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The Rhetorical Trap of Great-Power Competition

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I’ve previously written about “great-power conflict” as a framework for U.S. foreign policy, so it’s no secret that I’m not a fan. There’s a new piece in The American Prospect that lays out a number of criticisms of the construct. It interviews the usual suspects, which I guess now include me. Despite that critical error, it’s a strong article.

The author, Blaise Malley, covers a lot of ground, including the cross-ideological and bipartisan appeal of “great-power conflict.” If U.S. policy should be driven by competition with China, for example, then that requires domestic investments in infrastructure and human capital.

For the Biden administration, this dynamic has mostly played out on the domestic front rather than in foreign policy so far. This approach has caused a surprising realignment within American politics. Kori Schake, a former Bush administration official and current senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told me that in addition to being an effective political ploy that aims to consolidate support for Democratic policy preferences, Biden’s arguments have the added benefit of being correct, in that the best way to counter China’s challenge is to strengthen the United States.

Matt Duss points out that there are plenty of good arguments for these priorities other than the putative imperative of great power-competition. But the sad fact is that appeals to national security tend to be more politically potent than alternatives.

It’s not just about juicing the case for progressive policies at home. There’s no established theory of great-power competition, no conventional wisdom about how to pursue a grand strategy. This makes it possible to use ‘the logic of great-power competition’ to justify pretty much any foreign-policy move.

Great-power competition can appeal to practically anyone because it allows them to make several different, sometimes even conflicting, arguments about how the United States should conduct itself, both in foreign and domestic policy domains. Its malleability is why the announcement to withdraw troops from Afghanistan can be greeted with headlines like “How the Afghanistan Withdrawal Costs the U.S. with China,” while others can make the opposing claim, that “the time spent by senior officials and the resources invested by the government in finding, chasing, and killing terrorists invariably come at the expense of other tasks: for example, addressing the challenges of a rising China.”

Even the increasingly loud and bipartisan voices pushing for a more restrained approach to how the United States deploys its military power can find use in GPC framing. It is now possible to promote military withdrawal from the Middle East or elsewhere because those same resources are more useful for dealing with the challenge posed by other great powers. “Ending ‘forever wars’ becomes an argument for better competing with China,” says Nexon. “It’s just too tempting.” At the same time, as China looks to expand its own influence into the Middle East and Africa, those in favor of a more muscular U.S. approach can argue for the imperative of matching China’s footprint in these various arenas around the world.

Why is it “just too tempting?” Arguing in terms of “great-power competition” allows policymakers to reframe what people might normally think of as “soft-line” policies – military restraint, expanding diplomatic capacity, development assistance, and the like – in hard-nosed, realpolitik terms.

So there are a bunch of reasons why “Great-Power Competition” is an attractive framework for the center-left and even members of the progressive left. On their own, these “pull factors” are probably sufficient to make “GPC” a durable framework. Plus, as Malley – and many others – point out, it bootstraps on the undeniable fact that the erosion of U.S. preponderance makes other great powers more likely to challenge the US – and more competitive in contests for influence.

There are also “push factors” in the form of pressure to respond to political outbidding. Republicans – whether authoritarian conservatives or reactionary populists [nb: Kurt Weyland’s distinction between the two is growing on me] – seems to be fully committed to using “the China threat” as a political cudgel. Nowadays, everything the right hates – from Joe Biden to Critical Race Theory – has some sort of China angle. Sometimes it has more than one.

Yes, this often translates into a funhouse mirror version of the stupid that got attached to #RussiaGate, and which conservative media spotlighted in an effort to obscure its more accurate versions. But the GOP is making a rational calculation not at all dissimilar from the one that their political opponents are wrestling with. Liberals and progressives may worry about spillover effects, such as blowback on Asian Americans or indiscriminately feeding the military-industrial complex. But these implications don’t restrain Republicans. Dominant forces in the current party are either indifferent or consider them positive externalities.

When we combine these incentives – these sources of negative and positive feedback – I’m not at all optimistic about stopping “great-power competition” from becoming naturalized in U.S. foreign-policy discourse.

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