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‘Great power competition’ is a dangerous narrative for U.S. foreign policy

We need a more nuanced approach.

- September 20, 2023

Over the summer, the Biden administration signaled its intention to de-escalate the U.S.’s “great power competition” with China. After Secretary of State Anthony Blinken met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in June, follow-up diplomatic visits from the U.S. treasury and commerce secretaries sought to highlight shared economic goals. In meetings in Hanoi last week, President Joe Biden stressed that the U.S. did not “want to contain China…We are all better off if China does well.”

There are good reasons behind Biden’s efforts. Critics have long warned that, while the U.S. and China may have conflicting interests in some areas, casting the entirety of U.S. relations with China as “great power competition” is counterproductive at best, if not outright dangerous. But whatever advantages there are to more cooperative U.S.-China relations, Biden’s efforts have produced very little payoff. Republicans in Congress blasted Blinken for his trip to China. And China’s leaders questioned whether Biden’s outreach was sincere. 

Biden’s efforts are falling short because, with some exceptions, great power competition is threatening to become a dominant security narrative among U.S. foreign policy elites. The window is still open for alternative narratives – such as “competitive coexistence” – to guide policy. But if the great power competition narrative becomes entrenched, it will be difficult to overturn – and that could produce serious pathologies in U.S. grand strategy. 

Great power competition as security narrative

Security narratives are stories about a country’s strategic environment. They identify what countries play major roles, what they want, and why they might pose a threat to a nation’s interests. In the current narrative of great power competition, the major characters are the U.S., China, and Russia. The U.S., as protagonist, hopes to maintain a liberal world order against increasingly aggressive and assertive opponents.

“Realist” scholars and policymakers might bristle at the thought that great power competition is mere narrative – or some whimsical story about China and Russia’s intentions, and strategies. Policy elites have reasonably updated their beliefs about these countries’ aims, given examples of more aggressive behavior. From the end of the Cold War through the early 2000s, Russia and China were largely benevolent, willing to engage with the core institutions of the liberal international order. Now China and Russia explicitly challenge those institutions. Russia, with the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, has gone farther in its attempts to overturn liberal rules and norms. In the last several years, Beijing has challenged established security institutions in the Asia-Pacific, contested territorial norms in the South China Seas, and built new and, some would argue, competitive economic institutions.

All narratives have some basis in reality. No doubt , China and Russia have increasingly sought to curtail U.S. influence over the last decade, and exert their own. But to reduce the politics of security narratives to objective facts misses the ways in which policy elites actively construct stories about their threat environment. They may not make up facts on the ground, but they are capable of giving those facts on the ground meaning.

In the case of China, narratives of a more “assertive” China emerged before any real substantial change in behavior. As Jessica Chen Weiss argues, this narrative also overlooks the ways in which China is responding to U.S. policy. Russia may seem a more straightforward case of threat assessment, but even here we see the importance of a narrative at work. Experts framed Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 as a challenge to liberal norms, not as a direct threat to U.S. power. Today Russia’s war in Ukraine is undoubtedly brutal. But it is not clear on its face how the conflict poses a threat to U.S. power. In fact, the more bogged down Russia gets in Ukraine, the less likely it can project its influence abroad.

Why great power competition dominates our thinking

Dominant security narratives exert significant effects on foreign policy. But which narrative dominates strategic discussions is rarely inevitable. Take the Cold War consensus, arguably one of the most well-known U.S. grand strategic narratives. The story cast the Soviet Union as an existential threat to the United States. So powerful were the Soviets as an opponent, that the U.S. was compelled to confront Soviet power wherever it threatened to expand its influence. 

As Ronald Krebs has demonstrated, the Cold War consensus was not a foregone conclusion, and only coalesced in the 1950s. Before that, policy elites disagreed over whether and to what extent the U.S. should mobilize to counter the Soviet Union. Even after Franklin Roosevelt’s dream of the “four policemen” evaporated, it was not obvious that the U.S. actively needed to counter Soviet influence. Some still argued for an isolationist foreign policy. Others, like George Kennan himself, saw the Soviet Union largely as an economic, not a military threat. He cautioned against overexpansion, arguing the U.S. should only contest the Soviets in key industrial areas.

Scholars offer several theories as to why certain narratives come to dominate others. Some point to the importance of an authoritative narrator. In the U.S., this is likely to be the president. Though the Obama administration warned about those “attempting to revise key aspects of the international order,” it was not until the Trump administration that a president consistently narrated relations with Russia and China as “great power competition.” Biden showed no interest in stepping away from the narrative, warning audiences early in his term to “prepare together for a long-term strategic competition.” 

Others emphasize a narrative’s content, arguing that stories about existential threats are likely to resonate with domestic audiences. As late as 2014, stories about Russia and China portrayed both countries as “spoilers,” pursuing largely myopic attempts to secure their limited interests within the U.S.-dominated order. The more recent rhetoric of these countries as existential threats to the liberal order, in contrast, have provoked significant public response in the U.S.

Why a dominant narrative is dangerous

Dominant security narratives are not only powerful but pathological. Once entrenched, they can obscure significant disagreement about foreign policy choices, undercut rational strategic alternatives, and provoke a dangerously expansionist foreign policy.

First, as David McCourt argues, a dominant narrative can obscure important foreign policy disagreements. Even elites who embrace a common narrative of great power competition have important differences. Some urge escalating the fight over Ukraine to counter Russia, while others suggest drawing down or abandoning the fight altogether, in order to devote more resources to China. While some see China and Russia working in tandem, others see opportunities to wedge apart that coalition. While some see opportunities for cooperation with China, especially on economic and environmental issues, others suggest all bilateral relations are now zero-sum.

Second, and relatedly, when narratives become dominant, this gives foreign policy elites the capacity for rhetorical coercion, the ability to use existing narratives to undercut the legitimacy of opposing arguments. Narratives provide ammunition to shut down foreign policy alternatives, even alternatives well worth exploring. Notably, narratives of existential competition – be they the Cold War consensus or Great Power Competition – allow more hawkish politicians to cast any strategy that promotes compromise as illegitimate, a sop to a nation’s enemies. 

In this narrative, bargaining becomes impossible under any conditions. Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), chair of the House’s select committee on competition with China, recently warned that the U.S. must prepare for war with a weakening China, because Xi might “get less predictable and do something really stupid.” Just a few months earlier, Gallagher argued that it was a strong China that made China the greatest geopolitical threat to U.S security.

The problem with this emerging narrative’s dominance is straightforward. When rational debate over foreign policy shuts down, elites are more likely to pursue reactive and expansionist foreign policies. Just as the U.S. came to see any attempt to expand Soviet influence as an existential threat, so too might it come to respond to great power opponents in ways that, at the very least, undercut opportunities for cooperation and, at worst, risk violent escalation. As eminent international relations scholar Hans Morgenthau warned in the wake of the Truman Doctrine, once you choose to narrate threats in the language of existential threat, “you must act as though you mean it.”

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