Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressing members of the U.S. Congress in Washington, D.C., March 2022  
Drew Angerer / Reuters

U.S. Presidents Joe Biden and Donald Trump don’t agree on much, but their administrations together have executed the most important pivot in U.S. foreign policy since the 9/11 terrorist attacks: centering grand strategy around systematic great-power competition with China and Russia. For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States has genuine rivals for international leadership with the ability to potentially defeat U.S. forces in military conflict. Yet approaching this geopolitical earthquake purely as a competition doesn’t tell the full story and makes it hard for presidents to garner popular support for difficult policy choices in what is a generational struggle. After all, what is the United States competing for and why?

A more accurate description of this new international dynamic is one of authoritarian aggression, as evident in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and in China’s escalating threats to absorb Taiwan by force. For nearly a century, American presidents have seen Asia and Europe as theaters that, if under hostile control, would put U.S. national security at extreme risk. Generations of Americans fought and died so that East Asia and Europe would not fall under the imperial control of U.S. adversaries. Both these theaters are at risk today. Should predatory dictatorships be allowed to swallow democratic neighbors with impunity, freedom would be imperiled everywhere—including in the United States.

The challenge does not stem simply from the military capabilities of the United States’ rivals. It stems from the ideologies of these hostile regimes and their desire to contest U.S. power and create a new world order governed by authoritarian spheres of influence. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin pursue revisionist policies of aggression both to bolster domestic autocratic control and to dismantle the foreign network of democratic alliances led by the United States. Their ambition is to push the United States out of their regions, neutralize or subjugate their neighbors, erode the alliance system that secures the U.S. homeland, and make the world safe for autocracy.

Biden is right to call the contest between democracy and autocracy the defining geopolitical challenge of this era. He will enjoy support from the U.S. Congress in reinforcing what Dean Acheson, who served as U.S. secretary of state under President Harry Truman, defined as “situations of strength” around the world, underpinned by the United States’ vital military alliances and its forces. But the free world is shrinking, not growing, on Biden’s watch. If the United States is to engage in a generational struggle to protect the free world from predatory great-power adversaries, it must deploy all elements of its power to deter aggression and bolster U.S. and allied resilience.

Although the United States is politically polarized at home, it has a unique opportunity to forge a new strategic consensus to guide its affairs abroad. Republicans and Democrats have come together to support Ukraine in defeating Russian aggression, and the U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly to enlarge NATO by welcoming Sweden and Finland. Bipartisan majorities also agree on the foundational challenge China poses to U.S. economic and national security. For the first time in more than half a century, the United States has both the need and the ability to build a bipartisan foreign policy consensus around the imperative of countering authoritarian aggression. But the goal shouldn’t be just to compete—it should be to win.

THE SINO-RUSSIAN VISION

China and Russia pose unique threats to vital U.S. interests. Both are driven by an inflated sense of historical grievance, and both have weaponized hostile ideologies against the United States and its democratic allies. Each is led by a dictator who is isolated from society and protected by a massive security apparatus that treats citizens as potential enemies rather than as members of a public that they should serve.

Yet the ambition of these dictators goes beyond grabbing territory and pushing the United States out of their regions. Xi and Putin seek to inaugurate a new international order. They would replace the rules-based system that Washington has led since the end of World War II—which has produced more peace, prosperity, and freedom than any system in history—with one centered on raw power, spheres of influence, and a new definition of “sovereignty” that gives autocrats, not citizens, the ultimate authority to define legitimate political order.

The new era of authoritarian aggression is fundamentally tied to the nature of the Putin and Xi regimes. Its animating force is authoritarian insecurity—revisionism abroad linked to autocracy at home. Xi and Putin’s biggest weakness is that they fear their own people. Putin wants to destroy Ukraine’s democracy to ensure that Russians don’t do what Ukrainians have already done: peacefully overthrow a corrupt dictator and build an open society. Xi’s view of Taiwan is analogous to Putin’s view of Ukraine. Taiwan is a thriving Chinese democracy with free media, a vibrant civil society, and competitive elections: living proof that the autocracy of the Chinese Communist Party need not be China’s natural state.

Xi and Putin seek to inaugurate a new international order.

To prevail in this new era of authoritarian aggression, the United States must build a bipartisan strategic consensus of the kind that guided its strategy in the 1940s and 1950s. In that period, Democratic and Republican statesmen marginalized the isolationists in both wings of their parties and forged a durable bipartisan coalition around the need to contain the Soviet Union. Without similar cross-party cooperation on foreign policy today, the United States will be hobbled in its competition with highly motivated authoritarian adversaries.

The United States must begin to build this new strategic consensus in Ukraine, ensuring that Russia’s occupation fails and that Putin is deterred from further adventurism. Yet in the long term, China presents the greater challenge and must be at the center of any bipartisan foreign-policy approach. Deterring Chinese aggression in Asia starts with Taiwan. A Chinese military takeover of the island would upend the world order, altering the course of the twenty-first century in the way that World War I transformed the twentieth. It would advance Beijing’s campaign to export authoritarianism abroad, separate Washington from its democratic allies, and banish the United States from the Western Pacific. Preventing such a disastrous outcome must be a top U.S. priority in the era of authoritarian aggression.

SOURCES OF STRENGTH

More broadly, managing the challenges posed by China and Russia requires emphasizing five core pillars of U.S. strength and strategy: reinvigorating innovation, rebuilding military strength, leveraging energy and natural resource endowments, deepening alliances, and promoting democratic values to counter authoritarian influence around the world.

Investing in American innovation is essential. China aims to dominate the twenty-first-century digital economy, including critical domains such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and big data. These technologies are essential to Xi’s project of constructing an all-powerful surveillance state that deters dissent or snuffs it out before it can challenge his rule. Chinese primacy in these areas would put the freedoms of Americans at risk. If Western nations’ digital operating systems run on Chinese hardware and software, everything from the integrity of U.S. military command-and-control to the security of U.S. critical infrastructure will be imperiled.

The United States still has a significant technological advantage over China, but it must do more to spur innovation, including by prioritizing education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics; investing in basic research; and supporting federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation. In the same way that competition with the Soviet Union led to U.S. breakthroughs in space, science, and technology during the Cold War, competition with China—more of a full-spectrum superpower than the Soviet Union ever was—should spur a new era of American innovation today.

American military weakness has historically encouraged authoritarian provocations.

The United States must also bolster its armed forces. Between 2010 and 2016, the Department of Defense budget was slashed by 25 percent. Not surprisingly, the combat readiness of U.S. forces plummeted. During the same period, China undertook a massive effort to modernize its forces and militarized the South China Sea. This was no coincidence: American military weakness has historically encouraged authoritarian provocations globally—from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, both of which came on the heels of deep cuts to the U.S. defense budget and the latter of which followed U.S. President Barack Obama’s failure to enforce his redline on the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

Unfortunately, Biden seems not to have learned that lesson. In his first two budgets, he proposed to cut funding for the Department of Defense (accounting for inflation) while significantly increasing funding for all other agencies. These decisions, coupled with the abandonment of Afghanistan to the Taliban, signaled to authoritarian rivals that aggression would go unchallenged and may have encouraged Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Despite that wake-up call, Biden’s current budget proposal for the coming year would cut funding for the navy and air force—central instruments of power projection—and create a new Civilian Climate Corps larger than the Marine Corps.

In defiance of the administration’s proposed cuts, last year’s National Defense Authorization Act included provisions to harden the defense industrial base against threats from China and accelerate the development of technologies vital for strategic competition. Effective deterrence of authoritarian powers will also require more forward-deployed U.S. troops in eastern Europe, an expansion of U.S. military support for Taiwan, the strengthening of U.S. bases in the Indo-Pacific, and considerable investments in naval, air, and cyber assets essential to prevailing against techno-authoritarian adversaries.

In addition to solidifying its military, the United States must take advantage of its critical mineral and energy assets. The United States is the largest producer of oil and natural gas and a global leader in renewables. It has the world’s highest environmental standards for energy production, allowing it to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by almost 15 percent since 2005—more than any other industrialized nation. Energy independence enhances U.S. global environmental leadership and secures U.S. national interests, for instance, by allowing the United States to help its European allies reduce their dependence on Russian energy.

Yet the Biden administration has undercut this advantage by blocking the development of energy infrastructure, shutting down core elements of U.S. energy production, and strong-arming U.S. financial institutions not to invest in American energy projects. As a result, U.S. energy imports from Russia doubled during the first year of Biden’s presidency. It is indefensible that an energy-independent United States would slash its energy production and increase its reliance on energy from authoritarian countries. The United States must instead ramp up production so it can help allies such as Germany and Japan replace their Russian energy imports with cleaner, more reliable American supplies.

U.S. energy imports from Russia doubled during the first year of Biden’s presidency.

Biden’s climate plan is similarly shortsighted, relying on China to source critical minerals and renewable energy technologies while downplaying Beijing’s systemic human rights abuses and abysmal environmental record. Instead of a Green New Deal that kneecaps American competitiveness, the United States should simultaneously pursue energy, employment, and climate goals with a plan that is grounded in American abundance—not forced scarcity.

But such recalibrations, whether economic, military, or technological, should not be done alone. The United States must reorient its approach to China and Russia in partnership with its allies, whose cooperation will be essential to deter authoritarian aggression. The United States is allied with countries that together make up nearly 70 percent of global GDP, most of them strong democracies that trade more with each other collectively than with China. By contrast, Russia’s closest ally is Belarus and China’s is North Korea.

To its credit, the Trump administration worked to strengthen the Quad partnership between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, and the Biden administration has done the same. To further enhance quadrilateral cooperation, one of us (Senator Dan Sullivan, Republican of Alaska) introduced legislation that provides support to expand energy trading relationships with these democracies. The U.S. Congress has also been strongly supportive of the new partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, known as AUKUS.

Unity in the West is vital for the maintenance of high global standards in transparency, accountability, anticorruption, peaceful resolution of conflict, and adherence to international law. NATO could not be more important for ensuring the security of Europe, and it remains central to U.S. security interests. The United States must work more closely with European and other allies to manage the national security risks associated with incorporating Chinese technology into national telecommunications and cyber networks.

Finally, the United States must lean into its democratic values as it seeks to counter authoritarian influence. Democratic values give the free world a critical advantage in what will likely be another decades-long confrontation with Russia and China, just as they did in the Cold War. In his address to the British Parliament in 1982, President Ronald Reagan argued that the United States would win the Cold War not through hard power alone but through the power of its ideals. As he reminded his audience, “Any system is inherently unstable that has no peaceful means of legitimizing its leaders.” Ultimately, it was the brittleness of authoritarianism and the appeal of freedom that brought down the Soviet Union.

Supporting pro-democracy citizens and movements in China, Russia, and other autocracies—and in countries with developing or vulnerable democratic institutions—is critical to building a safer, more peaceful, and more prosperous world. Of course, not all of the United States’ security partners are democracies. During the Cold War, Washington led a “free-world” coalition that included illiberal states. In places such as South Korea and Taiwan, alliances with the United States helped produce the conditions for transformative political change. The United States can partner with countries such as Vietnam that do not have democratic governments but share its strong interest in a free and open Indo-Pacific. Many such countries don’t want to be part of any new Chinese or Russian empire; the United States can work with them to sustain a balance of power that prevents authoritarian aggression even if it takes time for their internal politics to change.

UP TO THE CHALLENGE

The new era of Chinese and Russian authoritarian aggression will likely last for decades. The United States must face it with confidence and strategic resolve. Not only does the United States have singular military, economic, technological, and energy strengths, but thanks to its long struggle with the Soviet Union, it knows what works: maintaining peace through strength, promoting free markets and free people, and having confidence in the Cold War strategist George Kennan’s insight that one-man, one-party rule “bears within it the seeds of its own decay.”

Prevailing in this geopolitical and ideological contest will require a new level of strength, ingenuity, and commitment to universal democratic values. Yet there is every reason to believe that the country is up to the challenge. The United States has tremendous strengths underpinned by the vitality of an open society. But its greatest strength is the American people themselves—in all their ingenuity, dynamism, diversity, and patriotism. In a struggle with Russia and China, whose regimes fear their own people, that is an extraordinary advantage.

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  • DAN SULLIVAN is a Republican Senator from Alaska, a Marine Colonel (reserve), and a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs.
  • DANIEL TWINING is President of the International Republican Institute.
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