The logic of war is pretty simple: you win by doing more damage to your enemies than they can stand, until they quit.
It’s a logic Donald Trump learned from his father and has applied consistently through his life, from days as an underachieving boarding school student to his presidency. You win by hiring people to go to war for you, to hurt your opponent beyond their endurance, until they sign a deal that favors you.
In war, both sides proceed from this destructive logic, and do a lot of damage, short and long term, to property and people. Which is why another principle of strategic planning for war is pick your opponents very carefully. Only make war against enemies you’re pretty sure you can beat.
As a serial business battler, Donald Trump usually found adversaries who couldn’t match his political connections or his mob connections or his endless stream of attack-dog attorneys or his endless access to some form of financial support. And almost all of them lost in the end.
Do not let the absence – thank God! – of bombs and missiles, bullets and shells fool you. When it comes to the logic of winning, “trade war” is no metaphor, it is trade defined by the mentality of war: you win by breaking more things than your enemy can stand.
In trade wars as in real wars, it is wise to stay out of wars you’re not sure you can win. This is a life-long principle Trump seems to have abandoned in declaring and pursuing a “trade war” with China.
As he ratchets up his tariff salvos, he credits himself for hurting the Chinese economy, and exudes confidence that Xi Jinping will blink first.
As if a preponderance of damage done is all that matters. There’s the question of accepting damage to attain final victory. Most of Trump’s legal and business fights were with people, corporations, government agencies with neither the time, money, or equally predatory will to outlast, much less do much damage to him and his.
In the trade war he picked with China, whatever difference there may be between the sides in their abilities to do damage to the other, they don’t seem to be decisive.
It’s on the other side of the equation, accepting damage, that China has all the advantages. The Chinese people, still emerging from generations of terrible poverty, are blessed with low expectations. Even the most incremental advances are satisfying to them.
The American people have grown used to something better, have grown to expect things to get demonstrably better, faster than the Chinese. And, Chinese awareness of economic damage done, political mistakes made, is far more controlled, far less informed than in America.
Losses from the trade war will not only create a bigger itch in America’s free market for information than in media-suppressed China, they will do so to a population far more inclined than China’s to vigorously scratch.
And this disparity in likely popular patience is equally against the American in personal terms. Trump has another year and a third to five years of power, Xi Jinping has no such sunset, and he can control the tempo of public reckonings he has to face to one every five or 10 years, or a lifetime, while Trump plays to a 24-hour news cycle, and those pesky – but consequential – national elections every two years.
As America negotiates terms for retreat in defeat from Afghanistan, it’s hard not to remember the winning Taliban’s apocryphal witticism: “You Americans have the fancy watches, but we have the time.”
So do Xi Jinping and China.
Derek Grossman is a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation focused on a range of national security policy and Indo-Pacific security issues. He is particularly interested in China’s relationships with Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Taiwan, Japan, and the Koreas. Grossman has over a decade of experience in the Intelligence Community (IC), where he served as the daily intelligence briefer to the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the briefer to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian & Pacific Security Affairs at the Pentagon. Grossman leveraged this experience to write an award-winning paper for the IC’s “Galileo Competition,” which solicits innovative ideas to optimize IC enterprise management practices.
Prior to DIA, Grossman worked at the National Security Agency (NSA) where he pioneered a new assessment format to enhance NSA’s intelligence support to policy. He also served at the CIA and on the President’s Daily Brief staff. Grossman worked at the Jamestown Foundation as the China program manager and editor of China Brief. He previously supported the then-Center for Northeast Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution.