Interdependence and Its Discontents: Why Would Nations with Incentives to Avoid It Go to War?

commentary

Feb 23, 2024

U.S President Joe Biden says goodbye to Chinese President Xi Jinping at the end of the APEC meeting in San Francisco, California,  November 18, 2023, photo by EyePress News/Reuters

U.S President Joe Biden says goodbye to Chinese President Xi Jinping at the end of the APEC meeting in San Francisco, California, November 18, 2023

Photo by EyePress News/Reuters

There is little question that the world has grown to a level of such economic interdependence that events in any single part of the world are likely to have global repercussions. Indeed, the two largest economies in the world—the United States and the People's Republic of China—remain extensively connected (PDF), even as they also remain geopolitical rivals. The level of interdependence between the United States and PRC may have decreased slightly, but the degree of dependence between the two countries remains at a level where “decoupling” is simply impractical. For example, the PRC remains highly dependent on exports to the United States and others for revenue; it also controls the processing and, in some cases, the production of critical minerals used in effectively every commodity that requires rare earths, or copper, or nickel, or cobalt at any point in the production process. The potential damage from a trade disruption between China and the United States might well be extensive—both economically and socially—on both sides.

It's tempting to think that such interdependence has reached a level in which armed conflict between these two rivals has grown to be something beyond irrational, into the realm of the unthinkable. Wouldn't the terrible costs of war cause both nations to seek every other means before resorting to armed action? Unfortunately, history gives us little reason to be confident that peace is inevitable simply because the degree of interdependence is strong. Trading partners in fact sometimes do go to war (PDF) with one another. Indeed, by the logic of interdependence, World War I should never have occurred. Interdependence did not always prevent war in the past, and it is safe to say that it probably will not assure a peaceful future.

Why, then, would nations with incentives to avoid war go to war anyway? Sometimes, wars occurred due to misperception and irrationality. In other cases, actors viewed war as at least inevitable and possibly desirable. But, to a degree, the propensity to arrive at armed conflict, even when doing so would seem to be against national interests, is an inherent feature within an international system in which nations are constantly bargaining over outcomes—are in fact in any number of ongoing forms of unarmed conflict.

Interdependence did not always prevent war in the past, and it is safe to say that it probably will not assure a peaceful future.

Share on Twitter

There are many metaphors to describe dispute behavior within the international system. In some cases, the metaphors have become more formalized to be thought of as games or models. The “Prisoner's Dilemma” and “Chicken” are two such examples. A common theme among them is that, although there are reasons for nations to collaborate to avoid terrible outcomes, there are also reasons for each actor to try and force the other to back down. The result is that in cases where much is at stake in a single decision, refusing to cooperate (as in the Prisoner's Dilemma) or refusing to swerve from an imminent vehicle collision (Chicken) becomes each actor's rational, short-term choice. Only over many iterations might actors conclude that attempting to cooperate, even at the risk of betrayal, might serve their long-term interests. But, when there might not be another turn to consider, actors tend to accept mutual danger, refusing the option of surrender by believing that the other actor may back down.

So, how might this logic apply in the highly interconnected relationship between the United States and PRC? The Prisoner's Dilemma and Chicken were game-theory models developed in the context of the Cold War. The United States and USSR possessed diametrically opposed world views, but also possessed the ability to physically destroy one another. Both sides believed that, long term, the trends were in their favor— neither was willing to completely yield at any given point, and neither wished to provoke catastrophe. Accordingly, both sides developed mechanisms for advancing interest, testing commitment, and finding ways of deescalating before the responses reached the highest levels of escalation.

To illustrate how the two approaches varied, the “massive retaliation” doctrine the United States adopted in the early 1950s dictated that the United States respond with overwhelming force—the use of strategic nuclear weapons—to provocations both great and small. However, the idea that the United States would destroy itself and its enemies over provocation was soon proven to be both dangerous and not credible. National leaders instead needed options between capitulation and overwhelming force. As a result, theorists developed, and U.S. policymakers implemented, options for credible responses with lower levels of force, both nuclear and conventional. Beginning in the early 1960s, these responses became part of U.S. policy and force structure. Managed escalation became part of the normal interaction between the two powers, even in cases where the risk of war was high. Mutual assured destruction was understood at the highest levels of escalation, but neither side was confined to only surrendering or responding to provocations with civilization-ending force.

Unlike the Cold War, the principal vulnerability of crisis response mechanisms to the current tension is less physical destruction than it is economic damage.

Share on Twitter

The analogy between the situation in the Cold War and today is by no means perfect. The PRC is not the Soviet Union, and the U.S. position in the world is quite different than what it was in the middle of the 20th century. What is shared, however, with the earlier era, is the existence of conflict over ideological and geopolitical goals, coupled with the ability of each side to inflict terrible damage on the other. Unlike the Cold War, the principal vulnerability of crisis response mechanisms to the current tension is less physical destruction than it is economic damage. Some of the crisis response mechanisms might be military, but the national damage incurred will be largely in commodities denied, revenues curtailed, and supply chains disrupted. But the same incentives that might cause leaders to contemplate whether or not to accept the risk of damage caused by a conflict still exist.

Accordingly, rather than assume interdependence has made conflict impossible, both sides would be well-advised to consider the kinds of off-ramps and escalation options that provide a means of responding to provocations—ideally ones that land somewhere between capitulation and catastrophe. The first impulse might be to reduce vulnerability by “reshoring,” or finding alternative sources and markets. This is possible in a few cases, but interdependent relationships, formed over decades, in many cases cannot be readily reversed. Another option may be to accept the interdependence as a condition of the international system, and work within that system to develop conflict resolution methods. Much as the United States and Soviet Union came to accept the facts of mutual assured destruction and the need for resolution mechanisms, in the present moment, the goal should be similar: allow both sides the ability to find off-ramps in order to avoid a mutually destructive armed conflict.


Bradley Martin is a senior policy researcher at RAND and a retired Navy Captain.