Great Power Competition Is Back in Vogue

The United States’ defense apparatus is like a massive battleship, bristling with weapons, offering unparalleled firepower. Its also is a behemoth that takes time to change direction. At this moment, however, calls are coming from the bridge to redirect course.

The newly released 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) is a remarkable document, in which the defense department lays out what it sees as the strategic environment, the objectives and the strategic approach for how to meet those objectives.

This document, partly the brainchild of Secretary of Defense James Mattis, describes the decline of the rules-based international order since the end of World War II.

After defeating fascism, the United States and its allies built a world order based on free commerce, the spread of democracy and preventing the occurrence of another global war that would devastate society.

After this setting of the stage comes the real money quote of the document: “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.”

That’s right. Great power competition is back in vogue.

It’s hard to overstate what a seismic shift in American defense strategy this is. For the past decade and a half, our military strategy has focused on combating non-state actors; in plain English, terrorists, insurgents and various other military groups that aren’t under the control of a country.

After the last time the United States went to war against an actual state in 2003, our strategy soon shifted to fighting terrorist and insurgent groups in the region.

Since then, much of our active military operations have focused on these groups. U.S. opponents have included al Qaeda in Iraq, the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Haqqani Network in Afghanistan and Pakistan and, most recently, the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

Now, with the redrawing of the major threats to American national security, we can expect to see the central focus move away from these non-state groups and more toward competing with what the NDS refers to as revisionist powers, namely Russia and China.

I think Secretary Mattis is mostly right here. We have seen clear encroachments on the values and norms of the global system from both Beijing and Moscow.

Russia’s flagrant willingness to use its military to butcher civilians, murder women and children and bomb hospitals in Syria, all to prop up its ally in the region has shown that Moscow has little regard for human rights. It also has shown its lack of respect for democracy by interfering in elections across the West, ours included.

China’s encroachment is perhaps more subtle but still a concern for the U.S. Its continued economic growth and improving standards of living in China has offered a plausible alternative to the combination of liberal democracy and free markets. It also has flirted with expansionist tendencies, particularly in its island-building and -claiming in the South China Sea.

What strikes me as problematic in this approach, however, is its possibility to create self-fulfilling prophecies of competition, tension and perhaps even conflict.

Consider if American Defense officials view a rising power, say China, as a direct threat to the homeland, and they tailor their plans accordingly. In turn, Chinese military planners may see our defensive buildup as an intention to attack, which could lead them to build up even more, leading to an arms race and all its related dangers.

Although the new NDS is, in Mattis’ words, “a good fit for our times,” we should be careful not to let our thinking lead us towards unnecessary tension and possibly even conflict.

First posted as an opinion column in the Greenfield Daily Reporter. The original post can be found here

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