Grave New World
Why Biden’s job will be so much harder than his predecessors’.
When Samuel P. Huntington and Warren Demian Manshel, the founders of Foreign Policy, asked me to write for their inaugural issue in 1970, university campuses were riven by students who feared being drafted to fight and possibly die in a misbegotten war in Vietnam. The central claim in my essay was that “No More Vietnams!” would become a new foreign-policy mantra. While some 2 million Americans had been sent to fight in Korea in the 1950s and more than 300,000 U.S. troops were still bogged down in Vietnam when I wrote, I offered my bet that the next decade would see no equivalents. What I did not imagine, however, was how dramatic the decline in combat deaths would be. An estimated 33,000 Americans died fighting in Korea and 47,000 in Vietnam. But since the fall of Saigon in 1975, the total number of U.S. battle deaths stands at fewer than 7,500.
My 1970 essay brims with youthful overconfidence in identifying trends and forecasts for the decades ahead. Fifty years on, I’ve come to recognize that my crystal ball is cloudier than I imagined then. As Americans today look past an annus horribilis that included not only a pandemic but a global economic recession and the most divisive presidential campaign in living memory, anyone pretending to have confidence in their predictions should be suspect.
Nonetheless, if one squints and strains, it is possible to connect some dots. They reveal 10 fundamental factors likely to shape the United States’ big international moves in the decades ahead. Some of these factors stem from the fact that the United States is a markedly different country in 2021 than it was when it emerged victorious from the Cold War—let alone when it created a new world order in the aftermath of World War II. Other factors reflect the most complex international challenge U.S. policymakers have ever confronted: a rising China that is destined to become, as former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew warned us, “the biggest player in the history of the world.” The impact of China’s rise on the United States and the international order, of which Washington has been the architect and guardian, will be the defining issue for the next administration and as far beyond as any eye can see. Finally, U.S. foreign policy must adapt to relentless technological advances that ignore borders and create new challenges.
Together, these new realities give President-elect Joe Biden a much more difficult hand to play than many other previous U.S. presidents.
First, the paramount challenge for U.S. policymakers in 2021 and beyond lies at home. With their nation more deeply divided than at any time since the Civil War, what Americans do—or fail to do—in their own country will have a greater impact on the world than any action outside their borders. Unless the country finds ways to reunite its red and blue tribes, restore confidence in its democratic institutions, and return to the great American project of providing equal opportunities for all citizens, the nation will lack the foundation from which to play its role in the world—and flounder as it did in the 1850s, 1860s, and 1930s. Fortunately—perhaps providentially—Americans just elected a president who understands this challenge not just in his mind but in his gut.
Second, the fundamental reason that Biden’s hand and that of his successors is so difficult to play is best illustrated by three numbers: The United States produced nearly half the world’s GDP at the start of the Cold War in 1950, one-quarter at the end of the Cold War in 1991, and only one-seventh today.
The economy is the substructure of power in international relations. Economic strength funds military and intelligence capabilities and reach and creates global impact through trade and investment. As the United States’ relative economic power has declined, the menu of feasible policy options has shrunk. Adapting to a world in which Washington can no longer afford to provide free security for other nations, fund legacy weapons systems beloved by the U.S. military but no longer essential, or match China in providing loans to poorer nations for transportation and digital infrastructure will be as painful as it is necessary.
Third, the conceptual arsenal on which a generation of U.S. foreign-policy makers has relied is no longer fit for service. Their presumptions are still shaped by the conviction that victory in the Cold War meant the universalization of Western liberal democracy. This illusion led many in the Bush and Obama administrations to expect that the mere act of ousting autocrats in Iraq and Libya would spontaneously generate democracies. A world in which all nations embrace free markets to make their citizens rich and democracy to make them free was undoubtedly an inspiring vision. But today, it’s impossible to keep a straight face reading the columnist Thomas Friedman’s Golden Arches theory of conflict prevention, laid out in the New York Times in 1996: “[When a country] has a middle class big enough to support a McDonald’s, it becomes a McDonald’s country, and people in McDonald’s countries don’t like to fight wars; they like to wait in line for burgers.” Yet many of those who smile reading that line continue to ask how China, a nation with a middle class larger than the U.S. population and 3,600 McDonald’s restaurants, can refuse to take its place in the U.S.-led international order.
Fourth, China poses the most perplexing international challenge to the United States in its 244-year history. Unlike the economically isolated and technologically constrained Soviet Union—whose GDP never reached half that of the United States—China has the resources to grow substantially larger and stronger than the United States. It is therefore not just a twin of Russia that can be treated as another great-power competitor but a rival whose meteoric rise is shifting the fundamental tectonics of power.
Using the best metrics for comparing national economies, China has already become the world’s largest economy. It has also displaced the United States as the primary engine of global growth. Of all the major economies, China’s was the only one that was larger at the end of 2020 than it was when the year began. While policymakers can deny structural realities, they cannot escape them. As we know all too well from history, when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power, the outcome is often catastrophic war—even if it was neither rival’s intention, as was the case in Europe in 1914.
Fifth, on the 21st-century chessboard, the balance of economic power has become as important as the balance of military power. With leaders’ mandates to govern depending in large part on their ability to deliver prosperity to citizens, the Trump administration’s attempt to persuade U.S. allies to choose between their security relationship with the United States and their economic relationship with China was a fool’s errand. Whatever the rhetoric, a so-called decoupling to create an economic Iron Curtain is not going to happen. China is the world’s manufacturing workshop and the No. 1 trading partner of most countries, including Japan, Australia, and even Germany. As the grand master of geoeconomics, China has learned to use all the instruments of economic coercion to achieve geopolitical goals. It offers an instructive contrast to what former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates calls the “overmilitarization” of U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War.
Sixth, while the United States remains the leading military power in the world, in the past generation China has built Asia’s most formidable military force. Beijing’s defense budget is now almost six times that of Tokyo and nearly four times that of New Delhi. Unlike the United States with its global commitments, China’s defense efforts are mainly concentrated on its borders and regional waters. There, it has shifted the balance of military power in its favor at the most likely flash points where it could face the United States, most notably the Taiwan Strait. Former U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work has acknowledged that in 18 Pentagon war games simulating a war over Taiwan, the score was 18 for China and zero for the United States.
Seventh, China has become a serious technological competitor. In artificial intelligence, the technology likely to have the greatest impact on the economy and national security in the coming decade, China is now a “full-spectrum peer competitor,” as Eric Schmidt, the former executive chairman of Alphabet, and I wrote in 2019. In 5G telecommunications and financial services technology, China is a clear leader. At the same time, the Trump administration’s restrictions on Chinese access to advanced semiconductors provide a stark reminder that the United States remains ahead in key areas. While China’s population size and surveillance state will always give it more data to feed advances in machine learning, the United States can use intelligent immigration policies to retain a decisive advantage by recruiting superstars from the world’s 7.8 billion people.
Eighth, we live in a world of mutually assured destruction. However intense the rivalry between the United States and China, technology and nature—in the form of nuclear weapons and climate change—condemn both to coexist, since the alternative is to co-destruct. The two countries have become, in effect, conjoined twins: No matter how insufferable either may be to the other, if one succumbs to the temptation to strangle its rival, it will be committing suicide. Today, either one of the world’s top two emitters of greenhouse gases can disrupt the climate to the point that neither can live in it. Washington and Beijing must find a way to work together on this front if they are to sustain a livable planet.
Ninth, unless China’s economy crashes or its system cracks, it will at some point be able to fund defense and intelligence budgets larger than the United States’. To create a correlation of forces to constrain Beijing’s behavior, Washington will have to attract other countries with heft to its side of the seesaw of power. But this will be much more challenging than during the Cold War. Not only will each potential ally have its own interests, preoccupations, and priorities. For most other nations, China will be the most important economic relationship. Thus, they may align with the United States against China on some security issues while becoming more entangled with China on economic ones. The recently signed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership is an example of the latter.
Finally, despite its many critics, globalization will remain a formidable force reshaping international relations. Much of that is for good: Even as the U.S. share of global GDP has shrunk, the world’s economic pie has grown—more than a hundredfold between 1950 and today. U.S.-led globalization, built on the foundation of the U.S.-led world order, has produced huge benefits in almost every dimension, including science, medicine, technology, products, food, the exchange of ideas, human experiences, and the very fabric of life. At the same time, policymakers will have to balance these gains with the reality that relentless global competition creates disruption in every country and asymmetric consequences between them.
All these factors will require Washington to move beyond its traditional strategy of overwhelming problems with resources. Americans will have to learn to be more discriminating in distinguishing between national interests that are truly vital and others that are merely vivid. In this grave new world, grand ambitions will be constrained by diminished capabilities and produce diminished results. Nonetheless, as the investor Warren Buffett has said repeatedly over the past five decades: No one has ever made money in the long run selling the United States short. I’m betting that Biden and his successors will summon the strategic imagination to do what is necessary to successfully protect and advance the United States’ interests.
Graham Allison is a professor of government at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he was the founding dean. He is a former U.S. assistant defense secretary and the author of Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? Twitter: @GrahamTAllison