Not-So-Great Powers: U.S.-China Rivalry in the Neomedieval Age

Not-So-Great Powers: U.S.-China Rivalry in the Neomedieval Age

Counterintuitive as might sound, U.S. decisionmakers should avoid strategies and methods drawn from industrial-age great power competition.

At the same time that the U.S. Congress deliberated on legislation to counter China, it remained gridlocked over national debt limits. The current political acrimony adds to persistent American problems of wavering economic growth, bitter partisan feuding, and record levels of gun violence, among other long-standing issues. Meanwhile, Beijing’s demands that the United States “correct” its policies regarding China occurred alongside news that its own economy is faltering amid slowing global demand. China also continues to grapple with a worsening debt problem, a bleak demographic outlook, and high levels of violent crime. Relative political and economic weakness stands out as a striking and disturbing feature of the current U.S.-China rivalry.

The weakened state of the rival powers ill-fits the pattern set not only by the Cold War but also by all great power rivalries over the past two centuries, including the two World Wars and even the conflicts of the Napoleonic era. The state of technologies differed dramatically, of course, but they shared key social, political, and economic features. Those epic contests involved centralized, unitary states with a high degree of internal cohesion and robust patriotic popular support. Governments enjoyed strong legitimacy partly due to expanding opportunities for political participation and economic advancement. Broad popular support for the governments also owed to industrialization, which took off in the late 1700s and yielded dramatic gains in the material standard of living for many people, especially after 1850. Industrial-age warfare typically centered on strategies of mass mobilization that permitted the fielding of vast armies consisting of citizen-soldiers equipped with standardized uniforms and equipment. When these nation-states fought, they demonstrated an impressive ability to mobilize resources, involve the population, and sustain a war footing for years on end. Their militaries frequently engaged in blood-soaked set-piece battles that generated staggering casualties. The wars often wrought immense destruction and typically ended with unconditional surrender by one side or the other.

The current U.S.-China rivalry contrasts sharply with these historical experiences. Unlike their predecessors, the two countries contend amid a complex and overlapping array of threats, labor under severe resource constraints, and manifest distressing signs of domestic weakness. With a diminishing ability to meet the needs of their citizens, the U.S. and Chinese governments have inspired little patriotic enthusiasm. Neither side has mobilized their citizenry against the other, nor do strategies of mass mobilization appear plausible for the foreseeable future. Instead, the principal mode of military recruitment consists of professional volunteers and contractors. China indeed continues to rely on conscription for perhaps a third of its military manpower, but that is because it cannot attract enough qualified volunteers. Far from a minor hindrance, transnational threats and episodes of domestic upheaval appear highly menacing and routinely vie with traditional threats for the attention of policymakers. For example, U.S. military forces have struggled to counter non-state actors in the Middle East and control outbursts of domestic turmoil. Meanwhile, the People’s Liberation Arm has scrambled to protect Chinese citizens abroad from serious harm, and the country’s security forces struggle to ensure domestic control in Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang.

Grasping that the current situation bears little resemblance to twentieth-century precedents, experts have fiercely debated its meaning. Some have insisted that past patterns will hold and that the two countries are bound for conflict. Others disagree, arguing that war is unlikely and the two countries will carry out a distinct type of competition. Still others question the wisdom of competition at all given the magnitude of domestic problems confronting each rival and urge greater cooperation on shared concerns instead.


A starting point for making sense of the U.S.-China rivalry’s unusual features is recognizing that our world is experiencing an epochal transformation. In a recently published RAND Corporation report, I present evidence that the international community entered a new epoch, which I call “neomedievalism,” beginning around 2000. This new period is characterized by the attenuation or regression of the political, social, and economic dimensions of the modern era.

Politically, the centralized nation-state is in steep decline. Although what might succeed it remains intensely disputed. The decline of the nation-state has already spurred severe political crises in many countries, and the problems of a weakened state will persist even following the consolidation of new sources of legitimacy. The relatively high level of social solidarity that predominated in nation-states has atrophied, and competing sets of identities have grown more salient. Economically, neomedieval states are experiencing slowing and imbalanced growth, primarily benefiting a small minority. Neomedieval economies are also experiencing disparate growth rates, the return of entrenched inequalities, and expanding illicit economies. The nature of security threats has undergone significant change as well. Reversing trends that predominated in the past two centuries, non-military dangers such as natural disasters, pandemics, and violent non-state actors rival or outpace traditional state militaries as principal security concerns. While many of these risks are not new, they are especially menacing due to neomedieval states' weakened legitimacy and capacity. Warfare in the neomedieval age has experienced a revival of pre-industrial practices, including the privatization of militaries, the prevalence of siege warfare, the prominence of intrastate war, and the formation of informal coalitions consisting of diverse state and non-state actors.

These trends represent a “meta-history,” in the sense that they extend beyond the experiences of individual countries or leaders. As trends that define the general arc of human experience, they are unlikely to be reversed and can, at best, be delayed or mitigated. Their effects will also likely overshadow the impact of particular technologies and weapons. This is because technologies, no matter how advanced or sophisticated, cannot always solve problems that are fundamentally political, societal, and economic. The limits of advanced technology were well illustrated by the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. American forces possessed the most sophisticated equipment available to any military throughout history. However, this proved inadequate against the realities of a weak Kabul regime, an impoverished and fragmented Afghan society, a tenuous commitment from Washington, and a poorly-equipped yet resolute Taliban-led insurgency.

Why is the world experiencing such attenuation and regression? The most fundamental driver owes to the declining strength of the advanced industrial economies that created the modern industrial era in the first place. Before 1800, no industrial nation-state existed. As Western countries developed into industrial nation-states, their immense concentration of power and wealth excited admiration, resentment, and envy in states worldwide. The appeal and influence of Western nation-states reached their apogee in the 1950s and 1960s when their economies experienced a “golden age” of prosperity that fueled rising incomes across virtually all social classes. However, the situation began to change in the 1970s when the same economies deindustrialized as rising wages rendered manufacturing less competitive. Growth rates slowed, economies experienced stagnation, and inequality grew. Analysts noted a concomitant decay of key social and political institutions dating from this period.

Consequently, U.S. decisionmakers and planners should be wary of resorting to strategies and methods drawn from industrial age wars with which contemporary militaries bear a superficial resemblance. The U.S. military, in particular, will face the temptation to prescribe industrial nation-state solutions for neomedieval problems. Focusing on conventional military challenges both validates the importance of such forces and frames issues in terms that existing interests find comfortable. But policymakers should resist this temptation. The Russian military’s disastrous performance in Ukraine and America’s painful experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq provide examples of what can happen when outdated thinking dominates approaches to warfare. To avoid potentially disastrous misjudgments and miscalculations, U.S. decisionmakers and planners should consider several key points about the neomedieval era.

First, the reality of weakening states will likely be a defining feature of the U.S.-China rivalry. Nation-states are experiencing a decline in political legitimacy and governance capacity. This weakness afflicts both the United States and China, as well as virtually all countries around the world. As economic growth decelerates, the debilitation of modern states will likely worsen over time, and efforts to fully reverse the trends are unlikely to work. This does not mean strengthening state capacity is futile. Finding ways to improve state capacity and rebuild the state’s legitimacy will become central tasks in the contest. But even in the best case, the United States and China will be weaker and less cohesive than they were in the past century. All defense planning should begin with an awareness of this vulnerability and the constraints that it imposes. Weakening state capacity restricts options for building military power and waging conflict. It introduces new vulnerabilities that must be accounted for in defensive preparations as well as opportunities for offensive operations against rival powers.

Second, conventional war between the United States and China is improbable owing to their political, economic, and societal weaknesses. Despite the potential for heightened tensions, neomedieval trends render total war between the United States and China unlikely. The persistent fragility of public support, the inability to carry out a mass mobilization, and the exceeding risks and difficulties of sustaining intensive conflict have made “total war” in the mold of World War II almost impossible to wage. Moreover, war requires the rapid depletion of scarce military resources that will be difficult and costly to replace. This is an especially important consideration given the competing fiscal demands of the welfare state. That said, some sort of conflict cannot be ruled out. Should the U.S.-China rivalry escalate to hostilities, the two sides might instead fight through proxy conflicts or by provoking political unrest in the rival’s homeland. Amid such friction, the two may find their contest frequently interrupted by the imperative to reallocate scarce resources to address various domestic and transnational threats, resulting in a chronic low-intensity conflict. Under such conditions, conventional combat between U.S.-China forces, if it occurs at all, could consist of sporadic clashes between relatively modest-sized formations in different parts of the world. As ambitions of total victory over the adversary prove infeasible, political goals may instead focus on securing minor gains through temporary settlements while leaving broader issues unresolved.