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A Deep DIVE For New Great Power Competition

great power competition

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a plenary session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) in Saint Petersburg on June 7, 2019. (Photo by Olga MALTSEVA / AFP)

“Oceania was at war with Eastasia: Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia.”

George Orwell, 1984

Now, even bleaker than the original 1984 novel, Oceania now has hostilities simultaneously with both Eurasia and Eastasia. Simply put, the U.S. is still the dominant power in a world of increasing multipolarity. However, the increasing entente between Russia and China has caught the U.S. foreign policy establishment flat-footed.

Although there is no formal alliance structure between Russia and China as of yet, the U.S. should not engage in any kind of wishful thinking that this is a mere “marriage of convenience”. There may be questionable aspects of both Russian and Chinese foreign policy. However, with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent appearance at The St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, it should be clear to all that the increasing convergence of foreign policy objectives between the two states is a direct result of the U.S.’ approach towards both of them.

What’s to be done? There are no simple solutions to this situation for the U.S.. In Washington parlance, a deep DIVE is necessary to explore possible policy recommendations for the U.S..

Diplomacy

Many in the U.S. foreign policy establishment look to Rome as a model for the U.S.’ present hegemonic position. However, the more pertinent model would be that of the Byzantines.  The Byzantine Empire was still a formidable force militarily. However, it recognized that this power had declined relatively speaking with respect to its neighbors, for a variety of reasons. 

Because of this, the Byzantines had to rely increasingly on diplomacy, intelligence, economic statecraft, and soft power to last the additional thousand years, after the fall of Rome, which it eventually did. Even in Rome’s era, the world was multipolar and diplomacy was crucial in maintaining Sino-Roman trade linkages. Obviously as China is no longer isolated as it once was during the time of the Romans, effective diplomacy with them is even more important now than it was back then. 

Talking is always better than not talking, especially with both China and Russia as interlocutors. The great power triangle of the three states has returned with a vengeance and, truth be told, never really left. The only difference now is that it’s the U.S. that’s the odd man out, not the Former Soviet Union. The possibility of a U.S. rapprochement between the U.S. and Russia to contain China is simply infeasible at this point and is the epitome of U.S. wishful thinking.  

U.S. foreign policy should return to the basis of realism, immediately. Referencing the triangle once again, it’s natural for excessive concentration of power in any one state to foster balancing behavior in the other states in our present global system. All three states will naturally seek to pursue and maintain their own interests, but all three states will also ultimately realize that the only way to have stability in the world order is to have a sense of equilibrium within the triangle itself. Otherwise, this equilateral triangle risks becoming an isosceles or scalene triangle. The U.S. appears to have forgotten this crucial strategic lesson, again based on realism.

Interests

There’s no point in engaging in diplomacy if your interlocutors’ core interests aren’t going to be respected. The interlocutors themselves will also invariably feel the same. A core interest is any interest which a state would feel the need to actually go to war to defend if necessary. For great powers, these core interests are magnified if they concern any geography lying within the respective power’s sphere of influence. 

To make this concept clearer, a few questions can be posed. Is Ukraine a core interest for Russia, or for the U.S.? Is Taiwan a core interest for China, or for the U.S.?  Is Venezuela a core interest for Russia, for China, or for the U.S.? Not to be outdone, minor powers, whether a U.S. ally or not, also have their own respective core interests. Is Syria a core interest for Iran, Turkey, and Russia, or for the U.S.?

Values

Imposition of values by force by the U.S. has led to a calamitous post-Cold War foreign policy. This has led to a subsequent lack of clear-headedness and strategic realism within the U.S. foreign policy establishment as a whole. The core of the U.S.’ power, even from its very “city upon a hill” beginnings, is its soft power. However, these various values, whether democracy, rule of law, freedom of religion, etc. have to be seen as an example from the outside by others. 

If the U.S. is not an exemplar of these values itself, no amount of imposition at gunpoint abroad will be successful. Referencing the Byzantines above yet again, their model of Orthodox Christianity was eventually adopted by The Russian Empire. During the Middle Ages, Russia was searching for a state religion suitable for itself. It looked to Orthodoxy as this was the basis of Byzantium’s soft power. After being thoroughly impressed, Russia chose this model for itself, without Byzantine imposition. 

Additionally, to compare a state, with its own self interests, to a baby, is unfair, but illuminating nonetheless. Experience shows that the most successful way to feed a baby baby food is to eat it oneself, then feed it to the baby. I don’t believe anyone’s ever force-fed a baby at gunpoint. The point is, the baby determines that the food is good for the parent, makes its own decision, then eats the food itself, based on its own self interests. Even with a baby, compulsion only goes so far. This model is highly preferable to that of a scenario involving laboriously wiping baby food off of the floor, walls, ceiling, cat, etc..

Economics

Without a game plan to compete economically with Russia in Europe and China in Asia, the U.S. has already lost the global game and just doesn’t know it yet. Yes, Russia’s economy is modest in many respects, but not in the natural resources aspect. U.S. European allies probably don’t feel that their own interests are being respected either when they are threatened by the U.S. for importing Russian gas, for example.

The situation in Asia is even more crucial. Hypocritical is a mild word to use when the U.S. describes China’s BRI as “debt trap diplomacy” in the aftermath of its own TPP withdrawal. After being the champion of globalization and earlier calling on China to become a “responsible stakeholder”, U.S. petulance is now routinely expressed over the realization that China has (fantastically) developed economically, but may not be eager to follow the U.S.’ “rules-based order” in all aspects. The Polar Silk Road is just the latest manifestation of Russia and China’s strategic convergence in the realm of economics.

Most countries in Asia will see this U.S. recalcitrance as an indicator of its inability, or even worse, unwillingness to fully compete with China economically. As far as soft power appeal in Asia goes, economics, not security, is the name of the game. This was made clear even at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue where, traditionally, security matters predominate. Asian states will inevitably ask the U.S. “What do you bring to the table, economically?” The U.S. needs to get its post-TPP game plan in order, whether through OPIC, ARIA, etc.. Although there may be legitimate issues with BRI, that’s for individual recipient states to decide for themselves (as with Huawei acceptance) based on economic concerns, not upon a U.S. diktat based on presumed security concerns.

Even this dive narrowly focuses on the underlying, structural issues between the three powers. Hopefully, however, it can be used as a springboard for further discussion on how the U.S. can manage, if at all, this increasingly complex issue.

 

Author

Robert Matthew Shines
Robert Matthew Shines

Robert Matthew Shines is President of Bright Group Consulting USA, where he provides geopolitical forecasting services regarding great power relations. He is also an Analyst with the Foreign Policy Association where he writes blogs on foreign policy analysis. As a Senior Analyst and Editor with Global Risk Insights, he provides analysis on political risk & geopolitics. Additionally, he is a Writer for Geopoliticalmonitor Intelligence Corporation, an international intelligence publication which provides comprehensive geopolitical analysis. Lastly, he is an Expert | Geopolitical Intelligence with RANE, an information and advisory services company that connects business leaders to critical risk insights and expertise. He received his MBA from the Thunderbird School of Global Management with a focus on U.S.-China relations.

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