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Great Power Competition Drives Global Engagement

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A few weeks ago Tanner Greer wrote a short essay of the sort that what’s left of the blogosphere rarely produces anymore; provocative, well thought-out, and more than a bit idiosyncratic and quixotic. Greer’s argument was that the death of Jamal Khashoggi offered the United States an opportunity to disengage from the moral and military quagmire of the Middle East, and to refocus its attention on great power competition in the Western Pacific. Greer included this nifty little graph, which puts the US-China relationship into stark relief:

Image Source: Andrew Krepinevich, Preserving the Balance: A U.S. Eurasian Defense Strategy (Washington DC: CSBA, 2017), 39

I don’t agree with everything that Greer wrote, but I thought the essay was useful enough to put together a response at the Diplomat. Long story short, disengaging from the Middle East and refocusing on the Western Pacific is a fine idea and worth fighting for, but is probably self-defeating.

If we begin with the idea that China is a more substantial potential threat than the Soviet Union or Kaiserine Germany, then it is difficult to imagine that the United States will view competition with China in anything less than global terms. Within five years of the end of World War II, the United States embarked (to some extent accidentally) on what amounted to a global competition with the Soviet Union. Although the X Article and even NSC-68 (together, the founding documents of “containment” and U.S. Cold War strategy) called for measured, discriminatory responses to Soviet maneuvers, in short order the demand for a competitive strategy made it impossible in political and bureaucratic terms to resist entanglement across the globe. Not only did the United States soon find itself at war in Korea, but it also quickly developed a system of alliances that spanned the globe. Global containment of the Soviet Union made entanglement everywhere a bureaucratic and political necessity; it became difficult to say “no” to a prospective ally, no matter how appalling. And this was to contain a foe that was, in economic terms, far less formidable than the People’s Republic of China.

On a related point, I am very glad that Trump has ordered the (precipitous) withdrawal of US troops from Syria. We’re probably at the last chance moment to get them out, before Washington decides that we need to maintain a presence in Syria in order to check Chinese influence, or something.

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