Power plays

The Western powers should beware making belligerent threats they cannot back up

This article is taken from the October issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

In foreign policy circles, “Great Power Competition” (GPC) is the talk of the town. The long-haul international struggle for power, resources and stature has replaced the Global War on Terror (GWOT) as the new, supersized concept.

It is easy to see why. America’s unipolar moment of dominance is long gone. As wealth and power have spread, the world is now more multipolar, competitive and dangerous. Clashes over disputed terrain, expulsions of diplomats, demands for deference, militarised disputes and domestic interference promise a future of tense crisis management, or worse. Yet we, the US-led West, enter this process intellectually unprepared.

GPC is erupting across a wide area. Russia pushes back against Nato and EU expansion, and bids to dominate its East European backyard and divide Western democracies. Turkey is perhaps going to the brink with Greece, threatening to revise the Treaty of Lausanne and engaging in mock air dogfights and maritime escalations. Above all, the United States and China enter a security competition for primacy in Asia, one the current pandemic has not dampened.

How much, and for what, are we willing to risk, pay, or bleed?

China is becoming increasingly repressive and aggressive, no longer biding its time but brandishing its strength from Taiwan to the Himalayas to Australia. A recent Twitter exchange between China’s Global Times and the US Navy Chief of Information hinted at what’s to come: any US aircraft-carrier movement was “at the pleasure of PLA”, said Beijing. “At our discretion,” shot back the Navy.

This raises fundamental questions. How much, and for what, are we willing to risk, pay, or bleed? So grave are the stakes that this should be the occasion for sombre calculation. Yet there is a belligerent complacency in the air. Is there a more substantive reckoning going on, apart from performative swagger?

Judging by the escalatory yet lightweight speech of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on 23 July, there is not. For Pompeo, the prudent response to China’s rise is to go all-in, and in high spirits. Pompeo called for dismantling China’s overseas power and incited the Chinese people to overthrow communist rule.

This is not any version of containment, patiently countering an adversary’s expansion while limiting the scale of instability and conflict. It is rollback, a contest defined in crusading terms as a clash of universal political values, led by America and a league of democracies. Pompeo delivered his call to arms at the Nixon presidential library: an ironic venue, given that its namesake converted from hardened cold warrior to architect of détente.

Pompeo spoke of his “faith” in America’s global mission, of recognising China’s threat as an “awakening”, and ultimate victory being assured by “the sweet appeal of freedom itself”. In place of substance, there was misplaced cold war nostalgia. America’s new space force would deter aggression “in that final frontier”. There was little discussion about how to prevent such a rivalry, based on “reciprocity” to all China’s aggression, erupting into major war, or how to relate it to other international problems. The struggle itself he presented as a test of will and strength, not capacity or discretion.

If Pompeo’s speech is a guide, there is scant hope that the US might entertain a more measured balancing strategy

Pompeo’s words are not only substantively alarming, given he looks forward to a conflict that is ideologised and militarised, with the superpower making maximalist demands. And not just because officials are briefing, off the record, that the Trump administration as its night is falling is attempting to lock future administrations into a cold war. It also shows an intellectual poverty, leaping into competition without thinking through hard choices or trade-offs, and the gravest question of all, how to compete while limiting the competition?

Missing in action are core questions. What if China doesn’t back off? If determined lesser powers — Iran, North Korea, Venezuela — have not cracked under pressure, why will China? If the contest is waged in the name of “democracy”, does that mean willingness to fight over Taiwan, over which China’s interests are intense? How far should the US economically decouple from a state with whom it is economically enmeshed? Should the US seek entente with Russia to encourage it to distance itself from China, to disrupt a potential Eurasian alliance? Where does the Middle East fit: will the US again back coups, topple regimes and intrigue with local client states in the name of containment? Pompeo invoked “rules”, but where does that leave US relations with authoritarian allies, or American rule-breaking?

Serious people in government and policy debate are posing these questions. But if Pompeo’s speech is a guide, there is scant hope that the US might entertain a more measured balancing strategy. Intermediate choices disappear. For Pompeo, it is high-stakes escalation or “bend the knee”. Yet between the false polarity of passive resignation and rollback there are other choices. Washington could strive for equilibrium in Asia rather than regime overthrow, create enough of a balance for its citizens’ democratic liberty to survive, protect strongpoints rather than fighting everywhere on peripheries, and bound hostilities through arms control and sustained diplomatic channels to prevent a major war.

Pompeo has made an intermediate strategy harder to craft. As it is, to Beijing officials with their historical memory, Pompeo’s message is that America is out to humiliate and break their state, making China a vassal under US hegemony. His words will accord with America’s increased ties with Taiwan, its tech and trade wars, its ever-increasing defence budget, and its readoption of tactical nuclear weapons.

However much some fetishise willpower, this new world of competition is not just a test of strength but a test of judgment

Pompeo’s vision follows a growing transatlantic chorus of jauntiness. In February 2019, then UK secretary of defence Gavin Williamson declared a “new global Great Game … on a global playing field”, invoking both an innocent image of sport and nineteenth-century power projections into central Asia by Britain against Russia. He did not pause to consider where the actual Great Game led, to the disastrous Anglo-Afghan war of 1847, to Britain picking fights with determined enemies and inflated security threats.

Is it prudent to try again on a larger scale, with stretched resources and less relative power? The word “global”, so often voiced, holds little regard for geographical limits or priorities, or the difficulties imposed by gigantism. The new struggles would be uplifting: “There is a great opportunity here too … a great moment in our history … when we must strengthen our global presence, enhance our lethality, and increase our mass.” Here is a Kiplingesque “far-flung battle line” but without Kipling’s warning against hubris.

Other senior ministers echoed these dreams of mercantile growth powered by a “can do” spirit, with the trade-offs of power politics and the sheer scale of great power rivalries left out. For Dominic Raab, now the foreign secretary, Britain must resume its historic role as “buccaneering free traders”. For Boris Johnson, now prime minister, Britain is a “soft power superpower”, the kind of thing leaders say when the material base of their international power has weakened.

Some hawkish pundits, too, approach the moment breezily, as the occasion not for deadly confrontation but for heroic greatness, especially of a maritime kind. The defence and diplomatic editor of the Sunday Express declared: “Our two new carriers — spear tips to our global ambition — have the ability to alter the dynamics of entire regions they sail through.” “Sail through”: so much for an era of “access denial” weapons technology and China’s vast inventory of anti-ship missiles, which gives it the ability to target British ships from land. Britain may not even play a bit-part in America ruling the waves of the Indo-Pacific theatre if one of its two carriers is sunk in first hours of conflict.

If Britain insists on waging a global — not just international — cold war against powers that have grown the capacity to sink ships, it will take capital-intensive spending, a new tax base and indeed a new economic settlement, beyond affirmations of a British moment. It will make it harder to be a trading superpower. Now that Britain is toughening its stance on China, under Washington’s coercive pressure, these difficulties will become sharper.

Western policymakers are fond of branding adversaries’ imperial lunges as regressions to the nineteenth century, framing the US-led West as a virtuous enforcer of a “rules-based international order”. But rhetoric in London and Washington that treats a world of knife fights as a noble adventure suggests that we, too, covet the mantle of “greatness”, even if dressed in the clothing of police action. That should make us nervous. Historically, bids for greatness easily eclipse careful judgments, and run close to ruin.

This new world of competition is not just a test of strength or will, but a test of judgment, says Patrick Porter

However much some fetishise willpower, this new world of competition is not just a test of strength, or will, but a test of judgment. In its absence of conscientious strategic thought, GPC continues the looseness and excess of the GWOT. Recall that in the most disastrous campaign of the GWOT, the invasion of Iraq, the martial exhilaration was too much for Vice-Admiral Timothy Keating, who declared, “It’s hammer time,” with Queen’s “We will rock you” blasting.

And as the journalist George Packer noted at the time, “The President’s speeches on the war are like the last paragraph of every Churchill speech from the Second World War: a soaring peroration about freedom, civilisation, and darkness. But in Churchill’s case, 19 pages of analysis, contextualisation, and persuasion preceded that final paragraph. A Bush speech gives only the uplift — which suggests that there is no strategy beyond it.”

Perilous times should not be welcomed as “opportunities” or mandates from heaven, but as moments for reckoning. The architect of the last cold war, George Kennan, was forced to unlearn an early conviction that the Soviet challenge and the new crisis of the mid-twentieth century was a glorious opportunity. In 1947, he had greeted the eruption of the struggle with Moscow with gratitude to “providence”, a moment that would rally Americans and get them to accept the responsibilities of “moral and political leadership.”

Looking back, in 1992, at where it all led — arms races, civil strife, wasteful wars and dangerous crises — he was less grateful. He regretted the “unnecessarily belligerent and threatening tone” that aggravated and prolonged the conflict. The hour of victory was an occasion not for triumph but for sober re-examination. If restraint and proportion are not to be dangerously loosened once more, we will need cool heads, not cheery buccaneers.

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