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Book Review of 2034: A Novel of the Next World War

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What would a superpower clash between the U.S. and China look like? How could innovative military technologies and strategic miscalculation escalate a localized conflict to a world war? What red lines would each great power draw, and how would they respond if those lines were crossed? In 2034: A Novel of the Next World War, novelist and military veteran Elliott Ackerman and retired Admiral James Stavridis offer their view in this predictive work of fiction, joining the ranks of writer-practitioners who have used the fiction market to warn against U.S.-China war.

While their military and policy experiences set them apart from Tom Clancy-esque writers, Ackerman and Stavridis are by no means the first practitioners to delve into military fiction. Following the success of his great power conflict novel Ghost Fleet, policy analyst Peter Singer championed this brand of useful fiction as a means of engaging readers in policy conversations: “People are more likely to read an engrossing story than a white paper and rarely recommend to others a good PowerPoint to read on vacation.” And yet, the challenge of this genre is attracting a policymaking audience specifically. In an interview about the book, Stavridis explained his intent “to strike a warning bell about the rise of China and the propensity in human history” for rising powers and established powers to go to war. But is this genre a valuable tool for policymakers or simply a compelling plot device?

The crisis in 2034 hinges on Beijing laying a “Chinese finger trap,” (45) intentionally drawing the U.S. into a confrontation for control over the South China Sea. A U.S. Navy carrier group on a freedom of navigation patrol captures the Wen Rui, a Chinese vessel carrying advanced telecommunications technologies. Simultaneously, an F-35 pilot flying near Iranian airspace finds his plane hijacked via cyber intrusion and is taken prisoner. China approaches the U.S. with the offer of an exchange: return the Wen Rui and Iran will release the American airman on behalf of its Chinese ally. When negotiations break down, both states escalate toward war.

While U.S. forces concentrate on China, Russia sabotages subsurface internet cables as a show of force, obliterating U.S. internet connectivity and setting off the exchange of tactical nuclear weapons that destroy Zhanjiang, Galveston, and San Diego. China had not anticipated a nuclear escalation, but is drawn into retaliatory strikes to deter the U.S. from closing in on Taiwan. With superpower tensions moving towards mutual destruction, India intervenes as a third-party arbiter in a bid to restore peace, by force, if necessary. But their efforts come too late to prevent the U.S. from dropping a nuclear bomb on Shanghai, killing tens of millions, causing a global market freefall, and leaving India as the world’s sole viable power.

Ackerman and Stavridis both have extensive military and policy backgrounds. Ackerman served as a White House Fellow and performed five tours of duty in the Middle East with the U.S. Marines. Stavridis was educated at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and has held positions as Supreme Allied Commander of NATO and commander of U.S. Southern Command. The authors’ academic credentials shine through in valuable analysis of the works of Sun Tzu and Thucydides in Chinese stratagems and the lessons of overextended empires. 2034, however, is clearly an extrapolation of the great power trends Ackerman and Stavridis observed during deployments and command positions.

A central theme of 2034 is the overextension of American power projection and an outsized reliance on twentieth century grand strategy principles. An Indian mediator warns that “America’s hubris has finally gotten the better of its greatness. You’ve squandered your blood and treasure to what end?...For freedom of navigation in the South China Sea? For the sovereignty of Taiwan? Isn’t the world large enough for your government and Beijing’s?” (216)

Relatedly, 2034 demonstrates that the U.S. can no longer treat China as a middle power. The vivid characterization of U.S. patrols in South China Sea as “the legal equivalent of driving donuts through your neighbor’s prized front lawn” (2) illustrates just how provocatively Beijing views such activities. Similar sentiments emerged during early negotiation attempts when a Chinese defense attaché says, “For decades, your navy has sailed through our territorial waters, it has flown through our allies’ airspace, and today it has seized one of our vessels; but you maintain that you are the aggrieved party, and we are the ones who must appease you?” (39) In invoking language of sacrosanct territoriality and mutual defense commitments to allies, Ackerman and Stavridis invite readers to flip the script on geopolitical conflict – contemplating how an American audience would react to like incursions from a foreign power.

Other geopolitical trends set up in 2034 are less plausible: The premise of China deliberately provoking war with the U.S. to settle its territorial claim to the South China Sea seems far-fetched, and the insinuation that China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is an on-ramp to coerced military cooperation between Beijing and recipient states reads as a fundamental misunderstanding of China’s economic diplomacy which relies on BRI to cultivate foreign markets for Chinese products, avoid the middle-income trap by boosting domestic consumption, and secure long-term supply routes immune to U.S. disruption.

Among the most interesting elements of the 2034 plot is the role of technology in demarcating China’s rising and America’s declining power. Beijing is portrayed as an unrivaled cyber power: Just as negotiations break down, China shuts down all White House systems, piling a devastating cyber attack on top of a devastating kinetic one. Beijing also hacks the networks of the U.S. carrier group in the South China Sea, cutting off external communications and leaving commanders reliant on manual navigation and weapons deployment. Undergirding all these plot points is the assumption that the U.S. is incapable of defending against cyber incursions or responding in-kind: “If the Americans had really wanted to threaten the Chinese, they would’ve launched a massive cyberattack. The only problem was that they couldn’t.” (152)

How realistic is this picture of an insurmountable cyber capability-gap between the U.S. and China? While Beijing’s cyber operations are a top-of-mind concern for U.S. officials, China’s comparative advantage seems to be in its influence operations that manipulate public opinion and cyber theft of intellectual property. The idea that Chinese cyber warriors could seamlessly penetrate U.S. military networks seems far-fetched, as does the idea of an American lame duck in the face of concerted cyber-attacks. Exaggerated as this scenario may be, Ackerman and Stavridis do drive home the risks of American complacency in cyber deterrence and defense. 2034 serves as a cautionary tale on the dangers of great power escalation. But the question remains: Is the novel useful as a foreign policy tool? Scholar Lawrence Freedman engages this debate in his 2017 book, The Future of War, outlining three major weaknesses of the genre. 2034 overcomes two of these; an emotive desire to see the good guys win and a focus on knockout blows rather than usual situation of protracted conflict. The novel ends with global nuclear catastrophe at the hands of the U.S. that emerged from a situation of steadily escalating tensions. It is the last of Freedman’s traps, the tendency towards sweeping thriller plots over tightly-focused analysis, where 2034 demonstrates its weakness as a policy tool. Ackerman and Stavridis delve into a huge range of trends in great power politics and interesting technological evolutions.

2034 is a gripping narrative and a compelling introduction to the risks of great power competition and a cautionary tale for a U.S. audience that is overconfident about the American position vis-à-vis China.  But in order for a work of fiction to have a lasting impact on policy beliefs, it must sound the alarm on emerging threats through plausible and tightly focused conjecture. The breakdown of U.S.-China relations in Ackerman and Stravidis’ novel rests on unlikely assumptions and the book’s technology-driven disaster, while interesting, stretches the bounds of credulity. For these reasons, 2034 is unlikely to be of real value to decisionmakers, remaining confined to the thriller shelf.

Cover of Book - 2034


About the Author: 

Kathryn Urban is a current graduate student in the School of International Service’s Global Governance, Politics, and Security program. Her research interests include Arctic securitization and the strategic logic of drone warfare.