According to Sun Tzu, the prevention of conflict is essential to a sound military strategy: war itself is a last resort, high cost choice. This perspective is particularly critical for older nations and empires with limited national energy, such as America, that must deploy maximum resources to prevent conflict. One sound protective measure is to establish strong diplomatic and intelligence corps that are not preoccupied with only one aspect of geopolitics. In other words, they are beholden to a single overarching doctrine without their vision being narrowed by the dictates of government and unable to see the big picture in its entirety. Sound diplomacy and intelligence watch for, anticipate and adapt to new threats. They keep leadership properly informed early in the polarisation process and are primed to develop appropriate coping strategies.
The Cold War was a profound lesson in the power of effective strategic military deterrence. However, using the Five Stages of Empire model, both Russia and America were in their mature/overextending phases. As such, they were restrained by relatively lower national energy levels and the memory of World War One and World War Two fresh in the minds of both leaderships. However, China is in an expansive and highly aggressive phase of it’s cycle and as such America's level of relative deterrence must be similar to those it attained under Regan at the end of the Cold War. Anything less will risk China throwing the dice of war. Having noted this, America does possess one significant advantage; the potential consciousness of an old empire at the end of the Super western Christian Empire’s life cycle. The construction of effective containment alliances and wisdom of leadership, if manifested, could be a powerful Western tool to enhance deterrence and contain Chinese ambitions. Key to this is remembering that deterrence is an intention that must be manifested from the top down so that an aggressor is under no illusion as to the price they will pay for aggressive action. Minor crisis and pilot wars are tests of this intention. The best way to avoid a major war is to win a minor one decisively.
Should a pilot war or, heaven forbid, a major war become unavoidable, the wisest response would be to employ all national resources to the end of ensuring a swift closure to the conflict with minimum casualties. This sounds simple, but is rarely executed; it requires political intent and intelligent planning coupled with political and military agreement. Above all, as exemplified by the great Ronald Regan who was responsible for ending the Cold War peacefully through active deterrence and rapprochement, this must be accomplished with clear, decisive and bold leadership.
One can only hope America finds such a leader again before it is too late.