America must realize the stakes for the great power competition today
The average American would be forgiven for not realizing that the United States is in the midst of a significant contest with China and Russia for the future of the international order. In 2018, Defense Secretary James Mattis said the world is “defined by increasing global volatility and uncertainty with great power competition between nations becoming a reality once again.” He added that this dynamic has now become the primary focus of American security. Yet the news cycle, our debates, and the activities of many Washington policymakers would suggest otherwise.
The failure to acknowledge this dynamic leaves the United States at a disadvantage as Beijing and Moscow fully embrace this contest. China and Russia are left to pursue their agendas, undermine our alliances, and operate unimpeded on the world stage. The public ignorance of the risks facing the United States is not surprising. The stream of domestic crises overwhelms the interest of citizens. There are certainly significant societal and systemic issues that must be addressed in our country.
But when combined with breathless and hyperbolic news coverage, the public becomes numb to the heated international competition in which the United States has been engaged. The complexities of the South China Sea or the ongoing conflict in Donbas are drowned out by the noise that fills the news cycle. This is of course not a new phenomenon. Getting the American people to focus on international stories, except when they are directly affected on a daily basis, is a perennial challenge.
Almost every international issue becomes politicized here at home. The way that China concealed the initial outbreak of the coronavirus and its malign influence on the World Health Organization is no longer a topic of discussion, let alone the Communist Party infiltration of academia. The Russia bounty program, whether true or not, quickly became a question of what the president knew and when he knew it instead of what it meant for American security. In both cases, the domestic horse race of politics and partisanship overwhelmed the important policy questions.
This is to say nothing of the apparently limited bandwidth to manage the competing crises and interests at the same time. Washington must learn to do both by addressing systemic domestic issues and competing in the international arena. It is not an either or proposition. Indeed, addressing the challenges at home will aid our ability to win on the international field, eliminating many of the criticisms adversaries levy at us.
Meanwhile, Congress is frozen in a partisan state, and any positive efforts to prepare for the challenges we face are overshadowed by fundraising and spinning every crisis. Of particular concern is the appalling lack of committee briefings to communicate to the public. There has yet to be a 2020 global threats hearing in the House Intelligence Committee, and it is unclear if one will happen. This is a key opportunity for our intelligence leaders to inform the public of the challenges our country faces.
The Washington bureaucracy appears to spend the majority of its time in perpetual crisis management mode, either defending the administration or attempting to implement unclear and often unfinished policies. This distracts from coordinating policies across the federal government and ensuring the application of all elements of power against both China and Russia, which is a difficult task even in the best of times.
The attitudes across the broader ecosystem of industry, business, and academia in the United States reflect the apathetic understanding of the great power competition, which China exploits to its advantage. Whether it is the Thousand Talents Program that funds academic research or many outright investments in critical technologies and startups, Beijing is taking advantage of the myopic focus of the United States on immediate returns and results at the expense of strategic strengths for the future.
When an overwhelmed and underinformed population is represented by a gridlocked legislature and an administration in crisis, is it any wonder that China and Russia are competing at a higher level? Beijing and Moscow are fighting us while we are struggling to find our own footing. This needs to change now. We must be able to walk and chew gum at the same time by tackling societal challenges and competing on the world stage.
The only way the United States will be able to score victory in this new era of great power competition is if the American people understand that the country is actually in the contest. Winning will require an educated and informed population. That is something we are missing today.
Joshua Huminski is the director of the National Security Space Program and the director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence and Global Affairs with the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.
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