Trans-Pacific View | Diplomacy

US Foreign Policy and Great Power Politics

Insights from Zachary Shore.

Mercy A. Kuo
US Foreign Policy and Great Power Politics
Credit: Official White House photo

Trans-Pacific View author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy.  This conversation with Zachary Shore professor of history at the Naval Postgraduate School, a senior fellow at UC Berkeley’s Institute of European Studies, and a National Security Visiting Fellow of Stanford’s Hoover Institution is the 257th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”  The opinions expressed in this interview belong to the speaker alone and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Naval Postgraduate School or any other governmental entity.

Identify key characteristics of great power politics in the Trump era.

The most significant shift involved U.S.-China relations. China changed by adopting a far more aggressive foreign policy, antagonizing its neighbors from India to Mongolia to Vietnam and other Southeast Asian states. China even managed to rouse the ire of Australians and Canadians. Beijing under President Xi Jinping appears to have no interest in a charm offensive. Through the provocative maneuvers of its fighter jets and warships, China has stoked genuine concerns in Japan and Taiwan.

While China became more aggressive, America under Trump changed from viewing China as a peer competitor to seeing it as an outright threat. Trump also upended long-standing American policies through his near indifference to human rights abuses, his interpretation of the national interest that lessened the utility of traditional alliances, and his extreme undervaluing of diplomacy as a key tool in foreign affairs. He also made America more susceptible to being played by rivals, from the Taliban to Pakistan to North Korea.

Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin steadily sought to expand Russian influence beyond its near abroad by exerting force in the Middle East and by increasing cyber campaigns in Western states and possibly in Asian democracies as well.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

On the whole, the Trump era saw a striking uptick in great power competition.

How might the evolution of great power rivalry unfold in the post-Trump era?

There is a logic to international relations. Actions trigger reactions. Wise leaders grasp the balance of power. Bismarck understood that as strong as Germany was, it could not afford to alienate all of its neighbors, lest they align against it. As China’s power grows, wise leaders will rein in their ambitions and cultivate cooperation. Unwise leaders will overestimate their power and trigger a coalition of states aligned against them.

If China continues to antagonize other states, the U.S. will lead a tightening alliance of those who feel threatened and bullied by Beijing. This in turn will heighten China’s fear of encirclement, which risks the loss of vital resources abroad, resources on which China desperately depends.

Sanctions and trade wars will continue unless the leaders of China, Russia, and the U.S. break the cycle of tit-for-tat retaliation. If states seek to avoid military confrontations, we can expect Russian, Chinese, and American cyber operations to increase. If these are not managed through international agreements, we could see attacks on state’s energy grids, with devastating consequences for innocent civilians.

Assess the assumptions shaping leaders’ perceptions and calculus.  

Leaders must also be sensitive to what is sometimes called “window logic,” the idea that states have windows of opportunity, which open and close based on conditions beyond their control. Some suspect that China’s aggressiveness stems from the perception that time is actually against it, given its aging population, water and soil pollution, dearth of arable land, and other factors. Combined with their perception that the West is declining, Chinese leaders may grow increasingly opportunistic, engaging in provocative actions, particularly in China’s borderlands.

All of this assumes that current trends will continue. There is always the chance of “Black Swan” events, remote possibilities which, when they occur, have dramatic effects. Putin’s corruption and brutality could trigger his downfall. A more contagious variant of COVID-19 could sweep through China, leaving the government bereft of an effective vaccine. The United States could reverse its current woes by controlling the pandemic and reviving its economic dynamism. If any of these should occur, then the competition would look very different.

Analyze how the Biden administration might recalibrate U.S. foreign policy.     

President Biden, like most Democrats before him, will return to internationalism by strengthening traditional alliances. This is one of America’s great advantages over China and Russia: It has a robust network of powerful allies, which China sorely lacks. China’s aggressive behavior has also presented new openings for America to expand and increase its alliances, particularly its military and economic ties to India. Out of necessity, Vietnam will likely continue balancing between the two great powers, but, if the U.S. handles it deftly, Vietnam might tilt slightly more toward some American aims in the region.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Biden will also re-emphasize human rights. He will cooperate with the EU to take a much tougher stance on Russia, while still seeking arms control agreements.

What should be top priorities for the articulation and implementation of U.S. foreign policy under the Biden administration regarding transpacific and transatlantic relations? 

In normal times, it would be enough to reinvigorate America’s Asian and European alliances as the best move in great power competition. However, these are not normal times, and two domestic matters have become crucial to foreign policy success.

First, the pandemic has exposed how poorly educated many Americans have become, as evidenced by mass movements of citizens who are anti-mask-wearing, anti-vaccination, anti-science, and anti-democracy. In the late 1950s, President Eisenhower signed the National Defense Education Act (NDEA), investing in education from primary school to post-doctoral research. The benefits were enormous. Americans learned science, math, engineering, civics, foreign languages, and overall elevated their income-earning potential. Investing in education is an investment in the American economy. China’s power has stemmed from its rising wealth. American wealth (as measured in its share of global output) is declining relative to other countries. Biden should dedicate some of the pandemic relief funds for a new NDEA. America’s military is dominant, but the best safeguard of the national interest is a robust economy driven by an educated populace.

Second, Biden must find ways to forge a bipartisan consensus on foreign policy. The endless policy reversals that accompany each new administration undercut the national interest. Republicans and Democrats share concerns about China, some share concerns about Russia, and nearly all view Iran, North Korea, and Islamist extremism as dangers. Building consensus for a consistent foreign policy, as the U.S. exhibited to a large extent toward communism during the Cold War, is essential to America’s long-term success.