Great Power Competition raises the specter of an end to the American moment and the rise of a new order built around China or, to a lesser degree, Russia.
But one author has an optimistic take to beat back the doomsayers — America is uniquely positioned to take advantage of its competitors’ missteps. That advantage will come through revamping the promise of the U.S. system of government on the home front to pull together an unbeatable alliance of allies and partners abroad.
But exploiting those opportunities means the U.S. must beat back the negativity and fatalism now circling conversations on Russia and China that see war as inevitable. At the same time, leaders must avoid thinking that today’s peer competition mirrors past conflicts against Japan, Germany and the Soviet Union and because America won then, it will surely win now.
The Great Power Competition framework has dominated conversations in government since at least 2017, when the administration of then-President Donald Trump released the National Security Strategy and the subsequent 2018 National Defense Strategy.
Ali Wyne works as a senior analyst for the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy firm, and he has served on the Council of Foreign Relations and as a security fellow with the Truman National Security Project.
Wyne spoke with Military Times about his 2022 book, “America’s Great-Power Opportunity: Revitalizing U.S. Foreign Policy to Meet the Challenges of Strategic Competition.”
In summary, Wyne, the son of Pakistani immigrants, portrays a fundamental optimism about how the U.S. can manage and prevail in the new peer strategic competition with Russia and China. But the nation must re-establish its internal advantages such as an openness to people, ideas and partnerships. America must also engage across the globe more proactively rather than simply react to every move made by Russia and China.
*Editor’s note: This author Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Why did you decide to author this book?
A: I was impressed that this construct was able to achieve such widespread traction, despite the level of ideological acrimony in Washington.
What I discovered was that the more research I conducted, the more interviews the more I came to feel there was a gap between the ubiquity of the term, Great Power Competition, on the one hand and the under-specification of the term on the other hand.
It acknowledges the reality that interstate competition has been a feature of international relations for four centuries, and that U.S. is not as influential as it was at the turn of the century. That China and Russia are more willing to contest U.S. influence than they were 20 to 30 years ago.
There’s less of a sense of the implications of Great Power Competition on foreign policy. You often will hear that it implies that the U.S. is engaged in a long-term systemic struggle with China and Russia to determine nothing less than the contours of world order.
The way Great Power Competition is used is so sweeping it doesn’t tell you what to do, but it tells you what not to do.
I wanted to see if I could impart greater clarity on this term.
Q: The book’s title, “America’s Great-Power Opportunity,” hints at hopefulness for what lies ahead. What are the key features of the opportunity you see?
A: The U.S. must approach this with quiet confidence.
The quiet part is because the U.S. isn’t as influential as it was in 1992. China and Russia can push back against U.S. influence. Today’s political environment is more congested, contested and competitive. And Russia and China will prove to be enduring competitors.
The confidence comes from a look at history and America’s current standing. The U.S. has escaped many prognostications of decline. It retains singular advantages — geography, a network of allies and partners, the ability to project military power and the possessor of the world’s lone reserve currency.
And the U.S. retains an unrivaled capacity to attract individuals from across the world.
China and Russia, while they are serious, multi-faceted competitors, sometimes have their strategic acumen overstated. Both countries have undercut their strategic outlook significantly. There are opportunities for the U.S. to take advantage and make choices not predicated upon China and Russia’s moves.
For example, Russia possesses the largest arsenal of nuclear weapons and still wreaks havoc. We can see direct consequences in Ukraine, its weaponization of global energy markets and food markets. So, Russia matters. Moscow has offered a brutal corrective to such notions that Russia was fading into obscurity. But Russia has engaged in quite an extraordinary act of strategic self-sabotage. It is far more beholden to China than it was before the Ukraine invasion. Those actions have charged the United States’ European allies and given a new life to NATO.
China is more integrated into the world economic system, and less risk-taking. But there is this false narrative that China can peer decades into the future while the U.S. can only look four years into the future due to election cycles. China has comported itself in such a fashion that virtually all its relations are far more strained than before the pandemic.
The U.S. is uniquely positioned to revitalize international alliances and norms to counter the strategic mistakes that China and Russia continue to present.
The U.S. has room for a far more proactive, affirmative foreign policy than it might believe. And an affirmative foreign policy speaks as much to its aspirations as to its anxieties.
I think it’s important to push back against belief in America’s decline and fatalism because psychology matters. If you believe you’re in terminal decline, then you’re liable to act in far more defensive ways.
Q: In what ways might the U.S. get this opportunity wrong?
A: Human fallibility is infinite and can manifest in different ways. If the U.S. tethers its foreign policy too rigidly to the decisions of China and Russia, that will create more problems. The reason it’s a risk is, it signals to our allies and partners that the US is unmoored strategically and has lost confidence in its regenerative capacity and that perhaps norms are in decline. It would allow China and Russia to dictate the terms of strategic competition.
It’s incumbent upon the U.S. to find a balance between complacency and consternation. There’s a risk of swinging too far in the direction of consternation and overstating the competitive acumen of China and Russia. If you needlessly inflate the competitive ability of your competitors, then you’re far more likely to miss competitive opportunities.
A third way of squandering the opportunity would be to fail to recognize that one exists. That might be my greatest concern. I do think it would be a mistake to believe that no opportunity exists at all.
The reality is war is not inevitable, war has never been inevitable and it’s not inevitable. Even though there are structural forces that make wars more and more likely. War ultimately is a human decision.— -Ali Wyne, "America's Great-Power Opportunity"
Q: How does the U.S. get this opportunity right?
A: The U.S. can’t and shouldn’t construct foreign policy in a vacuum. Recognizing that a significant part of U.S. foreign policy is going to be responsive because we can’t precisely anticipate what China and Russia are going to do.
One way to counter this is to assess Chinese and Russian assertions of influence on a case-by-case and establish a sense of proportion and hierarchy. I think it will be particularly important for the U.S. to compete selectively and confidently as opposed to ubiquitously and anxiously.
The U.S. must give itself the analytical breathing room it needs to envision what its foreign policy approach might look like without invoking competitors.
Another danger I would argue is Great Power Competition gives policymakers the sense that the U.S. can revisit a script it knows well. Imperialist Japan, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union suffered great defeats in their competitions with the U.S. Great Power Competition reflects great strategic anxiety but also a sense of comfort, “hey, we’ve seen this movie before, and we know how it ends.”
Rather than the U.S. saying aha! we have the script. Let’s really say no. Let’s take advantage of the competitive missteps that China and Russia are making.
Can the U.S. articulate and justify its purpose in the world without having to invoke its competitors?
I think it’s especially important that the U.S. address the nexus of domestic renewal and external competitiveness. If the U.S. is not able to invest in its intangible advantages, then external competition is moot.
The U.S. needs to demonstrate anew the capacity of its democracy to deliver on those vexing internal problems, such as managing socioeconomic challenges. In a more intangible way, it needs to demonstrate an openness to people, ideas, an openness to criticism.
Q: What’s the military’s role in all of this?
A: It’s imperative for the U.S. to continue modernizing its military to maintain its military edge. The U.S. remains the only country in the world that can project military power to any corner of the globe.
For anyone in the military community, it’s important that the U.S. not succumb to fatalism in the prospect of war with China and or Russia. The U.S. should not discount the possibility of war. One of the critical functions of the military and intelligence communities to envision those contingencies.
If you believe that war is inevitable, you’re likely to conduct yourself in ways that make war. The reality is war is not inevitable, war has never been inevitable and it’s not inevitable. Even though there are structural forces that make wars more and more likely. War ultimately is a human decision.
Q: What do you say to critics who say that Great Power Competition and the shift to Asia ignores ongoing hotspots in the Middle East, Africa and Europe?
A: That claim is a straw man. If you look at the level of security the U.S. has deployed to the Middle East and Europe since World War II, the notion that it would somehow, that it could somehow abandon those areas if it wanted, those notions are misguided.
The U.S. couldn’t exit if it wanted to. We’re talking about a reorientation. We need to make tradeoffs, recognizing security challenges will occur in the Middle East. As competitive pressures grow, we need to be unapologetic in asking partners and allies to do more to safeguard their own defenses.
America’s principal competitive advantage is its network of allies and partners. The U.S. increasingly needs to think of military technological advantages not as unilateral but as a shared undertaking with allies and partners.
If the U.S. can reinvigorate and repurpose and modernize the network of its allies and partners, it will be very difficult for China not only to overtake the U.S. in global preeminence but also in regional preeminence.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.