China & the Stupidity of War

China & the Stupidity of War

“China has been a failure at hegemony, so let’s just chill...”

As Americans tune into the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, some may be wondering about a different sort of competition with the host nation, China, whose size and growing military power make them appear as one of the most significant threats to the long-standing international order of Pax Americana.

John Mueller is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and one of the world's foremost experts on international security, terrorism, and foreign policy. In his new book, The Stupidity of War: American Foreign Policy and the Case for Complacency, (Oxford University Press, 2016), Mueller contends that China is not in fact a serious threat to the United States, nor the remarkably durable peace of the last 75 years. The greater threat, he says, comes from treating China as an adversary, and provoking them into responding in kind.

China may have the second largest military in the world (after the United States), spending more on its military than Russia or Saudi Arabia. However, in a recent Cato report, Mueller lays out the many reasons why conflict would be in neither the U.S. nor China’s interest. His answer to the brewing tensions – “complacency” – may seem like a strange word to use in this context, yet he makes a compelling case that American military might has been used for harm more often than good since the end of World War II.

So why do certain elements within our government and military beat the war drum? Is it possible that there are special interests involved in making the threat seem larger than it really is? At a time when China is flexing its muscles in the South China Sea and our relationship with Russia is increasingly strained, Mueller's book is a much-needed voice of reason urging the U.S. to de-escalate.

Mueller returned to the show to help me and my audience understand what the pretext for alarm is this time, and why we shouldn’t take the bait and go to war (again) this time around.


After World War I, people sat around saying, "Well, that was really stupid, we should not do that again." They tried to keep it from happening, unsuccessfully obviously, because of Hitler, and then starting again after World War II, and for the most part, it has been a major, major success. Europe, which used to be the cauldron of wars has had essentially had no international wars since that time – though, we're now of course on the verge of some problems with with Ukraine, which might break the streak. Nonetheless, Europe has been at peace, free from substantial international war, for the longest period of time since the word “Europe” was invented about 2,500 years ago. So it seems to me that's very consequential. Countries continue to have many, many, many problems. They do a lot of things which I don't consider to be war, and they aren't directly killing people. They sometimes intervene in civil wars, they exact economic sanctions, they may sling cyber balloons and so forth, and they may have very small conflicts along the borders in some places, but not near cities and not near garrisons. So there's still plenty of things going on. But they don't use direct war in the same way. It is a change of historical proportions – perhaps the most important ever – that something as hallowed and sanctified and common as international war, which has been there forever, has basically been given up by a large number of countries, and increasingly, it seems to be pretty much all of them.
BOB: Is Russia, our enemy? If they are, why is China our enemy? If it is, why is Iran an enemy? You would have us believe that the risk of crossing our borders, the risk of conquest, is almost non-existent? If if it's non existent, then what exactly are we afraid of that puts us in such a strong defensive posture? JOHN: Well, it's a little hard to explain, but the issue basically, is that people still have disagreements, big time. But my argument is that they don't use direct war to settle them, which is what they used to do in the olden days. They do it through negotiation, and various kinds of pressure. They may do it from sometimes rattling rockets and so forth. And they may do it with through economic pressures. But they don't use direct war to settle their differences. And that's the difference. So you still have enemies. There's certainly plenty of things which I don't like in China and Russia, but it seems to me basically, that they don't present a security threat to the United States. For example, the argument with China is that as it grows, it'll seek to have more influence in the world, and might even become what some people call a “hegemon.” I never quite figured out what those two words “influence” and “hegemon” mean. It means they're going to be more important. If you want to sell something to China, you better pay attention to what China thinks and vice versa. That is, I suppose a form of influence, but it's pretty much benign. Neither China nor Russia, I think has territorial ambitions of the sort, for example that Hitler had. they do want to play a bigger role in the international stage. And they do want to have more respect, but so does everybody else.