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A new era of great-power competition is upon us. That, at least, is the emerging conventional wisdom among foreign policy analysts in Washington. Both the 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) and the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) signaled a shift in thinking: the unclassified summary of the latter declared that “inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security,” and many have turned to the classic concept of great-power rivals to describe the new reality. “After being dismissed as a phenomenon of an earlier century,” the NSS concluded, “great power competition returned.” Former U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis used the term in a speech outlining the NDS. Outside government, references to great-power competition have proliferated over the last several months, the term having become a sort of shorthand for the situation the United States now faces. But does the phrase really capture today’s reality?
Great-power competition describes a specific pattern of relations between states—the sort practiced by the great empires and nation-states from the seventeenth through the early twentieth centuries. China’s rise as an economic and political power and Russia’s increasing assertiveness on the world stage have understandably fueled analogies to that time. But the emerging era does not match the patterns of the past. Treating it as though it does risks misunderstanding both the character of today’s threats and the source of the United States’ competitive advantages.
Great-power competition reflected a reality that many see as perennial in world politics: the leading powers of any era tend to view one another in suspicious, hostile, and sometimes apocalyptic terms and to compete bitterly for power, influence, and status. The typical version of the concept describes several specific ways in which collections of great powers interact.
For one, great-power competitions create a churning, multipolar structure of world politics in which major powers face a powerful set of potential enemies and constantly shuffle their allegiances. The classic case is Europe in several distinct periods from the seventeenth century to the early twentieth: France, Great Britain, the Habsburg and Austro-Hungarian empires, Prussia (later Germany), Spain, Russia, and others worried about, armed against, and aligned with and against one another in a tumbling geopolitical contest.
During periods of great-power competition, states occasionally settle into temporary agreements on norms to regulate their conduct—as in the heyday of the nineteenth-century Vienna System—but for the most part, ordering mechanisms remain weak. Players seek power, influence, wealth, and status unencumbered by shared international institutions, norms, or rules. The kaleidoscopic rivalries of great-power competition thus fuel the intense uncertainty in world politics that is a recurring pattern in those eras.
In classic great-power competition, rivalries typically manifest themselves in military forms of competition and conflict. Economic, social, and cultural tensions have shaped these contests as well, but traditional great-power clashes were defined by the prospect of large-scale warfare. Great powers from Napoleon’s France to Bismarck’s Prussia to Wilhelmine Germany to the revisionists of the 1930s threatened one another with invasion and war. Military strength was the ultimate arbiter of such contests.
Each of these three elements—a multipolar system, a general disregard for rule-based constraints on behavior, and dominantly political-military forms of rivalry—is present during periods of great-power competition. Yet none of them accurately describes world politics today. The NSS and NDS are right to point out the growing competition between the United States and China and, in less comprehensive terms, between the United States and Russia. But these rivalries (and other relationships between major powers today) are unfolding in ways, and within a larger international context, that bear little resemblance to great-power competitions of the past.
The current structure of the international system is not fundamentally multipolar. It does show growing signs of multipolarity, in the reduced degrees of U.S. predominance and as several regional powers have become more assertive. Yet it also retains many elements of the post–Cold War period of unipolarity. Washington remains the predominant power for many reasons: its overall military superiority, its leading role in so many international organizations, its formidable set of treaty allies, and its ownership of the world’s dominant reserve currency are chief among them. At the same time, the emerging system has important elements of bipolarity: the United States and China are clearly first among equals, and their rivalry is likely to play a disproportionate role in shaping the course of world politics. Today’s world thus reflects a complex mixture of unipolar, bipolar, and multipolar elements that does not match the classic vision of a colliding set of roughly equivalent great powers.
Moreover, when states compete today, they do so mediated by institutions, rules, and norms that differ starkly from the conditions during most periods of true great-power competition. Most major powers today are firmly established industrial democracies that want stability and prosperity and harbor no meaningful territorial ambitions. A dense network of organizations, treaties, informal processes, and many other constraints regulates their relations. The postwar order, although imperfect, has produced the most highly institutionalized and norm-bound international system in history. Critically, this order is not imposed on an unruly set of troublemakers—it reflects deeply embedded economic preferences for peace, stability, and prosperity.
The resulting relations between most leading powers look very little like the typical pattern during classical eras of great-power competition. Japan, for example, does not fear India. (Indeed, they are collaborating to balance Chinese power.) The European Union does not fear Brazil, which does not fear Mexico. Many of the world’s most powerful states belong in military alliances and political unions with one another; even those that do not are collaborating extensively in areas such as trade, information security, climate, and global development. The security problems of the emerging era come not from a set of mutually suspicious great powers but from a handful of partly revisionist states, led by Russia and China, unsatisfied with their status in the international system.
The way those states express that dissatisfaction, moreover, differs significantly from the classic predominance of political-military forms of great-power competition. Because of the nuclear revolution, victorious wars of conquest are simply not a realistic option. No modern Russian Napoleon could imagine seizing the whole of Europe, because to do so would be to court nuclear annihilation. Beyond the effect of nuclear weapons, several factors—including the role of democracy, prosperity, and economic interdependence—have ushered in an age when military adventurism is strikingly rare. Today’s versions of rivalry and competition almost always play out in the economic, political, cultural, and informational spheres—not on the battlefield.
This is not to say military power plays no role in current competitions. It surely does, as a means of coercion and a backdrop to other efforts. But this is a vastly different role than military power played, for example, for France, the Habsburg dynasty, Japan, or Prussia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Anyone seeking evidence need look no further than defense-spending levels of most major powers today, which have remained stubbornly low.
The strategy of the United States’ leading rival—China—is therefore to advance its interests primarily through economic, geopolitical, and informational means. Military power certainly backs up some of China’s ambitions, such as in the South China Sea and in its belligerent posture toward Taiwan. But China’s activities today pale in comparison with earlier forms of great-power military aggression, which often involved existential threats to homelands—Germany’s fleet threatening the United Kingdom’s survival before World War I, Napoleonic France invading its neighbors, and the like. Whatever China’s objectives are today, they will not be served by a direct attack on other great powers.
Viewing competitors as mirror images of one another—as standard-issue great powers, motivated in similar ways and subject to the same kinds of influence—prevents U.S. policymakers from making crucial distinctions.
To see the state of international relations today as a new great-power competition is not only inaccurate but dangerous. Viewing competitors as mirror images of one another—as standard-issue great powers, motivated in similar ways and subject to the same kinds of influence—prevents U.S. policymakers from making crucial distinctions. Russia and China, for example, pose very different challenges for Washington. Both seek regime security and recognition as equal powers, but Russia aims to disrupt the current U.S.-led order whereas China seeks to supplant the United States’ role at the hub of world politics.
Conceiving of the emerging era as a classic great-power competition can not only obscure important differences between competitors but also lead policymakers to overemphasize military power as an instrument to advance U.S. interests. At a time when states are likely to seek competitive advantage primarily through nonmilitary means, this view would reinforce the imbalance in U.S. strategy between military and nonmilitary instruments of power.
Finally and most perilous, a great-power competition frame risks forfeiting the immense power that comes from heading a largely aligned group of rule-following states. The United States is already showing signs that it no longer values its role as leader of the international order it has shaped since the end of World War II. If Washington thinks of itself as one desperate, self-interested geopolitical chess player among many, grasping for temporary and transactional advantages, that role will likely further diminish. The United States would do far better to continue leading the group of nations that holds the predominant share of global economic and military power, is bound together by a dense network of institutions, and remains committed to certain norms, such as those against military aggression and economic predation. To abandon this role would be to walk away from the greatest competitive advantage any great power has ever known.