The Widening Willpower Gap

April 9, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Global Tags: ChinaRussiaIranU.S. Grand StrategyU.S. Military

The Widening Willpower Gap

The weakness of adversary powers relative to the United States should not deceive us from their very clear advantage in willingness to execute decisive, if risky, strategies.

On an unusually warm October day in 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt took center stage to dedicate the new Outer Drive Bridge in Chicago. As Roosevelt spoke, Benito Mussolini’s Italy was consolidating its conquest of Ethiopia, Nazi Germany was drafting its plans for continental domination, and Imperial Japanese troops were marching through Beijing. Roosevelt announced that “it seems to be unfortunately true that the epidemic of world lawlessness is spreading. [And] when an epidemic of physical disease starts to spread, the community approves and joins in a quarantine of the patients...” Despite Roosevelt’s call to “quarantine” the aggressive countries, the United States failed to take decisive action.

Writing in 1937, Walter Lippman observed, “The fascist powers, though potentially weaker than the rest of us, are in fact stronger, because they have the will to fight for what they want and we do not have it.” The failure of the allied powers to provide early, unified, and resolute involvement against the fascist countries emboldened their aggression and resulted in a world war. Like in 1937, the United States and its allies are failing to muster enough willpower to match their adversaries

What Makes a Country Powerful?

From university lecture halls to Pentagon conference rooms, assessments of national power usually focus on easily measurable economic, military, and political indicators. A nation’s GDP, average national income, annual defense spending, total ship numbers, research and development investment, and number of treaty allies can all factor into a nation’s gross power. In any rivalry, the comparative measurements of economic, military, and political power will be critical in determining the victor. However, gross national power can only tell part of the story. Willpower needs to be accepted as a category of national power.

Willpower can be defined as the combination of strategy and sustained determination in its implementation. The countries with the highest degree of willpower tend to be those countries that seek revision of and dominance over the international system. In the modern context, those nations are the leading authoritarian powers that desire to end American preponderance. They strive for a world safe for authoritarianism. Building that world requires strategic initiative, decisive action, and aggressive tactics. 

Nearly a hundred years after the rise of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan, a new cohort of revisionist nations has revealed their abundance of willpower with increasingly dangerous consequences. The willpower of China, Russia, and Iran is augmented by their declining or peaking material power. As their economies slow, opportunities to realize their revisionist aims diminish. Consequently, they feel compelled to act. As their economic and military power continues to decline, this will likely result in more authoritarian willpower. The United States cannot hope that declining authoritarian economic power will lead to a safer world. In fact, the opposite is more likely.

Strength in Willpower

The horrors of World War II invigorated Washington to be more proactive in world affairs. For decades, the United States sustained enough willpower to contain the Soviet Union and counter communist advances abroad. From the collapse of the Soviet Union until relatively recently, American policymakers have enjoyed a holiday from authoritarian revisionism. With no overwhelming authoritarian power to balance against, the United States became complacent. Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014 garnered little Western pushback. Washington’s pursuit of a deal with Iran over its nuclear weapon program only rewarded Tehran’s policies. Finally, decades of American engagement with China have strengthened its predatory practices. For years, policymakers failed to grasp the growing threat from these countries, partly due to America’s lead in economic, military, and political metrics. Decisionmakers rarely accounted for the ever-increasing gap in willpower. Years of dormant American action created the wrong incentive structure for these revisionist countries. As their material power begins to peak, their willpower accelerates. Washington has become risk averse, and the gap in willpower is widening.

Russia serves as a prime example of an ambitious revisionist state. For years, Russia has used aggressive tactics to challenge American dominance in Europe. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s desire to absorb Ukraine has been part of his and Russia’s grand strategy for a long time, and now he is trying to implement it. While Russia is a more powerful country than Ukraine, Russian power is dwarfed by the combined might of the United States and its allies. On the eve of Russia’s invasion, Russia supported a $2.2 trillion GDP, compared with the nearly $17 trillion economy of the European Union.

While Russia boasts a reasonably capable military, it still pales compared to NATO’s combined might. In 2024, the combined defense expenditure for members of NATO will be around $1.1 trillion. Meanwhile, experts anticipate about 40 percent of Russia’s federal spending will be on the military, totaling $115 billion. Russia’s 2022 invasion is a perfect example of how the absence of overwhelming power does not necessarily result in an inactive foreign policy. Through sheer willpower, the Kremlin has been incredibly effective at marshaling resources to pursue its vision of empire. For many years, the United States and Europe have hesitated to challenge Russia; continued failure will result in more Russian aggression, not less.

Many people in the Middle East are experiencing the consequences of an increasingly insecure and motivated Iran. Iran has stagnated under decades of crippling sanctions, but that has not prevented Tehran from perpetuating instability and pursuing its vision of regional hegemony. Iran’s economy is less than half the size of Saudi Arabia’s, and it spends only $7 billion on its military, while Riyadh spends $75 billion. Yet Iran, much like Russia, possesses the determination and strategic planning required to achieve its objectives. Despite being less powerful, Iran has made strategic gains by funding Shia militias in Iraq, supplying Hamas in Palestine, and arming the Houthis in Yemen. The result has been near-constant attacks on U.S. bases, killing three U.S. soldiers, the devastating attack in Israel by Hamas on October 7, and the disruption of global supply chains due to the Houthis’ attacks in the Red Sea. Washington cannot rely on perceived Iranian weakness to stabilize the situation in the Middle East. Slow and insufficient responses from the United States and its partners have only emboldened the Islamic Republic.

Finally—and most consequentially—is China. Unlike Russia and Iran, China actually possesses the title of near-peer competitor to the United States. Xi Jinping has laid out an ambitious strategy for Chinese rejuvenation. His eagerness to make China a world superpower has engendered an increasingly dangerous environment. Beijing’s drum-beating about unifying Taiwan, its militant activities against India in the Himalayas, and China’s expansionist activity in the South China Sea all demonstrate China’s drive to actualize its grand revision. Even more concerning is the state of its economy. Due to changing demographics and the reversing of free-market reforms, China’s economy is projected to peak and decline. If the trends hold, Xi’s opportunity to realize its rejuvenation will begin to close. This will not produce a more sedentary China. As the case with Russia indicates, it will actually increase Beijing’s willpower, making China more dangerous. The United States should prepare for a China that is more willing to act.

Many in the West have acknowledged our adversaries’ declining gross power. If current economic, demographic, and geopolitical trends hold, revisionist countries will be materially less potent over the coming decades. Due to these trends, our adversaries have a closing window to act. The recent spike in willpower needs to be matched by the United States and its partners before events unravel.

Toward A New Net Assessment

In white paper after white paper, policymakers warn of the threats revisionist powers pose. In Congress, many elected officials will talk tough on China, Russia, and Iran yet fail to enact “tough” policies. Washington’s determination to meet the challenge is wanting. Policymakers are too hesitant to take bold, decisive action, resulting in months of delayed decisions. While the United States and its partners largely recognize the dangerous time we live in, budget priorities indicate that they do not take the threats seriously enough. By and large, the revisionist powers are relatively weak. They lack the economic, military, and political power of the United States and its partners. Due to their weakness, just like in 1937, they share an abundance of willpower. Policymakers must recognize willpower as a strategic resource and not rely solely on traditional forms of net assessment. Failing to take the initiative comes with an unacceptably high cost, and the consequences could be tragic.

Connor Fiddler is the Associate Deputy Director for the Asia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. His research covers Asian security, U.S. alliance management, and U.S. grand strategy. He has held previous positions at the American Enterprise Institute and the Ronald Reagan Institute, where he focused on foreign and defense policy. His research has been published in The Hill, The National Interest, The Diplomat, and RealClearDefense, among others. He has his master’s degree from George Washington University and is a Young Leader with the Pacific Forum. Follow him on X: @Connor_Fiddler.