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Succeeding in strategic competition is today’s imperative

AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato, File
FILE – The American and Chinese flags wave at Genting Snow Park ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics, Feb. 2, 2022, in Zhangjiakou, China. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has postponed  a planned high-stakes weekend diplomatic trip to China as the Biden administration weighs a broader response to the discovery of a high-altitude Chinese balloon flying over sensitive sites in the western United States, a U.S. official said Friday.

After the Versailles Peace Conference that followed WWI, Will Rogers, the social commentator, quipped, “The United States never lost a war or won a conference.” His words were providential as the treaty that emerged from that conference failed to keep the peace. As America disengaged in the period between the wars, the void was filled by authoritarian regimes that disregarded the nascent rules-based order. As Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia, stated to an indifferent world at the League of Nations when his country was invaded by Fascist Italy three years before WWII, “It is us today. It will be you tomorrow.”

Emerging from the hard-earned lessons of WWII, the United States built an international rules-based order that unleashed unprecedented prosperity, while protecting individual rights and sovereign nations — however small — from economic aggression.

Today we are again amid a geopolitical strategic competition spurred by authoritarian rivals seeking to bend the world order.

History will judge today’s leaders harshly if they fail to push back against the trends of isolationism and protectionism to embrace the tried-and-true path of engagement that fuels our mutual prosperity and to strengthen the global order.

In the eight decades since WWII, world poverty declined as standards of living improved. Infant mortality dropped. Literacy, access to education, life expectancy and those living in a democracy increased dramatically. This success was in great part due to the United States leading the reconstruction of a war-torn world and knitting it together through closer trading ties. America was well rewarded as it became the world’s leading economic and political power with a per capita GDP that more than tripled in constant dollars since 1960, making it the highest of G7 economies.

Despite these gains, America again finds many looking inward, as during the time of Will Rogers’s observation. While some aspire to reinvigorate efforts at building a better world and reengage with trade discussions, America’s retreat from championing more open trade and global development has left a void that nations seeking to challenge the hard-fought rules-based system are eager to fill.

Starting in the 1980s, China launched economic reforms that transformed the global economic system and allowed China to almost eradicate absolute poverty in the country. China’s achievements benefited from the world economic system. As China now seeks to carve its own route to prosperity and economic dominance, history suggests it will come at great cost and that its best choice remains the path of opening economically. China faces significant environmental, social, and economic challenges and a rapidly aging population. 

Many bitterly regret the open policy toward China. Rather than responding with targeted interventions to blunt Chinese efforts to distort markets, they mistakenly have turned against expanded economic engagement with all countries. It seems less likely that China’s economy will surpass America’s — the United States’ per capita income is more than five times that of China.

A confident America must step forward with allied nations to diminish coercive behavior with nuanced economic statecraft, and expand mutually beneficial trade and strategic investments to overcome the many challenges we face today. We must cooperate whenever possible with everyone — including China — but compete vigorously when we must.

To ensure it succeeds as a strategic competitor, the U.S. must pursue multiple strategies. These include identifying strategic investment opportunities in technology, infrastructure and the environment; securing global supply chains; expanding trade and economic security with a particular focus on the Indo-Pacific, digital commerce, and WTO Reform; navigating a shock-free energy transition while maintaining energy security and independence; and achieving greater coordination among allies to leverage our collective resources. 

The embrace of a few core realities is vital to success in today’s strategic competition: That unfair trade practices of rivals are rewarded by America’s retreat from trade leadership and will only be countered by giving the rest of the world a high-standards alternative trade architecture. That America benefits others and itself by supporting the infrastructure of other nations related to the digital, healthcare, energy, and climate technologies in which it excels, and logistic infrastructure that maintains supply chain security. That the United States needs to apply timely and proportionate responses to neutralize efforts by others to monopolize vital materials markets or advance digital technologies meant to control instead of empower. And, that America needs to re-engage with multilateral agencies to offer effective long-term alternative financial solutions to emerging economies instead of pushing them toward controversial loans that stifle economic growth.

America must again turn its attention to capturing mutually beneficial opportunities to economically engage and invest globally, as it blunts efforts by others to distort and coerce. Success in strategic competition must be the animating imperative.

Mark Kennedy is director of the Wilson Center’s Wahba Institute for Strategic Competition (WISC) and president emeritus of the University of Colorado. He served as a United States Congressman from Minnesota and as a presidentially appointed member of the Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations.

Sadek Wahba is the Wahba Institute for Strategic Competition steering committee chair and a member of the Wilson Center’s Global Advisory Council. He is a member of President Biden’s National Infrastructure Advisory Council (NIAC) and chairman and managing partner of I Squared Capital.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the institutions mentioned above.

Tags authoritarian regimes Authoritarianism China China–United States relations Democracy democracy promotion economic aggression Free trade geopolitical competition global supply chains Great power competition Indo-Pacific Indo-Pacific Strategy infant mortality rate international rules-based order isolationism Literacy Poverty reduction Prosperity Protectionism strategic competition World Trade Organization WTO

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