The Fallacy of Great Power Competition


Harlan Ullman

Interestingly, the Obama, Trump and Biden administrations have pursued remarkably similar foreign policies based on a Great Power Competition with Russia and principally China as what is now, according to the Pentagon, “the pacing threat.” Obama decided in 2011 to “pivot” to Asia, subsequently softened to “rebalancing.” And it toughened its military strategy to read “deter and defeat if war comes” these competitors along with North Korea, Iran and violent extremism.
The Trump National Defense Strategy expanded Obama’s directing the Department of Defense “to contain, deter and defeat” China and Russia as principal dangers and upping the competition by imposing tariffs on China that led to a tariff war. The Biden team has not released its National Security and Defense Strategy yet. However, it is clear that the same general directions will be followed with perhaps more emphasis on the “deter” than “defeat” criterion.
This column has been critical of great power competition strategies for a number of reasons. First, nowhere has the “contain, deter and defeat” requirements been defined in close to specific terms. From what are our adversaries being contained? How and from what are they being deterred? And how do we defeat thermonuclear armed enemies in war?
Second, where is the off-ramp for reducing these tensions and moving towards more stable and peaceful relations? In the past, with the USSR and for a time with the Russian Federation, arms control was one mechanism. But the US seems unwilling to address arms control without China’s participation who declines even a discussion. Perhaps, a new agreement will be reached with Moscow. However, that is not certain.
Last, does no one recall history? In August 1914, the Great Power Competition among Russia, Wilhelmine Germany, Britain, France, Italy, Austro-Hungary and lesser states erupted in the world war with the assassination of one archduke. Could a similarly small spark ignite a major war today?
The Trump administration concocted two unlikely fait accompli scenarios as the basis for its strategy: a Russian takeover of the three Baltic states and a Chinese invasion and occupation of Taiwan. However, both are farfetched at best. NATO’s Article 5 that an attack against one is an attack against all protects the three Baltic member states. And as President Xi Jinping declared last weekend, China will pursue peaceful unification. While many do not trust Xi’s word, China lacks the military capacity for the foreseeable future to launch a successful invasion of Taiwan.
Great Power Competition also helped cause World War II. Nazi Germany was determined to dominate Europe and much of the world as a great power. Likewise, Fascist Japan had great power aspirations as it moved to establish its Great East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere in the late 1930s. Of course, given the horrors of World War I and the understandable pressure to not start another war, the democracies were complacent and appeased these powers and the junior partner Italy until it was too late.
2021 is far different. NATO collectively spends about one trillion dollars on defence. Germany and Japan are on the side of the democracies. And Russia and China have no real allies.
The Biden administration has two options. If it continues the Obama-Trump line of Great Power Competition, it must define, certainly to itself, what the criteria are to contain, deter and defeat both. Failing that understanding, no strategy can be successful unless through luck.
The second option is to reject the Great Power Competition foundation beginning with lifting the tariffs. The role of the Defence Department as stated in Title X of the US Code suffices: “be prepared to conduct prompt sustained operations incident to combat,” adding globally, and without naming specific enemies. Greater emphasis on allies and engagement with partners and potential adversaries is vital to prevent an untoward or accidental event from escalating into war. And far more focus must be placed on defeating what Lenin called “active measures,” or interactions below using force but ones that can be politically destabilizing and more dangerous through cyber and social media influence operations.
Given the political turmoil in Europe-Germany without Angela Merkel; the UK and EU deadlocked over the Northern Island trade protocol; Poland’s court rejecting EU law; Czechoslovakia in political crisis; France furious over the cancelled Australian submarine deal; Romania without a government again; and an energy crisis enveloping the continent-a new strategy is vital.
Great Power Competition is not it. But will the Biden administration recognize this need and recall what happened in 1914? Probably not.