The Age of Great-Power Competition
How the Trump Administration Refashioned American Strategy
For many of the last 30 years, the notion that the United States was locked in direct contest with other great powers seemed as outdated as the Cold War itself. Instead, successive U.S. administrations have pursued collective security on the assumption that the world’s great powers shared a common interest in preserving the existing international order.
U.S. leaders have often promoted collective security following a great-power struggle. After World War I, President Woodrow Wilson pushed for the League of Nations, and in the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, the future Axis powers Germany, Italy, and Japan joined the Western democracies in renouncing war as a means of resolving international disputes. Yet war began in the Far East only three years later and a world war less than a decade after that.
With victory on the horizon in World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt reprised Wilson’s approach. Calling for the formation of the United Nations, FDR wagered that the “Four Policemen”—the United Kingdom, nationalist China, Soviet Russia, and the United States—shared sufficient common security interests to maintain peace and order. His hopes were quickly dashed by Joseph Stalin’s subjugation of Eastern Europe and the fall of nationalist China to the communists.
After the Cold War, the pattern was repeated. With Soviet communism defeated, the administration of President Bill Clinton envisioned a U.S.-led liberal democratic order centered around “Cooperative Security” and a “Partnership for Peace.” In the early years of this century, despite growing tensions with Russia and China, President George W. Bush declared he found Russian President Vladimir Putin “trustworthy” and accepted China’s membership in the World Trade Organization. Doubling down on this approach, President Barack Obama attempted to “reset” relations with Russia while pursuing “engagement” with China.
By the late 2010s, however, it was increasingly clear that these efforts had failed. Russia seized the Crimea from Ukraine and supported its proxies in occupying parts of that country’s Donbas region. And despite reassurances to the contrary, China militarized the South China Sea islands. Simply put, China and Russia had no interest in joining a U.S.-led international order. They had long rejected it. They had only lacked the means to openly contest it.
Hence the growing recognition among U.S. policymakers that “great-power competition” had never ceased following the Cold War. This was formalized in the 2017 National Security Strategy, and the challenge was given a full airing in the 2018 National Defense Strategy, which prioritized the growing challenge posed by a revanchist Russia and a rising China. Although it identified these threats to the international order, however, the NDS did not advance a robust new strategy to address them.
This task has now been taken up by one of the NDS’s principal architects, Elbridge Colby, who served in the administration of President Donald Trump as a deputy assistant secretary of defense. In his book The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict, Colby provides a timely exposition of—and argument for—a new U.S. defense posture. Colby’s strategy focuses on the United States’ century-old objective of preventing a rival power from establishing hegemony on the Eurasian landmass. Colby accepts that the United States’ “unipolar moment” is over and warns that we now face a “new reality” in which Washington must accept that a war between great powers, “which once seemed a thing of the past...now seems considerably more plausible.”
In describing this dangerous new world, The Strategy of Denial touches on a range of topics, including the challenge posed to NATO from a resurgent Russia, rival nuclear arsenal growth, an unstable Middle East, and global terrorism. Colby’s overwhelming focus, however, is on China. Since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, China has leveraged its rapid economic growth to acquire advanced military technology, seeking to match or even exceed U.S. capabilities in many areas. As an “aspiring hegemon,” Colby writes, China may be tempted to use its increasingly capable armed forces to secure its “core interests,” which include absorbing Taiwan and the islands within the South China Sea’s “nine-dash line.” More likely, however, Beijing calculates that absent a countervailing U.S. effort, its growing military power will enable it to “Finlandize” its neighbors without direct force.
To accomplish these goals, Colby argues, China will likely pursue a “focused and sequential strategy,” isolating its targets from effective U.S. support and then dealing with them one by one. Should this effort succeed, China could attempt what Colby calls an armed “fait accompli” against targeted territories such as Taiwan. In military strategy, a fait accompli describes a situation in which an aggressor achieves its objectives rapidly, before an effective defense can be mounted. It also implies that once the territory has been seized, attempts to retake it will be viewed by the victim and its allies as prohibitively expensive. Colby argues that a fait accompli invasion of Taiwan could create a new reality in Asia, much as Adolf Hitler’s sequential rapid—and bloodless—seizures of Austria and the remains of Czechoslovakia shifted the European military balance and destroyed the Western democracies’ credibility with Soviet Russia.
Even if a U.S.-led coalition held together in the wake of a successful Chinese fait accompli against Taiwan, Colby finds that a military campaign to retake that country from Beijing would be both very costly and extremely difficult, and thus highly unlikely to succeed. Consequently, he writes, the United States must do everything in its power to deter China from attempting a fait accompli against Taiwan or any other U.S. western Pacific ally or quasi ally. And should deterrence fail, it must defeat such an attempt at the point of attack. This is the “strategy of denial” from which Colby takes his title.
Should a Chinese fait accompli succeed against Taiwan, Colby argues that a U.S. strategy focused on “punishment” would prove ineffective. If the United States chose to escalate the war by seizing Chinese assets in other parts of the world, for example, or to impose an economic embargo, any pain suffered by Beijing would be insufficient to cause it to forfeit Taiwan. And if instead the United States opted to escalate the war’s intensity—for example, by conducting large-scale attacks on China’s critical infrastructure—the conflict could morph from limited to total war, in which both belligerents could incur costs out of all proportion to any prospective gains.
By Colby’s own account, preventing China from executing a fait accompli will require formidable political and military resources. To begin with, Washington will need to play a far more active role in Asia. And since U.S. military dominance in the region no longer exists, and cannot be restored, the United States cannot simply declare its intention to “pivot” or “rebalance” its political and military resources to the western Pacific. To establish a favorable military balance, Colby argues, the United States will also have to build an “anti-hegemonic coalition” whose combined military power exceeds China’s.
The new coalition that Colby calls for is not an alliance and certainly not a latter-day NATO. Instead, he envisions a confederation of nations, including U.S. allies and a larger group of regional partners. Colby sees the coalition’s “steel skeleton” formed by Washington’s “hub and spoke” allies—Australia, Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea—as well as Taiwan. Led by the United States, this core group must be bolstered by a broader array of security partners. At the top of Colby’s prospective list is India, a great power and the fourth member of the increasingly prominent “Quad,” the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue that also includes Australia, Japan, and the United States. Colby finds Indonesia’s size and strategic location attractive and would also welcome Malaysia and Singapore as members. But he is hesitant about Vietnam, which he sees as a potentially valuable coalition member but highly vulnerable to a Chinese fait accompli, given its common land border with Beijing.
Although he argues for Washington to take the lead in forming the coalition, Colby is clear-eyed about the means the United States has available to achieve it. He observes that any strategy of denial must be realistic about what the U.S. military can—and cannot—do. Despite the temptation to hold back resources to address other global threats, he warns that Washington must remain focused on China. Attempts to sustain a coalition on the cheap could compromise efforts to convince partner governments that the United States is “all in.” And if push comes to shove, Colby argues, the United States must adopt a “one-war posture” toward China and accept increased risk in dealing with other threats. While acknowledging the danger of Russian aggression against NATO states in Europe, he asserts that a fait accompli by China would be far more difficult to reverse than a similar act of Russian aggression against one of NATO’s frontline states. Simply put, the United States “should not size, shape, or posture its military to deal simultaneously with any other scenario alongside a war with China over Taiwan.”
If push comes to shove, Colby argues, the U.S. must be "all-in" with China.
What would a one-war posture within the framework of an anti-hegemonic coalition look like? In The Strategy of Denial, Colby outlines a series of steps that the U.S. military should take. To be able to respond effectively and rapidly, U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific region will need to be expanded. Given the risk of “Pearl Harbor” attacks against the few large existing U.S. bases in places such as Guam, Kadena in Japan, and Osan in South Korea, he also argues for dispersing U.S. forces among a larger number of coalition members. Such a shift, Colby notes, would also reassure the host coalition partners of the U.S. commitment to their defense.
Although the principal objective of Colby’s anti-hegemonic coalition is to deter Chinese aggression in the first place, he recognizes the need to confront a Chinese fait accompli with force should deterrence fail. Yet even if a military response succeeds, China could still choose to continue the war, perhaps by mobilizing additional forces for a more methodical attack on Taiwan or by escalating the conflict to a higher level of intensity. But China would, he believes, likely be reluctant to contemplate a larger, far more costly war, and in either case the burden of escalation would rest uncomfortably on its shoulders. In the case of the former, however, it’s far from certain that the United States and its allies could defeat a redoubled Chinese offensive on Taiwan. China’s current production of military hardware, including submarines, planes, missiles, and warships, exceeds that of the United States, and by a significant margin. If the war became a race to “reload,” as it currently stands Colby’s anti-hegemonic coalition runs a high probability of coming out second best.
As with all strategies, Colby’s is not without risk. Until now, Washington’s NATO allies have shown little inclination to pick up the strategic slack against Russia as the United States concentrates more attention on China. If Vietnam is left out of new U.S. security arrangements, as Colby suggests, it could become an early victim of Chinese regional expansion, thus compromising Colby’s anti-hegemonic coalition before its foundations are securely established.
Yet already, several of Colby’s designated core members seem to have acquired a new resolve to band against the aspiring Asian hegemon. Japan has promised to boost—even double—the percentage of its GDP devoted to defense. Australia is seeking to enlarge its major air and naval bases to welcome an expanded U.S. military presence, even as it moves to introduce nuclear attack submarines into its fleet with the AUKUS (Australia–United Kingdom–United States) security pact. From India to Vietnam, from Indonesia to South Korea, there are signs that Colby’s anti-hegemonic coalition is not simply an aspiration but a real possibility—if the United States is prepared to take the lead.
Even with these encouraging developments, though, Colby warns that success will not come “easy or cheap.” The United States cannot afford to hold defense budgets flat lest its strategy become one of “big hat, no cattle.” Nor, after nearly a decade of intellectual drift, can the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff continue to delay in providing a credible “operational concept” for defending the western Pacific to inform defense budget priorities.
The Strategy of Denial shows the breadth and depth of Colby’s insights into the challenges posed by the revisionist great powers to U.S. security and the international system. Like all serious strategies, Colby’s acknowledges that U.S. resources are limited and that tough choices must be made. In brief, Colby’s well-crafted and insightful Strategy of Denial provides a superb and, one suspects, essential departure point for an urgent and much-needed debate over U.S. defense strategy.
How the Trump Administration Refashioned American Strategy