The View From Here

The View From Here: Peace on Earth Through Constructive Engagement

Written by: developer

If GE’s strategy of investment in China is wrong, it represents a loss of a billion dollars, perhaps a couple of billion dollars. If it is right, it is the future of this company for the next century. —
Jack Welch

Most people I know would agree that Jack Welch is no dummy. In an era when short-term profit-taking and the mindless myopic quarter-to-quarter demands of Wall Street are sparking protests and riots across the country, how noteworthy is it to see an American company taking a century-long approach to its strategies? Surely, that is something we thought only the Japanese could do.

If GE, the company, can have a China strategy, how is it possible that the United States, the country, cannot have one?

I ponder these things as 2011 draws to a close for two reasons: First, the Space Foundation has just returned from leading a small industry trade delegation on a visit to both government and commercial space enterprises in Beijing and Shanghai (to read about it, click here), and we are once again struck with how many barriers the U.S. government has erected to frank, honest and transparent collaboration in space endeavors with China. Second, it is that time of year when it is socially acceptable to talk about Peace on Earth; one wonders how much closer humanity might be to that goal if the U.S. and China were engaged in meaningful, transformational dialogues, exchanges and collaborations.

One of the big reasons I believe our two nations remain unnecessarily estranged is the political divisiveness and rancor that seems to characterize all aspects of American life these days. The Administration, to its credit, has tried to engage with China at the very highest levels, with Presidents Hu and Obama meeting in Beijing in 2009, Washington, D.C., in 2010 and Honolulu last month. The Congress, to its discredit, has erected barrier upon barrier to the administration implementing bridge-building enterprises such as NASA-CMSEO collaboration in human spaceflight. At the same time, the Congress, to its credit, has held the administration’s feet to the fire over the planned joint NASA-ESA Mars Sample Return Mission, which the National Academy of Sciences selected as its most important space exploration mission of the next decade. The administration, to its discredit, has withheld support for the collaboration (despite a written agreement on the program signed by both NASA and ESA), and whittled away at the program in clandestine maneuvering within the Office of Management and Budget.

It is unclear from moment to moment, program to program, whether the United States supports the idea and ideals of international collaboration in space. And if, as in the case of the Mars Sample Return Mission, we can behave so capriciously toward our closest allies, is it any wonder we appear schizophrenic to others?

Going back to GE for a moment, it is clear that the company understands how it perceives China, and how that perception drives its strategies for engagement. From the GE web site: China is the world’s fastest growing market and an important feature of our changing economic and environmental landscape. Growing our business in China depends upon our continued leadership in technology, environmental concerns and best business practices.

If only we had such a concise statement about America’s China strategy, and if only the administrative and legislative branches could agree upon it.

The future of the United States, indeed of the entire world, is inextricably intertwined with that of China. There is no turning back the clock; that reality lies behind us. What lies before us is the opportunity to leverage our interdependence for the betterment of both countries, and, indeed, the world.

What that requires is engagement, not estrangement. If we’re smart, we’ll learn from history and our own experience. We’ve tried the “isolate and ostracize” approach with Cuba, and we somehow manage to blithely cling to it despite a half-century of failure. We engaged and normalized with the former Soviet Union, a process notably launched with a space collaboration called Apollo-Soyuz; our relationship with the Russia is vastly stronger and more productive because of it.

It shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the Cuba strategy won’t work with China, the most populous nation in the world, any better than it did with Castro’s small banana dictatorship. And because of China’s prominent place in the global economy, she is fundamentally different from the old Soviet Union. Our strategy must be to engage with China as openly as possible and on every possible front, including – and perhaps led by – collaboration in space.

I’m not blind to the many objections to such an approach. While some of those objections may be legitimate, most, I find, to be fear-based: fear of the unknown (What? In the space industry?); fear of appearing weak or willing to compromise in our binary, win-lose political environment; fear of the implications of acknowledging Chinese strengths and American weaknesses; fear of losing the “bully pulpit” that being a “Dragon Slayer” gives you (there is no easier way to appear patriotic than to wrap yourself in Old Glory and rail against a foreign threat).

While seldom talked about, I think there’s also a fair amount of “China envy” percolating just beneath the surface, mixed with an unhealthy dose of repressed recrimination for our own, politically driven inadequacies:

  • No longer do all the “firsts,” “bests” and “biggest” belong to the United States. To borrow a phrase, this is an “inconvenient truth” that many people simply don’t wish to acknowledge. The tallest buildings, the biggest civil engineering projects, the fastest trains, the latest consumer electronics are now things that are associated with China, not the U.S. This is both to China’s credit, and to our discredit. If we don’t like it, we can work to change it, but ignoring it and disengaging from it won’t make it go away. Denial, as my 12-step friends would say, is not a river in Egypt.
  • Complaints about China being “unfair” in its economic policies may or may not have merit, but they are not credible so long as our own government refuses to balance its own checkbook, or even adhere to the most basic financial checks and balances. We have allowed ourselves to become China’s largest debtor, and this is not a position from which to issue morality-based economic edicts. We complain about China’s exports while we prevent our largest export industry – aerospace – from exporting to China.
  • We do not command the moral high ground when it comes to human rights issues. While we fear that China may one day invade Taiwan, it is not China that is invading other nations and waging war in lands far from its shores. Justifiable or not, that distinction would belong to the United States and its allies. And, until we adequately redress the grievances of Native Americans and Native Hawaiians – whose lands and nations were forcibly seized and annexed by the United States – we cannot credibly challenge China’s actions in Tibet or its intentions in Taiwan. Hypocrisy carries no clout.
  • Rants about China’s activities in cyberspace, while serious and of great concern, must also be taken with a grain of salt to be put in proper perspective. To some extent the finger-pointing is fueled by the frustration among U.S. cyber warriors about the lack of policies and authorities needed to operate in the cyber domain; other nations, including China, are not so constrained. Meanwhile as we decry Internet censorship, social media sites here at home are blowing the whistle daily on subtle moves within the U.S. to censor, edit or exercise prior restraint in the cybersphere.

Each of these subjects would easily fill volumes, so I beg your forgiveness for only touching upon them here. I highlight them to ask, simply, that we consider whether or not some of our public angst and chest-beating is, intentionally or subliminally, a manner of deflecting attention from our own faults, frustrations and inadequacies?

Time and again, peaceful collaboration in the exploration and development of space has proven to be a powerful, effective impetus for getting the great nations of the world to work together for the common good, building friendships, programs, and institutional structures that benefit all the nations involved. I have already mentioned the Apollo-Soyuz program. Other obvious programs include the Shuttle-Mir program and the 16-nation International Space Station program. Numerous less-glamorous collaborations, such as the GEOSS program and the global SARSAT system, abound.

I am not a Pollyanna in regards to the security issues involved. They are real, they are challenging – and they are manageable. Real security will come, however, from having productive and professional personal and institutional relationships. It will come from engagement and some level of mutual trust, no matter how tentative at first.

In Counter-Space: The Next Hours of World War III1, the U.S. and China narrowly avert going to war after North Korea detonates a nuclear weapon at the edge of space – damaging the space assets of both countries. While the book is a work of fiction, it reads like today’s headlines and has been crafted by knowledgeable, savvy journalists with impeccable sources. It is a compelling book.

In the story, after a series of failed “fail safes,” the U.S. is unable to recall a B2 bomber, which drops a pair of JDAMs on a military site outside Beijing. What prevents China from retaliating are several personal relationships – between U.S. and Chinese military commands, individual commanders and, finally, between the presidents of the two nations. A global calamity is averted, not through technology, but through personal and institutional relationships, mutual respect and trust.

That is the point of crafting a more mature and enlightened approach to our relationships with other nations – knowing whom to call and having a relationship of mutual understanding and respect with the person who answers. It doesn’t mean we’re always going to agree with each other; it just means we’ll be far less likely to do something stupid.

This is important as China – and many other nations, such as India – grow in stature and influence.

As 2011 winds to a close, we can reflect upon the many difficulties we have faced in the space industry and the many near-disasters we’ve skirted in the global economy – or we can look toward the future. China will certainly be a part of that future, whether we actively engage or just sit back and watch.

The View from Here is that Peace on Earth, in this or any season, depends upon good people, actively engaging, for mutual benefit.

May this holiday season bring peace, love, compassion and kindness to all.


1Counter-Space: The Next Hours of World War III is by William B. Scott, Michael J. Coumatos and William J. Birnes. © 2009. Forge Books. 


This article is part of Space Watch: December 2011 (Volume: 10, Issue: 12).