The limits of America’s great power opportunity

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This photo composite shows, from left, Chinese President Xi Jinping, U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Over the last decade or so, the idea of “great-power competition” (GPC) has emerged from the graveyard of dead geopolitical tropes and returned zombie-like to haunt the corridors of power in Washington, D.C. At the turn of the 20th century, of course, the idea of multipolar rivalry among the great powers was very much alive, shaping the geopolitical imaginations of statesmen around the world. But the Cold War-era of bipolar ideological rivalry and the post-Cold War unipolar moment of pax Americana were widely believed to have driven a stake through its heart — and nowhere more so than in the United States, where visions of the end of history and the imminent triumph of (neo) liberal internationalism crowded out all the alternatives.

Now, with the “end of neoliberalism and the rebirth of history,” the concept of great-power competition has been retrieved and reanimated, employed by scholars and practitioners alike to make sense of the contemporary international order. Indeed, while there may be disagreements over the specific implications of this for U.S. foreign policy, there can be little doubt that great-power competition is emerging as the “conventional wisdom” of the contemporary era, shaping and constraining both official and popular geopolitical discourse in the United States and beyond.

In his just-released book, “America’s Great Power Opportunity: Revitalizing U.S. Foreign Policy to Meet the Challenges of Strategic Competition,” Ali Wyne challenges this new conventional wisdom, offering what is perhaps the first systematic critique of the frame of great-power competition to date. Wyne begins by drawing our attention to both the faulty analogical foundations of the GPC frame and to its counterproductive implications. With respect to the former, he articulates the limits of historical analogies in general and the problems of drawing on the interwar and Cold War analogies that underpin the GPC frame in particular.

Especially salutary in this latter respect is his debunking of the Cold War II narrative that is gaining increasing traction in and around the U.S. foreign policy establishment. With respect to the latter, Wyne highlights the dangers of “boundless competition” that he argues necessarily flow from the GPC frame. In this connection, he usefully illuminates how treating the current moment as analogous to both the interwar and Cold War eras simultaneously feeds U.S. geopolitical anxieties, pushes Washington to adopt an ultimately unsustainable primacist grand strategy to assuage those anxieties and prompts reactions among both friends and adversaries that threaten to weaken the United States’s standing in the world.

Far better, Wyne concludes, to adopt a more restrained international posture, to eschew unilateralism, to rely on allies and partners to maintain regional balances and otherwise to create the conditions for domestic renewal.

This is an ambitious book and, as such, has much to recommend it. Like every ambitious book, however, its reach in some ways exceeds its grasp. The most significant fault in Wyne’s book can be found in its conclusion that, properly understood, the advent of a new age of GPC presents real opportunities for the United States not merely to renew itself, but to build a new international order capable of addressing the historically unique challenges of the current moment.

While this is a noble sentiment, and perhaps unobjectionable in the abstract, it is an oddly jarring conclusion to a volume that devotes so much space to systemically highlighting the limits of historical analogies. For while Wyne capably demolishes the “1930s redux” and Cold War II frames, he ends his book by smuggling in another inapt analogy — that of the postwar order-building moment of 1945.

Although nowhere fully articulated, the undeniable takeaway from “America’s Great-Power Opportunity” is that the 2020s are in many ways analogous to the 1940s. Then, in the aftermath of a global depression and world war, the United States was uniquely positioned to build a new international order, one that reflected American values and interests even as it sought to create new norms and institutions for conflict management, economic stability and collective problem solving.

Seizing this moment, Washington constructed the postwar liberal international order. Now, in the aftermath of the Cold War and the post-Cold War unipolar moment, Wyne claims that the United States is once again uniquely positioned to renovate the institutional architecture of world order in ways that reflect its interests and values while addressing the unique challenges of the moment.

Standing in the way of realizing that lofty aspirational goal are the twin challenges of domestic decay, which undermines the attractiveness of the American example, and a GPC-based grand strategy that is both too ambitious and too reactive to guide any positive project of renewal. Wyne’s recommendation? As in 1945, Washington should seize the moment, simultaneously embarking on far-reaching domestic renewal at home while leading an ambitious effort to build a new order abroad.

The bottom line? If you are looking for a critique of the GPC narrative, you need look no further. “America’s Great-Power Opportunity” is without question invaluable as an antidote to the more simplistic notions of great-power politics currently in circulation. But if you are looking for an analysis that might provide a conceptual foundation for a next-generation U.S. grand strategy that is more restrained – more committed to prudent balancing and less interested in yet another exercise in international order building – then this work is bound to leave you disappointed. Count me in the latter camp.

Andrew Latham is a professor of international relations at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minn., and a non-resident fellow at Defense Priorities in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @aalatham.

Tags China Cold War Cold War II Great power competition Russia us foreign policy
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