There is a growing consensus that we are now in a new age of “great power” competition. So what’s the best strategy for dealing with it?
Just as there were smart and stupid versions of containment strategy during the Cold War, there are better and worse ways to handle global confrontations now.
We are in better shape for this competition than many suppose. Still, there is work to be done to smarten up the strategy. There are subtle, but important differences in how the U.S. has to handle China, Russia, and Iran. Our alliance structure also needs work. Friends, allies, and strategic partners have to act like friends, allies, and strategic partners—they can’t live in the neutral zone. Additionally, we need to get some of the instruments needed to implement the strategy into better shape.
Era of Good Feelings
While there’s no shortage of contention and disagreement in Washington, there is broad consensus over which countries are messing with the United States and which are most dangerous. Through three consecutive administrations, led by presidents from both parties, each with very different temperament and judgment, D.C.’s “bad guy” roster has remained constant.
George W. Bush, then Barack Obama, and now Donald Trump have pegged Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and transnational Islamist terrorism as top concerns. They had different ways of dealing with these threats. Each also had other stuff also on their list. Still, they all agreed these challenges deserve national attention and priority.
It was Trump, however, who framed the new normal as an era of “great power” competition. In part, that countered the notion that the U.S. could just “pivot to Asia” and forget the rest of the world.
Like Bush and Obama, Trump sees China as the top long-term challenge. The Trump team, however, wanted to emphasize that the competition with China was already global and not confined to Asia. Also, they see China as a clear and present danger, not a future problem that can be defused with just enlightened diplomacy and a deft touch.
Further, Team Trump could not ignore that Obama left Europe under siege from Putin and struggling to deal with the spillover from the Middle East, as well as the nuclear and missile tests from “little rocket man.” The U.S. had to think and act globally.
Trump pitched a strategy that would serve as a middle ground between Bush and Obama. He viewed Bush’s foreign policy as both overly muscular and oblivious—invading, occupying, and trying to rebuild countries, while largely whiffing on dealing with the big issues of great power rivalry. Meanwhile, he described Obama’s policy as largely running away from America’s global interests and responsibilities.
Trump opted for a centerline. He has the U.S. leaning forward to demonstrate its willingness to protect its interests and demanding allies do the same. Yet he resists not getting deeply entangled in trying to run the world, overthrow regimes, or fix everyone’s pet problems. It’s all laid out in his 2017 National Security Strategy. By every indicator, it looks like he plans to continue this approach into the second term.
Few in the mainstream are offering dramatic alternatives. Being tough on Russia and China has broad, bipartisan support. And while there is plenty of debate over Iran and North Korea, no one wants armed conflict or more nuclear powers.
Most of the reasonable mainstream criticism relates to Trump’s unorthodox style of statecraft or questions of how to deal with some of the thorniest issues like the Iran Deal, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and on-going negotiations with the DPRK. Fair enough.
Still, absent an extreme leftwing takeover of Washington in January 2021, American foreign policy is not likely to change radically in the foreseeable future. If Trump loses, the new administration may swap out everything in name and style, but little in substance.
Put another way, the United States may now be at a point in history similar to that of the Truman/Eisenhower presidencies, when mainstream America settled on containment as a grand strategy. Yet, that grand Cold War consensus did not signal an end to strategic thinking. As John Lewis Gaddis pointed out, America actually had “strategies of containment,” some of them smarter than others.
Strategy of Stranger Things
Alas, having leaders accept that we are in an age of global competition doesn’t necessarily mean that they have a responsible strategy for dealing with the situation. Washington is famously good for just slapping a catchy label on their policies—then claiming they are pursuing responsible action. Remember when Obama reset with Russia? That was pitched as a reasonable way of dealing with an obstinate power. It wasn’t.
The current National Security Strategy actually aligns far better than either the Bush or Obama strategies with the contemporary reality of global competition. What is needed now is: a better understanding of what we are doing and why; greater-buy in from friends, allies, and strategic partners; and refining some of the instruments needed to implement the strategy.
To grasp why this strategy makes sense, we must first throw out the old tropes. Times have changed. For instance, the U.S. is not in a new Cold War with Russia. Recycling old strategies is not the answer for dealing with today’s competition.
Next, we must remember what we are competing over. The United States is a global power with global interests and responsibilities. We are competing with others only in so much as they interfere with the maintenance of American interests. Unlike the Soviet Union, no adversarial power on earth is an existential threat to America and its allies. We don’t need them to go away; we just need them to back off.
Strategy of Strategies
In practice, the strategy for great power competition is more of an umbrella concept of nested regional strategies. In particular, the strategy for China must differ materially from how Washington handles Russia, Iran, and North Korea.
Russia, Iran, and North Korea are regional powers. None of them can match the United States across the range of political, economic, diplomatic, and military competition. The U.S. has adopted various versions of a pressure strategy for each; limiting their destabilizing behavior on the one hand and offering them a diplomatic off-ramp with the other. These are economy-of-force strategies that protect the U.S. and her allies and can be sustained for as long as it takes to rein in these threats.
China is a different actor altogether. For one thing, it has demonstrated a prodigious capability to make mischief in a variety of ways, from corrosive economic behavior to aggressive diplomacy, accelerated militarization and more.
Yet we can’t pursue a stand-off strategy with Beijing as we do in isolating Russia, Iran, and North Korea. Our economies are too entangled—not only with each, but with the global economy. Competition between adversaries that are both powerful and economically entangled has to be managed differently.
Here is a case in point. Prior to the First World War, the economies of Britain, France, and Germany were largely dependent on trade (between a third and a half of total gross domestic product for each). Much of that trade was with one another. It led some turn-of-the-century theorists to argue that the nations' growing economic interdependence would make war obsolete. They were wrong.
That's not to say that trade is bad. Free trade between like-minded nations is a tide that lifts all boats. Trade is one of the great engines of human progress and prosperity. The history of war and trade, however, is a cautionary reminder that economic activity alone cannot substitute for statecraft and national security. Trade is not a strategy. It's important to apply this historical lesson to our thinking about the future of U.S.-Chinese relations.
It is actually easier for powers that don’t engage economically to manage their competition. The U.S. and the Soviet Union were a case in point. Because we didn’t trade with each other, that was one less thing to worry about.
When adversaries trade a lot, it creates co-dependencies that not only doesn’t ameliorate conflict, but actually exacerbates it. That’s because there are fewer ways to reduce the friction between the competitors. Not wanting to threaten trade relations, competitors can let serious issues go unresolved until they explode in conflict. This is exactly what happened between the U.S. and Japan in 1941. Or, a competitor may use the interchange of economic activity to mercilessly exploit its trading partners, as China did over the last decade through intellectual property theft and non-tariff barriers.
The U.S. has little alternative but to compete with China in a globally integrated economic world. But, if we don’t get the strategy right, that competition can easily get out of hand.
There are no practical alternatives. Establishing a “G-2,” where Washington and Beijing strike a global bargain is impractical. Even if the U.S. and China thought it was a great idea, it is unlikely the rest of the world would go along.
Likewise, “decoupling,” where the U.S. and China carve out hard spheres of influence like seventeenth-century mercantilist powers, makes no sense either. All the advantages of living in a globalized world that have been achieved over the last half-century would be lost.
No, the U.S. needs a middle path, a way to take the friction out of the relationship without letting Beijing run amok over the free world or crossing swords and starting World War Last.
This is a demonstrably manageable competition. China doesn’t want a war either. Its strategy is explicitly to win regional dominance and global influence by “winning without fighting.”
The U.S. has to seek an “un-peaceful” coexistence where we force China to respect Washington’s equities on a global scale. China doesn’t get to rewrite the rules of the liberal world order or decide America can’t be an Asian power anymore. The essence of this concept is encapsulated in the U.S. support for the concept of a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”
The Trump administration has already demonstrated how to do that: challenging China across the spectrum of economic, political, diplomatic, and military fronts where our vital and important interests are impinged on, and keeping the pressure on until China backs off.
Trump’s team has also been smart not to practice “linkage,” trade-offs on one issue for compromise on another. U.S.-Sino relations are just too complicated and intertwined to go down that path. Washington would wind up in a game of global Twister and fall flat on its face. Rather, whether it’s going tit-for-tat over the South China Seas, Huawei, Taiwan, or trade, the administration is wise to let each face-off happen on its own terms.
Further, China is not a problem to be solved, but a competitor to be constrained. The U.S. has to be prepared for a geopolitical sparring match that could last for a decade a more. We may need to keep it up until we outlast a generation of Chinese leadership.
Washington has to set boundaries and then enforce them like the Night Watch at the Wall. The key to controlling the competition is to avoid having dependencies that would make the U.S. subservient to China or desperate enough to seek conflict. Just as we would never think of buying tanks and planes from Russia, so there are places where we just can’t do business with China. Elsewhere, we can do business with Beijing just as we would with anyone else. This approach allows us to butt heads when needed, thereby “letting off steam” and finding a point of stability without leading to escalation.
Friends for the Fight
Friends, allies, and strategic partners have to be part of the strategy or it just won’t work. Without a more united front, there are just too many gaps and seams for the Chinese to exploit.
The administration has to recognize it can’t win this one alone. The trade war is a good example. Trump made a strategic blunder in warring with friends and enemies alike all at the same time. It would be far better to lead the world’s free economies in a common campaign against the great excesses of Chinese economic misbehavior.
Where to begin? For starters, Washington has to do a better job of pointing out to others that siding with the U.S. is their best interest. After all, in the end, no country wants to be a suburb of Beijing.
For their part, allies and strategic partners have to give up the notion that they can be neutral in this global competition. It’s fatuous to think they can be a modern-day non-aligned movement. There is no moral equivalency between the U.S. and China. One maybe a flawed free market democratic giant, but the other is merciless, insatiable power indifferent to human rights and liberty. The free world has to pick a side.
That’s not to say our allies and strategic partners shouldn’t do business with China. We all will. But, we must limit Chinese influence—by not being critically dependent or vulnerable to Chinese manipulation or extortion. Adopting responsible policies in regards to companies like Huawei is a good example of what needs to be done.
Friendly countries not aligned with the U.S. must meet a slightly different standard. We can’t and shouldn’t ask every country in the world to pick sides. But what is sensible is to encourage them to act in their own interest and meter Chinese influence, not by trying to kick the Chinese out (too tall an order for many), but to bring the nations of the free world in to balance Chinese influence.
Fixing the Rusty Parts
If there is a dark shadow over U.S. grand strategy it is that didn’t do the best job preparing all our instruments of national power for a real global competition. Several of these tools need some sharpening.
U.S. economic strategy is deeply flawed. Trump can’t tariff his way out this. Instead, the U.S. needs to focus on pressing for greater economic freedom at home and abroad. Free markets are a home game for the United States; that’s where we will be able to maximize growth and economic resilience so we are fit for a long fight.
Peace through strength is foundational to this strategy. Right now, all our enemies think they can win without fighting. That’s because none of them think they can win by fighting. We have to keep it that way.
The U.S. also has to do a better job of engaging with the world. We need a better game plan for marshaling all its soft power instruments.
Recently, the administration unveiled a global strategy for empowering women. We need a lot more of those kinds of initiatives.
Looking backward, some future historian will write that these were the days when America settled on a serious, sustainable, grand strategy—one good enough to get us to the twenty-second century. All we have to do now is keep moving toward the future with confidence and commitment.
This piece originally appeared in The National Interest