Marcus Porcius Cato always ended his speeches in the Roman Senate — no matter the topic — with the recognition that Rome’s peer competitor, Carthage, must be destroyed. Carthage was finally vanquished after the end of the Third Punic War in 146 B.C., three years after Cato the Elder’s death. His focus on the peer competitive threat perpetually reminded Roman leaders of the danger to their position and of Carthage’s determination to defeat them. Today, the U.S. Department of Defense could benefit by institutionalizing Cato’s powerful insight about the necessity of focusing on peer competitive threats.
Throughout history, challengers have confronted hegemons. These confrontations almost always have resulted in intense security competition and, sometimes, hegemonic conflicts that have profound consequences. The Peloponnesian War, the Punic War, the Thirty Years War, the War of the Spanish Succession, the Seven Years War, the French Revolutionary and Imperial Wars, World Wars I and II, and the Cold War all had lasting impacts on international politics of the time.
With the return of great power competition, the U.S. must focus on the principles of strategy. The first is the recognition that power is the coin of the realm in superpower competition. Foreign and defense policies must be anchored on this understanding. For most states, their power equals the amount of power a state possesses — its military, economic, diplomatic capabilities and effectiveness, population size, geographic position, technological prowess and adaptability, and natural resources.
In essence, the amount of power a state possesses pivots around three considerations: the number of people who can work and fight; their economic productivity and innovative capacity; and the effectiveness of the political system in exacting and pooling individual contributions to advance national interests. The number and wealth of allies is also important. This is because allies often augment the dominant state’s power through their military effectiveness, intelligence community, economic might, and natural resources. Of course, allies can introduce problems for the dominant state, including manipulating the hegemon’s power to advance the ally’s interests. However, on the whole, allies are assets that strengthen U.S. capabilities.
The second principle for strategy is the distinction between absolute and relative hard power. While the absolute power that a state has is significant, what may be more important is the relative power of the state — how it ranks in terms of power against the power of other states.
The example of Great Britain underscores this point. In absolute terms, Great Britain is far more powerful than it was a hundred years ago. However, in relative terms, Great Britain is much weaker than it was a hundred years ago. The rise of Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union/Russia and the United States mean that Britain is weaker in comparison. London is worse off than it was a century ago, when it ruled the waves and its empire was arguably the world’s greatest military power.
The greatest mistake made by the United States in the long history of its foreign policy was to suppress these principles and ignore changes in the relative balance of power with China. The U.S. did so year after year, for a generation. It chose not to advance its principal interest: preventing the rise of a peer competitor. In the wake of the Cold War, the United States believed itself to be in the Hegelian “End of History,” popularized by Francis Fukuyama, in which great power competition would be absent as the U.S. remained the world’s sole superpower. The U.S. was free to advance economic growth, while strategic considerations were the least of decision-makers’ considerations. And the relative balance of power with China has gradually changed in Beijing’s favor.
In a historically unprecedented act, the U.S. contributed mightily to the creation of its most formidable peer competitor. It is both appalling and shameful that U.S. decision-makers labored to create this challenger and did not heed warnings of adverse change. To the contrary, the U.S. government, business community, Wall Street and Sinologists pursued and maintained policies for decades that emphasized cooperation with China — “bringing China in” to the international order and fostering its growth, so that it would become a “responsible stakeholder.” The expectation was that China would cooperate with the West to preserve the present liberal order of global politics.
This approach was naïve and a profound mistake. China hid behind a false promise to abide by Western rules and norms to forestall balancing against it while it rapidly developed economically and militarily. It has been creating a new international order to replace the Western, liberal one. China truly is a revolutionary great power that seeks fundamental and permanent changes to the contemporary order in international politics.
Dominant great powers that do not value power and carefully consider and evaluate the relative distribution are condemned to lose their dominance. As a consequence, trade must be governed by its strategic consequences. The free-market economists’ emphasis on absolute gains from trade must be supplanted by the strategists’ emphasis on the distribution of relative power: Which state will gain more power from economic exchange must be the metric.
It is not too late for the United States to act. The United States can remain dominant because of its relative power advantages anchored on its impressive military, economic, technological and “soft power” capabilities. If U.S. primacy is to be preserved and protected, it is incumbent upon the United States to defeat China’s ambitions. This requires embracing the strategic principles necessary to win an intense security competition with China.
Bradley A. Thayer is professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and the co-author of “How China Sees the World: Han-Centrism and the Balance of Power in International Politics.”