U.S. Must Prepare for Great-Power Competition | National Review

In the face of a rising threat from China and Russia, the U.S. must revive its defense capabilities and its patriotic unity.

Originally posted at National Review.

For almost five years now, the U.S. government, the think-tank community, and academics working in the field of international relations have been refocusing on the resurgence of great-power competition. The Trump administration articulated early on the changing strategic environment in its National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, and, to judge from the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance released by the Biden administration in March, the overall focus on China and Russia as pacing threats is likely to remain at the center of our priorities.

Still, despite the constant discussion of this topic, no consensus has emerged when it comes to our desired end state. This is a fundamental question, for without a clear sense of what victory looks like, we cannot credibly assess how to go about shaping the desired outcome and identify what resources we are willing to commit to it. As the cliché goes: If you do not know where you are going, any road will get you there.

The liberal institutionalism that has dominated the strategic thought of the past three decades and drained American power on misconstrued projects and wars in secondary theaters is still wafting in the air. Our policy elites seem unwilling, or perhaps unable, to come to terms with the legacy of their fundamental misreading of where America found itself in 1990 after its decisive victory in the twilight struggle against the Soviet Union.

Our grand strategy post-1990, if we can call it that, was first and foremost centered around an overweening triumphalism — history, after all, had “ended” — and about savoring our “unipolar moment.” Fueled by the post–Cold War dogma concerning the universality of democracy as well as by an eagerness on the part of our policy elites to embrace imperial liberalism and globalist export-driven modernization theories as foundational to the country’s peace and prosperity, we behaved as though we had been launched onto an inexorable path to Kantian democratic peace.

After the 9/11 terror attack, whatever remained of strategic design devolved into arguably the most chaotic American ideological meanderings to date, producing a headlong dash into “democracy-building,” “state-building,” and “nation-building” projects that have sucked the United States into 20 years of the 21st-century equivalent of the Boer War, costing thousands of American lives and trillions of dollars. Meanwhile, China continued to grow right under our noses, propelled by American and European capital investment and a U.S. technology and educational system that trained hundreds of thousands of Chinese engineers. During this time, Russia regained its footing, modernized its military, and set about revising the post–Cold War settlement in Eurasia.

Our globalists did achieve one clear state-building success: They facilitated a 900 percent GDP growth of the People’s Republic of China in just 30 years. In the process, the PRC pursued a mercantilist trade policy, extorting Western companies for intellectual property for market access, stealing R&D results, and having their future weapons designers trained in STEM programs in America’s best colleges and universities. (In 2019, just before the pandemic hit, of about 1 million foreign students in U.S. universities, 370,000 were Chinese students, predominantly in STEM fields).

Beijing has also begun to commission and fund basic research by U.S. university faculty, with the proviso that the results be turned over to China and that no criticism of CCP policies is allowed. Throughout, with the data in plain view, Congress and the U.S. government have done precious little to stop what has amounted to handing over to our adversary the crown jewels of American technology and know-how, which took generations to build. And far from “systemic convergence,” the belief that China and other dictatorships will become more like “us” — liberalized and democratized, to cater to their emergent middle class — what we are witnessing is that we are in fact becoming more like them, with surveillance capitalism increasingly taking root, our democratic institutions under threat, and federal power poised to overcome our traditionally states-driven diffused political process.

Today, despite all the rhetoric that seems to convey the urgency of confronting the two “pacing threats,” the “globalized” business as usual rolls on when it comes to economic policy. A majority of our policy elites seem unable to take the first irreducible and essential step of cutting off Beijing’s access to our R&D base and decoupling our supply chains from China. In a nutshell, corporate greed masquerading as globalist ideology has been allowed to trump America’s national-security interests and priorities.

It was not always like this. In 1949, during the Cold War, NATO’s so-called Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls (COCOM), was established to ensure that trade with the Soviet Union and its allies did not enable them to gain access to militarily relevant technologies, coordinating collectively and unanimously among allies to ensure that no dual-use technology would reach our adversaries. This policy was a key factor in the West’s eventual victory over the Soviet Union. To appreciate how radically things have changed since, consider that, when in April of this year the Senate Foreign Relations Committee drafted the Strategic Competition Act of 2021 to counter China’s expanding influence in technology and trade and called for the establishment of a body akin to COCOM, the bill faced a fierce lobbying effort against it.

So after four decades of allowing the PRC access to every level of our society, we are waking up to the fact that our industrial power is depleted, our society destabilized, and our military supply chains constrained by single points of failure. It is high time to make national-security priorities of the United States the driver of our economic policy and stanch the technology bleed to China. If we want to have a fighting chance in our competition with the PRC, hard choices must be made when it comes to the nation’s defense and, by extension, its economic policy. If we want to live in a world that is conducive to America’s interests, as well as to those of other allied democracies, we must clearly identify the powers that stand in our way, to take decisive action to block them, push against them, and — should it come to that — defeat them. Simply put: Unless and until the United States and its democratic allies make a firm decision to decouple our critical supply chains from China, we will continue to track for defeat, for one cannot both bleed technology and proprietary technical information to one’s adversary state and at the same time expect to win. The imperative of a hard decoupling from China is arguably the greatest strategic challenge facing the United States and its allies, for reshoring our supply chains will carry a price and be met with a lot of resistance, not least from U.S. and European companies that have invested deeply there. Nonetheless, decoupling from China is one strategic decision without which there is no pathway to victory for the United States and the West in general in this round of great-power competition.

The United States cannot contain China the way it contained the Soviet Union during the Cold War; rather, it must outcompete China (and Russia) in critical emerging technologies that will be needed to reinvigorate and transform America’s industry and the economy as a whole to reestablish its position of national power in this century. A key strategic objective for the United States going forward must be to rebuild our industry. The preservation of the United States as an independent nation-state requires the restoration of the country’s manufacturing base in areas critical to national security. This also means revamping our educational system to invest in STEM both in high schools and in colleges and universities, while providing professional opportunities for young Americans through internships at leading U.S. companies.

Another objective must be to increase the nation’s resilience, which requires the reconsolidation of a shared national identity at home. We must return to and nurture the idea of citizenship steeped in a shared American heritage and formed by our civic culture as the foundation of our national identity. The politics of division, the incessant racialization of public discourse, and the indoctrination of young Americans into a dogma of identity politics based on critical race theory undermine our effort to confront rising threats from China and Russia. A society taught to loathe its history and its heritage will not be resilient enough to come together in a crisis. Restoring a sense of unity and cohesion at home has become a national-security imperative.

Next, we need to change the way in which we view the international system and how we engage with other states to ensure America’s security and prosperity. The emergence of a new system that is antithetical to American national interests is already in full view, with Chinese penetration of the European and American continents, and Beijing’s determination to transform the Eurasian landmass into the center of the new economic system it is seeking to build. It is in America’s vital national interest to prevent the consolidation of such a system, for if the end game is to be — to use John Mearsheimer’s term — two “bounded orders,” one led by the United States, the other by China, then the outcome will be stacked against the U.S., for if our policy doesn’t change, China will eventually outstrip the United States in key power indices, controlling the resources of Eurasia while maintaining unfettered access to Europe. Rather, the guiding principle of U.S. strategy going forward should be to ensure that such self-contained regional substructures do not emerge, for the attendant global bipolarity they would generate would be antithetical to American strengths, locking the U.S., a quintessentially maritime power, in the Western Hemisphere.

The policy of realist power-balancing, leveraging regional power distributions, and shoring up alliances built on interests rather than norms will be critical to this strategy. This requires that we rethink legacy institutions as well as our alliances. The U.S. will have to make hard decisions about whether to continue to expend resources on allies that no longer support our objectives or, worse still, are now fully engaged with China, or working closely with Russia in contravention to America’s interests. Bureaucratized legacy alliances need to be assessed based on their military contributions to our common security. NATO needs to be reformed so that it commands real exercised military capabilities.

The harsh reality of today’s global power distribution is that we have entered arguably the gravest contest since the Civil War threatened to rip the American republic apart, and at a time when our power base has been significantly depleted by decades of misguided economic, national-security, and defense policy. America is entering this round of great-power competition at a considerable disadvantage compared with past crises and wars. In terms of the country’s military power, the 20 years of the global war on terror in various iterations and guises have depleted the Joint Force through incessant campaigning in secondary theaters, while military modernization focused on technology to support the counterinsurgency effort at the expense of capabilities needed in state-on-state conflict with a near-peer adversary, with the military restructured accordingly.

There is another dimension to the incipient geostrategic challenge, namely, the fact that for the first time in its history the United States is confronting not one but two military near-peer competitors, at a time when America’s forces are no longer structured to meet the country’s security obligations in both the Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific theaters. Lastly, for the first time in a century the United States faces an adversary, China, whose economy, while nominally smaller than ours, when measured in purchasing-power parity is already bigger than America’s. To put the scope of this challenge in perspective: In the two world wars of the 20th century the United States never fought an adversary whose GDP was more than 40 percent of ours and whose manufacturing base surpassed ours.

In this deteriorating security environment, the United States needs to abandon imperial liberal institutionalism and refocus on rebuilding its own state and society, for without a strong national home base we will fail. The second step requires that all core security commitments and priorities when it comes to resource commitments be reexamined and rethought against the triad of vital, important, and peripheral national interests. This national strategy needs to take as its starting point America’s geostrategic constants, i.e., that the U.S. is a preeminent maritime power, a “continental island” able to shape a benign security environment at home, and that the secure homeland is the sine qua non of its ability to project power abroad. It also has to factor in domestic socioeconomic problems and address them, for without restoring national cohesion, the United States will be handicapped in any effort to confront its adversaries. This means that halting and reversing the ongoing bicoastal elite project to deconstruct the American nation into warring tribes along racialized group identities should be an integral element of a realist strategy.

In order to thrive as a quintessentially maritime trading nation, the United States needs access to Europe and Asia. The U.S. Navy continues to secure the sea lines of communication; without its global reach, trade flows as we have known them for the past half a century would not have happened. The United States has a vital national interest to ensure that no one power controls the Eurasian landmass, as an adversary controlling its resources would fundamentally alter the power distribution worldwide. Here the rise of China as the increasingly dominant player in Eurasia poses a clear and immediate danger to the security of the United States. Through the Belt and Road Initiative, a.k.a. the new “Silk Road,” China is seeking to establish a secure land-based supply-chain network, which if successful will not only transform Europe from being America’s gateway to Eurasia into a tail end of a supply network controlled by Beijing, but also eventually result in a “grand inversion” of the half-millennium-old relationship between the maritime and land domains that has historically favored Western naval powers, including the United States. Here Russia’s increased alignment with China in opposition to U.S. global hegemony raises the threat to another level, for it creates predatory opportunities for one power to leverage a crisis in the other theater that would pull in America’s attention and its military resources.

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