America’s Military Is Nostalgic for World Wars

The Pentagon is a bit too excited about the return of great-power rivalry.

U.S. Defense Chariman Jim Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford attend a ceremony to commemorate the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks at the Pentagon September 11, 2017 in Washington, D.C. 
(Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images)
U.S. Defense Chariman Jim Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford attend a ceremony to commemorate the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks at the Pentagon September 11, 2017 in Washington, D.C. (Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images)

“Great-power politics is back,” is a mantra civilian and military officials have repeated with increasing frequency over the past half-decade. The diagnosis has now been formally enshrined in the Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy, a summary of which was published by the Pentagon in mid-January. That strategy document proclaimed that “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.” This means that China and Russia are now the top priority for defense planners, not the Islamic State, al Qaeda, or self-directed terrorists living in the United States.

The emergence of Pentagon-sanctioned great-power politics has been accompanied by a rise in confused talk by senior civilian and military officials about geopolitical competition. An important Cold War-era lesson for today is that it’s consequential how American officials talk about the country’s adversaries. Official narratives shape and limit thinking, which then can then lead to extremely costly or counterproductive foreign-policy initiatives.

Consider a few recent quotes from defense officials about the emerging conventional wisdom surrounding the much-welcomed Cold War II.

One frequently heard comment is that geopolitical competition is “war.” Air Force Gen. Mike Holmes termed, “infinite war: longtime competition against peer adversaries.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines infinite as “Limitless or endless in space, extent, or size; impossible to measure or calculate.” The implication here is that in every place in the universe, in every conceivable domain, China, Russia, and the United States will challenge each other for the end of time. This assumes that there is a finite pool of military power and economic influence and diplomatic suasion, and therefore the material or soft-power gains of one of these three powers is made at the expense of one or two of the others.

Moreover, why would one consider the peaceful contestation for relative influence in various regions throughout the world as akin to “warfare?” If metaphorically fighting for political outcomes, market access, manufacturing plants, and research and development funding are the equivalent of war, then dozens and dozens of nations are presently at war. Even states within the United States are in competition all the time, and therefore, using this logic, they must be at war as well. Let us leave the notion of war for those destructive and consequential activities that are worthy of the label. If not, all foreign policy is war and we are all combatants.

Just a few years ago national security officials referred to the fight with Islamic extremists as being the top national security threat that could only be countered through a multiyear war. In 2015, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said the conflict was “probably a 30-year issue,” while CIA Director John Brennan called it “a war that has been in existence for millennia,” and one “we’re always going to have to be vigilant about.” If these officials were wrong about the threat prioritization of terrorism and estimated length of time required to defeat it, why do their peers­ have such high confidence about “near peer” adversaries today?

Incidentally, Gen. Holmes also made the odd proclamation during a February speech at Nellis Air Force Base that “China was built to play in an infinite game, and my goal is to try to make sure that my grandchildren and your grandchildren have options other than giving massages to Chinese tourists when they grow up.” This sort of retrograde statement would normally get an airman at the rank of major reprimanded, but for a flag officer it passes without comment. (In addition to being a strange slur to make against massage therapists, it overlooks the high probability that these jobs will be replaced by robots in two generations.)

There is also a growing consensus that other countries play great-power politics while the United States merely participates in a “rules-based international order.” In January, Secretary of Defense James Mattis actually stated “We don’t invade other countries,” noting the Russian-sponsored intervention in Ukraine, but omitting the three regime-change invasions in a 12-year period led by the United States and the present occupation of portions of Syria without the consent of the Syrian government. He also claimed that “we settle things by international rule of law.”

Never mind that virtually no country believes America’s airstrikes in non-battlefield settings comply with international law. The reality is that Defense Department plans for, and reserves the right to, use of force anywhere in the world — including against Chinese and Russian critical infrastructure — to attempt to defeat any perceived threat. As the great pacifist A.J. Muste observed in 1949: “No Big Power in all history ever thought of itself as an aggressor. That is still true today.” And true today in Moscow, Beijing, and Washington.

Perhaps most troubling about Pentagon officials’ recent comments on great-power competition is that they seem to want — perhaps even need — China and Russia to be their competitors. As one anonymous senior Defense Department official told Nicholas Schmidle, “Real men fight real wars. We like the clarity of big wars.” If you have spent time in the Pentagon or a service school recently you have heard versions of this sentiment, or worse. Another indication of this sentiment was expressed at a House hearing on Thursday, when Gen. Darren McDew, chief of Transportation Command, proclaimed: “We don’t own every domain anymore. Seventy years of going without a fight has put us in a different place as a nation.” Of course, the United States has been on a war footing most of the past seventy years, but those are not the sorts of “fights” that count for generals today. Needless to say, while there has not been a great-power war in more than seven decades, no sane military officer should be wishing one into existence.

Yes, there is a growing recognition among senior military officers that China’s relative increase in economic and political power will not ever be “checked” by what the Pentagon does best: spending more money, buying more weapons platforms, and conducting more shows of force and freedom of navigation patrols. Many in the Pentagon want China to attempt to overtly challenge the United States within domains where the United States enjoys a distinct military advantage, and for China to fail in order to reestablish U.S. primacy. Of course, Chinese leaders do not need to militarily confront the United States directly. Thus, the Defense Department remains somewhat on the sideline as China’s perceived economic and political rise becomes more accepted and established in the Asia-Pacific region and globally.

The truth is that great-power competition (especially with China) will not be won or lost through more defense spending, shows of force, new space warfare capabilities, or some “third offset” technological breakthrough. What will determine America’s relative performance is the ability of its politicians to overcome their extreme partisan conflicts to address the persistent national problems that increasingly limit U.S. relative power and international appeal. America’s competitive advantages vis-à-vis China overwhelmingly have little to do with the defense establishment, and everything to do with its political, economic, educational, health, and social well-being. Each represents a tremendously complex challenge that politicians could confront with the necessary political focus and resources at home, which in turn would have the most meaningful impact on great-power competition abroad.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.