Home Book Review “Not Everyone Gets in Every Club”

“Not Everyone Gets in Every Club”

Book by: Hal Brands and Michael Beckley
Reviewed by: Shoshana Bryen Summer 2023

It takes a fairly long introduction to get to Danger Zone by Hal Brands and Michael Beckley because China—in spite of or because of Russia’s war in Ukraine—has become a pivotal foreign and defense issue for both the American left and the American right. So, the bottom line first: buy Danger Zone, read it, worry about it. Then decide whether you believe there is “peak China” or a danger zone, and that the US can/will restore its military deterrence capability—the essential points the book addresses.

America’s relationship to China before the outbreak of the Wuhan Virus (the proper name of the SARS Cov-2 or Coronavirus) was totally American—Democrat and Republican. Our diplomacy begins with the premise that countries with systems inimical to ours will accept American values, American goals, and crucially, American leadership. The truth, however, is that anti-Western regimes—repressive and/or communist—will happily take all the benefits of the West while pursuing their own goals. Negotiating with them is a fraud—they’ll tell America what it wants to hear and then march along to their own drummers. We tried it with Saddam, Qaddafi, an earlier incarnation of the Taliban, and Bashar Assad, plus a number of “Arab Spring” countries. Find the success. Today, Palestinians, Iranians, Chinese are all willing to take what they can get while they do what they do.

We are inevitably surprised. Consider China.

We tossed Taiwan from the UN in 1971 in favor of Mao’s communists; the permanent seat on the Security Council went to the Chinese communists as well. This was meant as a blow to Russian communists, but, well…

We let China into the World Health Organization. Taiwan continued to participate as “Chinese Taipei” in “observer” status until 2016 and was then dumped. Taipei was deliberately closed out of COVID-19 conversations and remains so.

We mainly ignored China’s abysmal human rights record, although:

We did suspend military contact in 1989 after Tiananmen Square massacre, but restored discussions in 1993, and in 1997 invited the Chinese to visit our naval vessels in the Pacific. After a slight retrenchment in the early 2000s, a pro-China “rebalancing” took place in 2011.

We let China into World Trade Organization in 2001 and sent it US technology and manufacturing capabilities to “help” its economy align with the free market world.

We ignored Beijing’s rape of the environment (it own and the Global Commons); China ranks 4th on list of ocean polluting countries and is building more coal-fired plants than the rest of the world combined. We’re setting up to ban gas stoves.

Got it?

China’s complicity and secrecy in the wake of the transmission of the COVID virus woke a lot of people to problems inside China and problems with America’s general acceptance of the communist government’s behavior/secrecy/totalitarianism/aggressiveness/anti-Americanism and more.

Some people got there before others. In 2015, inFOCUS Quarterly interviewed Ambassador John Huntsman, who noted that [then-US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter] “is about ten years dated when he says we share a common architecture with China. We don’t share a common architecture. Their aspirations developed a brand new architecture, and I think we need to recognize that and speak about it. They want to develop new institutions and a new architecture to protect their interests, which runs counter to our own aspirations in the region.”

That issue also reviewed The Hundred Year Marathon, in which formerly pro-China defense and intelligence analyst Michael Pillsbury had become a “China hawk,” and used his very deep understanding of Chinese government and culture to warn that China was America’s adversary. Regardless of our policies toward it—its policies were inimical to the US and the democratic world. We wrote:

Pillsbury explains how clever the Chinese are. Government officials are crafty, thorough, cunning, and smarter-than-your-average (or even above average) American. They are well-versed in Chinese history, folklore and military strategy. They speak in code. They have absolute control of their people and the messaging the people hear. They have a plan; no one deviates. And they will overtake us. Americans have no idea… That doesn’t mean Pillsbury 2.0 is wrong, which is why the book should be bought and read.

But maybe the Chinese have problems of their own and maybe that makes them even more dangerous in the near term than they would have been if Pillsbury had been totally right.

Here is where Danger Zone fits in.

Much more nuanced than Pillsbury, Brands and Beckley cover the range of Chinese internal and external problems, including the food shortages caused by Chinese destruction of its own agricultural resources. “In 2014, Xinhua reported that more than 40 percent of China’s arable land was suffering ‘degradation from overuse.’ According to official studies, pollution has destroyed nearly 20 percent of China’s arable land.” This goes along with a huge demographic dislocation (not enough women due to a male-centered society and pro-abortion policy, and a rapidly aging population), colossal debt, declining growth, and, most important, a more hostile geopolitical environment as countries catch on to the downsides of dealing with Beijing.

This, say Brands and Buckley, are indications that “peak China” may be sliding toward panicked and declining China. And, while that may be a boon for the US in the long run, it is the most dangerous in the next decade—the danger zone.

That is what Gen. Mike Minihan, head of the US Air Force Air Mobility Command, was saying in his perfectly reasonable message to his airmen in February of this year, in which he warned them to prepare for a possible war with China over Taiwan in 2025.

Mark Twain said, “history never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme.” Not quite. Chapter Four is a fascinating review of Japan’s decision to attack Pearl Harbor out of desperation after years of horror-inducing slaughter in China, and a necessary review of the decisions that led to World War I. The chapter on the Cold War is a terrific reminder of where we were then—and where we are not now.

Brands and Beckley have four very good suggestions for America’s future defense, if we were still in the 1950s.

  • Prioritize ruthlessly.
  • Combine strategic purpose with tactical agility and fast track big initiatives.
  • A little offense is the best defense.
  • Getting to the long game and ensuring you can win it.
  • There are assumptions built in:
  • That everyone agrees on the nature of the problem.
  • That everyone has the same priorities.
  • That everyone is willing to go to a war footing, and if we do
  • That we have the resources to do what needs to be done.

Truman was spending 9 percent of GDP on defense; we’re spending about 3-ish percent now. Yes, GDP is much bigger, so spending is in bigger dollars, but weapons are enormously more expensive now and the “military industrial complex” that Eisenhower cautioned about has indeed fulfilled his most dire predictions. Prioritization has a lot to do with contracts and contracts have a lot to do with “agility.” The time lags on refilling defense stocks reduced by the war in Ukraine make the point. Fast track?

Furthermore, the personnel part of US defense spending—which barely existed during the draft—is about 25 percent of the budget, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Ask any military person and they’d say they would rather have the soldiers of the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) than of the draft, but that comes with a cost. And more than 70 percent of American young people would not make the military standard for enlistment if everyone wanted to enlist, which they don’t. All of the services except the Marines are having a shortfall, the Army’s current one is 25 percent.

Outside the cocoon of defense analysts, even the word “priority” is subject to disagreement. Truman wasn’t paying for “The Great Society,” student loans, or interstate highways. Medicare and Medicaid were signed into law in 1965. Social Security became law in 1935, but the categories were narrower and life expectancy was lower. (Social Security was pegged for age 65 when the average life expectancy was 62. How’s that for government irony?)

The bit about “playing defense requires a good offence” sounds like starting a small battle on purpose. “The United States cannot get through the danger zone without calculated risk-taking. It must be willing to anger China, bait it into strategic blunders, and selectively roll back its power … selectively degrading China’s capabilities and blocking its opportunities for aggrandizement.” There is a caveat, “avoid backing China into a corner where its only option is to lash out violently. Urgency, not stupidity.”

Anyone willing to trust the US government to know where to draw those lines because it knows so completely and for sure how China will react to any baiting activity? Um … no.

So, then what is the value of the book beyond the descriptions and history?

Small Can be Beautiful

The real value is in the penultimate chapter.

Brands and Beckley make a strong case for smaller, more agile alliances and institutions and agreements. “Not everyone gets in every club,” they write, and they are SO right. The great failing of the UN, WTO, WHO etc. is that everyone knows everything and gets everything and there is no way to put anyone out. Iran was elected chair of the UN Human Rights Council. North Korea is on the board of the WHO. Enough said.

It is possible to create a high-tech group of democracies to thwart China’s high-tech development. It is possible to approach countries that are currently feeling the heavy boot of China’s Belt and Road Initiative as China seeks repayment of loans that were designed to push poor countries into ceding their resources to China. It is possible to expand the Five Eyes intelligence group (United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) and AUKUS (the Pacific-oriented Australia, United Kingdom, United States alliance). Supply chains, chip factories and more. Selective alliances plus an aggressive public information program and hacking the systems of China and other authoritarians—they’re doing it to us now; to retaliate would be helpful and would help people around the world differentiate the giant America from the giant China.


The other great value in the book is the understanding that, in the end, even if we pass safely through the danger zone and it becomes clear that China will not be the world’s hegemon, all will not be peaceful. Postulating a new Cold War of a sort, there will be a long period of an unhappy China. It may have different leadership or a different set of priorities, but it is unlikely to be our friend. Russia wasn’t and isn’t.

That’s the best we can aspire to. On the other hand, we did it before. We can only hope we find our Harry Truman, George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, George Kennan, John Kennedy, and more to lead us.

Shoshana Bryen is the editor of inFOCUS Quarterly and the Senior Director of the Jewish Policy Center.