America seems to be on the verge of declaring cold war on China, while simultaneously weakening its own ability to wage such a conflict. Across the ideological spectrum, U.S. hostility to China has surged just as financial fallout of the pandemic threatens to harm the U.S. defense budget for years to come.

The United States may thus be entering a period like the beginning of the original Cold War, when it decided to confront the Soviet Union on a shoestring. The U.S. ultimately won that Cold War, of course, but that analogy should be less comforting than it first seems because it reminds us that a cash-strapped approach to competition can be an extremely risky one.

For several years, American national security elites have mostly called for a more competitive strategy toward China, while the American people have not been so certain. Now the coronavirus has convinced many Americans that the Chinese government poses not just some nebulous threat to the U.S.-led international order, but a direct danger to their prosperity and well-being.

Overwhelming majorities of Republicans and Democrats now favor a China policy as tough as or tougher than the Trump administration’s current stance. With an eye to November, U.S. President Donald Trump and presumptive Democratic candidate Joe Biden are competing over who is the bigger China hawk. As economic decoupling accelerates, and rhetoric and policies harden on both sides, the U.S.-China cold war that pundits have been predicting may actually be unfolding.

Yet the coronavirus is also threatening to put the U.S. at a strategic disadvantage. The issue here isn’t Trump’s inept handling of the crisis or his alienation of U.S. allies, as damaging as those factors have been. The problem is one of budgetary arithmetic.
The U.S. government has decided, correctly, to spend whatever is necessary to keep the economy alive even as most normal commerce is suffocated. That decision is likely to add several trillion dollars to an already impressive deficit this year. We could easily see a repeat performance next year. Spiraling deficits will eventually produce a budgetary reckoning, with the Defense Department likely to be one of the victims.
After the 2008-2009 financial crisis, the U.S. sought to reduce deficits by cutting defense and nondefense discretionary spending. The Pentagon ultimately absorbed some $500 billion in cuts in the years thereafter. Rand Corp. analysts have predicted that similar reductions constitute a best-case scenario after the coronavirus crisis. The cuts could go significantly deeper.

This is a problem. Even with a defense budget of over $700 billion, there are growing concerns about whether the U.S. military can stop a Chinese assault on Taiwan and hold the line in the Western Pacific while still maintaining other commitments worldwide. If the U.S. ends up with a defense budget of $600 billion or even $500 billion for a sustained period, American defense strategy will be in real trouble.

The Pentagon will be faced with hard choices. It could seek to hold China in check by reducing commitments elsewhere. It could embrace higher-risk strategies like nuclear escalation to defend exposed allies and partners. Or it could simply try to bluff its way through austerity by hoping that adversaries won’t test America’s decreased capabilities. None of these options seem particularly good, especially with U.S.-China tensions rising and as Beijing appears to view the chaos caused by the coronavirus more as a window of strategic opportunity than a reason for restraint.

In some ways, the situation is reminiscent of the early Cold War. By early 1947, there was a growing consensus that the U.S. must oppose Soviet subversion and expansion. In March, President Harry Truman issued the closest thing to an American declaration of cold war, announcing that “nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life,” and that Washington would henceforth “support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” There followed a series of iconic policies — the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization — meant to shore up the free world against economic misery, political turmoil and Soviet predation.

Often forgotten is how weak the U.S. defense posture was. The military had shrunk from 12 million personnel in 1945 to under 2 million in 1947. The U.S. did have a brief monopoly on nuclear weapons, but only a limited ability to deliver them effectively. Its ability to defend Western Europe, the Middle East or other key territories from Soviet attack was virtually nonexistent. “We were spread from hell to breakfast,” Undersecretary of State Robert Lovett later said, “all over the world.”

This minimalist approach was based on a calculation that the Soviet Union would not start another world war before it had recovered from the last one. It was also based on budgetary constraints and an understandable desire for demobilization after World War II. Truman was a “hard-money man,” determined not to run deficits or raise taxes; he knew the American people wanted to bring the troops home. So the U.S. pursued containment on the cheap, committing to protect the free world without developing the forces necessary to do so.

It worked — sort of. The Soviets did not attack during the late 1940s, although they did seek to squeeze the U.S. and its Western friends out of Berlin by blockading that city. The Marshall Plan helped revive Western European economies and stabilize the region’s politics. The U.S., meanwhile, tried to keep the Soviets off balance through propaganda and psychological warfare, covert operations and efforts to drive wedges between Moscow and other communist regimes in Eastern Europe.

The implication for today is that there are plenty of elements of U.S.-China competition that don’t require huge military expenditures: creating alternatives for countries that might otherwise have to rely on Chinese loans or technology, hardening free societies against authoritarian interference by developing better techniques for exposing and countering disinformation, and reinforcing the economic and diplomatic relationships among the world’s democracies, to name a few.

But in other ways, the analogy is more sobering. The poor man’s version of Soviet containment required running tremendous military and strategic risks — a gamble that America might be caught short if war came, along with the possibility that the imbalance of military power in key areas might dishearten U.S. allies and create opportunities for communist intimidation or aggression. “The trouble,” Secretary of State George Marshall commented, “was that we are playing with fire while we have nothing with which to put it out.”

When the Korean War began and then escalated in 1950, American policymakers had to confront the horrifying possibility that the Soviets might be willing to risk a global war that Washington would be in danger of losing. That sequence of events led to the military buildup of the early 1950s, meant to close the gaps that an opportunistic enemy might exploit.

The lesson is that economic, political and diplomatic tools of competition are vital — but as tensions rise, they may not be sufficient. A policy of confrontation, however justified, can invite disaster if undertaken without an adequate military shield. It would be a perilous irony if the coronavirus was what finally convinced many Americans to take the challenge from China seriously but left the nation too weak to do much about it.

Bloomberg Opinion columnist Hal Brands is a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

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