How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Meeting at the Madrid summit in June, NATO leaders issued their first new “strategic concept” in a decade. As expected, Russia took center stage in the document, and the heads of state declared Moscow a manifest threat to the transatlantic alliance. In a joint statement, they pledged their commitment to Ukraine “for as long as it takes” and committed to spend more on defense.
Russia, however, was not the only major threat identified in the new strategy. For the first time, the allies said China posed “systemic challenges’’ to “Euro-Atlantic security,” and that its ambitions and policies challenge the alliance’s “interests, security and values.” To drive the point home, leaders from Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea were on hand to demonstrate unity and resolve.
NATO’s new focus is just one of many indications that a new strategic era has begun. The Biden administration’s National Security Strategy, for instance, states that “the most pressing strategic challenge” is from “powers that layer authoritarian governance with a revisionist foreign policy.” The new U.S. strategy, which was released in October, labels Russia “an immediate threat to the free and open international system” and China as the only competitor with the intent and power to reshape that system. Today Washington has chosen, perhaps by default, to compete with—and if necessary, confront—both Russia and China simultaneously and indefinitely.
This new geopolitical reality is only beginning to register among policymakers and experts. As the strategist Andrew Krepinevich has observed, at no time in the past 100 years has the United States faced a single great-power competitor with a GDP equal to or greater than 40 percent of the U.S. GDP. Yet today, the Chinese economy amounts to at least 70 percent of U.S. GDP, a figure likely to grow. Each is a nuclear-armed state able to project political, economic, and military power on a global scale. China and Russia are also working together. Although there are clearly limits to Russia and China’s “no limits” quasi alliance, each appears bent on revising what they consider a Western-dominated global order.
In 1880, the Prussian leader Otto von Bismarck contended that “as long as the world is governed by the unstable equilibrium of five great powers,” Germany should “try to be one of three.” Among today’s three great powers, two are far closer to each other than to the United States. There is little prospect of any near-term change in this basic strategic equation. As a result, how Washington should operate in a world with two great-power antagonists is the central question in U.S. foreign policy. Competing with China and Russia on every issue, and in every place they are active, is a recipe for failure. It is also unnecessary. A foreign policy that manages these twin challenges requires setting priorities and making difficult tradeoffs across regions and issues. That will be far easier said than done.
This was not the situation that U.S. President Joe Biden thought he would encounter when he took office. During his initial months as president, administration officials repeatedly called for a “stable and predictable” relationship with Russia, one in which Moscow would abjure bad international behavior and allow Washington to devote more focus to the China challenge. Others had more ambitious visions. As recently as February, before Russia’s invasion, a number of foreign policy experts counseled a dramatic move on the strategic chessboard. Just as in the early 1970s when the Nixon administration opened to China to realign the balance of power with the Soviet Union, the thinking went, now the United States could align with Russia to offset China. Such a “reverse Kissinger” would capitalize on traditional rivalries between China and Russia and on Moscow’s obvious desire to engage with Washington as an equal. The United States would set aside its long-standing concerns about Russia’s domestic and international behavior to jointly confront the larger challenge in Asia.
Such a grand strategic move, unrealistic before Russia’s invasion, is now unthinkable. Given Russia’s war of conquest, its disregard for the most basic rules of international conduct, and its stated desire to upend the European security order, there will be no rearranging of the chessboard. For the foreseeable future, Russia will represent a significant threat to U.S. interests and ideals. Although the war in Ukraine is already depleting Russia’s conventional military might, Moscow retains the world’s largest nuclear arsenal and a range of unconventional capabilities that, together with the remaining military and intelligence tools at its disposal, will allow it to menace neighbors, interfere in democracies, and violate international rules. Unless Russia makes a major change to its political system, dealing with the country—even if it is in decline—will require considerable attention and resources from the United States for years to come.
In the face of these Russian depredations, a few experts have offered the opposite suggestion: a kind of “repeat Kissinger.” With Moscow upending the rules-based order so vital to the peaceful functioning of international politics, perhaps Washington should instead find accommodation with China. As it did under Nixon, the United States would align with China against a violent and risk-tolerant Russia. Fareed Zakaria, Zachary Karabell and some others have posited this approach, which appears as unworkable as some new U.S.-Russia alliance. Acquiescing to Chinese demands—for the effective domination of Asia, an end to the promotion of democracy and human rights, a reduced U.S. presence across the Indo-Pacific, and control of Taiwan and the South China Sea—is a price no American leader will be willing to pay to balance Russia.
A third group of U.S. foreign policy experts counsels focusing exclusively on China rather than Russia. Given Chinese power and ambitions, they argue, the United States cannot spread its resources and attention across both Europe and the Indo-Pacific. Ukraine has emerged as a costly distraction from graver threats farther east, those experts suggest, and Washington should leave primary responsibility for managing Russian threats to the Europeans themselves. Yet the outcome of Russian aggression in Europe will be felt in Asia, and Moscow’s success or failure in Ukraine stands to encourage or inhibit Chinese designs elsewhere. That is a primary reason why countries such as Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, and South Korea have joined sanctions against Russia and are assisting Ukraine. And despite long-standing hopes that Europeans will handle security on their continent absent a major U.S. role, history suggests that they will not.
In this new era, Russia and China represent neither chess pieces to be moved through assiduous acts of wise statesmanship nor great-power challengers that can be handled effectively without American activism. They are, rather, enduring and differentiated challenges that must be managed simultaneously. This is the crux of the United States’ strategic conundrum.
The solution proposed most often is to work with allies and partners. China and Russia’s economic weight and military strength are formidable, but the combined might of the United States and its allies is greater still. The U.S. alliance structure, augmented by new and non-allied partners, represents a central advantage for Washington. Russia has Belarus, and China has North Korea; the United States has NATO, five Pacific allies, the G-7, and more. If there are sides in these contests, the world’s most powerful democracies are on the American one. A key to the success of this strategy is not only to work with partners but also to acquire new ones and make the ties among them stronger; hence Sweden and Finland’s joining NATO; the defense technology-sharing arrangement comprising Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, known as AUKUS; and the ascent of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a grouping that includes Australia, India, Japan, and the United States.
The other truism is that the United States must, in this new era of competition, augment its own sources of strength. This is happening now, although the scale and pace are subjects of much debate. The Biden administration proposed a record (in unadjusted terms) $773 billion in defense spending for 2023, an amount quickly increased by Congress. The CHIPS and Science Act, signed into law in August, allocates more than $50 billion for domestic semiconductor manufacturing and promotes the development of advanced technologies. The need to compete with China has stimulated other moves, such as the creation in 2019 of the Development Finance Corporation, which invests in development projects in low- and middle-income countries. Meanwhile, Russian threats have prompted steps to better secure U.S. election infrastructure and strengthen the defense industrial base. A stronger, better-defended United States will be better positioned to deal with the twin challenges of China and Russia.
A third solution would be to take advantage of temporal asymmetries in the China and Russia competitions. Beijing employs economic coercion and diplomatic pressure but has yet to fully exercise its military option; Russia is using nearly all instruments of national power to conquer Ukraine. This suggests that a major effort to punish Russian transgressions now could render that country weaker, poorer, and far less militarily capable in the future—precisely when Beijing may wish to match its growing strength with overt aggression. Here the imperative would be to focus a great deal of energy and resources on the Russian threat in its current acute phase while resolving to devote the lion’s share of both to China over the long run.
The exhortations to strengthen alliances, build up domestic strength, and take advantage of time are all obviously correct. Yet by doing all this, the United States will still be unable to counter Chinese and Russian influence everywhere, and on every issue, indefinitely. Nor should it try. Crucial to managing these problems over time is setting priorities and making difficult tradeoffs across regions and issues.
Priority-setting is one of the easiest actions to invoke and one of the hardest things to do. Even if a rough consensus is possible about which areas and issues matter most and should therefore become the focus of U.S. activity, the necessary corollary is that other domains matter far less and should receive little to no attention and resources. Assessed individually, every region—the Western Hemisphere, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, the global South—has a claim to priority, and many issues have constituencies inside or outside government that argue for their importance.
Here, a Cold War lesson may be instructive. From that era’s early years, the United States resolved to defend Berlin against Soviet threats, even at the cost of outright war. The attention, military resources, and energy spent there far exceeded that expended in other cities around the world. Pledging to defend Berlin today looks wise. Twice during the first half of the twentieth century, the United States crossed the Atlantic to end wars that began in Europe. By deterring the outbreak of another during the Cold War period, the United States helped ensure decades of European peace and prosperity. During that era, however, Washington also became so intensely invested in shaping the domestic politics of Laos that it became the most heavily bombed nation per capita in history. The U.S. military campaign there lasted 14 years and ended in failure. Even factoring in the Vietnam War and the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a military supply route for the North Vietnamese that crossed into Laos, the more than 500,000 bombing missions the United States conducted over that small country appears today, at a minimum, to have been a major misallocation of national security resources.
Historical analogies are always fraught, and these two are rougher than most. Yet the difference between Berlin and Laos during the Cold War suggests a present-day heuristic: Amid indefinite competition with Russia and China, what issues and regions are more like Berlin, and which more like Laos? Which merit the significant investment of U.S. resources and attention—to resist the expansion of Russian and Chinese influence, for example, or to establish a new relationship that would strengthen the American position—and which do not?
Priority-setting is one of the easiest actions to invoke and one of the hardest things to do.
Latter-day Berlins are easier to identify. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine violates the cardinal rule against the forcible theft of foreign territory and shakes a key foundation of the rules-based order. The United States has a strong interest in ensuring that such a transgression is not only punished but rendered unsuccessful, not least so that the next would-be aggressor is discouraged from pursuing a similar course. Chinese activity in the South China Sea threatens the maritime rules that allow for vital commercial operations and so should represent a key area of focus for U.S. policy. The protection of American democratic practice against malign interference by Moscow or Beijing is critical to the functioning of the U.S. political system.
Deprioritizing issues and areas is more difficult. Russia’s military presence in Venezuela and the Sahel, for example, is certainly undesirable, but it does not pose the same threat to existing international rules as the Kremlin’s aggression in Ukraine. Washington wishes no country to employ Huawei infrastructure for its 5G network, but U.S. efforts should be focused squarely on dissuading allies and close partners from doing so rather than on trying to stop everyone from using it. China’s Belt and Road Initiative poses potential debt-trap dilemmas for all recipients, but the United States should contest its expansion in Southeast Asia (where increased Chinese influence could lead to naval bases that could impede U.S. interests) to a much greater degree than in Central Asia (where the United States’ ability to operate will not be affected).
Similarly, Washington should focus more on blocking the creation of a Chinese naval facility in the South Pacific than in West Africa, as Beijing seeks bases in both regions, since the downside costs of Chinese military influence are substantially greater in the Indo-Pacific than elsewhere. It should not put great emphasis on enlisting China to solve the North Korean nuclear issue, which can be managed but not solved on any reasonable timeline. And the United States should take care to absorb the costs of diversifying away from Chinese-supplied goods only when it makes national security sense to do so, as with key technologies, medical equipment, and rare earths; the majority of American imports from China need not be re-shored or even friend-shored.
Actions by Moscow or Beijing that would contest key principles of international order, constrict the United States’ freedom to act, or undermine the domestic functioning of foreign countries should broadly define what’s most important. More specifically, policymakers should focus most on actions in the places and on the issues where the potential damage to key U.S. interests is large and the potential utility to the challenger is significant. The large remainder of Russian and Chinese activities around the world that are undesirable, offensive, and even contrary to U.S. interests should be relegated to a lower tier of priority. These would receive a significantly smaller share of American national security resources and attention.
This necessary task of prioritization would move beyond the broad strokes that have characterized recent U.S. foreign policy. Frequently heard observations—that great-power competition has returned, that the Indo-Pacific has emerged as a region of vital importance, or that a revanchist Russia and a determined China have global ambitions—are of limited utility. What’s needed today is a far more subtle prioritization of regions and issues, and a policy process that considers the relative importance of multiple crises and opportunities rather than evaluating each on its own. This is true not only for the executive branch but also for Congress, which tends to focus on headline issues and direct funding and policy changes accordingly.
The alternative, in this new era, would require the United States to resist undesirable Chinese and Russian influence wherever it exists—which is to say, every region of the world and across a wide spectrum of issues. To attempt this, even while working with allies and taking every other prudent step to augment American power, courts failure. Trying to do it all, everywhere, will produce exhaustion and undermine U.S. capacity to address what matters most.
This new strategic era spurs a dire need among policymakers to ruthlessly prioritize and identify which issues and regions the United States will ignore, try merely to mitigate, or assign a small fraction of its considerable attention and resources to. Against its instincts and intentions, the United States has backed its way into simultaneous contests with two major powers that define their interests globally. If it wants to succeed, the United States is going to have to pick its battles carefully.