Navigating Great Power Rivalry in the 21st Century
The post-Cold War international system is coming to an end, and with it easy assumptions about the character of U.S. strategy toward the world’s great powers. After a period in which a dominant, U.S.-led Western coalition largely set and enforced the rules of the international order — and in which other major powers, such as Russia and China, largely acquiesced to U.S. leadership of that order — the global system is returning to a state of sharper and more explicit great-power competition. Russia and China are actively contesting U.S. primacy and alliances in Eastern Europe and East Asia. They are advancing their own vision of a multipolar order in which America is more constrained and its influence diluted. They are asserting their prerogatives as great powers more ambitiously than at any time in the past quarter-century. Other aspiring great powers — from Japan and Germany to India and Indonesia — are also stepping up their drive for influence, both in their immediate neighborhood and beyond. Great power rivalry is again becoming a principal theme of global politics.
Such rivalry is more the norm than the exception in the history of international relations. But, however “normal” it may be, great-power conflict is nonetheless disconcerting and dangerous. It raises the chance of a major, “systemic” war that could have cataclysmic consequences and it undermines the functioning of international institutions. It complicates international efforts to address a range of pressing problems that are inherently transnational in nature and thus require a broad, multilateral response. Climate change, jihadist terrorism, instability in the greater Middle East — these are just a few examples of issues than can only be resolved through effective international cooperation, and will only fester without such cooperation. In short, great power competition not only raises the odds of great-power war, it also raises the prospect of a more disordered, conflictual, and gridlocked international system.
This is a scenario that many observers hoped the world had left behind with the end of the Cold War, and one that few welcome today. As a result, it has become increasingly common for prominent analysts to wonder whether this outcome might be averted — perhaps through the striking of “grand bargains” between the United States and its great-power rivals, or perhaps even by forming some new type of great power concert through which to manage and stabilize international affairs. If we are unlikely to have a “unipolar concert” in which the values and prerogatives of the United States and its liberal allies are as dominant as they were during the 1990s, the thinking goes, might there be some way of drawing competing great powers — namely Russia and China — into a more equitable concert that satisfies their basic interests and desires without compromising fundamental U.S. interests? And might doing so help preserve the international stability, comity, and cooperation that would otherwise be lost amid a return to sharper great-power competition?
It is a nice idea — and one that probably won’t work. History suggests that in order for concerts to emerge and endure, a number of critical geopolitical prerequisites must be met. There must be a stable configuration of power among the leading powers in the international system. Those powers must be willing to respect a shared set of rules. They must have some ideological commonality — what unites them ideologically must be greater than what divides them. Finally, concerts generally take shape when there is some looming threat — or memory of some great cataclysm — that impels cooperation. Where these preconditions have been present — most notably, during the 19th century concert of Europe — sustained great power cooperation in support of a common vision of international order has been possible. Where even some of these factors have been absent — in the wake of World War II, for instance — great power concerts have proven impossible to achieve.
The problem today is that the structural preconditions for a concert simply do not exist. The configuration of power in the international system is changing, which is precisely why revisionist powers such as Russia and China feel empowered to challenge American primacy. The United States and its great power rivals do not accept a common set of global rules. Moscow and Beijing are challenging the norms that Washington prefers, from non-aggression in Eastern Europe to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. The ideological differences between the great powers are far less severe than they were during the Cold War, but the cleavage between the world’s leading democracy and its two foremost authoritarian powers is significant enough to be a source of conflict. And finally, more than 70 years after the last great power war, there does not appear to be any commonly perceived threat powerful enough to overcome these other factors and compel sustained cooperation. The focus of many great powers today seems to be on a opportunistic grab for influence rather than an urgent fear that disaster will befall them if they cannot find ways to coordinate their actions with others.
Efforts to form a great power concert are thus likely to prove unavailing; making concessions to Russia or China in hopes of drawing them into such a concert could well be more destabilizing than stabilizing. But managing these relationships — and doing so while preserving the greatest degree of stability possible — remains an urgent task for the United States. In the coming years, U.S. officials will be in the market for strategies and concepts to guide their interaction with other great powers: If it cannot be a concert, what concept or structure would promote U.S. interests? It is too early to sketch the final shape that such a structure would take—but it is not too early to be sure that U.S. strategists are at least asking the right questions about the future of great power relations.
In our mind, there are seven critical questions whose answers will go a long way towards helping the United States navigate a new age of great power rivalry. We do not agree on all the answers, but we do concur on several essential principles that ought to guide U.S. strategy. More than that, we agree on the critical importance of a rigorous analysis of these issues, and the need for an effort to fashion a coherent and forceful strategy.
1. What vital U.S. interests are at stake in these relationships?
The natural starting point for any conception of a U.S. national security strategy is an assessment of interests: What does the United States have at stake in its relations with other great powers? The question is complex because U.S. interests are numerous, and sometimes conflicting. The United States is concerned with the norm of non-aggression in Europe and the security of Ukraine. Yet it also wants productive relations with Russia, not only for its own sake (to reduce the risk of conflict), but also as a route to the achievement of other interests, such as nonproliferation. The United States wants good relations with China as well, for reasons having to do with economic prosperity, regional stability, and global governance. Yet Washington also has interests in preserving rules of behavior in regard to the sovereign status of South China Sea geographic features. How the United States prioritizes and balances these interests will play a critical role in defining the character of its strategies toward other great powers.
2. What long-term vision of world politics does the strategy serve?
Any strategy must be grounded in some vision or theory of the relevant long-term trends: How is the international system evolving, and what does this tell us about the opportunities and risks for the United States? During the Cold War, Washington laid out a transformative vision that broadcast faith in the power of liberal values to ultimately outshine and transform the Soviet system. U.S. strategy could therefore remain relatively patient — to contain the Soviet Union, rather than undertake riskier rollback approaches, and let the long-term trends assumed by the strategy do their work. Some of the biggest errors in U.S. Cold War strategy arose when the United States allowed the urgency of a short-term challenge to override this essential confidence.
What are the key global trends today? Some see the most important long-term truths of great power competition in starkly pessimistic terms. China and Russia are confronting U.S. influence, values, and the American-led order. Illiberalism is on the rise. Relative American power is diminishing. A more optimistic lens might rely on a projection of the world’s leading economies in 2030 or 2040: The likely great powers (including Germany, Japan, Indonesia, Mexico, and Brazil) are nearly all card-carrying members of the liberal international order. This vision would suggest that, although Russia surely poses a significant near- and medium-term threat to the international order and U.S. interests, over the longer-term Washington doesn’t so much have a “great power relations” problem as much as it has a “China problem”: Its dominant task is to ensure that China doesn’t become a hostile and aggressive outlier. Either way, answers to such questions can decisively shape the U.S. approach to other great powers — its urgency or patience, its ambitions, and its objectives.
3. Is there a coherent set of great powers whose nature, preferences and international behavior is similar enough to justify a unified strategy?
Considerable differences in national strategic style, governance, interests, and level of aggressiveness among states such as China, Russia, India, Germany, Indonesia, and Brazil mean that no singular approach is likely to achieve U.S. goals. Rather than a generic strategy, Washington may need a discrete approach toward each of these states, as well as some way of meshing the resulting relationships into mutually supportive rather than self-destructive patterns.
At some point, these global considerations — how to make the mosaic of country strategies fit together — would begin to look a lot like an over-arching strategy. Many great powers, moreover, have similar interests and preferences: security, acquisition of power and influence, achievement of status, and prestige. To some degree, influence-seeking great powers may pose similar strategic challenges, and a strategy could be grounded in a set of general principles. Either way, answers to these questions will point to just how generic or bespoke a great power strategy needs to be.
4. What are the intentions of other great powers?
A detailed, nuanced understanding of the motivations, preferences and intentions of the other great powers is a critical beginning point for any strategy. Such an analysis has to begin with distinct analyses of the two states most likely to pose security challenges — Russia and China. How limited or expansive are their ambitions? What does our understanding of their motives say about the potential for compromise? This may be the single most important analytical question to shape a great power strategy. Skeptics of negotiated outcomes view Russia and China as determined revisionists that are constrained only by U.S. policy and power, while optimists contend that Moscow and Beijing have limited, largely defensive goals, and that their desires can fairly easily be satiated. The answer will help determine whether the United States can live with those states in a meaningfully shared order — and whether compromise will bring about greater international stability or simply greater revisionist demands.
5. How meaningful are the areas of potential compromise and cooperation with each great power?
This question derives from the analysis of interests and intentions and points to the available space for mutual accommodations. If it is minimal, U.S. policy toward these countries will face tight constraints. The list of issues on which the United States and Russia can profitably cooperate, for instance, is perhaps more limited than some observers suppose. Broad areas of available compromise, on the other hand, would suggest an opportunity to create a powerful shared order, or at the very least an opportunity to blend competition with collaboration. As with many of these questions, the answer will differ from one great power to another.
6. What is the essential goal of the strategy: Promoting good relations and avoiding war, or confronting aggression and enforcing rules?
A strategy toward potentially aggressive great powers could, on the one hand, make compromises and accommodations to preserve the best possible relations — largely overlooking, for example, Russia’s adventurism in its “near abroad.” Or it could prioritize strict enforcement of rules of the road in world politics — for example, working to isolate Russia from the international community if it violates norms of sovereignty and non-aggression. The choice here primarily has to do with how Washington weights the dangers of competition and conflict on the one hand, versus the dangers of allowing the international order to be eroded at the margins on the other.
This question really applies only to a sub-set of great powers, since many of them (Germany, Japan, Brazil, and more) hardly need confronting. In fact, at the moment this question only applies to China, Russia, and perhaps — if it is considered a great power — Iran. The question demands an assessment of the most effective route to long-term peace: Is it by containing, deterring, and ultimately overpowering the ambitions of a set of would-be revisionists; or is it by engaging those states to mellow those ambitions? U.S. policy for the last three-plus decades has sought a sort of middle ground, seeking to engage while deterring on the margins. As these states become more openly aggressive, is such a middle way any longer feasible?
7. What global posture options and operational concepts are available to support these strategies?
Deciding on the nature of the great power challenge is only half the battle; the United States also has to formulate strategies or concepts to shape its efforts. In geopolitical and military terms, for example, Washington can choose from an array of military strategies, global posture systems and operational concepts. While sometimes seemingly arcane, these choices play a major role in defining the character of these strategic relationships by broadcasting defensive or offensive intent. Does the United States need to deploy war-winning levels of military force to the edges of the NATO alliance? Does it need concepts that promise to project power deep into the Russian and Chinese homelands from the outset of a conflict? Can it safely rely on notions of “offshore balancing” that bring most U.S. military power back home?
Each option will carry advantages and dangers. Greater restraint may avoid unnecessary wars and save money, but it also risks signaling a lack of commitment and causing substantial unease among U.S. allies. Military build-ups and forward-deployed, offensively-oriented postures may strengthen deterrence, but they also carry their own dangers. They could spark action-reaction cycles, exacerbating the security fears of potential adversaries, and creating escalatory dynamics that can lead to unintended wars.
One of the painful limitations of any analysis of alternative strategies for great power relations is that the available evidence simply does not support definitive judgments about the approaches most likely to produce the ends we want. To take just one example, some evidence suggests that substantially bolstering U.S. military forces in Eastern Europe will tame Russia and produce a more constructive dialogue — but other work suggests that it is likely to provoke Moscow into more dangerous actions. The final choice will inevitably reflect a substantial degree of subjective judgment.
Toward a Consensus
Opinions, historical analogies, and detailed analytical research all differ widely on the right answers to these questions. Indeed, the two of us answer many of the questions somewhat differently. We disagree somewhat about the origins of recent hostility in Europe: Mazarr sees many U.S. actions as provocative and views Russia’s behavior as largely defensive. By contrast, Brands sees Russian behavior as stemming from a longer-standing desire to dominate its “near abroad” and views many NATO efforts as critical investment in rules and norms of conduct. We disagree about the potential for any meaningful Euro-Atlantic accommodation with Russia (Mazarr retains some hope for this, Brands less so), and about the risks of additional military deployments.
Yet, we agree on three major points, and believe that they could begin to provide the basis for a tentative consensus on a U.S. approach to great power relations. First, we agree on the essential role of U.S. leadership in managing great power relations. The world is moving away from the uncontested U.S. primacy that characterized the early post-Cold War era, but the international system still revolves around the hub of U.S. power and values. Indeed, a situation of more complex great power interactions will cry out for a legitimate coordinating voice. For the foreseeable future, that can only be the United States. Partly as a result, we agree on the desirability of U.S. forward presence in key regions, and on the need for investments to close gaps in U.S. capabilities for major war.
Second, we agree that the final answers to one critical question — the scope of Russian and Chinese ambitions, and the steps they are willing to take to achieve them — remain unknowable, even as we disagree on which way the existing evidence points. There are powerful and growing reasons for concern, but there is also accumulated evidence that these two states view a stable international order as important to their interests. Making overly optimistic or pessimistic assumptions at this point would be premature, and potentially dangerous.
Third, while we disagree somewhat about the feasibility of significant cooperation with other great powers, we agree on the need to emphasize it wherever possible in ways that do not violate global norms or U.S. values. Especially in an era of more contested U.S. primacy, any effort to manage great power relations is going to have to be a two-way street. The United States cannot brush off the security concerns of others, even when they seem exaggerated or based on conspiratorial thinking about the U.S. role in the world. Yet, it also cannot relinquish its own strengths, partnerships, and advantages in the mere hope that doing so would resolve the myriad points of tension with competitors such as Russia or China. Without sacrificing the requirements of deterrence or a continued commitment to our values, the United States should therefore generally seek to avoid situations in which it challenges the vital security interests of other great powers.
Beyond those three points of policy and strategy, we agree on a broader point. The United States is moving into a new and potentially dangerous set of rivalries without a clear strategy to guide its various initiatives, and without having done a careful analysis of these questions. We agree, in other words, that the United States urgently needs a rigorous, historically-informed, analytically sophisticated debate to examine these issues. The premium on strategic thinking — and the risks of failing to engage in it — are now greater than at any time since 1945.
Michael J. Mazarr is senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and associate director of the Strategy, Doctrine and Resources Program of the RAND Arroyo Center. He co-leads the RAND Project on Building a Sustainable International Order.
Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. His most recent books are Making the Unipolar Moment: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Rise of the Post-Cold War Order (2016), and What Good is Grand Strategy? Power and Purpose in American Statecraft from Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush (2014).
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