Great Power Competition: What Role Does It Play in the 2020 Presidential Race? with Ali Wyne
September 29, 2020
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, to our ongoing webinar series in the U.S. Global Engagement Program. I'm Nikolas Gvosdev, and today in hosting this webinar I'm acting in my capacity as a Senior Fellow of the Carnegie Council.
I am pleased with our topic for today and with our speaker, my colleague and friend, Ali Wyne, of the Atlantic Council and also who has been part of the Carnegie Council's U.S. Global Engagement study group, where for the last two years we have been looking at narratives about the U.S. role in the world and how this connects to our domestic politics and how it connects to narratives used by political figures to reach ordinary citizens. These webinars are part of that ongoing series, and I am also happy to announce that the U.S. Global Engagement program will this week be launching a new podcast called The Doorstep, which will feature linking events of the day in foreign affairs and international relations to day-to-day concerns of Americans, and by extension day-to-day concerns of people in other countries, why what happens in the world matters.
It's a good way to bring us back to our topic for today and especially to have Ali walk us through these questions because for the last several years this moniker of great power competition has emerged as the defining narrative of the international situation the United States faces. We are told that we are now in a great power competition. We usually lump together Russia and China as our competitors, sometimes we add other states like Iran and North Korea, sometimes there is an economic dimension to this where even countries that are allies of the United States in political and security terms are viewed as competitors in economic terms. It portrays a vision of the world that is in marked contrast to the two previous narrative cycles, one which was post-Cold War democratic enlargement, where we are all drawing together and being integrated into a single globalized order, and then the narrative of the Global War On Terror, which is that we are threatened by weak and failing states and non-state actors and that this is what we need to gear up to deal with, and now the newest narrative is great power competition has returned.
In his writings both for Carnegie and extensively in print media and broadcast media, Ali is one of those voices that is trying to get beyond the bumper sticker of "great power competition" to ask what it means and what are its implications. So we have asked him here for this webinar to discuss the great power competition bumper sticker but also: In the context of the 2020 presidential race, how is this understood? How is it playing out? Is it going to have any impact on American voters?
With that, let me turn the floor over to Dr. Wyne to take us through some opening thoughts on great power competition.
ALI WYNE: Nick, thank you so much. It's always a pleasure to be with you. It's a pleasure to be with the Carnegie Council. I wish we were doing this in person, but I'm glad we can at least communicate nonetheless.
I do have a penchant for being verbose, which I am going to try to push back on, so if I am talking for too long, please stop me at any time. I just want to offer a few thoughts because as much as possible I want to talk with you and get to questions and comments from the audience, so I will just offer a few thoughts.
First, I think at this point—you actually preempted me, but I think it's a very important point—we now have a new narrative of U.S. foreign policy, and you mentioned this is now the third narrative of the post-Cold War era. I think that's a good place to start.
It's the early 1990s. The United States has defeated the Soviet Union, or the Soviet Union has collapsed, and there is a sense that democracy and capitalism, if not being inexorably ascendant, are nonetheless confidently ascendant. There is a feeling that we have finally vanquished the "isms"— fascism, communism, totalitarianism—and that American values are ascendant. Then as you said we had the Global War On Terrorism.
What's interesting is that both of those narratives started to break out for different reasons. I think with the first narrative that you mentioned it's not that China and Russia in the early 1990s were satisfied with the contours of the post-Cold War settlement. It's just that in contrast, 30 years prior to our conversation today China and Russia, it's not that their grievances are any less animated; it's just that they weren't as militarily, economically, and diplomatically capable of channeling those grievances that they had into meaningful tangible opposition to the contours of that settlement.
I think in 2013–2014 you begin to see this narrative about great power competition emerge, particularly with Russia's incursion into Ukraine and the subsequent annexation of the Crimea. Many observers point to the annexation of Crimea as being an inflection point in which some of these concerns that had been percolating about a potential return of great power competition really then began to arise to the fore, and then with China's slow-drip militarization of the South China Sea. I think of those two developments as bringing this narrative about great power competition to the fore.
Then you mentioned the Global War On Terrorism. For understandable reasons when 9/11 happened there was a thought that the struggle against terrorism, whether al-Qaeda-related outfits could furnish an orienting principle, but I think that as the years wore on there was both elite and public dissatisfaction with our interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. There was a sense of mission creep, and there was a sense of strategic drift, and a sense that while counterterrorism was an important priority for U.S. foreign policy it did not necessarily rise to the level of being an orienting principle. This is where great power competition comes in.
In some ways from a strategic perspective or from a narrative perspective our victory in the Cold War in retrospect looks like a pyrrhic victory. At the time there was the thought: We have been in this ideological-cum-existential struggle for the better part of half a century. We prevailed. We can breathe a sigh of relief and get on to the business of promulgating our values. But because American foreign policy had been so oriented around pitting the United States against an "other," when that other disappears what do you do?
I have been reading some of George Kennan's writings and speeches for research I have been doing on great power competition. I think you and I have actually talked about this before. George Kennan is invited to give a speech in 1994. The Council on Foreign Relations invites him on the occasion of his 90th birthday—so even at age 90 he was still going strong and giving speeches and writing—and he is asked to reflect on containment. He is arguably the foremost avatar of containment, and I think a number of observers expected that Kennan would give something of a triumphal address—"I am the avatar of containment; the Soviet Union has been defeated"—and I think he would have been well within his rights to give something of a valedictory or triumphal address
But he strikes a very measured tone if you read this address. Kennan warns, and I am roughly paraphrasing him, that for the better part of the past 60 years—so this is now dating to the 1930s and the interwar period—U.S. foreign policy has been so preoccupied with dealing with frontal challengers—fascist Japan, Nazi Germany, and then the Soviet Union—that the American foreign policy establishment does not know how to orient itself bureaucratically, institutionally, and strategically to a world in which there isn't this overarching challenge. I think that his warning proved to be very foresighted.
I think great power competition serves a number of functions: One, it serves the narrative function, which is that since the end of the Cold War the United States has been questing after a new orienting principle and with a resurgent China and a revanchist Russia I think there is a self-evident narrative appeal to great power competition, that we are now facing two formidable authoritarian powers. That's one function that it serves.
Although I suspect we will get to these in the conversation, based on conversations we have had I do have some analytical reservations and proscriptive reservations, but I do want to say before getting to those critiques that great power competition does distill in broad brush strokes an important aspect of contemporary geopolitics, and I think it's important to say that. Whether you believe that great power competition should or shouldn't be the lodestar for U.S. foreign policy, there is no question that China and Russia are increasingly contesting American national interest; they are increasingly contesting certain aspects of the postwar order. And again, just in terms of aggregate material capacity they are more capable of doing so today than they were 30 years ago. So I do believe that any kind of grand strategy, any kind of U.S. foreign policy, does need to accord a central role to China's actions and to Russia's actions.
I will stop here because I probably have already overstepped my time. I will stop by saying that my overarching concern is that we should have an affirmative vision. This again goes back to Kennan. I think it really behooves the United States to first decide where is it that we in the United States would like to go in the world: What kind of post-pandemic order would we like to help bring about? And once we have that affirmative vector, once we have a little bit more clarity about what that affirmative vision looks like, then determine how and where selective contestation—again, emphasis on selective—with China and Russia advances that affirmative vision.
What I worry about with great power competition is that absent more of a discussion of what that affirmative vision looks like there is a risk that we cede the strategic initiative to China and Russia and allow our foreign policy to be beholden to and driven by what the two of those countries are doing, and that risks strategic disorientation in my perspective.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: That's a great way to end the opening remarks. Your last comment there has already given me an idea for some subsequent webinars, which is this idea of what does a post-pandemic order look like and what's the affirmative vision. I think your point is very well taken that the risk of this current great power competition narrative is that it cedes the initiative to other powers and puts us in a more reactive mode.
What I would like to do is to give you some food for thought.
One of the things I would like to say about the narrative question—the Carnegie Council has done two polls this year of what I would broadly term as the "informed, engaged general public," that is, we didn't go out and randomly survey a group of generic citizens, but we also moved beyond the "let's just take a poll of the think tank experts and members of the foreign policy community." Many of the people who responded to both polls tended to be people involved in world affairs councils or American committee chapters, or our students, so somewhat in the middle between random, Jimmy-Kimmel-man-woman-on-the-street encounters, and what you see with the polling that is done when you say, "Let's poll the experts."
From that polling data it's interesting—just to throw this out, and any reactions you may have. When people were asked, "Do you think the world is more dangerous, safer, or about the same?" 46.7 percent said the world has become more dangerous. Most of the rest of the people said, "Eh, it's basically the same." Only a few indicated that they thought it was safer.
When they were asked what they see as the default setting for world affairs, 45.6 percent said the state of world affairs is competition with another 11 percent indicating that they thought we were moving to a confrontational position in world affairs, and then the rest were those who said cooperation.
When looking at the global order, the trading order, and economic relations, should we be trading primarily with U.S. allies, should that be a consideration, 43.3 percent said that it was very important, with another 51.4 percent saying that that should be a factor, not the only factor perhaps but that we should trade more with allies as opposed to non-allies, so that potentially feeds into this competitive view.
Should the United States automatically support another democracy when it is engaged in a dispute with a non-democracy? 31.9 percent said that should be the default position; 60 percent said it should depend on the situation.
What I found interesting as well is that we posed a question in the second poll that asked, "Would you as a consumer be willing to pay up to 20 percent more for a good or service that you consume if that was to purchase it from another democracy instead of a cheaper alternative from a non-democracy, particularly if it has human rights problems?" And 69.5 percent at least indicated that would be the case.
Obviously, the problem with the poll is that it's one thing to say that when you're answering a poll and another thing when you're standing in a store doing price comparisons, and perhaps that isn't the case. But I thought that was interesting for saying that maybe there is some general public interest or at least acceptance of a competitive narrative.
I want to bring in a very interesting piece that Nahal Toosi, the chief foreign affairs correspondent for Politico, wrote earlier this week. Her specialty is talking to people behind the scenes, and in talking to people involved in the Biden campaign there was the sense that the general public may think that, assuming that the Biden-Harris ticket prevails in November, there would be a radical break with what the Trump administration has been doing. She was detecting a sense that the Biden team might not be as ham-handed or might not be as extreme but that there were certain narratives about competition, again particularly with China, that a Biden administration might continue, perhaps not as blustering, perhaps not as alienating of allies as the Trump administration, but also one in which there would be continuity. That was the theme of her piece, a greater degree of continuity than the media and popular perception might lead you to believe.
Throwing that out as an initial point of discussion, as you are writing on these issues the resonance of great power competition as a mobilizing factor for the public, as an organizing principle for people in the think tank world, as an organizing principle for political appointees coming into the Pentagon and the State Department, what are the legs, in short, of the great power competition narrative? Any thoughts you have on that that you want to take in any direction?
ALI WYNE: I have so many reactions.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: We have time.
ALI WYNE: Good, good. It was a very rich set of inputs that you gave. I apologize in advance if I react in a somewhat scattershot way.
I did want to react to some of the polling data. I think it was the first polling point that you mentioned about gauging individuals' threat perceptions: Is the world becoming more or less dangerous? My own views on this particular question are somewhat in flux. I think if you posed this question to me five or certainly ten years ago I would have been much more inclined to say—and I think still on balance, if you were to say is it or is it not, I might be slightly inclined to say that we inhabit safer times if you look at certain metrics, the number of interstate wars, the number of fatalities in interstate wars.
But my views are now more in flux, in large part due to some scholarship that has been emerging. I think there is a counternarrative. There was a narrative that began gaining some traction in the early to mid-2010s, saying, "Look, the world is dramatically safer," but now we're starting to see some pushback. I have been particularly influenced by some work that Tanisha Fazal and her colleague Paul Poast have done. They wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs that I think was published last year. I believe Foreign Affairs selected it as one of the "Editor's Picks" for top-10 essays in their print edition last year. They make the point that we shouldn't be lulled into complacence by that narrative. One point they make which I find compelling is that our views of the prevalence of war and lethality of war have been too heavily weighted or too heavily skewed by World War I and World War II.
Of course, if World War I and World War II are your benchmarks, then it seems unlikely—and let's pray that it remains unlikely—that we will ever again approach a level of conflict in which we are talking about casualties in the tens of millions. But they make the point that if you look at World War I and World War II not as the norm for great power war but as catastrophic aberrations, then the picture becomes a little bit more cause for concern in that there actually have been, according to the definitions that they employ, armed confrontations between great powers. They have not necessarily risen to the level of lethality for World War I and World War II, but that doesn't mean that World War I and World War II are the only examples of great power war in recent memory. I found that point very compelling.
They also talk about the role of technology, and I think if you look at the intersection of intensifying great power tensions on the one hand, and on the other increasingly sophisticated technologies that in many cases are progressing far more rapidly than human comprehension of those technologies, that nexus is quite dangerous and there is a lot of excellent scholarship that has been done on this topic. Just to list some pieces that come to mind, I mentioned the piece by Tanisha Fazal and Paul Poast.
Rebecca Hersman has a very disturbing but I think thoroughly illuminating piece in a recent issue of the Texas National Security Review on this phenomenon that she calls "wormhole escalation," and she talks at a very granular level about the intersection of emerging technologies and great power tensions. She makes a number of points on this point about whether the world is getting more or less dangerous. She said first that some of the traditional firewalls between the realm of the conventional and the realm of the nuclear are beginning to erode on account of emerging technologies, and that has implications for deterrence, it has implications for signaling; what about the possibility of unintended escalation? Rebecca Hersman's piece is very compelling.
James Johnson wrote an essay in a recent issue of The Washington Quarterly in which he talks about the destabilizing effect that developments in artificial intelligence could have on nuclear escalation.
I know that our conversation is focused on great power tensions, but something I worry about in terms of a potentially more dangerous world is that we are entering a world of you could call emerging "nuclear multipolarity." In just a bipolar, U.S.-Soviet context, think about how difficult arms control was then between two powers when we didn't have all of these emerging technologies to contend with. Now think about the United States, China, Russia at the great power level, then nuclear multipolarity with other powers that are maybe not as "great" in terms of overall power-projecting capacity as the United States, China, and Russia but nonetheless are developing arsenals, and then emerging technologies.
Perhaps it's the congenital optimist in me. If you put a gun to my head and asked, "Do we live in a safer world or more dangerous world?" I still am inclined to say that on balance we live in a safer world. But I think if you look at emerging technologies, if you look at the emergence of nuclear multipolarity, and frankly if you just look at some of the incidents that have been taking place in recent months—China's incursion over the Line of Armed Control of India and the skirmishes there that left 20 Indian soldiers dead, I think bodes very ominously for the situation between China and India; if you look at the increased militarization of the South China Sea, the potential for some kind of escalation there. So there is a lot to be worried about there. That's just a quick reaction on some of the polling data.
On the piece you mentioned by Nahal Toosi, my sense is that on a pretty bipartisan basis, I do think great power competition has gained substantial legs. It's not to say that great power competition wasn't in foreign policy prior to the arrival of the Trump administration—some observers who go as far back as the aftermath of the global financial crisis say, "Look, the global financial crisis marks an important inflection point." China starts feeling its oats. It starts to think that perhaps Washington is in terminal systemic decline, and perhaps China can press some of its advantages. So there are some individuals who mark the global financial crisis as an inflection point. Certainly Russia's incursion into Ukraine and subsequent annexation of Crimea and again with China's militarization of the South China Sea, so there are certain data points that observers start to say: "Wait a minute. This is not the immediate post-Cold War world." And there were high-level government officials during the Obama administration who were invoking great power competition.
I think what the Trump Administration did was to give it a high-level bureaucratic imprimatur. If you put great power competition as a central focal point in a National Security Strategy and then one month later in the National Defense Strategy, you're signaling to the bureaucratic apparatus that whatever your different pet projects might be, whatever your policy prerogatives might be, on an interagency basis we now have great power competition as an interagency bureaucratic glue. So I do think that great power competition has gained legs from a bureaucratic perspective. I think it has gained legs in part because of what China and Russia are doing in terms of the actual reality of what's going on and then for narrative purposes as we discussed earlier.
In terms of a prospective Biden-Harris administration, my sense is that while they too would look at China and Russia and say that we are increasingly in contentious, contested, fractious relationships with these two countries, I do think the approach would be substantively different, very, very different, and I also think that the overall approach to foreign policy would likely be different under a Biden-Harris administration, and I think it's difficult to overstate the importance of this likely shift.
I think there would almost immediately be a shift toward diplomatic restoration. There is a lot of work that has to be done. I think sometimes U.S. observers take for granted the strength of our network of alliances and partnerships, and it is undoubtedly a significant advantage vis-à-vis China, but that network is under duress. So I do think we would not see competitors and allies being caught up or treated in some cases interchangeably. I think unfortunately under the Trump administration—if you look, for example, at the imposition of tariffs or the imposition of sanctions or other financial penalties—sometimes there has not been, it seems, much of a distinction made between competitors, allies, and partners. I do think that under a Biden-Harris administration that demarcation would become very clear. I think there would be much more of an emphasis on making common cause with allies and partners again, and making common cause with allies and partners not with the intention of containing China but of shaping the regional environment in which it operates and calculates and shaping the overall global environment in which it operates.
My personal assessment is that the real challenge that China poses to the United States is less about an ideological appeal. I will run through some of the levers of competition. There is a military competition undoubtedly, but I think that military competition is principally occurring in the Asia-Pacific. As I said earlier, I think there are some very real concerns about the potential for a contingency involving Taiwan and potential for a contingency involving the South China Sea, so I am not in any way diminishing the significance of that competition, but I don't get the sense that it is as of yet a global military competition. I think it is principally concentrated in the region, in the Indo-Pacific or the Asia-Pacific.
As far as ideological competition, I do think that the competition has started to acquire more of an ideological valance. Deng Xiaoping worked very hard to put into place some norms around collective leadership, some norms around institutionalized, formalized succession, and I think that Xi Jinping has systematically been dismantling those norms. He has been consolidating power. He has been much more explicit about denouncing the intrusion of Western ideals and Western values. He very recently has authorized a purge of China's domestic security apparatus, and the individual who has been charged with enforcing that purge linked it to the Yan'an purge of 1942–1945 that consolidated Mao's control over the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
So there is an increasingly ideological valence, but I don't think that China has a systemic widespread ideological appeal. My sense is that the more that other countries see what is going on in Xinjiang, the more they see the outcomes of this "wolf warrior diplomacy," the more they see the expansion of the surveillance state within China, the more they are recoiling.
I think it's quite indicative that when Wang Yi went on a five-country tour of Europe [in early September] that immediately preceded Xi Jinping's virtual summit with Angela Merkel and other high-ranking EU officials, the reception that Chinese officials got was not just very cool; in some instances it was quite hostile. There were very pointed questions about China's ostensibly national security legislation with the crackdown on Hong Kong, what China is doing with its unilateral moves in the South China Sea, and its actions vis-à-vis India. There were very pointed questions about market access and so on.
Also, China styles itself as being a country that can be emulated, but it cannot be replicated. If you position yourself as a country that has an exemplary form of governance that can be learned from but cannot really be replicated, there are a number of factors at work that I think limit China's intrinsic ideological appeal.
But having said that, where can China potentially make inroads vis-à-vis the United States? I think what China is trying to do is establish itself as being a nerve center of global economic growth. If China can—both in reality and in narrative, and again there is a symbiosis that I think is very important between reality and perception—say to America's allies and partners: "Look, you might not like us politically. You might not like us ideologically. You may have very different normative preferences or institutional preferences, but the writing is on the wall."
This is I think what China is trying to say: "Look at our centrality within global export markets. Look at our centrality within the overall global economy. Look at our role as an innovator in cutting-edge domains of emerging technology." If you basically look at the writing on the wall, China's role in the global economy and China's role as a global innovator is going to grow stronger and stronger. I think in part that is borne out by reality, but the narrative is also very, very strong. So if China can persuade America's allies and partners that whatever apprehensions you might have about China, that economically and technologically China is going to exert this increasingly inexorable gravitational pull, that could damage America significantly.
Just to summarize, and then I will stop, I think vis-à-vis China that there is a military competition, but it's primarily occurring within the Asia-Pacific. There the imperative is bolstering the deterrent capacities of America's allies and partners and establishing guardrails to circumscribe competition, and establishing hotlines so that if and when there are incidents that they don't escalate.
There is an increasing ideological valence to U.S.-China competition, but I think that the United States should not reciprocate by treating this as an ideological competition because an ideological competition is an existential one. It means that the Chinese Communist Party's very existence is an existential challenge to the United States, and if we frame it in that way, we not only are likely to act in ways that draw the Chinese public closer to the CCP rather than giving greater breathing room for political evolution in China, I think we also will lose our ability to enlist allies and partners in common cause.
I think the evidence thus far is that selectively our allies and partners are very much willing to make common cause, so I think, particularly in view of China's quite self-destructive wolf warrior diplomacy, we have seen a greater willingness to make common cause with the United States on issues of 5G, intelligence sharing, and maritime cooperation. If you extend that into an ideological crusade, I think a lot of countries would say, "We don't want to go there."
That would be my breakdown of the competition, but I think that if a Biden-Harris administration were to come into office there would certainly be more of an emphasis on reverting to traditional multilateral diplomacy and coalition building.
One last point and I will stop here. Our ability to do that is predicated on our ability to get our house domestically in order. It's a point that is made a lot, but you really can't overstate the importance. That's why I think that this Doorstep podcast you are launching is so critically important. The United States cannot credibly go to allies and partners and say, "Trust us to be the undergirder of the global order, trust us to mobilize collective action"—as we had done for the better part of the past three-quarters of a century—"on climate change, pandemic preparedness," and the full roster of other issues if it can't address its own crises at home.
I was just looking at the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 map before hopping on the call. This is a pretty striking imbalance. The United States accounts for about 4 percent of the world's population but roughly 20 percent of COVID-19 fatalities and roughly 20 percent of COVID-19 infections. I think in order for us to be trusted to be an undergirder for global order and to resume our role as a mobilizer of collective action, we have to reaffirm to the rest of the world the power and the promise of the democratic example and our domestic competence in managing crises here at home.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I think those are critical points.
One thing I would want to mention is, as you were saying about China making the bid, "We're too important as part of the global order to be pushed aside," is to see how different powers are using the race for a COVID-19 vaccine as part of that strategy.
As you were speaking earlier about the intersection of technology, foreign policy, and national security, I would be remiss not to make two mentions: One is for people to look at a series of pieces that have appeared in the Carnegie Council's journal Ethics & International Affairs, which discuss the ethical implications of these technological changes and their impact on foreign policy.
Then, wearing a different hat, which is my Foreign Policy Research Institute editor of Orbis hat, Ali, as you were talking about the intersection of technology and national security, I will announce that within several weeks the Fall issue of Orbis will be released, and it is a special issue devoted to emerging technologies and national security. It's an interesting issue because it pairs together scientists and engineers with practitioners, so we don't just have someone talking about the technology and then someone else talking about the policy but trying to bring those two things together, kind of like bringing together in those old ads for Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, someone is bringing the peanut butter, someone is bringing the chocolate, and merging them together.
For those of you who are interested, it's a fascinating subject. Please do look at Ethics & International Affairs and keep your eye out for the forthcoming special issue of Orbis on security and emerging tech.
With that, I will turn the floor over to Alex Woodson for questions that have begun to appear in the Chat.
ALEX WOODSON: Thanks, Nick, thanks, Ali.
The first question is from George F. Paik: "Does our baseline support for democracy preclude normal relations with China, other than ignoring such differences for the sake of economic interests and giving up on the 1990s idea that they will evolve into democracy? Is there some accommodation they could make with the idea of 'consent of the governed' that would allow something other than inherently and perhaps sometimes blatantly adversarial relations?"
ALI WYNE: George, thank you so much for the question. It's great to see you here again, and again I wish we were doing this in person.
I'm glad that you asked this question because it actually reminds me of a piece that I had wanted to discuss during the initial part of the conversation but neglected to do. There is a really interesting piece by Elbridge Colby and Robert Kaplan earlier this month in Foreign Affairs. They published it on September 4, and the title is, "The Ideology Delusion." It sparked off I think a really rich debate. It's a very detailed piece, and it makes a number of observations, but one of the judgments that they render in this piece is that the United States shouldn't frame its competition with China in overridingly ideological terms because their argument is that an ideological competition or struggle becomes an existential cage match—I'm using some of their verbiage.
They published that piece, and there was some pushback from observers, who said that, "Well, the Chinese Communist Party has long viewed its struggle against the United States not in tangentially ideological terms but in fundamentally ideological terms." The rebuttal holds that the CCP views the existence of the United States, views the existence of American democracy as an existential challenge.
There are several debates that I think, George, your question points to, and these are debates that are very critical and are very much alive and ongoing on Twitter, on social media, in print, and in podcasts.
The first is, to what extent can observers outside of China establish China's long-term intentions? Related to that question, which sources authoritatively establish those intentions? Third, and perhaps most basically, what are those long-term intentions? That is one set of questions.
How ideological is this competition between the United States and China? This is perhaps a somewhat convoluted or circuitous way of getting to an answer to your question, and my own thoughts are still evolving on this question. I guess what I tentatively come down to is a little bit of both, and that is to say I do think that U.S.-China competition, as I was saying to Nick earlier, has an increasingly ideological element. Just look at some of the rhetoric. I mentioned some of China's rhetoric earlier. In recent months there have been some speeches by high-level Trump administration officials that do frame this competition in very ideological terms, talking about Xi Jinping as the successor to Joseph Stalin, talking about the CCP's desire for the hegemony of a Marxist-Leninist ideology, and talking about again this competition in very ideological terms.
So yes, there is an increasingly ideological valence, and I think we would be remiss to deny that there is that element. But again, I do worry about overemphasizing the role of ideology, at least in the way that the United States responds. I think we should respond in an asymmetric way. I think that we should be thinking about what are America's unique competitive advantages at home and abroad? How do we invest anew in those rather than trying to out-China China?
Yes, there is an increasingly ideological element. I don't think that an increasingly ideological valence preordains this competition to become existential. After all—and Nick knows this better than anybody else—the United States and the Soviet Union found a way to cohabitate. Obviously the Soviet Union ultimately collapsed, but for the better part of a half-century, by virtue of necessity, recognizing that we had to avoid nuclear Armageddon, two existential adversaries with diametrically opposed conceptions of ideological universalism found a way to cohabitate, and I think that we will have to replicate that type of arrangement even more so today, far more so than with the Soviet Union.
At its peak the Soviet gross domestic product (GDP) was roughly about 40 percent as large as America's GDP. China's GDP as a proportion of America's GDP is already well above that threshold; it's approaching 70 percent. China is far more deeply integrated into the global trading order. It is far more of an innovator technologically than the Soviet Union ever was. The idea of winning a decisive victory over a country that is that deeply embedded in the global economic order and the global technology order strikes me as being not credible.
I think that America's overarching mandate vis-à-vis China is not to pursue a decisive victory, the contours of which are not clear to me, but instead how to pursue or how to forge a durable modus vivendi with a complex competitor. That latter mandate is not very rousing. It's not going to necessarily excite people, but I think that it's more realistic.
Nick and I earlier were talking about some of the transnational challenges on the agenda—climate change, pandemic preparedness, and we can go and on. Whether we like it or not, China by virtue of its sheer scale, accounting for about a sixth of the world's population, possessing the second-largest economy, and given its embeddedness in the postwar order, it strains credulity to believe that the United States will be able to assure its own vital national interests in managing these transnational challenges without salvaging some baseline of cooperation with China.
George, apologies for the rambling answer, but hopefully there were some kernels in there that got at your question.
ALEX WOODSON: We will go to two questions about technology from Naeem A.: "In the context of competition how do you assess the current 'tech cold war' intensely playing out between the United States and China and mildly with Russia? And what implications do you see in terms of the United States preserving its technological primacy in the world?"
ALI WYNE: Thank you again for these questions. They are incredibly important, and I should say I am very much in the process of getting up to speed on a daily basis with this emerging "technology cold war" as some observers have described it. I will offer a few thoughts. These are not the most considered thoughts, but a few reflections.
The first response is that it has been quite dramatic to see how the United States's and China's views of trade and technological entanglement has evolved. I would say that starting in the early to mid-2010s certainly from the American side there were growing concerns about some of the downsides of deep trade and technological entanglement with China. Starting as early as I would say 2012 the Obama administration very aggressively started looking at issues of cyberintrusion for purposes of economic espionage. Attorney General Eric Holder became increasingly and rightly preoccupied with the issue and, I think in 2014, unsealed an indictment against five hackers who were associated with the People's Liberation Army. So there were definitely signs of recalibration during the Obama administration that perhaps we need to recalibrate in terms of our interdependence.
But even by the end of the Obama administration—and this is just my impression—the sense was that we need to recalibrate interdependence very significantly but not jettison it entirely, and I think there was a feeling that the United States and China, given that organically they had so little in the way of a basis for constructive evolution, that trade and technological interdependence, even if it was a somewhat contrived dynamic, was nonetheless a powerful stabilizing ballast.
I think what the Trump administration has done is to go further and to say not only is trade and technological interdependence with China not a stabilizing ballast, but it is an active national security and economic liability, and we need to begin unwinding those linkages. I think that China has responded in kind.
I have heard actually from a number of observers that the notion of decoupling, at least in the U.S.-China context, actually originated in China and not in the United States, and I think you could actually date it if you look at work by Evan Feigenbaum and Scott Kennedy. Evan Feigenbaum has a few essays in which he has made this point that a key turning point for China in terms of thinking about its reliance on technological parts and know-how from the United States and just its overall economic dependence on the United States comes with the Asian currency crisis of 1997–1998. Washington had styled itself as the promulgator of this Washington Consensus, "We are the reliable steward of the global economy," and with the Asian currency crisis I think China started expressing concerns that it relied perhaps too much on Western stimulus and U.S. stimulus in particular. That feeling heightened about a decade later with the global financial crisis and concerns about U.S. profligacy, U.S. stewardship of the global economy.
I think China had been gradually trying to wean itself off American stimulus, but once the Trump administration began imposing tariffs, once it began going after telecommunications giants such as Huawei and ZTE, I think then the attitude in China became, "No, it's not just a matter of gradually reducing our reliance while maintaining an overall ballast." It's, "No, we need to actually reciprocate, and we need to ourselves unwind our linkages with the United States, and we need to accelerate indigenous innovation and self-reliance for national security purposes."
It's all a way of saying that I don't think that the United States and China have fully decoupled. I think that there is sometimes a misguided tendency when we hear the term "decoupling" to frame it as a binary, that either the U.S. and Chinese economies are coupled or they are decoupled. I think the decoupling is better understood as a continuum, a spectrum of outcomes. But I do think certainly there are very strong structural, political, and bureaucratic pressures now in both Washington and Beijing to continue pulling apart the linkages.
What I worry about is how we recalibrate the interdependence. I think that absolutely in light of growing Chinese cyberespionage for commercial gain, in light of very valid national security concerns that have been raised about certain Chinese apps, we need to recalibrate but to do so in a way that does not end up boomeranging against us and undercutting our own competitiveness.
We need to be very careful that as we recalibrate the terms of interdependence that, for example, we not clamp down very harshly on talent, students and entrepreneurs who are coming to the United States and who play a critical role in helping the United States maintain its lead in the cutting-edge emerging technology domains that will increasingly drive the global economy, so making sure that we are recalibrating in ways where we are not issuing blanket restrictions or dissuading large numbers of Chinese students and entrepreneurs from coming to the United States, and also in ways that don't undercut competitive advantages that we have from a corporate perspective. There are a number of companies right now that are caught in this crossfire between the United States and China. I think they are sensitive to those national security concerns, but they don't want to purge wholesale the equities that they have in China for obvious reasons.
It's a long way of saying that I think there is now a lot of momentum and a lot of inertia in favor of unwinding some of those technological linkages between Washington and Beijing. From an American perspective I worry about a situation in which we try to artificially force a rupture between the U.S. and Chinese economies. I do think a forced rupture as opposed to a measured recalibration would significantly harm the American middle class. It would harm a lot of American companies.
There is a great piece by Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman in Foreign Affairs—I am forgetting when they published it; they have been writing so much on notions of weaponized interdependence and on this notion of a tech cold war that I can't keep track of all their output. They have a very vivid analogy, which David Ignatius reiterated in one of his recent columns, in which they talk about the Chinese economy and the global economy as Siamese twins: They share a circulatory system, they share a nervous system, they share blood. And if you try prying apart Siamese twins, it's going to be very gruesome. It's going to be very catastrophic. I often keep that image in mind, and I think it's a good way of reminding ourselves that, as we unwind linkages, we need to do so in a measured way, we do so in a selective way, and we do so on a case-by-case basis rather than just diving headlong into a forced rupture, which I think could rebound to undermine not only our economic competitiveness but I think also our soft power.
ALEX WOODSON: This might be a good question to wrap up on, from Christopher Ankersen: "What would you suggest would be the top concrete actions that a new administration should take to 'reset' the U.S.-China relationship?"
ALI WYNE: Chris, thank you so much and thank you for being a wonderful supporter, mentor, and friend. I am really glad that we got to your question.
It's going to be difficult. I don't think that anyone labors under any illusions about the challenge.
There are a few thoughts that come to mind. Before we even think about China, the United States, in order to enable itself to be more competitive and to think properly about its relationship with China, needs to pursue in parallel those two tracks that I mentioned earlier.
Domestic renewal is absolutely essential not only to just restoring our material capacity to act as a galvanizer of collective action but also to reassure our allies and partners that they can make common cause with us and that we have rehabilitated our domestic crisis management capacity, and that we have the ability to manage our domestic crises and get our own house in order. I think domestic restoration is absolutely essential and, as I said earlier, doing a lot of country-by-country hard work to restore alliances and partnerships that have been eroded in many cases in the Indo-Pacific or the Asia-Pacific and in Europe.
The good news for the United States and for a prospective Biden-Harris administration is that, especially in light of the way that China has conducted itself during the course of the pandemic with its wolf warrior diplomacy, there is a tremendous opportunity if the United States acts to restore those alliances and partnerships. It's not to say that we're going back to pre-Trump administration. There is a lot of hard work that needs to be done. The United States needs to do a lot to assure its allies and partners that this "America First" proclivity is more of an aberration than a harbinger. So there is a lot of hard work that has to be done, but I do think there is an eagerness for the United States to come back, not to come back and dictate to others that "Thou shalt do this," but to make common cause as part of a coalition.
So before we even think about China, domestic restoration occurring in parallel with diplomatic renewal, and those two are inextricably intertwined. I mention that because I think our strategy and our policy vis-à-vis China are a crucial aspect of U.S. foreign policy, but I do not think they should be determinative. I think we should first figure out where it is that we are trying to go and then think about how competition with China fits in.
My own preference would be for the United States to resume its role as a galvanizer of collective action. For all the talk about decoupling, de-globalization, are we returning to the 1930s, it seems to me that there is an imbalance and that the rhetoric about de-globalization and the rhetoric about autarchy and nationalism outpaces the reality, which is that the challenges begotten by and exacerbated by globalization are not going anywhere; climate change is here to stay, and it's getting worse. There are some observers who believe that even as we are dealing with COVID-19 the next pandemic is already around the corner because of the way human beings conduct themselves and the way that societies organize themselves. So transnational challenges are not going anywhere.
So there is a need not just for one actor. There is a need for patchwork of actors—state actors, businesses, philanthropies, and non-state actors—who can collectively engage in two types of collective action. One is short-term emergency collective action, so when fires emerge literally or figuratively, when crises emerge, emergency mobilization.
Then there is a second, more incremental, patient, long-term mobilization collective action that is needed to build up systemic resilience in the international system. I do think that the United States, even though it is in relative decline, even though its image in the world has undergone a lot of strain during this administration, given the size of its economy, given its experience with capacity-building and with mobilizing collective action is exceptionally well poised to resume that role.
If the United States resumes that role and gets back in the economic game, gets back in the technology game, so that it has the wherewithal to anchor that mobilizing role, then I think we will be in a much better place to think about how we can get out of this tit-for-tat retaliatory cycle that we are in with China now and think about how we compartmentalize cooperative and competitive dynamics. I think competitive dynamics will endure. I think at this point they are basically not a bug but an in-built feature of the U.S.-China relationship. If we resume that role as a convener of collective action, we get our own house in order, and we pair it with diplomatic restoration, I think we will then have the ability to right-size the China challenge and say, "Here are places where we need to selectively compete, shape the regional environment in which China is operating, shaping the global environment that China surveys, but identifying areas for cooperation." As I said earlier, there is no long-term tenable solution or mitigation to climate change, pandemic disease, or a whole host of other challenges begotten by globalization that does not involve China.
So again, it's domestic renewal in tandem with diplomatic restoration, resuming that collective action, mobilizing a role, and right-sizing the China challenge.
I will stop here. I like Jude Blanchette of the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote a great piece a couple of months ago talking about right-sizing the China challenge. He said: "China isn't two feet tall, it's not ten feet tall. Maybe it's six-foot nine." The idea is that China is a formidable, multifaceted competitor, and our response to China necessarily and properly will be a critical part of U.S. foreign policy, but it should advance an affirmative vision and not subsume the entire undertaking of American grand strategy, and I think that distinction is very important.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Thank you, Ali. This has been a wonderful discussion.
Let me close with this. There are some great ongoing conversations in the Chat, and I would encourage participants in the Chat and people who have been watching online, when these things are posted on the YouTube channel, when they're posted at the Carnegie Council site, there are comment sections, and this is a great way to keep these discussions going, particularly so that we don't lose these observations and comments that have been coming in. I would very much encourage you, as we close right now at the top of the hour and we end this discussion, that we see this not as a final termination of this conversation but that it can continue at the Carnegie Council YouTube page and at the Carnegie Council site itself.
Again, our vote of thanks to you. This was more than we could have expected, especially how much ground we covered within 60 minutes. This could have been a three-hour or five-hour long discussion. A lot of food for thought and a lot of basis for what I hope will be further conversations we will be having in the near future.
With that, I would like to bid everyone a good day. Please keep your eye on the Carnegie Council site for the next set of events. With that, I bid you all farewell.