Book Review: The Decisive Decade by Jonathan Ward
This is part 1 of 2 of this book review. The second part will be a podcast episode released in the next couple of weeks!
Genre: Political Science
General rating: 2.5/5
Accessibility rating: 4/5
Study/research rating: 2/5
Recommended for: A general audience interested in China-US relations, particularly from a US perspective.
The Decisive Decade is a new book* by Dr Jonathan D.T. Ward, a China scholar and founder of the Atlas Organization, a consultancy focused on US-China global competition. He has authored another book on China’s Vision of Victory, released in 2019, which covers the long-term global political and economic strategy of the Chinese Communist Party. This new book seems to be a response to the first.
The subtitle reads ‘American Grand Strategy for Triumph Over China’, and the book is addressed to “My fellow Americans: May you come to see your importance in the World”, which really tells you all you need to know about the aims and intentions of the book. It should be read with this in mind - the author is clearly a nationalist and believes in US supremacy in global affairs. As far as possible, I try to evaluate the book based on its content, namely how well it succeeds in laying out a competent strategy that will allow the US to prevail over China in multiple arenas. I may not agree with the author's ultimate goal or belief system, but the tone is only one aspect of what makes a book enjoyable to read or successful in its aim.
The book is divided into four different sections: Economics, Diplomacy, Military and Ideas. The author attempts to lay out a strategic plan for each arena to varying degrees of success. For Ward, the 2020s are the decisive period in which the US must defeat China, or else lose out on global leadership for the foreseeable future. Personally, the two sections on diplomacy and the military seem to be the most well-thought-out to me, and seem to be the author’s strong suit. The section on economics seemed fairly shallow, and I felt it was a shame that he led with this part, and also chose to close with the weakest section on the battle of ideas and ideologies.
The book is hot off the press - the first paragraph of the first chapter talks about the current Russia-Ukraine War. As both China and the US are at a critical turning point, and more and more works and articles are being released about the possibility of China lashing out now that it’s reached its ‘peak’, it is a timely piece. This review covers the first two sections on Economics and Diplomacy. The final two sections will be reviewed in an upcoming episode of the podcast, so stay tuned!
Sinobabble is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Part 1: The Economic Arena
This section is divided into two pillars. The first focuses on the economic containment of China and the second focuses on rebuilding America’s supply chains and industrial bases. The overall idea is that the US and its allies are currently overly dependent on China for business, supply chains, and imports, and so both private businesses and governments need to work to pull out of China and build links among friendly democratic countries. He outlines well how China’s economy has grown, how its state-owned and private businesses are closely integrated into the CCP’s overall strategy, and how initiatives like the Belt and Road (BRI) bring other nations into China’s sphere of influence by making them more reliant on China’s import and export markets.
Western businesses, particularly US conglomerates, have contributed enormously to China’s economic growth, which of course they are free to do. However, he argues the global economy is a battlefield, and “American corporate exposure and involvement in China is creating risks and perils to the United States and to global stability.” The time for free expansion, it seems, is over. Though he criticises the autocratic and centralised nature of China’s economy, private US firms, it seems, must give up any advantage they see in the Chinese market for the greater good of US supremacy.
The author seems extremely confident in the US economy and its ability to survive and even thrive without Chinese involvement. Personally, I feel that both countries would suffer with a sudden pull-out, but how would the US recover from a sudden increase in the price of steel if they’re not buying it from China? Would Americans feel comfortable with even further inflation caused by an increase in the price of consumer goods made outside of China? How much would it actually cost to rebuild the US’ manufacturing base from scratch? Where would the raw materials come from? I feel like there are a lot of pronouncements and commandments in this books, but no facts, figures, or detailed plans to show that the US would be able to survive a disentanglement from China.
“The most important task of American grand strategy must be to ensure that we remain the world’s leading, and yes, largest economy.”
In general I found this section to be quite repetitive. It certainly dawdles in places that could have been covered quite briefly, and reuses phrases and ideas, for example the fact that China’s rise has mainly been due to the US’ input, or that the US government should restrict American firms’ access to the China market. Some sentences are so useless they could have been removed altogether: “What will be necessary is the cooperation of US industry and business leaders to forge a new vision for American prosperity, and to let go of our false hopes about China, its market, and its place in the global economy altogether.”
This section boils down to the following: pull American companies out of China; create new supply chains with allied nations and democratic developing countries; rebuild US industry with a focus on 4th industrial revolution products like AI and 5G. I feel like if I can summarise your entire argument in three bullet points, then it’s probably not been expanded on well enough. Or perhaps it doesn’t require 200 pages of expansion? In some places it feels like it was written by a consultancy; there’s a lot of pointing in the general direction of where the US has to go, but no roadmap of how to get there. Pointing out that China is a threat and the US should do something about it is not the same thing as having a strategy for defeating an enemy. The author does a good job of diagnosing the US’ problems and highlighting key points, but recapping recent historical events and dwelling on the Cold War does not feel particularly forward-thinking. My advice would be to stop thinking generally, and take out pointless sentences that add no substance like: “US government backing can lower the cost of capital for companies and financial institutions to invest in key technologies and strategic industries inside the US and across the Alliance System.”
Something else that bothers me throughout the book is the use of excessively long quotes. Quotes from senior political figures or academic thinkers can go on for a paragraph or more - some can last up to a whole page! This is probably just a pet peeve of mine, but the former teacher in me is screaming that if you can’t put it in your own words, then don’t put it in the essay. After all we’re here to read what you have to say, not Barack Obama.
Part 2: The Diplomatic Arena
This section covers how and why the US should remain the world’s foremost superpower through the use of diplomacy: “our second main goal…must be to unite the world’s democracies in common cause to prevail in geopolitical competition with China.” The focus on democracies is prevalent throughout - any country that doesn’t align specifically with the US’ vision of a functional system of government is squarely ignored, even though this leaves out around half the world’s countries who for their own reasons may be more aligned with the west than China.
He explains that China is using debt trap diplomacy (I say explains, but ‘says’ is probably a better word), and that the US and its allies must position themselves as having something better to offer than China. He admits that China is helping emerging economies to develop, and this is a role that the US should take on. But only for markets that are “strategically important”. And then only to ensure that “our companies - not China’s state-owned and state-backed enterprises - are the most successful in the world’s emerging markets.”
A problem that I feel developed in the first section but is truly apparent here is the willingness of the author to reduce other sovereign nations and peoples to chess pieces to be manipulated in America’s strategic game. It doesn’t help that the first chapter of section two is called “Our Global Chessboard” (emphasis mine). One would expect a book like this to be US-centric, but there’s a difference between prioritising the needs of the US and subjugating the needs of everyone else. It comes off as arrogant and dismissive, and this was after I had already accepted that this was going to be a patriotic book attempting to rouse decision makers to action. Here are some actual lines from the book:
“The combination of anchor states and vital smaller states must for the framework for American and Allied diplomacy”
“The US Alliance System… carries with it the genius of an American geopolitical worldview that resulted in relative stability and security… also known as the Pax Americana or the American Peace.”
“We must work to limit China’s reach to all places but those that are deliberately abandoned.”
The neo-colonialism is thinly veiled at best, and to be honest I’m not sure if the author doesn’t realise what he’s doing here, or if he simply doesn’t care. None of the actions he proposes are for the benefit of the countries in question, but are solely aimed at Chinese containment and improving US and western influence in developing regions.
The self-aggrandisement of US commentators never ceases to amaze me either (see a recent podcast I did about Peter Zeihan’s commentary on US-China relations). Ironically, the more I read the more I felt that the author’s vision of the US was much in line with how Chinese leaders think about their own country and its place in the world. The tone of writing was not dissimilar to the lofty, self-involved tweets common among Chinese diplomats. This line in particular made it difficult for me to take the rest of the book seriously:
“Successful American diplomacy will require a Herculean effort to unify and organize an enormous and diverse portion of humanity. It may be the most challenging diplomatic effort in world history. In this context, our next generation of great diplomats will be formed.”
I think if you’re into this sort of thing, this type of language will really hit home. But for me personally, it missed the mark entirely. I don’t believe that because a country/kingdom/empire has been successful in the past that they deserve to continue to be the most dominant power on the scene. Every nation has its time in the sun, but that time always comes to an end, and often more swiftly than that country would like (take it from a Brit with a colonial background).
There was some actual strategy in this section however, unlike the first section. So that’s something. However, overall it was still too vague as to how the US should actually go about incorporating other nations and their own strategic goals into their vision. Statements like the US should bring “African nations into the wealth and power of the Allied World, and away from the predatory offerings of the Chinese Communist Party” are all well and good, but how? (This question doesn’t get answered by the way, maybe that’s in the next book).
Perhaps I was expecting too much from the use of the word ‘grand’ in the title, but for me there was something missing from this book that made it lack impact. It doesn’t become apparent till later in the book, but all the arenas are interlinked - the US cannot win unless they succeed in linking their economic strategy to their diplomatic and military strategies. It’s a shame that this isn’t made explicit from the start, especially as the divisions sometimes seem forced and arbitrary. I feel like the book could have been organised differently, perhaps by time period (e.g. historic overview, present situation, short-term and long-term plans, desired outcomes), and then perhaps it would have felt less repetitive.
In general, I think this author has a very good understanding of Chinese strategy, capabilities, and long-term political goals. However, I think he is less clear about the US on these points, and this is where his analysis and planning falls down. Without a clear understanding of what resources the US has at its disposal, it’s impossible to formulate an actual strategy, one with depth, step-by-step actions, and contingencies baked in. The famous quote by Sun Tzu goes:
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
But what if you only know the enemy, and not yourself? This, I fear, is the question both the author and the reader are left with.
*I was kindly sent an advanced review copy of this book from the author’s publicist Smith Publicity.
Sinobabble Extended Universe