelming swarms of hostile devices.

The new National Security Strategy alludes to some of these threats, but it does not make clear how precisely the United States is going to combat them. Coming in the wake of a tax bill that significantly reduces the federal government’s tax base for the foreseeable future, the document can make only vague commitments to increase expenditure on national security.

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This is therefore just another aspect of Donald Trump’s administration about which it is right to feel ambivalent. It’s an improvement on the bromides of the Obama era. But it falls a long way short of explaining how exactly America can be made great again.

As the authors of the new strategy note, however, “China, Russia, and other state and nonstate actors recognize that the United States often views the world in binary terms, with states being either ‘at peace’ or ‘at war,’ when it is actually an arena of continuous competition.” This insight applies equally well in the realm of domestic politics, where binary thinking is the enemy of rigorous thought.

And if you like only parts of what I’ve just told you, that’s just fine with me.

Niall Ferguson’s new book is “The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power.”