America’s Great Power Conundrum: Competition or Confrontation?

Andrew Erskine

In 2017, then-President Donald Trump added an arcane term to his National Security Strategy that shifted US strategic planning towards a path of defensive and contesting diplomatic thinking. In 2018, Trump used the arcane term to define and describe growing long-term strategic competition in the US National Defence Strategy and the National Military Strategy. The recent interest in great power competition (GPC) comes from these strategic documents. Not to be outdone by his predecessor, US President Joe Biden has referenced the expanding GPC as a key strategic issue in his Interim National Security Strategy. 

For international relations scholars and US foreign policy experts, the references serve as an important notice that firmly establishes the notion of GPC as the principal outlook in America’s grand strategy. Not since the Cold War has the US diplomatically and strategically dealt with another great power. With that said, the emerging multipolar rules-based order is not similar to the Cold War. Unlike the bipolar order that shaped US-Soviet great power interactions, the current rules-based order is witnessing deepening multipolarity with several significant poles of power. What is more, China is not the Soviet Union. As a great power, China can combine its traits of power—economic, militaristic, diplomatic, and technological—to mount serious opposition to American primacy.

With such heightened attention and interest in GPC with China, America is in a strategic conundrum in developing a functional and thorough grand strategy that addresses its national interests with growing competition from an equal power. With many Cold War hawks still having prominent voices in US grand strategy, perhaps America is too hastened in its tilt towards GPC at the cost of great power peace. 

What is Great Power Competition?

Although this buzzword has become central to recent US foreign policy and grand strategy, the concept of GPC is not well defined. In 2018, the RAND Corporation defined GPC as a “state of antagonistic relations short of direct armed conflict between actors.” Another approach to GPC is to define the concept as a “conflict, short of war, between an incumbent power and a rising challenger.” The latter definition echoes the thought process of many US hawk strategists and policy experts as they see China’s great power rise and behavior as a direct challenge to American primacy and its championing of the rules-based international order it helped create. 

However, these definitions lack coherent conceptual elements of what competition entails. Despite these vague accounts, three conceptual elements transcend every variety of GPC. First, there is a constant struggle between conflict and coexistence between the great powers in managing and achieving a promptly favorable ratio of objective achievements over each other. Second, GPC reflects the geopolitical environment and structural realities of the period it inhabits. Lastly, GPC has specific efficacy on competitive stakes that contribute to long-term strategic objectives.

Advantages of Great Power Competition

Source: Global Times

It is easy to portray GPC as an all-or-nothing conflict when linked to the events leading up to the First and Second World Wars. However, despite warnings from foreign policy experts and strategists that a more competitive world would bring back chances of great power armed conflict, a distinct and possible outcome, there is a difference between competition and an all-out struggle. In particular, GPC has advantages in generating prosperity through influencing the normative, positional and material perspectives of great powers. 

Normatively, GPC can have practical implications in bringing forward a refined rules-based order that reflects its multipolarity. Such competition does not imply the irrelevance of the current system’s rules, norms, and values, but instead universalizes the rules-based order to all states, all forms of government, and across all levels of powers—making no one actor above and beyond the rules-based order or establishing a double standard of behaviour. When the US or its allies in the liberal rules-based order imposed sanctions on strategic rivals or established military bases outside their geopolitical peripheries, it considered such decisions as legitimate and following the rules of the liberal order. However, when rivals mirror such actions, the US and its allies accuse such states of bullying and intimidating others, asserting such policies as belligerent and expansionist

Materially and positionally, GPC over technological, political, and economic leadership can lead to comprehensive prosperity as it forces great powers to use their assets to resolve spurring threats of the period. Despite the threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War, Soviet-US GPC included advancements in smallpox vaccine research and treaty implementation on nuclear proliferation

Although this generation of great powers competes over conventional hard power, there is ongoing competition over alternative forms, namely greener and innovative technologies and pharmaceutical public goods. Competition and success over these alternatives provide more significant avenues for influence and leadership at lower cost-to-reward ratios. Moreover, GPC for these areas offers more headway against spurring issues, promoting more global prosperity as great powers that fall behind on such areas will not want to be singled out for their inadequacy in dealing with escalating global problems. 

Disadvantages of Great Power Competition 

The disadvantages of GPC are well documented in history and could help this generation’s great powers to avoid the same pitfalls. However, American GPC is on the edge of making similar strategic errors. The reasoning for such mishandling is due to American hawks and foreign policy circles observing GPC through a diminishing outlook of American hegemony. This perspective puts GPC as a fixated notion that the US needs to compete with any and every challenger in the rules-based order as failure would be an existential threat to America’s survival.

Great Power Competition as a guiding principle in American grand strategy risks confusing means and ends, and likely to undermine, rather than enhance, US power and influence.

Daniel H. Nexon, Foreign Affairs

The misgivings of this approach fail to address the strategic reasoning for competition and identifying what the US is competing over. Second, it also generates strategic justifications for a zero-sum containment stance against any challengers. As a result, this approach observes short-term objectives in the form of conventional military and nuclear numerical superiority and alternative forms of power as key strategic initiatives that must be achieved without compromise. The problem that arises from this approach to GPC is that it inevitably leads to reactionary strategies of unnecessary escalation, security dilemmas, and the misallocation of vital resources that can risk triggering unforeseen consequences.

What is Great Power Politics?

An alternative strategy, the US may want to undertake is Great Power Politics (GPP). In scholarly and foreign policy circles, the term conjures images of powerful states using their material power to maximize and pursue wealth, territory, and military influence. It also implies a return of realpolitik to grand strategy, thereby increasing the pursuit of security through overarching dynamics of “power” in the rules-based order. However, by updating GPP to reflect the geopolitical realities of the multipolar rules-based order, this approach may provide the US with an optimal grand strategy for achieving its great power interests without unnecessary confrontation. 

GPP is a strategy of integrational interests and mutual responsibilities with state-centric fragmentation over desires of influence, power dynamics, and rules. Through this strategy, great powers exhibit how they will pursue their state-centric interests with a shared role in rectifying orderly deficiencies, shortcomings, and threats to global stability and peace. GPP uses a mix of conventional tools of power with modernized instruments of strategic diplomacy to extend networkings that avoid asymmetric trends of power contestation. Lastly, GPP is not primarily concerned with expansion. Instead, it prices high strategic initiative for great power engagement that contributes revelatory strategies for great power competition, coexistence, and collaboration.

Advantages of Great Power Politics

Daniel Nexon attests that “competition among great powers cannot return, because it never really went away. Rivalries between leading states exist in every international system.” This statement is extremely accurate, especially in the post-Cold War period and now, as the US and others have jockeyed for power and influence in international relations despite living in the “long peace.” Coming off the Trump presidency that outright declared the return of GPC and China as an existential threat to American survival, along with his administration’s undervaluing US diplomacy as a key tool, GPP can offer the Biden administration pathways to resolve the worries and interests brought on by more dynamic strategic competition. 

By re-engaging America’s grand strategy with the expanding competition from different conditions of power in the multipolar rules-based order, Biden’s strategy of GPP can estimate the value of specific objectives at stake with America’s long-term great power interests. Moreover, GPP offers the US the much-needed recognition of growing competition in areas it long controlled with new significant areas that have consequences to American great power hegemony. Within this context, GPP offers the US a revelatory perspective to strategic competition as its long-term and is a means to achieve objectives relating to a state’s security, prosperity, and autonomy, and anchors responsibility for sharing global leadership on peace and stability initiatives. 

Managing Great Power Competition

To avoid armed conflict in competition, GPP does not seek to topple another great power for purely antagonistic reasons, thereby removing possible struggles for power that would inevitably force a state to prioritize conflict over coexistence. Instead, it seeks to apply pressure to competitively follow the multipolar order’s rules-based structure, making clear that any breaches in existing geographical borders, territorial changes, or regime types through coercion or force will result in great power contestation. GPP also uses competition to organize principles of great power management to guide pragmatic policymakers to reject sudden and unthinkable policies from transpiring.

GPP offers a prominent role for diplomacy through conventional and unconventional strategic dialogues for manageable competition to emerge. In both the Concert of Europe and Cold War periods, strategic dialogues were critical components in managing GPC. By providing such forums for communication, Sino-US great power relations can sustain manageable and inescapable geopolitical, ideological, and economic differences and shared interests that guide their competition.

Strategic dialogues also install confidence-building measures (CBMs) to avoid accidental escalations. CBMs are ratified within GPP to lower mistrust among great powers. The US should extend CBMs to verify formally agreed or informally recognized parameters to reduce mistrust in competition. During the Cold War, CBMs led to the practices of “trust but verify.” Current strategies on CBMs should arrive from China and the US abstaining from cyberattacks that target civilian and critical infrastructure to China respecting the freedom of navigation and aircraft movements in the South China Sea, and America reducing its number of regional naval operations and exercises with allies and partners.

In searching for a formula to manage strategic competition, the US must ensure its great power grand strategy holds long-term interactions that place principal judgments of competition versus confrontation. Sino-US great power relations will manage the coming decades, and their engagement will inform the rules, norms, and values of the multipolar rules-based order that will steer peer-nations to coexist and compete in an unruly or ruly world. 

  • Seeing as China and the United States are this generations two Great Powers, will their competition set off another Cold War?
  • Is Great Power confrontation a foregone conclusion with China’s rise seemly challenging American Primacy?
  • As the incumbent Great Power, will the US miscalculate its power projection in the world due to reactionary strategies?

Suggested Readings

Nixon, Daniel H. (2021) “Against Great Power Competition: The US Should Not Confuse Means for Ends.” Foreign Affairs, 15, February 2021.

Brands, Hal & Mazarr, Michael. (2017) “Navigating Great Power Rivalry in the 21st Century.” War on the Rocks. 5, April 2017.

Asford, Emma. (2021) “Great-Power Competition is a Recipe for Disaster.” Foreign Policy. 1, April 2021

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America’s Great Pow…

by Andrew Erskine time to read: 8 min
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