America's Great-Power Opportunity, with Ali Wyne

May 18, 2022

As Russia's war in Ukraine deepens and China’s influence continues to grow, many observers say that the United States is entering an era of “great-power competition” with these two rivals. But, as Eurasia Group's Ali Wyne discusses with Doorstep co-hosts Nikolas Gvosdev and Tatiana Serafin, this kind of framework could leave the U.S. defensive and reactive, and hinder efforts to renew itself, both at home and abroad. Can America seize its "great-power opportunity"?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Good evening, everyone. Welcome to The Doorstep's Book Talk series. I am your co-host, senior fellow here at Carnegie Council, Nick Gvosdev.

TATIANA SERAFIN: And I'm Tatiana Serafin, also a senior fellow at Carnegie Council. I'm very excited tonight, Nick. We have a super guest.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Yes, we do, Ali Wyne, who has been a longtime friend of our projects here at the Carnegie Council, part of our study groups, no stranger I think to some people in the audience who have seen him on The Doorstep and on some of the Carnegie Council seminars.

It is a real pleasure to welcome you to Book Talk because the book you are discussing tonight about great-power opportunity is a theme you have been discussing with us at Carnegie over the last number of years—questions about the great-power narrative in U.S. foreign policy, but also the extent to which, as you have always warned, whether or not great-power competition is a condition but maybe is not the end state of what we should be seeking.

We are really happy to have you here. Per your note, just as a disclaimer, since you did thank me in the acknowledgements, I will take that and let everyone know that I will still be an objective commentator on your book tonight. But thank you for the acknowledgement. I appreciate it.

We will go ahead and start our conversation for this evening. As people who are regular habitués of Book Talk for The Doorstep know, Tatiana always has a well-marked-up copy, or in this case perhaps a marked-up PDF of the book. I will throw it to her to start our conversation for this evening.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Thank you so much again, Ali, for joining us. We are so excited to have you.

Yes, I love paper books. I love the tactile feel of them. Today I only have this to show our audience, America's Great-Power Opportunity: Revitalizing U.S. Foreign Policy to Meet the Challenges of Strategic Competition. I have to tell everyone that it won't be available here in the United States until July. We feel very lucky to have you because even before you start your grand tour you are coming to us first, so thank you for that. I cannot wait. I did get an advance copy, so I also feel lucky on that front, but when I get my copy I will be sure to mark it up.

In lieu of that, though, I do have many, many notes because one thing that your book is is prescient. It is exactly the question that we need to be asking on May 17, 2022: What is the role of the United States?

Two points that I think you make very well in the book and are part of your solutions in the afterword and in the final chapter, the two things that are my takeaways that I would like to start with and then we will go into the specific country and, to your point, the geographic and transnational issues that we need to be looking at, but the overarching theme I think is, one, that we as a country need to be more active and not defensive. We need more offense and less defense, and right now I feel we are in a very defensive mode, but I think that you have great recommendations that I am going to leave to you to share with our audience.

The second thing that I found is hope, which I think we also need a good dose of because I have actually been helping students this semester look for nuclear bunkers around New York City. So I am very glad that there is a very strong sense of optimism, not Pollyannaish but based in realism, based in things that we can do. I would like to start off with those two things as an overarching theme before we move into specific examples.

Again, thank you and welcome.

ALI WYNE: Tatiana, thank you so much. Nick, thank you so much. I only wish we were having this conversation in person, but hopefully—knock on wood—circumstances will permit us to have our next conversation in person.

I felt it was very, very important in the book to acknowledge the role that the Carnegie Council has played. When I think back to the Carnegie Council study groups in which I have had the pleasure of participating, when I think about the conversations we have had on The Doorstep podcasts, they have played a very important role. When I think back even just a few years, when the book first began taking shape, a lot of the conversations that the three of us had and a lot of the study groups you convened played a very important role early on, before I even put pen to paper, was just organizing some of my preliminary hypotheses about great-power competition. The Carnegie Council has played a really indispensable role in helping bring this forthcoming book to fruition. I want to say thank you, and it is wonderful to be with you.

Tatiana, on the two points you mentioned you distilled the essence of the book. I hope that other folks reading the book, whether it's a PDF or a hard copy, come away with those two messages.

Regarding the first one about the imperative of a more proactive foreign policy and a less reactive foreign policy, I was initially thinking of including in the title somewhere "great-power competition," but I said to myself, "Yes, the book does articulate a critique of great-power competition as a blueprint for U.S. foreign policy," but I wanted to offer more than a critique. I can say a little bit by way of the genesis of the book.

The book originated as critique, and I think both you have a sense of some of my critiques of great-power competition as a policy construct, and I do flesh those out at some length in the book, but when I was stress testing some of my initial hypotheses and some of my assumptions, one of the most common responses that I got—and rightfully so—from folks was: "Okay, I disagree with some of your critiques. Maybe you've sold me somewhat on some of your critiques of great-power competition, but if not great-power competition as the orienting construct for U.S. foreign policy, then what?"

It was that "Then what?" question that came up again and again, and rightly so, because I think the more vigorously you critique a prevailing policy construct the more it behooves you to articulate an alternative or just to be honest and say: "All I can offer you is a critique. I don't actually have an alternative to offer." I wanted to spend some time thinking about that question "If not, then what?" and that is really what the last chapter of the book tries to do. As I was looking at the first iteration of the text and thinking, What would be a title that really captures both the critique but also a more hopeful posture, I said, "Why not just substitute 'opportunity' for 'competition?'"

What is the opportunity that I mention in the title? The opportunity—and I also argue in the book the imperative—for U.S. foreign policy is: Can the United States articulate an affirmative vision of its place in the world? Can it articulate an affirmative vision of global order that is not tethered to what China does and that is not tethered to what Russia does?

I hasten to note that, as you have seen, a big part of the book is about how the United States should appraise the competitive challenge from China and how it should appraise the competitive challenge from Russia. Saying that the opportunity to formulate a foreign policy that isn't tethered to or predicated upon China and Russia's decisions is in no way meant to be sanguine about the competitive challenges that those countries pose. It is not to say that we should ignore China and Russia. We can't, and I am sure we will be talking about Russia's invasion of Ukraine in our conversation.

But the point is, a reactive foreign policy says that the United States, absent external nation-state competitors, may not be able to articulate its place in the world and may not be able to orient itself. The United States cannot unilaterally control what China does. It cannot unilaterally control what Russia does. The United States does however have full control over two phenomena: (1) the decisions it makes, and (2) the decisions it elects not to make.

What I try to argue in the book is to focus more on those two phenomena, focus more on what the United States can control—and in particular on this panoply of, in many cases, unique competitive advantages that the United States possesses—and on harness those unique competitive advantages anew, repurpose them for more complex, messier geopolitics, and make renewal the bedrock of U.S. foreign policy. I think the more we focus on renewal—managing a resurgent China, managing an irredentist Russia of course—but centering our foreign policy on renewal, the more we make renewal the center of U.S. foreign policy I think the less susceptible U.S. foreign policy will be to distraction and the less susceptible U.S. foreign policy will be to various machinations or provocations by China and Russia.

On your first point, it is designing a foreign policy that is focused more on what the United States affirmatively endorses rather than what it reactively opposes, and that brings me to your second point about hope. I appreciate your mentioning that it is not a Pollyannaish hope; it is a quiet hope. The tone I want and that I hope readers will take away is that I am trying to articulate the case for a quietly confident U.S. foreign policy.

I think in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War one could argue—and I think rightly so—that the United States perhaps veered too far in the direction of complacency, and understandably. The United States was exhausted after nearly half a century of a systemic, world-spanning, multidimensional competition with the Soviet Union, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union by default made the United States the world's preeminent power. There was a real sense that U.S. preeminence and the values underpinning that preeminence had won the day and that the United States, the values it promulgated, and the system it underpinned would essentially inexorably go from strength to strength.

I think there is an argument to be made that perhaps in the immediate heady days of the post-Cold War the United States underestimated the extent to which China and Russia might one day be able and willing to contest its national interests. But there is always a risk when pendula swing of overcorrection, and if complacency is one peril, then I think consternation is an opposite peril, but it also is a peril. We don't want to underestimate China and Russia, we don't want to aggrandize them.

What I try to argue in the book, and the bulk of the book is looking at the respective competitive challenges posed by China and Russia, is that they are enduring competitors, they are multidimensional competitors, and I don't think that either of them—despite their myriad vulnerabilities at home and abroad, based on where we are on May 17, 2022—are posed for a dramatic Soviet-style disintegration, so we can't be complacent. China and Russia are obviously today far more able and far more willing to contest U.S. influence than they were 30 years ago. That is the argument for saying we shouldn't be complacent.

But I also try to make the argument that China and Russia, despite being formidable and multidimensional competitors that are likely to endure—so therefore the imperative becomes cohabitation—I don't think they are overwhelming challenges. As we can talk about later, China and Russia face very significant challenges at home and abroad. I think China and Russia are also—Russia far more blunderingly than China—in different ways undercutting their diplomatic stature and are mobilizing a lot of external opposition. At the same time that we don't want to succumb to complacency, we don't want to succumb to consternation, I would much rather face America's strategic challenges than those confronting China and Russia.

So again, it's a case for quiet confidence. There is a lot of work that the United States has to do. There is no law that says America's competitive advantages will automatically renew themselves. There is a lot of work that has to be done abroad and at home, but I think again if we focus on renewal, if we place the respective competitive challenges from China and Russia in what I would argue is their proper perspective, then I think there is a case for a quiet hope and quiet confidence.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I love talking competitive advantage because it is looking at America, China, Russia, the rest of the world, and the globe as a business case. We are writing in the Harvard Business Review here. But it is a way to speak that I think we need to engage business leaders. We are not just here talking to policymakers today and the general public. We are trying to engage everyone. Our initiative is U.S. Global Engagement, but part of global engagement is engaging all the constituents that are interested in foreign policy here in the United States. As a management consultant graduate I love the talk of competitive advantage and comparative advantage.

In a way that helps to counteract these fears. You mention in various places in the book studies from Pew that identify China as a threat by population. The latest one I saw was that nine out of ten Americans are very concerned by the combination of Russia and China. Everything is again this pendulum to scary versus thinking to some of your points of advantages. I want to highlight a few.

I love talking about Gen Z, so I love talking about the population, and you very clearly identify that Russia and China both have a population problem with aging populations, and that is going to be an extreme disadvantage. The United States does not have that problem. There is also the immigration problem, nobody is emigrating to Russia right now.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Voluntarily at least.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Right, and that is a strength of the United States. These two strengths underlie innovation, which is a comparative advantage.

These things—the youth factor and the innovation factor—I think cannot be underestimated and are not spoken about enough. I wonder if you can talk to those two points when looking at this idea of the U.S. competitive advantage and how we can be more proactive with those two areas.

ALI WYNE: Absolutely. Certainly the new political environment confronting the United States today is far less auspicious than the geopolitical environment the United States confronted in 1991, so I don't want to be overly sanguine. Again, China and Russia are certainly far more able and far more willing to contest U.S. influence today than they were 30 years ago.

However, looking at the panoply of American competitive advantages, America's demographic outlook, I think if you speak with most demographers they would say that of the great powers the United States arguably has the most favorable demographic outlook. It is not a demographic outlook that is without its challenges if you look at rapid societal aging and other stresses on the American body politic. I don't want to be overly sanguine, but again among great powers I think most demographers would say that America probably has the most favorable demographic outlook, and certainly vis-à-vis China and Russia its demographic outlook is vastly more favorable.

Immigration. I am a child of immigrants, so for me immigration is not just an abstract competitive advantage. It is very much an advantage that I have experienced personally. My parents left Pakistan when they were very young, and there was a lot of uncertainty. When you leave behind family, friends, and all that you know, and move thousands of miles across oceans to settle in a new country there is a lot of uncertainty and a lot of anxiety, but when they decided that they wanted to have children they said: "America is a place where whatever happens we feel that our children are going to have opportunities that we didn't have."

You hear this story again and again, young immigrants from around the world taking that risk, leaving everything behind, settling here, and setting up businesses. Their children have opportunities that their parents didn't have. So immigration is a tremendous advantage.

The late Lee Kuan Yew, who was the leader of Singapore, was often asked—he was one the rare figures when he was alive who was equally trusted by American officials and Chinese officials and served as an interlocutor between them—"Do you think that China will overtake the United States as the world's preeminent power?" He was often asked to do this net assessment of what are America's principal competitive advantages and what are China's, and one of the advantages for the United States that he always cited was its ability to attract talent from around the world. He said, at the time when he was speaking that China has an extraordinary talent base of 1.3 billion people, now about 1.4 billion people. So China has an extraordinarily large talent base, but he said that the United States has a much larger talent base. It has not only its domestic population, but it can draw on talent from around the world. You have immigrants from around the world who come to the United States and become part of the American story. They are setting up businesses, coming up with innovations, becoming public servants, and they are contributing to the American story.

They contribute not only demographically, economically, and technologically, but I think they contribute in a powerful ideational way. When you think about what makes the United States the world's preeminent power it's not just its military prowess, its economic size, and its technological advantage. We have to think about the United States as having the ability to attract individuals from around the world to come to the United States, make common cause, and work alongside one another, the ability via immigration to refresh itself, to renew itself, the ability to adapt itself to various societal challenges that present themselves to each generation, which is a tremendous ideational advantage. We also talked about innovation and of course the system of higher education in the United States, which remains unrivaled.

Again, none of those advantages are American birthrights. It takes hard work, and it will continue to take hard work to renew those advantages, but they are formidable.

Then, if you look at the external side of the ledger, again very compelling advantages. Look at America's diplomatic network. America's diplomatic network isIt's under stress from within and without, but it remains a formidable advantage.

I don't know if I mentioned it in the book—I think I did—but I will just mention it here, one of the op-eds I often revisit when I think about competitive advantages and doing this competitive net assessment was written by Yan Xuetong, one of China's most distinguished scholars of international relations on November 20, 2011, if I am not mistaken, in The New York Times entitled, "How China Can Defeat America." In this op-ed he enumerates what he believes are China's competitive advantages and highlighting America's political polarization and dysfunction.

He is doing this net assessment, but he says—and I am roughly paraphrasing him—"The core competition between the United States and China, at least externally on the world stage is going to come down to who has more" what he calls "high quality" friends, essentially allies and partners, and the United States, despite the reality that its diplomatic network is under strain still has a vast network of alliances and partnerships in Europe and in Asia, and we have seen—as an example in responding to Russia's invasion of Ukraine—America's ability to mobilize its allies and partners in Europe. In responding to an increasingly assertive China we have seen the United States' ability to mobilize allies and partners in Asia. China doesn't have anything comparable to that diplomatic network.

By virtue of its sheer economic size, its innovative capacity, and importantly by virtue of the narrative momentum generated by that economic and technological capacity China can make a lot of inroads but on a largely transactional basis. China does not have a comparable diplomatic network, and scholars such as Professor Yan have argued that until and unless China is able to achieve a diplomatic network of comparable scale and depth to the one that the United States possesses that it is going to be hamstrung in competition.

Again, if you look internally, you look externally, the United States has a lot of I think really unique competitive advantages. I know it is somewhat cliché to say we are at an inflection point for U.S. policy or the international system is at another "present at the creation" moment, but I do think that in this case that cliché really is borne out. I think one of the challenges in light of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and in light of a coronavirus pandemic that continues to wreak havoc on the global economy and geopolitics, the United States does need to think about its own role in the world and perhaps some of the limits to its influence. It also needs to consider three questions: (1) How can it basically repurpose its competitive advantages; (2) how can it harness its diplomatic network anew not only to focus on contesting China and Russia, although I think that contestation is certainly an important part and will remain an integral part of U.S. foreign policy; and (3) how can it reconcile the imperatives of great-power competition and the imperatives of managing transnational challenges?

There is a lot of talk—I will make this one last point and then stop—about the emergence of ideological blocs or stronger or more clearly delineated demarcations perhaps between the United States and its allies and partners on the one hand and China and Russia and the Sino-Russia entente on the other hand. There is a lot of talk about economic disentanglement, perhaps even some measure of geopolitical disentanglement, and yet I think one could make the argument that as transnational challenges grow in number and severity they actually are going to make the world even more interdependent.

I think one of the challenges but also an opportunity for the United States is: What does U.S. foreign policy look like that manages competitive frictions with China and Russia but also recognizes that inescapable interdependence? I wish that I could imagine a plausible scenario or convince myself that there exists a plausible scenario in which the United States can advance its vital national interests solely in conjunction with its allies and partners. If that scenario were to exist, I think it would spare U.S. foreign policy a lot of headaches and I think it would make America's life a lot easier.

But when you look at their aggregated military assets, their aggregated economic heft, China and Russia I think individually and collectively are simply too large to be locked away in some geopolitical closet and have us take away the key, and the United States—as unpalatable, especially in light or Russia's barbarism in Ukraine, and painful as it is to make this kind of statement—retains a range of interdependencies with Russia and with China.

I at least cannot articulate or conceptualize a scenario in which the United States can deal with the next pandemic—because there will be another pandemic after COVID-19—in which the United States can bend the arc of climate change, in which the United States can engage in arms control, and in which the United States can deal with the panoply of frontier technologies that are gaining momentum. I don't see a scenario in which the United States can manage that inventory of transnational challenges without engaging China and Russia in some way.

When we use the word "engagement," engagement is not a starry-eyed term, engagement is not an idealistic term. Engagement to my mind simply denotes interaction with others. You engage with your allies, you engage with your partners, you engage with competitors, and you engage with your adversaries. And you engage with competitors and adversaries not because you want to but because the dictates of geopolitics require that interaction. It is going to be a tremendously challenging period for U.S. foreign policy, but when there are great challenges I think there are also very fertile moments analytically and prescriptively to think about what a new U.S. foreign policy would look like to deal with that very, very difficult set of challenges.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: As you have been laying all of this out, one of the things that is coming to mind as I am hearing your comments is, first of all, the opportunity question linked to competition, which is as we have seen over the last year and particularly over the last several months both on Russian and on Chinese social media once again the attractiveness of "Is it time to leave? Should we emigrate to the United States?" You don't see on American social media people saying, "Should we really be thinking about relocating to China or to Russia?" Again, that ability to attract people to the United States is an immense source of strength in the international system.

Then, as you were laying out all of this, I started hearing echoes of when we have had a guest like Nahal Toosi from Politico saying that this isn't easily subdivided into foreign policy and domestic policy. As she puts it, using the term in the Biden administration, it is "omnipolicy." America's ability to lead in the world is going to depend on our ability to be able to receive and integrate immigrants, it is going to depend on an education system that educates people and is going to depend on a business climate that encourages innovation.

At the same time, I really liked your point about renewal because I think this is something that changes the focus. Right now the focus in my own opinion is negative. It is that the United States is being left behind certainly by China and up to February we had worries about Russia, but it was framed in a negative sense. Yet what you are laying out here is that an America that has gone through renewal will have a certain degree of confidence, not, as you put it, arrogance or complacency, but it will be confident to engage, it will be confident to reach out because it has renewed itself, renewed its economy, renewed its social fabric, and it can offer in essence its version of the dirty and clean glass test, which is a United States that has the ability to say we have gone to the next stage of green energy development, we have gone to the next stage in terms of pharmaceutical development, and we can say partnering with us or reaching out and engaging with us gives you these options, and if a country chooses not to, we don't have to force the glass on anyone.

But in essence it seems what you are saying is we will be able to offer that clean glass of water to countries rather than to say, "Well, the other glasses on the bar perhaps are not as clean or not as attractive." Without us having to impose anything or force anything it will be essentially restoring that attractive nature.

Is that perhaps what you are saying when you talk about this not as great-power competition but great-power opportunity not just for the United States but for others?

ALI WYNE: Absolutely, not to cut you off, but I agree vigorously with what you just said

I would make two points, Nick, in response to what you just said. I try to make this point in the book—and. I like the notion that Nahal Toosi brought up of an omnipolicy—I think there is a tendency to silo foreign policy and domestic policy. We silo the renewal of America's external competitive advantages and the renewal of America's internal competitive advantages, and yet one of the arguments I try to set forth in the book is that domestic renewal is not simply something that the United States can, should, and must do in parallel with external renewal, but I would argue that domestic renewal is a precondition for America's ability to reengage proactively and confidently on the global stage.

I give this stylized example in the book to make this point. Imagine you are a physical trainer and a new client comes into your office and says, "I'd like to run a marathon."

You haven't met before, and you say, "Okay, great. I'm glad to hear that you want to run a marathon but let me first get a sense of your vitals, your health, and let me see you run a mile."

Now, if this new client collapses while running a mile, it would be irresponsible of you to say, "Well, go ahead and run a marathon tomorrow." You want to make sure that you can do a mile first, then maybe do a 5K, and then think about a marathon.

Similarly when the United States says we want to mobilize coalitions abroad to manage transnational challenges or to respond to Russian aggression I do think that an important precondition of America's ability to mobilize those coalitions and to offer global leadership is to demonstrate a renewed ability to manage its internal challenges. I think one of the reasons why America's experience with the coronavirus pandemic has been so damaging reputationally—if you look at Johns Hopkins monitor or look at the Centers for Disease Control monitor, the United States has crossed over 1 million deaths. We account for roughly 4 percent of the world's population, but far and away it has the largest number of deaths from COVID-19 and well over 80 million COVID-19 infections.

It is not just competitors. I think even and perhaps especially many of America's greatest well-wishers abroad look at America's management of COVID-19, they look at rising income and wealth inequality, they look at the vagaries of America's domestic politics and really the viciousness of political polarization or tribalization, they look at this panoply of transnational challenges.

Many of the historians with whom I spoke when writing the book said: "The United States has been through many periods of internal upheaval," which it undoubtedly has. Look at the 1960s and 1970s. We fought an actual civil war in the middle of the 19th century, and obviously the founding years of the republic were very, very tumultuous. So again, the United States has been through many periods of internal upheaval. It has renewed itself. So we shouldn't be fatalistic. Every generation says, "Never before has the United States faced internal challenges greater in number, greater in severity, and greater in complexity," and perhaps there is a little bit of hyperbole in that proposition, but I think there is always a kernel of truth in it.

In one of the books that I came across by Suzanne Mettler and Robert Lieberman, Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy, they identified four forces that have historically tested the United States, have challenged its democracy, and have challenged its ability to engage in democratic renewal. The argument they make—I think quite convincingly—is that at various periods of domestic upheaval, trial, and tribulation various permutations or various sets of those four threats presented themselves and challenged American democracy and the prospects for American democratic renewal. They make the argument that now all four of those are in full force.

Again, I think whether you are one of America's competitors or well-wishers, you say: "America, we want to see you better able to deal with pandemic disease, we want to see you better able to rein in income and wealth inequality, we want to see you better able to deal with this panoply of internal challenges, and then, if and as you do so, let's talk about more grandiose ambitions for the world."

The first point is this inextricable interdependence, this linkage between domestic renewal and external leadership. That is point number one.

Point number two—and this also goes to what I discuss as being the opportunity in the title of the book—is how we can formulate a foreign policy that isn't tethered as tightly to what China does or tethered as tightly to what Russia does. Here is one instance in which I think the Cold War is very, very instructive. I think there are lessons that we shouldn't learn from the Cold War, but here is one lesson we should learn from the Cold War.

Melvyn Leffler, a professor at the University of Virginia, makes a very convincing argument that some of the steps that the United States took in competing with the Soviet Union helped enhance Washington's strategic competitiveness vis-à-vis Moscow but they didn't require Moscow to be invoked to be justified. He gives the example of the Marshall Plan and the establishment of some of the Bretton Woods institutions that formed the building blocks of what came to be known as the "postwar order."

Professor Leffler I think very persuasively argues that it is true that the Marshall Plan, by helping to resuscitate a healthier, more robust Europe partnered or allied with the United States certainly conferred a competitive advantage in dealing with the Soviet Union, but the United States didn't have to invoke the Soviet Union to justify the Marshall Plan.

Similarly, in setting up and leading the establishment of various Bretton Woods institutions, again those institutions did help the United States to compete with the Soviet Union, but the United States didn't have to invoke the Soviet Union. Washington could simply say: "Look, we have experienced now the scourge of two world wars. We need to establish a postwar order that can avert the scourge of another world war and that can avert another Great Depression." I think the lesson for today is that there are many steps that the United States can and should take, whether at home or abroad, that can repurpose and renew those competitive advantages but without invoking China or Russia.

I will just make one last point. I often will pose to friends and colleagues a fill-in-the-blank exercise, and I think it is very useful for our conversation. If you were to say, "America's role in the world should be"—fill in the blank. "U.S. foreign policy should strive to achieve"—fill in the blank. The more that you can fill in those blanks without having to invoke the names of your competitors I think the more confidence you project. In speaking with our allies and partners—of course we have to talk about China, of course we have to talk about Russia; they are two major players in the international system. Russia is wreaking havoc on Europe's order and by extension global order with its invasion of Ukraine. China is obviously becoming more assertive. It has a very powerful economy.

The point is not to put the blinders on and to ignore China and Russia, but when we engage with our allies and partners we shouldn't allow China and Russia to dictate the substance of those conversations. China's and Russia's behavior and attitudes should inform those conversations and should perhaps shape those conversations but shouldn't dictate them. I think the more that the United States can articulate affirmatively what it is that it seeks to accomplish in the world and what it seeks to do at home without having to invoke its competitors the more we project confidence, and also the more we project a sense that we can renew ourselves. We have been able to renew ourselves before. We can renew ourselves again. I think that's a message that would gain much more traction with allies and partners than one that is overly China- and Russia-centric.

TATIANA SERAFIN: You have me thinking: Isn't the war of Russia against Ukraine creating an opportunity to respond to a certain situation and renew the image of the United States in the world? I am wondering if some sort of symbiotic thing can happen and not this binary thing. I saw today a headline from The New York Times, "McConnell Takes on Isolationist Wing of the G.O.P. in Fight for Ukraine Aid," and his quote: "It's important for the United States to help. It's important to help the free world." It was this kind of grandiose talk.

I'm wondering what you think about this hypothesis, that maybe in fact maybe we shouldn't be reactive and responding but that it has created an opportunity for the United States to rethink its position. I know you have many updates in the afterword, but since you wrote the afterword of your book—it has been a couple of months—have you thought more about this idea that now in particular because of what's happening not only in what Russia's doing in Ukraine but also the relationship between China supporting Russia or not supporting Russia is enabling the United States to find its roots again a little bit?

ALI WYNE: Undoubtedly. One of the points that I make in the afterword, and I think it has become more pronounced in the interval since—I submitted the final version of the afterword in March and here we are now in May—one of the reasons the United States does have a strategic opportunity is in light of Russia's blundering. Again, China has not been as blundering as Russia. I will talk about China in a little bit.

In the context of Carnegie Council we often talk about narratives, whether domestic policy narratives or foreign policy narratives, and one of the narratives that had been prevalent—I certainly heard it a lot when I was interviewing folks for the book and doing research—that I encountered again and again and again in conversations, in research, and in reading was a narrative of this hapless United States; Russia is engaged in 3-D chess, it is stealthily ubiquitous, behind every frayed U.S. relationship; Russia, behind every unfair or seemingly unfair election; Russia. You got this sense of Russia as being stealthily ubiquitous and outwitting this hapless United States.

Similarly with China, there is a sense that America thinks in very, very short time increments, China thinks in much more expansive time increments, it's much more diplomatically savvy, it's cultivating its relationships in a much more strategic way, and I think the developments of the past few months have really dented those narratives, is beginning to challenge those narratives. I will begin with Russia and then talk about China.

In recent memory it is difficult to think of many other single actions by major powers or great powers that have constituted such extraordinary acts of strategic self-sabotage. Think about what Russia has done with its invasion of Ukraine and now doubling down on its barbarism in Ukraine. Russia has given the trans-Atlantic alliance a new lease on life.

Think about several months ago. Remember the conversation about the signing of AUKUS and remember the strains that AUKUS introduced into the trans-Atlantic alliance. Russia's invasion has given the trans-Atlantic alliance a new lease on life. It has reinvigorated the notion of the West, a West that can act cohesively.

Russia has given the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) a new lease on life. We will see when Secretary of State Tony Blinken talks with his counterpart from Turkey if Turkey's objections to Finnish and Swedish membership in NATO are able to be overcome, but it seems very likely that NATO will now incorporate Sweden and Finland.

So Russia has given the trans-Atlantic alliance a new lease on life. It has given the West new meaning. It has given the NATO alliance a new lease on life.

What else has happened? Russia is yet further beholden to China than it was prior to the invasion, Russia has cut itself off substantially from global finance, and it has cut itself off substantially from inputs that are critical for technological innovation, all in one fell swoop, and Russia is doubling down. We were talking earlier about business. Many multinational corporations now are exiting or significantly paring down their operations in Russia because of the reputational damage of doing business there.

In terms of the gap between where Russia is and where it once thought that it might be, I was just rereading an article that President Putin wrote also in 2011 in which he was articulating a much more auspicious type of Russian foreign policy and for Russia's place in the world. President Putin in this article was trying to lay out where he wanted to Russia to be. I am roughly paraphrasing him, but in this 2011 article he said: "I imagine Russia as being this thriving economic intermediary between the West and the Asia-Pacific."

Now Russia is going to be struggling to claw itself out of an economic hole, a diplomatic hole, and a reputational hole. Again, it has made itself further beholden to China. So Russia, by virtue of its blundering, I think has certainly created opportunities for the United States.

And China, in terms of the timing—February 4, 2022, China and Russia declare that they have a friendship "with no limits." I think China now is increasingly appreciating that the friendship not only does have limits but that that friendship is becoming this growing reputational albatross around its neck.

China has this very, very complicated balance to strike. On the one hand, it doesn't want to disavow Russia. It is certainly not going to disavow Russia publicly. It wants to maintain that partnership. It shares many of Russia's grievances against U.S. foreign policy, but Russia reputationally is becoming more and more of a burden, and I think that the fact that China has not more publicly denounced Russia's aggression in Ukraine is incurring tremendous reputational costs for China. So a lot of the estrangement between China and advanced industrial democracies that we saw during the first two years of the pandemic has only grown as a result of China's failure to condemn Russian aggression.

I think Russia's barbarism and the reputational impact by virtue of association means that this narrative that was more prevalent at the beginning of 2022 or the beginning of 2021 that the United States was down and out, the West was down and out, and that China and Russia are going from strength to strength and are strategically and cleverly outwitting this hapless United States, I think that narrative is substantially dented.

But there is an important caveat to register, and that is shock-induced unity—and I think what we are seeing right now between the United States and the European Union is unity born of shock, I think there are many U.S. observers and many European observers who didn't think that Russia would actually invade Ukraine—does not necessarily endure in perpetuity. It's true, there is right now basically I would say not maybe a permanent rupture between Russia and the West, but certainly as long as President Putin is at the helm of Russia it is difficult to see what a path, a rapprochement between Russia and the West would look like.

Russia is certainly substantially now cut off from the West and it is more beholden to China, but Russia isn't necessarily a global pariah. It still has its relationship with China, it still has a relationship with India, and it still has a relationship with many countries in the developing world that are wary of the new Cold War.

Also, as the externalities from Russia's invasion of Ukraine grow more pronounced I think there is going to be potentially more fraying of this unity that we are seeing now, more of a push for a negotiated settlement, and more of a push for deescalation. Look at not only disruptions to energy markets. Look at disruptions to food markets and look at the potential. I just read an article on Lawrence Freedman's Substack in which he said: "Look at Russia's blockade of Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea. That blockade is wreaking havoc on the global economy. It's wreaking havoc on food markets and energy markets." I think the longer this war drags on, the more those externalities become more pronounced, and the more of a risk there is that this bubbling proxy war could potentially escalate into a direct armed confrontation the less likely it is that you are going to see that trans-Atlantic unity endure in perpetuity.

What does that mean? What that means is while you have this extraordinary trans-Atlantic coalescence, we should be thinking in the United States and the European Union three months ahead, six months ahead, twelve months ahead. We should be thinking about recognizing that this trans-Atlantic coalescence is likely going to diminish in intensity as time passes, and what we can do in this window of opportunity while we are substantially congealed. As the shock of Russia's invasion recedes, as we settle into this protracted, indefinitely long war of attrition, what should we do with this present trans-Atlantic coalescence to get us over that hump, so that as the shock from the war recedes we still can pursue an affirmative agenda? I think that Russia's invasion has definitely created a significant opportunity for the United States and particularly its European allies and partners, but it is not an opportunity that will last permanently so we need to be thinking about to do with it.

The coalescence that we are seeing between the United States and its allies and partners in response to Russia is much more immediate and much more sweeping because it is born of shock. I think for many European countries the idea in the 21st century of witnessing another intrastate war was inconceivable. So right now we are seeing unity born of shock.

China's resurgence, to the extent that it is prompting coalescence, is more gradual. It is also more complicated just because China economically is so much more substantially integrated into the global economy and so much more important to the global supply chain.

Russia is not a bit-sized economy, but certainly it is economically nowhere near the proportions of China relatively—and I want to emphasize "relative" because Russia still commands a major economy—and it is easier to impose the kind of sanctions that advanced industrial democracies have imposed on Russia. With China it becomes harder, and I think there is also going to be more reluctance in Europe to think about substantially more decoupling.

As we think about Russia and China, contestation of China and Russia is going to be a significant part of the conversations that the United States has with its allies and partners—and certainly Russia's blundering, its aggression, and its barbarism has created a tremendous opportunity for the United States to find common cause particularly with its European allies and partners—but we need to be thinking beyond the crises and provocations of the day and thinking about absent or in addition to those crises and provocations as stimulants for greater coalescence what are some more affirmative purposes that can sustain us even in the absence of those crises and provocations?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I think a service that your book is doing to this conversation is precisely this point about a "unity born of shock" and that you only have a window to convert that into something longer lasting. We have seen that the Russian invasion of Ukraine, for instance, has led to rare instances of bipartisanship in Washington, that for the most part, with some exceptions, you have a bipartisan consensus. You have seen a consensus among European and Asian allies with the United States to do certain things, but you have to convert that over time into something that is longer lasting.

When you were saying that I was thinking that we had all of this talk—and you were part of these conversations with us at Carnegie at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic—of the shock to get businesses and countries to de-link supply chains and re-link. We saw movement, and then we snapped back into: "Well, it's expensive. Let's just go back to the good old days," as it were. I think it is a similar issue that you can see with Russia and at least some European economies that say, "Well, it's expensive to diversify and decouple."

As you point out there, there has to be this affirmative narrative that this can be a goad and I think—echoing Tatiana's question—that it's not that we planned for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but it has created this moment, and it is not simply about responding to Russia but using this to push the democratic community of nations forward. I think the way that you frame so many of the current debates about great-power competition are still set in almost a negative sense or a "losing" sense—we could "lose" to Russia or China—and this is an affirmative vision that says: "Yes, we need to cope with Russia and China and we may need to work with them at some point in the future, but this is really about the positive relationships."

I just worry—and I will throw this out to you—you said we may be at another "present at the creation" moment. Again, with some exceptions, we saw very bipartisan moves between 1945 and 1950. There was a strong degree of bipartisanship at the beginning of the 1990s which moved certain things forward. Do you think that we can create that sense of common purpose again, or do we run the risk that as the Ukraine crisis and invasion drops from the headlines and things get normalized—in the sense that we get used to all of these disruptive impacts—that then we don't move ahead with this more positive great-power opportunity agenda?

ALI WYNE: Nick, this is my biggest concern. You both have seen from the book that even though the core part of the text is about China and Russia, the Sino-Russia entente, the more conversations I had, the more research I did, and certainly the more pen I put to paper the more I came away—and again I want to emphasize that I am not Pollyannaish, and I don't want to come across as overly sanguine—feeling relatively better about America's capacity again, if it thinks affirmatively, if it thinks of opportunities, if it finds this intermediate psychological disposition between complacency and consternation. Given America's panoply of in many cases unique competitive advantages that we have discussed I came away thinking: Okay, a resurgent China and an irredentist Russia are formidable challenges, they are multifaceted challenges, and they are likely to prove enduring challenges, but they are manageable challenges. They are not overwhelming challenges.

I came away more pessimistic, though, on America's internal landscape, on America's internal politics. I made this point earlier, and we have been talking, that America's ability to compete externally in large part is predicated on some sense of national cohesion, some sense of shared purpose. If America is increasingly tearing itself apart, if Americans of different ideological persuasions increasingly come to regard one another not as fellow travelers but as mortal adversaries, a lot of the questions about external competition become moot.

It is because America's domestic politics are becoming so much more polarized, so much more tribalized, and so much more I think vicious in many cases, that many observers hope—and I certainly share that hope—that perhaps external competition can help the United States not to eliminate that partisan rancor but suppress it. There is this thought that in decades past the United States, despite its internal squabbles, when faced with an overarching challenge, in the service of dealing with external competition—whether we were dealing with Japan, Germany, the Soviet Union—used external competition as a vehicle for internal cohesion.

The United States does have a track record of making that linkage work. It is not clear to me, though, that we can make that linkage work again today. I certainly hope we can. It is a point that many observers have made, that the United States has used in the past anxiety about external competitors in the service of internal renewal, but there are questions about whether it can do so again.

I would point everyone who is listening to work by Rachel Myrick of Duke University. She has done very, very careful and convincing research, and she renders a cautious, sobering warning to all. She casts doubt on this proposition that external competition today will be able to facilitate internal cohesion. I hope that it can, but I would commend her research to all of you who are listening.

I will make two points. First, as Rachel Myrick I think very persuasively argues, it is not clear that external competition today will necessarily facilitate internal renewal if you look at some of the trend lines.

Second, we should not be using external competition as a crutch. That is one of the points I try to make in the book. If anxiety about external competitors is one tool in a large toolkit, I think it is certainly welcome, but it should not be a crutch. In other words, when the United States is dealing with increasingly fractious internal politics, when it is confronting over a million deaths from COVID-19 and over 80 million infections, when it is confronting rising income and wealth inequality, in dealing with those challenges the United States shouldn't say, "We are dealing with these challenges because we want to be more competitive with China and Russia," even though one of the benefits of dealing with our internal challenges more effectively will be to make us more competitive as one of the ancillary benefits.

Competition with China and Russia shouldn't be the principal justification. The United States should be dealing with these internal challenges because it's our collective civic responsibility as citizens. The principal charge of government officials is to look after the welfare of the citizens who have entrusted them with leadership. When we try to fix infrastructure, when we try to reduce income and wealth inequality, and when we try to improve our health care system we shouldn't have to invoke China or Russia or think about external competition. We should do so because it's the right step to do, it's the moral step to take, and again it has that ancillary benefit.

I came away worried more about America's internal challenges than about its external ones, and of course the two are inextricably interlinked. Also, if the United States can find a way to harness anxiety about China and anxiety about Russia constructively in the service of national renewal, great, but we should not rely on it as a crutch, and I think that's one of the points I try to make in the book: Regarding competitive anxiety as one tool in a toolkit versus framing it as basically a cure-all, that basically absent external competition we can't find our way. That shouldn't be the way that we go.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I could keep talking, but we have reached time. I want to remind our audience to send your questions to @DoorstepPodcast on Twitter, and we will answer them and get Ali to answer them. America's Great-Power Opportunity: Revitalizing U.S. Foreign Policy to Meet the Challenges of Strategic Competition, July 2022 here stateside. It is already out in the United Kingdom. Jealous, jealous. Maybe I'll fly to London.

Thank you so much for your time. We do want to have you back, speaking of internals, because today happened to be primary day in a handful of states, which is definitely going to impact our internal competition conversation. We will have you back to discuss what is up with that probably after November.

ALI WYNE: It will be a pleasure.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Thank you so much for your time.


ALI WYNE: Thank you so much.


Follow The Doorstep on Twitter

Get the latest events, podcasts, & analysis

You may also like

MAY 13, 2024 Podcast

The Continuing Exploitation of the Global Sugar Trade, with Megha Rajagopalan

In collaboration with Marymount Manhattan College's Social Justice Academy, Tatiana Serafin & "New York Times" reporter Megha Rajagopalan discuss human rights & the global sugar trade.

FEB 15, 2024 Podcast

How an Unreliable United States Destabilizes the Globe, with Nahal Toosi

Politico's Nahal Toosi returns to "The Doorstep" to discuss how chaos in domestic politics is weakening the United States on the world stage.

Map depicting China's Belt and Road Initiative. CREDIT: <a href="">Lommes (CC)</a>.

JUL 9, 2021 Podcast

The Doorstep: China in the Middle East & U.S. Foreign Policy, with Asha Castleberry-Hernandez

What is China up to in the Middle East? How is its massive Belt and Road infrastructure project affecting U.S. foreign policy and American ...