A Fight Over Taiwan Could Go Nuclear
War-Gaming Reveals How a U.S.-Chinese Conflict Might Escalate
In his first days in office, U.S. President Joe Biden has worked to signal a clean break with his predecessor. He rejoined the Paris climate accord, offered to extend the New START nuclear weapons treaty, and reversed the “Mexico City” policy curtailing overseas abortion access. His appointees have repeatedly emphasized that the administration will prioritize diplomacy and multilateralism over former President Donald Trump’s “America first” nationalism.
But the fate of a central plank of Trump’s foreign policy remains uncertain: the focus on great-power competition, which according to his administration’s National Security Strategy has “returned.” In a major address at the U.S. State Department, Biden underscored his intention to “work with Beijing when it’s in America’s interests to do so,” but days later noted the likelihood of “extreme competition” with China. This rhetoric may reflect either pragmatism or that great-power competition is on its way to assuming a dominant place in Biden administration policy. Even if Biden aims to de-emphasize competition in certain areas, though, Republicans are certain to criticize the administration for being weak and ineffective in the face of international challenges. Absent some major change in the global threat environment, great-power competition will remain a focal point in debates over U.S. foreign and national security policy.
This is unfortunate. For all the concept’s influence in recent years, great-power competition is not a coherent framework for U.S. foreign policy. Treating it as a guiding principle of American grand strategy risks confusing means and ends, wasting limited resources on illusory threats, and undermining cooperation on immediate security challenges, such as climate change and nuclear nonproliferation. In the long run, a fixation on great-power competition is likely to undermine, rather than enhance, U.S. power and influence.
According to the Trump administration’s 2018 National Defense Strategy, “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.” Just a year later, the analyst Uri Friedman observed in The Atlantic that great-power competition was now “invoked from Aspen to Israel to South Korea, and by U.S. officials making the case for all sorts of policies.” The phrase, he noted, “has even achieved hallowed acronym status” in the form of “GPC.” Some in Washington see it as a sequel to the original Cold War, with China taking over for the Soviet Union. Others look to more traditional geopolitical rivalries as a model.
Great-power competition’s newfound popularity reflects real facts on the ground. Indeed, competition among great powers cannot return, because it never really went away. Rivalries between leading states exist in every international system. Even during the 1990s—the height of the “unipolar moment”—the United States and Russia competed in the Balkans; the United States and France competed in parts of Africa; and multiple states competed for influence in Central Asia.
But with Washington’s unipolar status now on the wane, powers such as China and Russia find it easier than they once did to challenge U.S. leadership. Since states tend to consider overt antagonism a more attractive option when they expect to come out on top, there will inevitably be more competition among great powers as U.S. relative power declines. With Washington on the back foot, foreign leaders see a chance to gain economically, advance their security interests, and challenge existing norms, rules, or their position in the international pecking order.
It is one thing, though, for Washington to observe increasing competition among great powers and adjust to a world in which it enjoys less influence than it once did. It is another entirely to elevate competition itself to the guiding paradigm of U.S. foreign policy—as the Trump administration proposed and Biden may wind up doing. The mere fact of a more competitive international environment does not compel states to engage in unrelenting struggle. Instead, periods of intense interstate rivalry happen when great powers choose—sometimes as a matter of grand strategy, other times through the accretion of individual tactical decisions—to prioritize conflict over cooperation. Nothing, for instance, requires the United States to push back against every peripheral challenge to its influence, status, or policy preferences. Not every move by Moscow or Beijing constitutes a direct threat to Washington’s national interests.
Great-power competition is not a coherent framework for U.S. foreign policy.
It is also misguided to think, as some have suggested, that great-power competition makes norms, rules, and other aspects of international order (liberal or otherwise) irrelevant. Even during the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union worked out a variety of formal and informal rules that helped them manage competition, limit nuclear proliferation, and otherwise structure international relations. Breaking those rules meant real reputational costs, as the number of covert interventions during the Cold War attests. Both sides of the conflict faced stiff resistance when they violated norms of sovereignty or national self-determination.
These norms, rules, and institutions often complement power politics. They serve as both objects and instruments of great-power contestation. In the nineteenth century, for instance, the German statesman Otto von Bismarck appealed to shared norms in a successful effort to reduce European resistance to German unification. Today, the United States draws much of its relative power from institutional arrangements—notably its unrivaled network of alliances and partnerships—that frequently reflect and derive legitimacy from liberal values.
These relationships underscore a central problem with treating great-power competition as the organizing principle of foreign policy: it provides very little in the way of guidance to policymakers. There is no single grand strategy for eras of great-power competition. There are no instruments of statecraft that competition renders relevant or irrelevant. Great-power competition doesn’t even imply adopting a more antagonistic approach to rivals: as U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev realized by 1987, the best response to intensifying competition may be to dial tensions back through confidence-building measures and cooperation.
Such indeterminacy helps explain the concept’s widespread appeal: one can use great-power competition to justify almost anything. In the 1990s, the United States needed enormous military budgets to prevent the emergence of new great-power competitors. Now it needs them to compete with existing ones. Liberals once called for major investments in infrastructure, education, and research to sustain American primacy. Now they call for them to keep the United States competitive in a multipolar world. Great-power competition might require strategic retrenchment, or offshore balancing, or deep engagement. Perhaps it means that Washington must give up its liberal illusions and pursue unbridled and unilateral realpolitik. Or maybe the United States needs to commit to multilateralism and more equitable relationships with allies.
Ultimately, competition isn’t a strategic goal. It’s a means to an end. The decision to compete with another great power should always be over something specific; it should center on the efficacy of competition (as opposed to a more cooperative approach), the value of the object at stake, and how the specific objective contributes to long-term goals.
For example, many argue that the United States has a vital interest in preventing a single power from dominating Eurasia. With that in mind, U.S. policymakers can decide, for example, whether—and to what degree—competition with Russia over influence in Ukraine serves that goal and then adjust U.S. policy accordingly. But if, as the U.S. federally funded research center MITRE notes, great-power competition entails a constant “global struggle for military, economic, and ideological supremacy between the United States, Russia, and China,” with no separate strategic objective in mind, the means collapse into ends.
This is not simply a theoretical problem. Even without a maximalist interpretation of great-power competition that dictates antagonism at every turn, U.S. administrations will likely face constant pressure to respond symmetrically to Chinese and Russian bids for influence. Politicians at home, as well as in partner countries, will claim that failure to do so risks jeopardizing U.S. credibility. If left unchecked, these pressures inevitably mean unnecessary escalation, security dilemmas, and misallocated resources. For the United States, a power in relative decline with expansive global security commitments, there is a real danger of military and economic overextension. Not every action taken by Beijing or Moscow, after all, represents a significant blow to U.S. national interests. Nor are China and Russia guided by master strategists.
The United States has plenty of experience with the downsides of competition without clearly articulated objectives. The Cold War led to a costly and violent quagmire in Indochina. Washington’s “war on terror” pushed it into a series of low-level but grinding civil conflicts in the greater Muslim world. Washington, moreover, could once absorb those costs more effectively than it can now: the United States was far wealthier and more deeply integrated into the global economy than the Soviet Union, whose GDP was never more than about two-fifths of America’s. And even at the peak of its involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, Washington did not confront potential peer competitors.
Cooperation will often advance U.S. security and prosperity more effectively than competition.
Today, by contrast, China’s GDP is (in nominal terms) roughly two-thirds the size of the United States’ and Beijing is the larger trading partner for almost 130 countries. China and Russia also enjoy the added benefit of deploying their military and political resources close to home, whereas Washington must spread its capabilities across the world to maintain its current status. If policymakers believe Beijing and Moscow are playing high-level chess, then Washington should be particularly concerned that the two will actively goad the United States into wasting resources in peripheral contests.
The United States must adapt to a world in which China and Russia are growing stronger, both militarily and economically. But in many instances, cooperation—including with rivals—will advance U.S. security and prosperity far more effectively than competition. The world faces existential challenges such as climate change, ecosystem collapse, and nuclear proliferation that will only worsen if the United States, China, and others fail to collaborate. There are models for how to avoid this dark outcome, even during antagonistic moments in world politics. Despite the threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War, Washington and Moscow managed to collaborate on a range of common concerns, including smallpox vaccine research and, eventually, nuclear nonproliferation.
Today, by contrast, the COVID-19 pandemic has frayed relations between the United States and China—which bodes poorly for the two countries’ ability to handle other transnational problems. Despite the extension of New START, the Cold War–era arms control regime between the United States and Russia also hangs on by a thread. No one is quite sure how China fits into this bleak picture: Beijing, along with the United States and Russia, is modernizing its nuclear inventory. Breakthroughs in potentially destabilizing technologies are looming.
All of these problems call for cooperative solutions, not unnecessarily deepening rivalries. When adopted as a foundational paradigm of foreign relations, great-power competition relegates collaboration to an afterthought or, worse, dismisses it as naive. Leaders in the Biden administration can better address the realities of contemporary great-power competition if they treat it as one possible way to advance specific goals, rather than the organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy.
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