•Washington’s latest crises with Russia and China are part of a new—and long-term—competition.
By Hal Brands
It is undeniable that the United States is now involved in a new era of great-power competition. The U.S.-led international system is threatened by authoritarian powers seeking to redraw the world’s geopolitical map and make the 21st century an age of autocratic ascendancy. “The central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security is the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition by … revisionist powers,” the 2018 National Defense Strategy summary states.
For most Americans, protracted rivalry against powerful authoritarian countries feels unfamiliar. But long-term competition seems new only because it is very old. Rediscovering the lost art of long-term competition requires only that the United States reacquaint itself with history.
This essay is adapted from The Twilight Struggle: What the Cold War Teaches Us About Great-Power Rivalry Today by Hal Brands (Yale University Press, 328 pp., $32.50, January 2022).
During the Cold War, competition was a way of life. For 45 years, U.S. officials grappled with a dangerous adversary in the ambiguous space between peace and war. They devised generational strategies while responding to crises and surprises. They racked up impressive achievements and committed grievous errors along the way. Ultimately, they defeated a powerful adversary peacefully, decisively, and without disfiguring their own nation beyond recognition.
History never repeats itself precisely. The United States’ current struggles are not exact replicas of those from the Cold War. It is a serious mistake, moreover, to think the United States’ Cold War strategy was wholly successful. The road to victory was littered with failures and higher-than-expected costs.
But examined properly, the Cold War offers insights on long-term rivalry and America’s strengths and weaknesses in such a contest. In 1947, then-U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall said no man “can think with full wisdom and with deep convictions” about the Cold War “who has not at least reviewed in his mind the period of the Peloponnesian War and the fall of Athens.” The United States needs this same historical sensibility today. To prepare for new twilight struggles, the world must reexamine how the United States waged an earlier twilight struggle. Winning the contest for the world’s future will require learning from its past.
U.S. President-elect George H.W. Bush, President Ronald Reagan, and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev meet on Governor’s Island in New York with the New York City skyline, including the World Trade Center, in the background in December 1988. DIRCK HALSTEAD/GETTY IMAGES
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The Cold War ended with the West’s geopolitical triumph and democracy’s ideological triumph. After the Cold War, U.S. strategy sought to make these victories permanent. Multiple presidents promoted democracy and free markets overseas. They expanded the United States’ global presence to prevent resurgent instability. Most importantly, they worked to discourage potential rivals from upsetting the post-Cold War order through a mixture of military deterrence and economic integration. In short, Washington aimed to relegate great-power rivalry to history by keeping prospective challengers in check until they were pacified by globalization and liberalization.
This strategy deserves more credit than it often gets. By remaining deeply engaged after the Cold War instead of retreating across the oceans as it did after World War I, the United States provided insurance against a rapid reversion to vicious global anarchy. U.S. promotion of democracy and globalization made the world richer and more humane. If the decades since 1945 have been a time of unprecedented peace and prosperity, it is principally because the United States worked to make it so after World War II and then persisted after the Cold War.
U.S. promotion of democracy and globalization made the world richer and more humane.
Alas, the ambition of vanquishing great-power rivalry fell short for three reasons. The first was a failure of integration. U.S. officials hoped China and Russia would become responsible stakeholders in an U.S.-led world. But authoritarian leaders had other ideas. Unwilling to sign their political death warrants, they fortified their systems against liberalization (like in China) or rolled back reforms that had occurred in the 1990s (like in Russia). Once prospects for democratization faded, authoritarian regimes committed to suppressing liberalism at home were sure to feel threatened in a world where a democratic superpower reigned supreme.
In fact, Russian and Chinese leaders saw U.S. policy not as a source of stability but as a threat to their security and power. Washington was not wrong to expand NATO into Eastern Europe, give Taiwan shelter against Chinese coercion, and prevent Moscow and Beijing from dominating their surroundings, as great powers have long done. But Russia and China resented a hegemonic United States imposing its will in their backyards and thwarting their geopolitical designs.
That resentment might not have mattered absent a second factor: a shifting balance of power. So long as America’s might was unrivaled, even dissatisfied countries were loath to incur Washington’s wrath. Yet U.S. supremacy became more contested, partially owing to the prosperity the U.S.-led system fostered. Russia’s real GDP doubled between 1998 and 2014, and military spending quadrupled. Between 1990 and 2016, Chinese GDP increased twelvefold, and military spending increased tenfold. As Russia escaped its post-communist paralysis, as China rose meteorically, countries that disliked the status quo now had the wherewithal to challenge it.
This shift was exacerbated by a third factor: distraction, disinvestment, and disengagement by the United States. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States spent a decade focused on the Middle East rather than on rising geopolitical rivals. For another half-decade after that, Washington slashed its military capabilities in response to budgetary pressures and political dysfunction. And following the 2008 financial crisis, U.S. presidents showed growing ambivalence about global leadership, first subtly under former U.S. President Barack Obama and then flagrantly under former U.S. President Donald Trump. The barriers to great-power rivalry were weakening as the stimulus to rivalry grew stronger. The resulting challenges have become sharp indeed.
A man walks past a propaganda mural that reads “Chinese Dream: make the country prosperous and strong, rejuvenate the nation” along a street in Beijing on June 9, 2021. NOEL CELIS/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES
The Chinese challenge is the graver of the two because Chinese power and potential are so great. Although U.S. officials long hoped that Washington could avoid competing with China, its communist government has been pursuing its “Chinese dream” at the United States’ expense.
This means, first and foremost, displacing the United States as the premier power in the Asia-Pacific—leaving Asia to the Asians, as Chinese President Xi Jinping has said. Over a quarter-century, China has conducted a determined military buildup so it can overawe its neighbors and prevent the United States from defending them. China has also blended coercion and seduction to undermine U.S. alliances and increase its own influence; it has used creeping expansion to control large swaths of the Western Pacific. Like virtually all rising powers, China seeks primacy in its geopolitical backyard. Pushing the United States out is a prerequisite to pulling that region into China’s grasp.
Yet regional primacy is less a destination than a springboard. China’s Belt and Road Initiative is a multi-continent project to organize Eurasia into a geoeconomic space oriented toward Beijing. China’s military influence is following its economic and political influence. Meanwhile, China is striving to dominate key areas of high-tech innovation. And having once shunned international institutions, China is now building its own while working aggressively to capture others. To see Beijing’s assertiveness amid the COVID-19 pandemic—bullying international critics; coercing its neighbors, from India to Vietnam; destroying Hong Kong’s autonomy; threatening Taiwan—was to glimpse how China will behave as its influence grows. In “continually broadening our comprehensive national power,” Xi argued, Beijing is “laying the foundation for a future where we will win the initiative and have the dominant position.”
“As Beijing builds a hypermodern police state at home, it works assiduously to strengthen autocracy and weaken democracy abroad.“
China envisions a far less democratic world as well. As Beijing builds a hypermodern police state at home, it works assiduously to strengthen autocracy and weaken democracy abroad. China has exported the tools and techniques of repression to countless autocrats. It has used corruption and economic pressure to distort decision-making and suppress free speech in democratic countries. It has promoted autocrat-friendly global norms on human rights and internet management while advertising authoritarian capitalism as superior to liberal democracy. Chinese leaders calculate that the more prevalent illiberal forms of government are, the more secure autocracy in China will be.
Sources of Chinese conduct are complex. Chinese leaders see weakening the United States’ influence as the best guarantee of their own security and survival. Yet China is also spurred onward by vaulting ambition and a sense of historical destiny. This is a country, after all, that traditionally viewed its domain as “all under heaven.” Chinese behavior is driven by ideology and geopolitics, insecurity and aggrandizement—the same potent cocktail that has energized rising powers throughout history.
That cocktail is energizing Russian President Vladimir Putin too. Moscow’s long-term prospects are dimmer than Beijing’s, so its challenge has been more aggressive. Like China, Russia desires dominance of its “near abroad.” Under Putin’s leadership, Russia has dismembered former Soviet republics that were leaning toward the West while using intimidation and subversion to undermine NATO and the European Union—efforts backed by an impressive military modernization campaign.
Military power is not Moscow’s only weapon. The Kremlin uses economic leverage to pull countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia close. Nor are Moscow’s geopolitical horizons confined to its near abroad. Putin reestablished Russia as a player in the Middle East and Africa through arms sales, proxy wars, and even direct intervention. Moscow has used its military, intelligence, and other resources to shape events and protect friendly rulers as far away as Latin America. Russia cannot create a Moscow-centric global order, but it can act as a foil to U.S. influence and drag the world back to a more predatory, disordered condition.
Indeed, the weaponization of disarray is central to Russian statecraft. Putin has unleashed political meddling and “influence operations” meant to weaken and divide countries opposing him. In 2013, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s chief of general staff, described “new generation warfare” as the fusion of informational, intelligence, and other tools to paralyze an enemy by infiltrating and disrupting its political system. Russia’s sophisticated attack on the U.S. presidential campaign in 2016 was the most spectacular example of this strategy. And like Beijing, Moscow supports friendly autocrats while inveighing against the alleged failures of liberal democracy.
In Putin’s eyes, it is not Moscow but Washington that is the dangerous revisionist power. Yet if Russian policies seek to halt the encroachment of democratic norms and U.S. influence, they are hard to distinguish from offensive efforts to restore Russia as a global power. What Moscow wants, remarked Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, is a transition to a “post-West” world.
To be clear, neither China nor Russia is determined simply to blow up the existing order, as French leader Napoleon Bonaparte and Nazi leader Adolf Hitler did. Yet both are seeking a dramatically altered international environment—one where spheres of economic and geopolitical influence have returned, U.S. power is constrained, and authoritarianism advances as democracy retreats. They can succeed only if the U.S.-led order is rolled back and weakened. Because Russia and China share this objective, they have forged an uneasy but productive strategic partnership—an Authoritarian International for the 21st century.
So far, competitions with China and Russia have remained cold rather than hot. Yet China and Russia could become more confrontational if they conclude that a war against the United States or its allies would be successful, and both countries are working very hard to tip key regional military balances in their favor. The likelihood of a Sino-American war over Taiwan, for instance, has risen dramatically in recent years and will likely keep rising in years to come. The shadow of violent conflict is looming over Eastern Europe today. In the meantime, Washington will face all the dangers of great-power rivalry: high-stakes diplomatic crises, proxy conflicts, covert skullduggery, arms races, and the shadow of war.
The United States could avoid these burdens by opting out of competition. It could hope that its authoritarian challengers, who face serious internal problems, burn themselves out. Yet doing so would only increase the danger. Russia may be in long-term decline, but it has compensated with creative tactics and risk-taking. China, even if its power eventually falters, could still be the most formidable opponent the United States has ever faced. The price of retreat would be the steady erosion of the world America has built. The price of preserving that world is competing effectively.
A U.S. Navy photo shows the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey during routine operations in the South China Sea on Jan. 21. The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey in the South China SeaMASS COMMUNICATION SPECIALIST 1ST CLASS BENJAMIN A. LEWIS/U.S. NAVY
What is long-term competition? In essence, it is an ongoing, open-ended contest for influence between great powers. Beyond this, the concept has several persistent traits.
First, long-term competition happens at a geopolitical twilight between the sunshine of peace and the darkness of war. Geopolitical rivalry is not peace. The threat of violence is omnipresent, and some competitions do culminate in war. In long-term rivalry, former U.S. diplomat George Kennan noted, “There is no real security and there is no alternative to living dangerously.” Yet, competition is not all-out military conflict. It may blend rivalry and cooperation. Before World War I, for example, the United Kingdom and Germany were commercial partners and strategic foes. Competition may also feature wars that are deliberately kept limited. Indeed, the fact that long-term rivalry is long term—that it is not brought swiftly and violently to a conclusion—presumably indicates that the protagonists share an interest in preventing matters from spiraling out of control.
Second, long-term competition is interactive: It requires outplaying an antagonist that is trying to outplay you. This means a central challenge is getting inside the opponent’s head by studying how he or she thinks. It also means that the best competitors will find ways of shaping a dynamic interaction to their benefit by exploiting an opponent’s weaknesses, steering the competition into areas of particular advantage, or even molding the larger international environment to limit the adversary’s options. Long-term competition doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Affecting the wider world can be a profoundly powerful way of constraining a dangerous rival.
Third, long-term competition occurs in a world of finite resources. No one has the advantage in every dimension of rivalry; countries must tolerate weakness somewhere if they are to enjoy strength anywhere. The essence of long-term competition, then, is strategic choice. Countries must choose where to focus and where to economize; they must deftly apply limited means while forcing a competitor to squander its own. Above all, long-term competition rewards countries that pit their strengths against a competitor’s vulnerabilities and translate moments of opportunity into lasting advantages.
“Long-term competition happens at a geopolitical twilight between the sunshine of peace and the darkness of war.“
Fourth, long-term competition is comprehensive. The military balance invariably casts its shadow over any competition, but power is multidimensional, so struggles over power are multidimensional too. Rivalries involve economic statecraft, intelligence, and diplomacy; they play out in the realms of culture, values, and ideas. Long-term competition thus requires integrating multiple forms of influence into a coherent whole.
All this takes time, which leads to a fifth point: Long-term competition is often unsatisfying and indecisive by nature. It plays out over years, decades, even generations. It rewards the incremental strengthening of one’s position rather than one’s quest for quick, decisive triumph. As a result, long-term competition demands seemingly contradictory qualities: the ability to deploy power effectively while husbanding it for the long haul and the ability to advance consistently while retaining flexibility along the way. Commitment is imperative, but there are no prizes for what former British Prime Minister Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, known as Lord Salisbury, called “sticking to the carcass of dead policy.” And since long-term competition takes time, it makes time a weapon. Smart strategists seek an edge by exploiting windows of opportunity and manipulating the pace of rivalry.
Sixth, long-term competition is a test of systems as much as statecraft. It is a measure of which political, social, and economic model can best generate and employ power. There are no purely domestic issues. Matters that affect the performance of a country’s institutions, economy, and society may determine its geopolitical fate. The best strategies strengthen a nation’s system by undertaking needed reforms; the cardinal sin is to pursue policies—foreign or domestic—that undermine a nation’s vitality. And because long-term competition is a contest of systems, shrewd players will ruthlessly exploit a rival’s internal weaknesses.
Long-term competition might thus be considered the graduate level of strategy. It involves mastering a dynamic interaction while synchronizing initiatives across time, space, and the various dimensions of national power. It requires creating asymmetric advantages and imposing disproportionate costs rather than simply overwhelming an adversary everywhere. It involves straddling the line between tranquility and violence as well as, not least, fortifying a state’s domestic system while defending it from the strains that foreign dangers invariably impose.
Finally, the pressures to succeed in long-term competition are enormous given the costs of failure. Winners of great-power rivalries receive vast influence and the opportunity to shape the world. Losers can fall into decline, even disaster. All of which means the United States will need every bit of intellectual preparation it can get for the tests it now confronts.
A crowd gathers in Vienna on June 4, 1961, as U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev meet for the first time. DAILY HERALD/MIRRORPIX/MIRRORPIX VIA GETTY IMAGES
If Americans aren’t well versed in long-term competition today, it is because they haven’t had to face it recently. It has been 30 years since the United States was last engaged in great-power rivalry. Few living policymakers have deep experience with that challenge. The United States, as a result, has precious little muscle memory in dealing with powerful, persistent foes.
That wasn’t always the case. In the decades after World War II, America conducted what former U.S. President John F. Kennedy called a “long twilight struggle” against the Soviet Union. The world’s superpowers competed fiercely for geopolitical influence. They fought, as former U.S. President George H.W. Bush said, over the “soul of mankind”—over what set of political values would emerge supreme. As the Cold War shaped the postwar world, it put long-term competition at the heart of U.S. statecraft.
For two generations, U.S. officials devoted vast resources and intellectual energy to competing with the Kremlin militarily, economically, diplomatically, and ideologically. They designed generational strategies while coping with unending strategic shocks. They developed defensive policies to check Soviet thrusts and offensive policies to exploit Soviet weaknesses; they used U.S. power assertively but also sought to prevent competition from escalating into disastrous conflict. Competition’s demands even reshaped U.S. government and society.
Through all this, the United States suffered mistakes and setbacks. Prominent Americans on the left and right wondered whether the effort was worth making. Yet the Cold War was, fundamentally, a period when U.S. officials were intimately familiar with long-term competition and when the United States eventually accomplished nearly everything it wanted to. So Cold War history has much to teach the world about how the United States wages great-power rivalry and how to get long-term competition right.
“The Cold War was, fundamentally, a period when U.S. officials were intimately familiar with long-term competition and when the United States eventually accomplished nearly everything it wanted to.“
To be clear, the Cold War is not a perfect analogue for today’s rivalries. Neither China nor Russia is driven by an ideology as messianic as Soviet communism. Putin’s Russia is a shadow of the Soviet Union, and China lacks the global military punch Moscow once possessed, even though it is a stronger economic competitor than the Kremlin ever was. There is far greater economic and technological interdependence and a far more complex relationship between America and China than what existed between the Cold War superpowers. Moreover, the strategic context is different. Now, Russia and China are confronting a well-established, if beleaguered, international order. After World War II, the Soviet danger was so immense because there was no order; chaos convulsed much of the globe. The world can’t rerun the Cold War playbook in this very different world.
History, in fact, can never fully solve the United States’ strategic problems. Events are like snowflakes: No two are exactly alike. Luck, circumstance, and human choice ensure there are no iron laws of history. Yet, policymakers still study the past for guidance to confront the future because the past is the only place they can look to understand things that haven’t happened yet, and history can give them a deeper reservoir of insight than they might otherwise possess. “Fools learn by experience,” former Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck once said. “Wise men learn by other people’s experience.” Indeed, there are several reasons why wise strategists should revisit the United States’ Cold War.
First, although the Cold War isn’t a precise match for today’s competitions, it isn’t such a bad one either. The Cold War was a global duel over power and world order, just the sort of contest that is now underway. The Cold War was about ideology and geopolitics; so are America’s new twilight struggles. The Cold War was a contest of systems and a test of strategy; here, too, history rhymes. The Cold War tested the United States’ ability to develop long-range strategies and build international coalitions. It required mobilizing the U.S. government and society for rivalry while intensely studying an opaque adversary. It entailed finding areas of cooperation amid hostility and figuring out how, and whether, to split rivals and attack their political systems. It forced hard choices about how to employ U.S. power across multiple theaters; it required trade-offs between the United States’ strategic interests and its cherished values. All these tasks will be essential in the coming years. It would be strategically lazy to mindlessly apply Cold War solutions to post-Cold War problems. But it would be intellectually wasteful to ignore the insights the Cold War offers.
Second, the Cold War is a vast repository of knowledge about long-term competition. It was unique in many respects; no prior rivalry played out in nuclear war’s shadow. But the Cold War was also one of many great-power rivalries dating back millennia. If former Prussian Gen. Carl von Clausewitz could write the defining treatise on war by studying the Napoleonic conflicts, if Athenian historian Thucydides could learn basic truths about geopolitics from the Peloponnesian War, then surely a struggle as epic as the Cold War can teach the world something fundamental about long-term competition.
Third, the Cold War can teach the world how America engages in great-power rivalry. The Cold War is the only time the United States waged a twilight struggle across continents and decades and against an authoritarian foe. It is the only time the United States’ strengths and weaknesses in such a struggle have been on display. Put simply, the Cold War is the only history of sustained competition America has. To prevent policymakers from using that history badly, scholars must help them use it well.
Hal Brands is the Henry Kissinger distinguished professor of global affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He is also a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.
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