Great-Power Competition Is a Recipe for Disaster

The latest poorly defined buzzword in Washington is leading pundits and policymakers down a dangerous path.

Fighter jets preparing to take off from the flight deck of USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier as it sails in South China Sea on its way to Singapore on Oct. 16, 2019.
Fighter jets preparing to take off from the flight deck of USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier as it sails in South China Sea on its way to Singapore on Oct. 16, 2019. Photo by Catherine LAI / AFP) (Photo by CATHERINE LAI/AFP via Getty Images

“America is back,” blared headlines following President Joe Biden’s speech to the Munich Security Conference in February, an address clearly designed to draw a line under the Donald Trump presidency and mark a new start in trans-Atlantic relations. “We are not looking backward,” Biden promised. “We are looking forward, together.” Yet one big plank of the Trump administration’s foreign policy is apparently sticking around: great-power competition. “We must prepare together for a long-term strategic competition,” Biden told conference attendees, adding that “competition with China is going to be stiff.”

Unfortunately, for all that great-power competition has been Washington’s favorite buzzword in recent years, it remains frustratingly poorly defined. Indeed, most commentators skip right past the big questions (Why are we competing? Competing over what?) and go straight to arguing about how to achieve victory. Since the possible answers to these questions range from the entirely reasonable (i.e., that Western states should engage in collective defense of liberal democracy) to the dangerous and utterly unrealistic (i.e., that Washington should be pursuing regime collapse in Beijing), it’s hardly something we should ignore.

It seems that once again—just as it did during the global war on terrorism in the mid-2000s or when styling the United States as the indispensable nation in the 1990s—Washington’s strategic community is again reorienting itself around a new, poorly theorized model of the world and of America’s place in it. Yet precisely because it is so ill-defined, great-power competition as a strategy—that is to say, competition for its own sake—also has the potential to be highly dangerous.

If great-power competition is instead a means to an end, it’s not at all clear what those ends are.

It is a mark of how recently the notion of great-power competition has entered the Washington lexicon that someone who had fallen into a coma just five years ago might never have heard the phrase. Though the Obama administration’s 2015 National Military Strategy warned of states “attempting to revise key aspects of the international order,” it was not until the Trump era that the term itself entered widespread use. Then-U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said in June 2017 that a “return to great-power competition … places the international order under assault,” while the National Security Strategy released later that year noted that “after being dismissed as a phenomenon of an earlier century, great power competition returned.” Since then, its growth has been exponential.

As a description, great-power competition is accurate; competition among the great powers is a defining feature of the international environment. Whether one is talking about 16th-century rivalries among empires, the imperialist scramble for Africa, or the Cold War struggle between the capitalist and communist blocs, states have always jockeyed for power and influence. But the notion that it is new—or that it is returning as if history were taking its revenge—is somewhat absurd. As the Georgetown University professor Daniel Nexon recently put it, “competition among great powers cannot return, because it never really went away.”

Instead, the “return of great-power competition” is essentially an easier way of admitting that the United States is in relative decline. The unipolar moment—the three-decade period of U.S. global predominance that started with the collapse of the Soviet Union—is ending. In the parlance of political science, other states are beginning to balance against the United States. In layman’s terms, this means that with the United States in relative decline, other states are increasingly willing to take actions they would not have during the 1990s, whether it’s Russian intervention in Syria, Chinese claims to the South China Sea, or European steps to circumvent U.S. sanctions legislation. Irving Kristol, considered the godfather of neoconservatism, once noted that a neoconservative is just a liberal who’s been mugged by reality; some of the loudest voices proclaiming an era of great-power competition are just liberal internationalists who have been mugged by the reality of power politics.

The “return of great-power competition” is essentially a way of admitting that the United States is in relative decline.

Yet if this were all there was to it, the debate surrounding great-power competition would be far less problematic. Scholars and pundits would update their mental models for a more competitive world and move on with their lives. Instead, foreign-policy circles in Washington are increasingly fixated on the notion that the United States must commit to competition with China, Russia, and other states.

Great-power competition is portrayed less as a fact of life and more as a strategy in and of itself. Certainly, some authors do suggest a potential endpoint to great-power competition, such as Hal Brands and Zack Cooper, whose recent piece in Foreign Policy argued that competition between the United States and China would only lessen when the regime in Beijing collapsed. But they are still unclear on why we should pursue an existential Cold War-style struggle with China, rather than a more measured approach of competitive coexistence.

This example is emblematic of the debate on great-power competition as a whole. As a grand strategy—what the Yale University professor John Lewis Gaddis once described as “the calculated relationship of means to large ends”—great-power competition is sorely lacking. For starters, it’s not clear whether competition is itself a means or an end.

The 2017 National Security Strategy, for example, describes the world as an “arena of continuous competition” for which the United States must prepare. Whether it is domestic infrastructure projects, student loan forgiveness, repairs to democratic institutions, or increasing the birth rate, a wide range of policy priorities are now portrayed as essential to the pursuit of great-power competition. This suggests that great-power competition is itself an end. Why the country is compelled to compete in this way typically goes unstated.

Indeed, if great-power competition is instead a means to an end, it’s not at all clear what those ends are. There’s rarely a concrete goal among those who proselytize in favor of a strategy of great-power competition. Consider how the topic is portrayed by former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster in his recent book. He opens by noting that “after the end of the Cold War, America and other free and open societies forgot that they had to compete to keep their freedom, security, and prosperity” while later arguing that states must “compete thoroughly as the best means of avoiding confrontation.” Confusingly, he portrays competition as both an alternative to conflict and as a Manichean struggle between good and evil, with the United States beset by adversaries on all sides.

It’s easy to dismiss this kind of rhetoric as silly, but it also carries substantial danger. For one thing, the focus on competition masks a whole series of underlying assumptions about the international system and America’s role in it. Washington’s policy community appears convinced that we are headed for a more dangerous world, one in which the United States must push back against the perceived aggression of states like China and Russia. Though articles almost always include an obligatory aside—that cooperation with China on climate change is a must!—the frame is almost uniformly confrontational.

To be clear, there are good reasons for Washington’s strategic community to perceive an increasingly competitive world. The gap between the United States and other countries is narrowing militarily; it has already closed by some economic measures. And pushback against U.S. foreign-policy choices among other states has increased in recent years, from Chinese attempts to revise maritime rules to Russia’s aggressive targeting of foreign elections. But a more competitive world isn’t the same thing as an all-out struggle. Great-power competition is often portrayed as an all-or-nothing conflict, where revisionist autocracies are challenging the United States in every sphere. In reality, thus far China and Russia are only selectively revisionist, attempting to change the status quo where it suits their interests and to maintain it in other places.

The last time the United States pursued a poorly thought-out slogan masquerading as a strategy, it ended up fighting a two-decade global war on terrorism, which it is still struggling to end.

The risks of the all-or-nothing approach to global politics cannot be overstated. As Fareed Zakaria put it recently, “The United States risks squandering the hard-won gains from four decades of engagement with China, encouraging Beijing to adopt confrontational policies of its own, and leading the world’s two largest economies into a treacherous conflict of unknown scale and scope.” Indeed, if one assumes—as much of the writing on great-power competition does—that China and Russia are implacable foes of the United States determined to destroy the existing order and overturn U.S. hegemony, then policies that would otherwise be unthinkable are suddenly on the table.

Military buildup in Europe and Asia becomes necessary, even if it raises the risk of open conflict with another nuclear power. Economic decoupling seems vital to protect supply chains, though studies show that the costs to U.S. companies and workers would be extreme. A recent report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s China Center, for example, estimated that the U.S. economy could lose up to $1 trillion in growth if tariffs were more broadly applied to all U.S.-China trade. Restrictions on tourism or on Chinese students studying in the United States would cost between $15 billion and $30 billion per year.

The bottom line is simple: It’s easy to make fun of great-power competition as a meaningless buzzword or as Washington’s foreign-policy elite rediscovering that other states get to have a say in world politics. But as the political scientist Robert Kagan wrote recently, the biggest question of the coming decades may be whether countries can “confine the global competition to the economic and political realms and thus spare themselves and the world from the horrors of the next great war or even the still frightening confrontations of another cold war.” In that context, the blind pursuit of a strategy of great-power competition is irresponsible and shortsighted.

The last time the United States single-mindedly pursued a poorly thought-out slogan masquerading as a strategy, it ended up fighting a two-decade global war on terrorism, a conflict from which it is still struggling to extricate itself and that had immense negative effects on the country’s foreign relations and its domestic liberties. Yet if today’s leaders are not careful, the rhetoric of great-power competition could drag the United States into a conflict even more costly and damaging.

Emma Ashford is a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Twitter: @EmmaMAshford

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