Great-power competition is the pressing topic for the foreign policy community these days. The idea that the world is once again seeing sharp, undisguised rivalry between the major powers — the United States, China and Russia — has been a staple of the administration of US President Donald Trump’s recent National Security Strategy, National Defence Strategy and Nuclear Posture Review.
Less often explained, yet equally essential to understand, is why great-power competition has returned, why it is so important, and why the US is struggling to craft an effective response. These issues are all the more urgent now that China’s President, Xi Jinping, seems to be setting himself up to rule for life — and gearing up for an intensified struggle with Washington at the same time.
Great-power rivalry is often viewed as something new. Yet, it only seems new because it is so old. Throughout recorded history, the strongest nations in the international system have clashed for influence, power, and dominance. Sometimes, those struggles have taken the form of Cold War, such as the US-Soviet competition. Sometimes they have resulted in hot wars, from the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta to the world wars of the 20th century. But in a world where there is no supreme authority to ensure peace and resolve disputes, and where the penalties for failing to defend oneself adequately can be catastrophic, competition between powerful states is the norm.
The years after the Cold War, then, were the exception. The Soviet collapse left the US without a major rival. Japan and the major nations of Western Europe were close allies; Russia and China were too weak to pose much of a challenge. The world was granted a holiday from the intense geopolitical struggles of earlier generations.
Having reconstituted its military power, Russia has been reasserting its dominance along its Central Asian and Eastern European peripheries, challenging Nato and undermining the European Union, and projecting its military power deep into the Middle East — all in addition to seeking to weaken and divide the US through information warfare and other means.
Riding an economic and military rise unprecedented in modern history, China has been seeking to re-establish its former mastery in the Asia-Pacific and perhaps eventually compete with the US on a global scale as well. All this is normal enough. It is the warp and woof of great-power rivalry. Yet it has uniquely dangerous implications for the US and the international system it leads.
As relations between the major powers become more rivalrous, it becomes harder to achieve cooperation on matters that require multilateral action. Since 2011, for instance, US-Russian rivalry has continually frustrated international efforts to bring the Syrian civil war to an end. As Russia and China assert their influence, they are also increasingly contesting the global rules of road — freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, the illegitimacy of altering borders by force — that have underpinned international peace and prosperity for generations.
Likewise, the return of great-power rivalry raises the possibility that a hostile power may come to exert dominant influence in one of the key regions of the world — a nightmare of US strategists reaching back roughly a century. Finally, this competition is a potential pathway to the most cataclysmic phenomenon that can afflict the international environment: War between the major powers.
These dangers are not as far-fetched as they may seem. In East Asia, China has used maritime coercion to sprint towards a position of dominance in the South China and East China Seas, while also shifting the regional military balance through a two-decade build-up meant to keep the US from projecting power into the Western Pacific.
Russia has demonstrated that it will use force to keep states like Georgia and Ukraine from tilting too far towards the West, and Moscow’s military build-up has given it a pronounced local advantage on Nato’s exposed eastern flank.
To be fair, the Trump administration has performed two valuable services. First, it has simply talked about the problem more candidly than its predecessor, which often went to extraordinary lengths to downplay growing great-power tensions — first with Russia, and then with China. If the first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem, then the first step towards winning a great-power competition is admitting that you’re in one.
Second, the Trump team deserves credit for increasing military spending to meet the sharpening challenges Russia and China pose. The combination of the recent National Defence Strategy, which clearly prioritises capabilities aimed at Russia and China, and the significantly heightened defence spending produced by the bipartisan budget deal concluded last month, will be helpful in starting to prepare the US military for a potential conflict with major state competitors after nearly two decades of focus on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism.
Yet, military power is not sufficient to prevail in a rivalry with intelligent, capable adversaries who are themselves mobilising all aspects of national power to confront and undermine the US. Diplomacy, economic statecraft, soft power and resolute presidential leadership are also crucial. And here, unfortunately, the Trump administration is actively undermining America’s ability to compete.
The administration’s evident disdain for the State Department is crippling US diplomacy at a time when the struggle for influence is acute in key areas such as Southeast Asia. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership was a self-inflicted wound for American economic statecraft, essentially clearing the economic field for China in the Asia-Pacific. Through his indifference to the role of liberal values in US strategy, the president is essentially forfeiting America’s major ideological advantage vis-vis repressive authoritarian regimes. And through his ambivalence toward alliances, Trump risks eroding the cohesion of the institutions that constitute one of America’s greatest sources of competitive geopolitical advantage.
Finally, even as Trump’s advisers have rightly identified great-power competition as the nation’s foremost strategic priority, a president who has repeatedly praised Russian President Vladimir Putin and fawned over Xi just doesn’t seem to have much appetite for the challenge. If the US is gearing up for geopolitical competition, it is thus doing so without the leadership of its president. That certainly bodes ill for America’s ability to win the great-power struggles in which it is now unmistakably engaged.
Hal Brands is a professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His latest book is American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump.