Will great power competition end up eating U.S. foreign policy? A new Foreign Affairs article by Dr. Daniel Nexon of Georgetown University makes the case that “great power competition” as U.S. grand strategy for the 21st century isn’t really strategic, and that commitment to the idea of competition threatens to crowd out all of the other priorities of U.S. foreign policy. As Nexon writes, “Competition isn’t a strategic goal. It’s a means to an end. The decision to compete with another great power should always be over something specific; it should center on the efficacy of competition, the value of the object at stake, and how the specific objective contributes to long-term goals.” Framing U.S. policy around great power competition clouds the fact that the United States and China (and Russia, India, and the EU, for that matter) share extensive interests, including but not limited to nuclear non-proliferation, the suppression of terrorism, the prevention of another pandemic, and the mitigation of climate change.
The Cold War version of “great power competition” was the strategy of “containment” described in NSC-68. While the literal containment of Soviet power within its existing geographic constraints was part of the story, the larger and more important element was the description of a strategy for totalized competition, including military, economic, political, social, and ideological tools. Over time, containment offered a template for framing any argument about foreign (or even domestic) policy that an advocate wanted to make, linking the policy to the Soviet Union with only tenuous connections to actual concerns about Soviet behavior. In military terms, this helped lead not only to poor decisions about interventions in Vietnam and elsewhere, but also to a de-emphasis of the military tools needed to fight conflicts other than either nuclear war or high-intensity conventional war on Europe’s central front.
There is some evidence that the same dynamic is taking hold at the Pentagon today. While it is refreshing to see an end to the War on Terror era-intellectual dominance of irregular warfare, great power competition can be just as distorting. For example, a report from the Drive last week suggested that the U.S. Navy is looking to ditch a recent batch of small patrol boats because they could not be “fit” into plans for great power competition with China. Indeed, great power competition has the potential to devour itself; arguments about confronting China almost inevitably have the rhetorical effect of making it difficult to withdraw attention from any other part of the world. Why does the United States need to remain committed to the Middle East? Out of fear of a growth of Chinese influence, of course.
The United States is undoubtedly moving into a period of heightened competition with China. However, Washington and Beijing still need to work with one another on a vast array of international problems, and cannot afford to take a zero-sum approach to every issue. More importantly, while competition with China is a priority, it is not the only object of U.S. foreign policy, even in the security sphere. We should take care that the rhetoric of great power competition does not devour every other aspect of U.S. foreign policy.