Navigating the New Age of Great-Power Competition
But as officials around the world grapple with these complex developments, it is crucial that they keep them in proper perspective. States have competed as long as there have been states. They have collaborated, too, but the harsh reality is that competition all too often turns into conflict. The last century was punctuated by periodic spasms of major interstate violence: World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, several wars between Israel and Arab states, China’s invasions of India and Vietnam, and numerous wars in the global South. During the Cold War, the risk of nuclear destruction made direct confrontation between Moscow and Washington too dangerous, but their rivalry sparked many hot conflicts in proxy wars around the world. Even the so-called unipolar moment, when the United States reigned supreme, was not free of conflict; vicious genocidal wars erupted in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, and the United States invaded Iraq and Afghanistan.
The dangers of these times are real but hardly novel. Arguably, the world is returning to its natural state. The war in Ukraine and U.S.-Chinese rivalry conform to established patterns of state behavior. The uncertainties and risks they pose—the possibility of accidents getting out of hand and nuclear escalation, among others—are what U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld termed “known unknowns.” Most countries successfully navigated previous phases of great-power competition, and many of them even grew and prospered under those harsh conditions. If they remain calm and exercise reasonable prudence, there is no reason they cannot do so again.
Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is without question an egregious violation of the fundamental norms of international relations that cannot go unchallenged. But it is hardly exceptional. Ukraine’s suffering is striking only because it is the first war in Europe since the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Similar tragedies have been a daily reality for decades for many people in the global South. For the most part, these conflagrations—for instance, the Iran-Iraq War during the 1980s and the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea in the late 1990s—went unchallenged or were only weakly challenged by those powers, notably the United States and European countries that now fret over threats to the so-called rules-based order. The West even initiated several wars (think of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003) or backed actors in civil wars (think of Western support for anti-regime forces in Syria over the last decade), even though such behavior violated some of the most fundamental norms of international relations: the respect of sovereignty and noninterference in the internal affairs of states.
Obviously, not all violations of the rules-based order have been regarded as unacceptable or treated with equal seriousness. Race and color are seldom discussed in international relations, but it has not escaped the attention of many in the global South that in Ukraine, for the first time since the Balkan wars of the 1990s, white people are killing white people with the support of other white people instead of white people killing nonwhite people or nonwhite people killing one another, sometimes with the support and encouragement of white people. This may not be the most important factor affecting attitudes toward the Ukraine war in the global South, but it is a factor.
Unfortunately for Ukraine, its war is a sideshow for the United States.
No country can pursue a completely consistent foreign policy. But this particular double standard also explains why support for Ukraine in many countries in the global South is tenuous, as French President Emmanuel Macron warned at the Munich Security Conference in February. The global South may never have much of a battlefield role in Ukraine. But as the war drags on, if the global South’s political and diplomatic support for Ukraine erodes, it may become harder for Western countries to keep Russia isolated.
Unfortunately for Ukraine, its war with Russia is, in truth, a sideshow for the United States. Washington has made clear that it will not get directly involved in the conflict since such an intervention might lead to a dangerous nuclear escalation. But it may also have stayed out of the fight for another reason. Russia’s invasion is certainly an existential threat to Ukraine. It is a serious threat to EU members on the eastern fringes of Europe. But it is not really a threat at all to the United States.
Ukraine is a second-order issue for the United States. The first-order issue is China. U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has candidly said the United States wants to use Ukraine to weaken Russia so the Kremlin can never invade another country. Left unsaid, however, was the U.S. desire to make strong support for Ukraine an object lesson for Beijing. After all, the Russian invasion came only weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping met in Beijing and declared that their partnership was one with “no limits” or “forbidden areas.” Although it was certainly not planned that way, the war has made Ukraine an unwitting proxy in U.S.-Chinese rivalry, perhaps the first proxy of the current phase of great-power competition and conflict.
THE FOREST AND THE TREES
This period of great-power competition is not simply a rerun of previous epochs. One of the most intellectually lazy tropes used to describe the U.S.-Chinese rivalry is “a new Cold War.” This characterization fundamentally misrepresents the nature of the competition because it evokes a historical analogy that is only superficially plausible and, in fact, altogether inappropriate.
During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union led two separate systems that were only minimally connected at their margins. Although the prospect of mutual destruction tempered their rivalry and eventually led to détente, both countries fundamentally sought to replace the other’s system with their own. It was an existential struggle between capitalism and communism. In 1956, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev promised a group of Western ambassadors that “we will bury you.” As history played out, it was the Soviet Union that was buried, and today, China is only one of five ostensibly communist systems that survive (the others being Cuba, Laos, North Korea, and Vietnam). No one can any longer seriously hope or fear that communism will defeat capitalism.
Unlike the Cold War adversaries, today’s superpower rivals exist within a single system. Ever since Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping instituted economic reforms beginning in the late 1970s, China and the United States have been progressively and intimately enmeshed with each other and the rest of the world through supply chains of a density and complexity never before seen in history. The very metaphor of a chain understates the complexity because a chain is a simple, linear structure. A more appropriate metaphor is perhaps the root system of a tree leading to its trunk, branches, twigs, and leaves, with the global system comprising a thick forest of trees intertwined with one another across continents.
It is intellectually lazy to describe the U.S.-Chinese rivalry as “a new Cold War.”
That forest was planted and cultivated during the short post–Cold War period of unchallenged American dominance, but it has outlived that era. China and the United States are concerned about how exposed they are to each other. Both countries have tried to temper the vulnerabilities that come with this exposure. Americans and their allies have tried to enhance the resilience of key sectors by diversifying supply chains to reduce dependence on China. For its part, China has tried to become more self-reliant in key technologies and place more emphasis on domestic household consumption (as opposed to exports) to drive its economic growth.
Neither China nor the United States will succeed in these endeavors, at least not to the extent they may hope. Diversifying supply chains and achieving self-reliance are both easier said than done and will take a long time to have any significant effect. Partial bifurcation of the system has already occurred, and there will be further bifurcation, particularly in those areas of technology that have major security implications, such as semiconductors. But apocalyptic scenarios of an exceptionally complex global system dividing cleanly across all sectors into two separate systems (as existed during the Cold War) will not come to pass. The costs to the two great powers and to other countries would simply be too high. Competition between the great powers will certainly contribute to the slowing down of globalization but not its reversal.
Even the closest U.S. ally is never going to cut itself off from China politically or economically. Few if any Western companies are ever going to entirely forswear investing in the Chinese market even if they will be more cautious about transferring technology there. The total volume of U.S.-Chinese trade was more than $690 billion in 2022. This staggering sum does not suggest any significant decoupling despite all the tensions of recent years. For the foreseeable future, China has no real alternative but the West for critical technologies and access to important markets. The countries of the global South are not an adequate substitute. Russia is an albatross around China’s neck, but Beijing has no other partner anywhere in the world of Moscow’s strategic weight that shares its distrust of the West.
Like it or not, China and the United States must accept the risks and vulnerabilities of remaining connected to each other. China and the United States will compete and do so robustly, but they will compete within the single system of which they are both vital parts. The dynamics of competition within a system are fundamentally more complex than those of a binary competition between systems as existed during the Cold War.
A POLICY OF NUANCE
The geopolitics of high-end semiconductors is an illustration. All the most critical nodes in the semiconductor supply chain are held by the United States and its allies and friends, such as Japan, the Netherlands, South Korea, and Taiwan. But China consumes around 40 percent of all chips made around the world. It is hard, perhaps impossible, to completely cut off your own companies and those of your friends and allies from 40 percent of a market without doing them serious damage.
Framed by the imperatives and constraints of this complex interdependence, the current era of competition requires policies created with careful judgment rather than binary decisions. In August 2022, The Wall Street Journal reported that, up to that point, the United States had granted exemptions to most companies that applied to be excluded from U.S. bans on exports of technology to China. The CHIPS and Science Act, which Congress passed that month and which seeks to further restrict technology transfers to China, is unlikely to substantively change the need for a nuanced approach.
Most crucial, competition within a single system is not existential by definition because it is not about one system destroying or replacing another. Instead, competition within a system is about using interdependence as a tool of competition: positioning yourself to continue to benefit from interdependence and mitigating your own vulnerabilities while exploiting your rival’s vulnerabilities.
Interdependence does not erase the possibility of war. But this new kind of complex interdependence considerably raises the costs of conflict and, coupled with nuclear deterrence, reduces the probability of war wielded as an instrument of policy. The prospect of mutually assured destruction kept the peace between the United States and the Soviet Union; mutually assured destruction—now not just nuclear but also economic—will in all probability also keep the peace between the United States and China. The great risk is not war by design but an accident getting out of control, fanned by nationalist narratives into outright war. That risk is highest in a potential conflict over Taiwan.
The United States faces no existential threat anywhere in the world.
Still, that risk does not detract from the fact that the United States faces no existential threat anywhere in the world. Russia is a very dangerous adversary, but even before the Ukraine war, it was on a downward long-term trajectory for economic and demographic reasons, and Putin’s miscalculation in Ukraine has only hastened his country’s decline. Nor is terrorism, whether state sponsored or by nonstate actors, an existential threat to any well-constituted state and certainly not to the United States. China is a formidable peer competitor. Its economy is far more viable than the Soviet economy ever was and far stronger than the post-Soviet Russian economy at its peak. But it, too, should not be considered an existential threat.
Setting aside the question of whether China even has the capacity to replace the existing system with its own, it is hardly in its interest to do so. China is a—possibly the—major beneficiary of the post–Cold War global economy. Beijing may want to displace the United States from the center of the global economy, but that is a different matter from wanting to kick over the table altogether. China’s behavior in the East China and South China Seas and in the Himalayas, where its military has provocatively staked claims to territory, is certainly aggressive and revanchist in its territorial obsessions. But to call China a revisionist power seeking to completely upend international order is to greatly overstate the case.
Equally overstated is the notion that Washington’s rivalry with Beijing and the current war in Ukraine are part of a larger contest between democracy and authoritarianism. U.S. officials often invoke such rhetoric, exhibiting a tendency to focus on the epiphenomenal rather than the essential. This simplistic binary is both inappropriate and ineffective.
It is inappropriate because both democracy and autocracy are protean terms. There are many variants of democracy and many variants of autocracy, and the distinction between them is not as clear-cut as the United States pretends—as a glance at the controversial list of invitees to the Biden administration’s 2021 Summit for Democracy reveals. It is ineffective because not every aspect of every Western variant of democracy attracts unqualified admiration, nor does everyone regard every aspect of every variant of autocracy with total abhorrence. Framing the contest in this way may rally the already converted in the West, but it limits support in the rest of the world.
SCRATCH MY BACK
Without an existential threat, there is no longer any reason for Americans to bear any burden or pay any price to uphold international order. The key priorities of every post–Cold War U.S. administration have been domestic, with the George W. Bush administration an exception forced by the 9/11 attacks, which led his administration into ill-advised adventures in the Middle East. Since then, every president has tried to rectify Bush’s mistakes by disengaging from Middle Eastern entanglements, with limited success until President Joe Biden finally cut through the Gordian knot in Afghanistan in 2021.
That ruthless move and the domestic focus of all post–Cold War administrations has often been misrepresented as the United States retreating from the world. But it is more accurately understood as the United States redefining the terms of its engagement with the world. Again, this is not entirely new.
Half a century ago, the United States corrected the mistake it had made in Vietnam by withdrawing from direct intervention on the mainland of Southeast Asia, choosing instead to maintain stability throughout the region by assuming the role of an offshore balancer relying primarily on naval and air power. It has been remarkably consistent in that role in East Asia ever since. A shift to an analogous role is now occurring in the Middle East, where the United States is very unlikely to again intervene with large-scale ground forces. But the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet is still in Bahrain, and the U.S. Air Force is still in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Sooner or later, a similar shift will occur in Europe, too, perhaps delayed but not diverted by the war in Ukraine.
An offshore balancer is not in retreat but demands more of its allies, partners, and friends to maintain regional equilibrium. In different ways, recent U.S. presidents have all maintained a similar policy. Under Barack Obama, this policy took the form of an emphasis on multilateralism, which is another way of sharing burdens. Donald Trump made crudely transactional, unilateral demands. Biden is more consultative, but he does not consult allies and partners merely for the pleasure of their company. He is doing so to ascertain what they are prepared to do to meet the United States’ concerns.
For those countries that meet U.S. expectations, Biden seems willing to go further than any of his predecessors to provide them with the tools to further common aims. The trilateral security partnership among Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States (AUKUS) has enabled Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, the first time in more than 60 years that the United States has shared such technology. In this sense, Biden’s consultative approach is a more polite form of Trump’s crude transactionalism. If you do not meet expectations, the Biden administration will probably still be polite, but you should not expect to be taken too seriously, as some countries in Southeast Asia, such as Thailand, and more broadly the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as an organization, are beginning to realize.
RETURN TO THE NORM
In this new phase of great-power competition, all countries are confronted with two sets of realities. First, there are few (if any) countries that do not have concerns about some aspects of both U.S. and Chinese behavior. The concerns are not the same for the United States and China, and not every country holds them with the same degree of intensity, but they exist.
Second, China and the United States are geopolitical facts that no country can ignore, and precisely because of their rivalry, dealing with both simultaneously is the necessary condition for dealing with either effectively. Without the United States, dealing with China will take place in an unbalanced environment that will certainly disadvantage any country; without China, the risk of the United States brushing aside a country’s interests or taking the relationship for granted rises considerably.
Faced with these realities, most countries are going to try to maximize their autonomy within the constraints of their specific circumstances. They will not want to align all their interests across all domains in one direction or another. They will try to align different interests in different domains in the most advantageous direction, and their choices are not necessarily going to be confined to only the two great powers, leading them to seek out coalitions and partnerships with a range of actors.
The complexity of twenty-first-century competition provides sovereign states more space to maneuver than did the binary of U.S.-Soviet competition during the Cold War. Of course, states must have the intelligence, agility, and courage to recognize the opportunities to use their agency. In rising to this challenge, they will do well to remember that even if the landscape of modern international relations looks daunting, it fundamentally represents a return to the historical norm.