The problem with ‘great power competition’

Chinese and U.S. flags flutter near The Bund, before U.S. trade delegation meet their Chinese counterparts for talks in Shanghai, China July 30, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song/File Photo

Over the past half decade in Washington, an old concept has taken new and even bipartisan life. Republicans, Democrats, liberal interventionists and old-school neoconservatives all proclaim that we are now plunged into an era of “great power competition,” harking back to the tense decades of imperial rivalries on the European continent that ended up reshaping the world in the early years of the 20th century.

In the current context, the new competition seems to be clear: China looms first and foremost in American crosshairs, with Russia a lesser threat that is posing bigger problems following its invasion of Ukraine. The bulk of Washington’s foreign policy establishment view the United States’ interests and goals on the world stage through the lens of these rivalries.

But that’s not the wisest way to see things, argues Ali Wyne, senior analyst at the Eurasia Group. His new book – “America’s Great-Power Opportunity: Revitalizing U.S. Foreign Policy to Meet the Challenges of Strategic Competition” – makes the case that while “interstate competition is a characteristic of world affairs,” it does not need to become “a blueprint for foreign policy.” Indeed, when you let anti-Chinese or anti-Russian agendas drive your own, it gives these putative adversaries outsize influence over your own decision-making, he argues.

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Wyne discussed the policymaking uses and abuses of “great power competition.” The text below has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: What does this framework of great power competition say about the mind-set of U.S. policy elites?

A: The traction that great power competition has come to achieve as a policymaking framework reflects a paradoxical combination: strategic anxiety on the one hand, bureaucratic comfort on the other.

The United States is not as relatively preeminent as it was at the end of the Cold War – or even at the turn of the century – and China and Russia are increasingly able and willing to contest its influence. On the other hand, the existence of formidable challengers would seem to furnish the strategic clarity for which Washington has been searching since the Soviet Union’s collapse; it would also, importantly, seem to require a familiar playbook.

For roughly half a century, after all, U.S. foreign policy was largely oriented around dealing with external competitors: imperial Japan, Nazi Germany and then the Soviet Union. The trouble is that that stretch of history primed the United States to expect decisive victories: Japan and Germany suffered military defeats, and the Soviet Union experienced a dramatic disintegration.

It seems unlikely, however, that China and Russia will collapse, notwithstanding their myriad socioeconomic challenges and strategic constraints, so America’s task will be to forge ambiguous and uncomfortable cohabitations.

Q: So are we in a new Cold War?

A: It is essential for the United States to learn from the Cold War, which furnishes its sole experience of long-term strategic competition. But analogies can sometimes obscure more than clarify. While U.S. frictions with China have clear and growing military and ideological components, economic and technological components are as important, if not more. The Soviet Union’s economy was never more than roughly two-fifths as large as America’s economy, and Moscow was not a major source of innovation.

China’s economy, by contrast, is already over three-quarters as large as America’s, and Beijing is a global innovation hub. In addition, while Washington and Beijing are both moving to decouple selectively from one another, their interdependence vastly exceeds that which existed between Washington and Moscow.

It will be impossible for the United States and China to mitigate pandemic disease, slow climate change, contain macroeconomic instability and manage other transnational challenges without maintaining a baseline of cooperation. Where the Cold War ended conclusively, neither Washington nor Beijing will be able to achieve a decisive victory over the other; they will have to cohabitate in perpetuity.

Q: The Chinese often decry the United States’ Cold War mentality. But isn’t it also true that the great power competition narrative is as profoundly coming from Beijing or Moscow as it is Washington – that the United States is just responding to the challenges posed by powers that see their rivalry with the United States in confrontational, even civilizational terms?

A: The United States veered too far in the direction of complacence after the Cold War, discounting China and Russia’s competitive potential. Now, however, as they demonstrate a growing ability and willingness to challenge its influence, Washington is increasingly – and understandably – reacting.

China believes that its resurgence is simply correcting what it regards as an aberrant post-Industrial Revolution period, and it sees the United States as the foremost constraint on its strategic outlook. Russia poses a different kind of competitive challenge because it is far less integrated into the postwar order than China – and, as its invasion of Ukraine makes clear – far more risk-tolerant.

Q: What’s the danger in aligning U.S. policy around the need to compete with or check Russia and China?

A: Great power competition is descriptively useful in that it distills a core set of dynamics that shape contemporary geopolitics. Prescriptively, however, it is problematic on at least three grounds:

First, it risks advancing a reactive approach to China and Russia – one that, beyond being unlikely to find enduring support from U.S. allies and partners, is likely to lead to ubiquitous struggle over selective contestation.

Second, it risks overstating the competitive challenges that those two countries present, heightening U.S. anxiety and facilitating the Sino-Russian entente’s progression. Formidable, multifaceted competitors though they are, Beijing and Moscow are not as strategically skillful as U.S. commentary sometimes suggests; China’s diplomacy has increasingly estranged it from the advanced industrial democracies that still wield the balance of global power, and Russia has severely undermined its long-term strategic outlook by invading Ukraine.

The third and final risk of viewing great power competition as a prescription, not simply as a description, is that it legitimizes the judgment that cooperative pursuits with China and Russia are fool’s errands at best and perhaps even strategic concessions.

Q: You point to the opportunity for the United States on the world stage. Where do you see it?

A: America’s great power opportunity arises from two sources. First, China and Russia have made competitive missteps that give the United States breathing room to pursue a foreign policy that speaks more to its aspirations than to its anxieties. Second, the diminution of its relative influence and the absence of a ready playbook for navigating the complexities of strained coexistence mean that it has no choice but to think more creatively about how it exercises its influence abroad.

Today’s geopolitical environment is obviously not as auspicious as the one that the United States faced three decades earlier. Even so, Washington can manage a resurgent Beijing and a revanchist Moscow with quiet confidence if it swims its own race and focuses on renewing its competitive advantages at home and abroad.

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