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Great Power Competition Is Too Narrow a Frame

The United States cannot hope to prevail and prosper unless it broadens its conception of the global struggle.

The doctrine of great power competition gets one major thing right: China is the biggest threat facing the United States. However, it gets the prescription all wrong. The United States cannot hope to prevail by casting itself as a lone combatant with the help of some small but ultimately irrelevant allies. Instead, it must realize that the true nature of global competition is between two systems—liberal democracy and authoritarianism—and rally its fellow democracies to its side. A conception of global competition that emphasizes states rather than systems inevitably results in the practice of a flawed foreign policy.

Viewing global affairs as predominantly defined by competition between a couple of states easily leads to a reductionist worldview. This paradigm, when taken to its extreme, asserts that only these states actually matter in international politics and that the decisions and actions of every other state only matter in the context of this overarching competition. Such a perspective can poison relations between states, with the great powers viewing any and all of their relationships with non-great powers as purely transactional and the non-great powers growing to resent being forced to pick sides in disputes when they feel it is not in their interests to do so.

To see the pitfalls of great power competition in practice, one only needs to examine the current state of U.S.-German relations. Germany is the economic powerhouse of Europe and has been a key ally of the U.S. throughout many global challenges. However, it has drawn the ire of the Trump Administration (not unjustifiably so) for its continued openness to cooperation with China on a host of issues, such as the use of Huawei’s 5G technology in Europe.

The framing of great power competition puts Germany, along with all other non-great powers, in the uncomfortable position of feeling like they must alienate more powerful states by picking sides in a competition to which they are not directly a party. However, just because great power competition’s framing is flawed does not necessarily mean that its tenets are wrong. On the contrary, it is difficult to not see the rise of a revanchist China as one of today’s defining geopolitical challenges. 

The rise of China as a global superpower is particularly worrisome as it becomes able to export its model of governance while authoritarianism gains prominence around the globe. According to a recent report by the V-Dem Institute, almost 35 percent of the world’s population lives in states that are becoming more autocratic, while only 8 percent live in states that are becoming more democratic. 

This is precisely what great power competition misses: the defining feature of contemporary global affairs is not a competition between a few powerful states in which the actions of other states play a supporting role at best and peripheral role at worst, but rather a competition between the systems of liberal democracy and authoritarianism in which the actions of every state are consequential. An emphasis on competition between states rather than between systems obfuscates the gravity of the situation and the fact that every state, regardless of relative size or stature, is a party to this competition and has a personal stake in its outcome.

This may seem like a minor distinction, but it is one with major ramifications for how the U.S. should conduct its foreign policy going forward. The U.S. needs to think bigger than cajoling individual states like Germany into joining the American side in a fight in which they feel as though they have no, and want no, part. Rather, the U.S. should communicate to the world’s non-great powers that their fates are bound together, and it is only by forming a common alliance against the global spread of authoritarian influence that they will ensure their mutual security and prosperity.

There are multiple ways that the incoming Biden administration could allow this different framing of the nature of global competition to shape its foreign policy. There has already been discussion of a D10 summit, convening the world’s leading democracies to seek common solutions in various policy areas, such as 5G technology and supply chains. This proposal has a lot of merit; it would provide a forum for the creation of a common democratic strategy to rising authoritarian influence and should be a relatively easy feat to achieve. Additionally, I have put forward a more drastic and long-term proposal to create a common market of democracies as a way to combat China’s ability to spread its influence through economic coercion.

While the great power competition framework may get some important things right, the past four years of the Trump administration have demonstrated that it is fundamentally flawed as an organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy. The Biden administration should turn to a new organizing principle — global competition between democracy and authoritarianism — and carry a simple message to the rest of the world: either you are an ally defending the liberal international order against authoritarian influence, or you are not.