Secretary of State Pompeo & President Trump at NATO headquarters, Brussels, Belgium, July 2018. CREDIT: <a href=>U.S. Department of State (CC)</a>
Secretary of State Pompeo & President Trump at NATO headquarters, Brussels, Belgium, July 2018. CREDIT: U.S. Department of State (CC)

The American Public and U.S. Global Engagement: Mid-2019 Snapshot, with Ali Wyne

Jun 10, 2019

Looking ahead to the 2020 election and the role that foreign policy will play on the campaign trail, Senior Fellow Nikolas Gvosdev talks with RAND's Ali Wyne about the dominant international relations narrative in Trump-era Washington: "great-power competition." With Russia and China as the main competitors, how should we differentiate between the two nations? What is the U.S. actually competing for? And what would "victory" look like?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Good morning, everyone. Thank you for coming out to the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs for part of this continuing series in the U.S. Global Engagement program.

If any of you were with us on May 22 when we had Ash Jain here, when I was introducing Ash I was noting that we're at that point in the project where we're moving from diagnosis of the narrative collapse that we saw in 2016, looking forward to 2020 and beyond—are there narratives about what the United States ought to be doing in the world that resonate with domestic politics.

Ash Jain, when he spoke here on May 22, laid out this notion of the democratic community of nations, that is, that we rejuvenate America's role in the world by concentrating on the United States, knitting together a community of democracies in Europe and in Asia to work with each other and to trade with each other. In some of our discussion there we talked a bit about is this at a point where we're going to de-link or decouple from China and instead move toward the Allies and the like.

I think we had a pretty robust discussion, and at the end of that event I said that on June 5 we would be looking at another narrative that is emerging and certainly has been one that has been dominant in the Trump administration moving forward. It is this narrative and this term that is used in the National Security Strategy of "great-power competition." This is what defines what the United States ought to be doing in the world: This isn't a world of countries that get along, it's a world of great powers struggling with each other, and the United States needs to claw back its position in the world. This is certainly the theme that one gets when one reads the National Security Strategy.

I wanted to bring Ali Wyne from RAND. Everyone has his biography, and those of you who will be listening on the podcast will be able to click on his biography next to his picture on the website, so I won't belabor the point. But one of the things he is looking at at the RAND Corporation is: What does this mean? What does great-power competition mean?

Of course, I can't turn the floor over yet until I give a plug for an unrelated volume that both he and I appear in, just out, Our American Story: The Search for a Shared National Narrative, which is a set of essays looking at the question—which is not unrelated to the question of foreign policy—what does it mean to be American? What are the things that define an American community? Is there an American community? Is there an American nation? In some ways that addresses a question at home of how can we know what we're going to do overseas if we don't know who we are as a people and as a nation. This gives you a wide variety. It's an edited volume with a wide-ranging set of contributors, and both he and I happen to be in it as well.

With that, Ali, I'll turn the floor over to you to get us started on this question of what is great-power competition.

ALI WYNE: Thanks so much, Nick. It's a pleasure to be back at the Carnegie Council. I always enjoy coming up here, and I feel bad because whenever I come here I invariably end up learning far more than I give. So it's a very asymmetric exchange, but selfishly I gain from that, so I always enjoy coming here.

Great-power competition, just by way of some background, I would say is probably the animating construct certainly in Washington. I don't know what the discussion is like in New York or in other parts of the country, but certainly in Washington there is this notion if you look at the National Security Strategy (NSS), you look at the National Defense Strategy (NDS), there is this proposition—which I think is widely shared or widely believed among the analytical community—that the United States has been on something of a strategic detour for the better part of two decades. It has been preoccupied with counterterrorism, not only in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it is now veritably a global war on terrorism. There are counterterrorism operations in the Sahel, there are counterterrorism operations in the Philippines. So it's a veritably global war on terrorism.

The NSS and the NDS are rooted in this notion that we now have to contend increasingly—it's not to say that counterterrorism is no longer a priority, but it's to say that counterterrorism has now been relegated to a second-tier priority and that the core strategic priority for the United States is contending with great-power competition, primarily manifesting with a revanchist Russia, with a resurgent China, and I would say that China and Russia are the two focal points of the NSS and the NDS.

The notion is that we thought that history had ended. History is back, and so we had a 30-year holiday from history, but now it's back with a vengeance, and we have to think about how we posture ourselves competitively vis-à-vis great powers but particularly China and Russia.

On the surface, I think the proposition is eminently sensible. I think indeed we have been on something of a strategic detour for the past two decades, and there isn't an end in sight for the war on terrorism. Unless you believe that you can eliminate every single terrorist organization or terrorist fighter there isn't really any conceivable end.

So I do think that we've been on a strategic detour. We've hemorrhaged a lot of resources, financial and strategic. So it makes sense that we should be focusing on the return or the resurgence of great powers.

What worries me, though, is I think that there is a lag between the prescriptive momentum that this concept has gained in Washington and analytical underpinnings, and I think it's a gap that's growing.

In Washington now—and you and I were actually talking about this recently at the War College, it's virtually axiomatic now in Washington. If you attend almost any event on national security or foreign policy, it's almost by way of throat-clearing you say, "We are now in a new era of great-power competition." You clear your throat, and then you begin the discussion. What worries me is I think that train has left the station and it's getting a lot of momentum, but I think that we need to do a little bit more analytical work to unpack what it means.

When I think of great-power competition—forget about great powers. When I hear the word "competition," I interpret it in one of two ways. Competition can be characterized as a condition, so we are in a condition of world affairs in which there are great powers who are competing. That's one description; it's a condition.

The other characterization is that competition is a means: I compete in order to do X.

The problem is that competition in and of itself is not a strategy. Competition is an action, it's a condition, it's a means, but competition in and of itself, and it has almost become something of an—I'm being a little facetious here—incantation in Washington, that if you say "great-power competition," the strategy will flow forth, and it's not clear to me that's the case.

A few questions that I would humbly submit that I think are important to answer or at least brainstorm about for us to unpack the concept: One, who is our principal competitor if we are indeed in this era of great-power competition?

If you look at the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy, I don't know if the authors of the documents did so wittingly, but they often will juxtapose China and Russia immediately next to each other, so, "China and Russia are collectively undermining our national interests. China and Russia are undermining the postwar order." It is true that China and Russia both are engaging in those actions, but they do so in very different ways. They have very different strategies for doing so. They have very different material capacities.

Their trajectories are also very different. When I look at Russia I see an opportunistic disruptor that is structurally declining in many ways, and it recognizes that it doesn't have the economic wherewithal to offer a coherent alternative to the present order. So I think that Russia has concluded that the best way that it can remind the world that it is a great power is to upset the apple cart every now and then.

If you look at Russia's principal vectors of effort, it's trying to plant its foothold in Syria, it's hiving off territories that have symbolic value but that actually have proven to be economic burdens. Crimea, for example. Crimea is certainly a symbol of prestige and a symbol of national honor in Moscow's thinking, but Crimea has actually proven to be economically a burden on Russia; conducting disinformation operations against democratic societies.

There isn't necessarily a grand strategic arc that connects those various vectors of effort, but if you recognize that Russia doesn't necessarily have a grand strategy—and here I would say that we need to distinguish between tactical agility and strategic foresight. I think there's this narrative in Washington that Putin is a strategic grandmaster, that Russia is thinking far beyond our strategic imagination. I think that Russia under Vladimir Putin is tactically very agile, and I think he has been very good at seizing opportunities to insert Russian influence, but tactical agility does not a grand strategy make.

When I look at China, I see a country, really a kind of civilizational country in many ways, that is structurally resurgent, that is more of a selective revisionist. It has been one of the principal beneficiaries of the postwar order. It is not opposing a frontal assault on the system, and it does have the economic wherewithal to debut an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and to offer a Belt and Road Initiative.

So the first question is, who is our principal competitor? Even if we agree that China and Russia are our principal competitors, I think we need differentiated strategies vis-à-vis China and Russia. So that would be question one, who is our principal competitor, and if it's China and Russia, how do we tailor differentiated strategies?

The second question is: Over what exactly are we competing?

I think it's very important, especially for a country of overriding—one of the temptations that the United States faces, it's both a blessing and a curse. When you are not only the world's lone superpower but you are a power that is arguably unrivaled in the annals of human history, you have the luxury/curse to elide the necessity for strategic priorities for much longer than most other countries.

It's interesting to me that when we talk about—just as an example—the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq. There are very few other countries that could be engaged for the better part of two decades having hemorrhaged hundreds of billions of dollars, not having accrued much in the way of strategic dividends, and you have a discussion, and the analytical community says, "Well, we made some mistakes, but the United States can absorb those." Very few other countries are in that position. We have far more room to absorb strategic mistakes than many other countries, and we have far more room—at least, we perceive that we have far more room—to have a grand strategy that really isn't strategic, but it's essentially kind of a grab bag: Whenever we feel that there is a new crisis, let's do something. It's kind of a "do something" doctrine that guides the United States.

But even for a power of overriding influence such as the United States, if the United States indefinitely does not prioritize, if it regards competition as an open-ended invitation to engage anywhere and everywhere without prioritization, even the United States ineluctably will succumb to strategic disorientation and exhaustion.

I think that we need to delimit areas of contestation. Are we going to contest every functional area? Are we going to contest in every geographical theater? What are the limits to our competition? That will be question two.

Question three: Is there an end state to competition, or is there a steady state? In other words, where would the United States like to see itself at the end of this period of great-power competition?

Again, we've had this conversation, so forgive me for giving this analogy once more. It's somewhat silly, but I think it's nonetheless illustrative of the point that I'm trying to convey, which is that again competition, in order to be a viable instrument, has to be tethered to an end state or a steady state.

Nick and I were talking recently. I was expressing to him some of my frustrations with the conceptual fuzziness of great-power competition, and I gave this analogy. I said, imagine going to the world's best tennis player, Serena Williams. If you go to Serena Williams and you tell her who her opponent is going to be and you tell her how many sets she has to play, 99 times out of 100 she's going to win decisively. Not any problem. But let's say the next day after she has won that resoundingly you go to Serena Williams, you hand her a tennis racket and a tennis ball, and you say, "Serena, I'd like you to just hit the ball against the wall for a few hours."

Now, Serena Williams is extremely strong. She's a very dedicated practitioner of her sport, so she'd be able to do that for a few hours without breaking a sweat. But I think maybe after five or six hours she probably comes back and says, "Well, I've been hitting the tennis ball against the wall for five hours. Is there something else you'd like me to do?"

"No, just keep hitting the ball."

Well, even Serena Williams at a certain point is going to get tired.

The reason for giving that somewhat silly analogy is even when you take an individual or a country or an entity of overriding strength and resilience, if you don't delimit certain boundaries, if you don't specify an end state, eventually you're going to collapse due to exhaustion. So I think we need to think much harder about is there an end state to great-power competition, and if so, what is it, or a steady state.

That brings me to the last question. If there is not an end state—I've been speaking recently with individuals who have been involved with articulating this concept of great-power competition, and some of them have said to me, "There isn't an end state. There isn't even a steady state. We have to be prepared for infinite competition."

To which my response is: "If it is the case"—and it's a reasonable proposition; we can debate it—"if the analytic and policymaking communities converge on the conclusion that we are engaged in an infinite competition, we have to prepare our society; we have to prepare our economy."

Our economy and our society, I would submit as presently oriented, are not prepared for infinite competition. Not only that they're not prepared for infinite competition; I would say that in an area of social media in particular, I just think that attention spans are limited. I think patience is limited. Our priorities shift from day to day or week to week.

If we are engaging in infinite competition that has no end state, that has no steady state, we need to be candid with the American public, and we need to be candid about the sacrifices—economic, societal, and otherwise—that they'll have to make.

One last point I'll make that actually just occurred to me as I was talking, and sort of a fifth question—perhaps you could subsume it under one of the four questions that I posited above. Sometimes when I ask individuals what is the end state or the steady state of great-power competition, sometimes individuals will say, "Well, the answer is obvious. We want to maintain American primacy" or "We want to maintain a liberal international order." The answers may seem self-evident. The problem is, when you try to operationalize those answers, the operationalizations are not as clear.

Let's say, for example, you say that the end goal or the steady state for great-power competition is the maintenance of American primacy. Then the question becomes, how do you define "primacy"? Does primacy mean that you are ahead of your number two competitor by a certain margin? If so, what is the size of that margin, and how are you measuring primacy? Does primacy mean that you are first among equals and that as long as you're even a little bit ahead of your number two competitor that you have primacy? Does primacy mean—vis-à-vis China, for example—perhaps you have a bipolar arrangement in the Indo-Pacific but the United States maintains preeminence elsewhere?

Even when you take the term "primacy," we need to have a much more vigorous discussion in the analytical community about how do we conceptualize power, how do we conceptualize primacy.

Same with the liberal international order. Over the past two years that concept has come under quite withering scrutiny, and a number of scholars have argued that the liberal international order hasn't always been especially liberal; it hasn't been necessarily international in that it largely has enveloped industrialized democracies, but it has excluded much of the developing world; and it hasn't always been very orderly. So if it hasn't always been very liberal, it hasn't always been very international, and it hasn't always been very orderly, then the concatenation of those three terms, there's an exponential increase in analytical fuzziness.

We need to think harder about even when we think have a self-evident answer to what the end state or steady state for great-power competition would be, whether it's the maintenance of American primacy or the maintenance of a liberal international order. Those terms themselves are very fuzzy.

All of what I have said is a very long-winded way of saying that I don't have a good answer to your question, which is, what is great-power competition? I'm still very much trying to talk with people and learn myself, but it's hopefully a way to say that I do think that—and I'm betraying my own ignorance—we need to have a more robust discussion in the analytical community and policymaking community, and I think that we need to narrow the gap. I'm not saying that we need to stop the train indefinitely, but I think let's put on the brakes and let's do a little bit of due diligence to figure out what is this grand experiment that we're embarking on so that we can do so with a bit more clarity.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Thanks, Ali. I think that what you laid out, far from not being an answer, is in fact pointing the direction in which this conversation needs to go.

I was struck particularly by your reference to incantations because I think this is something that we're dealing with, that we just throw out a phrase, so I stand in front of the mirror and whisper "great-power competition" three times, and a strategy will appear.

ALI WYNE: I wish.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: And wish. This point that you raised, too, because up until 2016 people ritually invoked "liberal international order, liberal international order," and then voters said, "Well, what am I getting out of this order?"

We can argue that political leaders and the expert community didn't do enough to address those concerns, but now we have this new frame of great-power competition, and again it has the ability to provide an initial answer. You say, "Oh, the world is a dangerous place. We're competing with other great powers. Certainly that makes sense."

But then again, as you start to unpack what that means and things we've been doing with the Global Engagement project, so the most recent engagement was the one with the Wichita Committee on Foreign Relations, and then I happened to be with the Aspen Institute's Congressional Program, and the theme essentially was great-power competition.

Once people began to unpack what that meant, your analogy to what does competition mean, and you start seeing very different approaches. Things that people would say are, "So, why are we in the South China Sea? Why is it important? Why can't the United States simply say that's not our part of the world?"

Or "Great-power competition means we have a bloc, you have a bloc, and we do the rules of the road, where do we compete, what the end state is," and I think these are all critical questions, and if they're not addressed, then this phrase starts to have the same usefulness as "liberal international order" did in the past.

What I'd like to do, taking my prerogative here as the moderator to throw out the first question, is to press you a bit more on this theme of competition, which implies that there are rules. Use the Serena Williams example. When Serena plays tennis, there are rules. She hits a ball out of the court, it doesn't count; she hits a ball into the net, there's a problem. There are rules and there are structures, and even though she's playing to win she accepts that she's not going to get everything. There are shots she is not going to take. The opponent may hit something, and she sees it, and she goes, "I'm not going to get to the edge of the court in time, so I'm going to miss it," and she keeps going.

My concern is that the United States as a policy community says we have to take every shot no matter how risky, no matter how difficult. We have problems with rules, so we say, "Well, we don't like these rules, so why can't I hit the ball over the fence or into the next tennis court and have it count?"

But also in the end competition implies that it's a win-some-lose-some. At the end she wants to win the tournament, but she accepts she's going to lose points, she's going to lose matches.

Since you're in the Washington area, is there a sense when people have been using this term "great-power competition" that they acknowledge limits and win-some-lose-some, or is it just great-power competition and everything will come up roses at the end for the United States in some indefinite future?

ALI WYNE: Your question points to another worry that I have—and I recognize that on the ledger I'm asking questions and I'm not really offering anything in the way of a meaningful answer, so that's my fault for not thinking more. Let's say, hypothetically again, we're embarked on this new era of great-power competition. Even though self-evidently it might seem that the goal of the competition should be—first of all, what does victory mean? My first question would be what does victory mean. We draw a lot on the Cold War period and we say perhaps are we embarked on a new Cold War particularly vis-à-vis China.

During the Cold War, one, we had rules of the road, particularly in the nuclear domain; and second, even though Republican and Democratic administrations varied considerably over how to implement containment, they all agreed, or at least there was a general consensus in the U.S. policymaking community, that inherent in containment was something of an end state, the dissolution of Soviet power. Whether that dissolution of Soviet power came about via external pressure or the intensification of the Soviet Union's internal contradictions, but there was an end state. In other words, containment did not envision a long-term indefinite cohabitation between Washington and Moscow.

The problem is now: One, it's not clear to me that we do seek victory in that way over China or Russia. It's not clear to me that we should desire those outcomes vis-à-vis China and Russia.

With Russia as well but with China in particular I do think the remit is to forge a long-term modus vivendi, not only that can accommodate competing at times American and Chinese objectives in the Asia-Pacific or the Indo-Pacific, but also to accommodate the pursuit and expansion of interests by both parties globally.

We don't have a model let alone rules for long-term cohabitation and especially long-term cohabitation between two countries that are so fundamentally different in so many regards.

We were talking earlier. I sometimes feel the only fundamental similarity between the United States and China is each's conviction in its own exceptionalism. The United States is convinced of its exceptionalism. China is convinced of its exceptionalism, and those competing exceptionalisms actually reinforce their underlying differences, whether they are differences in their time horizons, their understandings of history, their approaches to domestic governance, their approaches to foreign policy, their conception of the world order—we could go on and on and on and on.

We don't have experience in forging a long-term cohabitation, number one. We also don't have experience in forging a long-term strategy toward a country or a competitor that defies easy categorization.

I always come back to this speech that George Kennan gave on the occasion of his 90th birthday in 1994, and I think that it has enduring relevance 30 years later. In 1994 George Kennan for his 90th birthday was invited by the Council on Foreign Relations to give an address and to reflect on containment: How well has containment held up intellectually? Do you think it can apply to today's panoply of challenges?

George Kennan issued a warning that I think in retrospect proved to be quite prescient. His warning got downplayed at the time because there was such a din of post-Cold War triumphalism that I think his warning got lost, but George Kennan said that for the past 60 years—he's giving this speech in 1994, so this is dating now to the 1930s—the U.S. foreign policy establishment's analytical and prescriptive energies have been so preoccupied with and absorbed by dealing with real and/or perceived overriding existential challenges—Japan, Germany, and then the Soviet Union—that he says we don't understand how to deal with and prioritize among a multiplicity of challenges, none of which rise to the level of existential.

In many ways, from a strategic perspective, the dissolution of the Soviet Union I think continues to prove a Pyrrhic victory. Of course it's good; it's a blessing that we no longer have to contend with a totalitarian power with pretensions to a universal ideology that is violently inculcating revolution around the world, that has tens of thousands of nuclear weapons trained at the American homeland, but we don't have an orienting ballast that rises to that level of magnitude, which is why now I sense at least in Washington there's more and more of a desire to thrust China into that category.

China could perhaps be that externally orienting competitor that helps to discipline our foreign policy, that helps to restore a sense of orientation, kind of a North Star that we've been lacking for the past 30 years. But China's not the Soviet Union. Again, when you look at the attempted analogy between Moscow during the Cold War and Beijing today I think the differences far outweigh the similarities.

One, the Soviet Union was largely quarantined from the U.S. postwar order, and that was by choice. That was deliberately so. We had very little in the way of cultural exchanges with the Soviets, very little in the way of trading relations with the Soviets.

But that's all changed now. With the Chinese I think last year, if I'm remembering the figure correctly, we had a two-way trading relationship that was worth $660 billion. We continue to have very vibrant Track 1-1/2 and Track 2 dialogues, and actually Rorry Daniels from the National Committee on American Foreign Policy has been a crucial figure here in helping to facilitate those dialogues, particularly at a time when dialogue is becoming more strained. She has played a very vital role in convening those dialogues. So we have Track 1-1/2 and Track 2 dialogues.

We also have very robust cultural exchanges. If you look at the latest data, of all the international students enrolled in American institutions of higher learning, China accounts fully for one-third of those students. So there are those big differences.

Also, the Soviet Union was posing a frontal multifaceted assault on the postwar order. China is a selective revisionist, so it is pushing back against certain elements of the postwar order that it believes impinge on its ever-elastic and increasingly capacious conception of its core interests, which is something that is kind of concerning.

Its definition of core interests used to be Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang, but now amid the trade tensions and technological tensions with the United States Xi Jinping and his top advisors now say that economic security is a core interest, so it keeps on becoming this more capacious category.

China is pushing back against certain elements of the postwar order, but it is contributing to other elements or shoring up other elements of the system. Of the UN Security Council's Permanent Members it's the largest contributor to UN peacekeeping forces; it is invested and it's agitating for a greater voice within the traditional Bretton Woods institutions.

Outside of the postwar order it's setting up kind of a parallel architecture—AIIB and Belt and Road. There are observers who contend that AIIB and Belt and Road are illiberal in some ways, but I don't know that they intrinsically have to be opposed to this liberal international order.

The last difference that I would note is that during the Cold War, unless you were an explicitly nonaligned country such as India it was very difficult if not impossible for countries to say, "We'll do some dealings with Moscow and we'll do some dealings with Washington. We'll double-dip." You either chose or you would have a choice imposed on you.

Today we have the exact reverse, and I think it's very revealing. One of the themes at the Shangri-La Dialogue, which concluded a few days ago, was many of these so-called "middle countries," China's neighbors, saying, "We are not going to choose between the United States and China. We do not want to have to choose between the United States and China. We want to maximize our freedom of strategic maneuver, and we want to benefit from your competition. If that means that we increase our diplomatic and security ties with the United States but concurrently increase our trading and commercial ties with the United States, then we will do so." That's the opposite of the Cold War paradigm.

So we don't have a model for long-term cohabitation with a competitor-cum-partner. We don't have rules of the road for that arrangement. We don't know what end state or steady state we would like to achieve with China, and the implications are that I think a lot of our foreign policy—we have to forge a new playbook.

I hate to use a clichéd phrase, but I worry very much that in resorting too much or over-relying on analogies to the past, whether it's we are embarking on a new Cold War or we are revisiting the 1930s, I get the sense that the more we resort to those analogies the more we actually betray our anxiety about our inability to diagnose our current strategic predicament. We betray our anxiety about just the uncertainty that we face. There is a confluence of uncertainties. There is uncertainty first and foremost about America's role in the world.

America right now, at least in recent years, occupies this paradoxical duality: It is both the principal underwriter of the postwar order and, at least under the Trump administration, also one of its principal detractors and principal skeptics. So America's role in the world is uncertain, and many of its longstanding partners and allies are questioning whether America's current "America First" orientation is an aberration or a harbinger of things to come. So there's uncertainty about America's role in the world.

There is, as always, sadly, uncertainty about the state of the Middle East, and it continues to fragment and disintegrate. Before the Arab Spring broke out I think there were a number of observers who felt that essentially the Middle East and North Africa had this kind of adamantine, calcified order which has now broken apart, and the only prediction that you can make safely I think about the Middle East is that it will continue to be unpredictable.

The Asia-Pacific or the Indo-Pacific, depending on the parlance that you choose, its rules of the road are very much in flux, and I think that there's a tendency somewhat myopically to reduce the Indo-Pacific or the Asia-Pacific to a G2, U.S.-China perspective. But I think the many middle countries, China's neighbors, are concurrently frustrated by U.S. uncertainty and America's ongoing preoccupation in the Middle East, but they're apprehensive about China's strategic ambitions, and they don't want to be caught in strategic gridlock between the United States and China, so they may exercise greater agency in shaping the rules of the road in the Asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific.

I came of age during the peak of post-Cold War triumphalism, and I thought that the European Union was going to endure as the model of internal cohesion and geopolitical transcendence, and now it is under great duress from within and without. So there's uncertainty everywhere, and it's not clear to me that we can distill all of those vectors of uncertainty into a coherent phrase, moniker, or buzzword to summarize where we're going.

Diagnosis is a prerequisite for strategy, so if you can't diagnose accurately your external environment, how do you formulate a strategy? I don't know. Again, another long-winded evasion of your question.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: No, no. Lots of good points there.


QUESTION: Ron Berenbeim.

I think if people in Washington think that this is the era of competition then we should perhaps move our capital to either Wichita or Aspen because that seems where both of you have been recently. You may agree.

It hardly seems to be the case to me—first of all, Russia is basically Sierra Leone with missiles. That's not an original thought, but it's an accurate one.

As far as China, I think we're involved in a situation where the needed solution is fairly clear, and that is one of strategic collaboration. All you have to do is have a 401K, or as I did in the no-nprofit world, a 403B, and look at the stock market everyday and how panicked they get at the thought that the collaborative business relationship, both in terms of supply and demand between the United States and China, may break down. This is something that has to be a priority, and I wouldn't call a "competitive frame" a good way of looking at it.

Finally, I would say that Woodrow Wilson famously said, "We must make the world safe for democracy." Stanley Baldwin, less well-known these days and a somewhat underestimated man in my opinion, said, "We must make democracy safe for the world." I think that might be the best priority because when you see the breakdown of democracy both within the European Union and the United States and the need for structural and institutional reform and the United States to play a leading role, I think that ought to be the priority.

ALI WYNE: There are so many important points that you make. On the comparison between Russia and China, first of all, it is imperative to distinguish between Russia and China. I think that by conflating them or by treating them too closely in juxtaposition we lose a lot of granularity and lose a lot of nuance.

With China I think the collaboration is not just an opportunity. I think more and more it's going to become an imperative.

This is the congenital optimist in me talking, but I do see glimmers of hope at the subnational level. If you just focus on the national level, so if you look at the relationship between President Trump and President Xi, if you look at the relationship between the policymaking establishments in both countries, the trends seem to be unfavorable, but there are important collaborations that are going on at the subnational level. On issues such as scientific cooperation, energy research, and tackling climate change, there are a number of partnerships.

As an example, when the Trump administration said that it was withdrawing from the Paris accord, I thought something that was encouraging was that in the immediate aftermath of that decision there were many governors and many mayors who said they were still going to abide by the provisions of the agreement. So there's a lot of collaboration at the subnational level, and the business community, of course, will play an important role in strengthening that collaboration.

I wanted to reflect a little bit on your point, and thank you for the Stan Baldwin reference; I hadn't heard that quote before. It does raise an important point, which is that—this hearkens back to President Clinton's formulation when he basically distinguished between the power of our example versus the example of our power. He said that the United States is better and is more competitive when it relies more on the power of example.

I worry less about the global appeal of the so-called "Beijing Consensus," a consensus whose existence Beijing is the first to disclaim. I worry less about its organic appeal than I worry about the dysfunction that democratic societies are presenting.

I'm increasingly persuaded that if the United States focuses less on trying to out-China China and more on trying to become a more dynamic version of its best self, I would bet on the U.S. system any day. I think that when democracy is flourishing, when America not just is a power but America is an idea, it's one of these intangibles. When I think of what makes America a superpower or a great power, yes, it has an unrivaled ability to project military force abroad, it has the world's most technologically sophisticated economy, an unrivaled alliance of networks. But I think of America not just as the sum of its aggregate material parts. I think of America as an idea.

Lee Kuan Yew, shortly before he passed away, the founding prime minister of Singapore, was asked, "Do you think that China will eclipse the United States as the world's preeminent power?" He said, "I believe that they wish to do so," and he was unambiguous in that judgement. But he said that one of the limitations they face is, "America can draw on the talents of 7 billion people. China can draw on the talents of 1.3 billion people." That is to say that America has this kind of intangible, really, really magical ability to bring in folks from across the world and folks who end up becoming friends, collaborators, business partners, and each of those individuals contributes to the American story in some way.

I think we need to think about how do we restore the luster of democracy, of capitalism, but also the American idea, ideals of openness, tolerance, and integration. There's a quote that I often come back to by the French philosopher and writer Raymond Aron. He had I think a very powerful and poignant observation that he made in 1953. He wrote an essay in I think the French Journal or French Review of Political Science in January 1953. He was speaking about France and not about the United States, but he said: "In the 20th century the strength of a great power will be diminished if it ceases to serve an idea." He said that in the 20th century, but I think it's as relevant now. America shorn of its idea is a far less powerful and influential country.

I agree with you wholeheartedly. We need to think more about the power of our example and less about the example of our power. We need to think about ways that we can reinvest in our democratic ideals and in our idea, and I think if we do so in a concerted way and focus less on trying to out-China China that type of orientation will position us much more competitively.

QUESTION: My name is Maia Otarashvili. Thanks for the really interesting discussion.

I just want to point out that competition usually has at least two sides, if not more than that. How do you think we're doing right now understanding how our competitors see us, particularly in terms of Russia and China? We may think that we're competing with Russia on a handful of issues, but do you think we properly understand where Russia thinks it's competing with us? Do you think we take that seriously enough, and perhaps do you think we could be doing more to understand how our competitors see us?

ALI WYNE: It's such an important question, and I would say not only that we can do a better job, we have to. Successful competition is predicated on at least some understanding of the individuals or the organizations or the countries with which you're competing—What are their competitive strategies? What are their objectives?—and doing red-teaming.

Micah Zenko is one of the foremost experts and thinkers on red-teaming. He has written a book on the topic, and he widely lectures at organizations and government agencies basically saying put yourself in your competitor's or opponent's shoes and basically imagine you're trying to design the best strategy to undermine the United States or undermine your organization. What would they do? I think we not only can do better, but we have to.

With Russia I worry that in particular they loom so ubiquitously in our imagination that we see Russia's influence everywhere. It's true.

Did Russia interfere in our elections in 2016? Unquestionably. I think the evidence is indisputable. We may never be able to assess quantitatively in exacting fashion how much of an impact Russia had, how many Americans saw various ads that were planted by Russian bots and/or trolls, but I do think it's fair to say, at least from what I've read—you would know much better, but from what I've read, the Russian disinformation effort in 2016 vis-à-vis the United States wasn't enormously technologically sophisticated from what I can gather. It wasn't extraordinarily well-financed. If anything, I get the sense it was almost more kind of an experimental test the waters to see how much influence we can curry, and I think that they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams such that now—and I think this is where we're kind of playing into Russia's hands.

If you are a structurally declining power who acts nostalgic for your imperial past, who feels aggrieved by the postwar order, who chafes at American impositions and believes that the world doesn't accord you the respect that you deserve, what better way to restore a sense of dignity than to loom ubiquitously in the minds of your chief opponent? I feel that now almost anytime we see disinformation we think that the Russians are playing three-dimensional chess, they're everywhere. This is a predicament that I really don't know how the United States will extricate itself from.

One of our greatest sources of strength is also one of our greatest sources of weakness in dealing with Russia. There are some individuals who argue that Russian disinformation operations haven't been uniformly successful, and it's true that in countries, say, such as Finland, Russian disinformation operations haven't been as successful.

But, one, the Finnish population is much smaller, it's more homogeneous culturally and otherwise, but when you have a country as diverse as the United States, in which we pride ourselves on a vibrant marketplace of ideas, we pride ourselves on having a vibrant debate and we encourage that debate, we basically are advertising fault lines and societal fissures to the world, and I think that Russia has done a masterful job of a huge return on a small investment.

I think it's a given that Russia will continue—based on what it did in 2016 and the proof of concept it has—to engage in disinformation operations. What can the United States do to make its polity more robust, to make its society more robust, make individuals more aware of disinformation? That's a huge challenge.

I worry that with China our assessment of China tends to be somewhat schizophrenic. At least when I attend events around town I find that there are some individuals who argue that they feel China is perpetually on the brink of collapse, it's going to have a hard landing, the economy's going to fall apart, its internal contradictions are at some point going to lead to the dissolution of the Chinese Communist Party, and that's one extreme. That kind of argument is essentially maybe the end of history hasn't arrived just yet, but just wait a little while longer and then history will end.

At the other extreme, there's a depiction of China as almost this kind of inexorably resurgent juggernaut, that China has a 100-year plan or a 1,000-year plan, it is again playing not even three-dimensional chess; I heard the other day four-dimensional chess. I don't know what that means, but they're engaging in four-dimensional chess, and they just think so much further ahead. The Belt and Road is swallowing up all of Eurasia.

Has their resurgence been remarkable? No doubt about it. But do they have liabilities? Definitely. They are bordered by 14 countries, some of which are politically very unstable and some of which are very highly capable and confident democracies, so it's hemmed in geographically.

It doesn't have really any genuine allies. It has a lot of transactional partners, but it doesn't have allies. And I think Chinese international relations (IR) scholars recognize that lack of alliances is a limitation.

One of China's foremost IR scholars—and he very much is considered a hawk in China and believes in zero-sum competition between the United States and China—Yan Xuetong, wrote an op-ed in The New York Times near the end of 2011 called, "How China Can Defeat America." Very subtle. He says, "Here's what China can do. Here are America's competitive liabilities."

But for me, the takeaway proposition from his argument, he says, "Until and unless China develops more high-quality friends than the United States it won't be able to displace the United States." So China's lack of alliances is a competitive liability. It has one of the world's bleakest demographic outlooks, and so again I think we need to right-size the China challenge. We don't want to understate it and be complacent, but we don't want to become fatalistic.

I think the right attitude is healthy vigilance that's balanced with a certain prudence and equanimity. I think a guide to that disposition is the late Sam Huntington. He wrote an essay almost exactly 30 years ago to the day in Foreign Affairs, the title of which was, "The United States: Decline or Renewal?" This was in the late 1980s, and at the time there were concerns that America was in decline vis-à-vis Europe and Japan. Huntington spends the bulk of his essay saying we're not in decline; look at us militarily, economically, diplomatically.

But for me the most important part of his essay comes near the end. He says "I"—Sam Huntington—"don't think we're in decline," but you know which group plays the most important role in preventing American decline? It's the declinists because the declinists sound the alarm even if it's analytically misguided in his view and they rouse the public's attention, they rouse the policymaking establishment out of its slumber, and they compel the United States to take proactive or preemptive actions at home and abroad to shore up its base of power.

So, Sam Huntington basically concludes his essay by saying, "I don't think we're in decline, but if you want to believe that we're in decline and you harness that anxiety constructively, great. Be my guest." I think that type of attitude vis-à-vis China would be very healthy.

I think that America remains far ahead of China in terms of its overall power. If you look at Michael Beckley's book—he's an assistant professor at Tufts University, and his newest book is called Unrivaled: Why America Will Remain the World's Sole Superpower—he makes I think quite a provocative argument that not only is America far ahead of China in terms of its overall national power but actually that gap is growing in some ways.

You don't have to believe Michael Beckley's argument, or you don't have to believe it as forcefully as he does, but the point is that I think America is far ahead. But even if you don't believe that America is far ahead, if you're anxious, start taking corrective actions.

Corrective actions mean that we should be increasing, for example, the share of federally funded research and development spending as a percentage of our gross domestic product (GDP). At the peak of our competition with the Soviet Union that figure was 1.8 percent. Now it's roughly 0.6 percent. That's not China's fault. That's our fault.

We are right now imposing certain visa restrictions that are making the United States a less hospitable place for folks from India, China, and others to come and study. We shouldn't be doing that. We should be shoring up our alliances.

So there are many steps that we can take, but we should not be succumbing to fatalism. A fatalistic assessment of China's rise is going to lead us to be defensive. It's going to lead us to think more about out-China-ing China than reinvesting in ourselves.

With Russia I think we need to think more about societal resilience and shoring up our psychological defenses and recognizing that Russia is not 10 feet tall. With China we need to strike a middle ground between complacence and paranoia, and it's not clear to me, unfortunately, with Russia or China that the current framework of great-power competition lends itself to measured appraisals of either.

QUESTION: My name is Bob Palmer.

Ron's comment about changing capitals reminds me of Leo Szilard's solution to the Cold War and the nuclear threat, which was to move the Pentagon to Moscow and the Kremlin to Washington, DC.

It seems to me that competition always leads to conflict inevitably, and why shouldn't our focus be on promoting interdependence rather than competition, which leads to conflict?

QUESTION: The problem with China seems to be that the theory of the case with China was quite simply that if we integrated them in the World Trade Organization, if we treated them better, if we traded with them, if we integrated our supply chain, we helped them economically that they were going to become more like us, they were going to be more democratic. Part of that was also technology was changing so much that this was also going to make everybody more democratic and would lead to more freedom and not less freedom.

Both of those theories have been essentially thrown down and danced upon recently. That seems to be what has created this schizophrenia in the policy community because they're saying, "My god, maybe these suppositions that we had aren't right." And if those aren't right, then collaboration economically, integration economically, scientific exchanges, all those things are called into question.

The movement we've seen on the part of Xi Jinping more recently in China, does this presage the real direction of China, or will there be some change that gets us back to the more benign world that we were all buying into? Because if it's going to be Xi Jinping's world, then the logic of collaboration, the logic of exchange, and quite frankly the logic of not containing them but being nice to them, is questionable to say the least.

So my question to you is, what world are we headed toward with China? Xi Jinping's world or a more benign world?

ALI WYNE: Both of those questions are again so important. On your point in particular, I was just reading a very sobering piece by Gideon Rachman, his newest piece in the Financial Times called "The Two 1989s." He very provocatively argues that the triumphalist view holds that the most significant event of 1989 was the collapse of the Berlin Wall, but in retrospect it seems that perhaps the most important event was China's crushing of the uprising at Tiananmen Square, which symbolized early on that authoritarianism was perhaps more enduring than some of the triumphalist observers would like to believe.

In his piece he distills a lot of the assumptions that really shaped my worldview that now are just falling apart one by one. The past two years I would say intellectually have been quite challenging and disorienting for me because so many of those assumptions—I didn't think that necessarily China would evolve into a Western-style democracy, but I thought that its deeper integration into the global economic order, growing interdependence with the United States, would at least somewhat militate against its illiberal tendencies at home; hasn't happened.

I thought that social media platforms would be something of a death knell for authoritarian regimes, and I very much subscribe to a statement that President Clinton made in a speech in 2000. He gave an address at Johns Hopkins, and he said, "I know that there are some authorities in China who are trying to clamp down on the Internet." Then he kind of chuckled. He said, "Well, that's like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall."

I very much believed in that, and now, of course, we're seeing that authoritarian regimes not only have withstood social media platforms and new technologies but in many ways have actually coopted those to entrench their rule. So one assumption after another that undergirded my worldview, they're falling apart, so I'm very much grasping about for a new worldview.

To your point, I think that perhaps the core assumption underpinning engage-but-hedge running from the Nixon administration through the Obama administration was a hope or an assumption or a conviction that China would incrementally liberalize and democratize. It would succumb to a middle-income trap, etc.

If you look at the intellectual underpinnings for this engage-but-hedge posture, a year before he assumed the presidency Richard Nixon wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs, and he basically laid out what became the sustaining rationale. He said, "Look, we simply cannot afford to leave"—at the time China had 800 million people—"800 million of the world's most talented people out in the cold, diplomatically isolated, there to nurture their revolutionary fantasies." He said we have to bring them in from the cold.

He didn't make that recommendation in a naïve way, and he said that we have to bring China into the fold recognizing that there are risks inherent to doing so and that China is a very different country than ours in fundamental respects, and so we have to be careful. But let's bring them in, but let's hedge against the possibility that they might be revisionist, revolutionary, etc., so engage but hedge.

But now that we're seeing what China is demonstrating, at least for the time being under Xi Jinping—and this is why there is concern about the potential if not exportability of the China model, then at least the appeal of the China model—that at least for the short-term you can simultaneously grow more prosperous and also grow more authoritarian. I think the collapse of that hope or assumption has caused a lot of disillusionment in Washington.

But here's my concern, and this goes to your point about strengthening interdependence. If I have a pendulum here in the physical world, if I release it, I know that because of laws of physics it's going to come exactly back to this place. There are laws of motion that govern it. In the policymaking world, when pendulums swing they don't operate by laws of physics; they operate by laws of psychology and human behavior, and so those pendulums swing far more unpredictably. So policymaking pendulums, my fear is that inherent in any process of recalibration is the risk of overcorrection.

What I worry right now is that we have gone from the proper acknowledgement that we need to recalibrate our China policy significantly, but I think that we have recalibrated so quickly and so fundamentally that now it's very difficult to make the case in Washington that China is not an unalloyed antagonist, that China doesn't have pretensions to global hegemony.

Again, we don't have to be naïve about China's internal conduct. We don't have to be naïve about its technological innovation and so forth to recognize that it's imperative for these two linchpins of world order to salvage some kind of baseline of cooperation.

I also worry—to your point about interdependence—right now that there's a lot of momentum in Washington and Beijing toward unwinding economic and technological interdependence between the two countries. The United States increasingly contends that China's technological innovation poses a national security challenge, and it has expressed its concern with Huawei and ZTE. China feels that its extant dependence on the United States for high-tech inputs basically gives America a stranglehold on its ability to achieve "Made in China 2025" to innovate.

So there's a lot of rhetoric, and I think now incipient policymaking momentum toward decoupling. But I would say that at least from the American perspective, be careful what you wish for.

Dealing with China right now is very difficult, and it's increasingly difficult, but what I worry about is, let's say that we go through decoupling. I think the decoupling and placing restrictions on Huawei and ZTE will definitely deal China short-term setbacks. No question about it because China depends inordinately on the United States for high-tech inputs.

But China in due course, I think we would be somewhat imprudent to assume that China will indefinitely be unable to find alternative suppliers. I think other countries would be chomping at the bit to supply them with high-tech input.

What I imagine—if we go through the decoupling—is a period of perhaps 10, 15, even 20 years in which China undergoes significant economic hardship and it struggles to find alternative suppliers. But once it has found those alternative suppliers we then are going to be contending with a China that is far economically larger in the aggregate, depends far less on the United States, it is far less constrained by economic interdependence, and is far less invested in the postwar order.

If we think that dealing with today's China is difficult, I think dealing with that prospective China will be infinitely more difficult.

We need to avoid positing this false binary between maintaining the imperfect interdependence that we have now and just decoupling. I think we need to think instead about a spectrum of interdependencies. Is there a way that we can restructure our interdependence in a way that mitigates some of the security risks while preserving the commercial benefits?

To your point, I think absolutely a recalibration was long overdue, but I worry about the risk of recalibration yielding overcorrection. And to your point, we need to strengthen interdependence but recognize that the momentum in both capitals is toward decoupling.

The imperative I think for folks in the analytical and prescriptive communities is, is there a way that we can modify global supply chains, modify patterns of interdependence so that we maintain a healthy portion of the commercial benefits but mitigate some of the security risks?

No easy answers, but I think that's a very important task for both countries.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Not only an important task, but it'll be interesting to see how and if candidates for president in 2020 are willing to articulate that.

We are at 9:15, and so I want to call the formal part of the program to a close to let people who need to leave, leave, but certainly everyone's invited to continue to stay over rolls and coffee to keep talking with Ali in a more informal sense, but let's give him our vote of thanks at this point.

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