How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Just 30 years after the end of the Cold War and 50 years after the U.S. opening to China, the United States’ two principal challengers seem to be on the march and dictating Washington’s foreign policy decisions. Russia defied many observers’ expectations by invading Ukraine, and it shows no sign of relenting nine months into its brutal campaign. Meanwhile, following a visit to Taiwan by U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in August, China launched a spate of short-range conventional ballistic missiles—including, for the first time, over Taiwan—terminated its military dialogue with the United States, and stated that it would conduct regular patrols around Taiwan, raising anxiety that Beijing may soon move on Taipei.
Beyond the pressing concern that the United States could find itself in concurrent wars with two nuclear-armed powers, U.S. officials have a broader fear: that the global balance of power could be at a troubling inflection point. In the National Security Strategy that it released last month, the Biden administration warns that the “terms of geopolitical competition between the major powers will be set” over the coming decade. The administration is most concerned about “powers that layer authoritarian governance with a revisionist foreign policy,” particularly Russia and China.
Against this foreboding geopolitical backdrop, it may seem incongruous to venture that Washington has an opportunity to steady its long-term outlook. The key to seizing this chance lies in a counterintuitive conclusion: although Moscow and Beijing are formidable challengers, they are increasingly self-limiting ones. With its aggression against Ukraine, Russia has undercut its economic prospects, depleted its military assets, and strengthened the transatlantic project. The Chinese government, meanwhile, is tightening its grip on the private sector, provoking counterbalancing in Asia, and inducing greater diplomatic coordination in the West. If the United States’ initial mistake after the Cold War was to underreact to Russia and China, it must now avoid the opposite error.
Russia has offered a brutal corrective to observers who once dismissed it or even still do. Its invasion of Ukraine has destabilized energy markets, exacerbated food insecurity, and imperiled an already fragile global economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. The more pronounced those consequences become, the harder it will be to sustain a unified response to Moscow’s aggression. Although Russia’s relationships with the West will remain irreparable so long as Vladimir Putin is president, Moscow has not been consigned to pariah status. Instead, most countries—including economic powerhouses China, India, and Brazil—have declined to sanction it for its invasion, and the value of Russia’s exports has actually increased since the war began. Russia’s growing partnership with Saudi Arabia further demonstrates that isolation from the West does not mean global ostracization.
But in affirming that it is an enduring power that can cause global upheaval, Russia has undercut itself economically, militarily, and diplomatically. While Russia has been able to blunt the effect of sanctions by imposing strict capital controls and taking advantage of high energy prices, Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas, the International Monetary Fund’s chief economist, noted in July that the sanctions’ impact will deepen over time, steadily curtailing Russia’s access to capital and technology. And by compelling Europe to find alternatives to Russian oil and gas on an accelerated timeline, Moscow has dramatically weakened its energy leverage over the long term. The continent is bracing for difficult winters this year and next year, but Europe’s adjustment pains will not derail its energy diversification.
Russia will also struggle to rebuild its military power. Putin’s September order to mobilize Russian conscripts demonstrates how significant its personnel and materiel losses have been and how markedly momentum on the battlefield has shifted in Ukraine’s favor. In addition to using decades-old equipment to sustain its campaign, Russia is turning to Syria and Iran for military assistance. The Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank focusing on security, found that 27 of Russia’s key military systems rely heavily on some 450 microelectronic components made in the United States, Europe, and Asia. Maintaining those systems and the defense industrial base that underpins them will grow more difficult and costly as sanctions steadily restrict Moscow’s ability to procure semiconductors.
Russia’s hardest task, however, will be to repair the diplomatic damage that it has sustained. NATO is poised to admit Finland and Sweden, the EU has granted membership candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova, and even Central Asian countries that Russia presumes to be within its sphere of influence are reconsidering their orientations. Further afield, Japan and South Korea have both imposed sanctions against Russia, and India has redoubled its efforts to find substitutes for Russian energy and arms. Even China, Russia’s putative “no limits” partner, may be looking to modify its relationship. Chinese President Xi Jinping hinted at that possibility at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in September, when he informed Putin of his “questions and concerns” about Russia’s war.
Moscow has dramatically weakened its energy leverage over the long term.
Closer to home, China is eroding the United States’ military overmatch in Asia and increasing its centrality within the global economy (its GDP is forecast to be roughly 87 percent as large as the United States’ in 2027). It is also using geoeconomic statecraft and technological innovation to build its global influence. It, too, however, confronts serious economic, military, and diplomatic challenges.
A poor demographic trajectory, an economic model that faces diminishing returns, and a fixation on consolidating the Chinese Communist Party’s rule are all hampering China’s prospects for maintaining robust growth. And external headwinds could amplify internal ones. The economic woes of the Belt and Road Initiative are mounting as the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine make it even harder for many recipient countries to pay back loans that they have received from Chinese institutions to finance infrastructure projects. As it renegotiates a growing value of overseas loans—$52 billion in 2020 and 2021, up from $16 billion in 2018 and 2019—China has also offered “rescue loans” to countries including Argentina, Egypt, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, and Turkey to help them avoid balance-of-payments crises.
As China seeks to place its economy on a stabler footing, it must also contend with a more challenging security landscape. The leaders of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States—the members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as the Quad—have now convened four times, first in March 2021 and most recently in May of this year. Canberra has initiated a major review of its defense posture in hopes of enhancing its long-range strike capabilities and modernizing its navy. Washington and New Delhi have pledged to enhance their interoperability “across all domains of potential conflict,” inked an agreement to facilitate cooperation in space, and committed to new talks on artificial intelligence. And owing in part to shared anxiety over China’s deepening ties to Russia, Tokyo and Seoul are moving incrementally to build mutual trust. Finally, and critically, the United States, Australia, India, Japan, and South Korea are all significantly increasing their defense spending.
Like Russia, China will find that its biggest challenge is diplomatic. Washington is convinced that Beijing seeks to become the world’s preeminent power, and bipartisan support for strengthening ties between the United States and Taiwan is growing. The EU is steadily adjusting its stance toward China, as seen with its decision to pause the ratification of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, a deal seven years in the making that was intended to improve both European investors’ access to and European companies’ treatment in China’s vast consumer market. China’s failure to condemn Russian aggression in Ukraine has only deepened Europe’s anxiety—as well as that of NATO, which warns in its new strategic concept that China’s “stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security, and values.” And the Quad proceeds with clear momentum, having intensified efforts to articulate standards in critical technology domains such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing, launched the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness, and announced a Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation Package.
Beijing is far more capable of offsetting external pressure than Moscow by deepening its relationships across the developing world. Even so, it has needlessly alienated advanced industrial democracies, calling into question its much-vaunted strategic acumen.
The United States should not become complacent in response to Russia’s and China’s competitive missteps, but it must now guard against overreacting and contesting those two countries ubiquitously. At first glance, recent history would seem to furnish an obvious rejoinder to such caution: the United States waged, and won, a nearly half-century-long global struggle against the Soviet Union. As the Cold War progressed, psychological considerations increasingly supplanted material realities in driving U.S. foreign policy: fearing that any Soviet inroads that went unanswered could presage a systemic erosion of the United States’ competitive perch, Washington contested Moscow in countries as disparate as Angola, Lebanon, and Nicaragua. But the United States faced an economically outmatched competitor during the Cold War: the Soviet Union’s economy was always less than half as large as its own.
Today, by contrast, while the United States remains the world’s foremost power, it is in relative decline. Its share of global GDP decreased from roughly 30 percent in 2000 to just under 25 percent in 2020. In addition, its share of global goods exports diminished from approximately 12 percent to just over 8 percent during that period. And the share of global foreign exchange reserves denominated in U.S. dollars fell to its lowest level in a quarter century in 2020. Meanwhile, China’s economy is already about three-quarters as large as the United States’, its exports reached a record high of $3.36 trillion last year, and the available evidence suggests that the rhetoric around decoupling China from the global economy outstrips the reality. Today’s geopolitical environment would accordingly be less forgiving of the indiscipline that Washington once exhibited. Although Russia and China are manageable by virtue of being self-limiting, they collectively have ample capacity to goad the United States and lock it into a reactive and self-defeating foreign policy.
There are other reasons why the United States should choose selective competition over universal struggle. Not every decision that Russia or China makes is intrinsically inimical to vital U.S. national interests—or necessarily taken with the United States in mind. Despite narratives that still suffuse much of American commentary—portraying Russia as the stealthy and ubiquitous opportunist and China as the patient and farsighted strategist—neither country is immune to hubris and overreach. And although an inexorably tightening China-Russia entente may seem like a fait accompli, U.S. foreign policy should entertain the possibility that strains between the two countries could eventually emerge. Moreover, Washington’s efforts to manage transnational challenges, such as climate change and future pandemics, will be limited if the United States bypasses Russia and China and solely engages like-minded countries.
Finally, beyond achieving little traction in the developing world, a foreign policy organized too tightly around contesting Russia and China would elicit significant concern even among U.S. allies and partners, few of which would take kindly to serving as instruments of a new Cold War—an outcome, U.S. President Joe Biden has often and properly stressed, that need not be inevitable. Perhaps the most crucial observation in the administration’s national security strategy reflects that judgment: “We will avoid the temptation to see the world solely through the prism of strategic competition and will continue to engage countries on their own terms.”
Maintaining competitive equanimity is difficult for every power, but it is hardest for the world’s sole superpower—especially because the United States’ principal challengers contest the vision of international order that many U.S. officials and scholars had thought to be triumphant just three decades earlier. The traction that “great-power competition” has achieved in the U.S. policymaking community reflects that anxiety.
Paradoxically, however, the widespread resonance of that framework—largely transcending ideological divides—also reflects a sense of bureaucratic comfort. From the late 1930s to the late 1980s, the United States largely oriented its foreign policy around three external challengers: imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War proved a Pyrrhic victory for Washington, for the existence of the Soviet threat had helped to define its role in the world for nearly 50 years. For roughly a quarter century afterward, the United States struggled to settle on an anchoring construct, variously experimenting with “engagement and enlargement,” “the global war on terrorism,” and “the pivot to Asia.” A revanchist Moscow and a resurgent Beijing would seem to permit Washington to return to a familiar playbook, restoring clarity to U.S. foreign policy and maybe even cultivating greater cohesion among a divided American public.
But such hopes are questionable. Japan and Germany were defeated militarily during World War II. Today, however, in view of the possibility that great-power war with Russia or China could escalate to the nuclear level, the United States has a vital national interest in avoiding such a confrontation. And although Moscow and Beijing both confront numerous socioeconomic challenges, neither seems poised for a Soviet-style collapse. In addition, while even limited great-power cooperation might currently seem inconceivable, transnational challenges will continue to entangle the society and economy of the United States with those of Russia and China—no matter how vigorously Washington and its competitors attempt to decouple from one another. Finally, although competitive anxiety can spur internal renewal, the United States should neither use it as a crutch nor assume that great-power competition will ease political polarization at home.
In other words, the United States must consider not how it can achieve an illusory triumph over its competitors but how it can sustain an uncomfortable cohabitation with them. That there is no ready blueprint for navigating this ambiguity means that, even as it continues to mine its history for guidance, Washington will have to develop a substantially new plan.
The United States should choose selective competition over universal struggle.
The management of great-power frictions will remain a core component of U.S. foreign policy because the stakes of avoiding armed confrontations with Russia and China are so high. Beyond taking steps in the service of that imperative, the United States should continue working with its allies and partners to enhance democratic resilience against supply chain disruptions and economic coercion, shape next-generation technology standards, support the global South’s economic development, and build new coalitions to address transnational challenges—partnering with Russia and China where possible.
Even as it embraces selective competition, however, the United States should not adopt great-power competition as a foreign policy framework. Were it to do so, the United States would risk getting drawn into a global struggle with Russia and China that would undermine its geopolitical position. Going down that path would also compel those two countries to draw even closer together than they would have otherwise and limit the United States’ ability to make diplomatic inroads in regions such as Latin America, Southeast Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. Washington should instead make a decisive break with the inertia that for some eight decades has tethered its foreign policy to the actions of—and at times the search for—external competitors. It should accord principal priority to renewing its unique competitive advantages, demonstrating anew that it has an enduring capacity to strengthen its socioeconomic foundations at home and mobilize collective action abroad to meet the full array of planetary challenges.
Moscow and Beijing are formidable challengers. The good news is that their missteps give Washington an opportunity to pursue a foreign policy that is rooted less in answering their every maneuver than in articulating its own aspirations.
To Compete, the United States Will Have to Pick Its Battles