Great-Power Competition Is Washington’s Top Priority—but Not the Public’s

China and Russia Don’t Keep Most Americans Awake at Night

Russian President Vladimir Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping shake hands at a meeting in June 2019 Evgenia Novozhenina / Reuters

For all the acrimony in Washington today, the city’s foreign policy establishment is settling on a rare bipartisan consensus: that the world has entered a new era of great-power competition. The struggle between the United States and other great powers, the emerging consensus holds, will fundamentally shape geopolitics going forward, for good or ill. And more than terrorism, climate change, or nuclear weapons in Iran or North Korea, the threats posed by these other great powers—namely, China and Russia—will consume U.S. foreign-policy makers in the decades ahead.

President Donald Trump’s administration has been a prime mover in setting this new agenda. Its National Security Strategy, published in December 2017, portrayed China and Russia as seeking “to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests,” with Beijing displacing the United States in the Indo-Pacific and Russia establishing spheres of influence near its borders. When he presented the new National Defense Strategy in January 2018, then Secretary of Defense James Mattis announced that “Great Power competition—not terrorism—is now the primary focus of U.S. national security.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said much the same in April, when he told NATO foreign ministers that the world had entered “a new era of great-power competition,” adding separately that “China wants to be the dominant economic and military power of the world, spreading its authoritarian vision for society and its corrupt practices worldwide.” GPC has become the Pentagon’s newest acronym.

But the consensus extends well beyond the current administration, to foreign policy experts, current and former national security officials—and much of the Democratic presidential primary field. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren warned last year that both Russia and China “are working flat out to remake the global order to suit their own priorities,” while Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders decried the rise of a new authoritarian axis that includes Moscow and Beijing and has ignited “a global struggle of enormous consequence.”

There is a striking disconnect, however, between

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