Is America Prepared for Great- power Competition?

By Brian Blankenship and Benjamin Denison

The Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy (NDS) and National Security Strategy (NSS) bluntly state that the United States is now back in the business of great-power competition. Chief among the core American security interests identified by these documents is strategic competition with China and Russia. As the NDS puts it, ‘the central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security is the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition by … revisionist powers’, specifically China and Russia.1 In response to the growing power of rival states, the NSS recommends a return to Cold War- style strategic competition: ‘An America that successfully competes is the best way to prevent conflict. Just as American weakness invites challenge, American strength and confidence deters war and promotes peace.’2

Admittedly, the growing competition between the US and China, and the US and Russia, may not directly resemble the strategic competition of the Cold War.3 During that conflict, the US competed with the Soviet Union not just in the military domain, but also in the economic and political realms as both powers attempted to create orders that were separate and distinct from each other. In this competition, all elements of the state were marshalled to aid in the struggle. Alliances and transnational partners were courted to support the order each superpower preferred. These patterns are unlikely to be repeated today. Nevertheless, given that Washington has begun to stress the centrality of great-power competition, it is important to assess whether the US would be prepared to head towards a similar type of competition, regardless of its precise contours. Understanding how the actions taken during the Cold War period drove American strategic success is essential to evaluating America’s capacity for great-power competition today.

We contend that many of the long-term trends shaping America’s power base, along with the Trump administration’s domestic and foreign poli- cies, are working against the United States’ ability to successfully engage in the kind of great-power strategic competition being envisioned in the NDS and NSS. With a fiscal policy that has been dominated by tax cuts more than investment in physical and human infrastructure; stagnant military budgets lacking in robust investment in modernisation and future capabili- ties; and a foreign policy that has alienated core allies and fostered distrust of American leadership among US strategic partners, efforts to pursue the goals of the NSS and NDS are unlikely to succeed. Given this disconnect between current trends and the geopolitical objectives laid out in the NSS and NDS, further discussion is needed within the Trump administration and the foreign-policy establishment about what American grand strategy should look like and how to match US resources and capabilities to strategic ends that will best secure American interests.

While there is a robust debate in the US over the kind of grand strategy the country should adopt,4 the Trump administration seems to view the coming era of great-power competition as a return to a Cold War-style contest, in this case with China and Russia. Its strategy is intended to prevent these powers from ‘contesting [America’s] geopolitical advantages and trying to change the international order in their favor’.5 It seeks to stop them from gaining ‘veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and secu- rity decisions’ by maintaining US pre-eminence in the international system and preventing other powers from inhibiting American political, economic and military dominance.6 These goals reflect a strategy of ‘primacy’, which upholds the view that a great power is most secure when it has no chal- lengers.7 There are plenty of alternative grand strategies, but as the US has consistently pursued primacy since at least 1991, if not 1945, it is unsur- prising that the Trump administration would take a view of great-power competition that is consistent with this strategy.8

When great powers engage in strategic competition, they typically undertake both internal balancing and external balancing to help increase their own power within the international system while preventing the rising influence of others. Internal balancing means building military and economic strength, and investing in technologies and other domestic areas that help convert the latent capabilities of the state into material strength. External balancing entails working to build alliances and partnerships with other states to address common threats.9 Both are aimed at building a state’s resources and overall power in order to exert more influence in the interna- tional system while denying competitors the ability to assert more influence themselves. Because it is not reliant upon the actions of other actors, internal balancing is more reliable than external balancing, and is therefore favoured by great powers.10

Whereas internal balancing can take a great deal of time and involves costly investments, external balancing through the formation of alliances can allow a state to rapidly shift the balance of power in its favour. Moreover, allies can provide a great power with basing access, which is essential for the projection of power over large distances.11 Iceland, for example, was a valuable member of NATO throughout the Cold War despite not having a standing army because it hosted an important US naval base. Making alli- ance guarantees is not the only way to sway states to one’s side, however; oftentimes, great powers use more transactional means, such as foreign aid and arms transfers, to gain favours. The US base at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, for instance, comes at the price of some $63 million per year in rent, in addition to substantial aid and preferential procurement.12

In the early Cold War period, the US engaged in both internal and exter- nal balancing in its competition with the Soviet Union. Between 1949 and 1969, US military spending averaged 9.1% of GDP.13 In 1949, the top rate of federal income taxes was 91% (this had decreased to 70% by 1965), and the highest rate of federal estate taxes was almost 80%.14 Tax revenues promoted economic growth and allowed for robust investment in the state’s military capacity. A focus on increasing the domestic sources of US power also allowed for the beginnings of large infrastructure investments, including the interstate highway system, and other federal grant programmes intended to build up the physical and human capital of the country.15 Increased domes- tic investment in public research universities and higher education helped improve collegiate education, and in 1950, the National Science Foundation was created as a means of promoting technological and scientific progress. Externally, the United States established its first peacetime alliance with the formation of NATO in 1949. The following decade, NATO expanded beyond its initial 12 members, and the United States formed a number of other alliances, including bilateral pacts with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Taiwan, as well as multilateral pacts such as the Australia– New Zealand–United States Security Treaty (ANZUS), the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) and the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO). The US also established a number of more informal partnerships – especially in the Middle East, with countries such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt – based on arms sales and aid. This network of partnerships served not only to deter communist expansion, but also to provide the United States with a network of naval and air bases.16

Thus, as the Cold War developed, the United States, like the Soviet Union, began consolidating external allies and shoring up its international commit- ments. However, the competition between the US and the Soviet Union did not just exist at the inter-German border and in the United Nations Security Council. Rather, both competed to produce superior domestic economic growth, technological innovation, educational outcomes and other direct indicators of predominance and status. Both societies were mobilised in the service of a singular purpose, a level of commitment that has not been duplicated in the US since the Cold War ended.


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