The Dueling Ideas That Will Define the 21st Century

Our paradigms mold our assumptions and expectations, and thus our policies and behavior.

An illustration of two jousters represented by a pair of eyes.
Ben Hickey

It was catnip for policy analysts: Henceforth, the Biden administration signaled recently, the U.S. government would refer to its approach to China and other adversaries by a new name. Out was the Trump-era term, great-power competition. In was strategic competition. The assessments of what it all meant poured forth.

But lost in the debate was the fact that the U.S. government appeared to be tweaking the semantics of the organizing principle of its foreign policy and grand strategy—competition with China, whatever adjective one appends to it—without wrestling with the more fundamental question of whether it had landed on the right paradigm for understanding the 21st-century world, and America’s role in it.

The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan after the chaotic U.S. withdrawal this summer punctuated the end of the post-9/11 era, if any doubt of its obsolescence remained. The developments left unresolved a separate but related matter, though: What’s coming next?

Before great-power competition captivated Washington’s imagination, Barack Obama and others had flirted with a different framework for the future: one defined by shared, often-existential challenges to humanity such as climate change, pandemic disease, economic and financial crises, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and cyberweapons, which could be dealt with only through international cooperation, particularly among the world’s most powerful countries. It’s an alternative vision of what Jairus Grove, the director of the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies, calls “intervulnerability.”

Great-power competition. Strategic competition. Intervulnerability. All this terminology might seem theoretical. But a lot is riding on how U.S. officials answer the question of what’s next. As I’ve written, in the mid-1940s American officials actually proposed several plans geared toward more collaboration with the Soviet Union—plans that were eclipsed by the strategy of containment, which was predicated on a darker reading of Soviet intentions and capabilities. Although the Cold War was likely unavoidable, the historian Melvyn Leffler told me, “its dimensions and its magnitude could have been very different” had American leaders seriously considered alternative assessments of the Soviet Union and accordingly made different choices.

Our paradigms mold our assumptions and expectations, and thus our policies and behavior. As the international-relations scholar Van Jackson has noted, “The way we think about the future is going to end up shaping it.”

So which is it: an era of geopolitical competition featuring a sprawling struggle between the United States and its democratic allies on the one hand and China and other authoritarian powers on the other? Or an age of intervulnerability in which all countries, despite their rivalries and clashing worldviews, band together to combat collective challenges?

It’s not that one of these paradigms is clearly right and the other wrong—or that the paradigms are mutually exclusive. The 21st century may prove to be both an era of geopolitical competition and an age of intervulnerability, however paradoxical that may seem, in which the two dynamics feed off each other in positive and negative ways. In this highly complex world of ours, a single framework for making sense of its affairs is elusive.

But this is a liminal moment—a time for choosing, even if the answer is that both paradigms need to be embraced and reconciled. And in the United States we’re not really acting like it. We’re debating, for example, whether or not to brand the competition with China a “cold war” rather than interrogating our fixation on competition in the first place. The U.S. government, of course, can only do so much to influence how Chinese leaders view the world and act as a result—and Washington must tailor its policies and strategies to the world as it is, and China as it is, rather than as it would want them to be. But that doesn’t change the fact that enshrining competition with China as the primary animating logic of American statecraft is a choice, not an inevitability.

That choice is mainly a question of relative emphasis. A logic of intervulnerability, for example, would propel the United States along a different path from its current course—toward fortifying international institutions and governance, clarifying the contours of its competition with China, and more proactively seeking cooperation with Beijing in areas where they have overlapping interests, such as climate change or nuclear nonproliferation.

The Biden administration has taken some significant steps toward fashioning U.S. foreign policy for an age of intervulnerability—and certainly given the idea rhetorical play. The coronavirus pandemic has ushered the “world into a new era” that demands “a modern defense,” Vice President Kamala Harris declared in June. “We know now our world is interconnected, our world is interdependent, and our world is fragile. Just think, a deadly pandemic can spread throughout the globe in just a matter of months. A gang of hackers can disrupt the fuel supply of a whole seaboard. One country’s carbon emissions can threaten the sustainability of the whole Earth.”

President Joe Biden struck similar notes in his United Nations General Assembly address in September, proclaiming that “global challenges” underscore “a fundamental truth of the 21st century”: that “our security, our prosperity, and our very freedoms are interconnected” and therefore “we must work together as never before.”

But these points were in tension with key passages in Biden’s speech that alluded to another theme of his presidency: that the United States must join with democratic allies to tackle contemporary challenges and the countervailing forces of resurgent autocracies—the ideological dimension of strategic competition, which conjures a world cleaved into camps. This latter theme appears, according to Mathew Burrows of the Atlantic Council (where I work), to be the dominant one in the White House. Given how the United States has let international institutions “drift,” Burrows, a former top U.S. intelligence official who was the lead author of the American intelligence community’s forecast for the world in 2030, told me, “I don’t see anybody thinking about global cooperation seriously.”

We are living through a period of ascendant nationalism and fluid, ad hoc international coalitions, not robust global architecture. Leaders of international organizations have largely become modern-day Jeremiahs, issuing prophecies of doom that typically go unheeded by a fractious world even as the problems they call out metastasize.

When I interviewed UN Secretary-General António Guterres in 2018, he lamented that the world was “in pieces” and lacked effective international governance to put the fragments back together. And that was before COVID-19 hit, the climate crisis worsened, and mounting strife among world powers further weakened global institutions and the international system they undergird. “Our world has never been more threatened. Or more divided. We face the greatest cascade of crises in our lifetimes,” Guterres stated during his address at this year’s UN General Assembly, pleading with the world leaders arrayed before him to adopt “interdependence” as “the logic of the 21st century.”

Biden has recommitted the United States to international institutions and pacts that Donald Trump exited, such as the World Health Organization and the Paris climate agreement, while endorsing new ones, such as a Global Health Threats Council to prevent future pandemics. Yet so far, the Biden administration has done more to highlight the need for reform of the dysfunctional international system—in organizations such as the World Trade Organization—than to actually undertake those reforms. And Biden has tended to focus on competition with China and especially the broader struggle between democracies and autocracies.

One would have thought that COVID-19—a truly global shock that has arguably upended Americans’ way of life more than the rise of China has thus far, albeit perhaps temporarily—would have jolted Biden into weighing the country’s present path in foreign affairs against one more inflected by the imperatives of intervulnerability. The pandemic is, in many ways, the definition of a paradigm shift.

Not so, it seems. In a grim sense, it was ultimately “too easy” for the world’s leading powers “to deal with [the pandemic] on their own,” Burrows said. They “could produce vaccines [and] close borders” while leaving less powerful countries in the developing world behind. The pandemic “could have involved cooperation—it would have been better to have more cooperation—but it wasn’t necessary,” he noted.

Over the past two years, national and international leaders have largely failed the alien-invasion test—the notion that countries would coalesce and global institutions would realize their full potential if humanity were to confront a common threat, such as an extraterrestrial assault. It turns out that even problems that afflict the whole planet don’t do so equally, hindering cooperation. In the dismal words of Jackson, the international-relations scholar, the pandemic has taught us that “we can’t do collective action … literally to save our lives.”

A U.S. foreign policy and grand strategy informed by intervulnerability wouldn’t entail some fantasy of kumbaya cooperation with an often-recalcitrant China whose interests and values in many instances diverge sharply from those of the United States and its allies. It would instead involve fully recognizing the competitive, conflictual trajectory of U.S.-China relations while seeking to circumscribe that dynamic wherever possible to give Washington and Beijing space to cooperate—even if just tacitly rather than through formal agreements.

“You could compete without getting tensions so high that cooperation is impossible. And at this point I think we’re close to that,” Burrows warned.

Implementing such a paradigm would also mean strengthening and reimagining global organizations and governance with the same fierce urgency and unbound creativity that the architects of the post–World War II international system marshaled during a no less pivotal period. This time, such a task will be more difficult, given the current contentiousness among the world’s great powers and the fact that, unlike after the Second World War, no victors are swooping in to provide desperately needed order to a shell-shocked world.

If there is any global actor that can provide a guide to what a paradigm of intervulnerability could look like in practice, it’s the European Union—a leading advocate for multilateralism with a generally dim view of commencing a new cold war with China. A 2019 EU forecast for the year 2030 predicts that “it is doubtful that the world will be structured around ‘poles’” and that the international system will instead be marked by “connectivity, interdependence and pluralis[m].” The EU is also an entity constructed on the conviction, born of the horror of two world wars, that nations are stronger in today’s world by fusing their sovereignty in certain respects, a notion that has far less traction in the United States.

Where EU-style multilateralism runs into trouble, Anthony Dworkin writes in a recent policy brief for the European Council on Foreign Relations, “is that the domains of health, finance, climate, technology, and trade—where the world’s societies are deeply interconnected—are increasingly sites of geopolitical competition,” which in turn has undermined the international institutions that oversee those domains. “In an era of systemic competition, the links between countries have become instruments of power, creating dependencies that could represent strategic risks,” he explains. (Scholars refer to this phenomenon as “weaponized interdependence.”)

So what’s the solution? Dworkin recommends adopting a “twin-track strategy” that is keenly aware of the limits of multilateralism in a geopolitically competitive world. The EU could aim for “coordination on global public goods with as wide a circle of countries as possible” through existing global institutions and new international agreements, such as efforts to boost global vaccine manufacturing and reform the WTO. And it could simultaneously seek “deeper and narrower cooperation with smaller groups of like-minded partners who share common principles on openness, accountability, and individual rights,” as in initiatives to regulate digital technology and fight corruption.

On climate change, for example, Dworkin suggests that the United States, the European Union, and China align their classification systems for sustainable economic activities and form a “climate club” with other willing countries to orchestrate measures such as the rollout of carbon border taxes, even as the EU works with a smaller group of democratic partners “to establish secure supply chains for essential raw materials and green technology.”

Disabusing ourselves of the notion that “there’s a strict opposition between interdependence and great-power politics is the work at hand—and we’re not doing it,” Grove told me. Part of that work would be better delineating the rough bounds of U.S. competition with China. The United States could, for instance, choose to engage in an ideological struggle with China—in hopes of vindicating America’s democratic political model over China’s authoritarian alternative—but not strive to achieve military “escalation dominance” over Beijing. Is the competition with China “really about China invading the United States or vital U.S. interests? No. It’s about a different model for the international order. It’s about freedom of navigation in the Pacific,” Grove argued.

Despite its focus on the rivalry with China, the White House should, in theory, know this. As Kurt Campbell and Jake Sullivan, who now hold top national-security posts in the Biden administration, warned in Foreign Affairs in 2019, U.S. leaders should beware of foreign-policy frameworks that reflect “uncertainty about what that competition is over and what it means to win.”

The term they were critiquing at the time? Strategic competition.