‘Great-power competition’ is the wrong foreign policy framework. Here’s what should replace it
The concept of “great-power competition” (GPC) is now firmly entrenched at the heart of U.S. defense thinking. Indeed, what was an arcane academic term just a few years ago has now achieved the status once enjoyed by the term “containment.” It has become the key organizing principle around which foreign policy debates revolve and foreign policy itself is conducted.
But the frame of great-power competition is deeply problematic.
First, as a description of the current international order, it distorts as much as it reveals. The GPC frame is in effect an amalgam of geopolitical assumptions and strategic prescriptions cobbled together out of the raw materials furnished by two supposedly analogous eras: the inter-war period and the Cold War.
From the 1930s, adherents to the GPC framework have derived the core belief that democratic recession, deglobalization and the disintegration of international order encouraged the emergence of authoritarian revisionists bent on overturning the existing international order. From the post-war era, they have smuggled in the view that the United States is once again able to renovate the institutional architecture of world order in ways that reflect its interests and values while addressing the unique challenges of the current moment. And from the Cold War, they have inherited the belief that the U.S. in engaged in a full-spectrum, existential competition with a superpower adversary.
The result is a kind of geopolitical pastiche — a picture of contemporary international order that combines the sense of existential dread associated with the interwar years with order-building hubris of the immediate post-war years and the pervasive anxiety that defined the Cold War. The fundamental problem with the GPC frame is that it takes an obvious truth – that great powers compete with each other under conditions of anarchy – and, through misanalogy, distorts that truth in ways that paint a profoundly misleading portrait of the contemporary international order.
Second, as prescription, the GPC frame is not only misleading but dangerous. Building a grand strategy based on flawed analogies with the interwar years and the Cold War is destined to produce pathological policy outcomes, not the least of which is the prospect of limitless rivalry — open-ended, full-spectrum and overly reactive competition with Russia and China for power and influence, irrespective of the actual U.S. interests at stake.
Such a totalizing approach to containing powers that are deemed to pose an existential threat to the U.S. and the U.S.-led international order is both unsustainable and ultimately corrosive of the American domestic order. It also crowds out alternative strategic visions that are more modest and better suited to the geopolitical realities of the current moment.
And what are those alternative visions? What other grand strategies might be better suited to the realities of the current multipolar moment? Well, one such alternative – actually more a variation on the theme of GPC than a radical alternative to it – might be what I will call “differentiated competition.”
Such an approach would accept the basic GPC premise that states compete for power and influence, but would reject the belief, inherited from the interwar years, that they can be definitively sorted into democracies that embrace the status quo and autocracies that seek to revise or overthrow the existing order.
Similarly, while a grand strategy of differentiated competition would accept that China occupies a unique place in the new multipolar order – i.e. that it is a great power that is, or soon will be, in the same league as the United States – it would reject the Cold War assumption that this means that China must be “contained.”
Finally, while a grand strategy of differentiated competition would accept the need for some sort of rules, it would reject the argument that the United States must once again, as it did in the post-war years, seize the moment and set about building a new rules-based international order that once again institutionalizes its values and interests on the global level.
In place of these assumptions and the policies that flow from them, differentiated competition would instead emphasize balancing against potential aggressors only in regions where the United States has significant direct interests; accepting that other great powers have legitimate spheres of influence; basing international alignments on interests rather than ideology; allowing regional partners to bear the burden of balancing where they are able to do so; accepting that the global rules of the game do not always have to be rigged in the United States’s favor; and generally adopting a more differentiated approach to what constitutes a threat to the United States and a more restrained approach to dealing with those threats.
In other words, it would not be based on open-ended and undifferentiated effort to contain China, to win a decisive battle over autocracy, to right wrongs in every corner of the globe or to build a new U.S.-dominated international order. Rather, it would be premised on a much more discriminate understanding of what constitutes, on the one hand, an actual threat to a core American interest, and on the other, what is ultimately little more than a challenge or merely an unpleasant reality.
And it would then prescribe a much more restrained grand strategy – one that would focus on addressing a limited number of specific threats, that would rely on partners and allies to do the heavy lifting where at all possible, and that would sharply limit the deployment of U.S. assets abroad. Among the many benefits of such a strategy, it would allow Washington to devote always-scarce resources to rebuilding and rejuvenating a country that has been exhausted and corrupted by four decades of Cold War followed by another three of post-Cold War efforts to uphold and defend the liberal international order.
Will the United States adopt such a grand strategy of differentiated competition? Will Washington seize the moment and, resisting the muscle memory it has developed over the past 70 years, once and for all eschew the impulse to go abroad in search of monsters to destroy?
There is nothing in the recent historical record to suggest that it will. But perhaps this will turn out to be one of those rare cases where, in the words of Dr. Johnson, hope triumphs over experience.
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.