This article is part of the contribution made by the US Army War College to the series “Compete and Win: Envisioning a Competitive Strategy for the Twenty-First Century.” The series endeavors to present expert commentary on diverse issues surrounding US competitive strategy and irregular warfare with peer and near-peer competitors in the physical, cyber, and information spaces. The series is part of the Competition in Cyberspace Project (C2P), a joint initiative by the Army Cyber Institute and the Modern War Institute. Read all articles in the series here.
Special thanks to series editors Capt. Maggie Smith, PhD, C2P director, and Dr. Barnett S. Koven.
In 1962, President John F. Kennedy challenged the United States to land on the moon by the end of the decade. Space, the final frontier, presented an opportunity for both competition and cooperation with the Soviet Union. Sixty years later, the United States and the largest Soviet successor state, Russia, find themselves somewhere between competition and cooperation. In many ways, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine highlights the differences in great power competition today from that with the Soviet Union. Though technically and numerically inferior, Ukraine has imposed heavy costs on Russia’s military. Nonstate actors, such as SpaceX, have provided satellite communications to the government in Kyiv and presented NASA an alternative to Russian government-owned cargo flights to the space station. While unprecedented sanctions have been imposed upon Russia, Russia allowed a US astronaut to return to Earth on a Russian spacecraft despite threats to the contrary. So, what does this mean for great power competition?
But this isn’t your parents’ Cold War. Space is not the only area of competition. The Russian invasion of Ukraine might tempt US policymakers to fall back into a Cold War mindset that narrowly focuses on only the ideological and hard-power challenges presented by near-peer competitors like Russia and China. However, such a narrow focus and pining for a simpler “with us or against us” world would be a strategic miscalculation.
A farsighted strategy must address not only the most apparent security challenges associated with great power competition, but also those emergent, less visible challenges. Nontraditional security challenges like climate change, the spread of infectious disease, and cyberattacks can only effectively be addressed through US leadership that forges effective international and regional cooperation. Cooperation and partnerships will often occur with like-minded democratic allies but also with authoritarian or authoritarian-leaning states when the national interest demands it.
Both the Trump administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy and the Biden administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance focus on great power competition. This focus has led some to view international developments as a zero-sum game reflective of the strategic logic that drove United States’ foreign policy during the Cold War. However, the modern context of competition with Beijing and Moscow is fundamentally different.
First, political, military, and economic power is much more diffuse, giving smaller regional states and nonstate actors newfound leverage to influence global outcomes. The power diffusion and the increasing number of influential actors make traditional alliance management markedly more complex. Second, new and emerging transnational security challenges, such as climate change and infectious diseases, will require broad cooperation across the globe from allies and competitors alike, including Moscow and Beijing. Third, the economies of the United States and China are interdependent in ways unimaginable during the Cold War. Open military conflict between great powers or even escalating tit-for-tat economic retaliations now place global economic stability at risk. Fourth, Washington’s grand strategy will need to modernize the United States’ already extensive global alliances while managing growing competition with traditional allies in military fields, such as arms sales, and nonmilitary arenas, including commercial access to emerging markets and technological innovation.
It’s a Brave New World: Diffusion of Power
While echoes of the ideologically bifurcated Cold War competition are reflected in today’s challenge of a rising China, there are also fundamental differences and distinctions that should be reflected in US strategies and policies. The United States now confronts a more complex dynamic as global power has diffused throughout the international system, empowering new and emerging actors at both the state and nonstate levels. In his 2008 Foreign Affairs article, Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, argued that the world was neither unipolar, bipolar, nor multipolar but rather nonpolar.
One of the cardinal features of the contemporary international system is that nation-states have lost their monopoly on power and in some domains their preeminence as well. States are being challenged from above, by regional and global organizations; from below, by militias; and from the side, by a variety of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and corporations. Power is now found in many hands and in many places (emphasis added).
Contemporary examples of this diffusion of power are abundant and painfully evident in the inability of overwhelming US power to achieve strategic success in either Iraq or Afghanistan despite twenty years of diplomatic, economic, and military investments. The spread of advanced technologies in missiles, drones, and cyber warfare have allowed far weaker competitors to threaten US interests. Past assumptions of US technological superiority are therefore suspect. Examples include Chinese cyberattacks on US defense technology companies, Russian cyberattacks on US banks, and Iranian drone and ballistic missile strikes on US forces in Iraq. Conventional US military superiority alone is simply incapable of delivering strategic success against opponents taking advantage of this diffusion of power and employing these asymmetric means of competition.
Fishing in the Same Pond: Areas of Potential Cooperation
The diffusion of power is not the only complicating factor. New and emerging security challenges are forcing the United States both to confront China and others when necessary and to simultaneously actively cooperate with them on shared security concerns. While cooperation with Russia is almost impossible to imagine in the near term given the atrocities committed in Ukraine, focused cooperation with China will be essential to advancing critical US national security interests. For example, Chinese cooperation in pressing Iranian leaders to resume adherence to limitations on its civilian nuclear program will be essential if Iranian nuclear capabilities are to be contained short of armed military action. Moreover, Sino-American cooperation will also be necessary to any global effort to effectively combat climate change as these two countries are the highest emitters of greenhouse gases, accounting for nearly 40 percent of total global emissions. As the spread of COVID-19 demonstrates, bilateral cooperation on issues of health security will also be critical in protecting the lives and economic prosperity of Americans at home. Additionally, although admittedly unlikely in today’s current environment, Chinese cooperation in the sensitive field of cyberspace could increase transparency and help establish international rules for behavior.
Additionally, even in the military and economic space where competition might well be more prominent, focused cooperation on narrow issues might prove to be mutually beneficial. For instance, while US policymakers resist the spread of Chinese communications firms like Huawei both at home and abroad, the United States could welcome other targeted Chinese investments in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world where the need exceeds the ability and willingness of US firms to invest. A recent study concluded that Chinese investment in seven African countries found a net positive economic impact to include job creation, improved regional integration, and the expansion of the private sector. Such development can foster stability and prevent state collapse reducing the potential for another crisis that could serve as a drain on American resources and attention needed elsewhere. According to a recent Foreign Policy Research Institute study, “Chinese involvement in Africa should not create an either-or proposition.” Additionally, policymakers could seek to further encourage Chinese naval participation to bolster international security efforts as is already being done in the Arabian Gulf and in multinational antipiracy operations off the Horn of Africa. Doing so would ensure China begins to assume a growing share of the burden of providing the stable international security environment from which Beijing has profited so handsomely.
Can’t We All Just Get Along? Competition and Interdependence
There are significant differences between US competition with China today and with the USSR during the Cold War. First, China and the United States have significant economic ties that would be difficult to decouple without a major disruption to the global economy. While both the United States and China would suffer from such a retrenchment, many non-European allies and partners would suffer even more as they are much more dependent on trade and investment from China. Second, unlike the USSR during the Cold War, China is deeply embedded in the broader global economic system and has been an active participant in international economic institutions. Third, China has a robust economy that is gaining advantages in areas such as artificial intelligence, green technology, and 5G communications, whereas the Soviet Union was (and Russia remains) heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Thus, the liberal international order the United States and its allies built after World War II is facing a more serious challenge from a more capable competitor. US-China relations will certainly shape the postpandemic order just as US-USSR relations did during the Cold War. Prevailing in this environment will require the United States to both compete and, when possible, cooperate with China.
Over the past three decades, China has significantly narrowed the power differentials with the United States. By some measures, China now has the world’s largest economy, though it is still a middle-income state on a per capita basis. China also has extensive investments abroad, through its Belt and Road Initiative, which extends its political and economic influence while also providing the potential to enhance its ability to project military power. China is also the fourth-largest trading partners of the United States after Canada, Mexico, and the European Union (EU). China also holds significant amounts of US debt, second only to Japan. Yet, Chinese investment in the United States in 2020 was a relatively paltry $39 billion, behind that of Hungary.
While the United States and China have extensive trade relations, our European allies are even more entangled with Chinese trade and investment. Similarly, while the United States is now a net energy exporter, its European allies remain dependent upon Russia for energy, as the conflict in Ukraine highlights. Conversely, China is also dependent on Russia and the Middle East for its energy imports. Therefore, US relations with Persian Gulf states could give the United States leverage in deterring Chinese aggression elsewhere.
And as much as the United States would like to focus on competition from China, it must also confront an aggressive Russia that has invaded Ukraine, suffered unexpected losses, and engaged in nuclear saber rattling. While the United States and NATO have clearly stated that they would not intervene militarily in Ukraine, there is always a risk that things could escalate. Western military assistance has been a critical ingredient in the ability of Ukrainian forces to inflict heavy losses on the Russians. Attempts to interdict that aid or US efforts to establish a no-fly zone could lead to a direct US or NATO confrontation with Russia. If China were to take advantage of that confrontation, the United States confronts a very realistic prospect of being drawn into simultaneous conflicts in two critical areas: Ukraine and Taiwan.
Yet the war in Ukraine offers some useful lessons in deterring a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. The United States and its allies should continue and expand the provision of advanced weapons systems and training to Taiwan that would be most effective in targeting Chinese vulnerabilities such as the challenges of supplying an invading force across the 110-mile-wide Taiwan Strait. Of course, effective missile and air defense systems will be key to Taiwanese defense, as they have been in the case of Ukraine. Moreover, if a Chinese military buildup was detected, the United States and its allies could announce a set of diplomatic and economic punishments that would be immediately imposed in the event of Chinese military attack, as was successfully done in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
That’s What Friends are For: Allies and Partnerships
The United States has nearly sixty treaty allies worldwide and partnerships with many more states. In spite of foreign policy missteps over the past two decades, many countries viewed the United States as their top ally under President Trump and European confidence in US leadership surged as President Biden took office. This wide array of partners and allies represents a significant comparative advantage for the United States. Given the increasing military capabilities of China and the challenges posed by Russia, the United States must carefully nurture and modernize these relationships.
In Europe, this means supporting more robust EU military capabilities without diminishing the role of NATO for collective defense. This will be easier said than done as the United States must overcome its concerns over Europe’s quest for strategic autonomy. In a common refrain, European (and other) allies will have to pick up more of the slack for collective defense. While there is certainly room for improvement in bolstering defense capabilities, a deeper analysis demonstrates that many are increasing their spending on defense and national security programs. Also, recent aggressive actions by Russia have already prompted the chancellor of Germany—the most powerful economy in Europe—to pledge a massive increase in defense spending. The Russian invasion has also raised the possibility of Finland or Sweden, or both, joining the NATO alliance.
In the Middle East, the United States must manage fraught relations and diverging interests with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Israel. Stability in the region requires reducing tensions with Iran so as to avoid a major regional armed confrontation in the immediate term while helping partners transition to a post-oil economy in the longer term. In the Indo-Pacific, this means modernizing bilateral ties with traditional allies, such as Japan and the Republic of Korea, and solidifying or expanding multilateral relations, such as the security pact with the United Kingdom and Australia. The United States must also encourage allies to strengthen their own bilateral security cooperation. It also means closer cooperation with allies, such as the Philippines, and partners like India, Vietnam, and other nations where interests overlap without pressuring them into binding defense commitments that they are not yet ready to assume.
This will be no easy task as the United States also faces competition from its allies and partners in economic, technological, and even military fields. The United States and the EU will continue to compete in some sectors and disagree over other issues. However, the United States and the EU must work together to protect intellectual property and reduce vulnerabilities in key infrastructure and technologies where China has made inroads. The United States also competes with both allies and competitors in the arms industry. The largest arms exporters are the United States, Russia, France, Germany, and China. As the nuclear submarine deal with Australia demonstrated, sometimes US competition with its allies can hurt relations in other areas. On the other hand, many traditional US allies, and hopeful partners, also invest in arms from America’s competitors such as Russia. For example, both Turkey (a NATO ally) and Saudi Arabia purchased or agreed to purchase S-400 air defense missiles from Russia, straining relations with the United States. One of the key members of the Quad, India, also signed a major trade and weapons deal with Russia in 2021. Clearly, the United States will have to determine where it can or cannot compromise with its allies, partners, and adversaries.
When addressing the crowd in Texas in 1962, President Kennedy stated the United States chose to go to the moon and pursue other national objectives, “not because they are easy but because they are hard.” The shifts between competition and cooperation are not easy but must be addressed. While some elements of the current strategic environment mirror those of the Cold War, others are clearly different and require a new US grand strategy or strategic vision. The diffusion of power, the proliferation of truly global issues requiring effective and broad international cooperation, deepening economic interdependence, and the need to capitalize on an extensive US network of allies and partners present both challenges and opportunities for the United States. Understanding and adapting to these major shifts in the global security environment are essential to developing a competitive strategy for the United States.
Dr. Chris Bolan is professor of Middle East security studies at the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College where he researches and teaches graduate-level courses on US national security, foreign policy, and the Middle East. He is also a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
Dr. Joel Hillison is a professor of national security studies at the US Army War College. He is the author of Stepping Up: Burden-sharing by NATO’s Newest Members and spent three years working in NATO.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: North Atlantic Treaty Organization