There is now a broad consensus that the United States has entered a period of strategic competition with China. Great power rivalry is back, after a supposed post-Cold War hiatus. But how does the competition of the great powers to finish?
Some clues can be found in a rich literature on the subject in political science, drawing on historical case studies. In his book, Great Strategic Rivalries, James Lacey, a professor at the US Marine Corps University, has helpfully studied a wide range of great power rivalries dating back to the ancient world. At the risk of oversimplifying, Lacey finds that great power competition usually ends in one of four ways:
First, one side wins, peacefully.
Second, one side wins, violently.
Third, both sides agree to unite against a third major power.
Fourth, both sides lose as a third great power rises.
The first outcome, a peaceful ending where one side clearly wins, is surprisingly rare. The Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union is the most striking example of this. While liberals sometimes suggest that “both sides lost” in this conflict, of course that is a mistake. The Soviet Union lost and the West, fortunately, won. This successful and exceptionally peaceful outcome, defined as the absence of war between great powers, was achieved in part through mutual fear of nuclear exchange. It was achieved in part through the efforts of a number of capable Western leaders over a period of some 40 years. And this was achieved in part thanks to the fact that Mikhail Gorbachev ultimately refused to block the collapse of the USSR. As Vladislav Zubok reminds us in his latest book, Collapse, one-party dictators who unwittingly trigger the self-destruction of a great power and then accept that defeat peacefully are not inevitable.
The second outcome, a violent end where one side wins, is, according to Lacey, by far the most common. To be precise, great power competition usually ends when one side triumphs over the other in a system-wide war. Sometimes it takes more than such a war. This is also consistent with the work of eminent political scientists such as the late Robert Gilpin. This is a disturbing observation to say the least.
The third outcome, where both sides end up uniting against a new threatening force, is less common. For example, the United States and the British Empire were great rivals at the end of the 19th century. Eventually, they came together against a growing German threat in two world wars. But this process was far more tortuous than sometimes imagined, and a deep sense of rivalry between the two English-speaking powers lasted well into the 20th century.
The fourth outcome, where both sides lose to another rising force, happens every once in a while. For example, Venice and Genoa looked like competing great powers in the context of the Italian Renaissance city-state system. In the early 16th century, the rise of major Western European states, including France and Spain, supplanted intra-Italian rivalries and established these major Atlantic powers as predominant.
In the case of the current Sino-American competition, the third or fourth outcome listed above seems unlikely. Liberals might want to think of climate change as some kind of threatening power capable of unifying or replacing the great power rivalry between Washington and Beijing. But in all likelihood, such a political outcome due to environmental concerns is a Western fantasy. Nor is there another great power in the traditional sense poised to rival both China and the United States in terms of overall material capabilities.
This means that the most likely outcome of long-term Sino-US competition is also the most common endgame of great power rivalries historically. Namely: one side wins. We should certainly hope that this happens peacefully. But American officials also have a special responsibility, on behalf of their fellow citizens, to ensure that the United States does not lose this competition.
In the face of the challenge ahead, it will be helpful to understand the patterns of past great power rivalries, even if no two cases are the same. In the unipolar heyday of the 1990s, liberal internationalists had the luxury of imagining that great power competition was a thing of the past. In reality, this relatively peaceful time was based on the predominance of American capabilities. Now Beijing, Moscow and Western liberals are telling us that we must avoid “Cold War thinking”. What the Russian and Chinese leaders mean by this is that the United States should not compete with them, but rather adapt to their preferences. What Western progressives mean is that a geopolitical sensibility is outdated and immoral. But Western progressives are wrong. Even the Cold War was just one example of a larger and recurring phenomenon in world politics, namely great power competition. To refuse to play this game is to lose it.
In February 1946, near the start of the Cold War, American diplomat George Kennan wrote to his superiors urging them to recognize that further concessions to the USSR were unnecessary. This, he said, was due to the nature of the Soviet regime. At the same time, he suggested that a pre-emptive war against Moscow was unnecessary. The United States, Kennan added in a follow-up Foreign Affairs article the following year under the pseudonym “Mr. X”, was to contain Soviet expansion by patrolling and imposing a carefully selected defensive perimeter encircling the USSR. Turning the Marxist analysis on its head, he suggested that the Soviet system would eventually either soften or wither due to its own internal contradictions. It was Kennan’s endgame, and as vague or unbelievable as it seemed at the time, over forty years later, it has come to fruition. It was Kennan’s realism.
The current Sino-American competition will not repeat the exact contours of the Soviet-American struggle, but there are lessons to be learned as well as caveats. What is USA’s endgame in this upcoming competition? At the moment it is not clear. The Biden administration suggests that competition and cooperation between Beijing and Washington can be carefully placed in different silos according to Western liberal preferences. But Chinese leaders appear to disagree. If President Joe Biden has a coherent backup plan, given the reality of Chinese pushback, he has yet to reveal it.
We can hope that the Chinese communist system will soften, while the Soviet system will eventually wither away, but for now, that expectation seems like a weak reed. Western governments spent a quarter of a century in the post-Cold War betting that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would soften and liberalize. Unfortunately, this same gamble has helped to strengthen and enrich the CCP regime, and under Xi Jinping the party has become more authoritarian instead of less.
It is with these concerns in mind that Elbridge Colby argues in his new book, The Strategy of Denial, for an unrelenting American focus on China, based on that country’s unique challenge to the international balance of power. As lead author of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, Colby witnessed the many demands on existing U.S. military resources and advocated for an explicit prioritization of the Indo-Pacific theater. His book reviews the different emergency scenarios and urges strengthening American defenses in this theater, precisely in order to deter Chinese aggression. Colby also does something quite unusual in this book: he offers a sense of the desired endgame.
For Colby, the goal of a sensible US strategy toward China is the preservation of what he calls a “decent balance.” By virtue of this outcome, other Indo-Pacific countries would be free to prosper without living under any coercive Chinese hegemony. At the same time, with this outcome, China would remain a powerful and respected player in the region and beyond. As Colby says, “He couldn’t dominate, but neither the United States nor anyone else could dominate him.” Interestingly, Colby’s strategy does not call for or demand regime change inside China. Instead, he recommends a hardline US policy toward Beijing, in concert with allies and partners abroad, to eventually strike a decent balance.
The type of regime is of great importance for the foreign policy of a nation. Kennan realized that. But the type of diet is also very difficult to change from the outside. This has been one of the hard lessons of the post-Cold War era. Since the 1990s, we have been repeatedly told to look for the next Gorbachev to unwittingly overthrow his own dictatorial regime. We have heard enthusiastic hints of a possible Cuban Gorbachev, an Iranian Gorbachev, a North Korean Gorbachev, another Russian Gorbachev and, yes, even a Chinese Gorbachev. But China’s communist leaders are well aware of Gorbachev’s example, and they are determined to avoid it.
We must stop looking for the next Gorbachev. We need to settle into what will likely be a long and hopefully peaceful US competition with China. Perhaps one day the citizens of this country will rearrange their own internal political affairs. Americans can and should continue to speak out on the issue of human rights in China. More broadly, we must not hesitate to recognize and publicly describe the highly authoritarian character of the Chinese communist regime. But if this understanding is essential, it is not a strategy. The immediate need is for the United States and its allies to push back and develop much more targeted and coordinated countermeasures against Chinese power to deter armed conflict.