The US returns with a dangerous new edge
“We will continue to prosecute the campaign against terrorists that we are engaged in today, but great power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of US national security.” — US Defense Secretary James Mattis
After focusing on the fight against terrorism for more than a decade and a half, the United States military is shifting its priorities. A conclusive proof of this comes in the form of the new National Defense Strategy of the United States that puts countering China and Russia, the “revisionist powers” that “seek to create a world consistent with their authoritarian models,” at the centre. Ironically, on the one hand, the Trump administration seems hardening its resolve to address challenges from both countries while Trump is pushing for improved ties with Moscow and Beijing to rein in a nuclear North Korea, on the other.
The new National Defense Strategy (NDS) of the Trump administration is being termed a sea change in US foreign policy as it marks a shift from the “war on terrorism” to “great power competition.” The document calls China a strategic competitor because it uses “predatory economics to intimidate its neighbours while militarizing features in the South China Sea,” whereas Russia has “violated the borders of nearby nations and pursues veto power over the economic, diplomatic and security decisions of its neighbours.” To counter this growing threat, the NDS has three primary parts: building a more lethal force, strengthening alliances and attracting new partners, and a reformation of the Department of Defence for greater performance and affordability.
Is the shift a major course change? Probably not, because the US never took eyes off its competitors!
President Bill Clinton moved NATO eastwards in a sheer violation of a 1991 agreement with the Russians that called for not recruiting former members of the Warsaw Pact that is at the root of current tensions with Moscow. On the other hand, the US and NATO call Russia’s annexation of Crimea as “revanchism,” but wasn’t it NATO that set the precedent of altering borders when it dismembered Serbia to create Kosovo after the 1999 Yugoslav war?
President George Bush had designated China a “strategic competitor”. And, he made untiring efforts to lure India into an anti-Chinese alliance by allowing New Delhi to violate the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Letting India purchase uranium on the international market, which it could not because of being a non-signatory to the NPT, Bush helped ignite the nuclear arms race in South Asia – with Pakistan.
Barack Obama further chilled relations with Russia by tacitly backing the 2014 coup in Ukraine. Moreover, it was his “Asia pivot” policy that led to heightened tensions between Washington and Beijing.
So is jettisoning “terrorism” as the enemy in favour of “great powers” just old wine, new bottle? Does this rhetoric reminisce the events in runup to the World War I. Not quite. For one thing the new emphasis has a decidedly more dangerous edge to it.
1914 vs. Today
While speaking at the Johns Hopkins University, Secretary Mattis warned Russia by saying, “If you challenge us, it will be your longest and worst day.” A NATO ally Britain went even further as Chief of the United Kingdom General Staff, Nick Carter, said “[W]e may not have a choice about conflict with Russia…the parallels with 1914 are stark.”
Certainly the verbiage about Russia and China is alarming. Russia is routinely described as “aggressive,” “revisionist” and “expansionist.” In a recent attack on China, the ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson termed China’s trade with Latin America “imperial,” an ironic choice of words given Washington’s more overtly imperial history.
But, there are differences between now and the run up to the WWI. In 1914, there were several powerful and evenly matched empires at odds. That is not the case today.
While Moscow is certainly capable of destroying the world with its nuclear weapons, Russia today bears little resemblance to 1914 Soviet Union.
The US and its NATO allies currently spend more than 12 times what Russia does on its armaments, and even that vastly underestimates Washington’s actual military outlay. A great deal of US spending is not counted as “military,” including nuclear weapons, currently being modernized to the tune of $1.5 trillion.
The balance between China and the US is more even, but the US still outspends China almost three to one. Fact in Washington’s major regional allies — Japan, Australia, and South Korea — and that figure is almost four to one. In nuclear weapons, the ratio is vastly greater: 26 to 1 in favour of the US. Add NATO and the ratios are 28 to 1.
This isn’t to say that the military forces of Russia and China are irrelevant. Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war helped turn the tide against the anti-Assad coalition put together by the United States. But its economy is smaller than Italy’s, and its “aggression” is arguably a response to NATO establishing a presence on Moscow’s doorstep.
Meanwhile, China has two military goals: to secure its sea-borne energy supplies by building up its navy, and to establish a buffer zone in the East and South China seas to keep potential enemies at arm’s length. To that end, it has constructed smaller, more agile ships and missiles capable of keeping US aircraft carriers out of range, a strategy called “area denial.” It has also modernized its military, cutting back on land-based forces and investing in air and sea assets. However, it spends less of its GDP on its military than does the US.
Beijing has been heavy-handed in establishing “area denial,” alienating many of its neighbours by claiming most of the South China Sea and building bases in the Paracel and Spratly islands. But China has been invaded several times, starting with the Opium Wars of 1839 and 1856, when Britain forced the Chinese to lift their ban on importing the drug. Japan invaded in 1895 and 1937. If the Chinese are touchy, one must not blame them.
China is, however, the United States’ major competitor and the second largest economy in the world. It has replaced the US as Latin America’s largest trading partner and successfully outflanked Washington’s attempts to throttle its economic influence. When the US asked its key allies to boycott China’s new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), with the exception of Japan, they ignored Washington.
However, commercial success is hardly “imperial.”
Is this a new Cold War, when the US attempted to surround and isolate the Soviet Union? There are parallels, but the Cold War was an ideological battle between two systems, socialism and capitalism. The fight today is over market access and economic domination. When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned Latin America about China and Russia, it wasn’t about “Communist subversion,” but trade.
Behind the Shift
There are other players behind this shift.
For one, the big arms manufacturers — Lockheed Martian, Boeing, Raytheon, BAE Systems, Northrop Grumman, and General Dynamics — have lots of cash to hand out come election time. “Great power competition” will be expensive, with lots of big-ticket items: aircraft carriers, submarines, surface ships and an expanded air force.
This is not to say that the US has altered its foreign policy focus because of arms company lobbies, but they do have a seat at the table. And given that those companies have spread their operations to all 50 states, local political representatives and governors have a stake in keeping — and expanding — those often high paying jobs.
Nor are the Republicans going to get much opposition on increased defence spending from the Democrats, many of whom are as hawkish as their colleagues across the aisle. That’s true even though higher defence spending — coupled with the recent tax cut bill — will rule out funding many of the programmes the Democrats hold dear. Of course, for the Republicans that dilemma is a major side benefit: cut taxes, increase defence spending, then dismantle social services, Social Security, and Medicare in order to service the deficit.
And many of the Democrats are ahead of the curve when it comes to demonizing the Russians. The Russian bug-a-boo has allowed the party to shift the blame for Hillary Clinton’s loss to Moscow’s manipulation of the election, thus avoiding having to examine its own lackluster campaign and unimaginative political programmes.
There are other actors pushing this new emphasis as well, including the Bush administration’s neoconservatives who launched the Iraq War. Their new target is Iran, even though inflating Iran to the level of a “great power” is laughable. Iran’s military budget is $12.3 billion. Saudi Arabia alone spends $63.7 billion on defence, slightly less than Russia, which has five times the population and eight times the land area. In a clash between Iran and the US and its local allies, the disparity in military strength would be closer to 60 to 1.
However, in terms of disasters, even Iraq would pale before a war with Iran.
The most dangerous place in the world right now is the Korean Peninsula, where the Trump administration appears to be casting around for some kind of military demonstration that will not ignite a nuclear war. But how would China react to an attack that might put hostile troops on its southern border?
Piling onto Moscow may have consequences as well.
The problem with designating “great powers” as your adversaries is that they might just take your word for it and respond accordingly.
How great power competition has changed
The last three decades have seen a redistribution of economic power among the world’s great powers on unprecedented scale and rate, especially after the global financial crisis of 2008. China, which was one-eighth the size of the US economy 30 years ago, is now roughly the same size in purchasing power terms. Several other countries have also shown consistently high rates of growth. On the other side, there has been a relative decline of the rest of the West, the US excluded. This shift in economic power has not been painless for anyone. Since 2008, every major power has undergone some form of deep internal economic readjustment: the US is transitioning to an energy and innovation economy; China is seeking domestic sources of future growth in consumption; Japan and Western Europe are trying to rediscover sources of economic growth; Russia seeks to adjust to new energy market conditions and a shrinking population; and so on.
The trend is less evident but similar in politics. In the military and technological domains, US predominance continues. But, at the same time, new technologies have empowered small groups and individuals, and function as force multipliers for non-state actors like terrorists, further eroding the state’s monopoly on violence. The combination of economic crises, the social and political fragility they have induced, and new technologies, has created geopolitical shifts.
As a consequence, even very powerful states find it difficult to translate military dominance and battlefield superiority into lasting or effective political outcomes and arrangements. Iraq, Afghanistan Syria, Libya, Yemen and Ukraine are but some examples in this regard.
In sum, power is now more evenly distributed in the international system. As a result, there is rising geopolitical competition among great powers. But the nature of the competition is limited by two significant factors: their domestic preoccupations and their dependence on each other for economic growth. Conflict is, therefore, most acute along the periphery of great powers that are least integrated into the West-led political order.
Rising geopolitical competition usually happens through proxies rather than direct confrontation – Ukraine, North Africa, and the Middle East are examples. Competition among great powers has extended to the sea lanes that carry the world’s energy and trade and is visible in the naval build-up by all the major powers.
- In a series of regional crisis after crises, the great powers neutralize each other and avoid the hard political work needed to solve the crisis. Expect Libya, Syria, and other crises to continue to fester.
- The great powers’ ability to make systemic changes in the world order will remain in considerable doubt. For all the need to restore geopolitical balance where it has been upset, as in the Middle East, or to create a new open inclusive security architecture in the Asia-Pacific, there is no great power or group of great powers stepping forward to restore or create balance or to negotiate the balance of interests in troubled regions. On international issues, the level of productive cooperation among great powers is at an all-time low. On global issues like climate change and trade talks, great powers are pursuing ad-hoc and regional pacts rather than the global solutions.
- Regional powers will have more space to pursue their own ambitions, and take matters into their own hands. The fact that power is more evenly distributed among states, and even within states, means that the major powers’ ability to enforce peace or stabilize conflict is also limited. In cases like Yemen and Afghanistan, the major powers have no alternative but to rely on regional or local powers. Where there is no agreement among the regional powers as in Syria, the major powers are unable to impose their will or even agree on desirable outcomes.
In sum, great power relations have deteriorated considerably in the last few years. While there are limits to how bad they can become, there are also limits to their ability to produce international outcomes on urgent issues.
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