Remarks on Kevin Rudd’s book: “The Avoidable War”

By Guido Montani

Kevin Rudd’s book – The Avoidable War: The Dangers of Catastrophic Conflict between the U.S. and Xi Jinping’s China (2022) is an excellent analysis of the current relations between the two world powers, their respective political cultures and power strategies, up to the recent and growing international tensions of recent years. Kevin Rudd is a profound connoisseur of both countries; he was Prime Minister of Australia and has visited China on many occasions for a long time; he speaks Mandarin and has personally known President Xi Jinping. The book offers the reader a reasoned and enlightening description of Chinese political thought, in particular of Xi Jinping, whose political goals are clarified on the basis of a reasoned description of his political strategy, based on the doctrine of Leninism “with Chinese characteristics”.

In this article I do not intend to propose a further review of Rudd’s book (for a collection of reviews see. Asia Policy, October 2022). My intent is limited to a critical discussion of the concept of “managed strategic competition”, which represents Rudd’s crucial policy proposal to avoid a possible armed conflict between the two nuclear powers: the USA, the already established world power, and China, the emerging world power. A modern international situation that can be described as the “Thucydides trap”, when the rise of Athens as the hegemonic power of the Peloponnese caused the reaction of Sparta, making war inevitable. To avoid a possible war between the US and China, Rudd proposes a series of diplomatic measures, through “guardrails” that could allow a “peaceful coexistence” between the two world powers. The “managed strategic competition” would guarantee a long period of international peace thanks to an active cooperation between the two powers for the solution of the great international challenges: the gap between rich and poor countries, international migration and the challenge of climate change.

I divide my exposition into two parts. In the first, I intend to use the concept of “world system of states”, elaborated by the theorists of international relations starting from those of German raison d’état and political realism: Friedrich Meinecke and Ludwig Dehio and, later, Hans Morgenthau, Raymond Aron, Kenneth Waltz and many others. In this first part I would like to show that the concept of “managed strategic competition” cannot be limited to describing the relations between the USA and China without taking into account the overall international system, where other world powers are emerging and where new dangers are looming, such as the environmental crisis. Finally, I intend to indicate a strategy that can offer a real prospect of “peaceful coexistence” not only between the US and China but on a global scale. In fact, Kevin Rudd, in responding to his reviewers, states: “Not only should we strive to preserve the peace for us all (beyond the United States, China and Taiwan); through a form of managed strategic competition, we should also provide the political and diplomatic space for these two great powers – the world’s two largest greenhouse gas emitters – to collaborate on saving the planet from another disaster on the horizon of a different making: climate change. The clock is already ticking on both” (Rudd, Asia Policy, October 2022, p. 259). In the final remarks I will try to emphasize this last statement, since the danger of an irreversible crisis of the biosphere can lead the human species to extinction, as well as the outbreak of a nuclear war. Rudd focuses his analysis and strategy primarily on the danger of an atomic catastrophe.

The U.S. Government of Joe Biden justifies the growing tension between the US and China as the necessary defense of democracies against authoritarian governments. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine strengthened this strategy, as China cautiously defended Moscow’s arguments, while the US managed to expand NATO’s military alliance to new European countries, Sweden and Finland. However, every ideological justification of power politics contains mystifying aspects. During the Cold War, the US brought about the fall of the Chilean socialist regime of Allende (1973) despite being democratically elected. The USSR decided to invade first Hungary (1956) and then Czechoslovakia (1968) to prevent the formation of a socialist government “with a human face”. The USA and the USSR actually defended their imperial supremacy according to a division of the world decided at Yalta in 1945: any attempt by a country to leave an imperial camp would be stifled by force by the dominant power.

During the Trump and Biden administrations, relations between the US and China worsened. Tensions have arisen in the fields of economics and technological and military development. The most dangerous front is that of Taiwan, where the two atomic powers face each other directly. Since the time of Mao and the visit of Kissinger and Nixon to Beijing (1972), cooperation between the two countries has flourished, particularly on the economic and diplomatic levels. Taiwan has also been able to develop its economy, industry and democratic government without any hindrance.

However, to the extent that China’s economic growth has reached such potential as to threaten the global dominance of the United States and its military potential (in the navy and air force) has strengthened, Taiwan has become a possible area of military confrontation. It is true that international treaties following World War II recognize Taiwan’s legal status alongside “one China”, an expression that excludes the possibility of recognition of Taiwan’s sovereignty as a nation state. However, Xi Jinping’s call for “complete reunification” (as was the case in Hong Kong) met with firm opposition from the Taiwanese and US governments. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, in a speech in New York (September 22, 2022) said: “National reunification is the shared wish and aspiration of all the Chinese sons and daughters. It is also clearly stipulated in China Constitution. “Peaceful reunification and One country, Two systems” – this fundamental guideline best meets the overall interests of the Chinese nation including Taiwan compatriots”. The article of the Constitution cited is ambiguous: by what procedures is unification possible? By consensual democratic procedures or by military force?

Military tensions between the US and China increase the possibility of military incidents. The US has entered into military alliances in Asia with the creation of AUKUS, a trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, which provides for the use of nuclear submarines in the Pacific. In addition, the U.S. government is devising a military strategy to counter any attempt by the Chinese government to annex the “province” of Taiwan. Lloyd Austin, the US Secretary of Defense, visiting Tokyo, promised “to help Japan develop ‘counter strike’ missiles that could reach mainland China” (The Economist, June 17th, 2023, p. 33). Nancy Pelosi’s reckless visit to Taipei (August 2022) has triggered a Chinese military reaction, for the moment only demonstrative, but it is a warning for the future.

The US policy to maintain its primacy as a great world power in the post-Cold War international reality is matched by an equally ambitious long-term Chinese strategy. In 2013, Xi Jinping launched the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a series of investments in communication routes between Asia, Europe and Africa, which has created forms of cooperation between 155 countries. Subsequently, a BRI was also developed with great success for local authorities. Recently (August 22-3, 2023), at the BRIC Summit in Johannesburg, the meeting of the five founding countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – reached an important agreement that specifies the political objectives of the BRICS and announces the enlargement to Argentina, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Egypt and Ethiopia. The BRICS and these six countries have not given themselves a statute, but have indicated some common goals for an “Inclusive Multilateralism”. In essence, they indicate a policy of inclusion that, in their opinion, the US leadership of Western countries denies them: for example, they demand that Brazil, India and South Africa join the UN Security Council. The Johannesburg Declaration is very explicit about adhering to certain values that are common to both camps. On democracy it states: “We call for the respect of democracy and human rights. In this regard we underline that they should be implemented on the level of global governance as well at national level”.  They propose a reform to make the United Nations more democratic: “We support a comprehensive reform of the UN, including its Security Council, with a view to making it more democratic, representative, effective, and efficient.” They stress on several occasions the need for an international monetary and financial system that is more open to the needs of poor countries and the sustainable development of the planet. “We call for reform of the Bretton Woods institutions, including for greater role for emerging markets and developing countries. Including in leadership positions in the Bretton Woods institutions, that reflect the role of EMDCs in the world economy”. Although Putin has explicitly called for the creation of an alternative currency to the dollar, this demand does not appear explicitly in the Final Declaration, but there is a reminder of the need to make greater use of BRICS currencies for trade, a proposal that certainly favors China, because the Renminbi is the main candidate to play this role.

The Declaration contains other interesting proposals, but it is not possible to mention them in detail here. It is however useful to emphasize that Chinese foreign policy – since China is the leading country of the BRICS, albeit in partnership with India – may mark a further success in a direction towards “inclusive multilateralism”, without recourse to military alliances. The step taken in Johannesburg, an alternative to US hegemonic politics, can be interpreted as a stimulus to the construction of a peaceful, more cooperative and inclusive “multilateral” world between rich and poor countries, on all continents. No proposal for military alliances, as opposed to NATO, appears in the Declaration.

Obviously, Kevin Rudd in his book could not consider what happened in Johannesburg. However, to some extent, the BRICS meeting, now 11 countries, confirms Rudd’s general orientation on the possible search for a peaceful solution between the two world powers: a new world war can be avoided. Obviously, every change in international politics, by definition worldwide, contains ambiguities. Nevertheless, it seems possible to hypothesize that an agreement for “peaceful coexistence” is possible and that, on this basis, a crucial reform of the United Nations could be carried out. As Rudd notes, the climate crisis is becoming more threatening year by year: violent floods, droughts, forced migration, warming seas and increases in mortality rates due to these events occur. According to the World Meteorological Organization, between 1970 and 2021 there were 11,778 climate disasters that caused 2,087,229 deaths. National governments delude themselves into thinking that they are defending the well-being of their citizens, doing little or nothing for the sustainable development of the planet. In their calculations of national well-being, the cost, in terms of human lives, of the planetary environmental crisis does not yet appear. On the contrary, it is necessary to take note that the human adventure on the planet can end not only because of the outbreak of a nuclear war between great powers, but also because of the inability to prevent the irreversible crisis of the biosphere. It is as if there is a time bomb that will explode with certainty and that no one can defuse.

In the face of this danger, no nation state and no world power can act in isolation. At annual conferences of United Nations on Climate Change (COP) decisions are made that are not binding, and which are not respected. To overcome this deadlock, European federalists and global federalists propose a “Global Green Deal”, which includes some crucial reforms. The first is the reform of the IMF in order to allow the use of SDRs as the world’s reserve currency. SDRs are a basket of currencies that includes the dollar, euro, renminbi, pound and yen. This reform implies that the US accepts that the dollar is replaced as the world’s reserve currency and that the IMF Board is entrusted to the representatives of the five countries whose currency is included in the basket. This is an interim solution, until it is decided to expand the number of countries for “global monetary governance”. The advantages of this reform are manifold (for a broad discussion see:”How to Finance the Global Green Deal“, in The Global Ventotene, 2023). Here it is sufficient to remember that it will be possible to fix the price of CO2 in SDRs (today there are 73 different prices) thus allowing all companies engaged in environmental policies to accurately calculate the risks and returns of their investments. International trade would be greatly facilitated by the creation of a world currency unit. Moreover, all countries – rich or poor – could issue their public debt in a stable world currency, with uniform interest rates on a global scale. Finally, if authorized by the General Assembly, the IMF could issue Global Green Bonds in SDRs to finance a global plan for the sustainable development of the planet.

Of course, it will not only be monetary reform that will make a Global Green Deal possible: legal rules will also be needed to guide governments, businesses and citizens of the world to change certain behaviors harmful to nature. Since its origins, homo sapiens has considered natural resources as a commodity of its own that it could use, plunder or destroy at will. To domesticate these rapacious instincts requires legislation, a pact between humanity and nature, a constitution, as the European Union has begun to do with the Nature Restoration Law.

The Global Green Deal is only the first part of a path towards international “peaceful coexistence”. It will certainly take many years, probably decades, to achieve it, as indeed predicted by the scientists and governments that have set the goal of neutrality of greenhouse gas emissions for the middle of the century. During this period, cooperative relations between states engaged in a struggle to save life on the planet should have convinced governments and their citizens that peaceful coexistence is necessary and possible also on the military security front. If this conviction becomes a sufficient basis for further steps towards peaceful integration among armed sovereign states, the status quo can be consolidated through further supranational reforms.

Military confrontation is inevitable if governments think a “clash of civilizations” is humanity’s fate. However, in the history of Western and Eastern political thought there has been a conviction that civilization, peaceful coexistence, is possible not only between citizens of the same nation, but also between nations. The process of European unification would never have begun, after the Second World War, if historical enemies, such as France and Germany, had not understood that the era of wars could be shelved provided that a process of supranational integration began. Today a similar step can be proposed and implemented on a planetary scale. “As China’s struggle with America intensifies, President Xi Jinping has recently proposed a different view – that civilizations can live in harmony … Mr Xi unveiled his Global Civilization Initiative (GCI) on March 15th” (The Economist, April 29th 2023). And Narendra Modi proposes a world as a single family: “VasudhaivaKatumbakam”. Why couldn’t the US, the European Union, the other BRICS countries, Africa, Latin America and Asia start discussing the rules and institutions of a cosmopolitan civilization? It is at this point that a serious reform of the United Nations could also be initiated. The crucial, perhaps decisive, step will be the decision to dissolve all military alliances, such as NATO, and initiate universal nuclear disarmament controlled by a Security Council enlarged to the representatives of the citizens of every continent.