Can America Adapt to the Multipolar Age?

Can America Adapt to the Multipolar Age?

Can an increasingly ossified national security system and dysfunctional domestic politics allow the United States to evolve its position and policies to cope with a changing international order?

A recent RAND study suggests that, under these changed conditions, the United States should “look for ways to grant rivals increased status in exchange for creating a trade space for arrangements that would serve U.S. interests and enhance stability.” Former Assistant Secretary of Defense Elbridge Colby advises creating “favorable balances of power” vis-a-vis competitors like Russia and China. Neither the American national security community nor most politicians have embraced this advice. National security strategic documents routinely pay rhetorical homage to the changed conditions of the international system, lament the loss of U.S. advantages, and solemnly warn about competition as a fact of life before going on to retain expansive goals and confidently assert that the United States can deter, degrade, and even defeat its rivals. Behind these proclamations is the continuing belief that we can do this at relatively low-cost or no real danger to our interests, especially since we expect other great powers to fade or fall.

The danger here, when faced with the reality of changing power balances in the global system, is that we overestimate our advantages—largely based on the legacies of the immediate post-Cold War system—and wish away the growing disadvantages that recent developments now impose. Jacquelyn Schneider’s recent sobering analysis about a possible U.S.-China clash over Taiwan points to a U.S. overreliance on its traditional “low-cost” tools—sending advisors to help train and equip Taiwanese forces and relying on the U.S. technological advantages for layered stand-off strikes—to deter China. Meanwhile, as Flournoy warned, China has been looking for ways to nullify these U.S. technological fixes, and Washington’s ability to make good on its pledges of defense (in the event deterrence fails) has not been followed up on. There is neither the spending required (and procurement needed) nor any preparation of the U.S. domestic political system for the very real costs that would be incurred if deterrence fails.

In other words, a major conflict—which we still mentally think of in terms of the overwhelming American success of the 1991 Gulf War—could look a lot more like the depressing scenario outlined by James Stavridis and Elliot Ackerman in 2034: A Novel of the Next World War. In that novel, the United States finds itself caught by surprise by Chinese capabilities (especially cyber) and loses the ability to control events, and, ultimately, its position as the “chairman of the board” of the international system.

THE UNITED States remains the dominant power in the international system, but the power shifts of the last thirty years are real and, in my opinion, not reversible. Global affairs will be defined not only by increasing multipolarity, but also by nonpolarity. International relations will be defined by the interactions—a mix of cooperation and competition—among major states, rather than coordination by a hyperpower. American strategists need to become more adept at analyzing the trends of this power transition and determine not how to stop it, but how to manage the levers of power to secure the U.S. position in the world.

If the zeitgeist of 1989–1991 was one of optimism (either for escaping the Cold War, in the West, or that reforms would usher in a new age of prosperity, as in the East), the prevailing mood of this decade is uncertainty for the future. The upheaval in the domestic politics of the industrial democracies—driven by growing concerns about the possible loss of status and lifestyles—is matched by the “social contract” that underpins many regimes around the world, starting in China—that the state will seek to guarantee a middle-class level of consumption to as many of its citizens as possible. The belief that the spread of democratic governance was the pathway for prosperity for the world’s 5.2 billion people in 1989 is being replaced by concerns that climate and environmental shifts make it harder for the nearly 8 billion people in 2021 to all be able to access the basic resources necessary (starting with water, food, and energy) to enjoy a stable, predictable, and comfortable lifestyle. Politics may increasingly be driven by what Tom Nichols calls the “Three Days of the Condor” paradigm: populations will care less about what form of government they have—much less about the structure of international relations—and more about whether leaders can procure what they covet. This comes at a time when the U.S. public will be much less inclined to “share,” and where the utility of America’s partnerships and alliances will be judged by how they enable the United States to protect its ability to deliver the “American Dream” to its own citizens.

This is not going to end the globalized system that emerged after the end of the Cold War. But we are likely to see a “fractured” globalization. The defining motif of the 2020s, in contrast to the universalism of the “end of history” moment, will be the consolidation of ties to more “defensible” or “compact” linkages. In particular, we may see a renewed effort to reduce the length and vulnerability of supply chains, and create alternate sources of supply for everything from energy to electronics that do not require dependence on the revisionist powers.

We may speak less of a single “global community” and more in terms of a series of regional communities. It may also lead to a diminishing of the cosmopolitan/humanitarian ethos that has found a home in the U.S. national security establishment’s focus on fixing failed states. Likewise, campaigns for humanitarian intervention and disaster relief may fall in favor of prioritizing internal defense and regional cohesion. The quiet continuity of policies from the Trump to the Biden administrations, from the resilient supply chain initiative to the “remain in Mexico” program for dealing with migration, speaks to these trends.

YET THE real challenge is whether an increasingly ossified national security system and dysfunctional domestic politics will allow the United States to evolve its position and policies to cope with these changed conditions. Two areas, in particular, will be difficult for the post-Cold War generation now handling U.S. policy.

The first is how to cope with the reality that the strategy of democratic enlargement has reached its end, and an approach predicated on the gradual but inexorable transformation of Euro-Atlantic institutions (along with their rule sets and values) to encompass the world as a whole is no longer feasible. The optimistic assessment given to Secretary of State Warren Christopher in 1993 that Russia will be a full member of NATO by 2005—with the implication that Russian domestic and foreign policy institutions would have been reformed and reconstituted to conform with U.S. preferences—has long faded as a possibility. Yet the alternative—waiting and praying for an inevitable Russian collapse—also does not seem feasible, given Russian sources of resiliency and power. Similarly, China is neither becoming more “American” nor can we predicate policy on a hypothetical coming China collapse. (And grounding U.S. policy in the expectation of the inevitable Russia-China war of 2050 is similarly a foolhardy exercise.)

The United States has discovered that the UN Security Council resolutions it could shepherd through the council in the 1990s no longer pass muster against the double veto of Moscow and Beijing. Reluctantly, we will have to concede that, for the immediate future, global level questions will rest less on U.S.-led institutionalism and more on a set of negotiated bargains and ad hoc arrangements where nineteenth-century compromises, as distasteful as they may be to modern sensibilities, will have to be on the table. So far, the signs are not encouraging. Even a modest attempt—the German-American understanding on Nord Stream 2 and Ukraine that the White House acquiesced to in 2021—faces solid bipartisan opposition—one of the few issues that Democrats and Republicans in Congress can agree on. Yet such tacit arrangements are likely to be the norm as we move forward in the 2020s—and we must become more adept and comfortable with them.

The second matter is how to get a U.S. national security establishment to pivot from legacy systems and regions in order to align U.S. efforts more effectively with the actual realities of the mid-twenty-first century. For instance, U.S. power and prosperity are increasingly going to depend on control and management of a supply chain for minerals such as cobalt, copper, lithium, nickel, and other rare earth minerals—which means that Latin America and Africa will become much more important for the United States. Yet U.S. strategic attention remains locked into a post-Cold War East-West axis, and shifting to a North-South orientation will require shattering a number of Pentagon and State Department bureaucratic rice bowls. China, meanwhile, has spent much of the last two decades attempting to integrate these regions into its larger Belt and Road Initiative. Despite that challenge laying right in front of us, it will take years to build the relations and construct the infrastructure needed to undertake this shift.

Yet we continue to focus our efforts on finishing the agenda of the 1990s and 2000s in the greater Eurasian space, while postponing the work that needs to begin now to be prepared for the next era in geopolitical and geo-economic competition. The United States does not need to abandon its previous efforts but it should be transitioning on helping its allies and partners facing Russia and China to improve their porcupine defense capabilities—in essence, to have a group of reliable partners capable of conducting holding actions to thwart Russian and Chinese movements, maintaining robust “barriers” so that U.S. attention can focus on areas of greater dynamism and long-term importance to U.S. interests. This not only includes shifting away from large, expensive legacy platforms towards smaller, more numerous unmanned systems, but building up the defenses to secure our communications, our information space, and our systems—especially as we continue to move towards the “Internet of Things”)—and reconceptualizing our understandings of the “Atlantic” and “Pacific” zones to incorporate Latin America and Africa.