04 September 2019

The great power competition- US’s fundamental foreign policy concept

Sergiu Medar

The “great power competition” is not a new concept for the international relations. It was previously used during the Cold War, but only alluding to its military meaning. Barely mentioned in the National Security Strategy and firmly used in the National Defence Strategy, the concept is something really topical in the military field and, particularly, in the economic and commercial ones. It has different meanings depending on each great competing power’s interests.

Image source: Mediafax

The recent US economic and security actions against Russia, China and even EU (the economic component), as well as their answer, can make us conclude that we have entered the era of great powers competition (GPC).

Considering the principle according to which the strategic decisions are transparent and the operative ones are secrete, the White House publicly stated, and included also in a series of foreign policy strategic documents, that US’s diplomatic and militarily supported efforts are directed towards winning the great power competition.

This foreign policy direction seems to be a déjà vu. Russia’s isolation policy from US, after World War II, along with mutual threats, was aiming at the same thing: the great power competition. After the Berlin Wall fell and Europe changed dramatically, US had, not for too long, the impression that it was the only great power of the bipolar world, cancelling the great power competition phrase. Terrorism seemed to have been the only threat US saw coming against its territory and security. To that end, Obama was mentioning, back in 2006, in The Audacity of Hope, that expansionist states’ world and great powers’ competition “is gone”. Next century’s threats are: terrorism, climate change and pandemies.

Richard Haas, former Bush administration official and president of the Foreign Affairs Council, was stating, back in 2008, in front of the US Senate: “globalization’s challenges will dominate the century” and “great powers’ competition and conflict are no longer the engine of international relations”.

This statement was refuted in 2014, when Russia invaded South of Ukraine and Crimea, which ended by occupying, de facto, Donetsk, Lugansk and by enclosing the Ukrainian peninsula. This could have been Russia’s signal that is accepts a bipolar world, as great powers’ relation got back to Cold War’s principles.

It is the same year Chinese president Xi Jinping takes power. He launched an ambitious nationalist political agenda, by concentrating the power and the foreign, economic and security Chinese programs’ aggressiveness.

Some aspects related to great powers’ competition emerged during Obama’s Administration. In 2014, when talking about Russia, he was referring to one state’s aggression against another state. In 2015, Robert Work, Secretary Deputy of Defence, when talking about US’s efforts to maintain its military superiority, he was frequently using the phrase great power competition.

When Donald Trump became US’s president, this phrase was transformed into a foreign policy principle, which influenced how the administration developed its international political, security and economic relations. In US’s National Security Strategy, it is mentioned that the relations between states is based on competition and competitiveness.

The clearest and direct mention that great powers competition is a threat against the national security emerges in 2017, in the US National Defence Strategy. Talking on this topic, immediately after defeating ISIS, in Mosul and Raqqa, James Mattis, then Secretary of Defence, was stating: “great powers competition- and not terrorism- is US’s main national security concern”.

In a statistic made by the American company Nexis, the great power competition phrase appears 141 times in articles published during G. W. Bush’s presidency, 1.021 times in Obama’s and 6.500 times only in the first two years and a half of Trump’s Administration. These are only numbers which are revealing the paradigm change in terms of US’s international relations.

Great power competition refers, indeed, to US, Russia, China and EU competition. US’s rivalries with each of these states/organizations differs depending on the interests it has in each of them. The rivalry with China is mainly an economic one, however, the military competition is also included. The competition with Russia is purely military and security-based. The competition with EU refers to economic and, to a small extent, the security component.

The US military competition with Russia concerns everyone. After the Berlin Wall fell and mainly after Soviet empire’s demise, the Russian people felt humiliated because their country was only the relic of a great power. For Russia, the competition with US was never on a second plan, but permanently the main foreign political challenge. Although no longer considered a great power, Russia proved to be an important military power, through its foreign policy actions. To that end, we can mention: Crimea’s annexation, the conflict in South-East Ukraine and the interference in Syria, where it practically saved Assad’s regime. After the US withdrawal from the Middle East equation following Trump’s wishes, Russia filled the power gap left behind by the Americans.

The US-Russia arms race gets more and more intense from one week to another, each side announcing the creation of new arms or new decisions whose rhetoric is more threatening. Only in the past few weeks, US successfully tested an intermediate missile and, some days later, a Russian submarine launched a Sineva ballistic missile in the Arctic area, hitting a target in North of Archangelsk, meanwhile another submarine launched from the Barents Sea a Bulava ballistic missile hit a target in Kamchatka. There are just two of the examples proving that this great power competition can lead us back to Cold War’s logic.

The US-China relation developed following the “we need each other” principle, hence, things must follow the same direction. Trump also became aware that there is huge difference between US and China in terms of economy, disfavoring US, consequently, he decided to increase the import taxes for Chinese products. China did the same thing, hereof the so-called trade war (commercial war). It got even tenser, so that Trump “asked” American companies, through Twitter, to withdraw their businesses from China, claiming that “We do not need China… we are better without them”. President’s demand faces a huge legitimacy issue, as he does not have the right to give such an order, only if there would actually be a war between them, which is not the case. Ulterior, US president showed his intention to resume the negotiations.

The US-China relations got even tenser since Xi Jinping took the power. Besides the import taxes, Washington was really upset about the Belt and Road Initiative project, which passes through 60 countries, 2/3 of world’s population. In order to make this project, some of the countries got loans from China, however, with small incomes, and now they owe it. Therefore, China is dominating Middle East and also South-East Asia. US sees this project’s magnitude and China’s influence extension as a threat against its interests in the area.

As for the US-China relation, the great power competition has also a military and security component, in terms of the permanent conflicts in Taiwan and South China Sea, where China is more and more possessive.

Joe Biden, possible Democratic Party’s US presidency candidate, stated on this subject that: “the biggest challenge of all times is the confrontation between liberal democracies, like US, and autocracies, like China and Russia”.

Ali Wyne, RAND Corporation analyst, who studies Trump’s Administration current foreign policy direction, was warning on the fact that if the US president will not make a difference in approaching China and Russia, “Trump may push Putin in Xi’s arms”. If we think of their meeting during this summer and the agreed common development directions, we can state that this is likely to happen. RAND’s analyst thinks that, during time, the US economic importance will decrease meanwhile China’s, India and other countries’ is increasing.

Elbridge Colby, former analyst at the Center for New American Security draws the attention on the fact that we are actually living in a world which has many power centers, each of them with its own interests and programs to reach them. US’s ability, according to Colby, must be succeeding in creating an equilibrium. “The biggest mistake US can do in this great power competition is entering an armed conflict with Iran”, mentions the analyst.

Donald Trump promised to meet and discuss with all great powers’ leaders and convince them on US’s interests in the relation it has with them. He could not, however, vanish the tensions between their states. The great power competition is an advantage for the technological progress, but will lead to tensions that could increase and multiply the trade wars. Military conflicts are just the following phase.

Translated by Andreea Soare