Managing a World of Great Powers

MADRID – Today, great-power competition is a fact: The United States now competes with an increasingly active Russia and a rising China. The Middle East, the South China Sea, and Ukraine are just three theaters where this new reality is playing out.

Upon rereading former US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott’s book The Great Experiment, I was left with the impression that the seeds of some of the dynamics at play today were sown some time ago. The book describes a conversation that took place in December 2000 between President Bill Clinton and President-elect George W. Bush. Clinton says that, judging by Bush’s electoral campaign, the security issues that seemed to concern him most were Saddam Hussein and the construction of a large-scale antimissile defense system. “That’s absolutely right,” Bush responds.

These issues were put on hold when tragedy unexpectedly struck, in the form of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the US, which brought a period of international cooperation during which solidarity against terrorism reigned. It was a time when we were all Americans, and when Bush described Putin as “very straightforward and trustworthy.”

The winds began to change that December, when the US announced that it was withdrawing from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, in order to build an antimissile defense system to protect itself from a potentially nuclearized Iran. This did not go unnoticed in Russia.