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‘Great Power Competition’ Is a Dangerously Simple Frame

To correctly set force posture, the Pentagon needs to look more deeply at the world’s actors, their preferences, and relationships.

The force posture review recently announced by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is meant, at least in part, to determine whether to continue the Trump administration’s withdrawals from Europe, South Korea, Afghanistan, and the Middle East. But it makes sense to review what the U.S. military is doing, where, and why. Whatever the current United States’ force posture is supposed to accomplish, it is not clear that it is working. 

The primary purpose of a force posture, of course, is to deter adversaries from committing acts of aggression against one or one’s allies or partners. If that deterrence fails, a good force posture should enable an effective, if not rapid, response to reverse any adversary gains. To be sure, there have been no armed attacks on the territories of the United States or allies with whom it has a defense agreement. However, there have been such attacks against various partners, including Georgia, Ukraine, and Saudi Arabia. And adversaries have aggressively conducted operations below the threshold of war that have limited how the United States can pursue certain interests. China continues its aggressive territorial claims, predatory trade practices, expansive cyber operations, and suppression of human rights, even outside its borders. Russia has challenged U.S. interests in Ukraine and Syria, employed cyber and other non-attributable means to undermine U.S. alliances and internal cohesion. Meanwhile, Iran has used proxies to attack allies and challenge the U.S. presence in the Middle East. 

Because the United States, like any actor, has limited resources, getting global force posture right is about balancing three competing requirements: 1) the ability to defeat an adversary’s armed forces; 2) the ability to compete below the level of armed conflict; and 3) the ability to rapidly deploy forces in times of crisis. The first requires one be able to mass sufficient armed force to deter acts of aggression and, failing that, preventing their success. The second requires one engage in activities that shape adversaries’ choices, such as assuring allies through military cooperation and challenging adversary provocations, without escalating to armed conflict. The third requires the ability to deploy forces rapidly to areas of crisis, without creating additional vulnerabilities. 

It is not hard to see how these requirements compete. Success in armed conflict requires not only greater combat capability, but also troops who are adequately familiar with the area of operations, are able to fight alongside allied forces, and understand how the adversary fights. Thus, there must be some level of forces dedicated regionally to prevent adversaries from achieving a fait accompli before U.S. forces can arrive. The problem, of course, is that establishing and maintaining these forces can come at a high cost. In 2019, the Pentagon estimated its annual cost for overseas presence at $21 billion. This does not include opportunity costs: forces committed to one area of operations can have a hard time getting to a fight in another. Further, forces appropriate for armed conflict may not be useful in competition. For example, defeating a Russian attack in the Baltics would require armored forces that would be expensive, if not irrelevant, to commit to military exercises and other security cooperation activities that improve U.S. competitiveness. 

Probably the most important, and often overlooked, thing to understand about balancing these requirements is that U.S. adversaries have to balance them as well. An effective force posture should take into account not just U.S., ally, and partner options but how they interact with those of adversaries. Modeling this interaction begins with identifying who the relevant actors are, what their interests and goals are, what they can do in pursuit of those interest and goals, and what they know and believe about other actors. Then strive to understand each actor’s preferences when confronted by others with conflicting interests and goals and how that affects their interest in conceding to U.S. interests or challenging them. Properly understood, deterrence is not so much a function of increasing cost, but how those costs shape adversary preferences. 

This interplay between actors suggests that we must get beyond the “great power competition” framework to truly understand the different competitive relationships the United States has and how they work. To be sure, great powers compete, but as Dan Nexon observed, describing adversary relationships as great power competition does not tell one anything about how they should compete. The simplistic label can lead us to waste resources on an overstated threat; ignore the roles that institutions, rules, and norms play in mediating conflict; and disregard the use of non-military means to shape adversary choices. It obscures moral asymmetries between democratic and authoritarian actors that are useful to achieving legitimacy and influence. It also reduces our ability to see possibilities for cooperation as well as competition. Perhaps most obviously, not all competitors are great powers. Iran is a much weaker state that uses proxies and cyber means to compete. Because they employ these means in ways that are not attributable, they are able to punch above their weight and constrain U.S. options.

It is important not to lose the forest for the trees. National security must be less about securing any particular interest and more about setting terms of engagement to promote cooperation and to keep inevitable competition from escalating to war. To do that, a good force posture should reassure allies as much as deter adversaries. For example, forward-stationing 1,000 U.S. troops in Poland, even if they are augmented by rotational forces, will not prevent a Russian fait accompli in the Baltics. However, doing so does send a much-needed signal to Eastern Europe of U.S. support that will make them more resilient to Russian political pressure and “gray-zone” operations. 

But when it comes to preferences, the trees — specific interests — do matter. China, for example, has so far preferred to merely complain about U.S. and allied freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea, not use force to challenge them. But if Taiwan should declare its independence, it is less clear that the threat of war with the United States would deter China from using force. And preferences change: with time, with the perceived costs of conflict, with the capability of a particular deterrent threat, and with the credibility the adversary assigns to one’s willingness to carry out a threat. Thus, the right posture can serve two roles: signal a credible and capable threat and test adversary resolve. Depending on how they respond, one can get a better idea of what their preferences are and under what conditions deterrence will succeed. 

Therefore, where adversaries prefer conflict to cooperation or concession, the U.S. should privilege armed conflict and commit credible and capable combat forces to the region. Where the opposite preference holds, the U.S. should privilege competitive activities below the threshold of war — assuring allies, boosting their resilience to adversary political pressure, disincentivizing adversary provocations. Where preferences are unclear, it may make sense to privilege a more dynamic force posture, rotating smaller forces in the regions to assure allies and test adversary preferences and resolve. 

Successful deterrence depends on getting the terms of engagement right. To the extent adversary aggression and provocation is driven by a sense that they are disadvantaged in the current order, they will be incentivized to continually challenge it. Thus, posture decisions should be integrated into a larger approach that employs political, economic, and other means to create the most inclusive order possible. Of course, it is not likely, for a variety of reasons, that revisionist powers like China and Russia, or rogues like Iran and North Korea, will prefer any order that the United States and its partners would also accept. However, promoting a more inclusive order than its adversaries will facilitate U.S. influence and maximize the effect its global posture will have.