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America's New Great-Power Strategy

During the Cold War, US grand strategy focused on containing the power of the Soviet Union. China’s rise now requires America and its allies to develop a strategy that seeks not total victory over an existential threat, but rather managed competition that allows for both cooperation and rivalry within a rules-based system.

CAMBRIDGE – During the four decades of the Cold War, the United States had a grand strategy focused on containing the power of the Soviet Union. Yet by the 1990s, following the Soviet Union’s collapse, America had been deprived of that pole star. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, US President George W. Bush’s administration tried to fill the void with a strategy that it called a “global war on terror.” But that approach provided nebulous guidance and led to long US-led wars in marginal places like Afghanistan and Iraq. Since 2017, the US has returned to “great-power competition,” this time with China.

As a grand US strategy, great-power competition has the advantage of focusing on major threats to America’s security, economy, and values. While terrorism is a continuing problem that the US must treat seriously, it poses a lesser threat than rival great powers. Terrorism is like jujitsu, in which a weak adversary turns the power of a larger player against itself. While the 9/11 attacks killed more than 2,600 Americans, the “endless wars” that the US launched in response to them cost even more lives, as well as trillions of dollars. While President Barack Obama’s administration tried to pivot to Asia – the fastest growing part of the world economy – the legacy of the global war on terror kept the US mired in the Middle East.

A strategy of great-power competition can help America refocus; but it has two problems. First, it lumps together very different types of states. Russia is a declining power and China a rising one. The US must appreciate the unique nature of the threat that Russia poses. As the world sadly discovered in 1914, on the eve of World War I, a declining power (Austria-Hungary) can sometimes be the most risk-acceptant in a conflict. Today, Russia is in demographic and economic decline, but retains enormous resources that it can employ as a spoiler in everything from nuclear-arms control and cyber conflict to the Middle East. The US therefore needs a Russia strategy that does not throw that country into China’s arms.