Trans-Pacific View | Security

The Future of American Power in Uncertain Times

The deployment of U.S. power is indeed passing through a phase when it can no longer ignore the tectonic forces of a changing balance of power in the world.

The Future of American Power in Uncertain Times
Credit: Depositphotos

At the end of Cold War, American political scientist Francis Fukuyama shot to academic fame with his seminal work “The End of History,” contending that humanity’s search for — and the global battle for — the best form of governance had ended with a victory for Western liberal democracy, and the demise of Soviet communism. However, if the new great power competition between the United States and the People’s Republic of China is anything to go by, history has just started for the battle between democracies and autocracies. 

The much awaited and recently released U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS) says that “the post-Cold War era is definitively over and a competition is underway between the major powers to shape what comes next.” More than anything else, the Biden administration’s new NSS mirrors the uncertain geopolitical and geoeconomic context in which American power has to be deployed in the face of primary strategic challenge from China’s comprehensive power and lesser but more immediate threats from Russia. 

The Biden administration came to the White House promising to bring back the United States’ global leadership, after four uncertain years of the Trump presidency. While the more traditional statecraft of Biden’s presidency may have brought a sense of predictability to U.S. strategic posturing and diplomatic outlook, the uncertainties of the international system have not dissipated. The world is neither bipolar nor unipolar, yet a truly multipolar world order is yet to be crystallized. Therefore, making the most of the United States’ resources, both national and global, for its ambitious goal of continuing to shape the international systems has to be realized amid tectonic geopolitical, geoeconomic, and technological changes. The United States’ relative decline amid the rise of China and the rest has often highlighted the challenge of aligning capabilities and aspirations that lies at the heart of grand strategy

The long-term threat from China’s material and ideational influence to the United States’ global primacy remains a common thread between the national security strategies of the Trump era to the Biden administration. China is the sole near peer competitor possessing “both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to advance that objective.” That U.S. power cannot face such a challenge alone is a foregone conclusion, and China is not the Soviet Union of last century’s Cold War. The extent to which Beijing can leverage its economic power to shape political outcomes — primarily in the Indo-Pacific, but also across the world — is evident for all to see. Unlike in the Cold War when Washington battled a more strictly structured system of alliances and counter-alliances, the current international system shows new dimensions of more loosely held partnerships and lesser obligations. 

The United States has had to learn, relearn, and unlearn new terms of engagement while dealing with partners such as India, with its own worldview and unique sense of partnerships in the international system. While the call to counteract China’s assertive rise enjoys a broad consensus both in the Indo-Pacific region and globally, the terms of engagement with China have more specific national features, including geographical proximity, the history of relationships, and current dynamics of economic interdependence. Just as Washington would like to preserve its own sense of competition-cooperation balance with Beijing, so do many stakeholders of the Indo-Pacific and the international system, commensurate with their own reading of their national interests. 

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Domestic politics is intertwined with the United States’ ability to project power in the external environment. As the NSS says, “In an interconnected world, there is no bright line between foreign and domestic policy.” Deep political polarization and socio-economic cleavages in the United States have often exposed a deep malaise eating American power from within, reaching its nadir in the insurrection at the U.S. Congress on January 6, 2021, amid the significant democratic process of power transition in the White House. 

To end overzealous foreign engagements and focus on nation building at home has had a particular pull in U.S. national strategy debates, following interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq plus the financial crisis of 2008. Even as the Biden presidency made the controversial decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, and focus on a foreign policy for the American people, voices across the world echoed U.S. retrenchment, and questioned its role as a security guarantor in different geopolitical regions. Most particularly the Taiwan Strait is fast emerging as the primary geopolitical theater for U.S.-China competition besides the South China Sea. 

The deployment of U.S. power is indeed passing through a phase when it can no longer ignore the tectonic forces of a changing balance of power, not only in terms of its competition with its nearest peer, but in its capability to affect regional outcomes to its favor. The specter of China’s rise and the United States’ relative decline also corresponds with the question of an imbalance between U.S. national power and its predominance over the  distribution of public goods in the international system, and more particularly in the Indo-Pacific, where Chinese ability to undercut American influence has been growing.

The NSS contends that the United States has “entered a consequential new period of American foreign policy that will demand more of the United States in the Indo-Pacific than has been asked of us since the Second World War.” Washington released the NSS, with much anticipation, at a time when all eyes were tuned on to China’s consequential 20th Party Congress, that more than anything else confirmed President Xi Jinping’s grip on China’s domestic and foreign policy dynamics. Both developments herald an all domain China-U.S. great power competition veering toward probable conflict. 

As the Biden administration signals to the United States’ traditional allies and partners the country’s persistent intention and potent capabilities to shape the rules of the road, Washington has to navigate an international system with uncertain terms of engagement between major powers, new technological breakthroughs, and novel transnational challenges. As such, Washington will need to adapt the deployment of its national power and aim right not high as it faces “the contest to write the rules of the road and shape the relationships that govern global affairs” that “is playing out in every region and across economics, technology, diplomacy, development, security, and global governance.”