Even if we cannot fully grasp the shape of the near-future international order, either because it has yet to crystalize fully or because we lack the historical distance to see it clearly, we can know some things about it: While Russia and China have settled into their roles, the U.S. remains an actor in search of one.
Russia’s back and is once again America’s most pressing geopolitical threat. China is a rising power, seeking global domination. War between the U.S. and PRC is either unthinkable or inevitable. America is teetering on the brink, and either needs to reassert its primacy or get out of the hegemon business altogether.
These are the stories we tell ourselves. There are progressive and conservative variations of each, to be sure. And some versions are more nuanced than others, or, if not more nuanced, at least a bit more detailed. Ultimately, though, in one form or another, with one partisan inflection or another, and with varying degrees of granularity, these are the prevailing narratives shaping the discussions regarding the state of the world today.
The problem is that these stories have more to do with geopolitical nostalgia (or maybe political science fiction) than with geopolitical realism. Today’s world is not the world of Cold War redux. Nor is it one defined by continuing US-dominated unipolarity. Nor, finally, is it a world where China is about to reprise its role as Middle Kingdom, only this time on a planetary scale. Instead, it is a world in flux—a world yet to be defined in terms of polarity, hegemony, distribution power (hard and soft), and all the other indicia that political scientists use to define world orders or describe international systems. It is a world order that might come to resemble, at least superficially, some earlier order. Or it might be something totally unprecedented. We just don’t know.
But even if we cannot fully grasp the shape of the near-future international order, either because it has yet to crystalize fully or because we lack the historical distance to see it clearly, we can know some things about it. Here are just a few of the more important of those things.
The Russian Federation
Russia is not a rising challenger, a power realistically seeking to displace the U.S. as global hegemon. Rather, Russia is a failed challenger, a country that in its earlier imperial iteration as the Soviet Union made a credible bid for global domination, but fell short of the mark and then collapsed. Following a period of confusion in the immediate post-Soviet era, Russia entered into a Time of Troubles like the one that it experienced in the 16th and 17th centuries. During this period, it was not in a position to pursue any geopolitical project other than holding itself together and holding NATO at bay.
Over the past decade-and-a-half or so, however, this has changed—Russia has emerged from its Time of Troubles. Having found its footing, it is now seeking to be recognized once again as a great power, one with both with its own distinct sphere of influence and its own important role to play on the global stage. In the service of these core goals, it also seeks to undermine U.S. leadership and the rules-based international order that Washington created. Its preferred modus operandi is the use of sophisticated gray zone tactics of “asymmetric balancing” through which it pursues its strategic ends within relatively limited means. Russia is a nuisance, and perhaps even more than a nuisance, but it is not an existential threat to the U.S. or the liberal world order the U.S. leads. It does not seek to become, and simply has no chance of becoming, a superpower rival to the U.S. like its predecessor, the USSR. It is, rather, a country that has emerged from failure and is seeking, desperately, to regain its status as a great power. This represents a regression to the mean in international relations, nothing more.
The People’s Republic of China
The People’s Republic of China is also not a rising power on its way to global hegemony. Like Russia, it is now a great power, though one with truly global interests and perhaps even superpower aspirations. It is not, however, seeking global domination. It accepts that the U.S. is likely to remain a superpower for some time. Rather, it is seeking a kind of parity with the U.S., a state of competitive coexistence in which the U.S. is no longer the sole superpower. To this end, China has adopted a three-pronged grand strategy that commits it to securing its land and littoral frontiers, as Beijing defines them; dominating those territories with which it is territorially contiguous and the maritime region between its home waters and the so-called Second Island Chain; and challenging U.S. dominance throughout the Indo-Pacific region.
China’s now-reflexive approach to pursuing these strategic objectives is to use the full spectrum of national means—military, diplomatic, ‘asymmetric,’ and economic—in order to influence the international environment so that no single power (read the U.S.) can dominate any one of these regions or otherwise threaten China’s ‘core interests.’
China is a near-peer competitor of the U.S., a greater great power than Russia. But it is not a rising, or even potential, hegemon. Indeed, given China’s demographic time bomb, the CCP’s real grand strategy can perhaps best be summed up as ‘get rich and relatively strong before getting old and objectively weak.’ At times, China’s strategic posturing smacks more of demographic desperation than hegemonic ambition. It is not an existential threat to the U.S. and its ascent does not presage the end of the world as we know it.
The United States
The real wild card in all this is the United States. Victorious in the Cold War, the U.S. enjoyed the status of sole superpower during the first two decades or so following the demise of the Soviet Union. It was militarily preponderant, it faced no serious ideological competition, the liberal order it created expanded to cover the entire globe, and no power posed a serious challenge to American hegemony. Since the mid-2000s, however, this has begun to change. Over the past decade-and-a-half or so, American military supremacy has been attenuated by the development of new technologies and operational concepts in places like China and Russia, the liberal order has been stressed by the emergence of illiberal regimes around the globe and the failure of neoliberal ‘globalization’ to deliver on its promises, and a serious near-peer competitor has emerged in the form of a rising China.
On the domestic front, these developments have been compounded by war-weariness, political polarization, and deteriorating national self-confidence. Taken together, these have forced the U.S. foreign policy establishment—and, indeed, the American people—to ask the question: What should U.S. grand strategy be as the country enters the second quarter of the 21st century?
Only four possible answers to this question are even remotely viable. The first is some variation on continued liberal hegemony. This strategy would involve the United States continuing to prop up, police, and protect the liberal order it created following the Second World War. In order to do this in the current strategic environment, the U.S. would make massive investments not only in maintaining its overwhelming advantage in conventional military power but in various forms of unconventional power as well. The goal would be full-spectrum dominance on and off the battlefield such that potential competitors will not even try to compete on the global stage.
The second possible grand strategy is one of restraint. This would involve continued U.S. economic engagement with the world but would see the U.S. significantly disentangling from entangling alliances, minimizing overseas security commitments, deploying/using military force only sparingly, passing the military buck to friendly regional powers, and relying heavily on the nation’s nuclear deterrent to stave off any existential challenges.
The third potential grand strategy is offshore balancing, an option similar to restraint but involving more robust military support and security commitments to friendly major powers.
The final option might be called ‘global concert.’ Like the 19th-century ‘Concert of Europe,’ this strategy would involve the creation of a loose coalition of the world’s great powers for the purpose of maintaining a stable balance of power and underwriting a minimal, and probably not liberal, rule-based order.
At this point, no decision has been made. Unlike Russia and China, the U.S. remains an actor in search of a role. Whatever role it finally chooses, the choice will not likely be made exclusively by the American people at the ballot box. Such momentous decisions seldom are. But elections do matter. So before you drop that ballot in the mailbox or ballot box, ask yourself: What role do you want the U.S. to play on the world stage, and which party is likely to move the country in the country in that direction?
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The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.