America’s Top Competitor Is Not Russia Or China, But Itself

America’s Top Competitor Is Not Russia Or China, But Itself

The United States has an opportunity to overcome the inertia that has long tethered its pursuit of strategic clarity to the maneuvers of external competitors.

AS IT considers how to respond to China and Russia, the United States should take heart that its competitive assets are still formidable—often singular. Its demographic outlook is far superior to those of China and Russia, and arguably the most favorable of any major power. Neither the global financial crisis nor the pandemic has dented the dollar’s centrality as a reserve currency. America’s ecosystem of innovation, network of colleges and universities, and capacity to attract extraordinary students, researchers, and entrepreneurs from around the world all remain unrivaled. The United States is the leading producer of both oil and natural gas. It is still the only country that can project force into any corner of the globe. And it has an unparalleled set of alliances, buttressed by a deeply entrenched order.

But these advantages are not self-sustaining; each of them is under some degree of strain. Washington will be best positioned to compete with Beijing and Moscow over the long haul if it demonstrates anew the ability of its democracy to address socio-economic challenges and enlists its allies and partners in an effort to create a more resilient, responsive post-pandemic order—one that can more effectively contain emergencies (such as the next pandemic), mobilize collective action to address systemic threats (such as climate change), and preserve high-level dialogue and cooperative space between advanced industrial democracies and autocratic challengers.

There are many reasons why strategic competition is likely to play out uniquely today, including the high degree of trade and technological interdependence in the global economy, the diminished salience of ideological blocs, and the growing number and severity of transnational challenges that demand a modicum of great-power cooperation. Still, there are at least two lessons the United States might draw from the one experience that it does have with protracted contestation, the Cold War.

The first is that selective competition is more prudent than universal competition. George Kennan observed in a 1967 memoir that when he published his famous “X” article in Foreign Affairs in July 1947, he had assessed there to be only four places besides the Soviet Union where a significant, sustained military buildup could occur: the United States, the United Kingdom, “the Rhine valley with adjacent industrial areas” (Central Europe, roughly), and Japan. He argued that containment’s principal objective should be to prevent them from falling under Communist control. Kennan grew apprehensive, though, as Washington adopted a steadily more encompassing conception of its national interests, expanding well beyond what he had designated to be the core of the postwar order. Christopher Hemmer, professor of international security studies at the Air War College, explains that that evolution was rooted more in psychology than in strategy: the United States came to fear that any Soviet assertion of influence that went unchallenged could undercut its credibility, triggering a systemic erosion of its competitive perch. Washington accordingly ended up contesting Moscow in countries as disparate as Nicaragua, Angola, and Cambodia.

It was able to do so in part because the Soviet Union was an economically weak challenger: its GDP was only about two-fifths as large as America’s at its peak, and it was not deeply integrated into the global economy. For the better part of the postwar era, indeed, Washington’s margin of preeminence seemed sufficiently pronounced as to obviate the need for prioritization: the Economist mulled near the turn of the twenty-first century that “the colossus is uncertain. Having so much power, it does not know how to behave.” But it would be misguided to interpret the Soviet Union’s collapse as validating post hoc the whole of America’s containment policy: that Washington prevailed neither legitimizes the strategic indiscipline that it exhibited during the Cold War nor suggests that contesting Beijing and Moscow universally would be advisable today.

China’s GDP is already close to three-quarters as large as America’s, and Beijing is an engine of global growth with a commanding position in supply chains. And while Russia is not an economic player of comparable scale, it can both support China’s initiatives and undertake its own efforts to make it appear as if it is outmaneuvering the United States in regions outside the Asia-Pacific, where Washington is looking to implement a long-overdue rebalance. The two of them collectively have ample resources to lure the United States into peripheral contests where its vital national interests are not implicated. In addition, if one believes that they are likely to prove enduring competitors, avoiding a Soviet-style collapse, then Beijing and Moscow could distract Washington for far longer, and at substantially greater economic and strategic cost, than the Soviet Union did. As such, the United States should avoid permissive conceptions of its national interests: its relative decline will require it to be more selective about when, where, and how it contests China and Russia if it is to maintain its composure.

The second lesson that Washington should take from the Cold War is that principally reactive undertakings are unlikely to prove sustainable. Even though NSC-68 is remembered chiefly for its forceful advocacy of containment, the authors of that seminal document appreciated that competition with the Soviet Union would not be tenable as an overarching imperative, only as a nested one: that is, competition had to be waged within—and subordinated to—a forward-looking, constructive effort to garner the support of both the American public and America’s friends. They accordingly urged the United States to pursue “an affirmative program beyond the solely defensive one of countering the threat posed by the Soviet Union.”

In addition to supporting Western Europe’s convalescence with the Marshall Plan, Washington oversaw the establishment of a “hub-and-spoke” security order that undergirded the Asia-Pacific’s recovery. It also presided over the establishment of institutions, the enactment of treaties, and the enshrinement of norms that generated a fledgling postwar order—one that expanded steadily over the course of the Cold War and flourished long after the disappearance of the Soviet challenge that U.S. policymakers had invoked to justify the creation of that system in the first instance. While these efforts strengthened America’s competitive position, Melvyn Leffler notes that they could be justified without invoking Moscow.

THE UNITED States must again formulate an affirmative program. With both China and Russia increasingly aiming to depict it as a terminally declining power—riven by ideological divisions and consumed by strategic anxiety—internal rebuilding and geopolitical initiative would furnish powerful rejoinders to that narrative, especially if Washington were to prove capable of undertaking them without having to cite Beijing and Moscow.

That mandate calls for an updated strategic framework—one that the Biden administration is well-positioned to formulate. Compared with the 2017 NSS, its Interim National Security Strategic Guidance differentiates more clearly between the nature and magnitude of the respective challenges that China and Russia present, emphasizes more strongly the need to cooperate with them to manage transnational challenges, and articulates more forcefully the judgment that the United States will be able to advance its national interests most effectively if it focuses on investing anew in its unique competitive advantages. In addition, key officials in the White House have expressed reservations about great-power competition’s soundness as an orienting framework. Kurt Campbell, for example, the Indo-Pacific coordinator on the National Security Council, warned in October 2020 that “[a] singular focus on great-power politics will obscure and distort other critical and immediate matters on the global stage.” And even though America’s strategic frictions with Beijing and Moscow are intensifying, the Biden administration has placed a premium on sustaining high-level dialogue, nodding to the imperatives of circumscribing competitive dynamics and preserving cooperative possibilities.

The next NDS could also contribute to a recalibration. In written responses that she submitted prior to her confirmation hearing to be deputy secretary of defense, Kathleen Hicks stated her belief that the Pentagon “should review and revise” the 2018 NDS. In May 2020, moreover, she observed that

U.S. debates over “great-power competition” obscure the true state of international affairs that is evolving. Military and economic rivalry among the United States, China, and Russia is important to geopolitics, but so is the degree to which other “great powers,” some with nuclear weapons, seek alternative paths, potentially together. France, Germany, India, and Japan are powers in their own right, for example. This is why alliances and economic partnerships are so important in a world of increasing multipolarity.

It is unsurprising that the framework of great-power competition has come to enjoy its present traction: it reflects growing concern over America’s relative decline while offering the United States a seeming opportunity to dust off a familiar playbook. In a 1994 speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in honor of his ninetieth birthday, Kennan warned that Washington was at risk of strategic disorientation; because it had spent the better part of the prior six decades facing down frontal challengers—fascist Japan, Nazi Germany, and then the Soviet Union—he concluded that it would struggle to adapt to a world without a decided antagonist in opposition to which it could articulate its objectives and affirm its values.

The United States debated what exactly it should do with its preponderance of power in the 1990s. For perhaps a decade or so after the attacks of September 11, 2001, meanwhile, counterterrorism provided a ballast for U.S. foreign policy, but a partial one at best. On balance, Washington spent much of the quarter-century after the Cold War searching for an orienting successor to the Soviet Union. It would now appear to have found a durable lodestar: even if China and Russia differ from the aggressive military-cum-ideological challengers that it has confronted in the past, they are estimable competitors. But the United States would be remiss to embark upon a poorly defined, steadily more expansive struggle. The management of strategic frictions should be an important component of U.S. foreign policy, not its supreme object.