Threats to American civil life come from domestic sources: natural disasters, car crashes, the opiate crisis, and economic downturns, just to name a few. Bee stings kill (exponentially) more people than foreign-born terrorists do every year in the United States. Vast oceans and friendly neighbors have much to do with the lack of conflict, war, and its attendant nastiness that U.S. citizens experienced at home.

The lack of state-based or other violent threats from outside our borders allows Americans to become comfortable in a mindset that doesn’t always prioritize international affairs. What happens “over there” isn’t necessarily of great concern, as long as American’s threat perception remains low. Very real threats do exist outside our borders. Terrorist insurgencies with less-than-collegial feelings toward the West still fester across Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia.

But experts in the foreign policy, military, and intelligence communities have warned for some time now that lone wolf-inspired attacks or even organized terrorism will be less of a threat to national security than the effects of competition between nations.

This isn’t always obvious. Several years ago it seemed the U.S. and Russia would find better diplomatic footing. China and the United States carry out an immense amount of trade, so a dispute seems unlikely. No nation has been able to challenge American dominance, much less rival it, since the Cold War ended.

Nations tend to do what will ensure physical security and economic prosperity. In turn, the offensive competition that results spurs state-sponsored cyber-attacks, attacks on democracy through covert means, a loosening of rules-based international norms and, in the most extreme cases, proxy conflicts wherein the humanitarian cost far outweighs the foreign policy gains of the states involved.

It’s a concept lost on some Americans living in an age free of enduring concern: nations are inherently competitive, and this competition produces threats to our national security.

What are these threats? Are they a bigger deal than terrorism? Could we really ever return to great power conflict (academic-speak for competition between the most powerful countries), and the security breakdown it engenders?

This article argues nations have already returned to great power competition, and a bipolar power structure is already being put in place between the United States and its emergent rival, China.

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