With U.S. politics as polarized as at any point in modern history, it would seem an unlikely moment for a new bipartisan consensus about U.S. foreign policy to emerge. Yet that’s precisely what has happened over the past 18 months, as Democrats and Republicans alike have embraced the idea of “great-power competition,” with China and Russia as a common framework for thinking and talking about the world.
There is much to commend about this shift. For starters, it has the virtue of reflecting reality — a belated recognition that Beijing and Moscow are not becoming “responsible stakeholders” in a U.S.-led liberal world order, as Washington long hoped, but rather have entrenched interests and values that are profoundly at odds with those of the United States and its allies.
What’s less commendable is the way U.S. national security circles have so far framed great-power rivalry with China and Russia: describing the problem almost exclusively as a competition for technological and military superiority.
Will the Chinese beat the United States in developing artificial intelligence? How can we close the “hypersonics gap” with Moscow and Beijing? What must be done to stop China from dominating 5G, counter Russian disinformation campaigns in social media and keep the U.S. edge in space?
These are all valid and important questions. But by conceiving of geostrategic competition as a series of arms races, the current debate fundamentally misunderstands the nature of these contests — and makes it less likely the United States will succeed in them.
For evidence, look no further than Syria, where since 2011 the United States has tussled with Russia, with decidedly unfavorable results for Washington.
By any measure, U.S. firepower deployed in and around Syria is technically superior to that of the Russians. Yet the Kremlin has succeeded in keeping Bashar al-Assad in power despite U.S. demands for his ouster, while exploiting the conflict to boost Russia’s prestige and influence across the region.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s achievement came about not because he dispatched better weapons to the Middle East but because he employed shrewder statecraft there, combining cunning diplomacy with a series of limited but sudden military moves that repeatedly threw the United States off balance and deterred Washington from confrontation.
A similar story has played out in the South China Sea, arguably the most prominent arena for geopolitical competition between Washington and Beijing in the past decade.
Here, too, the United States has found itself routed by a great-power rival, as China prevailed in constructing a militarized archipelago of artificial islands over Washington’s express objections. Again, the United States wasn’t outgunned but rather outwitted. In this case, China slowly built up its maritime outposts, calibrating its moves so that none by itself was sufficient to provoke a meaningful U.S. response but together accumulated to create a fait accompli.
None of this is to deny that U.S. investment in next-generation military capabilities is essential. But weapons are ultimately only as smart as the strategy that employs them.
Washington’s excessive faith in the decisive impact of technology also sharpens what is already the greatest danger from worsening tensions with Russia and China: an inadvertent escalation into war.
History is instructive here, too. In the early 20th century, the world’s most developed countries funneled the era’s extraordinary scientific discoveries into their militaries. Only after August 1914 did Europe’s rulers realize that they had collectively built a doomsday machine that, once unleashed, would wreck their civilization.
The present moment contains unsettling parallels. While the United States, China and Russia are all now rushing to build sophisticated arsenals that incorporate breakthrough technologies, no one can fully explain, or even quite conceive of, what a conflict involving these new weapons at scale would look like.
To be clear, 21st-century progress in fields such as artificial intelligence, space and robotics does not predestine a third world war, any more than 19th-century advances in chemistry or metallurgy were responsible for the first one. But exceptional peril arises when humanity’s technological ingenuity outstrips its strategic and moral imagination. It is in the latter realms that Washington is dangerously underinvested.
Less apocalyptically, the United States’ setbacks in places such as Syria and the South China Sea should remind U.S. policymakers that it is possible to compete with an objectively weaker hand and still come out on top.
Even if Beijing and Moscow do slip ahead of the United States in developing robot swarms or hypersonic glide vehicles, then, the appropriate response wouldn’t be panic or surrender. Instead, Americans must learn what their foes already understand: In great-power rivalry, success depends less often on brawn than on brains.