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The United States, China, and Strategic Thinking

by Josh Kerbel

The China-Taiwan conflict has currently receded from the forefront of global threats to peace and stability. This provides an opportunity for the United States to broaden its perspective and to build better long-term relations with China; but, this essay argues, the two countries’ fundamentally differing strategic mindsets makes this extremely difficult. – Ed.

Summary: The United States and China “think differently.” Although this assertion is readily acknowledged by most U.S. strategists, it also seems to get just as quickly discounted. While the reasons for this discount are debatable, the result is not: The differences rarely get explicated and/or considered in terms of how they comparatively manifest themselves in each country’s strategic mindset. This article sketches out some of those key differences and argues that China’s more “synthetic” mindset – vice America’s more “analytic” one – appears to be better suited to an increasingly synthetic (complex, interconnected, and interdependent) international system. In turn, it argues that the United States would probably do well to begin the admittedly hard task of fostering its own more synthetic worldview.

The calming of the China-Taiwan issue in the wake of the March 2008 presidential election on Taiwan is, in several ways, a strategic gift to the United States. Most obviously, it is a gift because it means the probable cooling of what may be the most likely flashpoint for a potential U.S.-China military clash. Less obviously but more interestingly, however, it is a gift because it affords the United States an opportunity to widen its aperture from what is essentially an operational-level issue – a potential cross-strait crisis/conflict – and to look at Asia and beyond in broader strategic terms. Finally, it is an opportunity, in a much broader sense, because it could conceivably catalyze the United States to stop lasering from one specific issue to the next at the expense of ever developing a “bigger-picture” perspective. That is the good news.

The bad news, however, is that the United States may well prove incapable of capitalizing on this opportunity. There are numerous reasons one might point to in support of this assertion, but the most fundamental is that the world is growing steadily more “complex” (interrelated, interdependent, and integrated) and requires a commensurately complex mindset – a mindset that most U.S. strategists1 appear to lack. And, as if that were not bad enough, it actually gets worse. For China, in contrast, does seem to possess a comparatively complex strategic mindset. Taken together, these assertions lead to a troubling question: Considering the interconnected nature of the emerging international environment, might China have a “cognitive” advantage?

Do the United States and China really “think differently”?

Before one can seriously consider the above provocations, one must first consider whether the United States and China really do “think differently,” and if so, how. In general, the notion that they do is neither new nor particularly controversial. For instance, the University of Michigan psychologist Richard Nisbett has extensively explored the cognitive differences between Asians and Westerners and found that, “The collective or interdependent nature of Asian society is consistent with Asians’ broad, contextual view of the world and their belief that events are highly complex and determined by many factors.” In contrast, he wrote, “The individualistic or independent nature of Western society seems consistent with the Western focus on particular objects in isolation from their context…”2

Rarely, however, are these contextual inclinations considered specifically in terms of what they mean for China’s strategic thinking – how China conceives of, and consequently deals with, the international system. And even when they are, the consideration often only goes so far as to encapsulate these Chinese biases in some pithy little axioms – “China has a longer-term perspective” or “China emphasizes winning without fighting” being prime examples – which are then just as often set aside and ignored.

The reasons for this dismissal vary. Sometimes it seems these axioms get discounted as mere by-products of circumstance – as an inadvertent relic of a long history in the case of the former or as an expedient adaptation to a periodic deficiency (military weakness) in the case of the latter – as opposed to being considered as the products of deeply ingrained cognitive biases or preferences.  More usually, however, the dismissal seems to involve even less thought and results from an almost reflexive but fundamental misunderstanding about the influence of Confucianism. That is to say, there appears to be a general sense among many U.S. strategists that Confucianism’s primary legacy has been a mechanistic and hierarchical mental rigidity that actually impedes China’s ability to think contextually, and thus, differently.3

Whatever the reasoning behind the dismissal, the result is the same: The various axioms have become little more than clichés and any cognitive divide they suggest gets minimized.4 Consequently, U.S. strategists end up “mirror-imaging” and China, the thinking goes, ends-up not thinking so differently after all. This is a real problem.
For should this mirror-imaging continue, American strategists will also continue to miss what is actually the greatest influence – and difference – that Confucianism imprints on China’s thinking: an innate understanding that the essence of any complex system is rooted in the relationships between a system’s components and not the components themselves.

In strategic terms, this translates into a China that truly does conceive of international relations contextually, as a complex system of direct and indirect relationships, with much less emphasis on considering individual components (e.g., nations, leaders, etc.) or functional issues (e.g., economics, military, etc.) in neat categorical vacuums. Such a perception is, in fact, significantly different from the prevailing U.S. perspective, which is highly “reductionist” or “analytic.” In other words, China’s mental approach to the world is distinctly – in a word – “synthetic.”

What does a synthetic mindset look like?

In order to ensure that this “synthetic” notion does not just get bundled into another axiomatic cliché – “China thinks synthetically” – that can then be just as quickly discarded, it is necessary to consider how it actually manifests itself in Chinese strategic thought. Essentially, it does so in four interrelated ways. These include: 1) a “holistic” perspective of the international environment; 2) an appreciation for the significance of indirect relationships, diffuse feedback loops, and unintended consequences; 3) an awareness of the unique nature of circumstances/conditions at any particular moment; and 4) an understanding of the importance of timing.

A “holistic” worldview.  Perhaps one of the best manifestations of China’s holistic perspective is the measure that it refers to as “comprehensive national power” (CNP). CNP is a broad measure, derived from the interplay of a complex web of variables that can include such disparate measures as life expectancy, literacy rates, cement output, cotton production, gold reserves, heath care expenditures/person, etc., that China “computes” as a way of figuring out its relative geopolitical power within the global system.5 While undoubtedly dubious as a quantitative calculation, CNP is more suggestive – and interesting – as a qualitative measure. In particular, CNP reveals the complex relationships that China perceives between factors, including many that in the West would not be considered especially relevant, if at all, to international affairs.

Attentiveness to indirect relationships, diffuse feedback loops, and unintended consequences.  One of the most interesting things about CNP is that the variables taken into account are often not easily (i.e., directly) related to one another – one often has to go down a diffuse web of causal chains and multiple feedback loops in order to see the connections. Another (timely) example might be China’s perspective on the Beijing Olympics, which instead of focusing excessively on the first order effects of “announcing” China’s reemergence as a great power, also gave significant thought to potential secondary and tertiary effects. For instance, China gave considerable consideration beforehand to the possibility that expressions of nationalistic fervor that would inevitably accompany the games could, however unintentionally, spark civil unrest and/or suggest to other nations that China was itching for a fight.

Awareness of the unique nature of circumstances/conditions at any particular moment. Chinese strategic writings from SunZi through Mao have long reflected a clear appreciation for the importance of appropriate conditions. That is to say, strategic deliberations tend to recognize that any particular policy, no matter how clever, will only prove effective if the conditions are ripe. This in turn leads the Chinese to be cautious about the application of historical analogies to current challenges. That is not to say they don’t make such analogies – they do – only that they tend to be careful to acknowledge the circumstantial differences as much as the similarities. Not surprisingly then, China seems not to have a single historical analogy – think “Munich/appeasement” in the West – that it consistently shoehorns very different events into, and which is then used to practically dictate the appropriate, and already established, policy response.

Appreciation for the importance of timing – and patience. The corollary to the Chinese concern with ripe conditions is a supreme consciousness of the importance of timing and a willingness to try and foster, and yet wait for, the decisive moment. Consequently, what the West might perceive as an unrealistic passivity, the Chinese are inclined to see as a virtuous patience. Moreover, this sensitivity to timing tends to provide China with a certain willingness to be more or less satisfied with trends being positive (i.e., moving toward certain favorable conditions) vice the need for more immediately acceptable outcomes. Probably no better example of this exists than Mao’s pronouncement about being able to wait indefinitely for Taiwan’s reunification, assuming the conditions were becoming more, and not less, favorable.

In sum, China’s perspective is highly nonlinear. It conceives of the world as a living organism with all the messiness, unpredictability, and uncertainty inherent in living systems. It is a conception that accepts the inseparability of system components and unavoidable complexity. It is a perspective that promotes an expectation of synergistic dynamics; assumes multiple outcomes, side-effects, and unintended consequences; anticipates discontinuous behavioral dynamics; and emphasizes emerging conditions vice immediate actions. In essence, it is a perspective that conceives of the international system in organic terms and is most effectively understood and dealt with via synthetic thinking and approaches.

How does it contrast with our own Newtonian/analytic mindset?

In stark contrast to the predominantly Confucian-influenced perspective explicated above, the American perspective is decidedly Newtonian/Aristotelian in nature. That is to say, it is a reductionist mindset that focuses on clear and identifiable cause-and-effect dynamics, accepts that system dynamics repeat themselves, and is often action-oriented vice time-sensitive.

First, rather than focus on the relationships between system components, the American perspective tends to focus on the system’s components/elements themselves, often in a vacuum. Thus, American strategists will often steadily disaggregate and reduce issues in the belief that once they develop a fundamental understanding of the system’s “building-blocks,” they can then aggregate them and understand the system as a whole. While such an approach might work well for a mechanical system, it works much less well for an organic system – like the international system – which is fundamentally synergistic and ecological in nature. No better example of this cognitive approach exists than the distinctly American conception of the “DIME” (Diplomatic; Information; Military; Economic), where these elements often get considered in distinct categorical “stove-pipes” and only then considered – almost always as an afterthought if at all – in the aggregate.

Second, to the extent that American foreign policy does focus on relationships, the emphasis is usually on direct/first-order ones. This, of course, is very consistent with a mental construct that is built around direct/linear causal chains and which minimizes or fences off any focus on alternative feedback loops, especially ones that might lead to other than preferred outcomes. Prime examples of this cognitive tendency include the failure to think beyond the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein that subsequently resulted in the rise of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, and the emergence of the Iraqi insurgency, respectively.

A third aspect of America’s mindset that contrasts with China’s is the notion that history “repeats itself.” That is to say, Westerners love to look for historical analogies – again with “Munich/appeasement” being the favorite (and most abused) – that can be used as templates for current policy and events. And as usefully instructive as that can be, it can also be dangerous, since for all the similarities in conditions/circumstances that may exist, the differences, which tend to get ignored, are often greater and more significant.  Overall, historical analogies, if applied too rigidly, can serve to close off and not open up new options and avenues for policymakers and policy, and can be significant inhibitors of strategic thought.

Finally, since so much American national security thinking tends to emphasize finding the “right” policy vice cultivating and then capitalizing on ripe conditions, timing is often dismissed. In particular, U.S. foreign policy thinking often seems to take form in a temporal vacuum that assumes that it is the policy, and not the timing and its corresponding concern with susceptible conditions, which is the crucial variable. Thus, any policy – if it is “good” – will result in the preferred system response. Given this, Americans tend to judge a policy’s success relatively quickly; and thus, perhaps not surprisingly, patience, as has often been said, is not a particularly American virtue.

In comparison with the previously outlined Chinese perspective, the American perspective is decidedly more linear. It tends to conceive of the world as a machine with all the precision and manipulability – indeed certainty – that such a conception denotes. It is a conception that allows for simplification and manageability. It is a perspective that promotes the disaggregation of challenges; believes in the possibility of single outcomes; encourages extrapolation (in the belief that the system will probably behave tomorrow in a fashion very similar to yesterday); and emphasizes actions linked to distinct trends. In essence, it is a perspective that conceives of the international system in mechanical terms (inertia; momentum; tension; leverage, etc.) that can be effectively grasped and dealt with via analytical thinking and approaches.

Strategic Thinking and Thinkers Needed

Overall, the two contrasting strategic perspectives sketched out above are very different and portend very different approaches to the international system. Henry Kissinger illustrated this in a very interesting way by comparing chess and weiqi (more commonly known in the West by its Japanese name, go), the preeminent intellectual games of strategy in the West and East respectively. Kissinger noted that “Chess has only two outcomes: draw and checkmate. The objective of the game is absolute advantage – that is to say, its outcome is total victory or defeat – and the battle is conducted head-on, in the center of the board. The aim of go is relative advantage; the game is played all over the board, and the objective is to increase one’s options and reduce those of the adversary. The goal is less victory than persistent strategic progress.”6

Of course, the United States could just continue to think like it is “playing” chess. After all, an argument could certainly be made that it has thus far played international chess pretty well and to good end. Moreover, while it may not be strategically elegant – it is distinctly curative vice preventative and direct vice oblique – it does offer the United States the advantage of playing to its own strengths (operational crisis management). On the other hand, however, it also offers significant disadvantages, the most apparent being that constant crisis management is not only exhausting but also presents very limited maneuver space or room for error.

A wiser approach, then, might be for the United States to finally try adjusting its own mindset so as to accommodate or incorporate at least some of the elements of the Chinese perspective. On the one hand, such an effort might permit the United States to reset its economic and military “positions” without necessarily going on the strategic defensive or giving up “forward strategic progress.” Moreover, such an effort would just seem to make a lot of sense since the Chinese perspective may well be better suited to an emerging world that is increasingly complex – again, integrated, interconnected, and interdependent.

Admittedly, this will not be easy since the U.S. national security establishment – not just cognitively, but also organizationally – is simply not arrayed for a complex world. That is to say, it is a national security establishment that was structured for the highly linear – complicated but certainly not complex – Cold War, and which despite the Cold War’s end, has not been substantially changed. For instance, in terms of personnel it will be necessary for the United States to develop (educate, recruit, and train) a cadre of individuals that can not only analyze (using the available evidence) the international environment but who can also synthesize (i.e., hypothesize/imagine) multiple pathways and outcomes. As for the national security establishment’s bureaucratic structure, which remains organized along linear Cold War lines, it will be necessary to re-conceive it along lines more conducive to real coordination or, again, synthesis. Undoubtedly, there are many more implications for the U.S. government, but if there is an across-the-board theme, it seems to be that the United States must learn to think, and consequently act, in more complex, nonlinear, … synthetic terms.

Wrapping Up

To wrap up, it is worth coming back to the Taiwan issue that started off this article, for no issue seems to better embody and illustrate the cognitive challenge that confronts America. In particular – and to borrow language from the complexity theorist in the movie Jurassic Park – it often seems that U.S. strategists have been so busy thinking about “could” the United States successfully intervene in a Taiwan crisis that they have seemingly neglected to think much about “should’ it intervene. Could the United States successfully intervene, of course, is a largely operational-level question that analytically reduces the problem to what is essentially a single issue: military capability. In contrast, the question of should the United States intervene is a much more synthetic – indeed, strategic – question that inevitably includes a much more complex interplay of factors that range far beyond the purely military.

And there it is in a nutshell: Given the choice between asking itself questions of an operational nature vice strategic ones, the United States tends to cognitively default to the former. This pattern, of course, ought not to be surprising, since strategic thinking and synthetic thinking are essentially the same thing. That said, however, it is a pattern that remains more than a little troubling, and consequently, it is one to which that the United States will hopefully give renewed consideration.End.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not imply endorsement by the ODNI or any other U.S. government agency.

1. This article uses the term “strategists” as a loose catch-all for the panoply of individuals—professional, academic, journalistic, and even “armchair”—who are actively engaged in commenting on, and thus influencing, the direction of a country’s broader (i.e., global) policy.

2. Richard Nisbett, The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why, (New York: The Free Press, 2003)

3. The notion that China has a mechanical/hierarchical mindset tends to get reinforced by its apparent clumsiness in managing international crises, as well as the lingering Marxist-Leninist veneer that often encases official Chinese communications. Additionally, the notion that China’s thinking is increasingly similar to our own tends to get reinforced by the fact that many Western-educated Chinese are now returning to China.

4. In fact, although the usual intent in mentioning the axioms at all is to acknowledge—and perhaps suggest deference to—the uniqueness of Chinese thinking, their almost automatic dismissal seemingly belies that intent.

5. Michael Pillsbury, China Debates the Future Security Environment, (Washington: National Defense University Press, 2000)

6. Henry Kissinger, “America’s Assignment,” Newsweek, November 8, 2004

Josh Kerbel works in the research arm of the National Intelligence University, in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). Previously he was an intelligence analyst – substantively focused on Asia where he once lived – for the Navy and the Central Intelligence Agency.


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