It's Debatable

Intervention or Restraint? A Washington debate on pressing issues for policymakers.

Will COP26 Solve Anything?

Climate apocalypse still looms while world leaders haggle over haggis in Glasgow.

By , a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and , deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
U.S. President Joe Biden listens to the speakers during the World Leaders' Summit "Accelerating Clean Technology Innovation and Deployment" session on day three of COP26 on Nov. 2, in Glasgow, Scotland.
U.S. President Joe Biden listens to the speakers during the World Leaders' Summit "Accelerating Clean Technology Innovation and Deployment" session on day three of COP26 on Nov. 2, in Glasgow, Scotland. Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

Emma Ashford: Hey, Matt! It’s a busy week. Are you glued to the news coming out of Glasgow? The world’s leaders are in Scotland debating what to do about climate change—after flying there on their private jets, of course.

As a proud Glaswegian, of course, I’m happy to see world leaders descend on my city and to see how U.S. climate envoy John Kerry adapts to traditional Glaswegian pastimes such as deep-frying everything, sunbathing when it’s cold outside, and putting traffic cones on the Duke of Wellington’s head.

Matthew Kroenig: Yes. I am watching. The meetings have been so exciting that some world leaders even managed to stay awake for the duration of the proceedings.

Emma Ashford: Hey, Matt! It’s a busy week. Are you glued to the news coming out of Glasgow? The world’s leaders are in Scotland debating what to do about climate change—after flying there on their private jets, of course.

As a proud Glaswegian, of course, I’m happy to see world leaders descend on my city and to see how U.S. climate envoy John Kerry adapts to traditional Glaswegian pastimes such as deep-frying everything, sunbathing when it’s cold outside, and putting traffic cones on the Duke of Wellington’s head.

Matthew Kroenig: Yes. I am watching. The meetings have been so exciting that some world leaders even managed to stay awake for the duration of the proceedings.

Many climate change experts are describing the summit as a disappointment. How do you see it?

EA: Well, at least U.S. President Joe Biden showed up, even if he didn’t manage to stay awake. (Perhaps he was just sleeping off a late night at the pub?) And his Chinese and Russian counterparts didn’t even do that. But I’ve been hearing some more optimism about the summit than I had anticipated. I had assumed—going into the summit—that it would be largely meaningless, resulting in another Paris-style accord where countries simply agreed to do the things they were going to do anyway.

But apparently there has been some progress on a couple of big-ticket items, most notably the discussions over setting up a global carbon trading system.

MK: I agree there are some promising signs, but can I start with the bad news?

China is the world’s biggest polluter, producing 28 percent of global carbon emissions, and President Xi Jinping didn’t even bother to show up. It makes a mockery of the argument that cooperation with China is the key to solving climate change and raises bigger questions about whether there is space for engagement with Beijing on a broader range of global challenges.

China is the world’s biggest polluter, producing 28 percent of global carbon emissions, and President Xi Jinping didn’t even bother to show up.

EA: Yeah, it’s notable that the one area of progress—the carbon trading talks—is an issue on which China has been relatively forthcoming. At least at the moment, the biggest problem there appears to be Brazil!

More broadly, China definitely remains the biggest climate change problem to resolve. Keep in mind that in the run-up to Glasgow, Beijing made no new climate commitments and instead just reiterated existing policies, such as limiting global warming to under 2 degrees Celsius and shifting to a better mix of renewables and nuclear power rather than the country’s current coal-heavy energy mix.

That said, China’s emissions are about half of the United States’ when you look at it on a per capita basis. China is the biggest polluter because it’s an extremely populous, industrial country. That’s not easy to fix even if it were a priority for the Chinese leadership.

MK: The real problem with China is its reliance on dirty sources of energy, but I agree that it is not easy to bring down emissions anywhere; populations worldwide like an improved standard of living, running a modern economy requires energy, and renewables have not yet risen to the challenge. It is incongruous that as leaders do their “blah blah blah” in Glasgow, as activist Greta Thunberg calls it, Biden is asking OPEC to pump more oil, Europe is preparing for a winter fuel shortage, and China is starting up more coal-fired plants.

As our fellow political scientists might describe it, climate policy is a global collective action problem, layered on top of the world’s worst two-level games.

EA: And in the United States, we have Sen. Joe Manchin trying to save the coal industry in the reconciliation bill talks. The domestic politics are difficult for many countries, requiring seriously tough changes that most governments are not willing to actually push through. As our fellow political scientists might describe it, climate policy is a global collective action problem, layered on top of the world’s worst two-level games.

That’s why I’m so skeptical that we’ll see progress on climate at the political level, and I’m thrilled to see a focus on areas such as carbon trading, which are less politically costly—and therefore more likely to work.

I’m also skeptical of the fact that they’re promoting environmentally friendly “vegetarian haggis” at COP26. I’m sure it’s more environmentally friendly, but it’s also an abomination and an insult to good taste.

MK: Since haggis is inedible either way, that is a climate change measure I could support.

EA: Those are fighting words, Matt. Still, it’s nice to see my hometown in the news and to see world leaders have to endure the same conditions I did to attend my first Boyzone concert back at the dawn of time.

MK: If I don’t have to eat haggis, I won’t make you eat the delicacies from my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, such as deep-fried ravioli. Mmmm.

But let me turn to the good news at Glasgow. I also think there is promise in a global carbon market—so long as China also plays by the rules. Washington will not be eager to limit its own energy consumption and economic growth if it means unilaterally constraining itself in relation to its major competitor.

I also think Biden’s Build Back Better World (B3W) plan has potential. It adds a green hue to initiatives started in the Trump administration to unleash private sector investment for infrastructure in the developing world and to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

EA: I’m not sure about B3W. For one thing, while I admire the White House’s message discipline, perhaps we could vary the branding a little at some point? It’s getting monotonous.

More importantly, however, I’m not sure that this infrastructure spending will be particularly useful in pushing out Chinese funding or undermining the BRI. I think it’s more likely that developing countries will just take both sets of funding. Not to mention that U.S. financing with strings—in this case, so-called green development—will always be less attractive than Chinese financing with no strings.

For several years, China was the only game in town when it came to infrastructure investment. I think the free world needs to offer an alternative.

MK: For several years and in many countries, China was the only game in town when it came to infrastructure investment. I think the free world needs to offer an alternative. As we’ve seen in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, China’s infrastructure investment also comes with its own, I would argue more insidious, strings attached.

Well, since we’ve now solved climate change and global economic development, are there any other easy issues we should polish off this week?

EA: Well, in the United States, there have been a couple of conferences that I thought were interesting. First, I was lucky enough to be involved in a big conference on the future of realism and restraint in U.S. foreign policy here in Washington. Second, we had the National Conservatism Conference. It was held in Orlando, Florida, though not physically within the Magic Kingdom, as you might expect if you’ve been watching U.S. politics in recent years.

I mention these because I think both conferences highlighted a growing diversity in views on U.S. foreign policy—the old post-Cold War Washington foreign-policy consensus is shattering.

I was particularly interested to see that Sen. Ted Cruz’s speech at the NatCon Conference was panned, in part, because of his embrace of an aggressive and forward-leaning foreign policy. It’s a reminder that there’s a growing core of Republican voters who are far more restrained on foreign policy than in recent decades.

MK: I think Republicans are grasping toward a new foreign-policy platform. You are right that Reaganism, as practiced since the 1980s, is dead, but Trumpism doesn’t quite work either. I think the party needs a Reagan-Trump synthesis. The military and security pillar would include “peace through strength” and border security as part of national security. In economic policy, there would be a shift from free trade to fair trade—especially with regard to China’s unfair trade practices. And, despite some of Donald Trump’s rhetoric, I think the Reaganesque focus on American values and exceptionalism still resonates.

Does this mesh at all with your discussions on realism and restraint as the guidelines for a future U.S. foreign policy?

EA: I think there’s some definite common ground on the right for restrainers on the question of U.S. military commitments overseas, particularly in a shift away from the endless wars of the 2000s and 2010s. But as a free trader, I’m also somewhat concerned about the Republican shift toward protectionism. I’d like to see less military intervention and more diplomatic and economic interaction. I worry the national conservatives are instead pushing less military intervention and less global economic interaction.

Either way, it’s a sign of how far we’ve come in the last few years: The United States has withdrawn from Afghanistan, the Biden administration has opened talks with Russia, and groups on both the left and right are talking about how to change U.S. foreign policy for the better. It’s a moment of openness that we haven’t seen since the 1990s.

MK: I think it is reflective of the current historical inflection point. We are entering a new era, and both sides are genuinely searching for answers that work in this new world.

EA: Of course, we may just plunge straight into a problematic new foreign-policy consensus. You’ve been very patient letting me talk about climate and foreign policy, so why don’t you go ahead and tell us all about the new U.S. Defense Department report on China’s military buildup?

MK: I’m happy to begin. The headline news was that China could increase its nuclear warheads from the low 200s to 1,000 by 2030. In recent months, the Defense Department had said China could double—or even triple or quadruple—its arsenal within the decade. Some dismissed these predictions as alarmist, but the new report essentially says China’s arsenal will now quintuple in this time period. It goes to show that China’s nuclear buildup is proceeding even more aggressively than the Pentagon expected just a few months ago.

EA: There are two big pieces to this report. The first, which is getting all the headlines, is the capabilities piece, which has focused primarily on the nuclear issue. You’re right that the buildup is faster than expected and is something we should undoubtedly watch closely, though I’m not sure there’s a qualitative difference in China having 500 nuclear weapons or 700 or even 1,000. Once we’re locked into mutual deterrence, numbers matter less than posture and specific capabilities. That was the central insight that allowed the United States and Soviet Union to mutually lower their arsenals in the late Cold War period.

But the second part of the report was on intentions, and I thought that was more interesting. The report asserts that China is trying to displace the United States from Asia and sees U.S. alliances as incompatible with its own preferred regional order. The rationale seems to be that China sees the United States as trying to constrain or contain its rise. I find that to be more concerning than the capabilities piece, to be honest, as it suggests a strong potential for misunderstandings and miscommunications that could lead to conflict.

MK: The problem is not misunderstanding—Washington and Beijing understand each other quite well. China wants to dominate the region, and the United States and its allies and partners don’t want to be dominated.

The question then becomes one of strength. Can Washington and its allies build a military strategy and capabilities that will deter Chinese aggression? My timing was impeccable, and it just so happens that the same day the Pentagon report was released, I published a new Atlantic Council report, “Deterring Chinese Strategic Attack,” in which I outline a strategy and the capabilities needed to keep China at bay.

Beijing thinks the United States is trying to contain it because modernization and assertiveness are perceived as threatening. That’s a classic security spiral and security spirals are a leading cause of war.

EA: Congrats on the report! But I think you’re wrong about misunderstandings. If the Defense Department report is right, then China is modernizing and becoming more assertive because Beijing thinks the United States is trying to contain it—and that Washington is trying to contain it because its modernization and assertiveness are perceived as threatening. That’s a classic security spiral: the idea that a U.S. military buildup might make China nervous, so it starts a military buildup that makes the United States even more nervous, so it adds some more military assets, etc. Security spirals are a leading cause of war.

I’m not sure that taking the steps you outline in your report—from ending the United States’ strategic autonomy approach to Taiwan (i.e., making a concrete commitment to defend the island) to improving U.S. capabilities in East Asia—will do anything to unwind the spiral.

MK: What does it mean to “contain” China? If you mean that Washington wants to deter Beijing from taking armed aggression against its neighbors, then you are darn right that the United States should want to contain it.

If China has no intention of projecting military force against its neighbors, then it has nothing to worry about.

EA: Except, historically, that’s not how most great powers have interpreted similar moves. The best-known example of a security spiral was the British and German naval buildups that helped precipitate World War I.

MK: This goes to show that many U.S. foreign-policy debates revolve around whether analysts think the “deterrence model” or the “spiral model” better explains the world. As you’ll recall, according to theory, the difference depends on whether one thinks the adversary is a security-seeking or revisionist power. I think China is a revisionist power, and Xi apparently agrees with me every time he talks about taking back Taiwan, with force if necessary. If that is right, then the deterrence model holds, and a U.S. and allied buildup leads to peace.

EA: If you’re wrong, we’ll all die in a nuclear fireball.

MK: If you’re wrong, we’ll all die in a nuclear fireball! Harrumph. Well, at least we agree the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Emma Ashford is a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Twitter: @EmmaMAshford

Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Twitter: @matthewkroenig

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