The following interview with Prof. Walter Clemens [1] was carried out on July 3rd, 2012 in Lexington, MA by Patrick Renz and Frauke Heidemann. The three main topics of the interview were the U.S. Pivot to Asia, Taiwan and environmental issues. All footnotes are remarks by Patrick Renz and Frauke Heidemann, aimed at giving some additional background knowledge and especially giving the links to the cited documents so that the reader can follow up on these issues easily.


U.S. Pivot to Asia

In your article in China-U.S. Focus [2] on the self-fulfilling prophecy, you wrote that it might be better for the U.S. to not deploy too many troops to Asia because it would make China feel insecure and unsafe and thereby create a sort of conflict-like situation or lead to conflict. We wondered: if the U.S. wouldn’t have that many troops in the region, wouldn’t there be a higher likelihood of South Korea, Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam feeling the need to build up a stronger navy?

Well the number of troops I think is not so important. What is important is the number of aircraft carriers with airplanes carrying nuclear weapons. With the present number of eleven aircraft carriers [3] there is enough to present a major deterrent to protect Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and so on. What I have objected to was the symbolic act of sending 2000 Marines to Australia. I am worried about the symbol more than the substance. It is the symbol of something to come. I don’t know how big this symbol will become in the future but when the U.S. government says that it is going to build up our forces in Asia – it seems to me that we have enough already. In this sense I sort of agree with Waltz that a certain number of nuclear weapons should make you feel safe [3]. If they don’t make you feel safe, a few more Marines will not change the balance.

Would you say it would be better if the U.S. would withdraw some troops or at least aircraft carriers from the region? We read in your book that one of the biggest achievements of the U.S. foreign policy was that it made good allies in the region, which really rely upon the U.S. [5] If the U.S. would withdraw some aircraft carriers to comfort China, wouldn’t other countries in the region feel that they are not allies of highest importance any more?

You know our aircraft carriers are becoming vulnerable to Chinese missiles. So there is kind of a question: are they still reliable? And I am not really a specialist on this and don’t know the details of the Chinese missiles. I’m not really calling for a change in our naval deployments, I am mainly concerned about symbols and I’m worried when people in Washington say we have to expect a war with China – at some point that could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In some of my writings I try to promote something called GRIT. [6] There is a professor, Charles Osgood, a psychologist and he wrote a book called “An Alternative to War or Surrender”. GRIT stands for graduated reciprocity in tension reduction. This Osgood book was written in 1962. He was then the head of the American psychological association. In 1962, the year of the Cuban missile crisis, people were talking and debated should we be red (Communist) or dead. That’s not the choice here. Instead of threats you begin with small words, nice words, and you say we want peace. And we intend unilaterally to do some symbolic acts to show we want peace. If you reciprocate, we will do bigger things. Now this essentially is what Henry Kissinger did in 1972 – the little steps.
The Americans began to call the country the People’s Republic of China, they permitted American tourists to buy goods in Hong Kong made in China. They permitted France to sell trucks to China that had American motors installed. Those were small steps. The Chinese sort of understood and they began to release American fishermen who had been in prison and did some other small things. So to me this is a model of how to reduce tension. Graduated reciprocity.

Just as a follow-up to this: How do you effectively communicate with a country stating that it has no enemies and that its only interest is in peaceful rise or peaceful development as it is called nowadays?

They need another Zhou Enlai. Zhou Enlai was really quite smart. He and Kissinger loved each others company, they would talk for seven or eight hours every time and Zhou Enlai understood the Americans have domestic political problems and they might have to do something to protect Taiwan. I have met several Chinese diplomats who were smart like that but what you are talking about is a big problem. I think with the internet the fact is that many Chinese people who are not in the government, they know that everything is complicated. One Russian dissident told me, the intellectual know that there is more than one facet to everything. So this propaganda stuff does not follow the intellectual line. But there are many Chinese dissidents, like this artist Ai Weiwei and the blind man, they understand that life is very complicated and they will have some influence on the government but it may take – I don’t know how long, maybe an entire generation – for things to change. I suppose you can help the educational process.

In contrast to the GRIT concept you mentioned before, there are also concepts like tit for tat, where you start out by cooperating and then repeat your counterpart actions. Do you feel this could also be used as a strategy?

First of all, I think there is a theoretical problem with the model you described. This comes from Robert Axelrod’s book “The Evolution of Cooperation”. Why it is bad is that if you do something nice, the other guy does something tough, then you should do something tough. But if you follow that rule, you will both keep on doing tough things forever. GRIT is different. It says – we are going to break that rhythm and do several nice things. And if you reciprocate, then we will do more nice things and bigger nice things. So there is the possibility of hope and of change. The Axelrod model does not really allow for that change. So the Americans built more and more weapons and finally Gorbachev made small concessions during several years. He broke the rhythm. Reagan – it took him some years – responded to Gorbachev and then Bush senior responded. Therefore, I don’t like the Axelrod model. It is however better than just being bad – just tit.

Reciprocity between the U.S. and China is difficult because of the many asymmetries. The U.S. is rich and China poor. On the other hand, they have a lot of extra dollars and we don’t. Anyway, there are a lot of asymmetries. For example between Russia and the U.S. there was the asymmetry that the Americans had a big navy and the Russians had a tiny navy. That is also the case with China. We have a big navy and they have a tiny navy. The same is even more true concerning energy – for the moment, the U.S. seems to have a lot of oil and gas and China does not. We think freedom of speech is a good thing and they don’t. So there are a lot of asymmetries. It’s hard to find the appropriate quid pro quo. If we do something conciliatory, what will they do to respond?

But is there a certain feeling what the U.S. should give China to start this process?

From my standpoint for President Obama to say that we are going to build up our forces in Asia is the opposite of GRIT. If we build them up, we should not talk about it. Because the words make it even more threatening.

What do you think was the motive behind it?

Well he does a lot of things to appear strong in foreign policy because the Republicans often say that the Democrats are too soft on our enemies. But he has been rather tough with Iran, North Korea and Cuba. He sends thousands of troops to Afghanistan – people like me thought that was a bad idea but he can certainly say that he has been tough on foreign policy.

So do you think this was just a move to get re-elected?

Well I wouldn’t say just, but it was certainly something he considered. A long time ago the Republicans said that Harry Truman lost China because 1949 he was president and he tried to mediate between Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Zedong where he failed and Mao won. Therefore, American presidents are afraid of being exposed to the argument that they have been too soft. Do you know that at Columbia University President Obama wrote his senior thesis on Soviet disarmament? Nobody seems able to find a copy of it but several of his former professors said it was quite good. I forgot what year that would have been, I think around 1989 – Gorbachev and the Soviet Union were still there. You know, after he finished Columbia he worked on Wall Street for at least half a year doing derivatives, so this man has thought seriously about a lot of very complicated issues. In my view he has advisors who say the Chinese are spending more on weapons et cetera, we have to counter that. I think that the U.S. spends twice as much on weapons as the government says. They say we spend 3 or 4 percent of Gross National Product (GNP), I think 7 or 8. That’s a big asymmetry.

On the other hand, China is also not really truthful about the numbers in military expenditure. For example, R&D is not included. That doesn’t make it close to equal though given the amount of expenditure by the U.S.

The official U.S. defense budget is that of the ten following countries combined. My number includes the intelligence. All the spy satellites, they are very expensive. It includes the so-called national laboratories working on nuclear energy. Some of that is for peace and some is for war. Half of the space program is for war. The Chinese would have just analogs to all of that but what they don’t have is a big interest debt on former wars. We are still paying for the Vietnam War and we have at least a hundred thousand men a little older than you who don’t have an arm or a leg and we have to pay for them the next 50 or 60 years. The Columbia economist Stiglitz thinks that the bill for the Iraq war is 3 trillion USD. [7] Afghanistan will be another trillion.



At the LSE-PKU Summer School 2011 we talked about the Taiwan issue and we asked our professor what the official view of the Chinese government is on this matter. He said that it is only a matter of time – if Taiwan doesn’t come back by itself – until China takes what belongs to China. Due to this scenario, we believe it to be interesting that there is no official defense treaty between Taiwan and the U.S. What is your take on that?

We had a treaty that was signed during the Korean War until Jimmy Carter broke it. He underwent it. This was the first time that an American president broke a treaty without consulting Congress. The second time, George Bush broke our Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia without consulting Congress. So when Jimmy Carter broke that treaty, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act which is almost equal to a treaty. [8] We felt obligated for example when Mainland China threatened Taiwan five or six years ago, where we sent an aircraft carrier. I think that the business and cultural ties between Taiwan and China will increase as more and more Chinese people will visit Taiwan. They will see that this is a democracy with a lot of freedom and they’ll probably like it. Maybe they’ll go home with ideas. War is almost unthinkable because they need each other. They are so interconnected economically.


Environmental Issues

I believe the greatest mistake of all government strategists is that they see life as a zero-sum game. If you don’t have freedom of speech you don’t hear conflicting opinions. So the Chinese built the Three-Gorges Dam and it was an environmental disaster and they are building more despite that.

So they are getting some bad advice or no advice.

The book “The River Runs Black” by Elizabeth C. Economy [9] is stating that the problem is not the unwillingness of the government to act but that the regional governments are too involved in the problematic industries and that the government is therefore unable to achieve its goals.

Thank you so much for your time.


[1] Prof. Walter Clemens is Professor of Political Science at Boston University with a research focus on negotiation, international relations, American foreign policy, post-Soviet Studies, the Baltic region, culture and human development. More on his curriculum vitae can be found at:
[2] Walter Clemens, Self-Fulfilling Prophecies in US-China Relations, China-U.S. Focus, available at:
[3] More on the question of how many aircraft carriers are considered sufficient can be found at: Robert Farley, The Carrier Dilemma: How Many is Enough? The Diplomat, available at:
[4] Kenneth Waltz is a proponent of the nuclear deterrence theory and has argued in many cases that nuclear weapons sometimes contribute more to security than they hinder it. This view was presented by him in his recent article in Foreign Affairs called “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb?”, available at:
[5] The book referred to is Walter C. Clemens, America and the World, 1898 – 2025: Achievements, Failures, Alternative Futures (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000).
[6] More on the concept of GRIT can be found at:
[7] More on this is available at:
[8] For more detailed information on the relations between the U.S. and Taiwan refer to:
[9] More on this issue in Elizabeth C. Economy, The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future (New York:
Cornell University Press, 2004), and at:

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