How Does Great Power Competition End?

How Does Great Power Competition End?

If the endgame is a decent equilibrium whereby free nations in the Indo-Pacific can continue to prosper, that would be an historic achievement for the United States.


There is broad agreement today that the United States has entered a period of strategic competition with China. Great power rivalry is back, after a supposed post-Cold War hiatus. But how does great power competition end?

Some clues may be found in a rich literature on the subject in political science, drawing on historical case studies. In his book, Great Strategic Rivalries, U.S. Marine Corps University professor James Lacey usefully surveyed a wide range of great power rivalries going back to the ancient world. At the risk of oversimplification, Lacey finds that great power competition typically ends in one of four ways:


First, one side wins, peacefully.

Second, one side wins, violently.

Third, both sides agree to unite against some third great power.

Fourth, both sides lose as some third great power rises.

The first outcome, a peaceful ending where one side clearly wins, is surprisingly rare. The Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union is the outstanding example here. While liberals sometimes suggest that “both sides lost” in that conflict, of course, this is mistaken. The Soviet Union lost, and the West—thankfully—won. This successful and unusually peaceful outcome, defined as the absence of great power warfare, was achieved partly due to the mutual fear of a nuclear exchange. It was achieved partly due to the efforts of a number of capable Western leaders over a period of forty-some years. And it was achieved partly due to the fact that Mikhail Gorbachev refused in the end to block the collapse of the USSR. As Vladislav Zubok reminds us in his latest book, Collapse, one-party dictators who unintentionally kick off the self-destruction of a major power—and then accept that defeat peacefully—are not inevitable.

The second outcome, a violent ending where one side wins, is, according to Lacey, by far the most common. To be specific, great power competition usually ends when one side triumphs over the other in system-wide warfare. Sometimes this takes more than one such war. This is also consistent with the work of leading political scientists such as the late Robert Gilpin. It is a disturbing finding, to say the least.

The third outcome, where both sides eventually unite against a threatening new force, is less common. For example, the United States and the British Empire were great power rivals during the late nineteenth century. Eventually, they came together against a rising German threat in two world wars. But this process was far more torturous than sometimes imagined, and a profound sense of rivalry between the two English-speaking powers lasted well into the twentieth century.

The fourth outcome, where both sides lose to some other rising force, does occur from time to time. For instance, Venice and Genoa were something like great power competitors within the context of the Renaissance Italian city-state system. During the early sixteenth century, the rise of larger Western European states, including France and Spain, supplanted intra-Italian rivalries and established those bigger Atlantic powers as predominant.

In the case of the current Sino-American competition, either the third or the fourth outcome listed above seems unlikely. Liberals might want to think that climate change represents a kind of threatening power capable of either unifying or superseding great power rivalry between Washington and Beijing. But in all probability, such a political outcome due to environmental concerns is a Western fantasy. Nor is there any other great power in the traditional sense about to rival both China and the United States in terms of overall material capabilities.

This means the most likely outcome of Sino-American competition over the long run is also the most common endgame of great power rivalries historically. Namely: one side wins. We should certainly hope this occurs peacefully. But American officials also have a special responsibility, on behalf of their fellow citizens, to see that the United States does not lose this competition.

In facing the coming challenge, it will be useful to understand patterns of previous great power rivalries, even though no two such cases are exactly alike. During the unipolar heyday of the 1990s, liberal internationalists had the luxury of imagining that great power competition was a thing of the past. In reality, that relatively peaceful era rested on the predominance of American capabilities. Now we are told by Beijing, Moscow, and Western liberals that we must avoid “Cold War thinking.” What Russian and Chinese leaders mean by this is that the United States should not compete with them, but instead accommodate their preferences. What Western progressives mean is that a geopolitical sensibility is outdated and immoral. But Western progressives are wrong. Even the Cold War was just one example of a broader and recurring phenomenon in world politics, namely great power competition. To refuse to play that game, is to lose it.

In February 1946, near the outset of the Cold War, American diplomat George Kennan famously wrote to his superiors urging them to recognize that further concessions to the USSR were pointless. This, he indicated, was because of the nature of the Soviet regime. At the same time, he suggested that preventive warfare against Moscow was unnecessary. The United States, Kennan added in a follow-up Foreign Affairs article the following year under the pseudonym “Mr. X,” needed to contain Soviet expansion by patrolling and enforcing a carefully selected defensive perimeter encircling the USSR. Turning Marxist analysis upside down, he suggested that the Soviet system would eventually mellow or wither away due to its own internal contradictions. That was Kennan’s endgame, and however vague or incredible it seemed at the time, over forty years later it came to fruition. This was Kennan’s realism.

The current Sino-American competition will not repeat the exact contours of the Soviet-American struggle, but there are lessons to be learned from it along with cautionary notes. What is the United States’ endgame with regard to this coming competition? At the moment, it isn’t clear. The Biden administration suggests that competition and cooperation between Beijing and Washington can be carefully placed in different silos according to Western liberal preferences. But Chinese leaders appear to disagree. If President Joe Biden has a coherent backup plan, given the reality of Chinese pushback, he has yet to reveal it.

We can hope that the Chinese Communist system mellows, as the Soviet system eventually withered away, but at the moment this expectation seems to be a weak reed. Western governments spent a quarter-century during the post-Cold War era gambling that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would mellow and liberalize. Unfortunately, that very gamble helped to empower and enrich CCP rule, and under Xi Jinping, the party has become more authoritarian instead of less so.

It is with these concerns in mind that Elbridge Colby argues in his new book, The Strategy of Denial, for a relentless American focus on China, based upon that country’s singular challenge to the international balance of power. As the lead author of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, Colby witnessed the many demands on existing U.S. military resources and argued for an explicit prioritization of the Indo-Pacific theater. His book walks through the various contingency scenarios and urges bolstered U.S. defenses within that theater, precisely with the aim of deterring Chinese aggression. Colby also does something rather unusual in this book: he offers a sense of the desired endgame.

For Colby, the purpose of a sensible American strategy toward China is the preservation of what he calls a “decent equilibrium.”  Under this result, other countries in the Indo-Pacific would be free to prosper without living under any coercive Chinese hegemony. At the same time, with this outcome, China would remain a powerful, respected player in the region and beyond. As Colby says: “It would not be able to dominate, but neither would the United States or anyone else be able to dominate it.” Interestingly, Colby’s strategy neither calls for nor requires regime change inside China. Rather, he recommends a hardline U.S. policy toward Beijing, in concert with allies and partners overseas, in order to eventually arrive at a decent equilibrium.

Regime type is of great importance to a nation’s foreign policy. Kennan realized that. But regime type is also very hard to change from the outside. This has been one hard lesson of the post-Cold War era. Ever since the 1990s, we have been told repeatedly to look for the next Gorbachev to unintentionally bring down his own dictatorial regime. We have heard excited hints of a possible Cuban Gorbachev, an Iranian Gorbachev, a North Korean Gorbachev, another Russian Gorbachev, and yes, even a Chinese Gorbachev. But Chinese Communist leaders are well aware of Gorbachev’s example, and they are determined to avoid it.

We need to stop looking for the next Gorbachev. We need to settle in for what is likely to be a lengthy and hopefully peaceful U.S. competition with China. Perhaps one day the citizens of that country will rearrange their own domestic political affairs. Americans can and should continue to speak out on the issue of human rights inside China. More broadly, we should not hesitate to publicly recognize and describe the highly authoritarian nature of the Chinese Communist regime. But while that understanding is indispensable, it is not a strategy. The immediate need is for the United States and its allies to push back and develop far more focused and coordinated countermeasures against Chinese power to deter armed conflict.