How the ‘great power competition’ model leads to costly entanglements
Defining U.S. foreign policy primarily in terms of “great power competition” is a trap that risks overextending the United States and allowing its foreign policy to be dictated by Moscow’s and Beijing’s actions. Washington needs to recognize the limits of U.S. power as it experiences relative decline in a world with two major rivals, and it must seek to cooperate with those rivals on issues of global importance for the sake of all concerned while managing tensions with them to avoid the disaster of another great power war.
Instead of being guided by a poorly defined framework of “great power competition,” the United States must chart out its own vision for its foreign policy that does not aspire to counter every move that Russia and China make in the world. These are some of the insights and recommendations that Ali Wyne offers in his valuable new book, “America’s Great power Opportunity: Revitalizing U.S. Foreign Policy to Meet the Challenges of Strategic Competition.”
Wyne has done policymakers and analysts a service by tracking and examining the overuse of the “great power competition” framing in recent years. While the phrase has since become ubiquitous, it was rarely used in government circles until the start of the Trump administration. Since then, it has taken off in popularity and become a regular part of official jargon both within and outside the government.
The chief problem with defining U.S. foreign policy in terms of “great power competition” is that recognizing the existence of competition does not provide any clear answers for what the United States ought to do in the world. As Wyne says, “interstate competition is a characteristic of world affairs — like the balance of power — not a blueprint for foreign policy.” Acknowledging competition is a necessary first step in crafting an appropriate strategy and in setting the limits of what is possible, but it doesn’t tell us what the content of the strategy should be. Wyne counsels us that “we should not conflate description with prescription,” and that is what the “great power competition” framing encourages us to do.
Because it has been employed so indiscriminately, “great power competition” has become an umbrella concept to cover any number of individual policies and its vague definition allows almost anything to be smuggled in under its label. As Wyne observes, there is no scholarly consensus on either of the constituent parts of “great power competition,” so it is not surprising that no one can agree on what their combination entails. The danger of such a vague and slippery concept is that there is no way to identify proper ends or means, and it becomes an all-purpose justification for whatever anyone in Washington wants to do. As Wyne puts it, “A framework that is at once widely accepted and highly elastic is vulnerable to misappropriation.”
Far from focusing or disciplining U.S. foreign policy, the embrace of this concept becomes an invitation to a smorgasbord where “great power competition” becomes the official excuse for anything and everything.
A comparison with containment doctrine is instructive. The containment doctrine envisaged by George Kennan was relatively limited, not heavily militarized, and intended mainly for Europe. But within a few years it had morphed into a militarized global doctrine that was later used to justify all sorts of interventions around the world from coups to wars. Most of the worst U.S. blunders and crimes of the Cold War were the result of pursuing that much more ambitious form of “containment” that treated every country as a potential battleground.
Wyne comments on this aspect of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War: “Washington proved to be incapable of distinguishing between the core and the periphery of the postwar order because it feared that its vital national interests were implicated wherever Moscow asserted itself.”
This is what the fixation on “great power competition” threatens to do to our foreign policy again.
Great power competition can trap the United States into taking on far too many commitments and overstretching itself by trying to counter every action by other major powers. Wyne recommends a more selective approach that is not based on reacting to what the other powers do.
He sees several pitfalls from centering U.S. foreign policy on opposing all Russian and Chinese bids to increase their influence: it risks committing the United States to an expansive strategy that it can ill afford, it could lead to U.S. overreaction that drives Russia and China more closely together, and it forecloses the possibility of cooperation and locks the United States into open-ended hostility with both states. A foreign policy that is reflexively anti-Russian and anti-Chinese at all times has the perverse effect of letting the Russian and Chinese governments drive U.S. decision-making. It also means sacrificing U.S. interests that might be served by cooperation on specific issues, such as arms control or climate change.
He also warns against treating every region in the world as a potential arena for competition, and he urges Washington to exercise greater discipline and restraint by setting priorities for which regions are most important to vital interests. There is a temptation to use “great power competition” as a justification for maintaining or increasing U.S. commitments everywhere regardless of the underlying interests at stake. He argues that the United States needs to resist that temptation and be willing to reduce its commitments where appropriate, and it should not view every Russian and Chinese initiative as a threat that demands a U.S. response.
Wyne argues that the United States should not expect Russia or China to implode suddenly as the USSR did. Since there is no realistic prospect of inflicting total defeat on another major power in the nuclear age, Washington will have to find some way to live with these other states in what he calls “strained cohabitation.” Therefore, the United States must learn how to manage that cohabitation through diplomacy, and its chief goal must be averting a new great power conflict. Wyne stresses this point several times throughout the book: “The most urgent priority, of course, is to avoid a great power war.” Insofar as the great power competition framing encourages and stokes that great power conflict, it is inimical to both U.S. and international security.
The book concludes with a set of principles to guide policymakers in the context of competition with Russia and China. Several of these focus on the need for America’s internal renewal, or what Wyne calls “becoming a more dynamic version of its best self.” This renewal is not only a necessary precondition for being able to compete effectively, but it is also an important goal that needs to be pursued for the benefit of the country regardless of what other states do.
Another principle calls for recognizing the limits of America’s unilateral influence in order to guard against the mistaken belief that Washington can control or decisively influence all outcomes around the world. One of the last recommendations is to pursue possibilities for cooperation in order to keep competition between major powers from spinning out of control.
A foreign policy of restraint is compatible with Wyne’s recommendations for taking advantage of America’s “great power opportunity.” It should also be much better suited for putting them into practice because advocates of restraint have already been arguing for many of the same things for years.