Wyne worries that Washington is diving headlong into great-power competition without defining its terms and playing out the second- and third-order consequences of enshrining the so-far hazy worldview as U.S. grand strategy.
He warned, for example, that if the United States doesn’t take differentiated approaches to the distinct challenges posed by China and Russia, great-power competition could end up driving Xi and Putin into each other’s arms. (They’re already part of the way there.) Severing economic ties may inflict pain on Beijing in the near term, he reasoned, but in the long term it would result in a China that is less dependent on the United States and thus freer to throw its weight around, even if it alienates Washington. U.S. officials, he argued, also need to specify how they will prioritize and place limits on the infinite ways they could compete with other powers, and what winning these competitions looks like when “it’s a mathematical certainty that America’s relative preeminence will decline as China grows, as India grows, as other countries grow.”
Colby, who recently left the Center for a New American Security to help launch an initiative focused on great-power competition, acknowledged that the word competition can distract from the main message: We now live in a world of multiple powers with divergent interests and objectives. Winning, he contended, would mean achieving “favorable regional balances of powers,” especially in Asia and Europe, to prevent China in particular from dominating these regions.
“I think we could get to a point with the Chinese where we’re okay with them if they stay on their side of the line, but we’re just not there yet,” he said. “As much as we might like a different government in China, the point here is not to change the Chinese government or dismember China or something. The point is rather to say, ‘Look, we’ve got a position of power along with people who have similar interests to ours, [and] you can’t dictate to all of us.’”
The fact that Washington is hurtling down one path doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t veer off course. The 2020 presidential election could prove pivotal, because the Democratic candidates appear torn between great-power competition and a more Obamian conception of international interdependence. During their most recent debate, Tim Ryan argued that Trump is “onto something” with China and spoke of the need to “out-compete them,” while John Hickenlooper advocated “building bridges” to China to address climate change.
And just when U.S. officials think they’re out of the Middle East, it could pull them back in. “What can do a lot of damage to the great-power-competition effort is starting a big war with Iran. That would be fatal,” Colby said.
Still, Schadlow noted that there is now more “bipartisan consensus for the necessary adjustments [in U.S.-China relations] than people think,” and that “it’s going to be hard to go back.”
“In 100 years,” Colby said, “I think people are going to look back and say there was a fundamental shift on China that was long overdue, that happened in [Trump’s] administration.”