From Athens to AI: The Return of History, the Revenge of Rivalry, and the Resurgence of Great Power Competition
Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is time to admit a controversial truth: great power competition is back. The U.S. foreign policy establishment resists this new reality, preferring to believe that history remains ended and the world a benign place. From 1989 until very recently, American policymakers assumed that liberal democracy would inevitably and effortlessly triumph everywhere. But difficult and provocative as it is to acknowledge, Francis Fukuyama was wrong: History hasn’t ended. In fact, it’s just beginning.
In recent decades, the United States has squandered national treasure on frivolous distractions and fruitless crusades. Failed states, rogue regimes, pandemic disease, genocide, transnational terrorist groups, weapons proliferation — none of that matters anymore. America can no longer afford to focus on second-tier concerns in an era of bare-knuckle great power competition. Every element in America’s national security toolkit must be aimed at deterring Russia and China, besting them and, if necessary, winning an all-out, cataclysmic war against both at the same time.
The return of great power competition requires a challenging shift in mindset among our national security establishment. Foreign service officers who looked forward to spending their careers in places like Kandahar, Peshawar, and Mosul must face the unsettling prospect of tours in London, Prague, and Tokyo. The Pentagon must abandon its fondness for extended nation-building operations in the greater Middle East in favor of investments in futuristic hardware and rotational deployments to Germany. Out with COIN, CVE and PRTs; in with the PRC and the FSB.
Meeting the great power challenge requires us to understand the origins of today’s geopolitical climate. In the aftermath of World War II, the United States conjured into existence the rules-based international order — seamlessly transforming what had been a Hieronymus Bosch-like hellscape of interstate rivalry into a geopolitical Garden of Eden. Today, however, great power competition is ripping the rules-based international order — the so-called “RuBIO” — apart at the seams.
As distinguished scholars have observed, this is not the first historical episode of great power rivalry. Indeed, there are hundreds of examples of geopolitical competition over thousands of years. A careful review of this history demonstrates several profound and counterintuitive insights, including that great power competition can turn dangerous and sometimes result in war, but not always.
While history remains, of course, a complex and nuanced affair, one episode from it stands apart as today’s perfect analogue. One might usefully term this the “Sophocles Snare.”
In the great playwright’s Ajax, the competition for Achilles’ armor grows deadly. When Agamemnon and Menelaus hand it to another warrior, Ajax grows enraged and attempts to slay the two kings. Athena swoops in, tricking Ajax into killing a flock of livestock instead. When he realizes later what has transpired, Ajax is filled with shame and pity. Bereft of honor and armor, Ajax throws himself upon his sword.
The similarities with today’s great power competition could not be more obvious.
Indeed, though it was written nearly 2,500 years ago, the way in which Ajax foretells today’s global challenges is almost eerie. The dramatic work not only is the best prism through which to view our current moment, but also offers a clear and compelling blueprint to win the future. Ajax, in its characters and plot, illuminates the exact ways America must compete, comprehensively, and move from a whole of government to a whole of society effort.
The economic vector of competition is perhaps today most important. China’s Belt and Road Initiative has tricked developing nations into accepting low-interest loans to support the construction of domestic infrastructure. Clearly this is profoundly wrong-headed, much like European countries’ willingness to buy Russian oil and gas when it is offered at prices lower than other available supplies. Thankfully, the fracking revolution changes everything. Washington should establish a Western Hemisphere-Africa-Eurasia Marshall Plan to build infrastructure on a global scale while supplying fossil fuels to all countries. Only in this way can we begin to contest the economic warfare waged by our great power adversaries.
The United States has similarly fallen behind in the technological dimension. China, outrageously, is using free markets to invest capital in promising companies and applying the resulting technology at home. Russia, meanwhile, has weaponized social media to spread disinformation and sow dissension, disrupting the broad, bipartisan consensus in America on issues like race, guns, abortion, taxes, health care and Supreme Court justices. Indeed, it’s unfathomable that five decades ago the United States could have been convulsed by the kinds of divisions that characterize our country today. If America had not in 1968-69 demonstrated its characteristic unity of thought and action, it never would have gone on to prevail in the Cold War.
With China and Russia now employing technology to bring America closer to civil war than at any point since 1861, a major national effort is required to resist their depredations. This starts with seizing the commanding heights of tomorrow’s cutting-edge technologies, including artificial intelligence, machine learning, commercial space, blockchain, quantum computing, quantum leaping, autonomous drones, fraggle rocks, the Internet of Things, the Internet of Feelings, and proton accelerators. If America falls behind in any one of these areas, it will mean the immediate demise of the liberal international order.
Illumination is an increasingly sensitive battleground. Today, China and Russia have embraced both wire filament and low-pressure mercury-vapor gas-discharge technology to produce incandescence and fluorescence at scale. These capabilities enable them to read sensitive stolen files in underground sites, conduct sustained military operations, and store items in windowless closets. Ironically, it was the United States that pioneered both of these technologies, only to now see our great power competitors deploy them against us. It is past time for Washington to embrace a “Sputnik Moment” (SputMo) that can catalyze a new Manhattan Project (ManPro). Only by doing so can we develop game-changing breakthroughs in every technological area, propelling us ahead of China and Russia once and for all.
The defense line of effort in great-power competition will be increasingly important. Beijing and Moscow are modernizing their armed forces, with Russia championing leap-ahead weapons, including an unstoppable nuclear torpedo, an undetectable space-based laser, a legion of half-machine, half-human cyborgs, and a fleet of giant mechanical sharks. Similarly, China is now adding a new ship to its navy every 16 minutes while developing capabilities that include anti-ship ballistic missiles, photon torpedoes, teleportation devices, and electronic chopsticks.
By far the most urgent and alarming defense development today is the growing hypersonics gap. While America is sitting and stalling, other great powers are boosting and gliding. It is simply outrageous and inexcusable our country may fall behind in this essential technology, as the implications of losing the hypersonics race are literally indescribable.
In addition, the ideological dimension of today’s competition is all-important. Freedom House marks a more than decade-long decline in democracy around the world, and the attractions of autocratic populism are on the rise. This is a development as disturbing as it is surprising, given the tendency of America’s democratically-elected leaders to set aside differences in order to solve key national problems, and their global standing as exemplars of probity, dignity, and seriousness. Clearly, the erosion of democracy is at heart a problem of communications. To best defend global freedom in the face of this authoritarian onslaught, Congress should actively examine the possibility of reestablishing the U.S. Information Agency.
While America competes in the various domains, it must also transform its geographic focus. For far too long, the United States has defended marginal interests in the Middle East like fighting terrorism, ensuring the free flow of energy, and reversing armed aggression. This folly must end; only by disengaging from places like Syria can Washington compete with Russia. And the threat of a jihadist caliphate on the borders of Turkey and Israel pales in comparison with the danger of Huawei gaining a foothold in the telecommunications infrastructure of such strategic crossroads as Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. By ceding economic dominance of the Middle East to Beijing, and geopolitical influence there to Moscow and Tehran, our political leaders can finally take a major step towards getting serious about great power competition.
Otto von Bismark, perhaps history’s greatest practitioner of balance-of-power politics, famously said, “All politics reduces itself to this formula: try to be one of three, as long as the world is governed by the unstable equilibrium of five great powers.” Today there exists in the world an unstable equilibrium of three great powers, and as a result Americans may be tempted to be one of two. But it would deeply unwise to follow this path, for — as history teaches us — a country that embraces the advice of 19th century Prussian aristocrats ends up fixated on Alsace-Lorraine and Schleswig-Holstein. And that is not who we are as a nation.
“One of one” should be the new American mantra. This implications of this are clear. Americans must learn to compete anew on a global scale — from the Arctic Ocean to the South Pacific and from cyberspace to outer space — while choosing our battles carefully in order to avoid overstretch. We must deepen our alliances and strategic partnerships, and recommit to a worldwide struggle against resurgent authoritarianism from Hungary to Hanoi. We must confront Russia and China in ways that are simultaneously forceful and restrained, reliable and unpredictable, novel and drawing on our finest traditions, making sure to draw firm red lines without inviting inadvertent conflict. We must pursue competition with a renewed sense of urgency and immediacy while organizing ourselves for a long-term, generational struggle. Most of all, we must end the illusion that the United States can do everything or be all things to all people — for it is in the choices we make, and the trade-offs we acknowledge, that the grandest of grand strategies resides.
Lee Shea served in senior strategic planning roles at the State Department, National Security Council and Pentagon. He is president of the Center for Advanced Strategic Policy Initiatives and the author of Strategies of Attainment.
Image: Wikimedia Commons