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.
Continent by continent, we’re seeing the resurgence of national identity politics–a driver of power-based competition. Look no further than tightening immigration laws in Europe and America or the imprisonment of Uighers in China. It’s worth remembering that for most of history, race and ethnicity were closely tied to national identity, and still are in many places. The institutions responsible for mitigating global nationalist sentiment are increasingly being nullified, or in the worst cases, completely neutered.
What’s left will be increased competition between nations.
Great Power Politics
America grew rich after World War II, having secured geopolitical and economic hegemony by winning the war and holding Europe’s war debt. Competition with the Soviet Union created a bipolar power structure: two spheres of influence carrying out overt proxy conflicts and covert actions worldwide, in order to undermine the other. It doesn’t take a history degree to recite the ill effects of the era, committed by both sides on a global scale.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, America was left as the sole great power. Scholars will argue whether the Soviet Union was ever really a great power in the first place, but the more important aspect to consider is how the organization of power between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. was distributed–bipolarity, like two sides of magnet, organizing all it comes into contact with on either one side or the other. When this distribution changed, so the global order changed. Rules-based norms were enhanced. The 1990s experienced unprecedented growth in peace and economic dividends in Africa, Asia, and South America.
Prosperity reigned and save for the adventurism of the Iraq war and recession of 2007-2008, America could do little to diminish its power if it tried. A “blue water” Navy to include 11 aircraft carriers, an immense nuclear arsenal–all backed by robust economic and technological growth help America stay in the top spot.
Even in spite of a wild and ineffective foreign policy, the current administration can only move this power around, not extinguish it. The institutional mass of the U.S. economy, military, and soft power (our creative and rule-making influence on the world), is simply too dense and vast to diminish in four or eight years.
China’s Status as an Emergent Power
There are some structurally-ingrained checks on Chinese power. Despite a large ground force and growing technological ability, China doesn’t have a mass of competitive, creative, private-sector industry innovation that drives military advancement. The country hasn’t fought a war in many decades, and lacks training and well-formed doctrine.
All that said, China will be competitive in advanced industries, like robotics and artificial intelligence: new but crucial domains that rival cyber and space in the quest for geopolitical dominance.
The Chinese government is driven to find ways to mimic, subvert, mitigate, and generally frustrate U.S. efforts. For example, a U.S.-driven freedom of navigation standard exists globally on the high seas, letting trade and commerce reign. By building islands in the South China Sea with heavy military presence and adopting what is known as the Anti-Access Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy, China is able to challenge that status quo in its own backyard, without overt military action.
China has done much to maximize its capability and reach. Investment in Africa, the Middle East, the Belt and Road initiative, European ports, and the most visible expansion, building islands the South China Sea, have all solidified the republic as an emergent power, capable of projecting power in the near-abroad, and its foreign policy influence far away.
The trade war between the United States and China exacerbated tension, and recent cancellations of defense talks, port visits, and rocky diplomatic meetings give the impression a conflict could be near.
Watching out for the warning signs and conditions for war is in everyone’s interest. Before drilling down on the China-U.S. dynamic, a note on some other players in the game can help provide a little context.
Russia isn’t a great power, but one that should be heeded at the very least. Putin’s recent growing influence in the Middle East is certainly a worrying trend, but the Russian state isn’t institutionally or economically dynamic enough to challenge the status quo in the future. Massive structural and economic reforms would need to occur inside Russia to:
- Separate the criminality binding Russia’s business and political communities.
- Provide the transparency required by international finance mechanisms and for commerce to flourish.
The real question with regard to Russia is how we can convince or otherwise coerce a rule-breaking nation to refrain from doing things like bombing hospitals in Syria, looking the other way at gas attacks on civilians, or invading neighboring territories?
It may, in fact, be Russia’s inability to assume great power status that allows it to operate so brazenly in Syria, Ukraine, and elsewhere; while largely avoiding reprimand from the international system, writ large. Its seat at the U.N. Security Council table and its attendant veto power often complicate international efforts at peace.
The costs must increase for Russia, but not for reasons of great power politics. Increased Russian aerial provocation near and inside NATO airspace, recent aggressive naval maneuvers, and transport of anti-aircraft systems into Ukraine all point to an increasingly active, assertive Russia. A country willing to take military steps in the near-abroad to project power. This, of course, has to do with the limp response by the Trump administration (and to a certain extent the Obama administration) in responding to acts like these.
India is the only nation that possesses the potential to rival China in the region in the medium term. The largest democracy in the world, India doesn’t possess the top-down command of its forces and population that China constructed. That said, a modernization of India’s forces and a focus on tying military might with diplomatic regional prowess would allow India to rise to a level that would help to balance the distribution of international power politics in a more multipolar (and perhaps safer) dynamic than the bipolar direction we’re headed in now.
While Japan’s economy and technological dynamism would allow it to otherwise compete and serve as a check against China, its constitutional limitations on the use of force prevent it from competing in the near term. That said, Japan is increasingly cunning in its ability to spread influence without the use of overt military means.
Europe’s forces–some powerful and in the case of France and Britain, active–are largely aligned under a global power structure organized by the U.S. and NATO. Europe had its hegemonic day in the sun before World War I and II, and very few voices are advocating for a return to a European-led world order.
That said, in absence of strong American leadership, Germany and France have been tapped to work things out for the future of Syria alongside Turkey and Russia. Regional interactions like these will become increasingly common in a bipolar world, as nations that aren’t great powers nor tied to the goals of any of them in any meaningful way, try to assert their influence. The Russian case is particularly dangerous, as Vladmir Putin now feels a freedom around, if not endorsement of, his military, cyber, and covert actions around the world. Regional conflicts have already reared their destructive head. Avoiding “spheres of influence” should be a globally-shared goal to prevent the ill effects of great power competition.
What the Future Holds
Weighty international relations tomes tell us that materials matter more than ideas in great power competition. A better economy, more boots on the ground, 11 aircraft carriers–this is the stuff power is made from.
The Cold War enforced the notion that ideas are a source of power. Ideology played an increasing role in managing threat from abroad. Propaganda ruled. A new facet of today’s conflict landscape is that propaganda can now arrive horizontally from friends on Facebook or bots on Twitter. Before, it was distributed from the top-down by governments.
This has everything to do with technology and the way ideas are conveyed through traditional and social media, among others. Ideas gain even more ground vis-à-vis materials, although nuclear powers tend to want to believe otherwise. Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election used ideas, not weapons, to promote disorganization and discord inside a democracy. This is arguably far more harmful in the long run than any kinetic attack.
Thucydides, Hobbes, Kenneth N. Waltz [friends with the author’s former professor and mentor, Dr. Paul Viotti–ed.] have all promulgated the notion that human beings will forsake cooperative ideas in order to compete in this world of limited materials. When life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” as Thomas Hobbes said, conflict reigns. A bipolar competition between the U.S. and China will create tension.
Avoiding this inevitable conflict, also known as the Thucydides trap, should be the goal. The outcome of a China-U.S. conflict, proxy or otherwise, would be terrible.
The long-term goal for the United States should be a policy that doesn’t “contain” China so much as it funnels its interests into the right channels. China’s growing investments in African development projects and Asian and European ports are all part of a carefully-crafted foreign policy plan. The United States should counter in smart fashion, without bluster, in a way that squeezes China into promoting the human and economic interests of the countries where it invests. Anything less is a betrayal of human progress around the world for the last several decades.
Western-led policies have lifted many out of poverty and created a peace dividend. China–or Russia or India, for that matter–doesn’t share the same value-set that produced these conditions, and so it’s crucial the U.S. continues to press for human dignity abroad while maintaining the firm security posture that allows the nation and its allies to do so.
There are worrying trends in U.S. foreign policy. Domestic opinion that values isolation and of course, the notion that somehow by retracting we’re putting “America First,” are growing sentiments on both sides of the aisle. America’s departure from the Syrian theater is the wrong decision and a short-term blow to projecting U.S. power abroad, but one that allows a refocus on areas of significant strategic challenge, namely Russia and China. In the meantime, ceding control of the battle space to Russia and other actors in Syria will forgo a seat at the table for the U.S. when the conflict ends.
Will a new bipolar dynamic look and feel like a new Cold War? No. But allowing ourselves to become complacent about a China-U.S. conflict would also be an error. A healthy trading relationship (itself in doubt) is no panacea for preventing conflict. Germany traded widely with Europe before World War II, for example.
The new dynamic will be more subtle, more complex. Think less aircraft carriers and more cyber attacks, corporate espionage, and convert influence campaigns. Intellectual property around military technology will be at a premium. China’s intelligence services are already very active inside the U.S.
In the United States, we have the ability to elect leaders who support a rational, peaceful approach to China. Avoiding the Thucydides trap is about preventing war in the interest of finding a better way to exist: not just for China and the United States, but the entire planet.
Trevor Jones is the CEO of Lynx Global Intelligence, a consulting and technology firm in Denver, CO. He has an MA in International Security from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver where he focused on complexity and humanitarianism. He is a co-author of the forthcoming book “Predicting Terrorism and Genocide: New Methods”.
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