Gen. Martin E. Dempsey meets with Chinese Gen. Fang Fenghui, Chief of the General Staff, in Beijing, China, Apr 20, 2013.

Gen. Martin E. Dempsey meets with Chinese Gen. Fang Fenghui, Chief of the General Staff, in Beijing, China, Apr 20, 2013. DOD photo by Myles Cullen

America Needs To Engage With Its Enemies, Not Isolate

Raw strength and power is necessary for deterrence, but off-ramps from conflict can be created by building relationships.

Engage or isolate? This is the national security question that will drive the United States’ response to near-peer competitors like China and Russia, destabilizing middle powers like Iran and North Korea, and even the relatively powerless Cuba. Consistent engagement, even with adversary states, is beneficial. It can help avoid miscalculations, improve U.S. ability to clarify intentions, and decipher ambiguous signals. It also can increase understanding of adversary motivations and interests, which facilitates negotiation and potential development of conflict off-ramps. Conversely, isolation can limit adversaries’ options, negatively feed their fears, and wound their pride—obstructing alternative, preferred paths.

When it comes to China, some in Congress appear to be wary of engagement. Recently, Senator John McCain urged the Department of Defense not to send an aircraft carrier to China. He is concerned that a high profile port call would raise doubts among our Pacific allies, show excess respect to China and its navy, and send a mixed message about China’s continued aggressive actions in the South China Sea.

Congressman Randy Forbes (R-VA 4) sent a letter in December to then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel raising concerns about U.S.–China military-to-military engagement. Representative Forbes expressed displeasure that past and current engagements were not successful in modifying China’s aggressive behavior and were focused on operational rather than strategic issues. Congressman Forbes wisely requested a comprehensive engagement strategy review and a more explicit policy framework.

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However, his desire to focus on the most challenging aspects of the U.S.–China relationship (nuclear forces, offensive cyber, escalation control, etc.) appears to minimize more foundational aspects of mil-mil engagement. These are establishing personal credibility, developing relationships, and establishing lines of communication between the two militaries that can prove valuable in avoiding inadvertent escalation.

Throughout the Cold War, despite significant periods of strain between the Soviet Union and the United States, U.S.–Soviet military-to-military engagement remained surprisingly consistent and healthy. It is doubtful that any of this engagement altered the world view, actions, or intent of the Soviet Union. However, it did build long-term relationships and increased personal credibility. This contributed to a combined ability to avoid miscalculation and clarify intentions during periods of international strain. Additionally, when the Soviet Union collapsed, these personal relationships were leveraged to help both militaries transition into the post-Cold War world. That was a low-cost, long-term investment that paid big returns.

The Department of Defense and the U.S. Navy are advocating for a similar consistency in U.S.–China military-to-military engagement. This is a wide-eyed approach that combines persistent engagement with focused and strengthened alliances and preparation for the most challenging threats. Through investment, communication, and collaboration with our Pacific allies, they will not see U.S.–China military-to-military engagement as a concerning mixed message. Rather, they will see it as a balanced and beneficial approach, just as NATO understood Cold War engagement with the Soviet Union.

Throughout the Cold War, despite significant periods of strain between the Soviet Union and the United States, U.S.–Soviet military-to-military engagement remained surprisingly consistent and healthy. 

Additionally, as the U.S. Navy deploys 60 percent of the fleet to the Pacific and places the majority of its newest and most advanced ships in the region, the Pacific rebalance will bolster our allies and could affect the calculations of regional aggressors. Furthermore, the Navy’s focus on addressing the challenges of Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) through both concept development and capital investment is preparing to counter challenges that threaten access to the global commons. It is not an either/or choice; the U.S. can chose persistent engagement along with deterrence and preparation to fight should deterrence fail.

It is concerning that our national security decisions appear to be presented in an increasingly binary fashion—on or off; “good nation” or “bad nation;” with us or against us. It is largely true that belligerence should be met with deterrence and strength, and that there should be a cost imposed for international aggression. However, when other nations make bad decisions, take aggressive actions, or head down a dark path—when things go wrong—do our national security decisions and actions help them go right or increase path dependence in the wrong direction?

While strength and deterrence are useful and necessary, used as the only means of influence they can contribute to escalation and spiraling conflict. Off-ramps are created through dialogue buttressed by relationships and credibility. While there has been recent emphasis on the credibility of our threats and our strength of arms and will—which are important—the credibility or our intentions for stability and peace must also be established in the minds of those we hope to persuade to choose a better path.

Thucydides, the Greek historian of the Peloponnesian Wars, offered three reasons why nations go to war: interest, fear, and pride. While strength and deterrence affect the cost-benefit calculus of national interests they also can feed the motivations of fear and pride that often fuel international aggression and belligerence. Engagement, on any and every front, can help the United States better understand the motivations of fear and pride that might be driving China and Russia and offer insight into U.S. and allied actions that create off-ramps to their current destabilizing paths.

Just as during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, consistent military-to-military (and nonmilitary) engagement will not equate to endorsement of belligerent actions or acquiescence to their grand strategy. It will, however, offer in-roads to avoid miscalculation, increase understanding, and build off-ramps from places none of us wants to go. Whenever possible, the United States should maintain military-to-military engagement with potential adversaries. Insight gained through engagement may help prevent conflict and—if conflict is unavoidable—it will serve to help us better understand our adversaries.

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