Grand narratives about global affairs have a way of seizing Washington, D.C., with sudden force. Not long after World War II, the U.S. government settled on the mission of containing the Soviet Union. The War on Terror commenced within days of the 9/11 attacks. And now we’re in the early, heady days of a newly entrenched narrative, one with no less potential to transform the United States and the world than the policies that flowed from containment and counterterrorism.
We find ourselves—as you will have heard in the corridors of power and conference rooms of think tanks, and read in the government’s strategy documents and the media’s coverage of international relations—in an era of “great-power competition.”
It has even achieved hallowed acronym status—GPC—following in the footsteps of CBRN, COIN, and CVID, to name a few. So how exactly did it come to pass that an “arcane term” as of a few years ago is now “approaching a cliché,” as Elbridge Colby, one of the people who popularized it, told me?
My inbox is inundated with invitations to read op-eds about “How the Great-Power Competition Is Extending Into Space” and attend events on “Great-Power Competition and Water Security in Asia,” I set out to find an answer.
In the nation’s capital, over the past year and a half or so, great-power competition has “become the animating construct guiding U.S. foreign policy, certainly the thinking…and increasingly the execution,” Ali Wyne of the Rand Corporation told me. Wyne has been urging officials and scholars to think through the implications of the framework before they fully endorse it.
When the Cold War subsided, the United States entered an age that for the first time in centuries didn’t feature dangerous great-power rivalries, as the diplomat George Kennan pointed out in 1994. The challenge, Kennan noted, was that Americans accustomed to taking on the Nazis and Soviets were unused to inhabiting a world with “no such great and all-absorbing focal points for American policy.” The repentant father of containment cautioned against embracing “a single grand strategy” to “replace our fixation on the Soviet Union.” Bill Clinton’s administration more or less obliged, never really coming up with one. (Remember the “doctrine of enlargement”?)
As the 20th century gave way to the 21st, there was a faint sense that other behemoths, most notably China, were stirring. “The focus of great-power competition is likely to shift from Europe to Asia,” the defense strategist Andrew Krepinevich stated in 2000.
Concerns about the revenge of the great powers were eclipsed by the 9/11 attacks. Barack Obama, who in his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, had declared that the world of expansionist states and great-power competition “no longer exists,” campaigned on the notion that the new century’s threats—terrorism, climate change, pandemic disease—were transnational and thus could only be resolved by international cooperation, especially among the major powers. These views were not confined to the left. Richard Haass, a former official in the George W. Bush administration and, as president of the Council on Foreign Relations, a representative of the foreign-policy establishment, testified to the Senate in 2008 that “challenges derived from globalization will dominate the century” and that “great-power competition and conflict is no longer the driving force of international relations.”
Nevertheless the shell of it was there, buried in the sand, to be discovered when the terrorist wave ebbed. The theorist and Iraq War backer Robert Kagan published a book called The Return of History and the End of Dreams; he argued, particularly after Russia’s 2008 military intervention in Georgia, that major powers were staging comebacks and that a pitched ideological struggle was taking shape between Western democracies and the autocracies of China and Russia. “What we thought was perhaps a new era of one power or no more great-power competition—in retrospect, it looks like it was just a moment of transition,” he observed.
Then came the ascension, in 2012, of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who quickly set about concentrating power at home and pursuing an ambitious, nationalistic agenda abroad, including laying claim to disputed territory in the South China Sea. Two years later, Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine and illegally annexed Crimea, putting Europe on notice that brute-force geopolitics had not been relegated to the past.
In spirit, if not at first in name, the concept of great-power competition began percolating within the waning Obama administration. In 2014, reflecting on Russia’s “state-on-state aggression” in Europe and “competition between rising powers” in the Asia-Pacific region, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel lamentedthat “enduring and emerging powers are challenging the world order that American leadership helped build after World War II.” By 2015, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work was regularly using the phrase great-power competitionin reference to his efforts to maintain military superiority against adversaries.
“In the first [term of the] Obama administration, the focus really was on trying to work so that China would be a responsible stakeholder in the international community,” Work told me. “Competition was a word that … didn’t convey what we were trying to do. But by the end of the administration, the administration just said, ‘Hey, China is truly a competitor, and we need to hedge against future bad behavior.’”
The big turning point came with the election of Donald Trump, who since the 1980s had been bluntly denouncing U.S. leaders for acting the lamb in a dog-eat-dog world. The military theorist H. R. McMaster, steeped in scholarship such as Jakub Grygiel and Wess Mitchell’s writings on Chinese, Russian, and Iranian challenges at the frontiers of American power, became national security adviser, shocking Washington sensibilities by designating the world as not a “global community,” but a competitive arena. Grygiel and Mitchell headed to the State Department. Work briefly stayed on at the Defense Department, and Colby joined him as the lead official developing the Pentagon’s “National Defense Strategy.” McMaster brought on Nadia Schadlow to lead the drafting of the Trump administration’s “National Security Strategy.”
The theme of great-power competition “was there from the beginning” of the process of developing the NSS, Schadlow, now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, told me. The decision to make it central to the administration’s strategic vision won the support of the president, senior National Security Council officials, and leaders at the top national-security agencies.
“From my personal experience, [Trump] did not push back against the frame” of great-power competition, said Schadlow, who briefed the president on the NSS, when I asked whether he resisted given his desire to cultivate good relations with Russia. “While I think overall he wants to keep lines of cooperation open with all these leaders, he is realistic about the nature of their national interests.” (While the Trump administration has taken a number of tough stands against Russia, from expelling Russian intelligence officers to approving the sale of lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine, critics would argue that Trump has gone out of his way to mollify Putin.)
The NSS portrayed a more competitive world beyond the contests among China, Russia, and the United States, but it was the notion of great-power competition that fast took root in Washington when the document was released in 2017, followed a year later by the publication of the “National Defense Strategy.” In publicizing the NDS, shortly after the liberation of the Islamic State strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa, then–Defense Secretary James Mattis proclaimed that “great-power competition—not terrorism—is now the primary focus of U.S. national security.”
D.C. had its marching orders. The term great-power competition appeared in 141 news articles in the Nexis database during the eight years of the George W. Bush administration, and 1,021 times during the eight years of the Obama administration, largely during Obama’s second term. In the Trump administration’s first two and a half years alone, it has surfaced in more than 6,500 articles, soaring after the rollout of the NSS and NDS.
The phrase is invoked from Aspen to Israel to South Korea, and by U.S. officials making the case for all sorts of policies. (“China and Russia seek to dominate and influence not just their own geographic regions,” but also the Middle East, Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of U.S. forces in the region, recently noted.) It has gained traction across otherwise-unbridgeable partisan divisions. Most Americans now view Russia as an adversary and China as a rival. Joe Biden, who a decade ago acknowledged the coming competition with China but rejected the idea that “the great struggle of our time will be between liberal democracies like the United States and autocracies like China and Russia,” now argues precisely that as a Democratic presidential candidate. The “new conventional wisdom if you’re a bright, young” Republican or Democratic staffer in Washington is that “the more anti-Chinese you can be, the better your future career,” the international-relations scholar Joseph Nye recently observed.
During a period of disruptive technological shifts, doubt about the future role of the United States in the world, and upheaval across Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, the rush to adopt the mantra is also “an attempt to impart some analytical coherence to, or at least distill the core characteristics of, what is a highly uncertain and unsettled geopolitical landscape,” Wyne told me.
The attempt is already having a substantial impact in terms of policies, from Trump’s multibillion-dollar trade war with China, to the billions of dollars the U.S. government is directing toward a new Space Force and the research and development of technologies for “deterring or defeating great-power aggression,” to the U.S. withdrawal from a nuclear-arms-control treaty with Russia that didn’t include China. And these changes could accelerate in the coming years; Trump’s newly confirmed defense secretary and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for instance, have both thrown in their lot with the great-power-competition crowd.
Wyne worries that Washington is diving headlong into great-power competition without defining its terms and playing out the second- and third-order consequences of enshrining the so-far hazy worldview as U.S. grand strategy.
He warned, for example, that if the United States doesn’t take differentiated approaches to the distinct challenges posed by China and Russia, great-power competition could end up driving Xi and Putin into each other’s arms. (They’re already part of the way there.) Severing economic ties may inflict pain on Beijing in the near term, he reasoned, but in the long term it would result in a China that is less dependent on the United States and thus freer to throw its weight around, even if it alienates Washington. U.S. officials, he argued, also need to specify how they will prioritize and place limits on the infinite ways they could compete with other powers, and what winning these competitions looks like when “it’s a mathematical certainty that America’s relative preeminence will decline as China grows, as India grows, as other countries grow.”
Colby, who recently left the Center for a New American Security to help launch an initiative focused on great-power competition, acknowledged that the word competition can distract from the main message: We now live in a world of multiple powers with divergent interests and objectives. Winning, he contended, would mean achieving “favorable regional balances of powers,” especially in Asia and Europe, to prevent China in particular from dominating these regions.
“I think we could get to a point with the Chinese where we’re okay with them if they stay on their side of the line, but we’re just not there yet,” he said. “As much as we might like a different government in China, the point here is not to change the Chinese government or dismember China or something. The point is rather to say, ‘Look, we’ve got a position of power along with people who have similar interests to ours, [and] you can’t dictate to all of us.’”
The fact that Washington is hurtling down one path doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t veer off course. The 2020 presidential election could prove pivotal, because the Democratic candidates appear torn between great-power competition and a more Obamian conception of international interdependence. During their most recent debate, Tim Ryan argued that Trump is “onto something” with China and spoke of the need to “out-compete them,” while John Hickenlooper advocated “building bridges” to China to address climate change.
And just when U.S. officials think they’re out of the Middle East, it could pull them back in. “What can do a lot of damage to the great-power-competition effort is starting a big war with Iran. That would be fatal,” Colby said.
Still, Schadlow noted that there is now more “bipartisan consensus for the necessary adjustments [in U.S.-China relations] than people think,” and that “it’s going to be hard to go back.”
“In 100 years,” Colby said, “I think people are going to look back and say there was a fundamental shift on China that was long overdue, that happened in [Trump’s] administration.”