If there are wars in the near term, they will be wars of choice. They will be in places we weren’t looking for wars. They won’t be easy wars to win. They will make the world more dangerous.
Great power competition is more than just a bumper sticker everybody is slapping on everything at present. This framework accurately enough describes the geo-political struggle going on in the world today. States trying to expand their spheres of influence bump into the interests of other states. Those confrontations create friction and conflict threatening to undermine global institutions, destabilize regional blocs and hazard global peace.
To be accurate, not every country involved in the competition is “great.” China is still short of superpower status. Countries such as Iran, India, Japan, and Russia are regional forces. Europe bobbles along. Nations like North Korea don’t have much more strength than the capacity to disrupt the peace of others. Arguably, the United States is the only player with unquestioned persistent sustainable global reach. That said, “great power competition” is the term of art for our times. So, rather than quibble, let’s just go with it.
From the U.S. perspective, how we thrive amongst our rivals remains a challenge. America is a global power with global interests and responsibilities. Ignoring the competitive pressures from others is not an option. In particular, there are three parts of the world that are crucial to the U.S. – Europe, the Greater Middle East, and Asia.
They are three giant lily-pads that connect America to the rest of the world. In addition, the great “global commons” that allow the U.S. to traverse the world (sea, air, space, and cyberspace) are anchored in these lands. In short, regional peace and stability in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia is important to the United States. These parts of the world either facilitate America’s persistent presence or provide the means to get to the places Americans need to go to protect U.S. vital interests.
In this competition, the great threats to regional peace and stability, from the U.S. perspective, are Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea. This isn’t new. Despite their many differences presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump all had the same bad guy list. Granted each had different ways of addressing these competitors. Each also had other enemies on their list. Still, the fact that they had a common core of concern is noteworthy. America, and indeed most of the free world, has not had a consistent threat perception since the end of the Cold War.
Further, the antagonisms that separate the U.S. and these other powers aren’t likely to change in the foreseeable future. Our interests are antithetical. Even if in the future ways are found to ameliorate competition, such as arms control with Russia, another trade deal with China, or the denuclearization of North Korea, don’t expect the underlying antipathies and distrust to dissipate overnight. Absent massive political change, the competitive space looks set for a while.
In terms of national security and armed conflict, what is notable about America’s competitors is the one goal they all share. Each wants to win without fighting. None of them desire or foresee a direct debilitating war with the United States anytime soon. Rather each seeks ways to distract, diminish or disperse American power without risking an escalating confrontation that leads to a direct test of arms.
Further, these powers have limited interest and capacity to cooperate in the pursuit of their goal. True, they do find opportunities to make common cause. There is, for example, coordinated action in circumnavigating sanctions, leveraging disinformation, and taking joint action in international forums, such as the United Nations Security Council. But there are limits to this collaboration in part because in some spheres the powers are competing with each other as well. In part, because they lack capacity to do much to assist each other. And because they are averse to taking on additional risk.
Yet, each individually represents a real threat to American interests. Additionally, in total they comprise a global rivalry that cannot be ignored or wished away.
In terms of armed fighting, surrogate and indirect action remain the weapon choice for undermining American power. Thus, if the U.S. does get engaged in a conflict in the near term, it is less likely that it will be against other great powers. Rather, America would find itself immersed in wars either instigated directly or supported indirectly by an adversarial power. These wars could be intentionally engineered to entrap the U.S. in armed conflict or adversaries might seek to exploit an on-going confrontation in which the U.S. has become embroiled.
In addition, these struggles would likely be conflicts of choice. They would not be wars in which the U.S. felt compelled to act to protect itself. Rather, these would be conflicts in which America opted to intervene to further policy goals that did not directly impact vital interests. In other words, in any likely scenario, the U.S. would have the option of not intervening – or adopting means other than armed conflict to respond to the crisis or threat.
Further, since America is a global power, the conflict could potentially be anywhere in the world. Additionally, the character of the warfare could be anything from a confrontation at sea with maritime militias, to squaring off in the Arctic, to battling insurgents, hunting terrorists, or fighting in jungles, mountains, cities, or deserts.
Though these might be lesser wars, they might well not be easy ones. America’s competitors will work to make them harder for us to prevail. In addition, the U.S. might find itself fighting in places where winning just isn’t easy.
In any future major conflict, the U.S. would likely have to worry about becoming overcommitted. Ideally, the American military ought to have the capacity and capability to sustain two major armed conflicts, as well as to ensure continued freedom of the global commons. Robust American armed forces are an important element of conventional deterrence. With the capacity to fight in two places at once, the U.S. could discourage adversarial powers from trying to take advantage of an American engagement in one theater to move against U.S. interests in another.
The U.S. military, however, is under-sourced to simultaneously protect all of America’s vital interests. Further, the American military globally sources for all major deployments. In other words, the Pentagon could well draw forces from any theater in time of conflict to support operations in another theater. As a result, the U.S. potentially faces creating new risks when the Pentagon moves forces to address other dangers.
Even though military readiness and modernization have improved over the last four years, there is scant likelihood that the American military will be able to establish a demonstrably stronger military balance against its potential collected adversaries in the near term.
If the U.S. is going to maintain conventional deterrence in this phase of the great power competition, Washington is going have to demonstrate restraint and prudence in deciding where it accepts active military engagements.
In managing and globally shifting U.S. military power, expect alliances and strategic partnerships to become more not less relevant to America. In addition to NATO, the United States will likely develop security frameworks for both the Middle East and the Indo-Pacific. No doubt these frameworks will be anything but carbon copies of the trans-Atlantic alliance. The theaters are very different, and the U.S. will have to develop security architectures appropriate for each. Nevertheless, America’s strategic partnerships are likely to mature in the next decade.
It is not just security needs that will foster stronger alliances in the long term. The dividing line between the free and the not-free world is going to become starker. Nations that share a commitment to freely elected governments, free enterprise and human rights will have to bind themselves more closely together in their own self-interest. Countries that don’t necessarily share all these values, but seek the umbrella of security that the free world can offer, will join their side as well. The upshot is the U.S. could well have more security partners – not fewer.
Nurturing alliances will actually require the U.S. to deploy and sustain more military power abroad not less. Partners will seek physical guarantees including the forward basing of U.S. forces for conventional deterrence and joint operations.
American forward presence, however, is going to require equitable burden-sharing, making political-military affairs, diplomacy, and coalition relations as critical as bases and operational exercises.
Strategic arms competition will also be an important part of this future. An unconstrained arms race is less likely. More likely is that the U.S., Russia and China will continue to view strategic arms as a safety net to keep extreme competition in check. Nuclear modernization, missile defense, and hypervelocity weapons will certainly be seen by all sides as part of maintaining a healthy, credible deterrent.
Further, it is virtually certain that competition will spill into every domain of potential conflict. Armed conflict might not even be the most prominent. International organizations and agreements, for example, have emerged as means not for harmonizing international norms, but as another battleground of great power competition. The confrontations between powers seeking to use global institutions and treaties as a means to advance their interests will certainly intensify in the years ahead. The war over control of international organizations may become more intense than actual wars.
Additionally, economic and technological competition have already emerged as a significant factor that will affect the future balance of power. This area, not physical wars, could well be the decisive field of conflict in the near future. Without question, key areas of rivalry will include the race to develop and exploit 5G telecommunications, quantum computing, bio-technology, and artificial intelligence.
In the end, military power will be an essential but insufficient instrument for the U.S. to survive and thrive in an era of great power competition. Recognizing that the competition is going to be intense, long-term, and multifaceted requires America to adopt strategies and policies appropriate to the nature of the competition it faces.
Prevailing in long-term struggles demands that the competitors spend equal effort in protecting the sources of power that allow them to successfully compete, as they do trying to diminish and defeat their competitors. This will require the U.S. not only to refrain from taking offensive measures that undermine American competitiveness, but also make deliberate efforts to nurture and advance its competitive advantages.
The U.S. will have to maintain robust military capability, not only to deter regional conflict and keep the global commons open, but also to fight the wars of choice it may elect to undertake. This will require sufficient resources to pay for current operations, maintain trained and ready forces, and continue to modernize for the future all at the same time. Additionally, the U.S. will have to have sufficient capacity and capability to operate in all the potential domains of conflict – sea, undersea, space, cyberspace, on the land, and in the air.
At the same time, the United States must be able to grow and strengthen its economy, sustaining free and open markets which promote prosperity and innovation, while making the market more resistant to malicious competition from adversarial powers.
Finally, the freedom and openness of American society is a relative strength in global competition and must be preserved. Strong, prosperous, free societies are more resilient and more likely to persevere over the long term.
Strategies and policies aimed to keep America free, safe, and prosperous will provide the armed forces needed to meet the demands of great power competition. In addition, they will ensure America’s hard power is employed in an integrated and complementary manner to address the long-term challenges the United States will confront in the trying times ahead.
James Jay Carafano is vice president of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation.